Rainy Havannah Harbor

(This is our first blog update posted directly to WordPress over our SSB radio. It will allow us to keep you up to date on our adventures when we are away from the Internet, but we won’t be able to easily post photos.)

We’ve been hanging out on the western side of Efate Island in Vanuatu for the last week. For three days we anchored inside a coral reef at Fultok Bay on Lelepa Island. Jenna was able to do some excellent Sophie school sessions with the kids, I was able to get some serious boat cleaning and other projects done, and Sara and Julie relaxed on a tropical vacation. On our second day there I was swimming the reef and spotted a spiny lobster in a little hole in the coral. This was my first lobster siting in the Pacific. I just had my bare hands and couldn’t get this one out. But, man was I hooked. I spent the next day and a half scouring the reef and island rock wall looking for lobsters. I was joined at various points by Lauren (our guest crew), Leo, and then Suzy and Phil from our fellow cat Morrigan who joined us in the anchorage. I found another lobster lodged in the wall 20 feet below the surface and made seven attempts to get him but failed. I even tried to use my speargun but soon realized it was the wrong weapon. Back on Sophie I made a couple of lobster snares from PVC tubing and heavyweight fishing line and am eager to try them out on my next reef.

Soon it was Sara and Julie’s last night on Sophie, and we invited the Morrigan crew over so we could all watch Leo attack the lion head pinata he made as part of his birthday celebration. Afterwards we grilled a big chunk of scotch fillet and ate it with a potato dauphinois that Lauren whipped up.

The next morning we headed back into Havannah Harbor to drop Sara and Julie off at a hotel so they could catch a ride back to the airport and then home. We hope they had a nice vacation with us. Lauren stayed on Morrigan to do a couple of days of scuba diving. So suddenly it was just the four of us again on a big and quiet Sophie. We had heard there was a bar near the hotel, and I scouted around in the dinghy until I spotted some Aussie guys hanging out on a big deck with a fishing boat in front of them. “Is this a bar?” I asked them. “Only one worth going to in the whole harbor, mate.”

So we found a place nearby where we could drop a hook and dinghied over to “Wahoo”, an outdoor bar and restaurant overlooking the bay. It was so relaxing to just sit and veg out. The beer, pina coladas, and basketball-sized cheeseburger (“Vanuatu’s Largest!”) helped.

After lunch we mosied up to the end of Havannah Harbor to a very protected spot where we are currently sitting out a tropical low that is passing over us. Lauren and Morrigan joined us here yesterday. Dinner last night was kumara gnocci (I love my wife) accompanied with a beef masala stir fry. It’s lunchtime right now, and Lauren has whipped up some beef and pork Texas chili. It is DUMPING rain, school is in session, and all systems are working.

Tomorrow morning we’ll leave early to return to Port Vila. We’ll spend a day there topping off our provisions (mainly booze, eggs, and cash). We will also connect with our friends Colin and Mercedes on Segue, who will buddy boat with us as we explore northern Vanuatu over the next month or so.

Vanuatu is turning out to be our favorite tropical country on this trip so far. We are indeed lucky to be doing this.

Leo’s Tenth

IMG_20140921_194139We celebrated our beloved Leo’s tenth birthday in style tonight at anchor in gusty Havannah Bay in Efate, Vanuatu.

Jenna prepared duck confit pasta (his request) along with home baked cherry and apple pies, all washed down with the bottle of red that Hazel won in the speech contest 2 weeks ago.

WE HAVE SO MUCH FOOD ON SOPHIE RIGHT NOW! Jenna and I provisioned at the Supermarche in Port Vila yesterday, and it was our biggest provisioning run since San Diego. The food here is half the price of food in Fiji, with greater variety and a lot more Frenchness.

The day started in Port Vila with Leo waking up at 5:00 in anticipation of the big day. By 7:30 everyone else was up and Leo was hard at work on the Lego sets his brother and sister gave him.

Overall it was kind of a slow, cloudy, showery birthday Sunday. Leo and Hazel hung out in the salon watching movies and playing. Jenna and Lauren stowed our new mountain of food. We did the birthday phone calls back to the states. We even discovered that one of our marina neighbors used to live on Mercer Island and had a son who graduated from Mercer Island High School in Sara’s class.

It is a small world, indeed.

We left Port Vila around noon for the 20 mile trip up to the north side of the island. The wind was blowing 20-30 knots, and Sophie was surfing nicely with just a single reef in the main.

Jenna baked the pies during the run north, I had 4 lines in the water, but we caught no fish. We had the hook down and set by 4:00, relieved to be at anchor while celebrating with some birthday cocktails.

Dinner was a huge success, and Leo had no clue about the surfboard that was stashed on the boat.

It looks pretty good with his hair. He said it was his best birthday ever.

Have we mentioned lately how lucky we are?

Chilling in Port Vila


Sophie is currently on the wall at Port Vila, Vanuatu. It’s a rainy Friday and very warm. Jenna is doing Sophie school in the main salon with both air conditioners running, courtesy of some nice shore power. The girls are off at a bar somewhere. I am writing this at an internet café.

Here’s a quick update on our last week. Apologies for the lack of communication. After a year of continuous Internet service in Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand, it’s a little weird to be off the grid.

We cleared customs at Vuda Point, Fiji a week ago Friday. On board were me, Jenna, Leo, Hazel, and our new best friend Lauren Bowes. She has joined Sophie for a month or two after quitting her job as a professional chef on a luxury catamaran. So far she has cooked stuff like mahi mahi cakes; a mahi mahi stew (using the face and spine) with beans, corn, sausage and ono; eggplant quesadillas; plaintain chips; and a plaintain mash. She also likes to take watches, detail the boat, drink beer, fish, and chill out. Consider her a female version of Karl Riebling.

My daughter Sara had flown ahead of us on the Friday we left in order to join her partner Julie on her flight to Vanuatu, and my cousin Birgit decided to do a tour of the Yasawas in Fiji because our water maker repair-induced late departure from Fiji made it impossible for Birgit to make the passage with us.

So the five of us did the 465 mile passage to Port Resolution on the Island of Tanna in Vanuatu in 2 and a half days. We had planned for a 3 night, 2 day passage with an arrival in Port Resolution on Monday morning. The first 2 days were easy and slow, but then on Sunday morning we saw grib weather files showing a black, icky-looking front over Vanuatu on Monday morning. Jenna and I decided to step on it and try to beat the front by running both engines at 2800 RPM for 12 hours. We failed, but the wind never got above 25 knots.

We anchored in Port Resolution at 2:00 AM Monday, which was our first nighttime arrival in a new harbor in the tropics. The harbor entrance was pretty open and we had some good waypoints, so we thought it was worth the risk. It was. There were 3 other boats anchored there, and we could see their lights as we approached. But it was raining and windy when we set the hook, and we were tired and happy to be there.

During the passage we had 5 fish strikes and got a 10 pound mahi mahi and a smaller ono into the boat. We released the ono but ate ALL of the mahi mahi, thanks to Lauren and her creativity in the galley.

We hung out on Sophie in Port Resolution for most of Monday, waiting for officers from Customs, Immigration, and Biosecurity to clear us into Vanuatu. They finally showed up after a 2 hour drive over a rutted jungle track from Lenakel, the main port on the other side of Tanna. They were delightful and joked with each other a lot. Once we were cleared into the country, Sara and Julie were able to join us on the boat.

On Tuesday, we had a couple of locals come up to us in their dugout outrigger canoes. One asked if we could charge his cell phone for him and offered us 8 lemons in return. Deal! Another told us that his daughter was celebrating her 10th birthday that afternoon and wondered if we would be kind enough to bake her a cake. Jenna and Lauren whipped up something from bananas, coconut, flour and sugar. We got a pumpkin, papayas, and a LOT of bananas in return.

At 4:00 PM Tuesday we set out on the adventure that brought us to Port Resolution in the first place. The 7 of us from Sophie, along with 3 people from other boats and a surfer dude, climbed into the back of a diesel 4 wheel drive pickup for the 45 minute drive through the jungle and up to the rim of Mount Yasur, an active volcano that spews lava up into the air 100-300 meters away from you stand.

It was pitch dark. The ground trembled under our feet as the earth spat fire into the sky and howled in a way that sounded like a cross between surf crashing and a large jet taking off. We sat there for an hour and a half, posing for photos. Jenna had her big gun on a tripod and was very, very happy.

Needless to say, we have some of our Christmas card photos in hand.

We got back to Sophie later that night and had a bit of a volcano party. Two of the other boats in the anchorage the next day described it on VHF as “carousing.” But hey, we just stood on the rim of a volcano and survived. With Hazel trying to cartwheels, no less.

We left the next morning for the 60 mile sail northwest to Dillon’s Bay on the island of Eromango. Our overall plan for Vanuatu is to cruise the islands in the country from south to north as we make our way to the Solomons and beyond. Dillon’s Bay was on the west side of the island with good protection from the easterly trades. It was a lovely 7 knot sail in bright sunshine and gentle seas. No fish, though.

Yesterday at Dillon’s Bay we visited the village, met the chief’s wife, and toured the school. Jenna brought a small bag of school supplies to give them. In the afternoon a local named David took Jenna, Leo and the girls on a tour of some caves where local chiefs were buried with the skulls of their brides and families. Hazel and I stayed behind on Sophie to fix things and practice our ballet moves.

Last night we departed Dillon’s for the 80 mile sail up to Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila on the island of Efate. It was pretty much the easiest, most gentle night sail we’ve done in a long time. If anything, we had to slow Sophie down, but she politely refused and was doing 8-9 knots in a 15 knot wind slightly ahead of the beam with a reef in her main. I had the 3:45 -8:00 AM watch and had 4 lines in the water while watching bigeye tuna swimming among our lures but there were no takers. I think at that our 4-5 knot boat speed at that point was too slow to troll.

So here we are in Port Vila, a very large and clean city filled with polite and warm people. We plan to do some major provisioning, top off our diesel tanks, and then head to the north side of Efate to enjoy beaches and snorkeling until Sara and Julie leave us next week.

Then it’s north, north, north. We are currently at 17 degrees latitude south, and we plan to head to Kavieng PNG which is at 2 degrees south before hanging a left and heading west to Indonesia.

Overall I have to say that we’ve finally escaped the resorts and partying part of our Pacific trip and are back to Adventure. Sophie is running well, nothing major has broken, and we are SWIMMING in fresh water from our new water maker. I couldn’t be happier.

Have I told you lately how lucky we are?


We Fixed the Watermaker!


This is the happy sight that greeted me mid-afternoon today, a gauge indicating that our water maker was producing 42 gallons of sweet, tasty water per hour, a 75% increase over the machine’s throughput before it broke down 15 days ago.

This wound up being the longest, most complex repair job we’ve done to date on Sophie. Needless to say, I was an extremely happy man this afternoon.


As I have mentioned in previous posts, the culprit behind the machine’s failure was this little black box, manufactured from white polycarbonate, called an “Energy Transfer Device (or “ETD”). It takes a stream of water coming out of a pump at 150 Pounds per Square Inch (PSI) and increases it to 650 PSI, which is enough force to strip the salt from salt water as the water is pushed through a special type of membrane. The good thing about this ETD approach is that it enables a cruising family to make water on their boat with a relatively low amount of power consumption. The bad thing is that it is a complicated design that is easily prone to failure and potentially quite expensive (or impossible) to repair. These are not good water maker design characteristics for a family that is about to embark on a 4,500 mile passage across some remote cruising grounds.

This last week we met a family that is cruising across the Pacific, and they had gone through five (5!) Sea Recovery water maker ETDs before they decided to ditch the design and head in another direction.

Jenna and I decided that after 2 ETDs we were ready to move on. Chris Dent, the Kiwi who installed our most recent ETD in February, suggested we redesign out water maker by replacing the ETD with a powerful pump that can push the seawater at a high pressure directly into the membrane, eliminating the need for a fancy and complicated set of pressure-increasing valves. It turns out that this big pump/simple design approach is what most boats out here do for their water makers. Since Sophie already has a 9kw diesel generator, we had the power plant to support this big pump approach.


Chris was very cool and helpful and gave us a credit on the ETD we bought from him in February and then shipped up to Fiji a 2.5 horsepower high pressure pump, a new feed pump to supply water to the high pressure pump, along with some new sensors, coils, and valves. He also provided some design guidance on how to modify our existing Sea Recovery unit to support this new approach.

One of the challenges we faced is that the new high pressure pump has to be located right next to the membrane and the watermaker, and both of these are mounted behind Sophie’s starboard engine on a special shelf and mount under the aft transom steps.


So we removed the ETD from the old water maker housing, moved the housing 6 inches forward on the shelf under the transom steps, and then mounted the new high pressure pump (which weighs about fifty pounds) on the back end of the shelf. To get it all to fit, I had to take a Dremel with a ceramic metal cutting blade and cut a hole in the back of the old water maker housing in order to create space for the new pump. I had to do all of this with my abdomen wedged under the shelf that is located under our transom steps.

Good thing I wasn’t alone.

IMG_1891Neil Towner, shown here with his lovely bride Wendy, was down there with me for a couple of days. He’s the Managing Director of Oceania Water Group in Fiji and supports most of the desalinization plants at the big resort hotels here. Neil and I were crammed together doing bilge yoga poses in an area about the third the size of a Gemini space capsule trying to get all of this stuff installed. (And if you are encountering water maker problems in Fiji, don’t waste your time. HIRE HIM.)

Installing the new feed pump was easier, because it could go into the bilge in our stateroom where the old feed pump was located. The new pump’s mounting plate fit directly onto the old pump’s mounting bolts.

Once we had everything mounted, it took us a while to get the wiring right. By using the old Sea Recovery’s electronics, we were adopting an approach where both pumps would try to start at the same time. This required too large on an electrical load from Sophie, and at various points during our testing we brought down our AC circuit breaker, our inverter, and even our generator.

So we decided to deploy a staged approach where we turn on the water maker and feed pump first and THEN turn on the high pressure pump. I even installed a switch to do so. Problem solved. We also installed a manual valve that enables us to directly manipulate the amount of water the high pressure pump pushes through the membrane. At 750 PSI we were getting the 42 gallons per hour depicted above.

This was a really hard problem for us to solve. I feel bad for our friends Cathy and Melissa who had to endure a water-deprived Sophie Adventure Cruise, and for my daughter Sara and cousin Birgit who both had to change their travel plans due to our delayed departure for Vanuatu.

But all’s well that ends well. And the best thing about all of this?

I now know water makers.

Have I told you lately how lucky we are?

Back in Fiji!


Hello everyone.

After a 7 week whirlwind tour of the United States, the four of us returned to Fiji and our beloved Sophie in the middle of August. It was the longest we had ever been away from the boat in over 6 years, and we were more than a little nervous when we arrived back at Musket Cove to check out how our home fared during our absence.

Fortunately, Sophie was moored exactly where we had left her! More importantly, the battery bank measured 13.3 volts, which is a bigger charge than when we left. It means that the solar panels and windmills worked really well and that we didn’t lose the freezer full of fish that we had left behind.

The boat had a bit of a musty smell. The watermaker wouldn’t start, the genset stopped with a low oil pressure fault, and the electric water heater didn’t work. Fortunately, we were able to sort most of these out right away. The water maker had some clogged filters, the genset diesel engine had a pinprick-sized hole in its oil filter, and the electric water heater was blowing fuses and I believe has suffered from internal corrosion. The first two were easy repairs, and we switched over to using our diesel heater to heat water. (Yes, Sophie has 2 water heaters.)

We also had a laptop whose battery melted during our absence. In hindsight, this was pretty scary because it could have easily started a fire. We will take better care of our NiCad batteries during future trips away from the boat.


We got through most of this stuff in our first morning back. Jenna then made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, we all went down for naps, and we subsequently woke up at 7:00 AM the next morning. It had been a long trip from Boston, and we were all quite tired.

We then proceeded to get back into a boat rhythm over the next few days. Jenna and the kids would do Sophie school in the morning, I’d do boat projects, and we’d all head over to the Musket Cove pool for an afternoon swim. It was great to be back on the boat and in the tropics.

After a few days we headed back over to Denarau Marina to collect our long-time friend Cathy and our new friend Melissa along with their daughters Penny and Greta. They were joining us for a week-long Sophie Adventure Cruise. Our plan was to spend some low-key time hanging out at Musket Cove with some day trips over to Cloud 9 and maybe to the island where the film Castaway was shot.

Little did we anticipate how low-key the trip would be! On the way over to Denarau the water maker stopped working again. At the time I didn’t think it was a big deal because it usually means there is a clogged filter somewhere. Remember, we had the “Energy Transfer Device” (ETD) replaced in New Zealand and had the high pressure pump rebuilt there as well? It was supposed to last us the next 5 years, right?


Over the next 5 days I spent about 27 hours debugging and disassembling the system, and we still couldn’t get it to work. The problem was that the ETD wouldn’t create  enough pressure to force the saltwater through the membrane, which is how these machines create fresh water.


At one point I even pulled the ETD, pictured above, out of the watermaker housing and disassembled the little b*tch (somehow I keep singing an Elton John song over and over to myself while I am working on it) to see if there was something clogging it.


I found some rust in its valves and cylinders, which was interesting because this device has no internal metal parts. I used Q-tips to clean out the rust as best I could, reassembled the ETD, got it back into the water maker, reconnected all of the hoses and wiring, and turned the machine on and got the exact same result as before.


We are planning to leave Fiji soon for a long stretch of remote cruising, and we need a reliable water maker. The folks in New Zealand offered to fix the ETD if we shipped it back to them or even try to get a warranty replacement from the manufacturer (Sea Recovery) in the US but that could potentially take a month or longer. Besides, we don’t know why this particular ETD failed after such a short period of time. So we decided to rearchitect the watermaker, ditching the ETD for a higher pressure pump that feeds directly into the membrane. This is a much simpler design and is how 99% of the other boats out here cruising go about making water. While we are at it we will add another membrane and increase our fresh water production to 70 gallons per hour. This new approach means we will have to run our genset when we produce water, but we almost always do that anyway so it is not much of a sacrifice. The parts are allegedly arriving in Fiji today and we hope the install will be a straightforward process early next week.

Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, we had 4 guests to entertain, and it turns out that Sophie Adventure Cruises requires a lot of water for things like doing dishes, washing clothes, and taking long lingering post-swim showers on the aft steps.

But Cathy and Melissa were very, very cool about doing their visit with us in water conservation mode. It didn’t hurt that we were in Fiji with spectacular weather in a harbor with a 100 foot infinity pool. Even though Jenna was doing daily Sophie school and I was practicing my advanced water maker bilge yoga poses, we were able to get our guests out on activities including a rollicking sail in 25 knots of wind, coral snorkeling, a trip to Beachcomber resort, and multiple trips to Cloud 9.


They especially liked Cloud 9 because the kids could chill out on the day beds while the grown ups chilled out all over the place.


We also had the requisite Sophie dance party one night, complete with some new songs we picked up at a family wedding in July. It was a lot of fun.


One of the best ways to cope with a low water situation on Sophie with guests on board is to play Yahtzee. A lot of Yahtzee. We introduced Cathy and Melissa to the game midway through the trip, and they were hooked. Cathy in particular was very, very proud of some of her rolls.


One night Melissa and I thought it was a good idea to do a shot of tequila after every Yahtzee, and I immediately proceeded to roll a 3 Yahtzee game. Needless to say, it was a fun night.


Cathy, Melissa, and the girls were wonderful guests despite our need for water rationing, and their week with us went by much too quickly. We miss you, and you are always welcomed back.

On their last night here, I drove them to the airport in a borrowed car in the pitch dark on roads with no signs while driving past burning sugar cane fields.  I think Cathy was thrilled and terrified at the same time; she kept suggesting that I could pursue a second career as a third world taxi driver. Personally I prefer my current career as a boat driver.

At the airport Cathy and Melissa were told that the plane was in an oversold situation, and they were each offered $850 Fijian plus a $750 airline voucher if they stayed another couple of days. Cathy really wanted to get back to see her boys, Melissa wavered, there was too much momentum, and they both went ahead and boarded the plane. Two days later they each told us that they regretted the decision. Seattle is still there. Good life lesson for everyone: if an airline offers to PAY YOU to stay in paradise for another couple of days, then always TAKE THE CASH!

The day after Cathy and Melissa left, my daughter Sara arrived. She is the last member of the family to join us on the trip, and we are so happy that she will be spending a month with us, including our passage from Fiji to Vanuatu next week.


Leo and Hazel adore Sara, she’s been sailing for 15 years, and she will fit right in to the Sophie lifestyle.

In addition to Sara, we’ll be joined this weekend by my German cousin Birgit and next week in Vanuatu by Sara’s partner Julie. And we are in full blown planning mode, because our year in Fiji and New Zealand is rapidly coming to an end. Once the water maker is fixed, we will head off to Tanna in Vanuatu to check out the volcano there. It’s a 465 mile trade wind sail from Vuda and should take us 2-3 days. We’ll then hang out in Vanuatu for a few weeks before proceeding north and then west through the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Singapore is “only” 4,500 miles away. We’re pretty excited to get back into adventure mode, and we still have a lot to do before we leave.

Have I told you how lucky we are?