Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cannon firing video

As promised, a video of the cannon firing!


Friday, September 23, 2011

The Cannon Project

In my free time during Athena's refit, I took on a little after-hours project to keep me busy, and to learn more about metal fabrication.

I found a piece of extremely high tensile stainless steel rod, and immediately saw it as a potential salute cannon. The rod was turned on a lathe to form the barrel, holes were drilled on the sides to press in the trunnions, and they were welded in after being pressed. After being sanded and polished, the barrel looked great, and all it needed were the accessories. The cart and wheels are cut from teak, and the rest of the handmade hardware is made of stainless steel. Last, the touch hole was drilled, and the teak was oiled to bring out the beautiful wood grain.

Yes, it fires. It's bored to .50 caliber, and designed to fire a black powder charge. I haven't yet test fired it, as black powder is somewhat hard to come by here in New Zealand, but soon it will go BOOM! I'm quite happy with the way it turned out, and have to thank Neil from Holton Marine for all of his help, and for letting me run around his machine shop on Saturdays! He's one heck of a fabricator, and it was great to have his help and input.

Log on in a few days for a video of the first firing! 

The ring hanging rod on the lathe

Beginning to come together
Drilling the touch hole


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The rig is in!

After nine month's in the yard, Athena is beginning to look like a proper yacht again. Fresh paint, fresh varnish, and finally, the masts have gone in. She is looking more beautiful than I remembered, and I'm happy to see her back in one piece again!
Prepping the foremast for it's big step
Connecting the forward most headsail furler, 60 meters up

The fore and main booms ready to be craned aboard
The stunning results of 9 months of refit

She was completely disassembled, refurbished, and put back together again. While there is still a long road ahead, and much work to be done, it is so good to see her with her masts up again. They are of course, my favorite part of the yacht. It was hard to see her apart, almost broken and disabled. Now however, she is back again, back to being one of the most beautiful vessels on the sea. Seeing her in all her glory has given me a new, and long forgotten appreciation for her. Next we bend on the sails, hoist the running rigging, tighten the last screws, and set out to sea again. I can't wait to feel the wind in her sails, it's been so long, but I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

18 Hours in Mozambique

During Athena's refit here in New Zealand I managed to get away for just over two months in order to get some more yachting certifications. There are basically 3 places in the world I could go that offered the courses I needed; South Africa, the UK, and Florida. Since I had never been to Africa, I decided that it was definitely where I should go.

Though I was busy taking courses at least five days a week, I was still able to get out and see the areas around Durban, where the courses were based. Mozambique was one of the first places I went, and I had a hell of an experience there.

All I knew of Mozambique was that it was still recovering from a recent civil war, and it had a beautiful coastline. I had to see it. The drive was a bit longer than I had anticipated, and I got across the border at dark. With no hotel stay booked I knew it would be difficult to find the beautiful little resort on the coastline that I had pictured in my head, especially now that it was dark. After dodging the potholes, the people in the road, and generally having the feeling I was somewhere I shouldn't be after dark, I figured it would be prudent to find a safe place to stay in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Maputo is an urban hell-hole, the closer I got the more I had to be aware of my surroundings. Mobs of people were in the streets, the buildings were in ruins, and I was a target in my fancy red rental car. I knew I had to get to the hotel soon. I managed to find a strip of overpriced hotels right on the harbor, and pulled my rental in, letting out a sigh of relief when I had finally arrived.

I particularly dislike the sort of traveler who blockades himself behind the walls of a soulless five star resort. There was no way I was eating at the hotel restaurant on my first night in Mozambique. I had to get out there, experience the culture and the local food. Sure, I knew not to go too far at night, but I sure as hell wasn't spending my evening in the hotel! I went to the ATM, got out 5,000 Meticals (about $180 USD). I stuffed 4,000 in my sock, and the other 1,000 in my wallet, and headed out.

Within minutes of stepping outside the marble lined hotel lobby I was followed by panhandlers and hawkers. They weren't like most hawkers I have experienced around the world though, they were desperate, and weren't taking no for an answer. All I wanted was a peaceful look out over the harbor, instead it took all of my concentration to shoo away the hawkers as I watched behind me. There was no way I was having my peaceful moment with the sea, so I scratched the idea and headed back towards a restaurant that I had seen less than a block from the hotel.

I was maybe a hundred meters from the hotel, still on an empty stomach, when it happened. Seven armed men in a truck pulled up next to me as I was walking up the sidewalk. With their camouflage pants tucked into the tops of their military boots, a few hopped out of the truck, each with an AK-47 assault rifle in hand.

"Let me see your passport!" One of them demanded, surely the only one who spoke any english.

I didn't have my passport, I knew not to take it out with me, and it was locked in the safe at the hotel. I told him I didn't have it, but he insisted that it was the law that I carry my passport with me at all times. Of course, I knew it wasn't, and I knew exactly what they wanted from me. In following the advice of some friends that I got before I went to Mozambique, I stood my ground, insisting I didn't need a passport to walk on the sidewalk.

"I don't need my passport, I know I don't need my passport, I have done nothing wrong. What I am going to do is keep walking up to my hotel and you are going to leave me alone. I am not another stupid tourist, and I know the law. I'm leaving now."

Of course, he disagreed, and my unwillingness to show him the fear that he was probably used to seeing angered him and his mates. He told me I had to pay the fine in cash on the spot, or he was taking me to jail, and I was getting quite angry with the crooked bastard.

"Take me to jail then, I've done nothing wrong! I'm leaving now!"

Our little conversation had turned to a shouting match, and tensions were flaring. I did as I said, briskly walked off, but upon seeing that, a few more men got out of the truck, and one of them ran in front of me and lowered his weapon to my chest level. I'm not sure what was going on in my head at the time. I had an AK-47 pointed right at me, and all I could think about was how I was not giving in to these corrupt cops. The English speaking officer walked up to me again, pulled me aside and quietly said to me, "I know you've done nothing wrong here, and you know that you have done nothing wrong, but this is how it works. I can take you to jail and tell them anything I want. I can tell them you have committed any kind of crime."

Immediately my face of rage turned to one of defeat. Checkmate.

"Ok officer, how much is 'the fine'?"

Ten thousand Meticals ($360 USD) was what he wanted. I didn't have it, not even if I got out my sock money. I reached in, grabbed my wallet, and opened it so that they all could see. I only had 1,000, and I knew they just wanted a quick bribe. After a bit more negotiating, and showing them that all I had was 1,000 Meticals, they ended up taking it, and I walked back to the hotel with my sock money and a smile on my face. The smile only went away when I got to the buffet line at the soulless hotel.

I woke up the next morning, and told myself I needed to get out of Mozambique, at least get out of Maputo. I loaded up the little red rental car, and drove off, soon realizing that I hadn't programmed "the way out" into the nearly useless GPS that came with the car. I promptly pulled over into a parking space, and fiddled with the little gadget. Within a minute there was a knock on the window. Once again, the police. Once again, carrying assault rifles. Great, another bribe to pay. I wasn't willing to even give up another thousand Meticals, not to these guys, I wasn't in the mood. He said I wasn't wearing a seat belt, and I argued that I was parked! Unfortunately I had made the mistake of handing over my driver's license. He was keeping it until I went to the ATM and came back with 10,000 Meticals. Right. The equivalent of $360 USD for a seat belt fine. Of course, the fine could only be paid in cash and there was no receipt. I had no patience at this point.

"Look man, I am fucking parked, I don't need to wear a seat belt. 10,000 Meticals? Do you think I am fucking stupid?"

Either way, I couldn't get my license back until I gave him some money. I put my little red rental in reverse, and drove off without looking back. Somewhere in Mozambique someone has the Michigan driver's license of a white blonde guy.

It was great, I got a hell of a story out of the deal, and learned more in 18 hours in Mozambique than I have in weeks and months of visiting other countries. Lesson number one; Sock money...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oribi Gorge Jump

Last weekend I went with a few friends to throw myself off of a 170 meter deep gorge here in South Africa. I've put together a short little video about the experience, so have a look!


Thursday, June 23, 2011


When I arrived in New Zealand I was given a 90 day visa. I had ninety days until I had to either apply for an extension or leave the country. Considering I have a strong aversion to paperwork, the latter seemed like much more fun, and it turned out to be a great excuse to explore the Kingdom of Tonga.
Tonga is, in fact, a kingdom in every sense of the word. It's a constitutional monarchy and only differs from the days of old in the fact that it's leaders are now elected rather than born into power. (a recent change) Kings, queens, princes and princesses rule the land. Interestingly, it has avoided European colonization, unlike the vastly large majority of Pacific islands. The people are mostly unchanged by western culture, and continue to live their lives in the traditional way.

Upon arriving in Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and largest city, I wasted no time and took off for one of the less inhabited villages to the north, Neiafu in the Vava'u group (the "u" in each word pronounced with an "ooo" sound, for example: vah-VAH-ooo).

I hopped into a "taxi" from the little airstrip to the village. Old yards of scrap material covered the worn out seats of the 1980's era van. The driver, stuffing a rag into the track of the sliding door in order to keep it open looked up at me, smiled and said, "Tongan air-conditioning." After a bumpy ride on dirt roads through the jungle, we reached the outskirts of town. Dogs and pigs roamed everywhere, seemingly having no owners, as there are no fences. Men on the roadside arranged kava root on tin roofs so it may dry in the sun. Children walked to and from school, in their impressively tidy uniforms. I couldn't stop staring at this new world I was seeing. Eventually I arrived in town, chucked the driver a couple pa'anga, and set off.

In keeping with my usual style of travel I knew nothing about the village I just set foot in. No hotels were booked, no itinerary researched, no car, no phone, no plans, just a desire to explore. Also, in keeping with my style of travel, I walked to the nearest pub, tossed my airline tag laden backpack on the floor, ordered the local brew, and learned about what to do in town in the best way possible, by asking the locals. The locals at this pub were of the expat variety, and the kindness of the indigenous people had obviously rubbed off on them. I was there during the off season, and there were almost no tourists in the village, which is the way I usually prefer it. The pub's owner's recommended I stay at the Mystic Sands Resort, gave me the name of a diving outfit, and after my fish cooked over their open fire I set out for my new digs.

In Tonga, in the Vava'u group anyway, the word "resort" is used loosely. Generally upon hearing that word I cringe as I envision screaming children running around a pool in a sterile, culture-less environment. Much to my delight, Mystic Sands was not that type of resort. Comprising of four rooms, and one two bedroom house, it is basic in the most beautiful of ways. No ridiculous pool, or terrible all-inclusive food, but a nice clean place to stay in the middle of paradise. It had everything I could want. It's surrounded by uninhabited islands that are free to explore by kayak, and amazing snorkeling right off the beach. Forget room service, there is a beachfront grill, and a friendly housekeeper whose husband was happy to catch me some local crays (lobsters) for the equivalent of five U.S. dollars each. Kjell, a Norwegian ex cruising sailor set this place up when he dropped sail in Tonga and knew it was somewhere he wanted to stay for a while. He was really friendly, he helped me get around the place and understand Tongan traditions and their way of life. In the short time that I was there we became friends, and he would often stop by for a chat by the beach. Kjell's personal site:

Speaking of the Tongan way of life, that was what I was most interested in, and most impressed with while I was there. Everybody is poor, and everybody is friendly. Tonga is a perfect example of how poverty does not necessarily bring crime, as you could walk the streets in the middle of the night without a care. The typical Tongan home was put together with whatever could be found. Most didn't have doors or windows as we know them, and consisted of one room, in which the entire family lives, eats, and sleeps. Family is more important than anything else to the Tongans, and family bonds are strong. People don't tend to work hard, not out of laziness, out of choice. They live on a bountiful island, with everything they need at hand, it's simply not necessary for them to make lots of money, and that is how they view it. With a big smile on her face the housekeeper at Mystic Sands said to me, "When we have worked enough to have a feast, we stop, then we have our feast and be happy." What a beautiful perspective. She also told me about Fah (I think it may be spelled Fa'a, but it's definitely pronounced Fah). The word doesn't directly translate to English, but the best I can explain it's meaning is to say that Fah means "busy relaxing." If a Tongan person does not want to work on any particular day, he or she is Fah. It's even a completely valid and acceptable reason to not go to work. Imagine that, "Oh hey, where's Rob today?" "Oh he is just Fah." As I said, work is not high on the priority list, but family is. Another completely acceptable excuse to not show up for work is if you are helping a family member with any sort of task. Sick children, babysitting, putting a new roof on your brother's house, all reasons to not go to work. Some days, I wish I could just be Fah.

The diving in Tonga was also exceptional. I was recommended Dolphin Pacific as a good dive outfit, and was really happy with them. I had a great experience, and being the off-season, I also had a private dive. The reefs were untouched by rubbish and pollution, and there was an abundance of sea life. Unfortunately my underwater camera case was flooding, so I had to surface with it twenty minutes into my first dive. I didn't get photos of sights like the famous split rock, or the elusive ornate ghost pipefish that I spotted. I did manage to get lots of photos of snorkeling when I wasn't on a dive, and quite a few of them came out, but I sure do wish I had snapped a shot of that pipefish.

Have a look at some more photos from Tonga by clicking here.

I will definitely go back to Tonga sometime soon, in the short time that I was there I fell in love with the people, the beauty of the land, and the culture. Maybe I'll set myself up a little four room "resort" on the beach like Kjell and just be Fah.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Learning Collision Regulations

I've been doing quite a bit of learning here in South Africa, and studying has become a full time job. Right now I am taking the MCA Navigation and Radar module for the officer of the watch (OOW) ticket, and learning all the collision regulations (colregs) has been a big part of the course.

Sure, any sailor worth his salt knows the basics, but knowing the intricacies in the wording of the rules is what I will be tested on. The rules are written like law, as an example it's important to know the difference between "should" and "shall." It's also important to know each rule by number. Sure, any mariner knows that when in a head-on situation with a vessel you shall alter course to starboard, but did you know that was Rule 14? I need to.

In order to help myself learn the rules I have written up flash cards for the first 19 rules, which are the ones an officer of the watch is meant to know by number. To aid in learning, nearly every rule is associated with an easily remembered rhyme, and rules that include lists are displayed with an associated mnemonic learning aid. They are available here for anyone that might want to use them to help study for their OOW, Yachtmaster, USCG, or any other maritime license.

I wrote them on Open Office. If you don't have open office, you should grab a free copy. It's a fully featured office suite made available for free by an awesome open source community. It
also works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The flash cards will also be in their intended format on open office, but not in the .doc format. All the information is there in the .doc format, it is just not in the handy flash card format. Get open office by clicking here. Here they are:

COLREG Flash Cards

.odt file for Open Office HERE.

.doc file HERE

Since I wanted to keep the size of the cards to a standard size, some of the longer rules are only stated with a mnemonic or abbreviation due to the lack of space. In order to research the rules in detail and take free knowledge tests refer to the Sailtrain site.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

French Polynesia to Australia

It has been ages since last writing this blog and many things have happened since then. I have sailed from the island of Tahiti, to the Eastern shores of Australia, and sailed back Eastward to Auckland, New Zealand. I've had a great number of experiences, and will try to catch everyone up to where I sit now, which is in Durban, South Africa.

While the boat was in French Polynesia I managed to have a great time. I had time docked in Tahiti, and anchored off of lots of different Polynesian islands. Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Fakarava, Rangiroa, and a many others make the list.One of the best things to do in French Polynesia is to go diving. I've developed quite the passion for diving, and I think that being at some of the best dive sites in the world has certainly been a catalyst for this passion. One of the dives I had in Rangiroa is still my absolute favorite. Rangiroa is a coral atoll in the Tuamotu group of French Polynesia. An atoll is a coral island whose coral forms an inland lagoon. Look it up on google images by clicking here and you'll see what I am talking about. On Rangiroa there are two major passes where the sea flows in and out with the tides. Us divers are dropped out at sea on an incoming tide, and drift along at 3-4 knots as the underwater world passes us by. The passes into the atoll hold a huge variety of sealife. Curious and playful dolphins were sometimes a nice surprise, they would swim along with us, and come very close just to hover and stare. Massive schools of fish would sometimes surround me, and the variety of life amongst the coral was astonishing. Drifting along, the current whisking me away from each underwater spectacle, only to show me another one. Diving in Rangrioa was not the only thing I did in French Polynesia, but it was certainly one of my favorite. I haggled with local pearl farmers in Fakarava to trade a bottle of Mount Gay Rum for a couple of nice black pearls. The Rum in that part of the world is barely tolerable, and a nice bottle of Mount Gay was just what they needed! Not to mention the fact that I bought it for eight bucks in Antigua and traded it for pearls worth hundreds! I dove on wrecked airplanes and sunken vessels off the coast of Tahiti, not far from where our boat was docked in the big town of Papeete. I took the ferry from Papeete to a little island off the coast of Tahiti called Moorea. Moorea was heaps of fun. The crew and I rented a bunch of motor scooters and dune buggies and tore around the island. We drove to the highest point to stand and lookout, stopped for some local food, but mostly just enjoyed riding on the winding roads in our chinese import motor scooters. When anchored off Bora Bora I celebrated our arrival in the traditional way. They laid out a massive feast, all cooked by burying hot stones in the ground with your food. We watched fireworks on America's independence day with a group of friendly natives ashore on some island whose name I have since forgotten. They were quite amused by our spectacle. French Polynesia was wonderful, and after a couple of months we set sail for Fiji.

The trip to Fiji was fairly uneventful. Rough quartering seas made the journey quite rolly, which for me is great. I sleep extremely well when the ship is rolling from side to side. Upon arriving, we cleared into customs, fueled up the ship, and set sail to our captain’s favorite island in the Mamanuca group, Malolo LaiLai. We had a beautiful anchorage amongst coral reefs, which meant scuba diving right off of Athena was easy. I joined the Musket Cove Yacht Club, rented a little sailing boat on the weekend, but mostly just sat out in the sun with a book and a cocktail. Apparently joining the yacht club at Musket Cove is a bit of a sailing accolade since you have to have sailed in from a foreign port of call in order to join. There is a great article about it that can be read by clicking here. We visited several other small Fijian islands whose names seem to have escaped me. We found uninhabited beaches, local tribes, and untouched wilderness in Fiji. The local culture is definitely an interesting one. Fiji is dotted with small islands, and on many there are small villages, which we were able to visit on several occasions. The villagers wear a minimum of clothing, and lead a very simple but beautiful lifestyle. Only the chief of the village was able to wear sunglasses and a hat for some reason. The chief was often the only person in the village that was able to speak English, and in order to use the water around the village (for anchoring our boat usually) we had to go to a sevusevu ceremony. At the ceremony we would bring the chief a bundle of kava root as it is their custom. Kava root is milled then made into a sort of tea that has mild to strong effects of a sedative. At first only numbing your mouth, but then a feeling of relaxation sets in after a couple of coconut shells full of kava. Too much and you begin to drool, which is never a good look. The villagers survived mostly on fishing and selling handicrafts, but they didn’t need much. There was no electricity or running water in any of the villages. Chickens, goats, and pigs would run around the village, and a citrus fruit trees were always amongst the huts. The villagers wanted for nothing, and had such a nice, simple life. The local culture was definitely the most interesting thing I experienced in the Fijian island group. Fiji is somewhere that I am definitely going back to. After several months it was time to set sail again, this time for Australia.
The first stop for Athena was Newcastle for maintenance. Newcastle is an old coal mining town around 100 nautical miles north of the more famous Sydney. While Athena was in for repairs, myself and the crew reveled in our newfound civilization! After being away from all the niceties of a western lifestyle for so long, we were happy to be able to have the ship on a dock, enjoy the local pubs and the local wineries in the nearby Hunter Valley. The girls did a bit of shopping, and I even had time for a week long holiday in Arrawarra. Arrawarra is a sleepy little beach town north of Newcastle. Every day I would sit on the porch, listen to the waves crashing on the beach, and read my book. It was wonderful to not have to stand an anchor watch at two o-clock in the morning, and sleep in a big bed! I did a few diving trips while I was there as well. Arrawarra is a short boat ride to the Solitary Islands, and the diving there is awesome. But even after all that relaxing and recreation, I couldn't wait to get back on Athena and get moving. Forget the big bed and the cocktails on the beach, I was ready to go sailing again.

After Newcastle we headed south to Sydney for their epic New Year's Eve celebration. We arrived in early December, and had a good amount of time to have a look around the city. It's a beautiful city, really clean, well organized, and plenty to do. I did the things I always do when I get to a new big city, see the aquarium, see the maritime museum, and find the best pub! I can't even count how many maritime museums I have been to, but I know it's still less than the number of pubs! Sydney harbor is amazing in that it is still a true working harbor. Leisure boaters share the water with big commercial freighters and cruise ships. Water taxis zip people from peninsula to peninsula. Big ferries take commuters back and forth to work every day. The city's harbor is truly alive. The sailing culture is big in Sydney, and I got the opportunity to see it first hand. On the weekend there would be countless little sailboats tacking back and forth in the harbor. The amount of boating activity was astounding, it was like seeing a bee hive that been shaken and all the little bees had come out to buzz around! however, one of the best things I was able to see in Sydney was the start of the famous Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Spectators lined the harbor in the thousands to watch the beginning of the race, and I had a bird's eye view from the foremast of Athena. Even after all that I have seen and done on sailing boats, I am still amazed by the power of the wind and man's ability to harness it. Watching these boats leave Sydney yet again, to battle the notorious Tasman Sea, I couldn't help but be awestuck. But I digress, we were there for th New Year's eve celebration. Athena was docked in the heart of Sydney, with a view of the opera house off the stern, the harbor bridge on the starboard side, and the city skyline to port (in between the bridge and the opera house in the photo to the right). We had an awesome view of the fireworks, and it was by far the best fireworks show I have ever seen. Even better than the Independance Day fireworks I had seen in New York two years prior. Once again, the harbor was filled with boats, the streets were lined with people all looking up, and the atmosphere was vibrant. Athena was an un-designated star of the show, and thousands of photographs with her in the foreground came out the next day. But there I was, sitting on Athena's boom looking up at the sky, truly appreciating where I was and how I got there. Knowing that it doesn't get much better, and the grass was not at all greener on the other side. But it was almost time to set sail again, destination; New Zealand.

Our first port of call was a small town in Northland New Zealand by the name of Russel. Russel has a rich history. It was the first European settlement and port in New Zealand, and had a major role in European relations with the local Maori tribes. Now, it is a small village with restaurants and cafes dotting the streets, but Maori culture is still strong in the area. Strong enough, in fact, that I was able to have a traditional hāngi meal while I was there. A hāngi is just like the tradtional meals that were cooked for me in French Polynesia. It involves heated rocks tossed into a pit, followed by the meal, followed by burying it all and letting it sit for several hours. These slow cooked meals always have the most tender meat, and one day when I have a place of my own to dig a hole I'm going to have to give it a try!

But onwards, onwards to Auckland. Athena was due in Auckland for a major refit, and we had to get moving and get started as soon as possible. On the way out of Russel we hit some heavy seas, and she was bashed around quite well, but like the good ship she is, Athena took it and wanted more. After the sail south we arrived in the largest city in New Zealand and got to work. Athena was to be completely disassembled, revamped, restored, repainted, and put back together again. No small task on a 90 meter schooner. We pulled out the masts, coiled up the lines, put a big tent over her, and weren't planning on sailing again until she looked like new. Work aside, I have gotten to know the city of Auckland quite well. Auckland also has a rich maritime history, something that I am interested in wherever I go. There are lots of things to do there as well, and so much to see in the surrounding areas. New Zealand is a magnificent country. The rolling paddocks, picturesque mountains, outdoor lifestyle, and friendly people make it a place that is definitely worth going. I drove up and down the north island, taking it all in on the winding roads. As a matter of fact, driving is one of the things that I liek to do best in New Zealand. Almost all the roads are well maintained two lane roads that wind around the mountains in a fashion that would excite any driving or outdoors enthusiast. It seems as if they are put in some places just to flaunt the beauty of it all, almost as if the civil engineers planned it, "Like the view around this corner? Well check out this next one!"

As of writing this long overdue update Athena is still in Auckland, putting on the finishing touches. I however, am in South Africa getting some maritime certifications. In order to move ahead in the sailing industry I need to get some qualifcations through the MCA, and one of the schools to get those qualifications is located in Durban, South Africa. I figured I'd never been to Africa before, so why not eh?

See some photos of my past travels by clicking here.