Don’t Add Water

Lessons learned from a long odyssey to find Camera Repairs and Replacements in the Caribbean.

Black Screen of Death.

Black Screen of Death.

We are all familiar with the “blue screen of death” on our computers or have heard tales of those who have (MACs have the bomb icon, I think). But, to encounter this on your camera is unexpected and unwelcome. I was on a trail hike with some friends on the east coast of Martinique when it happened to me. Taking a picture, my camera made a strange noise and gave me a error message on the back screen. The camera refused to take another picture. It turned instantly from a camera to a brick. I returned to the boat and researched the cause of the error message. It indicated a mechanical problem with the shutter. After trying as many things as I could think of, with not avail, I gave up.



The East Coast of Martinique. One of the last pictures taken by the camera. No John you did not break it.

I carried cameras to all corners of the world, as part of my job. I always worried about theft, loss or damage. I discovered early on that insurance on a camera is inexpensive and covers most threats. It typically costs one or at most a few percent of the value of the camera per/year. I considered it a very good deal. In all those years, I did not have to use it. When I got my Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) a few years ago, I decided to insure it as well.

So, my first call was to my insurance company. Yes, they would cover the problem. What is more they would cover the expense of shipment back to the US to have the camera serviced. The only thing that would not be covered was normal wear and tear. I had taken a lot of pictures, but nowhere near the 100,000 shutter rating.

Finding a Repair Facility

I went on to the internet. I could not find a repair facility for my Canon camera in the Caribbean. Actually, I could find none for any brand of camera. The nearest was in the United States. I called them about sending it in for service. There I encountered the first problem. They would not accept shipments from overseas. I would have to ship it to someplace in the US and then on to Canon (they would also not ship it back overseas either). While I never checked any other brands, I strongly suspect it is true of all brands. I filled out the repair order on line and then turned my attention to the logistics of getting it to them.

Shipping the Camera

Not everything works as planned. Trying to take a green flash picture. The only rock for miles around gets in the way.

Not everything works as planned. Trying to take a green flash picture. The only rock for miles around gets in the way.

I was in the anchorage off Saint Ann’s, Martinique. I looked into shipping it from there. The post office would ship it, I was advised. But, I was more comfortable with using FedEx. Unfortunately, FedEx was located some distance away and getting there would be an issue. After taxing my limited French to get a box (the post office) and bubble wrap (a party store in La Marine), I decided to take my boat to Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia, twenty five miles away. I had used the FedEx store there before and I could speak the language (sort of as it is “British” English). Taking my boxed camera in hand it took a cab to the FedEx store. Lesson 1 – don’t seal the box they will need to inspect it. Lesson 2 – due to the paperwork and time to complete it, take the bus. My cab driver was well pissed by the time I got done an hour later. FedEx turned out to be very helpful. However it took me nearly one hour to complete the paperwork and get the shipment out. Besides the FedEx air bill, you need to fill out a US customs form. Not a problem. Be sure to indicate the camera is going in for repair. You also need a FCC form as many cameras transmit a signal (WIFI or other). You also need a very important form, a Saint Lucia customs form. This form allows the camera to return to Saint Lucia without duty (except on the cost of the repairs). I also needed the camera inspected by a customs officer to verify the serial number and model. As I said, it took an hour. But in the end it was off to the US.

I use Saint Brendon’s Isle. So that was its first stop. They were very helpful and turned the camera around in a few hours. It arrived at Canon the following day.



Saw these on the pristine deck of a mega-yacht. Not sure what happened to the owner. But there is a mystery here somewhere.

My first conservation with Canon was positive. They told me that my camera would be inspected and repaired in 5 business days. They also told me I would have to pay a fee to have the camera inspected which would be credited toward service if needed (my camera was well out of warenty). My insurance company agreed that this was a justified expense. So I deposited the fee to Canon. At this point, my insurance company reimbursed my shipping to the US and the cost of the inspection by Canon.

Problem 1 – Not all you hear is true and not everything you think you hear is what is said. Canon has a very nice tracking page on their website. I discovered it would not work if the origin was out of the US. After waiting several days for an email indicating they had received my camera, I called them. I discovered that it would take 5 to 7 business days for the Camera to get into the system. This is before it is even looked at. Once it is looked at it might take another two weeks to get fixed. Canon repair is a major concern and repairs everything from FAX machines to high end cameras. Lesson 3 – ask more intelligent questions. Lesson 4 – Canon and most other camera manufactures offer a professional program. I was eligible to join. The program offers a much quicker turn around with only a few dollars per year and gives many other benefits.

As a follow up on my phone call, Canon sent me an email asking if I was satisfied with the call. No would be the short answer. The long answer likely burned a few ears. I am not sure if it had anything to do with the events, but the next day my camera was in the system. Three days later, I got an email with their evaluation.


My initial reaction to the email was joy, my camera was fixed. Then I read the email more carefully. Yes they were shipping it back to me, but they considered it beyond “economic repair”. Toast! After a few choice words, I called the insurance company. Yes they would cover it, but it would depend on what exactly was written on the evaluation. After waiting a few days, I called Canon. Sorry they said, but they had shipped the camera and the evaluation was with the camera. She looked up the repair order and told me that they had found major corrosion inside. Could she send me a copy of the evaluation? No! After, talking to several people, I finally got them to admit they could send me a copy of the evaluation, but it would take several days. Not good, as the insurance company needed that piece of paper to proceed.

Finding a replacement

The new camera arrives. Along with some extra stuff.

The new camera arrives. Along with some extra stuff.

Canon did direct me to their loyalty replacement department. They were willing to sell me a new or rebuilt camera at a reduced price. They would also offer me an upgrade (either new or rebuilt) at a good price as well.

Finally the camera arrived back at Saint Brendon’s Isle. I had them open the box and email the evaluation. I then emailed it to my insurance company. No problem they said. We will replace the camera with a like, new camera with no deduction. But, they needed a written cost estimate.

I went back to Canon. They told me the cost break down on a like camera. But, it would take several business days to send me an email containing this information. Where have I heard this before? In frustration, I called B and H Photography in NY. Spoke to a guy there and before I hung up the phone I had an invoice with a firm estimate. I sent this information to my insurance company along with my verbal estimate from the Canon “Loyalty” program.

It turned out the B&H was willing to sell me the new camera at less than the “Loyalty Program.”

The next morning I had a check for the full amount of the Loyalty program estimate, plus shipping, plus tax in my checking account.

Not all good deals are Good Deals

I ordered the camera from B&H. They shipped it out that day. End of the Story? NO! Wait, there is more.

It turned out that B&H could not ship to me in Saint Lucia without my paying NY sales tax and very expensive FedEx shipping cost. But, they would ship to Saint Brendon’s Isle without collecting sales tax. Here is where things started to go as the British say “Pear Shaped”. Problem 1 – While FedEx cost was 50 dollars from Saint Lucia to Florida, the FedEx from Florida to Saint Lucia was 200 dollars. I can only assume that the cost in one direction was subsidizing the cost in the other direction. However, a friend had used a shipping company in Miami. Problem 2 – I was now getting back a different camera. So the customs in Saint Lucia would be charging me duty on the entire cost of the new camera. The legwork to get something through customs and the need for an agent caused me to reject getting the camera sent to Saint Lucia. But wait – Saint Martin is duty free. So I up anchored and headed to Saint Martin.

Free Batteries are not Free

Lithium Ion Battery Warning Label.

Lithium Ion Battery Warning Label.

As part of the free items included with the new camera, B&H gave me an extra camera battery. However, when the camera reached Four Star Cargo in Miami, this became an issue. The battery that was included with the camera was not listed on the invoice so no one knew it existed, but the extra battery was on the invoice. Four Star Cargo took one look at the invoice and told me they could not ship the camera by air. Major Problem – I was not sure that I wanted to trust my delicate new camera to a sea voyage in a cargo container. I did some research on the internet. It turns out they were correct. My lithium Ion batteries were a problem or rather the one on the invoice was the problem. The options were –

  1. Ship by sea and risk damage
  2. Ship by cargo aircraft (FedEx), but even then it might require some sort of marking on the package.
  3. Ship by passenger aircraft. To ship this way (I assume that four star uses air cargo in the hold of regularly scheduled passenger flights to Saint Martin). The package required some sort of marking that it contained Lithium Ion batteries. What markings no one could tell me.

So I called B&H. I was told they had no idea what I was talking about. When pressed they did admit that they did have to mark the packages shipped by air. But they got the information from Canon. B&H could not to give me a copy. So I called Canon. They had no idea what I was talking about either. I suspect I had not reached the right person. The daunting task of finding that right person over the phone from the Caribbean did me in. So I gave up and chose option A.

Some years ago a good friend of mine taught at a medical school in Montserrat (before the volcano erupted). They had a shipment of cadavers come in by sea freight from the US; unfortunately there was a dock strike when they arrived. So the freighter continued to cruise the Caribbean with a dozen dead cruise passengers. I pictured this as I committed my camera to the sea voyage.

On further research, I found that you can carry on a camera with a Lithium Ion battery (which is good as most cameras have them) and a small amount of spare batteries. You cannot put them in your checked baggage. You can ship by passenger aircraft a device with a Lithium Ion battery as long as the battery is below a certain size (most camera batteries are), BUT you need to mark the package with a special sticker (where you get one I don’t know. You also need to paste on the outside of the package a pamphlet with the instructions of what to do if the battery catches fire. I can only imagine firemen tearing the pamphlet off the box while it is burning and reading the contents. There is no lower limit on the battery size. One tiny hearing aid battery requires this marking. Stupid!! But this is the international law for carrying LI Batteries.

A Happy Ending?

A happy Ending? Sunset at Jolly Harbor. One of the first pictures with the new camera.

A happy Ending? Sunset at Jolly Harbor. One of the first pictures with the new camera.

After a week of nail biting and worrying that something would go wrong, the camera arrived safely in Saint Martin. A wild, wet ride in the dingy into 25 knot winds to pick up the package from the air cargo terminal (Four Star Cargo was kind enough to forward it to air cargo terminal so I could pick it up easily). I had an equally wet, wild ride back to the boat. Madly opened the package and tried the camera. All worked. I was very relieved. It took 8 weeks from the time the camera quit to having the replacement in my hands.

Oh No Not Again!


English Harbor, Antigua. One of the last pictures I took before the camera went Pear Shaped.

Not long after receiving my new camera, I needed to head back to Antigua to meet a guest who was arriving there. It is usually a long wet slog to windward from Saint Martin to Antigua, but we happened on a day where the wind was light so it was more of a motor sail. I anchored in Jolly harbor and spent the next few days settling in. I did take a few pictures with the new camera and all seemed well. My friend arrived and with her a second camera body. I realized that if I was to be serious about photography in remote places (the Eastern Caribbean) I needed to have a spare body in case things went “pear shaped”. The new camera body was a used, but a much better camera, acquired from a friend, a Canon 1DX. Over the next week or so I spent time becoming acquainted with the 1DX and reacquainted with the 6D. We moved around to Falmouth Harbor and the Classic Yacht Regatta. I volunteered to take some pictures for the Regatta. Used both cameras and took several thousand pictures. One day we decided to hike across the hills to view the returning boats. After a long hot walk and many pictures we returned to the restaurant to get something cool to drink. I placed my camera on the table (the new 6D that I got from B&H) and then picked it up to take some pictures. It was off and there was no sign of life. No error messages, just dead. Tried all the things I could think of but, no life. So my camera, that was less than two months old, was dead.

Camera Repair Again

Portsmouth, Dominica. Out on a hike again with the repaired camera. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Portsmouth, Dominica. Out on a hike again with the repaired camera. Keeping my fingers crossed.

I contacted the store that sold me the camera. If the camera was less than a month old, I could return it, but since it took almost a month to reach me (and the clock was ticking when the camera left the store) they could do nothing. I needed to send it back to Canon for repair. Fortunately, my friend was returning to the US and could lug the dead camera back. Also, fortunately I had a spare camera body so I was not out of luck in taking pictures.

This time things went as advertised. My friend carried the camera back and mailed it to canon. Canon examined it within a few days and determined that a “power board had failed” and replaced the board. I did have to produce the sales receipt to prove when I bought it. They did not charge me and mailed it free to my mailbox. The mailbox mailed it to the shipper. Since the camera was the only thing in the box and not any batteries, it went easily by air. A sailed back to Saint Martin and was on hand to receive it when it arrived.

It arrived in good condition and I determined it was the same camera that I sent in. After a bit of shake down to determine if it was working, all was well again. And a few days later left Saint Martin heading south once more. From the time the camera first failed in early January to the time I got the repaired one back was four months.

So what did you do all winter?

Lessons Learned

The adventure taught me a number of valuable lessons:

  1. Insurance – At the end of the day my insurance paid 100% of the cost of a new camera plus all shipping expenses. I was out the cost of a number of phone calls. I have several friends who have lost cameras to theft or to water damage. Insurance is cheap. Also be sure you mention where you are and where the damage occurred. While I told them this, they did not understand and assumed I was in Florida. This caused me some problems in communication.
  2. Language issues – if I had been better with French or more willing to try, I might have saved two weeks. The amount of paperwork required would have been difficult with my limited French.
  3. FedEx – The FedEx office in Saint Lucia went beyond the call of duty to aid me. I was disappointed that FedEx in the US was so expensive. But, I can understand their need to subsidize the rates. I might have avoided some headaches by using them even at the high cost and saved a couple of weeks. I don’t know if the insurance company would have covered the extra cost, I did not ask.
  4. Saint Brendon’s Isle – I can’t say enough about how good they are. Took care of me. They might have helped with the Lithium Ion battery issue if I had known to ask before shipping the camera on to Four Star Cargo.
  5. Canon – In the end they did everything they said they would do. It was a lot slower than I hoped or initially understood. But, that may have been my not asking the right questions or not hearing the answers. Canon’s not being able to give me the answer on shipping LI batteries; I put down to not finding the right department. Canon is a major corporation. Lots of inertia and corporate BS. I will join their professional photographers program.
  6. B & H Photography – Excellent people and prices. Why I was unable to get an answer on my question about the LI batteries I am not sure. They included an extra battery (the problem with shipping), a memory card, a camera case and a monopod for free. None of the free items were junk, but quality stuff that I might have bought. The issue of referring me to Canon for repair was well documented in the web site and they were honest about the options.
  7. Four Star Cargo – By the time my camera reached them I was highly frustrated. They dealt with me in a polite helpful manner. Their call on the batteries was correct. Sea shipment worked and I got my camera. The cost of the shipment was 1/6 of that by FedEx. OBTW – when filling out the form on-line, use the address you want the package sent to not your mailing address. This was my rooky error. Once the wrong address was entered they needed to delete my account so I could start over. The second shipment took only a moment to set up and all worked well. Except it arrived in a week where there were 3 holiday days. So the line to pick up packages was out the door and around the building.
  8. Customs in the Eastern Caribbean – This is the root of the problem and the cause of my major headaches. All islands, that I am aware of in the Eastern Caribbean, have duty on importing cameras with the exception of Saint Martin. The duty varies from 10 or 15% to more than 50%. In most islands, you can get an exemption from the duty for a camera being sent in for repair. But, you need to fill out a form and have the serial number and particulars verified by a customs officer. This means if the camera you get back is different as was in my first case, you are subject to full duty. Also, this prevents you from shipping from one place and receiving it at another.
  9. Shippers and Shipping Agents – most islands have many different shippers and a multitude of shipping agents. Four Star Cargo ships to most of the islands in the Caribbean. I spoke to a friend who is in the shipping business and works with agents all the time. Their advise, be vague about the description and lie about the price. This would get you a cheaper duty, if you are not caught, but would be a problem if the camera was lost or stolen in shipment. Most insurance policies do not cover the camera while it is in transit. My recommendations are either fly back to the US or depend on the kindness of others or go to Saint Martin.

What happened to my old camera? I can only guess. Six months after I got the camera I was getting off the dingy at a floating dock. I had been taking pictures from the dingy and did not think to put the camera back into its water proof bag. I put the camera on the dock and then got out separately. The dock sank and the bottom of the camera got wet (fresh water – I suspect salt water would have been fatal). At the time, there was no indication that there was any damage and the camera is well sealed.   It continued to work for 2 and ½ years (some 20,000 pictures) before failing. Likely a drop or two of water got into the camera and in the end attacked the shutter or the electronics. One of the few times I failed to keep it in its dry bag.

  1. Get a dry bag or pelican case if you don’t already have one and use it.   Every time. No exceptions.
  2. Have a backup camera.
  3. Expect 4 weeks minimum to get a camera serviced. With Murphy, it might take a bit longer.
  4. Keep a written and photographic record of the camera serial number. My insurance company asked for this right away. It was also needed to fill out the paperwork at customs for the FedEx people.
  5. Be aware that Saint Martin (both the Dutch and French side) is one of the few islands outside of the US islands that does not charge duty on cameras that I am aware of. All the islands will charge duty on the cost of repairs or the cost of a new camera if that is what happens.
  6. Where to get the new camera – I could have bought the new camera in Saint Martin. They have good camera shops and the prices are good. I decided to get it in the US because there have been a number of cases of “Gray” market cameras getting sold as new US. I had read a few of these cases in the camera press while my repair was going on. None was sold in Saint Martin. Some of these cameras were stolen camera where the external serial number sticker had been removed and a new phony number replaced. The issue was only discovered when the camera was sent in for service and the internal serial number was checked. As the camera was stolen, you get nothing back and have to take the issue up with the store that sold you the camera. Decided not to risk it.
Yellow Warbler.

Yellow Warbler.

Hopefully, I will not have to go through this again anytime soon. Now I can get back to taking some pictures and sailing.

When In Doubt Wind the Clock or How to Handle Problem Solving under Stress

This may seem strange in a world where the windup clock has gone the way of the Dodo. But once upon a time clocks had to be wound. This fact is only tangent to the story at hand.

Why Wind the Clock?

The T-37 Cockpit.

The T-37 Cockpit.

Many years ago (in the time of the wind up clocks), I taught primary flying in the US Air Force. The trainer aircraft was the T-37 . I was tasked with coaxing, cajoling, brow beating, and otherwise urging my students from complete novices who had never been in an airplane (and in many cases could not walk and chew gum) to being able to fly the jet-engine, T-37, by their selves and perform a whole host of required tasks – instrument, formation and precision navigation – to name only a few. The Air Force furnished them with a checklist aid their memory. It included the steps to start the aircraft and all the other necessary actions to get it safely off and back onto the ground. Included in this check list was a set of emergency procedures to be followed in case of fire, engine failure, or a fuel leak etc. But, what it did not mention was that most emergencies were far more subtle and sometimes complex. The fledgling pilot would often (read most of the time) go and use one of the canned emergency procedures even if it was the wrong thing to do. The classic example is the pilot who pulled the fuel shut off handle on the wrong engine in a fire, because the lights in the handles were wired backwards – leaving him with a very heavy glider. So I taught my students that the first step in any emergency was to WIND THE CLOCK. This gave them time for the increased blood flow to reach their brains, the initial surge of adrenaline to drop, and their sphincter to close. It had the added benefit in that it did no harm. Aside from the fact that clocks got over-wound on occasions and the maintenance types were puzzled. Then when the student had calmed down a bit and his (or her) brain was in fact working, they could go on to solve the problem.

Some years later, I had a student tell me about an incident where this principle had saved the day. He was up teaching in the same trainer and flying in the weather. The T-37, in those days, had one attitude indicator in front of the student in the left seat (the instructor sat on the right). It also had two turn and bank indicators, one on each side. For some reason the attitude indicator failed and indicated that they were upside down. That was fine as we were all taught to recover from an unusual attitude using the turn and bank indicator (not an easy task – but doable). He had, however, a failed turn and bank indicator on his side which he did not know of. So he was receiving three different indications of what the aircraft was doing of which only one was right and that was the one of the student’s side as far as possible from him. He thought about the problem, determined which one to believe, recovered the aircraft and brought them both home. What saved him and his student is that he spent a moment to think about the problem while “Winding the Clock”.

Wild Matilda

Wild Matilda

Most problems in sailing are not as time critical as flying. Fire, an impending collision, or a major hole are probably the few exceptions. But, stress is present in both flying and sailing. Stress in sailing comes from long days, heavy weather, and fatigue. Lack of sleep, change in diet, and anxiety contribute. The result is the problem solving skills are taxed at a time when they are needed most.

Earlier this year I had a classic example. I had just completed a 27 hour solo sail from an island just south of Saint Martin to the Saints. I was glad to be in and looking forward to a good nap. When I remembered that I had not heard the refrigerator run in a while. Mine is a holding plate system that runs every so often to keep the boxes cold. A quick check of the boxes reveled that the holding plates were beginning to defrost. I said several expletives – for stress relief. I then ran the thermostats on both boxes to full cold – nothing. So I was faced with an electrical problem with the refrigerator. I could wait till I was better rested, but I would likely lose much of the content of the freezer and the beer would be warm! Or, I could work on it now. After all who can drink warm beer (pardons to my British friends).

I grabbed my two major tools for electrical problems, a Fluke 73 Multimeter (now almost 40 years old) and a short length of wire. I quickly determined that there was power to the control box. Opening the control box, I started tracing voltage through the circuit (bless Grunert for putting a wiring diagram inside the cover of the control box). A half hour into the problem, a cup of coffee, and a few false starts, I narrowed down the problem to the high pressure switch. This device protects the system against the failure of the cooling water supply. I could run the system by bypassing the safety valve, but at a risk of major damage to the system. So where to get a new valve? To make matters worse, I would need to open up the system to replace the valve and so would need a dryer and a vacuum pump. At that point I said some more heartfelt expletives and started to fill my second cup of coffee.

I was in the process of pouring the coffee, when the refrigerator turned on! I jumped and poured coffee over my hand and the counter – more expletives. Then a very large light bulb came on over my head. Of course! The pressure switch has a built in time delay. In my fatigued state, I failed to remember that. The time delay is to allow the system to cool down before turning on again. I quickly checked the thru-hull, strainer and pump. All ok. The problem turned out to be an air lock in the hose from the pump to the refrigerator that the pump could not clear. Opening a hose at the pump was able to restore the flow and the refrigerator was up and running.

A lesson learned. I went off on a wholly wrong direction and found a problem that did not exist. The reason was I was fatigued and felt I was under a time constraint. However, I was safely on a mooring so at worse the beer would be warm. A more critical system and continuing or deteriorating conditions and who knows what might have happened. I forgot to Wind the Clock.

Planning For the Worst Case

My Perkins 4.108 just back from rebuild.

My Perkins 4.108 just back from rebuild.

The first boat I ever owned was a Dufour 31. It had a very finicky fuel pump and would stop without any notice due to air in the fuel. After it quit in several place that were more embarrassing than serious, I got so that I would continually think – “if it stops now what would I do?” My current boat has a Perkins 4.108 that is only marginally better at letting me know when it might quit but takes a longer long time to bleed the air out of the system. So I continue to think what I might do if something happens. It is good mental preparation for the worst case.

When I was teaching flying we encouraged the students to do this vary thing. They would sit around on rainy days and make up all sorts of hair raising emergencies for their fellow students to analyze and come up with a course of action. While most were totally farfetched, a good many were possible. They all gave the students a chance to think through the problem.


In Medicine, doctors have a very organized system of Triage. It separates those patents that are beyond help from those who can benefit from medical care and then sorts them into categories to determine who gets attention first, second, and so on. We have but one boat, but often more than one emergency at one time. As we are almost always shorthanded, we can only address so many problems at once. Things can occur like a pressing need to reef, water rising in the bilge, and some sort of electrical malfunction.


Oh for the Want of a Nail

This is very much like Triage, but problems happen in sequence. A minor one comes first. It leads to a more major one, and then to a very serious one. One example comes to mind. A friend was crossing the Atlantic singlehanded. She noticed a few of the screws holding one of the mounts for her rudder were loose. The weather was deteriorating so she decided to attack the problem later. The screws failed and the rudder was lost. A sea anchor was deployed, but that caused the forestay to fail and the mast was lost. But for a screw! The boat was abandoned; she was rescued.

Getting Help

North American F-100D

North American F-100D

Sometimes it is important to know when the problem is beyond you and you need help. I flew fighters in Viet Nam. Starting my F-100 on the alert pad one morning, I noticed my crew chief had turned his back on me and was running away. I looked over my shoulder and noticed flames licking up over my wing. The plane was on fire and I was carrying several thousand pounds of high explosives and 800 rounds of 20mm. It did not take me long to realize that the situation was beyond my control. I unstrapped, dropped the 10 feet to the tarmac and ran. I caught up with the crew chief at the large fire extinguisher. We looked at the fire and the fire extinguisher and concluded that we were not firefighters. The professional firefighters put out the fire before any ordnance cooked off and the plane lived to fly another day.

Help can be as simple as a confirmation that a course of action to fix a problem will work or to suggest an alternative. One advantage of having an older boat and being a bit of a pack rat is I have a lot of junk aboard. Out of that junk can come the parts to make a temporary fix or even a longer term repair. On a trip to Guyana two years ago, my DC powered refrigerator was failing. The brushes for the motor were badly worn. I did not have any spare. The nearest spare brushes were 400 miles away in Trinidad. But, we visited the local mining town and found that they had brushes for a starter motor for a British Military Truck (used in the mining camps). Two brushes side by side would be just a bit bigger than the brushes for my motor. So we went off to a machine shop. A guy with a hack saw, a vise, under a shade tree. The brushes were cut to size and installed. They worked for several weeks until I returned to Trinidad.

Some final Thoughts

Most problems on a boat are simple and can be solved in a straight forward manner. On occasion, they come at you like an elephant. Take a deep breath, wind the clock and solve them. When you seek help, use a large grain of salt. Often solutions suggested, while offered with all good intent, fail to consider that it is your boat and your neck that is hanging out.

One final “War Story”, I was pulling off a target and rejoining the flight when my wing man called me on the radio and told me that I still had two bombs left. I thought that was odd as I had counted the thumps as the bombs came off in pairs. Two thumps, two pairs, there should be none left. Hmmm. As he got closer, he shouted oh s***, you have a big hole in your wing. Now I knew what the second thump was. Double Hmmm. I flew that plane back to a base and landed it safely. I was feeling cocky with a large crowd watching as I climbed down the ladder and fell sprawled out on the tarmac.

Moral – Don’t get too cocky after you solve the problem and fall on your ass. It’s not over until you have your anchor down, your feet up and a cold one in hand.


To GRIB or not to GRIB, that is the Question

by  Bruce Amlicke

With all due apologies to W. Shakespeare.

IMG_3437Hello, I am Bruce and I GRIB. We all do. As sailors, our one primary need (other than Rum) is to get the best possible weather information. This used to mean printed weather charts available by Weather FAX or voice weather forecasts broadcast on the Single Sideband (SSB) radio. With the advent of computers and the Internet, we can now get more detailed weather information. In 1985, the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) met to establish a format to exchange weather data. GRIB (GRIdded Binary or General Regularly-distributed Information in Binary form) resulted. From a sailor’s point of view, it is used to distribute the products of Global Weather Models, chiefly the GFS (Global Forecast System) model.

We get GRIB weather data directly in the form of plots from such programs as zyGrib, Passage Weather, OCENS, or Buoy Weather or indirectly in the form of forecasts from such as Chris Parker and Weather Underground. It is readily downloaded and can be easily plotted to give a graphic image of the current or future weather pattern in your area. Because of easy availability and display, it has often become the primary source of weather information for many sailors. BUT, should it?

So first off, what is a Computer Weather Model?

It is a computer program or APP that calculates the future weather from known current weather current conditions (initial conditions) and known constraints (boundary conditions). It differs from the programs that run on your PC or tablet in size (there are smaller models used for limited areas that do run on PCs). These programs run on massive computers and take hours to complete a single run. There are several major weather forecast models: the North American Mesoscale Model or NAM, the Global Forecast System or GFS, the long standing Nested Grid Model or NGM and the European Model, ECMWF. Typically we most often encounter the GFS and less often the European Model.

How good are these models?

Weather buoys for the Caribbean Sea

Buoys for the Caribbean Sea. Notice how few are located near the Windward Islands.

In the early days of programming, a term GIGO (Garbage in Garbage out) originated. The GRIB data is only as good as the data gathered from the underlying weather model, which in turn is only as good as the data the model uses to begin with.

Predicting the weather on a global scale is one of the toughest problems out there. The models depend on understanding the weather at the time the model is run (initial conditions) and surface and upper atmosphere conditions as the model moves forward in time (boundary conditions). Any errors in these conditions work their way into the model and make the results less accurate as time goes on. We are all familiar with the error cones given for hurricane tracks. Similar, though not as easily plotted, errors exist for the global numerical weather models.

A Real limitation is the lack and quality of input data. Raw atmospheric data is collected from a whole variety of sources. The traditional means of collection were fixed stations (often near airports) and weather balloon data. Now satellite and other data go into the mix. One would hope that more data would produce better results.

But, one problem that still remains is bad data. The collection process is much more automated than it once was, but it still depends on humans who can (and do) make mistakes. Also instruments are known malfunction. Some years ago, I was asked to examine a dataset that had been used for weather forecasting to determine if it could be used to test weather models. I was surprised at the amount of errors present. I found wind directions greater than 360 degrees, wind velocities that were negative (some places it does suck), and many other somewhat subtler errors. While the filtering process has improved, there is still bad data getting into the models.

Line squall over Miami

Line squall over Miami

Besides bad data, you have missing or incomplete data. If you look at a map of were weather data is collected you notice that most are in populated areas. Rural areas and the oceans have much fewer collection points. Satellites have filled in some of these areas, but there are still great stretches of the world that are not sampled. Also as budgets get tighter it takes longer to repair or replace stations that have failed.

Finally there is un-representative data. Historically many weather observation stations were set up near airports to meet the needs of aviation. Pilots need up to the minute data on the landing and takeoff conditions. As urban sprawl has enveloped many airports, the heat islands around major cities have distorted the data collected at the airports. There are many more of these conditions.

Limits and Biases of the Computer Weather Model themselves

grib overlay

Plot of the GRIB data overlaid with a Synoptic Chart of the same region. Note the blurring of the front location in the GRIB and the differences in the isobars.

The biggest limitation of the world wide weather models is their grid. The current GFS model uses a grid of 15 nautical miles! So any phenomena with a resolution less than 15 nautical miles (.25 degree) will not be resolved. That is why the winds between islands in the Eastern Caribbean are not shown accurately. The Euro model uses a similar .25 degree grid. However, things are not quite so bad. All model use sub-grid modeling. This is an attempt to model features that are too small to resolve by the model grid. So looking at a typical wind plot of the Eastern Caribbean you see some effect of the islands presence, but not a lot.

Each model is built by different organizations and uses different computer algorism, so there is a natural bias to the output. Experts in the field have long said that the Euro model seems to be more accurate. However, since the Euro model output is not as easy to acquire (it cost more money to buy the data), the GFS model predominates. On good paper on this subject is

From the Model to the GRIB

Lenticular Cloud

Lenticular Clouds at sunrise over Porto Rico

Once the model is run GRIB files are extracted from the solution data set. GRIB files are in a standardized format that makes them easy to use by the community. There are three GRIB data formats: GRIB 0 which is no longer in use, GRIB 1 which is use most commonly today, and a new GRIB 2 or second edition that is being introduced. The newest format allows much more background data to be passed along with the required values (wind speed, temperature, pressure, etc.). This should result in better information to the consumer (us).

Presenting the GRIB Picture

When we open a GRIB application (Passage Weather, for example) we see a plot of the value we are interested in (wind speed and direction, for example) overlaid on a map. You notice that there are many more wind arrows displayed than the 4 per degree that the model calculates. What the display routine does in interpolate the wind arrows from the 4 or more surrounding points where the model produces an output value. Any discontinuity is smoothed out. Weather fronts are discontinuities in wind speed and direction and are blurred, particularly strong fronts. Very localized effects suffer the same fate. Interpolation exists in time as well. Any results presented for less than 6 hours have been interpolated.

What can be done?

Rainbow Anse Mitan, Martinique

Rainbow Anse Mitan, Martinique

To take full advantage of the GRIB data and get a complete picture of the weather for your location or passage, consider the following?

  • Remember that GRIB data is untouched by human hands unlike weather charts that are signed by the forecaster. A large grain of salt is needed some times. If it does not look right, perhaps it is not right.
  • Don’t rely on a single GRIB model run – I often start looking at the GRIBs several days in advance or more. You will notice whether the predictions for a given day or weather window are consistent or vary from model run to run. I am much more comfortable with a forecast that consistently predicts the same conditions as the date approaches, than those which look good one day and bad the next.
  • Do your own error analysis – pick a point or several points along your intended route and try to get current conditions for that point. Weather buoys are good (real ones not buoy weather ones). How does the model predict the weather for that point compare with the actual conditions?
  • Get a complete picture – besides looking at the GRIBs for your passage, look at the weather charts and listen to forecasts. Look well beyond your route to see what conditions might affect your area. In the Eastern Caribbean, cold fronts coming off the US and High Pressure areas in the North Atlantic will compress or expand the pressure gradient and thus the wind velocity and direction. The persistent low pressure area in Northern South America will do the same. Tropical waves approaching from Africa will often signal squalls and a wind shift.
  • Have a plan – When making a passage, I look at the weather at the destination and for each leg of the route. I also look at the weather at places I might duck into if conditions are not right or some something goes wrong.
  • Weather Window or Sucker Hole – I used to be a fighter pilot. The commander would often look out his window, notice a patch of blue sky, and launch the fleet. This patch of blue would often disappear about the time we wanted to return. In sailing, we see the same thing. I look for a consistent weather window that is longer than my intended passage and well within my personal limits. What I try to avoid is one that looks good today and gets smaller with each passing day and were the conditions within the window get worse with each model run. I try not to get suckered in by the “have to get there syndrome.”

Final Thoughts

IMG_3779GRIB weather data is a very useful tool to the cruising sailor. The quality of the data and the presentations drawn from that data continue to improve. The real limitation in the Eastern Caribbean is the effects of the islands or more accurately the gaps between the islands. A rule-of-thumb I use is that as I get within about 3 miles of the gap (sailing in the lea of the island), I expect the wind to begin to increase toward the forecast value and the wind direction to swing toward my nose (headed). How much depends on how close I am to the island. As I reach the end of the island I expect the wind to increase to around 5 knots above the forecast value.   Only when I have reached a point about 3 miles from the end of the island does the wind approach the forecast values and the direction nears the forecast direction. The reverse happens when I get to about 3 miles of the next island. The wind begins to go aft and the velocity increases around 5 knots.

The other effect is that of the current that often flows either north or south along the back side of the islands. It can make the seas near the ends of the islands a real mess.

Lastly, “Hey, let’s be careful out there”, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, Hill Street Blues.

Single Handed Sailing – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Bruce Amlicke

How Did I Get into This Mess –

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think I became a single handed sailor/cruiser in much the same way as many. It was at five AM, on a summer morning in Manteo, North Carolina, that I made the decision. My crew had decided, for reasons too complicated to mention that rather than continuing on to Ocracoke as we had planned, the beach here was just as nice and why go on for another day or two to get to another beach furth

er down the coast. The night before he took a motel room on the beach and assumed that I would stay where I was. I did not sleep much that night and in the morning I got up and said a few choice words (f*** him was one) to the rising sun. Tacked a note to the piling (before cell phones), cast off

my lines, and sailed south to Ocracoke. I arrived at 2 AM the next morning, dead tired, but with a realization that I had done it by myself.

The choice came down to, do I stay here or go on by myself. Being a very stubborn person the answer has been easy. Press on. So when the opportunity came to go cruising, I looked around and asked by partner at the time if she would give up her job and her security and take the jump with me. While the timing was good for me, it was not for her. I could stay and wait for her to get free of the shore side entanglements or I could go it alone. I wonder what my life would be like if I stayed, but I did not stay. Many years later and with thousands of miles under my keel, I know I would make the same decision again.

The vast majority of cruisers are couples or families. Only, I would guess, about 1 or 2% are single handed. Most of those are male. The few female single handed cruisers I know fall into the same mold as me. They chose to continue on rather than stop when a spouse died or when they lost interest or decided to go when there was no obvious person to go with them.

So Tell Me – What is it really like?

Are we like the lost boy105-0535_IMGs in Peter Pan, running wild without a woman to control us? Are we like Daniel Crowhurst, in “The Strange Last Voyage of Daniel Crowhurst” by Nicholas Tomalin, going slowly mad? Or, are we so slovenly, lazy and pig-headed that no women in her right mind would put up with us. If we look carefully in the mirror we may have to admit to some truth, but only a bit.

One of my favorite books is by Tristan Jones, “The Improbable Voyage”. In it he tells the tale of an idyllic cruise through the canals of France, interrupted by the arrival of a staunch proper English woman to join his crew. It is a touching story in the end. I enjoy reading. There are some days, I stretch out with a book and wile away the entire day reading. While, I have had crew that were happy to allow me to do just that, often there is the nagging though that we ought to be doing something together. Major boat projects are the same way. On the boat by myself, I can work on a project to the exclusion of all else. If it is not finished by the end of the day, it can be left to be done on the morrow. With crew, there is always the concern that an errant foot will kick a needed part over the side and you really do need to move those tools to make room for us to sit and have dinner.

Is It Safe?

IMG_8655I often get asked if it is safe to make a passage single handed. The best answer is No, but … No insurance company that I know of will insure a boat for a single handed passage. The various ARC’s will not take us; the Coast Guard regards us as a hazard. But, sailors make long passages single handed and most live to tell the tale. The single most important piece of gear, in my opinion, for a single hander is a good self steering gear or auto pilot. The ability to set the boat on a course and be free to do some other chore is critical. I feel radar is second. The ability to see out 6, 12 or 24 miles and see a ship a half hour or more before it becomes a factor. At 24 knots (his 18 and my 6) of closure it takes 30 minutes to go from 12 miles to collision. AIS lets the target see you and you know who you need to call.

The third element is attitude. When I am by myself, I reef earlier and plan my approaches better then when I have crew. I walk myself through the steps of a task before I do it. Do I have all the gear at hand? Can I get that reef in before we reach the edge of the island and so on?

I take fewer risks. If I slip and fall I will need to get myself up, there is no one else to do it for me.

The Social Scene

IMG_6970I have sometimes felt that the cruising couples regard single sailors as slightly off fish. They are something to be tolerated if necessary, but best keep down wind. The fact of life is in cruising communities is most of the planning for social events is made by the women of the crew, single sailors are a bit of a problem. Can we be asked to bring a dish? Can we even cook? Are our table manners best viewed by the pigs? And so on. Yes, most of us can cook. I learned as the only child of a working mother. If I wanted to eat, I learned to cook. Actually I enjoy it. But, we remain an odd number in any group. If we are invited, we make a three-some. Then the wife fears the men will talk of engines and she will be bored. So then perhaps five is a better number or perhaps 7, 9, or more. Then we get lost in the crowd. I find that when I have a crew with me, get many more invites than when I am alone. But this is nothing different than the single ashore. The problem is there are much fewer single sailors than singles ashore. In an anchorage I am most often the only single sailor. If there are two of us, we tend to band together. The question is then are we gay?

Crew and Dating

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe often invite crew to join us. It is nice to have another person aboard to tell your stories to, help with the chores and to share an otherwise cold bunk. Most of us if we are honest to ourselves look at each of these as a potential mate. We are the eternal optimist. We believe there is that one person out there to share the adventure. We are poor mate material, however. We have lived wild for too long to be tamed. We are often too old to be worth the effort. I have made all my own decisions for so long it is difficult to let someone else make them. A good friend would often chide me for not allowing her to select a spot to anchor. The truth was I had selected a spot an hour ago and had planned the approach and even prepared the anchor, before she even was allowed to have a say. It was not that I did not trust her, but that I was so used to doing it by myself that I had forgotten the process of working together.

So what sort of crew do we look for? Forget the – 25, blond with big assets – What we want is someone to share the work, but we have forgotten how to share. The best bet is someone who has been around this beast and is willing to accept them – fleas and all. The worst is someone from a dating site who believes that they can change them. Particularly those ones who don’t quite understand that often we are shaken about and are soaking wet.

The female of the species is the eternal match maker. Not to be trusted with an honest appraisal of compatibility. It is sort of the adult version of the blind date. Then there are the dating and crew finder web sites. I think here is where the politicians hone their skills of hiding the truth. On most sites, the few real active women are so overwhelmed with male suitors that they can pick someone else that is wealthy, has a big boat, or in a choice location or all of the above. Worn out, older sailors, having spent most of their hard earned money on the boat have little chance.

Final Thoughts

DSCN1054-Edit-EditSo I sit with my feet up watching the sun slowly set on another perfect day with a rum and tonic in my hand and ponder what I have left behind by taking off single handed and where I am now. I would not trade if for all the tea in China.

So to Janet who got me started, Amy who moved me aboard and headed me south to warmer places, Chris who sent me off cruising and to Carol who joins me from time to time. Thank you all for letting me go.