Catching Up, Part 4: Return to La Paz

Ok! Part four of updates, and then hopefully I can return to a more regular style of blog posts. I know I keep saying that. *sigh*. Without further ado:

gorgeous weather in La Paz
gorgeous weather in La Paz

The summer brought some intense weather shifts, including some of the first rain we’d seen since our arrival in La Paz in February – I guess I should have been tipped off by the cactuses and tumbleweeds, but the amount of precipitation here still took me by surprise. Once the season shifted into high summer however, the heat of the day combined with the extremely warm water (sometimes it would be 38º outside and the water would be 23º, warmer than most swimming pools!) made for some crazy meteorological events. We were treated with regular lightning storms and sudden shifts in wind speed and direction, not to mention a couple of hurricanes that narrowly missed us.

In this photo, a storm cell is crossing nearby to the south. At the time this photo was taken, the wind was blowing briskly towards the cell, but about five minutes afterwards the wind abruptly died and then within two minutes was blowing probably 40kn in the opposite direction! We were caught unprepared, and several items blew off the deck and I had to dash out in the RIB to retrieve them.


*sigh*. pay attention to polarity, Drew.
*sigh*. pay attention to polarity, Drew.

 While I was in Canada, I ordered a low-power Fit-PC3 computer to build into the walls of the TIE Fighter. The Fit-PC3 is a 12v-native computer very light on power consumption – set up with an internal SSD drive, it draws only  6w (1/2 an amp) at idle. I paired it with a two-terabyte external drive that automatically spins itself down when not in use, and am quite happy with the results.

Unforutnately, when I went to install the machine I didn’t pay close enough attention to the polarity of the power supply, and hooked the power connection up backwards. Immediately there was a flash and a pop and suddenly the air was filled with the acrid smell of burning electronics.

electronics repair on the new inboard computer
electronics repair on the new inboard computer

Fortunately I’m no stranger to electronics repair, and with a bit of research and an email to the manufacturers of the Fit-PC3, I learned that the component that had exploded was a simple ferrite bead, meant solely to keep stray radio-frequency energy out of the computer. This bead is just a failsafe, sort of like a fuse, and I could just ‘jump’ over the section with a bit of wire for the time being. An hour or so with the soldering iron, and the computer lives.

…of course, that computer also now lives in a cupboard with a strong radio. I still need to track down a replacement ferrite, as I’ve seen three crashes so far when I’ve keyed up the mic on the ham radio on certain frequencies.


a swarm of bees overtakes the TIE Fighter!
a swarm of bees overtakes the TIE Fighter!

One morning as we left the boat in the RIB to go for coffee, we realized we’d forgotten something at the main boat so we turned around. When we arrived at the TIE Fighter, we found the boat swarming with bees! We estimated around 10,000 honeybees in the air around the boat.

Not knowing what to do, we went for coffee and solicited opinions from a few other cruisers, who brought to light one very important point that we somehow hadn’t thought of… if the bees were to get inside the boat, they might not want to leave! We had to return to the boat immediately to close up the doors and windows, hoping that they hadn’t already moved in.


the bees, landed
the bees, landed

When we arrived back at the boat, the bees had landed… but outside. The internet tells us that this means the queen bee is somewhere in the middle of the literal pile of bees on the boat. We figure they were stacked six or seven deep in this photo! Fortunately, they decided that the boat wouldn’t make a great spot for a new hive, and within an hour or two of this photo they’d all moved on.


Miya's dirty knees from painting the decks
Miya’s dirty knees from painting the decks

While I went back to my day job schedule, Miya undertook the massive task of painting the TIE Fighter’s decks with anti-skid paint. We had collected a large pail full of white sand from a nearby beach, and then sifted and washed it, allowing it to dry overnight in the boatyard on a clean sheet of plywood. In the end though we decided that we’d get a better-looking result from “marmolina”; fine crushed white marble available at the local fereterias for about $0.50/kg.


the lights of 16 de Septiembre
the lights of 16 de Septiembre

The celebration of 16 de Septiembre (Mexico’s Independance Day) came along, and rather than hole up in our little box on the ocean, Miya and I decided to brave the crowds and go see the fireworks display. The display lacked a certain… safety standard? that we had grown accustomed to in North America – the main celebration was in a town square flanked on three sides with two-story buildings, and the fireworks were launched from the roofs of those buildings, exploding directly over the square!


more generator maintenance, this time cleaning the carburetor
more generator maintenance, this time cleaning the carburetor

Our Honda EU2000i generator has given us incredibly reliable service for the past four years or so, but apparently one should not leave it for a Mexican summer with a third of a tank of gasoline… when I went to start it up for the first time in many months, it would not start. I quickly realized what the problem must be, and using this very well-written step-by-step howto, I tore the generator apart and cleaned the carburetor. Just like that, the little Honda purred back to life.


Miya swimming with a school of something (sardines? herring?)
Miya swimming with a school of something (sardines? herring?)

The heat of the summer was intense and constant, and often we had to spend the hottest portions of the day in the water just to maintain our sanity! The underside of the TIE Fighter made for a convenient gathering space, and using a series of ropes and floating toys and platforms we created a place of refuge from the afternoon sun.

In this photo Miya is swimming with one of the schools of fish that regularly gathered under the boat. Actually, if I go looking I bet I have a video that might show the situation a little better:

Crazy how you can see them avoiding the anchor line! We’d like to identify the species of fish, and then see about catching some for grilling or pickling.

avoiding the heat under the TIE Fighter's wing
avoiding the heat under the TIE Fighter’s wing

Miya found an inflatable toy at one of the swap meets; three inflatable bladders joined at the center by a square of mesh, forming a floating recliner. This, paired with a Canadian Tire ‘Party Platform’ that we picked up on clearance just before leaving Canada in September 2011, formed the seating portion of the underwing. You can also see my Traynor TVM-10 cordless rechargeable guitar amplifier in the nets above, hooked up to an iPhone and playing appropriately chilled house music down into the watery tunnel.

flips off the TIE Fighter
flips off the TIE Fighter

Of course, with freshly-added antiskid on the topsides, the boat herself – having a good meter of freeboard – made an excellent water toy. Miya had only really learned to swim in the last year or so, but managed to learn to dive in one day!



She was so impressed with her diving that she decided to try her first-ever backflip off the boat also… to a little less success.


Mal serenading us on his banjo
Mal serenading us on his banjo

One of my absolute favourite parts about the cruising lifestyle is the willingness of the participants to pick up new musical instruments and throw themselves into learning. Our friend and neighbor Malcolm, an Australian vagabond living on ‘Wind Pirate’, picked up a banjo in a trade with another boater and within days was plucking away.


driving the long, lonely highway from La Paz to San Diego
driving the long, lonely highway from La Paz to San Diego

When we heard about the Wasteland Weekend festival in California, the idea immediately spoke to both of us – a four-day party in the desert, sort of  like Burning Man but more Mad Max themed, if that even sounds possible. With our Wilderness First Responder first aid certifications, we figured if they were interested in having us on as volunteer medics we’d kill a few birds with one stone; go on a road trip, pick up some much-needed supplies from the states, get some practical medical experience and go to a rad party! We rented a car and prepared to head out… but of course, what with it being hurricane season, a tropical storm had formed south of the peninsula and was threatening La Paz. We couldn’t leave the boat unattended until we were sure that it wouldn’t turn into a hurricane.

Fortunately, the system weakened, but not before dumping rain on southern Baja – and if you haven’t seen what a major rainstorm does to a desert, it’s a crazy thing indeed!

In this video, we have been stopped by a washout – the road in front of us has been replaced by a river of brown water flowing at a pretty fast clip. We watched as a compact car was swept a few feet sideways – but in the true spirit of “drive ‘er like a rental“, we decided to take the risk and we crossed. If you watch closely you can see water come up over the hood of the car at one point!


Wasteland Weekend 2012
Wasteland Weekend 2012

We arrived late to Wasteland Weekend but wasted no time whatsoever getting into the groove of things. Having come internationally we had no weapons to defend ourselves from the mutant / zombie uprising, and so we decided that we were clearly ‘wasteland aristocracy’ and as such had no reason to carry large weaponry of our own.


meeting the Party Hard Corps, fellow wasteland nobility
meeting the Party Hard Corps, fellow wasteland nobility

With this thought in mind it wasn’t long before we ran into some kindred spirits, fellow patricians of the aftermath, with whom we shared libations and cheer. The Party Hard Corps crew are a fascinating group of partiers, gamers and drinkers from the midwest, who like us traveled to the desert for a few days of debauchery.


winning the archery competition
winning the archery competition

There were many (semi-)organized events, including robot battles and jugger matches, but the one event I was most looking forward to taking part in was the archery competition. The rules were fairly simple – scoring was based on points awarded for your five arrows to a mannequin about thirty paces down a range. I was relieved to find they had bows available for loan, as I hadn’t owned my own bow in many years.

There were three divisions, for different sorts of bows: recurve, compound and crossbow. I can say proudly that out of about forty or so competitors, not only did I win the recurve division, but I also had the highest score over all three divisions – 28 out of a possible 30. The prize was a little disappointing however; a large black t-shirt. Not my size and I refuse to wear cotton t-shirts. In retrospect I should have taken the shirt and re-gifted it to one of the Party Hard Corps guys or something.

In case you’re wondering, we did stop at an archery supply store in San Diego on the way back to Mexico, purchasing two bows so that we can practice on the beaches. At some point in our travels we met a guy who swore by iguana meat; as we get further south we’re thinking maybe that might be a good source of free protein…


professional medical attention at Wasteland Weekend 2012
professional medical attention at Wasteland Weekend 2012

Our medical shift was Saturday night from 10pm until 4am – arguably the worst possible shift if your goal is solely to party, but we got enough of that in during the previous night and the Saturday afternoon, and as both the new jacks on the scene and late to the party to boot, we were happy to help out and glad to feel useful. We were surprised at how few emergencies there were, to be honest – the partygoers seemed to self-regulate very well, and aside from a few scalds from fire-show screwups and a few cuts and scrapes, we weren’t actually very busy! There was always something going on, but we never felt overwhelmed.


Miya at the San Diego Zoo, riding an eagle.
Miya at the San Diego Zoo, riding an eagle.

After Wasteland Weekend, we had a couple of days to spend in San Diego – we slotted one of those days to provisioning and shopping, but the second day was spent touring the San Diego Zoo. This was something Miya had wanted to do ever since we left Vancouver but somehow we hadn’t found the time during the two months we spent in San Diego back in December 2011. Many photos were taken, but surely if you’d like to see a photo of a giraffe you can find one on Google Image Search. 😉


Scott from s/v Sojourn displaying a feat of flexibility
Scott from s/v Sojourn displaying a feat of flexibility

After a long but uneventful drive back down the Baja Peninsula, we settled back into our routine by immediately having people over for another party. In this photo, Scott is demonstrating his ability to do a full split!

In the foreground of the photo, next to our friend Mike, is one of Miya’s margueritas, made in the “proper Baja style”. For a perfect Baja cruiser marguerita, combine:

  • one part decent tequila (100% agave only, José Cuervo is NOT acceptable!)
  • one part triple sec
  • one part freshly-squeezed lime juice

That’s it; serve with ice cubes if you have them. Do not blend. Do not rim with salt. Do not use lime bar mix or Fresca. Do not add simple syrup. Mix and enjoy!


catching fish and shrimp in the party platform
catching fish and shrimp in the party platform

Whoops – we left the party platform deployed under the boat while we were in the states! When we pulled it up, the side-pockets were full of life. If you click on this photo, you can clearly see the large fish at the top, and several big, transparent, shrimp-like invertebrates swimming around in the captive pool.


the new addition to the family!
the new addition to the family!

There’s a really sad story here – but before it was sad, it was a very happy story. We adopted a scraggly little Mexican street kitten and added her to our boat-gypsy family. I’ll tell the story of little ‘Alice’ in another blog post.


zombie walk La Paz 2012
zombie walk La Paz 2012

It turns out that the ‘Zombie Walk‘ phenomenon is wider-spread than we’d previously thought, and La Paz actually played host to an entire horror-themed film festival entitled ‘Morbido La Paz‘. There are few things that Miya and I like better than an excuse to get dressed up and silly, so we put together the best zombie costumes we could with our limited boat resources and shambled out into the town.

Best part: wandering around for at least an hour looking for the meet-up point for the zombie walk, soliciting help from the other boaters over the VHF radio and getting drastically contrasting reports of where to find the rest of the undead. Fortunately when we finally did find the other zombies, we found to our surprise that instead of the expected dozen or so fellow walkers/biters, we found a huge herd of probably two hundred! We moaned and shuffled our way through the night in search of cerebros


Alice assisting with the refrigerator build project
Alice assisting with the refrigerator build project

One of the things we brought back to La Paz from San Diego was a long-coveted item – an icebox conversion kit which would turn our little built-in icebox into a proper refrigerator, complete with freezer! The kit cost an arm and a leg, and came as a box of parts and a series of cryptic instructions, including a bunch of crazy tool requirements. I had to track down someone in the boating community who would be willing to loan me an industrial vacuum pump and a set of refrigerator manifold gauges. As it turned out, none of the tools were far away and even though the build took much longer than expected, our friend Bill on s/v Wandering Puffin was a huge help in getting the system up and running.

Now, for the first time since moving aboard in 2009, we have the ability to store food for longer than a couple of days at a time! What a huge step forward… though admittedly so far my favourite use of the fridge is making ice cubes. Sill though – just because nothing in our world can ever be completely normal – the fact that our fridge is a top-loading icebox means that we’re forced to use an expensive vertical ice cube tray.

going-away party at the Libertatia apartment
going-away party at the Libertatia apartment

One of the sad facts of cruising life is the realization that no matter how much you like your new friends, everyone is traveling, and sooner or later we all have to pull up the anchor and move on. This photo is of some of our friends from the summer; Malcolm and Lowell left on s/v Libertatia for California, arriving recently in San Francisco, and Mike and Nia left La Paz for Mazatlan in their boat s/v Azul, making it across the Sea of Cortez without incident… and without an engine!

Well, I think that pretty much brings us back up to current. More updates to come soon!

Delicious Ham

“TIE Fighter, TIE Fighter, Estrallita.”

“Estrallita, TIE Fighter, go two-one, over?”

I have to say, one of the things I’ve been enjoying most about La Paz is the active community of sailors monitoring and communicating on their VHF radios. Most of the boats have their radios on listening to channel 22 full time, and there is a popular radio net every morning, giving updates on weather, tides, lost and found, boat arrivals and departures, local news, swaps and trades and more. Seeing how effectively it creates a bond among the sailors in the harbour, I think if I were back in Vancouver I would try to encourage a local False Creek radio net.

the navigation table on TIE Fighter
the navigation-slash-comms table on TIE Fighter

The great thing about VHF is that the hardware is cheap and easy to use – the downside is that the functional range of the VHF signal is somewhat low. The signal can go a lot further, from land-based transmitters or larger installations, but for a ship at sea you get about ten kilometres and that’s it.

That’s where higher-power radios come in; on the TIE Fighter I’ve recently (finally!) finished a long, expensive ham radio install. Since then I’ve linked the radio with my laptop, and have been able to use it to send and receive emails from sea and update our current position with the tracking site. Through the emails I’ve also been able to have weather reports and even up-to-the-minute satellite images sent to me, giving us a view of what’s happening over the horizon and letting us know what to expect during those stressful nights at sea when the winds just won’t stop building.

It’s not like data over ham radio is a new concept, though admittedly the number of active hams has been somewhat in decline for the past twenty years and the interest in packet radio doubly so. Ham radio in general has been picking up a little lately, probably in part due to more and more people taking interest in emergency preparedness and doomsday scenarios – nobody really seems to have a land-line telephone anymore, and if there’s a big earthquake or natural disaster of some type, history shows us that the cellphone networks cannot be relied upon. Still, the concept of linking ham radio with the internet has fallen somewhat, due to cheap, fast and ubiquitous internet access. I have not been able as of yet to get a straight TCP/IP connection to the internet over the radio; I’ve only been able to send and receive messages.

my grandfather, 'Marconi' Moe Smith
my grandfather, 'Marconi' Moe Smith

For what it’s worth, ham radio is apparently in my blood! Two of my uncles are active hams, and my grandfather on my mother’s side was the Chief Engineer of CBC Radio for many years. “Marconi” Moe Smith was responsible for the design and construction of the huge Radio Canada International 500,000-watt curtain array antenna, broadcasting CBC radio international – to most of the planet – from Sackville, New Brunswick.

It took me thirty years to finally take the plunge and get my ham license, but when I took a certification class with the Bluewater Cruising Association I found myself slapping my forehead in disbelief at the parallels. I have been a certified pocket-protector computer nerd since a very young age, dabbled in homebrew electronics and spent countless hours in front of a bank of analogue synthesizers, all of which contributed to me receiving an honours grade on my ham radio exam.

For the ham radio install, I chose an Icom IC-7000 radio – I considered the Icom IC-706, but I figured if I’m only going to buy the one radio, I should buy one with ample room to grow and features geared towards using the radio specifically for data. In retrospect I’m not sure I gained much going with the newer model, but I’m not dissatisfied with my decision. For a tuner, I was recommended the SGC-230 Smartuner over the matched Icom AT-180, because the SGC-230 can be used with any radio, not just the Icom, and I figured that might come in handy someday if I upgrade (or otherwise destroy) my IC-7000. On other recommendations, I also added a marine voltage booster and a tuner interface device to make the radio and tuner work together even smoother.

attaching the new backstay, insulator visible against my foot
attaching the new backstay, insulator visible against my foot

For the antenna itself, I had a secondary, non-structural backstay constructed by Ed at Sailing Supply in San Diego. The 3/16″ stainless backstay is somewhat overkill, given that it will never see any serious loads, but at least it’s nice to know that it’s there in case my main backstay ever breaks, and I don’t have to worry about my main backstay losing strength from being cut to add the insulators.

Lastly, I had to add a radio-frequency ground – this is similar to an electrical ground, but for radio-frequency energy. Normally on a sailboat you would connect the RF ground to a series of copper straps that are eventually bound to the huge chunk of metal in the keel, but with TIE Fighter not having a keel I had a bit of a problem on my hands. I would have to add a lot of copper strapping, creating a counterpoise of a few hundred square feet – and with the price of copper currently through the roof, I wasn’t looking forward to dropping hundreds of dollars on copper alone.

I had a recommendation of a new kind of counterpoise, a “KISS-SSB” – apparently a thick rubber hose with over 600 feet of carefully-sized wires inside. It was about a hundred bucks, so I figured I would gamble and give it a shot before forking over for the copper ground. It worked, though I’m not entirely satisfied with the results… I think the real goal of the KISS-SSB is to provide a counterpoise very specific to the small number of frequencies used for Marine-SSB, not the enormous spectrum available to ham radio. I’ve been experiencing a lot of RF feedback in the signal and in the other electronics on the TIE Fighter – everything I read says that this is because my antenna tuner is not properly grounded.

RF grounding for marine radio, as it turns out, is a huge can of worms with many fiercely-defended opinions. I’ve got a few lines out to experts, and I think the next step will be to try replacing the KISS ground with a thick copper wire going to the bolts holding my propellor-shaft strut to the bottom of the boat – it’s one of the very few metal items that make contact with seawater. If the information in this PDF is accurate, I should be able to get away with it – otherwise, I might have to drop the money for copper strapping.

the vmware desktop running various ham radio software
the vmware desktop running various ham radio software

Once all of the parts were installed (including a new VHF radio, a Standard Horizon Matrix AIS+ hurriedly purchased in Sausalito when our previous VHF quietly died the day we were leaving for San Diego) in a newly stained, varnished wood panel, we left offshore for two weeks, giving me a lot of time to spend bent awkwardly over the nav table fiddling with the radio dials. Within a couple of days I had figured out enough to get into Winlink and start sending and receiving emails, which made the trip down feel immensely less isolated. I don’t think I’ve welcomed email from friends and family as much as I did on that trip since my first internet emails almost twenty years ago.

The grand overall cost of the radio equipment and installation was somewhere around $3,000. I was careful to select components that are modular enough that I could migrate the system to another boat or to a land-based station in the future, and I feel like I’ve succeeded in making the setup somewhat “future-proof”. Admittedly I could have spent a third of that on a satellite phone and had $2000 leftover to spend on a data plan, but I don’t feel like a satellite phone would give me the same sense of being a part of a global community as the ham radio has.

Arguably our most important guiding tenet on this boating adventure is to actively strive to be as self-sustained as possible. It would be difficult to call ourselves self-sustained while paying a monthly phone bill to a satellite service! Now that the ham radio is installed, the bills have been paid and the licenses acquired, we’re free to use it for the rest of our lives without any further fees – communicating from virtually anywhere in the world, using power that we generated from the wind and the sun. That’s a good feeling.

RIP Schaltwerk

On Friday July 8th 2011, I said goodbye to a dear friend, one who stood by my side for far longer than was expected of her. Her passing was with some sadness, but her memory will live on.

delivering the eulogy
delivering the eulogy began her life in a Magitronic assembly house on September 25th, 1994. She was a very fast machine for her day; although Pentium processors had begun to arrive in the local computer stores they were still thousands of dollars, and as a 486DX2-80 boasting a 40MHz bus she gave machines twice her price a solid run for their money. I worked at the time at the larger of the two local computer stores, and as such I was able to source a single 16M RAM SIMM for far below the retail price. I (or rather my father) paid $800 for the RAM alone!

Schaltwerk spent the next few months running OS/2 Warp, supporting an active Telegard BBS and many, many hours of Doom, Doom 2 and Heretic deathmatches over 14.4k modem – and later over a local ARCNet network, cabled through my parents house with chained 25′ phone extension cords from the dollar store. When I left for college in January of 1995, she came along as my primary college computer, the task for which my father had intended her. At college she continued to support the BBS, running Renegade and then Iniquity software, but the BBS was often suspended to allow me to spend long nights mastering Autodesk 3D Studio and Photoshop. At some point I also discovered Linux, and when a friend began handing me surplus computer hardware from his work, I was able to add several more hard drives and increase her RAM to a whopping 40 megabytes. I would give a lot for photos of my workstations at this time, but as far as I know none exist.

the login screen for iNiQUiTY BBS
the SysOp screen for iNiQUiTY BBS

As college came to a fruitless end – a diploma, but zero job prospects – I took a job as a graphic designer for a college web project. Schaltwerk was the main graphics workstation, putting in months of midnight-until-dawn marathon Photoshop sessions. I was also working hard on my own Linux interface design projects, working closely with the Enlightenment window manager team.

In about March of 1997 I moved back to Sussex and took a government-funded web design position. I was offered a Pentium workstation of my own, but after struggling with drivers and software installs and an unstable machine, I moved Schaltwerk into the office to be my primary workstation. This didn’t last too long, as I couldn’t deal with the lack of computer at home! Schaltwerk, nestled in her basement lair in my parents’ house, had sprouted two more monitors – a monochrome display addressed with a second video card and a Wyse 60 dumb terminal attached to the serial port now accompanied the main SVGA monitor. One mouse, two keyboards and three displays – pretty fancy stuff for 1997!

a screenshot of an Enlightenment theme designed on Schaltwerk
the first Enlightenment theme designed on Schaltwerk

In 1998, my friend Darren, my baby sister Jen and I packed all of our worldly possessions into Darren’s car and drove across the country from New Brunswick to Calgary, Alberta. We only had about $800 between us, but with one minor speedbump we managed to get settled and employed and much to our parents’ collective surprise, we made a go of it. After we all landed jobs at a major ISP, Schaltwerk became a networking powerhouse, having half a class-C subnet (128 addresses) of real internet IPs delegated to her for several months! Of course, at the time I really didn’t know what to do with that kind of resource, so I occupied myself learning Linux networking and DNS, and Schaltwerk got her first live, static-IP instances of BIND, Sendmail and Apache. Thankfully by this time I had gotten over the debilitating CircleMUD addiction I picked up in college!

In early 1999, my new girlfriend and I moved into a new house with our friends Ivan and Andy, who were running what was at the time the most technologically advanced Shoutcast station in the world, BeNOW. I became their network administrator, and together we whipped eleven machines and hundreds of gigabytes of storage (a big deal at the time) into shape. Schaltwerk took over as the router and firewall, also handling DNS and mail services for the BeNOW and riotnrrd domains, as well as primary and secondary DNS for dozens of other domains.

Jonnay's desk, Schaltwerk's home for years
Jonnay's desk, Schaltwerk's home for years

In late 1999, I had a job offer in Vancouver, so we packed our things and moved into a geek house in East Van. Schaltwerk stayed in Calgary and went to live with my friends Jonnay and Shell, where she spent the next few years humming away under Jonnay’s desk. During this time, she remained on a static IP address, becoming the primary DNS service for scores of domains, handling primary and backup mail services for dozens of others – but most importantly, she became the webserver for a number of domains. The most popular by far of any of the websites hosted on Schaltwerk was – a Slashcode site boasting ‘News For Crackheads – Nothing That Matters‘ which quickly gained notoriety as a gathering place for Vancouver’s dot-com underbelly. Most of the people I call close friends can trace their roots in our friend group back to During this time, Schaltwerk also hosted the Black Hole Club email list, gathering a sizeable portion of Vancouver’s electronic music production scene together online.

In 2001, we moved to Costa Rica, leaving Schaltwerk with Jonnay and Shell – to her credit, Schaltwerk worked almost completely without interference from her hosts, only requiring several reboots and a hard drive replacement over the four or five years that she spent in their home office. In 2003 we moved back to Vancouver, moving into a house on 10th Avenue.  Schaltwerk became part of a cluster of media and internet servers driving the geek house, which we dubbed ‘Pod6’, a reference the Adult Swim cartoon ‘Sealab 2021’.  For a while Schaltwerk ran the website, but soon the site outgrew the humble 486 and we built an upgraded machine, relegating Schaltwerk to just email and DNS.

the Pod6 network
the Pod6 network operations center, Schaltwerk top left

In 2005 we purchased our first home and Schaltwerk took her new position – alongside a server from Jonnay and Shell, in reciprocation for their years of hosting – in a basement closet.  Too slow now to support much in the way of modern web services but still providing email and DNS services for dozens of domains, Schaltwerk also provided SSH shell endpoint access, allowing my friends and I to casually tunnel through even the fiercest of corporate firewalls.

In 2007 I began the long process of migrating all of the services off of Schaltwerk and onto a third-party host, Dreamhost. Many domain owners had to be notified, many small webpages had to be migrated and dozens of cryptic user scripts had to be decoded and disabled or ported. By 2008 almost all of this work was complete, and Schaltwerk remained online but rarely used until April of 2009, when I moved out of my basement and aboard the S/V TIE Fighter. I could not bring myself to just throw away a machine with such a history of faithful service, and so I brought her aboard, intending to find a way to celebrate her life.

goodbye, Schaltwerk.
goodbye, Schaltwerk. you will be remembered.

Schaltwerk gave me fifteen solid years of faithful work, far more than can be reasonably expected of a PC.  Her only fault was her lack of processing horsepower, and while I will admit that I entertained fantasies of one day putting her back in service as a terminal somewhere, life on a sailboat is not kind to electronics, and a slow death in a storage locker just wouldn’t suit her. With a few respectful words about her life and service I sent her to her final resting place in the ocean, about a kilometer off the Sunshine Coast.

I have to admit it took a few minutes for the lump in my throat to pass.


A few weeks ago I dropped into a show at the Lotus Sound Lounge on a Saturday night, a bit after midnight. I hadn’t really planned on going to a club but I was already downtown and had friends there, so without a second thought I stopped by. When I got to the door the security staff went to pat me down for weapons, at which point I remembered that I was carrying my every-day pocket knife, which is a particularly vicious-looking sailing knife.

Myerchin Navigator Lightknife
Myerchin Navigator Lightknife

The knife in question was a Myerchin Navigator LightKnife; a half-straight, half-serrated blade for cutting rope accompanied by a tapered steel spike called a marlinspike, used in splicing and knotwork – or in my case, mostly used for untying seized knots. Of course I immediately brought the knife to their attention, so that they wouldn’t think I was trying to sneak in with a weapon.

Oh, um, hey – there’s a large knife in my right front pants pocket.

The guard stopped searching me and looked somewhat taken aback. “Um. What?” he said.

It’s nothing sketchy, it’s just a sailing knife, I live on my sailboat. I forgot I had it with me. I’m happy to check it with my bag or whatever.“. I had the attention of the second guard now, who stepped closer.

You can’t take that inside, you’ll have to leave it with us…” he said. So long as I could pick it up when I left, I had no problem with that. They both agreed to hold the knife at the door for me.

I also had my Leatherman Kick in my backpack, so I had to surrender that as well, but of course when I got out of the bar I flailed and forgot to retrieve the knives. In my defense, there was the small matter of having to step in and break up a fight between a big guy and the skinny prostitute on the ground that he was kicking, but that’s a whole other story. A friend who works at the Lotus is currently trying to retrieve the knives for me, but I’m sure it’ll be no surprise to hear that nobody knows exactly where they have gone. *sigh*.

Anyhow. I’d like to say that the Myerchin knife has served me well in the five or so years since it was given to me by an ex-girlfriend, but in fact it is the third iteration of the same knife. The first knife lasted three years, but finally the locking mechanism stopped working. With a lifetime warrantee, I had the knife replaced, but the locking mechanism on the new replacement fell apart within two months! The third iteration has lasted about a year so far with no troubles, but has grown quite dull in a very short time – and I don’t own a good sharpening kit.

Spiderco 'Atlantic Salt'
Spyderco 'Atlantic Salt'

I mentioned the dullness in passing in a chat with my sister Heather, who lives on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick with her boyfriend Matt, a professional diver for the east-coast fishing industry. He started enquiring about the knives on my boat, and was startled to find out that I didn’t have a Spyderco ‘Atlantic Salt’ knife onboard , and apparently stomped around the house muttering “How can he not have one?!  He lives on a boat!!“.  He (and she) promptly ordered me one for my birthday, along with a knife sharpening kit which he insists that all marine-type folks should have. The knife and sharpener are currently sitting in my other sister’s apartment waiting for me to come and pick them up. Apparently the Spyderco knife blade is made from “H-1” steel; a “precipitation-hardened steel containing nitrogen instead of carbon, which cannot rust”.

When I told Matt that I already had a knife, and showed him a photo of my Myerchin Lightknife, he scoffed and called it a ‘city boy knife’. I found this funny, because most of the city boys I know don’t carry knives at all, and the ones that do are just as at home in the backcountry as they are in downtown Vancouver.

I quite liked the Myerchin, for several reasons:

  • it has a half-serrated, half-straight blade – hard to sharpen, but good for lots of cutting tasks,
  • a marlinspike for untying knots – very useful,
  • a shackle key in the blade, very handy on a sailboat,
  • a basic LED flashlight in the handle,
  • decent sized with a pocket clip, fits well in my pocket, and
  • it looks and feels good.

What I didn’t like about the Myerchin was pretty much only one thing: the build quality. With the warrantee I just have to walk in to any West Marine store to order a free replacement, and the edge is apparently maintainable with a little attention every few weeks, but I haven’t had the tools to properly sharpen it.

My friend John Foulkes feels that every man should carry a knife, and refers to this type of knife as an ‘EDC’ – an ‘Every Day Carry’. I don’t think the Spyderco ‘Atlantic Salt’ would make for a good EDC in the city, but I can certainly see how it would be if one were working around boats as a day job.   I am very much looking forward to adding the ‘Atlantic Salt’ to Tie Fighter’s equipment.

the Boye Knives 'Cobalt Basic 3'

I do wish sometimes that I were the sort of person that could get away with wearing a small fixed-blade knife, but unfortunately, due to my social nature and my general clumsiness, wearing a sheathed knife on my hip – regardless of size – is an invitation to trouble either in the form of accidents or unwanted attention from authorities. Perhaps in the future, when I’ve both calmed down somewhat and moved on from the bustling city life, I will be able to wear a sheathed belt knife. When that day comes, I will purchase the Boye Knives ‘Cobalt Basic 3‘. The Basic 3 is – in my humble opinion – a *gorgeous* small fixed-blade knife that would be absolutely perfect for life on a boat.

…that is, for older, calmer, less city-living people than I. Furthermore, it’s a $300 knife, which is currently out of my price range.

If I don’t end up getting my Myerchin back from the Lotus, I think I have decided to purchase the same knife again. I’m fond of it, I’m familiar with it and the list of things I like about it far outstrips the list of things I don’t. I’ve been shopping around the internets for similar knives, and I just haven’t been able to find another knife that I like better than the Myerchin.

If you’re looking for an EDC, check out these links:

Columbia River Knife & Tool – good quality pocket folders, no sailing/rigging specific tools though.

SpyderCo – excellent reputation and variety.

SOG Speciality Knives and Tools – good variety, though a somewhat difficult site to browse.

Do you have an EDC that you love? Please share a link in the comments!

I’m Cold, Damp, And There’s Blood On My Laptop

Ok, so just file today in the ‘down’ pile.

Do you know what I mean by ‘amplitude’? I can’t remember if I’ve written about it here before or not. I like to believe that the universe needs a balance, and so for every bad thing there is an equal and opposite good thing. I like to think of life as kind of a sinewave of bad and good.

Well, ever since I’ve jumped headlong into this adventure, the amplitude of that sinewave has gone through the roof. Good days are awesome, bad days are terrible. There’s really no in-between, it seems. Actually, I guess I can’treally complain; I know there are folks out there having a lot worse days than I am. I also know that the bad days are important, because without a reference of what a bad day is like, how can you really know that you’re having a good day?

Anyway. I’ve been watching the weather all week, expecting “light rain” today before the sun returns. Since I’ve been making repairs to the boat, I had all the windows out and a couple of big holes in the bow, where I’ve been excising rotted wood and replacing it with fresh new stuff. To prepare for the rain I deployed tarps and garbage bags, duct-taped the windows back into place and made fast anything that looked like it wasn’t held down well. I looked over the repairs of the week with satisfaction, knowing that my fiberglass and epoxy work was solid and would withstand a little moisture.

This morning I was awoken at 6:30am by a phonecall from the Evil Masters, to the sound of pouring rain beating on the roof of the cabin. I fielded the call, feeling smugly warm and dry in my bed, content in the knowledge that my work was sound. Apparently there were massive database problems that needed dealing with immediately, so I got up to go fetch my laptop and start working on it. I swung out of my berth onto the floor… and my feet wentsquish on the soaking wet carpet. D’oh!

Turns out my hatch repair, while definitely watertight, wasn’t sloped correctly. Water pooled in the repair until it overflowed the lip of the hatch, and all the overflow went right into the forward cabin.

Actually, the forward cabin was fine by comparison to the aft cabin, which had the same problem but about ten times worse. Water had been flowing into the cabin by the liter, running down the guitar case inconveniently placed below the leak, and spattering onto the floor and a tupperware container. Better still, the tupperware container was the one that contained all of my foul-weather gear, hats, gloves, anything that would keep you warm out in the rain. Of course the lid wasn’t on.

The carpets were soaked, the rain gear was soaked and another leak was exposed in the ceiling – I have no idea where this one came from, it’s a new leak. There’s another small leak from my repair to the corner of the cabin roof, and yet another in the side roof. At least my traveler repair – formerly the worse leak in the cabin – seems to be watertight!

So I went to the washroom to get started for the day and found that my tarps had somehow blown off in the night. The gaping hole in the ceiling was wide open to the elements, and rain was pouring in there as well. Oh, good.

I should probably mention at this point that I didn’t get a chance to run the generator last night, so the house batteries were too low to run the inverter which powers my laptop. Then in a fit of stupidity, I used my laptop in bed to watch cartoons before crashing. Now, in the pouring rain, I had a work emergency to deal with and 8% battery on my laptop – and I can’t run the generator without setting up some kind of elaborate tarp system to keep the rain off!

At this point, I gave up. There’s a coffee shop just up the hill with good coffee, excellent food and free wireless, so I went for it. As I returned to my bed to get the laptop case, however, I discovered that the window in my bed had actually leaked – a lot – into the bedside storage locker. Ohhhhhh, good. The laptop sleeve was sitting in a centimeter or so of water, as was my GPS and my Nintendo DS. The GPS is weather proof, so it should be fine, but the DS might be toast – I guess we’ll see. It was only sheer, dumb luck that I didn’t toss my laptop in there last night!

So I pulled on wet raingear, threw my bike in the dinghy, bailed a few dozen liters of water out and rowed for shore. Life got a lot better with a large, four-shot americano. I got a bunch of work done, figured out the database problems, and had some food. Eventually the sun came out, offering a brief respite from the terrible mood of the day, and some hope for the remainder.

I left the coffee shop at around 12:30pm, heading back to the boat. As I rounded a corner, I hit a patch of gravel and went down, banging my shin and thigh and scraping up my hand in the process. It figures, the one time I hadn’t bothered to take my cycling gloves out of my bag because it was such a short ride home, I fall on my hands! My bike is ok, and I’ve only got a few small scuffs and bruises, but there’s still a couple of bits of gravel in my left palm. I should probably put a bandaid on; I’m leaving bloody palm prints on my laptop.

I guess it could all be a lot worse. Like, the new unexplained leak in the cabin roof, the drips missed my mandolin by a few centimeters – it would have made the day a lot more unpleasant to have to pour water out of the F-holes! At some point today I’ll have to break out the shop vac and vacuum the rainwater out of the bilges, and in the next few days I’ll need to tackle the newly-obvious leaky parts of the roof. The work never stops.

Anyhow. Big work deadline tomorrow; first site goes live in the cloud! Back to the grind…