Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives was Charles Stross' first novel, and the book that Jennifer Morgue follows.

When I read that it was Stross' first published novel, I set my expectations a little lower, but I shouldn't have. The novel blows me away. Rather than being a James Bond pastiche, this novel deals with the Bob Howard character in his native capacity as a technomancer, to use a hybrid term. As a bored system administrator in the Laundry, he asks for an attempt into Active status so he can do field work. The worst happens when he is finally given a chance --- it turns out that he has a knack for keeping cool when all hell literally breaks loose, and he is good at his job.

So when he is given another easy follow-up assignment and the damsel in distress is kidnapped, he follows his instinct and gets into deep trouble. The Laundry then tries to use his new-found love interest, Mo as a bait, and discover that things are not as simple as even the Laundry thinks it is.

I am blown away at how much better this novel is, even compared to Jennifer Morgue. Bob Howard isn't kept entirely in the dark the whole time and is in control, so you are not left wondering why he's a protagonist at all. The inter-departmental rivalry is fun, and as always, all the references to geek culture.

The Golden Gryphon press edition of this novel includes a second Bob Howard short story, The Concrete Jungle about an internal affairs investigation (also incredibly well written and interestingly put together), and an after word by Stross, an analysis of Spy fiction and Horror from his perspective (I think that his perspective is warped, but since I love his fiction, I'm glad it is warped in this particular way).

Some people do world building by drawing maps, putting together new cultures and languages, and then showing them to you. Stross does it one step better: he synthesizes a world out of everything we already know, putting together a gestalt from shared culture, and then providing a narrative thread that not only shows it to you but also grants a rollicking good time.

If I were to bring The Atrocity Archives onto a 12 hour flight, it would have been no problem. Sure, I'd read through it once in 3 hours, but then I'd probably spend the next 9 hours poring through it, looking for references I missed and stringing it all together one more time. Needless to say, this novel is highly recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Moving to Munich

It's official: I'm moving to Munich for six months to a year on a work assignment. I don't talk about work on this blog, so I won't say what it's about, but I'm excited. First of all, I've wanted to live in Europe for a while. The combination of bike-friendly cities, bike-friendly drivers, amazing roads for cycling, and beautiful scenery combine to make Europe Bikelandia. Even though I've lived car-free in the Bay Area, it is much easier to live car-free in Europe.

Why Munich? Well, Lisa loves Munich. I've only been there once, back in 2003, but I didn't spend much time in the city itself (just a day or two). But the easy access to the alps, the trains, and the beauty of the surroundings speak for themselves. Plus, one of my friends Stefan works in Zurich and visits Munich often, so we can ride together.

Of course, I'm not immune to trepidation. I've lived in the Bay Area for so long --- more than half my life --- I know where everything is, I can ride the roads without a map --- there are places I haven't explored still, and I am by no means out of love with this place. I love the good ethnic food, the diversity, and I enjoy the amazing weather. Leaving all this behind will be tough, even if it's temporary. The offer of an adventure like this, however, especially with the resources of Google behind me, is just too much to refuse. So here I come! And yes, I will document this adventure sporadically on this blog.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Three Days to Never

I'm beginning to see patterns in Tim Power's books. Take a few historical characters that are well known, involve them in some secret occult organizations or happenings, stir rapidly, and serve. What I consider his best novel, The Stress of Her Regard involved the romantic poets (Byron, Shelley), gargoyles, vampires, and other such beings, locked into a struggle.

Three Days to Never involves Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, time travel, and the wiping out of entire lifetimes. Rather than narrate directly about these illustrious men, who have enough biographies that even a casual reader might detect falsehoods, Powers works at a second remove, narrating the story of Frank and Daphne Marrity, a father-daughter pair who stumble over the truth when Frank's mother dies --- first, that they are descendants of Albert Einstein, and second, that Einstein left a more terrible secret than the famous equation, E = mc^2. He left a time travel machine that would allow a user to potentially wipe out entire lifetimes, erasing beings as if they had never been.

Two factions, the Israeli Mossad, and a secretive occult organization that's bent on retrieving the time machine for their nefarious purposes. Complicating matters is a wild card, a version of Frank Marrity from the future, who wants his old life back.

Does all this sound confusing? It is. While the central narrative is easy enough to follow along, untangling these threads and motivations made the book unusually slow going for me. Further, I've read enough about Einstein's character to find the depiction of Einstein less than believable, which made the story less than real to me.

The novel rolls along fast enough, and while the ending is reasonable, left me less than satisfied. Too complex to be an airplane novel, but not quite there as a literary fantasy, I cannot recommend this except to Tim Powers fans. The payoff might not quite be equal to the reward.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Casual Programming in Windows

The EEE PC makes a perfect nightstand computer, a more fully functional Chumby, if you will. Lisa wanted an alarm clock application. Here are her requirements:
  • "Gentle wake". Slowly increasing volume until she wakes up.
  • Music player --- plays any MP3 in our collection (stored on our RAID NAS server)
One would think that someone has already written an alarm clock application for Windows already, but none of the ones we tried had "Gentle wake", and one of them simply crashed. What crappy software.

Well, I program computers for a living, so I started working on one a couple of nights ago. It had been 4 years since I programmed windows, but since this isn't a full-featured application, I could take short cuts I'd never do professionally. For casual programming, one of the best languages around is Python. The python port to windows is robust and small, and even more important, there's a windows layer readily available. Of course, using the raw windows API to decode MP3s is a pain, so I searched for a python media library and got pointed to Pymedia, which astonishingly came with an example to decode an MP3 and play it.

I dug around for a volume control API for windows, found it, and hooked up the whole thing, and then I was done. The code is only 126 lines. Of course, there were weird things along the way, like finding a version of pymedia compatible with Python 2.5, so I had to uninstall and reinstall various different versions of Python and pymedia, but all in all it was pretty painless --- programming by googling for code snippets you want and then copy and pasting and debugging is pretty easy.

Of course, I didn't even attempt the time consuming stuff, such as putting in a fancy GUI or even having a UI at all. I start my alarm clock by typing ".\alarmwaveout.py 22:30". I'm a software engineer, so command-lines feel easier to use than GUIs anyway. If you could talk to a computer, you'd want to say, "Wake me up at 7:30am", and clicking around on spin controls and clicking check boxes just doesn't feel natural compared to that, while the command-line would seem to be quite a bit closer. There are no snooze features, and you hit control-C to stop the music. Hey, the goal is to get you to wake up.

All this ease of programming reminds me, however, that this is why there are many people who think that they are great software engineers just because they can program a computer to do stuff. Being able to code a simple application like this in no way qualifies you to be a software engineer, and unfortunately, all too often I interview candidates who are confused about that difference. But that's another topic for another day. In the mean time, Lisa's satisfied with the app, and that's all I care about.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Macbook Air Analysis

The non-Mac-fanboy analysis of the new Macbook Air is very interesting. Here are a couple of blog entries by others:
Both of them miss the really obvious point: portability constraints aren't usually caused by the Z dimension (i.e., thickness). They're caused by the X and Y dimensions (breadth and length). When trying to stuff a laptop into a Carradice saddlebag, for instance, the limitation is not thickness but length and breadth. Similarly, that's also the constrained when you have a small backpack, suitcase, or when trying to use the machine on an airliner's seat-back tray. In fact, I don't see how a thin laptop helps anywhere in the area of portability, other than squeezing the weight down to 3 pounds, which my Thinkpad X-series laptops have always been at, and those laptops have far fewer compromises in terms of available ports, features, and price.

Obviously, if you want a 3 pound Mac, you have no choice but to get the Macbook Air. However, as a practical matter, it is not terribly portable, and not especially light. For the price of the Macbook Air, you can buy a fully loaded EEE PC, and still have enough change to buy a plane ticket so you can actually get in the air. And the EEE PC is a whole pound lighter, fits in a handbag, and also has more ports than the Macbook Air. So I don't know what problem the Macbook Air is trying to solve, other than to help beautiful people look even more fashionable.

Lots of other commentators complain about the lack of an optical drive. I don't see it as a big issue --- I've lived without an optical drive on all my laptops for 3 years now, and just attach an optical drive whenever I need it, which isn't often. For me, the point of a laptop is for it to be thin and light. If Apple had made the Macbook Air a 10 inch machine (just big enough for a full size keyboard) with a touch screen (to eliminate the touch pad), with a 2.5 pound weight, it would be seriously considered as an ultra-portable. As it is, I suspect that the only folks who'll buy it are the fashionistas and of course, the Mac fanatics who will buy anything with an Apple logo on it.

Review: The Jennifer Morgue

Charlie Stross has written The Jennifer Morgue as a new genre of fiction that I'll now call geek fiction. You might think, what about Cryptonomicon? Is that not geek fiction? The difference is this: while nearly every geek reference in Cryptonomicon is explained, almost none of the geek references in Jennifer Morgue are. That means that mainstream audiences attempting to read Cryptonomicon won't have any problems, but those attempting to read this book will flounder, making this an ideal book for a true test of geek-hood.

So what sort of geek background would you need? First of all, you need to know most of the computer terminology. This includes not just the usual USB drives, hacking into Windows XP Media center, and other paraphernalia, but also references to Alan Turing, for instance. Then, a knowledge of many fantasy literature tropes s assumed, including HP Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos, etc. Finally, stir in a good chunk of the Bond Mythos, and you're all set for a book that only a geek would love.

The plot, such as it is, centers around the usual Bond story of a megalomaniac trying to take over the world by retrieving an ancient device of doom. Our hero, Bob Howard (a reference to Robert E Howard), is sent to investigate and do his best to thwart his plans. Of course, rather than being a suave, well-equipped man of action, Bob Howard is a computer nerd who feels naked without his PDA, and instead of an Aston-Martin is given a Smart car. When confronted with a femme fatale, Bob does not know how to respond, and of course, the said female turns out to have a demon riding her, and has even darker secrets.

The book (and the protagonist) does not take itself seriously. Whenever anything can be played for laughs, it is. For instance, here's the technical briefing:

We've added a Bluetooth host under the driver's seat, and a repurposed personal video player running Linux. Peripheral screens at all five cardinal points, five grams of graveyard dust mixed with oil of Bergamot and tongue of newt in the cigarette lighter socket, and a fully connected Dee-Hamilton circuit glued to the underside of the body shell. As long as the ignition is running, you're safe from possession attempts. If you need to dispose of a zombie in the passenger seat, just punch in the lighter button and wait for the magic smoke. You've got a mobile phone, yes? With Bluetooth and a Java sandbox? Great, I'll email you an applet --- run it, pair your phone with the car's hub, and all you have to do is dial 6-6-6 and the car will come to you, wherever you are...

As the plot unfolds, Bob gets into deeper and deeper trouble, but the scenarios never end up being less funny, and believe it or not, there's even an explanation for all the Bond-like nature of the plot. I was giggling and chortling all through the book.

In addition to the main novel, there are two short pieces in the Golden Gryphon Press edition of the book. One is another short piece about Bob Howard involving the strange kind of office politics that occur in the kind of organization he works for. The other piece, The Golden Age of Spying is a satirical analysis of the fiction of Ian Fleming, and an interview with one of Bond's villains.

All in all, this is a great book, and I'm surprised I didn't discover it earlier. I'm going to be hunting down (or buying) a copy of The Atrocity Archives next. Needless to say, highly recommended if you're a geek. A muggle should stay away, for there are things muggles are not meant to know.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mossberg pans the EEE PC

And of course, he misses the whole point of the machine, which is that it's cheap, it's super light, and the full size keyboard makes it possible for someone like me to type a travelogue on a plane trip. It also lets you view videos, blog on vacation, read electronic books (i.e., substitute for the $400 kindle), make phone calls at cheap internet rates, play music from your ipod via its speakers, and make video calls to folks back home for free.

I'm guessing that if the EEE PC had an Apple logo on it instead of an Asus logo on it, Mossberg (who's never ever panned an Apple product) would be raving about it now, rather than panning it.

Review: Sigma 2006MHR Bike Computer/Altimeter

I wrote a short review of this bike computer last year right after our tour of the alps, but after a full battery cycle with the bike computer, I decided that a full review was in order.

First of all, I have a lot of experience with Sigma's older bike computers, namely the previous generation BC 2006 (circa 2003). Those wired computers proved to be extremely reliable, surviving many years of use, with only a battery change every 3-5 years. But the old computers didn't have an altimeter, so I had to carry a separate altimeter, which was a bit of a bother, so when Sigma announced the MHR 2006, with both altimeter and heart-rate function, I resolved to get one if I could find one at a reasonable price. REI had a massively good deal (20% off) at the time, getting it down to a price that was under $100, so Roberto and I both bought one.

The computer has capacity to do two bikes worth of distance and time measurements, as well as showing a grand total. This is accomplished by keying the computer to a given sensor, which means that you'll have to buy a second sensor unit (about $30) to make use of this functionality. The older sigma models had a button on the back that you pushed to flip between two bikes, and it turns out that I actually like that better, not just because of the savings in costs, but also because if you swap wheels with different tire sizes on the same bike, you had the option of having a different setting for each wheel size, while on the MHR2006 you have no choice but to tweak the wheel size settings.

The nice thing is that the MHR2006 was designed for you to easily change settings without having to poke at setting buttons with sharp objects (which was what you had to do with the old models). The setup is extremely consistent, with one button to go into settings mode, one to scroll through the options, and the other two to tweak numbers up and down. Well thought out, and sensible. Even better, settings and statistics are retained between battery changes, so you can swap batteries without losing data. The only complaint I have is that when you switch between metric and imperial, the computer doesn't automatically recompute your stats in the new regime. Seems like if you're going to brag about a 32-bit processor you might as well include some firmware to do basic calculations. Maybe they don't have floating point numbers in that thing.

Installation was an easy task, with the magnet the only item that needed a tool (which is provided in the box). The magnet screws onto a spoke, the sensor goes around the fork blade with a rubber band, and the computer mount goes either on the handlebar or the stem, also with a rubber band. That's it. The box also includes a strap for hiking (you get no distance information but you do get altitude and heart rate), a heart rate monitor bra strap, and a pin tool to open up the battery compartment (woe to you if you lose this tool!).

I only used the heart rate monitor strap a couple of times. No matter how hard I try, I can't get used to wearing a bra, which is why I'm not a serious biker. The altimeter, however, proved extremely accurate during the tour of the alps. When calibrated, it read within a few meters of the summit sign, except when the summit sign was wrong (which happened often in Italy), where the maps would then usually agree with the altimeter but not the summit sign. One key of the accuracy of the altimeter is that the unit includes a thermometer, which is used to adjust the altimeter readings.

The thing that bugged me most about the MHR2006 was that after 4 months or so of use, the computer would occasionally get stuck, reading 0 or reading a fixed number for some time and not registering miles. Since the unit has a low battery warning, I assumed that the unit was being unreliable, and not that the battery was dead. In fact, the transmitter does not have a low battery warning! So all that time, the transmitter was intermittently sending out signals, while the head unit was heroically trying to interpolate between the signals. Believe it or not, while the battery was somewhat still delivering power, this heroic interpolation came pretty close to being quite accurate! Replacing the battery today made all the problems go away, and now the unit is behaving correctly again.

Having a transmitter battery only last effectively 6 months seemed pretty low to me, but glancing at the Amazon reviews shows that apparently the unit ships with pretty bad batteries. Sigma sells a stack of 10 CR 2032 batteries at a time, apparently indicating that this might be a power hungry unit. Certainly, it seems like my days of replacing a battery every 3-5 years might be over, if I decide to settle on this unit as my main computer. At least, all the components that need power (head unit, transmitter, and heart rate monitor bra) use the same battery, so you have no need to stock different sizes.

Another annoying thing is the trip meter. It has insufficient range for a multi-day tour. Basically, if you run over 999 miles or kilometers, it zeroes out and starts again. Not a big deal, but the first time it did that I didn't have the manual handy and thought that the unit had somehow reset itself (or that I had done it by accident!). Probably not a common complaint for most cyclists. There's also no download feature, so you can't download the data and graph your heart rate against incline or route, for instance, but units like that cost 3 to 4 times as much as the MHR2006, and have even worse battery life, so I think that's a reasonable feature to leave out.

All in all, I'll give this computer a cautious recommendation, with the above caveats. My biggest complaint is having to carry the pin tool and extra batteries on tour (especially if the weather might turn cold, since the battery's voltage can drop dramatically in those cases). Otherwise, the unit seems fairly accurate and reliable.

[Update: I've switched to the Garmin GPSmap 76CSX for touring, and am finding it such a satisfactory bike computer that it might very well replace all existing bike computers]

Building a Custom Frame (Part IV)

Frame building
Carl sent along more pictures of his build. It looks like the frame is complete except for a few braze-ons.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Review: Picasa

I love Picasa, as much as it is possible for me to love a computer program I didn't write. You might think that it's ingenuous for a Google employee to review a Google product, but when I talk about features of Picasa to other Googlers, they always say, "I didn't know that Picasa can do that!" So think of this as a "Picasa secrets" guide if you wish.

First of all, Picasa is blazingly fast. In fact, I once timed it running in a virtual machine on MacOS X, and even in a virtualized window, Picasa starts up faster than iPhoto running native. Picasa does everything that I as a software engineer would want to do to improve the user experience --- background threads do the thumbnails generation and indexing, unlimited undo and redo is provided because image manipulations are not done on the image itself, but rather, a record of the manipulations are done so you never lose data. (In fact, this trips up a number of naive users because you have to use "Save a copy" if you want a copy of the picture on disk)

I also run Picasa on my EEE PC. What? I'm insane, right? That thing's got a 4GB hard drive, so how could it possibly store the gigabytes of photos that a modern digital camera produces? The answer is, it can't. But I can use Picasa on the EEE PC to show pictures directly off the SD card. The way you do this is that rather than tell Picasa to import the pictures, you use the "Add Folder to Library" feature, and add the entire SD card. This displays all the pictures taken so far on that card, and now you can use the slide show feature, delete the pictures you don't want, etc. All at the hyper-fast Picasa speed. Ah ha, the veteran computer user says, what happens if I pop that SD card out? Picasa gracefully sees that the folder has disappeared, and you no longer get to manipulate those pictures. No problems whatsoever.

During the Virgin Islands trip, members of the Rya Jen crew started worrying about losing their pictures or their cameras or their SD cards. So I offered to back up their pictures for them. To do so, I plugged in my 20GB ipod to the EEE PC, then plugged the SD card into the laptop. When importing the pictures, Picasa has a dialog box that by defaults dumps the pictures into your documents folder(and as another example of thoughtful design --- Picasa starts generating and showing you the thumbnails while presenting you with that dialog box!). Look for the browse button and redirect it to your ipod (which must be data capable, of course). Viola! All the pictures get sucked over to the 20GB ipod instead of the 4GB EEE PC hard drive, and everyone's pictures got backed up that way. (Incidentally, the ipod is by far the best external storage solution for the EEE PC, though you don't really want to leave it attached when you're on battery because it's a major power suck) One note about this feature, please leave the radio button for "leave the pictures on the SD card" setting untouched.

I've also mentioned that the "I'm feeling lucky" button for image manipulation does everything right for underwater pictures. Use it liberally, since you can always undo if you don't like the results. The straighten feature is also great for pictures that are just a bit lopsided, and it works amazingly well. You can also create photo albums from existing pictures --- the quick way to do that is to apply the star to the pictures you like to select, and then "select starred", then say, "copy to album." This does not physically create a copy, but instead creates an album that names them. This way you can create multiple albums from a single photo shoot for different purposes.

I hope this review gives you an idea of the power of Picasa, how it can be used, and what the possibilities are. If there are any limitations of Picasa, it's mostly that it's manipulation capabilities aren't up there with Adobe Photoshop. But Picasa is free, and Photoshop costs $700 or more, so there you go. And yes, I've tried Lightroom, and Aperture. No contest. Picasa is faster, and better at its job than the expensive programs. It suffices to say that if Picasa ran on the Mac, I might not have reformatted my MacMini to turn it into a windows box. Picasa is highly recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Bicycle Wheel

When I first proposed the Tour of the Alps in 2005, my friend Mike Samuel was running 16 spoke wheels, which I thought was unacceptable for a 200 pound guy. After all, I was the guy who would be stuck fixing if it broke. Hence started the Google tradition of organizing a wheel building workshop before a major bicycle tour (1000 miles or so). The workshop became popular and somewhat of a Google tradition.

Things took a turn for the better when Pardo, the guy who taught me how to build wheels (and easily one of the best mechanics I've ever met), joined Google last year, just before the 2007 Tour of the Alps. When Google organized the G2G (Googlers teaching Googlers) series of classes in November, we proposed this class for the series and was accepted.

Google has been kind enough to post the videos from the lecture section of this class on YouTube for all to enjoy and learn. The comment thread on this blog post can be used for questions, but the usual disclaimers apply.
Other resources:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: Garmin GPSmap 76CSx

My brothers bought me a Garmin GPS for my birthday. This unit, the 76CSx is a marine GPS, meaning that if you drop it into water, it will float. As with almost all Garmin units, it is rated for IPX 7 water proofing --- do not take it diving with you! From my perspective, this unit has several important features:
  • Runs off AA batteries, for easy replacement of batteries. (Carrying spare batteries and replacing them on the road is much cheaper and easier than carrying a spare charger, for instance)
  • Anchor drag alarm, which works surprisingly well.
  • mini-SD card slot, allowing 2GB of map downloads.
  • Handleba Mount, for easy use on a bike
Its biggest disappointment is pretty obvious --- the screen is just not big enough for useful navigation. If I to choose between paper charts and the GPS (especially in the Virgin Islands), it'll be paper charts any day. But having had GPS save my bacon once during my previous sailing cruise, and wishing I had GPS during our coast to coast endeavor, all these faults will be forgiven the first day I get lost and need to use it to navigate.

I loaded up the unit with Bluecharts v9.5 North Americas for the Virgin Islands and discovered what a rip-off that was. You literally pay $100+ for each tiny chart available to you. It was amazingly costly. The North America City Navigator package was much better ($120 for all of North America). As an aside, you do not want to buy map packages from Amazon.com, as they usually have out-of-date versions of the maps (links provided in this entry reflect where I bought mine). Maps are locked to the specific GPS unit, so you can't share maps unless you buy the maps pre-loaded into a mini-SD card. The downside of doing that is that you don't get to put together way points, etc. on your computer and then download routes to your GPS unit.

All in all, I'm pleased with this unit, and will use it on my cycling trip in Europe this year as well. Recommended.
[Update: I have a post with tips on using this unit]
[Update 2: I have a way to turn the unit into a useful touring tool, by turning on Piaw Routing]

Resources

These are the books we used to plan our trip. The cruising guide is a classic, and comes with every boat you charter in the Virgin Islands. But it's better to have your own copy for planning purposes. The diving guide was very good, especially if you were to do your own dive trips. The Lonely Planet guide was used for planning the first portion (the dive vacation).

Things I learned on this trip

We rented 3 kayaks --- one tandem and 2 singles. One of the singles never got used. We discovered that the tandem kayak was a major pain to deploy and stow, so next time the right thing to do is to have 2 singles. We did not bring enough snorkels, flippers, and masks. Snorkeling is by far the most fun thing you can do on a regular basis in the virgin islands (I never got sick of it!), so I think it's important to have a full complement of snorkeling gear for everyone on board.

We either need longer boat hooks, or more practice picking up mooring buoys. One possibility is for me to train crew to drive the boat while I pick up mooring buoys. But the big thing is more time maneuvering the boat under power, and more practice. Anchoring, by contrast, where I've had lots of practice, posed no such problems, especially in the virgin islands where diving to check your anchor is so easy to do.

Equalization is a useful diving skill. Even when snorkeling I would frequently equalize. This is a great technique --- previously, I'd always just bore the pain.

Speaking of diving, it's a horribly expensive sport. Horribly horribly expensive. Maybe if I rent gear and put it on the boat and use the boat as a dive platform, it becomes a bit cheaper, since I only then have to pay for air and rental gear and no guides. But then there's the problem with everyone else on the boat who's not a diver. Maybe I need to run a divers only trip if that's the case. I'm not sure what to do about this. Perhaps dive vacations are incompatible with sailing vacations, and I should keep them separate, the way I keep photography vacations separate from cycling vacations.

Clearing customs is a major pain (it costs money too, but that's mostly because of the cruising permit). On the one hand, I half-wished I had listened to Matt Romain's advise to charter out of the BVIs directly --- I would have done so if 40 foot boats with 3 cabins weren't such a rare commodity. On the other hand, St. John was really truly beautiful. I'm not a party animal --- I don't enjoy loud parties, and to a large extent, it felt many times like the BVIs were one big party. St. John, by contrast, was a place where you could pick up a mooring buoy and not hear any boats next to you all night. I wish I had more time to explore it.

A 40 foot boat sounded big to me, since my last cruise was on a 29.5 footer. But now that I've had the experience of putting 6 people on one, I'm not sure I would do it again. First of all, you run out of water quickly, especially if people feel the need to take showers, and on a boat where you're sharing cabins, a shower might not be optional. Secondly, it is a bit tight. Perhaps a catamaran or 4 people on the same 40 foot boat (with 2 cabins) might work out better.

We brought board games but were always too tired or had too much going on to play. Maybe I need to run a board gamer oriented cruise one of these days.

Larry once wrote that For me, skippering a boat would not be a vacation, but I'd long since figured out that Piaw was not wired in the same way I was. Ten years hence, I'm feeling a bit older, and the burdens of being a skipper feel a bit more pronounced than they used to. Perhaps a crewed charter might be in order just to see what it's like (or maybe I can just go along on somebody else's trip, so it's not my name on the charter), but more likely, I just need to get better at delegating, and do it often enough to have confidence in what I do on the boat. Bottom line: cruising more often than once a decade is probably what I need to keep my skills sharp.

Oh, and before I forget --- warm water is really really nice. Really nice. In fact, after this, I'm not sure I can tolerate sailing in cold water ever again. Definitely, a cold water cruise will not get my heart beating the way a warm water cruise would.

Day 13: January 5th, 2008

Rain hit the slightly opened hatch above my face, spraying mist on me and waking me up at 4:55am. I ran around closing all the opened hatches on the boat, and then settled in to making pancakes. As I did so, the crew started to stir --- no mean feat as many of them had apparently stayed up till 1:30am the night before. As folks worked on breakfast and lunch, I started clearing the deck to prepare for departure.



My heart stopped as I looked up. It was beautiful. The sky was all in different colors, and it looked very much like an island paradise looked. Our charter terms had us returning the boat by noon, but it's really 11:00am or so, as we had to get our boat refueled before returning it to CYOA. So I hurried the crew along, and at a little past 7:00am, asked Przemek to come up to help me raise anchor so we could get going.



With the electric winch, the anchor was raised without any ado whatsoever, making it the smoothest "anchors aweigh" call I ever had the pleasure of hearing. I powered the boat out of the bay, and called the crew out to see the beautiful sights before I put them right to work again. Yes, I am a slave-driver. As before on our early sails, it rained, producing lovely rainbows, but even though we raised the sails, the wind did not cooperate --- the 18 knot winds we had yesterday did not cooperate , even as we sailed between St. John and St. Thomas.

Past the trio of Cays, the wind picked up again, but it died down because we were in the wind-shadow of St. John just a little later, and I had to power up the motor and motor sail our way towards Charlotte Amalie. Even with the engine at cruising power and the sails up, it would take until 10:30 before I spied the opening to Charlotte Amalie harbor, where we ate a hurried packed lunch in anticipation of rapid action. I hailed Yacht Haven Grande and got approval to use their fuel dock, but it wasn't at all easy to find the fuel dock, which was a little out of the way. Spurred a bit too much perhaps by the clock, I went into the fuel dock a little too fast, but fortunately Lisa was handy with a fender and there was no problem.

In a week of sailing, Rya Jen had only used $36.60 worth of diesel fuel. The fuel gauge had not budged at all, from where it sat, so I guess the fuel gauge was busted. We hailed CYOA on the VHF and they instructed us to hang out near their slips and someone would come out by dinghy. I then went through the gates to the marina office with the fuel-dock boy, and paid for the fuel. Our departure was easy enough, with plenty of shore help to allow us to leave the slip, and before we knew it we were headed back to Frenchtown Marina, from whence we had came 7 days earlier.



Chris came out on his dinghy and we quickly unfurled and furled the sails for him so he could see that our sails were in good shape. I then handed over the helm to him, thereby giving up responsibility for Rya Jen. But our travails were not over, for we had to help Chris dock, which turned out to involve a bit of waiting for the winds to die a bit, where upon he had to reverse the boat, have me hand the bowline to shore-help, and allow him to come into the slip. With that, our sail was over but not our journey, since we still had to clear customs.

Customs and immigration was at the ferry building 3 blocks away, but we were not prepared for the amount of waiting we had to do. Clearing customs was not a problem, though the lady behind the counter asked why I had cut it so close, arriving at 11:55am when the office closed at noon. She was apparently in a hurry to get out, so took my form perfunctorily and told me to wait for immigration. In front of us in immigration was another boat. The master of the boat, which was a fully crewed charter, told us that two ferry boats had just pulled in, which meant that the immigration agents would service both of them before talking to us. "Clearly, they've never heard of queuing theory," declared Hector.

Well, the long wait meant I got a chance to query a professional skipper as to how to approach the virgin islands. First of all, they had a long motoring day to Virgin Gorda, which was where they cleared customs. Apparently, Virgin Gorda's customs agents aren't too picky, so even if you arrive at night, you can wait the next morning before clearing customs and they won't bother you. It also meant that all their sailing was downwind. The man also had a low opinion of Soper's Hole, regaling us with stories about all the stupid nit-picky things the customs and immigration agents there did.

Another little tidbit I got was that apparently the best time to visit is between October and December, and May. That was the best weather as you could apparently get really poor weather the time of year we did our trip. "But you got lucky this year, as the weather's been exceptionally nice. We got our bad swells in early December this year." I filed this away for future reference. Of course, when you have twin totoros on board, the weather gods are literally with you.



It was 12:15pm before the ferry was all cleared and we got our customs agents on our side. It didn't take them long to clear both our boats (she wanted to go to lunch too!), and we were back at Frenchtown Marina, where the crew went to eat while I finished checking Rya Jen back in. Chris had been busy, and said that the dive check (unthinkable in the Pacific Northwest) had showed that we brought back the hull even cleaner than we had left. The boat's systems and fittings were all still in place, so the only problem we had, mechanically speaking was the propeller on the dinghy. They had replaced it already, and found no other problems so we were good there. Chris and I went over the entire checklist and I showed him where everything was, and gave them feedback on Rya Jen. After this, it was a matter of getting our luggage off the boat and cleaning up, so I took my shower, went to lunch with the crew, and came back and got everything off.

Finishing lunch, we got our luggage and cleaned up the boat a bit more, but it was already 2:00pm when I headed over to clear the boat one final time with CYOA. Chris was away, so someone else checked the boat out, and this time, he complained about the condition of the stove and sand in the cabins. We were feeling screwed for the security deposit at this point, since we had to depart, but then I realized the Przemek was actually not departing today, so I asked if he was OK with working with CYOA to address their concerns.

With this, we said farewell, grabbed a taxi, and headed to the airport, where our flight to Washington DC departed on time. On the way home, we discovered that our timing was just perfect, as a winter storm had just hit San Francisco the day before, creating air traffic delays all around the country, especially into San Francisco. We smiled and pulled on our sweaters, anticipating the cooler weather we would soon face.

Day 12: January 4th, 2008

Breakfast started with eggs and bread and then a rapid inventory of what was missing from our refrigerator. It turned out that we were overstocked on nearly everything except eggs and coffee, so Hector was dispatched to buy groceries while Lea went to find the water guy. Przemek wanted to work on the traveler. I had thought that the traveler would have been the easiest problem, but it turned out that the traveler wound around a capstan that was secured with allen keys. The Rya Jen's toolbox did not include a full set of allen keys, so we were stuck. Or at least, I thought we were stuck. Przemek refused to give up, and started asking for some interesting items, including a twist tie, and a small string.

While Przemek was fighting that battle, I got out the winch handle and undid the hull fittings for the water tanks. Lea came back and announced that the water guy wasn't here yet, but we were first in line. In the mean time, she'd found who the water pipe we'd used two nights ago had belonged to --- it belonged to a boat owner with a permanent slip at the harbor. Unfortunately, that pipe was currently in use, and the hired help cleaning the boat was terrified that his boss would come by and find him lending out his pipe to some strangers. Lea offered to pay him $20, but to no avail.

Przemek shouted out "Who's your daddy?" He had gotten the line around the capstan and now it was a matter of tying off a bowline, getting the remaining line around the other pulleys, and we were in business! Hector came back with groceries and announced that the office would only release his credit card after we'd paid for our water. Fortunately, the water guy showed up immediately afterwards and we started connecting the hose to the tanks. Unlike the other hose, this was a high speed hose and we dumped in close to 100 gallons in less than 20 minutes, after which I used some water to clean off the deck and cockpit areas as well.

There's the inevitable rush to get the cabin ship shape before we leave, but once the water was done, we undid our shore power cable and all that was left was waiting for Hector to pay the bills. Once Hector was back, we cast off with no problems at all and headed across the water towards the islands known as The Dogs. A wind rose up out of the east and it wasn't long before our sails were up and we were well on our way.



Sailing downwind is extremely easy, and the crew had fun exchanging places at the helm. At the start of the trip, Lisa had bought a breadfruit, but unfortunately none of us knew how to cook it, and our overzealous refrigeration unit had frozen it. Hector wanted to find out if the fruit would float or sink, and so tossed it into the water. It sank like a stone.

With an 18 knot wind behind us we made rapid progress and soon saw the North side of Tortola. There was a debate on board as to whether we should stay in Joost Van Dyke or back at St. John's again. On the one hand, staying at St. John's would let us clear customs today, but we had already stayed at St. John and Joost Van Dyke had Foxy's Bar, which was a big draw for the party animals in our group. Joost Van Dyke had no mooring buoys, so we'd have to drop anchor, but I didn't know how crowded the anchorage would be, so I figured we could visit Joost Van Dyke first, and then if there was no room there we could then visit St. John's Caneel Bay.

As we sailed around Little Joost Van Dyke and Sandy Cay, we saw boats anchored at Sandy Cay, a very pretty little island that looked great. It was only a day anchorage, however, so we couldn't spend the night there. As we came into Great Harbor, we discovered that we didn't get there too early. Looking around, there didn't seem to be much swinging room for another boat left. But as I wove my way into the bay I saw what seemed like an empty spot and prepared my crew to drop anchor. Rya Jen had an electric windlass, but we hadn't used it the entire trip, so a quick look at the operations manual was in order for us to remember how to turn it on. Once on, we dropped the anchor and when the crew had paid out about 100 feet of chain I backed the Rya Jen until I felt the tug of the chain. And that was it! Much less work than a mooring buoy (well, I also have about 5 times more experience anchoring).



One of the big benefits of being in the BVI was that you could just put on your snorkel and then dive the anchor to check to make sure it was buried. So that's what Przemek and I did. The water was so clear we could even see the anchor from the surface, about 25' away. We dived to see that it was truly buried, and then counted out how much chain we had. I would later let out a bit more chain just to make sure, since I'm always paranoid, but for the next hour or so we set an anchor watch just to make really sure.



Lisa and I took the kayak to shore, as did Hector. Once on shore, we first walked around looking for the bakery (which was closed), and then finally gave in and ordered some snacks at a different restaurant. The beach wasn't very long, but there was a hammock that Lisa had fun with. Przemek joined us after being ferried by Lea. We ate, bought some ice cream, and then went back to Rya Jen via kayak. Images of Sandy Cay haunted me, so I suggested that we dinghy over there and try snorkeling. Lisa wanted to stay and study and make dinner later, but everyone else thought this was a fine idea.

It turned out that this was a stupid stupid idea. The sheltered nature of Great Harbor had led me to forget that there was 5-foot swells out there, and the wind was pretty strong once we got out of the harbor. I worried about a big wave that would swamp the boat, and asked for a turnaround, which Lea did after she got out of the harbor, just to say she did so. As we turned around, we saw a mega-yacht named Starship. It came complete with jet-skis and a helicopter and landing pad! We were astounded by both the size and opulence of the thing.

Back on Rya Jen, I elected to stay on the boat this time while everyone else went ashore. Hector helped me put away the kayaks, and then I snorkeled around checking out other people's anchoring jobs and ground tackle setups before taking a shower. I picked up one of Hector's books and started reading.

Around 6:00pm, I lit up the oven so Lisa could start baking roots. We waited for the others to come back, and I turned on the VHF to listen in onto Foxy's reservations channel. At 7:15pm, I looked up from my perch and heard splashes. The rest of the crew were rowing the dinghy back. One of the propeller blades had fallen off, no doubt due to the earlier incident at water point. Since the dinghy was no long operational, Przemek got onto the VHF and canceled their reservations at Foxy's.

We made and ate dinner, talked about the trip, and watched the stars, which were beautiful out, despite threatening storm clouds earlier. We set up a night watch schedule and I then turned in.

Review: You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop

I am a fan of John Scalzi, and this book has made me a bigger fan of him. It's a book about writing, but not a book about how to write! It's really a book about the business of writing, which to me is much more interesting than yet another how-to book. First of all, Scalzi is very funny. For instance, in his title column he makes fun of writers, posers acting like writers, and self-pompous asses. What's not to like?

What intrigues me, though, that Scalzi came to writing the way I came to programming --- it was easy for him. And like him, I also came to recognize that my vocation turned out to be real work, if you didn't want to turn out dreck. (In my case, it was having to program DBase III as part of a work-study program) He also has a very professional attitude towards work, which is that clients pay him, and he delivers. That's what being professional means, and I wish someone would write a column directed to many programmers too snobbish to write code in C++, Java, or whatever. He is by turns sarcastic, funny, and even once in a while sympathetic, but he's always honest, and I respect that a lot.

That honesty comes through even when discussing compensation. His writing nets him $100,600 a year, as of 2005. This might sound like a lot, but then you have to realize that despite having published a few novels, his novels are a small portion of his income, and most of his work comes from writing commercial copy. A good technical writer can expect that much, and my friend Larry Hosken probably blows Scalzi's income away. This is not a strike against technical writers (who I respect a lot, and am happy to have on a sailboat any day), but a reflection that if you expect to write fiction for a living and aren't the next Stephen King, you're probably dreaming. And note that despite writing being easy for him, Scalzi's work ethic has him writing 1 million words a year. That's a lot of output, and probably the only other person I've heard public say that he's done that and more is Mike Mearls, who has a reputation for being a caffeine-powered robot.

Another interesting column is one about rewriting, where Scalzi mentions that he rarely goes through multiple drafts. I was very relieved to hear this, since I'm glad to hear that it's possible. (Most of my blog posts don't get rewritten, for instance, though I do trash paragraphs, etc., while writing them) Perhaps this column might come across as arrogance, but I think it is very honest, and a validation of the way a high output writer has to work.

Finally, I really like Scalzi's attitude towards piracy, books online, and Amazon.com's search inside the book feature. All in all, I think this collection of blog entries is very much worth reading (hopefully I haven't cost him too many sales by linking to the three most interesting ones), and is highly recommended, not just for aspiring writers, but for those interested in the business of writing from a writer's point of view as well.

Day 11: January 3rd, 2008

The divers got up bright and early and had quick sandwiches and spread or oatmeal before heading over to Dive BVI's Seacat to join the crew. When we got there they were still loading up the boat, but after a 5 minute wait we were asked to board and away we went! The boat was staffed by Andy Sutherland, Sadie Phy, and Johan Kloppers, and the quality of the staff was immediately evident by the boat briefing that Sadie provided --- short, thorough, and to the point. She also informed us that Casey was mistaken and that there were no afternoon dives for us after all.

Heather was worried because she hadn't dived for several years, and remembered having trouble equalizing her ears when she last dived. Johan immediately took her aside and basically gave her an on-the-boat refresher of what she needed to do. As the boat made its way over to Marina Cay at top speed, I realized that my assessment the night before was correct --- we would have had to sail at 6:00am to have any hope of reaching Marina Cay by 8:30am. The Seacat docked for a short moment at Marina Cay to pick up more dive gear, and had us sign our waivers and do other dive related paperwork. Then we were once more on board the Seacat and on our way to Cooper Island, where we picked up yet a father/son team who were doing their certifications before ending up at the Salt Island Rhone dive buoys.



A quick look around at the site indicated that this was definitely a busy site. Dive boats were tied up at nearly every mooring buoy, and there was always a school of divers in the water. Andy gave us a great dive briefing, helped us get our gear on, and even more importantly sequenced our entries so that Heather, who would likely have the most trouble equalizing, would start her descent first. I was very impressed by the gear Dive BVI had --- it looked shiny and new, and for the first time, I could not see any leaks at all. Andy not only would help us suit up, he would also douse our diving masks in no-fog before giving it to us to put on.



Once in the water, I found myself with no trouble whatsoever equalizing, unlike my dive on New Year's day. Andy assessed everyone's status and immediately led us to the largely intact bow section of the RMS Rhone. The visibility was amazing --- the BVIs are a dive destination because of the incredibly clear waters, and today did not disappoint. As we crossed under the bow spit, Andy signaled, asking if we were ready to do the swim through. We all assented and the swim through began. This section was great, and really gave you the impression that we were exploring. The quarters were tight, however, so it took a while for all of us to work around it. I can't say much about it, and the pictures probably do a much better job depicting our journey than words can.

Upon exiting the hull, Andy showed us one of the intact signal canons, and then it was time to ascend and make our safety stop. Once on the surface, we were given snacks, water, and Andy proceeded to tell us about the Rhone during the surface interval, which was hailed the "Titanic" of her day, with all of 400 horsepower powering a ship with 300 souls on board. We were to find out later that Seacat had 500 horse power all by herself. Technology had improved quite a bit in 160 years.

The second dive proceeded in similar fashion, and we really got a chance to see first hand how clear the water was and how nicely preserved this wreck was. In at least one place, the hatch of a cabin was perfectly preserved, and since everyone was supposed to rub the hinge of the hatch cover for luck, the hatch was shiny. Andy made great use of an underwater slate to tell us what to look at, and what we were seeing, and despite his assurances that lobsters were plentiful, we did not see any lobsters. With the depth being shallower, we had more air and could spend more time shooting pictures while exploring.



When we surfaced, however, I took out my log book and started tallying up the numbers. We were off the PADI charts! This was when I realized that dive guides tend to be a self-selected group of gung ho divers who trusted dive computers a little too much for my taste. While I understood that our dive profile was such that the dive computer probably gave us plenty of margin, I now see how it's possible to quickly get in trouble under-water. It is very easy to accidentally end up deeper than you originally wanted to go (nobody checks their depth gauges all the time), and no matter how carefully you stick to the dive tables, they are only theoretical models that tell nothing about what you as an individual might have as limits. I think before I do any more serious diving (with or without a guide) I'll have to acquire a dive computer.



Returning to Marina Cay, we had lunch at Pusser's, a chain outfit with branches seemingly everywhere in the BVI. The beach was warm and quite pretty, but as we walked around near mid-day, the temperature was such that I did not fancy sitting around. I asked Sadie if there were any dive spots available due to cancellations and indeed there was! Lisa and Heather had had enough diving for the day, but Przemek and I were not done, so at 3:00pm we saddled up again with a class full of British school kids and did our dive off at Diamond Reef. Diamond Reef earned its name because a honeymooning couple at Marina Cay dropped an engagement ring there, and it has apparently not been recovered yet. In any case, this dive was full of wildlife, but unfortunately the water had turned murky in the afternoon, giving us only 25 feet of visibility. Nevertheless, Andy managed to show me and Przemek a good time.

With 3 dives under our belt, by the time we returned to Marina Cay at 5:00pm it was quite cool and I was worn out. The ride back to Spanish Town gave us a gorgeous sunset. Upon returning, we got back to the boat and got reports from Lea and Hector --- they had rented motor-scooters and had gotten a nice tour of the island, including visiting what Hector said was the prettiest beach of the trip. We had dinner at the bar, and discussed our plans for tomorrow, the last full day of the trip. My EEE PC came out as folks checked their e-mail and Przemek finished up some work-related stuff that he hadn't gotten around to doing before arriving in St. Thomas. The food was passable but the service was atrocious, as was the norm for the islands. The marina had a air conditioned toilet but the showers were not hot. I thought we had free water at this marina, but apparently the line we were using the night before belonged to someone else and we had no access to water until the next morning, so it was another lukewarm shower to end the day. Lea also reported that she couldn't find anyone to work on our traveler. An early start therefore, was out of the question for the 4th, since I wanted full water tanks on the boat before departing. I wasn't worried about the traveler, though, since it seemed easy to fix, and it's possible to sail without it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Day 10: January 2nd, 2008

I woke up at 5:00am due to rain on the roof. After running around closing hatches with Hector (who was sleeping on the deck due to the heat), I started making pancakes. Getting to wake the crew up early is much easier, I find, if there's a hot meal waiting for them. As the crew stirred, I went from pancakes to eggs, quickly snarfed up my breakfast, and went outside to start undoing the noise-dampening solution I had put up the night before.



Lea, Przemek, and Heather had never had spam before, so I quickly fried up some spam for lunch. As the crew made ready for our transit, I battened down the hatches and started up the engine for in preparation for dropping the mooring buoy. When everyone had given me the thumbs up, we shortened the dinghy painter line, turned Rya Jen around, and headed out of Pirate's Bight towards the Indians.

We raised the sails once we had the Indians behind us and immediately a squall came up and blew wind and rain at us. Since we were all acclimated to the otherwise warm weather, this caused everyone to break out their jackets and put it on. As the rain swept around us, however, we were treated to an outstanding light show --- crepuscular beams came through broken clouds, rainbows, double rainbows, and even a triple rainbow appeared no matter where we looked. We pointed the Rya Jen towards Road Town on Tortola, and soon enough the rain lifted and we were treated to our usual sunshine.



Lea took the helm and we came about towards Salt Island and Cooper Islands, but with the head wind it was slow going. To add tension to the matter while adjusting the sails to get us closer to the wind the port side traveler line broke. At the same time the boat got caught in irons due to an inopportune (and quite possibly accidental) coming about. I took the helm back. Sharp words were exchanged and recriminations spread. A dark cloud settled over the cockpit as we individually stewed about the situation. Przemek got repaired the traveler by tying a Triple Fisherman's Knot on the broken ends of the traveler line, which would at least hold the traveler in place and not let it flop all over the place. Having gotten the impromptu repair in place, the Rya Jen headed back on course, though not before we caught sight of a huge cruise liner coming towards Road Town.



We sailed past Salt Island, Cooper Island, Ginger Island, and headed towards Virgin Gorda. While most Yachtsmen headed towards the Bitter End Yacht Club, our desintation was the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor, first, for proximity to The Baths, but also for access to Dive BVI, who was providing us with dive facilities the next day.



We arrived at the harbor around 2:30pm, where we were directed to dock D. Apparently, they didn't provide specific slip numbers at this harbor. Not an issue, as there was a double wide slip available. Unfortunately, the wind blew our nose into the adjacent slip, and it took a bit of maneuvering before we got Rya Jen straightened out and properly tied up. This was definitely a trip full of difficult situations.

Having gotten tied up, the first order of business was to register and then to check with Dive BVI. When we arrived at the dive shop, however, we discovered that due to some misunderstanding, the dive tomorrow was not to the Rhone. To say that we were chest fallen upon hearing this news would have been an understatement. The shop employee, Casey, however, saw our distress and started calling around to see what she could do for us. Seeing her earnestness put my mind to rest, which meant that I immediately remembered that I had to get a replacement traveler line. So I left the negotiation of the next day's dive to Przemek, and went out to the yacht repair facilities, where they sold me forty feet of line for $36. It was interesting to see their yardage counting machine, as well as the heated wire they used to cut and fuse nylon lines.

On my return Przemek said that we apparently had two choices --- we could take the Rya Jen the next day to Marina Cay, where the dive expedition would leave for the Rhone, or we could leave her here, and take the dive boat along with the dive staff, but that would force us to stay at Marina Cay the whole afternoon. I was told that Marina Cay was only 4 miles away, but the truth was that Rya Jen was not a fast boat, and that would require waking up early to execute. In the mean time, we also had two non-divers who would like to tour Virgin Gorda, which we would have to leave stranded here if we were to take Rya Jen. A quick discussion had us all agreeing that it would be a good idea for the divers to take the staff boat and stay on Marina Cay.

Having agreed to stay on Marina Cay the rest of the day tomorrow, we realized that the only way us divers would get to see The Baths would be to see it today. So we quickly ate a little bit of lunch, got dressed, and went out to hail a taxi to the Baths. The taxi fare was only $3 a person, but when we got there at 4:30, as had been the case all through our trip, the ticket agent's office for paying the National Park fee was closed, so we got into the baths, grabbed the last locker free, and got into our snorkel gear.


Snorkeling the Baths was wonderful, as the rock, reefs, and water was clear, and the wildlife was plentiful. Lisa and I took off on our own and saw a manta ray, a flat fish (my first), many urchins, and lots of little nooks and crannies that were very very pretty. By about 5:20 we had tired of snorkelling and emerged ashore to see Hector. Hector excitedly started telling me about this 10-minute hike to explore the caves, which was a 10 minute hike to Devil's Bay that was both an adventure and very pretty.



With that recommendation, Lisa and I had to go explore, and we hurriedly went on our way before the sunset. The caves lived up to their billing as we had to step up over wooden stairs, climbed boulders with rocks, and in general hunt through the trails. Every nook and canny was delightful, however, and we got to Devil's Bay just in time to see the sunset behind some rocks. We headed back to the start of the trail to look for the others, but only found Heather and Hector, with no sign of Przemek and Lea.

As the beach grew dark, I started getting worried and berated myself for not remembering to pack a flashlight along with our gear. But right around 6:15 as it started to get really dark, Lea and Przemek were spotted snorkelling back to the beach. All was well, and we hurried back up to the road in the dwindling light. Our cab driver was waiting for us, and happily took us back.

Przemek volunteered to make us a pasta dinner. I showed Lea where all the water ports were, and borrowed a free water line from one of our neighbors, and started filling our water tanks. Since the line was leaky, it took an inordinate amount of time, but I wanted Lea to know at least how to fill the tanks so she could do so tomorrow if she had time. I had a chance to chat with our British neighbor, who was sailing for two weeks on the same class of boat we had (and in fact, also owned a Beneteau '39 back home in sunny England). He had only four people on his boat, however, and said that it's about the right amount of room. Every one was involved in doing laundry, cooking dinner, taking a shower, or some other mundane task, so by the time dinner was ready, it was 8:30pm. Given the level of hunger we all had, Przemek's delicious dinner was quickly dispatched and then after some time sitting and chatting, Lea, Heather, and Przemek headed over to the bar while Lisa, Hector and I got some sleep. It had been an eventful day, and I was quite tired.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Day 9: New Year's Day, January 1st, 2008

I woke up at 6:30 and heated up some water to make a breakfast out of oatmeal. I then lifted out the bilge to make sure we weren't sinking, and checked the engine's transmission belt, as told to do every day during the checkout. Lea was kind enough to shuttle us to the dinghy dock, where we were to rendevous with Miss Lavelle, the boat we chartered to go diving.

At the dinghy dock we met Brian, who was to be our boat driver and guide for the day. Perhaps one look at the equipment that Miss Lavelle came with, however, should have put me off. The equipment looked worn --- the BCD units were obviously sun-faded. Brian suggested that he take us out to the Rhone, but no, we told him that we were scheduled to do the Rhone on Thursday, and that we wanted to dive the Indians, which were really close.

As a first dive, then, Brian proposed Spyglass Wall. This was an easy dive, that should give us good access to wildlife, with a fine sand bottom at 60'. It should have been a bad sign that Brian motored around the north shore of Norman Island, and then suddenly made a U turn before spotting the mooring buoy. I grabbed the boat hook, went up onto the bow and tied us onto the mooring buoy. Brian shouted directions at me, but I had already cleated both ends of the boat to it, so when he got up to the front he stared and did a double take and said, "Wow, a real skipper-quality job --- you've already got everything done right."

So we dived Spyglass wall. Unfortunately, I felt stuffed up in my nose, and had a very hard time equalizing all the way down. This was pretty strange as the day before I had no problems whatsoever equalizing while diving. I have no idea what changed, but after what seemed like ages (but was really only about 10 minutes), my nose cleared up and I could equalize once more, with the familiar squeak in my ears whenever I pinched my nose and blew. Spyglass wall had a nice sandy bottom, and some pretty sights, but it was definitely an easy dive --- we swirled around lazily. But it irritated me that Brian was just swimming strongly ahead of us, and did not make much effort into pointing out interesting locations --- it was as though he just wanted to make time rather than diving.

When we emerged from the water, it was 30 minutes later, and we had gone to 75', right at the ragged edge of the PADI dive table. This was when I realized that most guides in the BVI relied not on dive tables, but on dive computers. While a dive computer can be accurate and good, my acquaintance Philip Greenspun had gotten decompression illness relying on a dive computer. The PADI dive tables are a lot more conservative than the dive computers (especially on multi-level dive profiles and multiple dive per day scenarios), and are less likely to lead to problems. It was at this point that I realized how rare it was to find a dive operator like Dive Experience which at no point during our 5 dives with them exceeded what the tables told us was allowable. When I blew my nose after getting back on board, blood and mucus flowed out of my nose, but since I was prone to a bloody nose anyway, I didn't think it a big deal (and apparently it isn't).

Motoring over to the Indians was no effort, as was tying up. I was getting good at this mooring thing now. We waited for an hour for the required service interval, and did the dive down to about 50 feet of water. Now this was the dive that convinced me that Brian didn't know what he was doing. The book specified a dive through, and exploration of the wall and low depth. We ended up at 60', and I saw Brian surface several times because he was lost! This was ridiculous. Not only was this a bad use of time, but because he was tied to a dive computer and we weren't, we were effectively getting different numbers out of our dive than he was. Fortunately, it just wasn't that big a deal for this shallow a dive. I should have said something to him, because it was a waste of our precious dive time. I should have just followed the book I had and read it instead of having him as a dive guide. C'est la Vie.

Upon returning to Norman Island we found that the rest of the Rya Jen crew had slept till around 11:00, gotten out the kayaks, and then kayaked to shore for lunch. We joined them for lunch, and then tried to figure out what to do. I wanted to go out to Water Point to do some more snorkeling, though I wouldn't have been averse to seeing the caves again either. It didn't take much to persuade everyone else, so Lea kayaked back to Rya Jen to pick up the dinghy and motor back for us.

Once back onto Rya Jen, we discovered that we had left Przemek's snorkel on Miss Lavelle, so he couldn't go with us. No problem, he decided he'd try the kayak and join us at Water Point. On the way to Water Point we saw the Megayacht Olga dropping its big huge anchor right outside Pirate's Bight. Water Point itself was a rocky beach where we could bury the dinghy's anchor amongst rock. As we approached the beach, however, I heard a thud and the outboard shut off. The outboard had hit a rock! Fortunately, there was no damage as I could tell (or so I thought at that time), so I lifted the outboard out of the water and we started our snorkeling. It didn't take 3 minutes before I spotted a huge sea turtle! I called everyone over, and we watched as it started swimming into the open water. Lisa and I followed it along, its flippers moving gracefully, nonchalantly, with not a care in its world.

As it swam off, we explored the area, seeing lots of beautiful wildlife, though perhaps not in as much abundance as what we had seen the day before. After a good hour or so, Przemek showed up in his kayak! At this point, everyone was pretty done with snorkeling (really, what could you see to beat seeing a sea turtle up close and personal?), and a hike was proposed. Przemek didn't enjoy kayaking, so I switched with him and kayaked back to the Rya Jen while he joined the others in the dinghy. It actually didn't take me that much longer to get to the boat than the dinghy, despite the headwind on the return, but I was pretty tired when I got back. Nevertheless, I was greedy for more adventure and decided to join everyone else on the hike.

The hike up to Spyglass hill and around the western end of Norman Island was beautiful, with a surprising number of hermit crabs, and strangely enough, a helipad on top of the ridge. Well, perhaps not so strange, given what we were to see later in the week.

Back on the boat, I dug up the BBQ and assembled it over the transom. Hector had the most experience with BBQ, and after struggling a bit to light it in the increasing wind, actually got it lit, and started preparing to BBQ some tilapia he had bought earlier. The boat was starting to fill up with garbage, so I hailed Deliverance over the VHF to get them to come and take some of it away. Since it was quite dark, they actually had a very difficult time finding us, so they had to hail us and get us to flash our steaming lights a few times until they had visual contact. Upon their second visit, we bought again some expensive groceries, and asked them if they owned this business --- it turned out that the two women were employed by some grumpy old man, they said, but they were having fun and it did seem at least an entertaining job.

After dinner, we noticed a clanking sound coming from the front of the boat. Upon examination, it was the mooring line lifting the anchor up every once in a while and then letting it down with a kathunk. Our solution was to get out an extra line and wrap it under the anchor so it wouldn't move as much With that, we retired early, for the next day was going to be a day of beating against the wind.

Frame under construction


Yup! Carl has started on my frame!
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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Day 8: New Year's Eve, December 31st 2007

We woke up to find that there was no water pressure, at all in the marina. Given that we had just ran out of water the night before, this made getting water a high priority before departing. The crew separated to take showers and get further provisions, while I hunted the marina for the dock-master to get water.

At 8:30, the dockmaster appeared at my slip and said: "You're a lucky man. I hunted for you all night last night, and couldn't find you before I had to leave. Now this morning you're first in line, and just as I find you, the water gets turned on." It turned out that it was the policy of the entire island to turn off the water, and Sopher's Hole, being at the extreme end of the Island felt the water pressure last water last. It took me a while to fill the nearly empty aft tank and top off the nearly full forward tank. While I was at it, I looked more carefully at the ship's operations manual and discovered where the tank switching valve was --- it turned out we were supposed to drain the forward tank first, so I flipped the switches.

After that, it was a matter of chasing down the crew, getting our water and docking bills paid and casting off. Leaving Sopher's hole, we raised the sails and immediately starting reaching for Norman Island. Norman Island is well known for being the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," as well as appearing in the Pirates of the Carriean movies. We sailed along the Sir Francis Drake channel, tacking back and forth between Tortola and St. John Islands. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing hard enough to force us to reef the jib. Soon after Norman Island came in sight, a woman in a small dinghy motored out beside us, dug out a huge SLR that had been carefully waterproofed, and starting shooting away. A look at the insignia on her dinghy showed that she was part of Yacht Shots BVI. The results were amazing looking, though the prices seemed pretty high.



Przemek was eager to take the helm, and we slowly made our way around until at about 2pm we sailed into Pirate's Bight, dropped the sails, and proceeded to attempt to pick up a mooring buoy. All I can say is that I'm glad that we arrived early, because the pick up attempts were hilarious, and not very effective. I think we tried at least 3 times to pick up the buoy pennant, dropping the boat hook into the water once. Eventually one of our neighbors got frustrated with watching us, and three of them got into a dinghy and picked up the pennant. They then held it up high, hoping that our puny boat hook would finally be able to grab it. Unfortunately, as I was manuevering, one of them leaned the wrong way and fell out of the dinghy right in front of the boat! Fortunately, nobody got hurt and after one more pass we finally managed to get moored. I was quite embarrassed --- while docking and anchoring are maneuvers I have ample practice with, picking up a mooring buoy is not, and it isn't something I have occasion to practice either, in the Bay Area. Having finally tied up to the mooring, we then pondered what to do. I proposed a trip to the caves, a place known for the quality of the snorkeling. My proposal was quickly accepted, but before we left, Przemek and I took 3 beers out of the cooler, and dinghy'd over to our friends to thank them for helping us with our mooring difficulties. They were delighted to greet us, and asked us to stay, but we had things to see and do, so we stopped only for a perfunctory visit, and told them we'd be at the floating restuarant (the Willie T) later in the evening.



The dinghy over to the caves was uneventful, and we tied up a red mooring buoy because all the blue ones were taken. The snorkeling, however, was nothing short of amazing. If you don't want to dive, the caves at Norman Island has everything you might want to see without having to strap on a SCUBA unit. We swam, snorkeled, skin-dived, and generally enjoyed the scenery. Unfortunately, at this point, the camera battery died, so I have no pictures of the next day's dive.



Upon return, Lisa had prepared a pre-dinner snack of steamed roots, which everyone devoured with great relish. At 6:00pm, the supply boat Deliverance showed up. We hailed them and paid an outrageous amount for fresh brownies, fruit, and so forth. Then a quick visit to Willie T, which was pretty much a floating restaurant, where we discovered that we were early enough to not need reservations. Dining on the floating boat felt much more stable than dining on the Rya Jen, but as expected, the meals were expensive and so were the drinks.



We then returned to the boat around 7:30pm. Pirate's Bight had an obvious party going on --- the music was loud, and there was apparently quite a crowd there, which we could see from Rya Jen. Around us, we finally noticed that the Bay was filled with boats --- nearly every mooring buoy was taken. Just outside the Bay, a couple of mega-yachts were parked, and one of them was lit up like a Christmas Tree. This was definitely not a wilderness experience, unlike my prior sailing cruise.



Przemek and Lea wanted to go to the party, but the rest of the crew vetoed all of us going there, so we decided to have a party on the boat. We unpacked all our junk food, took the champagne and apple cider out of the coolers, and proceeded to have a great time. At 10:00pm, everyone was sufficiently worn out, and most of us retired while Przemek and Lea went to the Bight to see the party up close and personal.

Having checked that the mooring line was secure and the boat was in good shape, I put on ear plugs so as to block out the noise from the Bight and slept a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Day 7: December 30th, 2007

I woke up to a gloriously beautiful morning, despite the heaving the night before and the rain in the early morning, a pattern that would recur throughout the trip. I made pancakes for breakfast by 7:30am, and by 8:00, everyone had eaten. The mooring buoys in the national park said that you had to pay $15 a night, but since no one would come to pick it up we would have to get ashore to pay. After some amount of effort, Hector and I got the kayaks down and Heather and I on the tandem kayak with Hector on a single kayak and then paddled to shore.



At shore, Hector and Heather walked over to the campground HQ to try to pay for the buoy, but found that they could not pay there. They did find a store and bought some coffee with the $15 we had brought to pay for our mooring. Upon returning to the Rya Jen to report our findings, we decided that the place was too pretty not to stick around, and spent most of the rest of the morning snorkeling and kayaking in the area.



Hence, it was 11:00am by the time we were done playing, and dropped our mooring buoy to head over to Soper's hole. Just before we left, however, I got a demonstration of why it was so nice to vacation in the Virgin Islands. As Lisa got off the Kayak onto Rya Jen, she dropped her mask and snorkel. In San Francisco or the Pacific Northwest, that would have been it. Here, I jumped into the water, hyper-ventilated, and skin dove down 25' below Rya Jen to pick up the snorkel. My ears hurt like hell due to inadequate equalization, but recovery of mask and snorkel was never in question. Chris had mentioned that it was a mere 15 minutes from Cinnamon Bay, but the reality was that it took the better part of an hour to get there. Once there, we could not find any available mooring (the customs dock being restricted only to ferries and commercial vessels) to clear customs. In desperation, I taught Heather VHF protocol, had her hail the marina and got a slip assignment. Once docked at the slip, however, we were told that we had to clear customs before even doing anything as silly as getting a slip, so Lea, Heather, and I hopped onto the dinghy with all our passports and headed over there to check in.

Outside the customs and immigration office I looked for Przemek and didn't see him. Going into the office I tried to figure out how the clearing customs process worked. I then got the idea --- I had to clear the vessel, go next door to pay for it, and then come back to do immigration for the people on board. Upon exiting the office I found Przemek already talking to Heather and Lea.



I met Pzemek Pardyak 15 years ago in graduate school at the University of Washington, where we shared a few projects together and spent quite a bit of leisure time together. While everyone else was studying Computer Science I learned to backpack, sail, mountain bike, and repair bicycles. I guess I was cut out for doing things other than studying for a PhD, hence I dropped out after just one year of graduate school. Pzemek also dropped out, but much much later, to start a successful company (Performant). In any case, I remember this Polish gentleman of my height as being exceedingly smart, funny, and a good practical person to have around, so I was glad that he made the trip.



The customs paper work took a huge amount of time, and when all was said and done the cruising permit cost $165 (includig overtime pay for coming into customs on a Sunday), and the customs processing cost $17. We headed back to the Rya Jen, which had now a crew of 6, and had a late lunch while we made plans. With Przemek in our party, it became pretty easy to make the decisions --- Przemek prioritized doing more dives ahead of everything else, including the New Year's party at Joost Van Dyke. Upon checking with the local Dive shop (Bluewater Dive Adventures), we discovered to our dismay that the dive shop was booked up for the entire week with no possibility of adding divers or picking up a rendezvous with us.

Thus, Przemek got out his phone and we started going down the list in Diving British Virgin Islands and started calling shops to check availability of dives. We managed to get Sunchaser to agree to a Rendezvous charter (though at an outrageous price), and Dive BVI had a dive to the Rhone on Thursday the 3rd. With our dive schedules filled, we then planned the schedule around the dives --- Norman Island for the night of New Year's Eves and New Years Day itself, followed by Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor for the next two days after that for the Rhone.

Our schedule settled, I then worked on getting the boat provisioned. Unfortunately, all the stores were closed at 3:30pm on a Sunday. I then tried to get the boat refilled with water. Soper's Hole Marina prided itself on being a full service marina, which ironically meant that I had to wait for the dock-master to come by with a pipe so I could fill Rya Jen's 240 liter tanks. But everyone else wanted to eat before it got too dark to go out with the Dinghy, so all of us took the dinghy over to the Jolly Roger for dinner. The dinner there was nondescript but Przemek saw a huge lobster and decided he had to have lobster for dinner while in the Virgin Islands.