Author Archives: Patrick

Adding Cellular Internet Enhancement to Our Boat (Something We Never Expected to Do!)

For a long time now we’ve avoided adding fancy electronic networking to our boat to build out a wifi network. One of the best things about sailing is disconnecting from the outside world – sailing and anchoring in remote areas where Internet service is weak or non-existent. Time away from the pressures and stresses of the normal world was always one thing we loved most about cruising.

Without Internet, there’s no news, no Facebook, no bills to pay, and overall much less time spent on the computer and more time appreciating nature. So losing Internet access has always been a feature of cruising to us, not a bug. It feels kind of crazy that we’re now working on adding Internet augmentation to our boat.

But we’re in our 3rd year of semi-full-time liveaboard cruising, and things have changed a bit – the fact we can no longer sail long distances north into Canada has meant we have a lot of time on our hands sitting in the same handful of anchorages. Washington inland waters span only a couple hundred miles, which isn’t really enough to consume all of our time for a 6-month season.

So we’re spending a lot more time on the Internet (see my San Juans Cellular Map for Boaters), and looking into taking on some remote work jobs now that it’s becoming more of a thing.

To cut to the chase, the simple, easy solution we decided on (for now) is a Netgear Nighthawk M1 LTE router – by plugging a data-only SIM into it, we get a device that provides a better wifi network than our phones did, because it can be positioned with better visibility to the cell tower.

The LTE router we ended up buying

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San Juans Cellular Map for Boaters

Over the last year I’ve started recording cellular signal strength and download speeds in the anchorages we’re in. While previously we were happy to have some time away from the Internet, recently it’s become more important to stay connected. This is our third year of semi-full-time cruising with no home port, and with the Canadian border closure this year we can’t go very far. So we’ve spent more time online for video calls with friends/family, work, and entertainment.

It’s often helpful to know whether we’ll have fast Internet in an anchorage before we go there. You can look at the cellular provider’s own coverage map (T-Mobile, AT&T). However these maps aren’t very accurate for boaters, and say they have 4G coverage in places where they definitely don’t. They’re not customized to the particulars of a boat in an anchorage. Getting actual, real-world speed measurements is much more reflective of how fast and reliable the signal is in a given anchorage.

The way these cellular speed measurements were collected was through the Speedtest.net app on my Pixel 3a phone, usually from the cockpit of our boat. Our Internet service is a Google Fi unlimited plan, which uses a combination of cellular networks (T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular, in the US) and includes roaming in Canada (or other countries) with no increased data charge. I have heard T-Mobile is better than AT&T in the San Juans, so the results below are most relevant for T-Mobile/Sprint (which have merged).

A few caveats apply to cellular speed measurements: the results may vary based on many factors, including the weather, position of your phone, what kind of phone or service you have, and location of your boat in the anchorage (if you’re next to a big cliff that blocks the cell tower, you could have very different results from someone on just the other side of the anchorage).

This is just a screenshot. See below to get the interactive map.

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How to Grow an Herb Garden on a Boat

We’ve been meaning to try growing herbs on our sailboat for a while now, and with the coronavirus pandemic sending us into full-on social distancing mode in March, this year was the perfect opportunity. We knew we might not be able to get groceries as often, and keeping store-bought herbs fresh for more than a week or so is very difficult on a boat anyway.

In past years we’ve bought some pretty sad cilantro in remote areas of British Columbia – by the time it makes it to the grocery store it’s spent weeks on trucks and boats, getting less fresh by the day, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t last that long after we buy it.

With some planted herbs, we could harvest what we needed whenever we needed it. We chose to go with cilantro, basil, and mint. Cilantro is one of our most used herbs since we make Mexican food a lot (tacos, quesadillas, guacamole, enchiladas). Basil and mint were chosen because they’re easy to grow and don’t need much space or a large pot.

Other herbs or plants could be grown onboard too. For example, rosemary is easy to grow, but almost every roadside on islands in Puget Sound and the San Juans has that already, and we don’t typically use a lot of rosemary. Lettuce or tomatoes might be nice, but they require a lot of space and don’t produce very quickly.

There are a few unique challenges to overcome with growing plants on a sailboat:

  • Sunlight – Sun can be rare at times in the Pacific Northwest spring, and a sailboat is constantly moving (spinning at anchor, or while sailing) so it can be challenging to keep the plants in the couple hours of sun we get some days in April and May. Many things can block the sun – our dodger, sails, mast, boom, etc. So until the plants got mature I usually moved them around to prime sun locations during the day when we were at anchor.
  • Movement – our boat heels to 15-20 degrees going upwind (and we’re upwind a lot) – close to toerail in the water but not quite. So it’s important to be able to secure the plants so they don’t tip over and spill out dirt (which happened once while crossing Rosario Strait tide rips!).
    Our cabin top below the dodger was the best place to do this, but we could also stow them inside if we expected things to get really rough.
  • Saltwater – Salt is death to plants, so it’s important to make sure no wave spray hits them. Our dodger is very watertight so this worked well for that purpose.

The seeds were started indoors in peat moss pods and then moved outdoors

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A Trip Around Whidbey: Circumnavigating the Largest Island in Washington

Circumnavigation is a term typically used for rounding the entire globe – but it can also be used for simply rounding an island. Boaters here often say they circumnavigated Vancouver Island, because that’s a significant accomplishment – Vancouver Island is a very large island. It would be perhaps a bit silly to say you circumnavigated a tiny island, like Blake Island, though.

Since we’re lacking in challenges now due to Canada being closed, we had the idea of circumnavigating Whidbey Island just for the fun of it. And it turns out Whidbey is actually quite a large island – the largest island in Washington and the longest island on the entire US mainland west coast (BC and Alaska have longer islands, but this is the largest one we can get to right now).

Going around Whidbey would mean we’d get to see the inside of Whidbey – including Deception Pass. This is the “inside” protected route to/from the San Juans, and one that motor boats often use. We’ve actually never been through Deception Pass though because we like to maximize sailing and were unsure about the opportunities for sailing on the inside.

Conditions were pretty bumpy in the Rosario tide rip

If I wear my Canada hat, maybe they’ll let us in? 🙂

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Impacts of Canada-US Border Closure on Cascadia Region Boaters

With the Canadian-US border closure extending into a 3rd month (though June 21) and no plan for reopening in sight, we’ve had a lot of time to think about what that means. The closure of the longest border in the world is truly unprecedented, and has all sorts of secondary consequences which are non-obvious. The Peace Arch at the Washington / BC border actually says “May These Gates Never Be Closed.” Well they’re closed now (sort of).

We’ve been waiting to enter Canada for 2 months now – we normally live there for 4 months over the spring/summer, pretty socially isolated on our boat in remote wilderness areas. So this spring has been quite different, and we’re discovering that we’re much more dependent on BC than we realized. We’ve realized that travel, exploration and seeking new challenges is a key source of purpose when you’re full-time sailors. Washington waters are wonderful, but they’re less than 1/4 the size of BC.

We love Canada. We’ve always found the people there welcoming and friendly, and in many ways we’re equal parts Canadian and American. Last year we lived in Canada longer than we lived in the US. We don’t think of ourselves as tourists in Canada; rather, we move to Canada to live there. But unless you have a permanent resident card or an essential reason (such as a job) you can’t get into Canada right now.

Side Note: I understand the world has many problems right now, and writing about what may seem like trivial problems is not intended to minimize the other issues. I write about this because it’s what I’m familiar with.

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Life at Anchor: Coronavirus Thoughts Going into Month 2

We’ve been mostly at anchor for over a month now, and social distancing for over 2 months. Washington State is starting its 3rd month of modified social behaviors (the Stay-At-Home order was mid-to-late March, but we started social distancing as early as March 1). We normally spend 1/3rd of our year living in British Columbia, so to be cut off from friends and beloved locations there has been really hard.

While we’re fortunate overall, the feelings of uncertainty and frustration have been hard, as they are for everyone right now. One thing brought to our awareness is that many people don’t understand the different types of cruising boaters. People tend to assume that all boaters have a home on land, and that when they go cruising they’re traveling away from home and hopping between different marinas each night. To them, being on the water is a vacation, but to us it’s life.

Even amongst the sailing community there’s a lack of awareness of cruising lifestyles and the different constraints faced. So it’s no surprise that government officials making decisions affecting ports / marinas are unaware of these differences as well.

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Quarantine Cruising Weeks 1+2: Life on the Hook

We’re one to two weeks into quarantine cruising, and not really cruising as much as just living at anchor. We “cast off” this year on March 20, a little earlier than normal – accelerating our plans due to the coronavirus spread in Seattle.

In the cities, the fear and anxiety was palpable. Now that we’re out on the water, that’s fading away – routine on the water is ruled more by weather than the news cycle. Outside, nature is still proceeding as normal. The sea is still the sea, the birds still the birds, seals still seals.

After finishing our haul-out on March 20th, the choice was between either living at anchor (“on the hook”) or in a marina where we’d be crowded closer to many more people, having more surface contacts and also paying a lot more for moorage. For these reasons the choice was easy – we like life on the hook anyway.

A few things have made it more difficult this first week though: weather (cold and rainy – it’s still March after-all) and the closure of WA State Parks (to all uses including hiking), and the San Juans to all transient overnight moorage.

We had planned to spend a week at Blake Island, but the closure of WA State Parks threw out that idea. That was a big loss because Blake Island is one of our favorite places and has great hiking for exercise in dutifully socially distanced manners (we usually see more deer and raccoons on the trails than people).

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2020 Plans: Slow Sailing to Alaska, Possibly, Maybe?

About a month ago I wrote a draft post of our 2020 plans that included aspirations for sailing to Alaska. Now those plans have been thrown into doubt by the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down the US-Canadian border to non-essential traffic. We’re beginning our 2020 cruising season now, but don’t know when we’ll be able to get into Canada. British Columbia represents over 75% of our cruising grounds, so it would be really disappointing if we lose access for the next 6 months.

Things are changing day-by-day, and hopefully the world is in a much better place in a month, but if it goes on much longer it would mean we wouldn’t have enough time to get that far north during the season. The good news is we’re fully stocked and cruise ready now, and living on a boat is the perfect social distancing tool (in anchorages we practice the “200 foot rule”!). On a boat we’re actually much more socially isolated than almost anyone on land – we also go through constant quarantine in between towns / ports.

These are unusual times, and there’s no doubt this year will be quite different. This is our 3rd year since “casting off the lines” and like prior years (2018, 2019) our plans are never written in stone anyway. The following is the original plan, the aspiration. It may change, but that’s always the case with cruising plans anyway – our 6-month plan is an outline, and we re-evaluate day-by-day.

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Living Aboard a Boat is One of the Best Things You Can Do For The Environment

Recently we’ve seen a lot of “greenwashing” – companies advertising they’re doing good for the environment when they’re really just interested in selling their product more. These companies are capitalizing on the concerns many people have for the environment now-a-days. One ad we saw on YouTube – for a company manufacturing a stainless steel water bottle with embedded electronics (for monitoring your water intake through Bluetooth) – claimed their product was earth-friendly because they’re promising to recycle one plastic water bottle each time you use the steel water bottle.

This is of course ridiculous, because the production of stainless steel and associated electronics is far worse to the environment. And all plastic water bottles should be recycled or properly disposed of, *without* having to manufacture a stainless steel bottle to do so. (In case you’re curious, the product is called REBO and fortunately the comments show many others have seen through the greenwashing as well).

Of course, some people are not concerned with the environment (if that’s you, you may not want to continue reading). But increasingly many people are, and they’re struggling to figure out how to help. But, almost never is the right answer to purchase a new product. And there’s an easy way to recognize greenwashing: unless the company is a charity or non-profit, if they’re advertising about how they’re helping the environment, it’s probably more in their self-interest than any actual benefit.

Trash on the beach in Suva, Fiji

We’ve traveled a lot in the last couple years, and seen trash in many, many places that would otherwise be considered “paradise.” In Suva, the capital of Fiji, trash littered the beach for miles, accumulating in layers that will require many dump trucks to remove. Sadly, the poorer a country is, the more trash and pollution it’s likely to have. In comparison, the Pacific Northwest is much cleaner than many other areas of the world – we’re lucky to enjoy such pristine conditions.

Despite the occasional accidental sewage discharge by city facilities (on the order of millions of gallons!), the deep waters and fast flowing currents of the Salish Sea quickly dilute most pollutants. That doesn’t mean we get to sit back and do nothing though.

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Rerig Part 5: Replacing the Lower Spreaders

When I finished our rerig two and a half years ago (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, Summary), it wasn’t supposed to have a part 5. But such is the way with boats. Anytime you think you’re done with something, something new eventually pops up.

In this case it was our lower spreaders – on a routine inspection last summer on the west coast of Vancouver Island I noticed the corrosion on our port spreader seemed to have accelerated. It didn’t look life threatening, but certainly didn’t look good.

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