Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico


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Entries in navigation (9)


still plugging along on

Charlotte and Lyra are up in the United States so it's just been me, Cora, and a rainy week (now followed up by getting sick): a perfect recipe for writing software on my laptop. I've been messing around with the idea for for a while, but it's really starting to firm up in my head now. 

Links back to blogs or web sites. The reality is that there is a lot of passage data scattered around the Internet, so allows those to be connected to the route themselves. So you can look around the map, find routes others have taken, and then find resources they've found or created. An example of La Paz to Banderas Bay.

Visually share routes and current location. Similar to what's on the front of, you can show your current location and all places you've been. Plus, this information can be updated offshore by sending a very small formatted email. Friends, families, and anyone who goes to your website (if you have one) can see pretty easily where you are and where you've been. 

So if you have some gpx files from your GPS receiver, give it a shot. Hopefully it's of use to you and feel free to hit me up with any questions or comments. 


four days at sea later, we're back in la cruz

We spent the last four days and three nights underway, about 25% of that motoring across the typically flat Sea of Cortez, and the other 75% bouncing around at or near hull speed whilst double reefed with terrific force 3-6 conditions. For one evening in particular things got a little beefy, but we have a heavy cutter and with the mainsail double reefed and the staysail on its boom, the boat rarely ever feels over powered. Still, it's weird to see 7.4 knots for a Hans Christian 36.

Double reefed, Hydrovane steering, flag flapping, ripping long before the weather really started up.

One really weird thing that blew my mind were the two encounters with upper tonnage commercial ships. In both cases I saw them on AIS early enough, and they saw me as well (visually, on radar, and via our AIS transponder). Normally in an open seaway things are a bit clearer: you're generally moving on one heading as is the other vessel, so potential collisions are spotted early. 

But in narrow bisecting channels that curve and look like spaghetti noodles piled onto the chart, AIS isn't smart enough to do the math that you're going to be making a turn in a few minutes (to avoid shoal waters, for example) as is the other vessel. 

Both times I contacted the bridge via the VHF and politely explained that we were a sailing vessel with limited options for maneuvering, and acknowledged they are probably restricted in their options because of the channel depth. It was blowing pretty good, I had two preventers rigged, and the wind vane was in the water: yes I can officially state that it would have been a pain in the ass to move out of their way. But I also know, because hey, I paid attention in captain school, I was intersecting a channel that they were crossing: we needed to figure out a mutually beneficial solution to our problem.

Closer than most of us want to get.

Both deck officers were more than polite and shot our stern. The captain of the Mazatlan Star in fact [figuratively] ran into us again a day later and hit me up on the VHF just to chit chat and say hello. As a footnote, if you ever run into a good merchant captain out there, consider taking the time to send an email or make a phone call to the company that they work for. These are men and women with jobs, and the good ones should be aknowledged more. 

I don't know if I'll ever get used to really long passages. I enjoy them much more these days, in large part because we have the boat (and ourselves) much more dialed in. The self steering systems work well. With paper navigation and a windvane we eliminate two of the always-on power consumers on many sail boats: the autopilot and chartplotter-electronics-suite. Charlotte's a good cook and has dialed in more and more recipes underway that make use of what provisions we might have, don't require a ton of cleanup, and doesn't sentence anyone to long stays in the galley doing prep work.

My navigation and weather skills are definitely better than they were, and my ability to balance the boat and keep her as comfortable as possible in a bucking seaway is improving. All of these little steps: from changing out incandescent light bulbs to LED, all the way to a balanced sail plan to avoid over ruddering constitute a base that doesn't eliminate problems, but has certainly freed us up to concentrate on other ones. 

Sunrise on the Pacific, just south of the Sea of Cortez.We're safely back in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and even within two hours of being on the mainland we were clinking glasses and getting hugs from friends we made last year. In less than an evening we were welcomed back by numerous people, invited to a local birthday party Saturday night where a lady has been dying for us to try her posole, and I hugged our old cabby Oscar that almost caused Lyra to be born in the back of a van.

And with that, the Sea of Cortez is now officially behind us. 


i finally did something with

About five years ago I picked up the domain name and had some loose ideas of what to do with it. Nothing materialized, and last month I found myself at an interesting crossroad:

- Sitting around, remarkably, with decent Internet access in La Paz, Baja Sur.

- Wanting a way to record all the places we go and stuff we find out about. 

- Wanting somewhere to upload my GPX tracks.

- Wanting a way to share our current location on our website (like on the front page of our site).

So, poof-whalla (and many bug fixes later, with many more to come) I have a version 1 up that works.

I (and you) can send in position reports via email (with an SSB or satellite connection). It also integrates with Spot messengers.

For some of our passages, like this one from Puerto Escondido to La Paz, there really is valuable insight I wish I would have known. Refraction around the islands (during northerlies). The incorrect lighting indicated on Isla Las Animas, the better weather found going around the San Jose Channel. 

There's still a ton more to do and I'm regularly seeing an error or two come through every day. But, things are generally working okay and if you have any feedback or ideas let me know. 


we're transmitting AIS, i know you're mad jelly

That's right, Rebel Heart is now a leg up on the average sailing boat in that we now are broadcasting an AIS signal. Plenty of nerdy boat owners have had this technology for years now, and it's been required on larger vessels for almost a decade.

So yes, I am gloating. I am lavishing in the joy of appearing on, just like the "real" ships.

In large part I'm celebrating because in nearly all other regards we're not all that electronically sophisticated. We have a klunky radar, no chart plotter, a simple handheld GPS, paper charts, manual plotting tools, current celestial almanacs, and a sextant. 

I've really been happy with our Standard Horizon 2150 VHF radio with built in AIS receiver. After a few thousand miles I've grown to appreciate AIS technology:


  • You'll spot big ships long before they arrive on radar or are in visual range. It depends on your antenna height (and the other vessels'), but in general ~25 miles is normal.
  • Unlike radar, you don't need to hunt and peck through the readout to see what's clutter and what's a vessel.
  • Because you spot ships so much earlier, and when transmitting they spot you earlier, very minor course corrections can be made to provide sufficient passing room.
  • It's not ubiquitous by any means, but it is getting more popular. 
  • Also unlike radar, it requires much less operator interaction.
  • Radar alarms are notoriously sketchy and suspect as where AIS proximity alarms are more much more straight forward.
  • Knowing that a freighter is ten miles away doesn't really matter. Knowing that it's on a collision course, or even something a little too close for comfort, is the important information. Being able to identify that from many of the vessels you'll cross paths with is invaluable. 

Like everything else on a boat, it's not a panacea. There is no piece of gear that removes the risk of collision, but there are some that lower it, and AIS is definitely in that category. Because the Standard Horizon 2150 already has an AIS receiver display, all I wanted was a simple black box transmitter. Defender had the Comnav X2 on closeout so I snagged it when we were back in the USA. Rather than run an additional antenna I went with the new and quite fancy Vesper Marine SP160 splitter. Really low loss, actively powered, provides an AM/FM antenna outlet, and when powered down the VHF still runs through (as does AIS reception since the VHF displays that too).

For any vessels transitting around Baja, the cruise ships and ferries will probably be the spookiest things you encounter as they roll around at 20 knots, crisscrossing through the Sea of Cortez and up the Pacific side of the peninsula. Even if you don't want to go through the hassle of a transmitter you might want to give some serious consideration to an AIS receiver. 


getting through the night watch

Call it the balls watch, the graveyard shift, mid watch, or whatever else you like: it involves you trying to stay relatively awake and alert in the middle of the night for hours on end. The non-sailor might think you can stare at the blanket of stars overhead, or gaze out into the black emptiness. Indeed you can. And about fifteen minutes later you'll find yourself in the cockpit wondering what the hell you're going to do with the next four hours of your life as you struggle to stay awake-ish.

  • WNYC's Radio Labs. A well executed and thought provoking podcast of which over 60 one-hour segments are available for free online. That's 60 hours, which if you burned through four hours a day would last you over two weeks. The only bummer is you'll need to download them individually. 
  • Amazon Kindle and a ziplock bag. You don't always need the ziplock bag but it helps to have one ready to go in the event of spray or dew. If your Kindle doesn't have a built-in light make sure you use a headlamp with a dim enough power mode that it doesn't illuminate the whole cockpit. As a shameless plug why not grab my book on sailing and living in Mexico. There are a lot of sailors floating around with a lot of pirated books. 
  • 35 hours of This American Life podcasts. For $30 it's a little expensive but it's money well spent in my opinion. Armed with this and the WNYC Radio Lab stuff you can keep yourself occupied for a month's worth of night watches. 
  • LibriVox. There are a lot of other audio books out there and LibriVox certainly doesn't have the most popular recent titles but it's free, relatively easy to use, and does contain over five thousand titles. If you poke around you'll find books ranging from the mind blowing Paradise Lost to the original sailing penman Joshua Slocum.
  • Your VHF. One night underway I randomly hailed Tuna Helper which I only saw on my AIS receiver. Cracking a few jokes at three in the morning and bidding farewell I was surprised to run into them the following day when I dropped anchor. They invited me over for dinner which consisted of the fish they had caught that same day. In short, make friends on the radio. The other guy probably is just as bored as you are. As a bonus, you probably will score some valuable information if you're new to the area.

For those of you already far afield in distant countries these items might be hard to come by.  But if you still have lots of electricity, good bandwidth, and reliable ground shipping you might want to consider queuing up a lot of digital distractions. 

Good luck, and if you see Rebel Heart out there on the AIS (MMSI: 367541130) say hello.

Feb262012, my little map/weather/atom thing

Click to enlargeWhen my friend Ryan was halfway across the Pacific, I got an email from him (via SailMail) that he wanted a way to show his family where he was on a map. So I tossed together a goofy little site and forgot about it.

A year later I realized I might need be needing to do the same thing so I've spend a few nights beefing it up. Basically you can embed the map on your site (like we did here), use the Atom feed, and update it via sending emails. When you send an email you also get a response that contains some weather data (closest observations to you). I'm going to try to pump that feature up a bit as well. 

It's free and you obviously know where to find me if you have any problems with it. Hit me up if you have any questions or requests. 


basic vessel navigation with a triangle protractor

Dividers, Triangle, PencilI put together a small video that I thought be handy for anyone who'd like to use triangle protractors for navigation and piloting. A protractor is simply something that measures angles, and there are just a few key points to keep in mind while watching the video.

You can purchase a triangle for around $15 on, or in any marine chandlery. In San Diego, I highly recommend you travel to Sea Breeze books on a day that Captain Anne is working. Her knowledge remarkable.

The big points here are that you're going to put the bottom line (not the bottom edge!) along whatever line you want to go (that you've drawn with a pencil or otherwise). Then you intersect a meridian line (the ones that run north and south, and whatever the meridian line reads is your true rhumb line course, uncorrected for magnetic variation or deviation.


there are a lot of friggin buoys out there

In the continuing study-a-thon that is my captain's license, I have now gone through more about "navigational aids" than I ever wanted to know. Day shapes, lighted aids, special aids, informational aids, and of course where would we be without the Intracoastal Waterway and Western River systems?

My favorite of all so far is the "station buoy", which is a little buoy that sits next to a bigger buoy in case the big buoy gets blown away. A buoy's buoy, if you will.

It should go without saying (or typing, in this case), but being able to pick up a chart and "read" the navigational aids quickly is very helpful. Down here in San Diego, Stevie Wonder could find his way around, but in a place like Coos Bay with a lot smaller margin of error the navigational aids become much more relevant.

And regardless I've gotten a chance to use a lot of colored pens. Between the blue cold fronts, red warm fronts, purple occluded fronts, blue striped mooring buoys and so much else, one might mistake my notebook for Cora's drawings.


navigating from your laptop

I'm an ardent believer in "real" navigation. Yes, the heavy ships that plow the world's oceans do not use pen and paper. Yes, it costs an arm and a leg to buy paper charts of every inch of the globe, and no, I can't remember the last time I used a sextant.

But there are countless stories of sailors (and big ship captains) staring into computer screens (frequently a chartplotter or a laptop) as their vessel careens into a reef, bridge, or another ship.

It's simply a lot easier to load some software on your laptop and hook up a GPS than it is to teach someone Constant Bearing Decreasing Range rules or dead reckoning. It's why West Marine sells autopilots instead of wind vanes, and electric heaters instead of gravity fed diesel versions: people don't like to use things that are a pain in the ass, even if it's a lot better in the long haul.

Alas, there are some times when electronic navigation can't be beat. It's certainly easier, arguably more entertaining, possibly cheaper, better for rhumb line planning, and much more compact as your sailing area increases. Cheap and effective, you'll need these components:

1) A netbook or laptop. I'm a big fan of the ASUS 1000 line (always being upgraded, the current edition is the 1015). Whatever model you get, make sure you get a 12 volt "car charger" to go with it. This lets you run the netbook directly from the ship's 12 volt systems. A standard charger takes 120v AC power, which means you're going to run an inverter from the 12v batteries to 120v AC charger, which in turn converts it back to DC. Two decent places to lose power: an inverter and then the AC->DC transformer (the little box on a typical charger). A DC->DC voltage regulator (car charger) is much more efficient.

2) A GPS on a USB cable. The hands down winner in this category is GlobalSat's BU-353. I've used this device extensively myself, and it's a solid performer. Quick satellite acquisition and supposedly waterproof (I've never tested that), I get a solid signal with it sitting in the salon. 

3) Download OpenCPN software. The folks at OpenCPN have built a free, open source, quality piece of software that really stands heads and shoulders above other options. Plus since it's open source (and a quite active project) you can be assured that a steady stream of upgrades and new features are always on the horizon (like AIS and GRIB integration).

4) Downloading NOAA's raster charts. These are free as well, available from NOAA's website. You'll notice a conspicuous lack of international raster charts, even referencing OpenCPN's documentation. Basically, US waters are available, some other countries as well, and most of the world isn't. This will change over time.

That's it, happy sailing!