Saturday, January 28, 2012

Work News

Surprisingly, this is not a post about me quitting my job, I am still employed.  It is also not a post about Nicole finding work, if/when that ever happens she can post about it herself.  Instead, I thought I would give a little insight into my job here in Sitka.  As surprising to me as it will be to anyone that knows how much I like working, I am actually enjoying my job.  The variety of boats and different projects means each day is a different challenge and it keeps things interesting.  I am doing quite a bit of HVAC (heating and air conditioning) work which is completely new to me so I am also learning a lot.  The electrical work is at times complex and I enjoy having to use my brain a bit.  I'm even getting use to the week or more waiting period for getting parts and supplies that comes from living on a remote island with no road access.
Things are starting to pick up at Allen Marine.  Our tour season starts in April or May, so after the first of the year we started ramping up for all the maintenance that has to be done to the boats.  The two boats in the top picture are a couple of our day tour catamarans.  The forklift on the right side of the photo or the 8 foot ladder next to the front boat should give an idea of scale.  These boats are just over 78 feet long and 28 feet wide, powered by four  diesel engines attached to Hamilton jet drives.  The engines are turbocharged Caterpillar diesels rated at just over 1000 HP each.  That's right, over 4000 HP per boat, these boats carry about 150 passengers and still cruise at almost 40 knots, or 46 MPH.  The tour company has almost a dozen of these boats, along with a bunch of smaller aluminum catamarans, several single-hulled tour boats, and three larger multi-day cruise ships.  Because these boats work just about every day throughout the summer, some doing several sight-seeing tours each day, repairs during the summer are minimal to avoid disrupting the tour schedules.  That means all the upgrades and repairs happen during the off-season, and because all this happens in Alaska with freezing temperatures and lots of snow in the winter, we are limited by how many of these big boats we can fit inside the shop at one time to make working conditions more tolerable.
The second picture I swiped from the internet so the quality isn't great.  It shows a couple of other projects I have been working on lately.  The big boat in the picture is the Alaskan Dream, one of the multi-day cruise boats at Allen Marine.  It is another catamaran hull, just over 100 feet long, with three levels containing 23 staterooms, lounge, dining room, galley, and a large observation deck on top.  The cool thing about this picture is the boat is being raised out of the water on an aluminum dry-dock, which was also built here at Allen Marine.  Because the shop and our marine lifts are only so big, the dry-dock had to be built in sections, which were individually moved to the water, floated into place, and then attached together.  The dry-dock was built in five sections, and we just attached the final section last week, so it is now fully functional.  At 140 feet long with 42 feet between the side walls it is capable of lifting and supporting up to 1000 tons.  The dry-dock allows us to service all of our boats, up to and including our other multi-day cruise ship, the 143 foot Admiralty Dream.
Lastly, if you are thinking that the aluminum catamarans look familiar, or the name Allen Marine is ringing a bell but you can't figure out why, the last picture might explain it.  The plane crash in the Hudson River in January of 2009, dubbed the "miracle on the Hudson", made news around the world.  More than half the boats responding to the crash and pulling passengers off the plane and out of the water were NY Waterway ferries built by Allen Marine.  The company was very proud to have played a role in helping rescue those people, and there is a wall-sized blow up of that photo in the main office as a reminder.
I'll try to post other work updates as interesting things come up.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sun and Blue Skies (No, really)

If you look back on my posts for the past several months where I mention the weather, which happens to be most of them, you will see a lot of references to rain, snow, wind and other less-than-pleasant conditions.  This isn't because it happens to be stormy only when I type up a post.  In reality it's been pretty crappy all the time for the past couple months, and the few times the weather has cleared it's been mid-day and mid-week when I'm at work, and only for a couple of hours.  That makes a day like today extra special, because it was clear and sunny on a weekend day, and tomorrow is suppose to more of the same.  The temps were in the 20's today making it a bit crisp, but the views more than made up for the chilly air.  It's suppose to drop into the teens tonight, and single digits mid week, so I'm guessing the harbor will be frozen in soon, but we weren't going anywhere with the boat so that's not really a big deal either.
The little green truck probably won't deal well with the cold and I'll be making other arrangements to get to work by mid-week, but there's no sense worrying about that when I've got another day of weekend to enjoy.
On a side note, my friend Dave sent us another care package, which was probably suppose to get to us a while ago, but when you combine a busy life and the USPS in Alaska, these things can become a drawn-out affair.  Anyway, among various odd things in the care package were new hats for Nicole and myself.  You would have to know Dave to understand the thought process that precedes something like shipping a pair of Jacque Cousteau-esque stocking caps to us in Alaska, but if you know Dave then the whole thing makes perfect sense.  The hats were made by Dave's friend Mark, using a crochet technique called siberian stitch, which is suppose to be both warm and windproof.  I didn't realize that there was a bit of anticipation building on Mark's blog about us receiving these hats, but if you are interested you can read all about it on his blog and learn more about the crochet technique here.  It sounded like Mark has been waiting to hear from us since he made the hats in November, but we just received them last week so I'm passing the buck on this one.
We decided as long as the weather was so nice (and warm-hat-worthy) we would take the opportunity to model the hats for Mark and Dave.  Not much wind today so time will tell on the wind-blocking effectiveness but the hats are certainly warm.  It might seem strange that I would take a picture of us modeling hats and then cut off half my head in the picture, but realistically Nicole is cuter and more important to have fully in the frame, plus it was pretty cold and I didn't bring gloves so I didn't feel like screwing around a bunch with self-timer pictures to get a better shot.    Hopefully we will get out on the boat in the not too distant future and we can get a better picture of the hats in use and how well they go with our boats hull color.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Being cheap, and on a limited income, we tend to avoid paying for dock space and anchor our boat instead.  One of the primary qualities that make Alaska such a great area to travel by boat are the almost unlimited number of bays and inlets for anchoring.

My criteria for a good anchorage consist of four things:

Good holding
Either a mud or sand bottom so our anchor digs in and stays put.
Shallow water
Our ratio of anchor chain to water depth (called scope) doesn't vary much,  we try to keep the ratio between 3 to 1 and 5 to 1 minimum, meaning 30 to 50 feet of chain in 10 feet of water. Because we try to keep the ratio the same, shallow water means we can put out less chain and still have good scope.  The only real disadvantage to putting out a lot of chain is that someone (Nicole) has to haul all the chain back on the boat when we leave.
Swing room
Some of the anchorages we use are pretty small, are shared with other boats, or both, and putting out our normal amount of anchor chain would allow us to hit other boats or run aground, both of which are a bummer and only good for entertaining other nearby boaters that might be watching.
Wind Protection
Open anchorages mean more wind hitting the boat, which makes noise and causes the boat to move a lot.  A big, open bay can also allow waves to build with enough wind, adding to both the movement and noise.  Both the pressure on the boat from the wind and the force of the waves puts strain on the anchoring gear.

When we stop for the night, we try to find a place with as many of the above qualities as possible.  In most cases, you take what you get as far as the bottom type.  The charts will many times give a general idea of what the bottom should be, but we have found many places marked one thing and when our anchor comes up it shows something completely different, or there are no notations on the chart at all.  Our anchoring depth is pretty consistent, and even though we look for a place with the least depth over our required 7 feet, we end up anchoring in about 30 feet of water.  With the tides in Alaska pushing 20 feet  at times, the 30 foot depth gives us a bit of "wiggle room" at low tide for our 6 foot keel.  Trying to judge the swing room is probably the hardest part of anchoring, I'm not a great judge of distances and always think we won't have enough room in the smaller bays, but I do a quick circle around our choice of anchoring spots to make sure we have enough depth and that there are no surprises like big, uncharted rocks.  Lastly, when we drop the anchor, we back up slowly while letting out enough chain to get us to a 5 to 1 ratio, then increase throttle until we have a really good, hard pull on the chain to make sure the anchor is set.  Once set, if we are in a small or crowded spot, we can pull back in some chain to limit our swing.

A couple of other things pertaining to anchoring:
Anchor retrieval
Being able to easily retrieve your anchor is not only a convenience, but also a safety issue.  Having a marginal anchor set brings up the decision of living with the uncertainty of a bad set or pulling the anchor and resetting it.  With a poor system in place to pull the anchor many boaters choose to risk their boat rather than endure pulling and resetting an anchor.  For small anchors easy retrieval can be as simple as a good bow roller and a pair of gloves.  Boats with larger anchors and chain rode rely on a windlass.  With a properly installed and adequately sized electric or hydraulic windlass, pulling the anchor is as easy as pushing a button, making the re-anchoring decision an easy one.  Many low-budget cruisers like ourselves don't want the sizable expense or installation hassle of a powered windlass and opt for a manual model.  Unfortunately most people find the manual windlasses are either too slow in retrieval or poorly situated on deck and cumbersome to use, or both, and they are not much better off than hand pulling the anchor.  The one exception we have found is the windlass we currently use, which is a double handle "coffee grinder" style model that works great, but is unfortunately many years out of production and almost impossible to find.  Whatever your current set-up, relocating or re-engineering your current bow roller, windlass, chain pipe, and/or chain locker to have a workable retrieval system is well worth the effort and expense.

This past summer we spent several weeks cruising with our good friends Tor and Jess on S/V Yare.  With their twin one year old boys on board it made it much easier to socialize if we tied our two boats together in the anchorages.  We tried both anchoring bow to stern with anchors pulling against each other, and tied along side with only one anchor out, and both methods worked fine.  Having adequate anchoring gear to hold both boats and a lot of "what if" thinking are important to make this work.  We have been rafted to as many as thirteen boats at once and it can quickly turn into a spectacle without adequate planning.

Anchor Types
I added this section in response to some questions from an earlier post.  We currently use a Rocna anchor on our boat, and before that we had a Manson Supreme, which we still carry as a back-up.  These anchors are very similar in design, both perform very well, and I can't recommend this enough as one of the most worthwhile upgrades to a cruising boat.  That being said, I have also used a Delta and a CQR anchor as a primary anchor with good results, have at least experimented using more than a dozen different designs and participated in anchor testing that tested at least a dozen more designs above and beyond those.  There are quite a few good designs out there, and quite a few people with very strong opinions on which is the best.  I recommend the Rocna/Manson/Spade style only because I think they are a little more forgiving and idiot-proof, a trait that is much appreciated if trying to anchor when exhausted, panicked, and/or distracted.  The bottom line here is that anchor design does not matter nearly as much as good technique, and anyone saying differently is trying to sell you an anchor.

There are considerably more entertaining ways to anchor, and we have seen good examples of most of them:

Speed Anchoring
Even though many cruising boats reach a top speed similar to a moderate walking pace, some folks think this is also the correct speed for anchoring.  They will arrive in an anchorage, drop their anchor and a large pile of chain, and then back up as fast as they can to set the anchor.  Some times this results in the anchor skipping along the bottom without catching, other times it catches and brings the boat to a violent stop.  Either way it's fun to watch, unless the boat is backing up directly towards us.

Anchoring by Faith
These folks don't bother with technique, they have faith that everything will work out.  They come in to an anchorage, pick a spot, drop the anchor, and break out the cocktails.  The extra time and bother involved in setting the anchor or checking the holding is for people that worry too much.

Shot-put Anchoring
Probably not an option for us with a 73 pound anchor, but the smaller Danforth style anchors seem to be a favorite for this group.  I guess the idea is to avoid the extra wear and tear on your engine by not backing down on the anchor, but instead throwing the anchor as hard as possible and then securing it to the boat.

Happy anchoring.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Holiday Wrap Up

A few final pieces of news before we put this holiday season to rest.  New Years Eve came and went with little personal fanfare.  A gin and tonic to bring in the new year and a lot of sitting around watching movies sums things up.  Many of our neighbors were "living it up" and the personal fireworks shows were fun to watch, but the fishermen setting off sea lion bombs (a glorified M-80 used in the commercial fishing industry to scare away sea lions) were not appreciated.  Having a steel hulled boat means each time one of these explosions happened it sounded like someone hit our hull with a hammer.
Harlequin Ducks
New Years Day we participated in the annual bird count, a local event that is part of the nation-wide Audubon Christmas Bird Count.  We didn't really see anything out of the ordinary for our area, although there probably aren't too many count areas that report bald eagles and ravens in the hundreds.  Heavy rain and 40-50 mph winds made bird identification challenging, but even with the weather like it was, it was nice to get outside for a bit.
Lastly, a holiday tradition in our family revolves around starting and completing a puzzle during the holidays.  This was mainly something for my dad to do and others to help, but just about everyone would put in some time to make sure it got completed.  I not only inherited my fathers enjoyment of puzzles and problem solving, but also some of his competitive nature, and when I went home for the holidays I would stay up late and do whole sections of the puzzle while he slept.  With just Nicole and myself here in Alaska, (the cat is no help at all) we are finding that puzzle building is slow, but we are still hopeful we may finish this one before I go back to work on Tuesday.  The picture to the left shows last years puzzle, a 750 piece puzzle of "one hundred cats and a fish".  This years 1000 piece puzzle seems even harder.