We have several Cellular data providers, described below:
T-Mobile – OnePlus plan that when we started, claimed to provide unlimited data in the US, Canada and Mexico. Of course, since we signed up, they have placed constraints on the data, limiting the high speed data in Canada and Mexico, and we have heard, limited the amount of time that the service can be used in Mexico… likely not the 6-7 months we will be there. Reading the T-Mobile website, I see that they have revised their definition of “unlimited” data to be unlimited 2G data, rather than the unlimited High Speed data that was advertised when we signed up. And our cell phone carriers wonder why we hate them. Between our 3 lines and a couple of new phones, our bill is over $200/month.
Verizon – Unlimited pre-paid JetPack plan. This has actually worked well for us at our home in Anacortes. For $65/month we get unlimited data at pretty good speed on our Verizon Mifi device. This is our only internet service. It does not work at all in Canada and Mexico, and we learned this summer that it works only in Ketchikan and Juneau Alaska.
Google Project Fi- Probably the best plan for use internationally. Base rate is $20/month and then we get billed for data usage, topping out at an additional $60/month for up to 15 GB of high speed data. No problems in Canada, no problems (we’ve heard) in Mexico.
Iridium GO! is essentially a wifi hotspot that connects to the Iridium satellites and transmits data at, wait for it, 2400 bps. I have to go WAY back to my early computer days to remember serial modems that were that slow. On the plus side, it was relatively inexpensive to buy, and allows for email, text messaging, calling via your existing phone, and weather data retrieval. We bought ours from PredictWind (described below) and have an unlimited data plan at cost of about $120/month. We did use it a lot in Alaska for texting with Miranda and some other cruiser friends. There were a few times in fjord areas with high stone walls where it didn’t work and also varied with the level of the tides in Alaska, but neither of those issues will exist in Mexico. Our phone number on the Iridium does start with 82, so if you get a mysterious call beginning with that it could be us, so answer it!
Garmin inReach is a similar, less capable device that rides on the same Iridium satellite network. It costs less than the GO! and data usage charges are about half that of the GO!, but we find the capabilities to be extremely limited – position tracking, which we like, and text messaging, which is barely adequate. It does, however, have an SOS capability, which we hope is a good safety feature. (Gwen did find many interesting stories on the Garmin website of real rescues that occurred for mariners using the Garmin SOS feature, although all were in US waters). The only reason we have it is that it is a CUBAR requirement for fleet communications. Data cost is about $65/month.
PredictWind Offshore is the tool we use in conjunction with the Iridium GO!. It allows us to plot our route and download weather data (GRIBs) that covers the route. We can see forecasted conditions, get routing recommendations, and look at different departure time options. It takes care of connecting with the GO! and retrieving the data. I find PredictWind to be an OK tool, but it is far from a comprehensive weather planning tool. It does a fine job of retrieving and displaying the GRIBs, but has almost no capabilities for retrieving the many NOAA forecast and analysis products that I use to supplement the binary data. In the next section, I will describe my solution for retrieving these products. This is costing us $250 annually.
There are several ways to use email to retrieve the NOAA forecast products. NOAA has an ftp email server that you send a request to, and it sends back text or graphical data for the specific product requested. There is also a service called Saildocs that does something similar. The issue is sending and receiving email over a satellite connection. The Iridium GO! comes with a very rudimentary email solution that only works on IOS devices. We used it this summer in Alaska, and found it to be completely inadequate for any serious use. In looking for a better solution, I discovered that there is a niche industry that supports long range cruisers by providing email services customized for low bandwith connections, first using SSB radio, and more recently, using satellite data connections. One that I have started using is called UUPlus, which basically sets up an email server on your local computer, connects to the Iridium GO! and sends highly compressed messages that are decompressed and forwarded on their servers on the other side. It has a handy feature of being able to fetch multiple NOAA weather products at predetermined times so you don’t have to sit there and wait for the very slow satellite transfer. I really like it… but it is extremely pricey at around $30/month. We are giving it a 3 month trial on the way down to Mexico. The primary use underway will be for weather data, but it will also be useful for email communications when we are away from cellular and/or wifi service (which I assume will be fairly regularly). We can also use email to make blog posts, which otherwise require pretty high bandwidth connections.
I am afraid to add up the total costs here, but you can see that it is a pretty significant chunk of our cruising budget. Part of that is that we have all of the underway data sources as additions to our existing land-based services (e.g., T-Mobile, Verizon). We also have a fair amount of redundancy (e.g., both Iridium GO! and Garmin InReach, multiple cellular providers).
We will evaluate the services we actually use after we have some time in Mexico and likely eliminate some. For example, I could see eliminating the InReach services as soon as we finish CUBAR. I would also consider eliminating the PredictWind subscription, and using the email-based weather retrieval services in conjunction with one of several free GRIB viewers. I don’t think we will do anything about our multiple cellular plans.
We knew what we were going to hear when we spoke with our weather router yesterday, and he confirmed that we should NOT depart today. The weather for the next 5 to 6 days in the North Pacific is ugly.
The basic message for maps like this is that orange and red are bad. The lower right corner of the map also mentions that predicted wave heights to go along with the very strong winds would be over 3 meters (that’s over 9 feet for those who have forgotten the metric system). Yikes!
As much as we want to get going, we don’t want to risk our lives and our boat. Not to mention guaranteed seasickness. So, we are holding. The weather does look like it gets good toward the end of the week, so we will talk with our guy again on Wednesday. We also will continue to watch all the weather metrics ourselves.
We spent yesterday transporting most of the rest of our supplies and stuff to the boat and stowing it away. A few days ago during a very windy day we had a disaster that made this all a lot more challenging. Our wonderful wagon that has transported groceries and boat parts for long hikes in port was resting on the dock in between loads when it was caught by the wind and sailed right off the dock into the waters of the marina! Our dockmate tried to catch it but no luck. We fished for it where it went in, but the tide was high. We are currently in the moon cycle where the tides don’t change nearly as much and remain pretty high, so we have not spotted it at the bottom of the bay.
But – our friend Sarah came to our rescue at our goodbye dinner on Thursday! She very generously gave us her red wagon. So I have been putting that to good to use. I think I am even going to name it. If you have any suggestions don’t hesitate to tell me.
We are using all the hidey holes for storage we can find on the boat. This long and narrow one works for the Christmas tree parts. I still need to figure out where to put the ornaments. We will be in Puerto Vallarta for Christmas and Miranda is determined that we have a tree just like always!
I am writing this on Friday, September 20th, which was to be our departure date for heading down the Pacific Coast to California and then on to Mexico with the 2019 CUBAR Rally. Well, things have not gone quite according to plan, and it is kind of a long story, so go grab a beverage, sit back and relax (or go read something more interesting).
I am sure that many wise and experienced boat owners have said something along the lines of “Never have major boat work done just before a big trip”… I think we now know why. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we put Miss Miranda in the yard right after returning from Alaska with what somehow became a lengthy project list. The good news is that the vast majority of the work was executed flawlessly and we are very happy with the improvements. The bad news is that a couple of items were not quite right, and they are critical. I know those same wise boat owners also said “Make sure you do a sea trial with the yard before leaving to ensure that EVERYTHING was completed to your satisfaction”. Good advice. Why didn’t I think of that?
The biggest issue that we discovered was a problem with the newly installed fuel flow monitoring system. This is intended to display the engine’s fuel usage and economy while underway. On diesel engines, fuel passes through the engine and about 20% is actually burned. The system uses sensors that measure fuel flow to the engine and back from the engine and from that computes fuel usage. While on our way back to Anacortes, we noticed that the fuel burn readings were very erratic while we were running at a constant RPM, and that the engine RPM was varying slightly… but enough to be a concern, as it had never happened before. To make a long story short, the sensors installed were undersized for the engine.
We found another issue as we were fueling up for the trip. We let the fuel level on the boat get really low on the way back from Alaska so that we could have the tanks inspected. They were in great shape, and the fuel was polished and returned to the boat. We measured the remaining fuel to calculate how much we needed to take on using our “tank tender” system. All went well until we came to the starboard aft tank, which measured as empty. We started filling the tanks and almost immediately got fuel flowing back from the vents. That is obviously not what is supposed to happen. I crawled into the lazarette and discovered that the sender from that tank had been broken off. The empty reading was false, and the tank was actually full (or very close).
The yard’s response to these issues was great – they arranged to have a technician come to us in Anacortes to do the repairs. Fortunately, I was able to secure a pair of the proper fuel flow sensors locally, because they were on back order from the Maretron factory. So far, all good with our tech scheduled to arrive on Wednesday morning.
Then I made a very unpleasant discovery in the engince room. There was a line of red fluid across the floor which seemed to be coming from the wing engine. It turned out to be Automatic Transmission Fluid from the gearbox. Not good.
The mechanic arrived on Wednesday and took care of the fuel flow sensors and the tank tender, and then turned his attention to the fluid from the wing engine. The diagnosis was bad main seals (that go around the propeller shaft), and the bad news was that it was not possible to replace the seals or rebuild the transmission. We had to either buy a new transmission or put a drip tray under the transmission, keep a large supply of fluid on hand, and hope for the best. Lenny, our technician, had replaced these units before, and assured us that he could replace ours pretty quickly. It turned out that a shop down in Everett had one in stock, so off went Gwen for a little ride to pick it up. It was late in the day by the time she got back, so we planned for an early start the next morning.
Of course, nothing goes quite as planned… the old transmission did not want to come off, and in the struggle to remove it, Lenny cracked one of the mounting plates. Furthermore, I was told that Lenny needed to get back to his regular clients and would have to leave, finished or not, at the end of the day. Some discussion with the transmission shop led to a solution for removing the old transmission, but involved yet another trip to Everett for Gwen.
Lenny was finally able to remove the old transmission and got the new one painted while we waited for Gwen to return. Amazingly, he was able to install the new transmission, align the prop shaft, and test the wing (at the dock) and still make his 4 PM ferry back home. Lenny is an outstanding marine technician, and we greatly appreciate his mechanical wizardry.
As all of this was happening, we had a call with our weather router, who suggested that we delay our departure until (at least) Sunday to avoid a frontal system moving across the Washington offshore waters. We were not unhappy about this, as all of the unexpected repairs had put us behind schedule in loading up the boat.
We got out on the boat for another sea trial on Friday 9/20. It was all good news. The wing engine worked flawlessly, and the fuel monitoring was much more consistent, with no more RPM variation.
Now we are busy with the final preparations and waiting on the weather window. We have another call with our weather router today (9/21) to determine if we are still on for a Sunday departure.
The next phase of our adventure will take us down the Pacific coast from our home port of Anacortes, WA to San Diego, CA where we will join the CUBAR rally onward to Mexico. The trip is something like 1200 NM, and we are allowing ourselves about a month to complete it. Our planned departure is sometime around September 20th and we want to be in San Diego no later than October 23rd. The transit of the coast is considered “downhill” because the prevailing winds and waves are generally from the Northwest, and thus behind us. However, our departure is late enough in the season that the weather patterns may begin to shift from the relatively mild summer conditions dominated by the East Pacific High to the fall/winter conditions where low pressure systems move through the waters every couple of days. This has had us become even more serious students of weather forecasting and analysis.
We are thinking about the trip in two phases. The first is transiting the Washington and
Oregon coast to San Francisco, a journey of about 700 NM. We hope to make this a nonstop passage, which
should take about 4 days – at 8 knots we can cover just under 200 miles per
day. The alternative, of course, is to
make stops along the coast, making for shorter runs. However, each of the stops requires making a
bar crossing (where a river meets the ocean) which has to be at the right time,
considering both tides and time of day.
Furthermore, the route would be nearer to shore, where crab pots are a
major navigation hazard. Making the
nonstop passage will allow us to run further offshore (hopefully) avoiding the
crab pots and the bar crossings.
The offshore route does require a good four day weather window. We decided that we would get professional help with the weather by engaging a weather routing service. Our weather router will meet with us initially to understand our route and look at the optimal departure date, and will then consult with us on a daily or as-needed basis to review conditions ahead. We have identified some ports along the coast that we might stop at if conditions deteriorate. These include Newport or Coos Bay along the Central Oregon Coast and Brookings or Eureka along the Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast. From all that we have heard and read, the major navigation hazard along this section of the coast is Cape Mendocino, just South of Eureka, which can be rough even in periods of settled weather.
Having a weather router will be a huge help for our first big trip down the coast, but we still need to continue to improve our own weather analysis skills. Last year we took an excellent online weather course offered by the Seven Seas Cruising Association taught by Lee Chesneau, a well known and respected marine weather expert. The course was a great introduction to marine weather and focused on how to use the many products produced by NOAA in order to plan a safe voyage. Another resource that I’ve found incredibly helpful is a membership-based site called Attainable Adventure Cruising (https://www.morganscloud.com/), which offers a step-by step guide to collecting and analyzing weather data.
The amount of marine weather resources available on the internet is truly amazing, but of course, it all requires connectivity. So, from a planning perspective when you have a good connection, everything is good. When you are at sea or otherwise away from connectivity, things get a bit more complex. This year we installed an Iridium GO!, which is a satellite modem. It allows us to communicate, and particularly, retrieve weather data, at sea, although at VERY slow speeds. We bought that in combination with a weather software package/service called predictwind, which allows us to download and view weather data in a map-based format using what are called GRIBS (Gridded Binary files). I won’t talk in detail about GRIBs here. Suffice it to say that they are the outputs of weather models from NOAA and other agencies that provide weather predictions over space and time. This is just one tool in the arsenal, though. The national weather service provides both analysis and forecasts that apply some human interpretation to the model outputs. The two that I have been looking at lately are these:
This is a one-stop shop for analysis and forecast maps. I look at each of these, focusing on the surface, wind and wave, and wave period and direction forecasts. These give a sense of what is going to happen over the next couple of days.
This page has links to the marine text forecasts all the way down the Pacific Coast. These include a synopsis about general conditions in the region and forecasts for winds and sea state over the next 5 days, essentially a verbal interpretation of the various forecast maps.
The other thing I do is use the predict wind offshore application to download the data along our route. It shows a simulation of the boat moving down the coast over time, allowing me to see what conditions we might encounter along the way.
This allows you to look at a graphical representation of the probability that the wind speed will exceed a value that you set. White or blue/green represent low probability (good), while reds represent high probabilities (not so good). It has a loop that goes out over two weeks, and also allows you to look at data for sea state.
Our goal is to learn from our weather router on the first segment of the trip down to San Francisco and then use our own knowledge and skill to make our way down the California coast. We see this as being a series of shorter hops, and hopefully more benign conditions, at least after we get around Point Conception.
Do you have any favorite weather planning tools or services? Let us know in the comments section.
Miscommunication at the editorial board meeting the other morning. We decided that the fog was worthy of a post. I thought Gwen was going to do one at Lagoon Cove. Not seeing anything I dashed out a post myself, without realizing that Gwen pulled the fancy trick of “scheduling” the post.
OK, so which one do you like best? We’ll tally the number of likes for each of us and the winner will receive a potentially valuable prize (and bragging rights around the editorial office).