All posts by Andy Cross

Andy Cross

About Andy Cross

Andy Cross is partner and managing editor of Three Sheets Northwest. You can find him and his family cruising the Pacific Northwest and Alaska aboard their Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee.

AIS for the win

I recently received an email with a host of questions about outfitting a boat for offshore sailing and my opinions on a wide variety of related topics. While I’m mostly reluctant to give hard-and-fast “this is what you should do or have” type answers, the last question on the list piqued my interest because it didn’t ask whether something was needed or not (which isn’t at all for me to decide). It simply asked what my practical knowledge was.

The question: “What is your experience with AIS systems?”

Yahtzee’s AIS system.

The reason the query drew my attention is because it immediately brought to mind several poignant experiences I’ve had with AIS (Automatic Identification System) aboard. While I’m certainly not the tech guru or authority on AIS systems, I do have a large number of sea stories to share about using the system and what I’ve found to be the benefits associated with it. Off the top of my head popped multiple experiences I’ve had using AIS just in the past year or two alone. Here is one from a delivery Jill and I did. 

Collision Course in the North Atlantic

It’s the middle of the night in the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. Scanning the horizon, all I see is black — probably the darkest night I’ve experienced at sea. Wind howls from the northeast at 30 to 33 knots, gusting to 40. Rain is pouring down in sheets. Wave heights — at their smallest — are in the low teens. Some of the waves seem monstrous, others are breaking on our stern and we’re sailing the well-suited Garcia Exploration 45 at a “conservative” 9 to 11 knots with surfs up to 15. Woohoo! 

When Jill relieves me from watch, I show her a commercial fishing trawler on AIS running at a similar speed a little over 2 miles off our port side. Though we can barely make it out on the horizon, we know it’s there. In the moment, we seem to be parallel to one another and staying clear, but are actually angling towards a collision course. I express to Jill that my hope is for the vessel to alter course just enough to pass behind us, and we talk about our options before I hit my bunk for some much needed sleep.

There were a couple problems that we identified during our brief chat. First and foremost was that the seas were so large and rain so heavy that, even though the trawler was relatively close, it was nearly impossible to keep a visual on. Its running lights were virtually useless, making AIS and radar key assets.

The second problem was that we were sailing on a deep broad reach with a triple reefed mainsail on a preventer. In order to avoid a collision, if one became imminent, we’d have to jibe. Rounding up in these seas is not an option. And the issue with jibing is that the maneuver will take a long time to execute and, in the conditions given, would have been hazardous to the boat and us. Plus, we would then need to jibe back onto our original course once we cleared the trawler. Basically, we are pinned down and virtually blind — save for the AIS and radar. 

With the AIS, we know the vessel’s name, course and speed, among other things, and are constantly monitoring its movements relative to ours. Plus, it has the same information about us. In a sort of a dazed half state of sleep from my bunk, I eventually hear Jill call the trawler by name on the radio, briefly explain our situation and arrange for it to pass behind us. Easy as that. I fell asleep.

After the situation was resolved, and many times since, I was extremely glad to have had the benefit of AIS. Yes, without it there is a chance we still would have seen the fishing boat. But in my estimation, there is also a good chance that we wouldn’t have. And the fact that we could both “see” each other and knew, at the very least, boatspeed, course and range, meant that we could monitor the situation accurately and then make a call to avoid colliding or having to do a difficult course change hundreds of miles offshore in a fall gale.

AIS for the win!

This same scenario actually occurred numerous other times on that delivery in similar conditions. 

Come say hi at the Seattle Boat Show!

I’m happy to announce that I will once again be presenting seminars at the Seattle Boat Show, which runs from January 26 to February 3. If you’re planning to be at this year’s show, come on by for a listen or to say hi!

Here are the topics I’ll be presenting:

An Unconventional Route to SE Alaska and Beyond

Friday, February 2nd, 6:00 p.m. Stage #2 North Hall 

When we set out for Southeast Alaska in 2017, it was with a unique route in mind — and with an open-ended schedule to explore as we saw fit. What transpired was a 700-mile sail up the west coast of Vancouver Island in early spring, followed by two months in SE Alaska before jumping 500-miles across the Gulf of Alaska to explore Kodiak Island, the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. In this informative and entertaining seminar, I’ll take you along on the voyage and offer tips on how to do Alaska a bit different than straight up the Inside Passage and back.

Living the Dream: How to Get Your Boating and Cruising Stories Published

Saturday, February 3rd, 2:15 p.m. Stage #5 Club Level

I’ll delve into how I became a maritime writer and editor and will offer tips and guidance for aspiring writers. Topics will include realities of the industry, what magazine editors are looking for, everyday steps to achieving the larger goal of publishing, creating polished content, turning your passion into stories, pitching ideas and what to expect when submitting your work.

For more information on the Seattle Boat Show visit seattleboatshow.com.

Cruising truths, Part 2: Plotting a course for 2018 and beyond

With a fresh blanket of snow covering our cozy cabin in the woods, Jill and I sat inside crunching numbers. Plotting a course to set sail.

She rattled off expenses, I typed them into a calculator and then read her back the totals. On we went through our financials from the past three months living in Seward. It felt like a good thing to be doing on the last day of the year. Sure, it wasn’t nearly the wildest New Year’s Eve we’ve ever had, but it was by far the most focused.

After an amazing 2017, we’re determined to do everything we can in 2018 to get our family back out cruising … whenever that may be.

The overarching goal of the exercise was to obtain an idea of where we’re at and to set ourselves onto a smooth course for the new year. We need to know what it will realistically take to get us going again, and doing a thorough assessment of our finances is the only way to put our feet on solid ground.

The good news? We’re on the right track. The not so good? We’ve got a long way to go. 

Stopping cruising and moving back ashore obviously wasn’t what we’d hoped to do in 2017. Not at all. (See part 1). But we knew we had to if we wanted to keep going, which we definitely do. The thing is, moving ashore to “save” money isn’t — as we knew — all that easy. That’s not how the world works.

Even though we’re a dual income family, and Jill’s position is granting her valuable work experience, we now have bills that we haven’t had in many years including moorage, a car and all its associated fees, rent and utilities, and other incidentals that come from living on land for part of the year. What we figured out on New Year’s Eve, though, is that after all of our monthly expenses are covered, we don’t actually have very much extra left over. It wasn’t a comforting realization.

Our current situation is that the goal in stopping is to work on Yahtzee and to pay off a sizable amount of debt in the process. And while we’re doing both, we now know that we need to focus more on the debt in 2018 and less on the boat and other expenditures. In the interest of being straight up here, the debt we accrued while fixing Yahtzee’s skeg and rudder late in 2016 is like a massive anchor that continues to not only weigh us down but is in jeopardy of dragging us farther under water if we don’t cast it free. That’s what we’re going to do.

We’re comforted in the fact that Yahtzee was ready to cross oceans when we pulled into Seward in August — heck, we were even planning to sail to California that very month! She just needed a few tweaks and if we could lavish some gifts on her such as new sails in the process, great. Well, once we’re done with the projects that we’ve started, this round of gift giving is over. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves tied to the dock for years spending money on the boat and putting a little bit here and there towards our debt. That won’t cut it.

We’re not the type of sailors to comfortably sit at the dock and ramble on about someday getting out there while constantly working to sail away on a boat that never will be perfect. Never have been, never will be. Our family has been out there before and we all want it back in the worst way. So we’ll work to make it happen.

And while we love Seward and Alaska immensely, it isn’t time to settle somewhere yet and it may never be. That is reality for us. Wandering this big old world under sail is what we’re after — and life’s too short not to do what we love with the people we love.

Memorable moments | Saying goodbye to an incredible year of cruising

Crouching at the water’s edge, I picked up a smooth black stone and gripped it in my palm. Magnus stood next to me — clad in his wetsuit with boogie board in hand — and I talked him through his latest attempt at setting out into the cold water of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Then he went for it and I smiled watching him splash his way into the clear blue water before launching the rock far beyond him.

Later, sitting next to a fire and fresh caught salmon roasting over hot coals, I thought aloud to Jill while watching Yahtzee bob just offshore: “Does life get any better than this? I don’t think it does.”

In many ways, that’s how 2017 went. By any and every measure we can think of, it was an amazing year of cruising aboard Yahtzee. Here are a few of our most memorable moments:

Fish On!

Continue reading Memorable moments | Saying goodbye to an incredible year of cruising

Headliner update: One road to the finish

Several productive weekends have gone by since I started work on Yahtzee’s new headliner. Overall, the project is taking about as many man hours as expected, and it’s turning out far better than I anticipated. I’m loving the look — especially when compared to what we had before.

Since last checking in, I’ve fully finished the starboard aft cabin and have completed about 95 percent of the main salon. By far the hardest part of working with the pine tongue-and-groove bead board is getting all the cuts close to perfect so that everything fits snug yet is able to be taken down without too much trouble. Another difficulty is in making sure to keep the edges of the boards damage free. If the tongues and grooves don’t work well, a whole board can be wasted.

Starboard aft cabin painted and fitted.
Getting everything cut and fitting perfect is a bit of trick.

One major roadblock that I’ve hit is quite literally a road between me and getting the last of the supplies that I need. Due to a change in my design while constructing the headliner, I am now missing several long sections to finish everything. And, as many people in rural Alaska are, I’m now at the mercy of Anchorage and the road connecting it to Seward. Such is life.

The Seward Highway stretches 120 gorgeous miles from Yahtzee to Anchorage. Shortly after leaving the waterfront, the two-lane road starts climbing up, winding through alpine lakes and snow-capped mountain peaks. In the wintertime, when snow has fallen, temperatures are cold and the road is slick, I’m not in a rush to spend hours driving there and back in one day, let alone two. And on a day like today, it’s not even possible because a rock slide has closed the corridor. Also, delivery is not an option.

Fortunately, the work can still go on, and there is certainly plenty left to do. The boys and I created a painting shop in a heated and insulated space underneath our cabin and we’re cranking out coated sections of the headliner daily. Given that it all needs three coats, it’s going to take a good amount of time to finish everything. Plus, I can get going on all the stained and varnished trim work that needs to get done as well.

Porter and Magnus work on painting sections of the new ceiling.

Looking ahead in our schedule, we have a planned trip to Anchorage coming in January, so the road will only stand in our way for another month. When we’re back with everything needed, this is a project that I’m excited to see in its final form.

Just go sailing and forget the rest

Every weekday, I sit with Porter and Magnus to tackle some schoolwork. Porter has a workbook that teaches him to read and write letters and numbers, and identify shapes and colors. Today’s shape was an octagon and the instructions were to trace the shape and then be creative and draw any picture inside it. He couldn’t wait to draw the picture.

Peering over his shoulder, I watched him diligently craft a sailboat in the middle. He then turned to me and proudly pointed to each part of his new vessel and labeled the parts aloud: “Mainsail, jib, hull, mast, keel and rudder.”

It was a simple yet elegant sloop. Beaming with pride, I congratulated him on a nice boat and we turned the page.

I love that Porter draws sailboats. Without prompting and without pointing out what parts need to go where, he has been using shapes to create these simple designs for a while now. Whether on the chalkboard at the local aquarium, on a blank sheet of paper or on his schoolwork, it’s his go-to doodle. Funny enough, I used to do the exact same thing.

His drawing today, though, got me thinking about all shapes, sizes and designs of sailboats I’ve been fortunate to sail on over the years. And out of all of them, I truly couldn’t think of a single one that I didn’t like. The reason is that I just flat out love to sail. And I love sailboats.

Whether gunkholing on a 20-odd-foot sloop, testing a full keel cruiser, steering an ocean racer, teaching aboard a roomy catamaran or ripping around an anchorage in a Laser with one sail, I’m on it. Basically, if it has sails and can be steered, count me in. Nothing else matters.

But to some sailors, it does matter — A LOT. And if you’ve sailed long enough you’ve certainly met those in the sailing community that will vehemently argue boat design and equipment until they are red in the face. Try asking a group of sailors what boat you should buy and wait for the reactions. It’s exhausting.

Rather than falling into the trap of being fanatical about one type of boat over another, or one style of sailing over another, I’ve always tried to find strengths in them all. Because the truth is that sailboats, like their owners, are moving targets that carry a variety of characteristics. And, certainly, no two boats or owners are ever alike.

In many cases, what is considered the right boat or the right way to outfit it depends solely on what the owner plans to do with it and what their personal tastes are. Will the vessel sit at a dock and on the hard most of the time? Will it cruise coastal or offshore waters continuously? Will it hit the race course? Or, will it do a bit of everything?

The overarching reality is that it doesn’t matter what boat you or someone else owns, whether you have one mast or two, a Yeti cooler or a refrigerator, freezer and ice maker. Oftentimes, the right boat is the one you have right now. And as long as you’re safe, it probably doesn’t matter if it is a boat as simple as Porter’s drawing or one with every possible piece of gear aboard. Most of us just need to go sailing more often and forget the rest.

The crafting of a headliner

With a green Bic pencil tucked back behind my ear, I picked up the saw and rained dust throughout the makeshift workbench inside Yahtzee’s main salon. Music blared in the background as I fit the next piece in my linear game of headliner Tetris, and I stood back, took a sip from a cold Rainier and admired the view.

It looked good. Better than I anticipated, to be honest. But it’s not done. Not by a long shot.

After re-finishing the wood on the main bulkhead and deciding to tackle the laborious job of replacing the old headliner, it took Jill and me a bit of time to decide what we wanted to put in its place, then how to source the material.  What we knew was that we wanted something different than the vinyl wrapped plywood that had been up since Yahtzee was built in the early 80s. It was time for that look to go.

Old headliner pealed down, ready to go.

What we ended up getting was planks of pine beadboard that have a tongue and groove fit. When investigating these, I was a bit unsure about the longevity and quality of this type of wood in the marine environment. But my research overwhelmingly suggested that other do-it-yourself sailors had been successful with it in a variety of interior applications, so I figured we’d give it a shot. Now, after working with it over the past few weekends, I’m very confident that we made the right decision. Also, a final finish of Pettit’s satin EZ Cabin Coat will provide a nice look along with a durable finish that will withstand the humidity of a boat’s interior.

In with the new.

I started the project with a test section in the starboard aft cabin and when that turned out well, the main salon was a green light. So far, I’m working in stages and have taken down and covered the entire starboard side. I’ve been impressed with how easily and cleanly the material cuts and how durable it is.

Test section in the starboard aft cabin.

Along with the new headliner, I am also taking the opportunity to install some new lighting and opted for a very low profile dome light by Lumitec that turns on and off, and from white to red, on a bezel. The first one is in, and I’m impressed with the upgrade.

Looking aft down the starboard side of the main salon.

Stay tuned for more updates as I keep chipping away at this project. It sure is a satisfying one to work on.

Giving thanks for life, family and others

Sitting behind a group of kids at story time in the Seward Public Library, I watched and listened while the librarian introduced the topic and books for the day: Thanksgiving.

Before reading, she explained to the children in general terms what the occasion meant and then asked each child what they were thankful for. One-by-one they listed things they own, toys, stuffed animals, etc. When she got to Porter, who was sitting in his usual spot in the front row, he simply said, “My little brother.”

With wide-eyed excitement, the librarian turned to Magnus and said, “Magnus, did you hear that?! Your brother is thankful for you!” At that point, the boys looked at each other and embraced in an emphatic hug.

In the moment I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or both. I was so happy, proud and thankful. Thankful for the life we’ve been able to provide Porter and Magnus. Thankful to spend so much time with them each and every day. Thankful to have lived and cruised on Yahtzee as a family for the vast majority of their lives, showing them what an amazing world we live in and how to enjoy it to the fullest. Thankful for our future plans to continue doing just that. And thankful for the families we grew up in, with parents who guided us and showed us that all of this is possible.

Quote of the week at the Seward Public Library

Shortly after leaving the library, my thoughts turned from us, our lives and this upcoming Thanksgiving to the past and to other people. I silently reminisced about those who are no longer with us, to things I’d seen living in Ethiopia and to a blog post I’d written prior to Thanksgiving six years ago while there (read it in bold at the bottom). I thought about what Jill and I experienced — the good and the bad — and how it all changed our perspective on many things moving forward in life. And I’m thankful now more than ever for that experience because it taught us about an incredible country and people, and set us up to be exactly where we are right now. Continue reading Giving thanks for life, family and others

More than surfing, it’s an adventure

Gliding over a thin layer of frost carpeting D-Dock in Seward Harbor, I had a little extra pep in my step walking towards Yahtzee. My excitement wasn’t due to another day of work on the boat, rather, it was at the thought of heading south into Resurrection Bay towards the ocean swell for some surfing. Yes, surfing.

Sure, the air temperature was hovering around 40 degrees and the water temperature wasn’t much higher than that, but hey, that’s what wetsuits are for! Just a few slips down from Yahtzee I met up with our dock neighbor, Captain Scott Liska, who runs Alaska Surf Adventures aboard the motor vessel Drekkar. He was pulling out bins of thick neoprene wetsuits, gloves and booties for surfers who arrived and needed the gear.

Hopping aboard with an armload of rubber, I waited with a cup of coffee and some new friends as other surfers straggled down the dock and onto the boat. With about a dozen surf riders of various experience levels ready for a mid-day surf-sesh, we were soon underway out of the marina towards what sounded like a promising break.

The morning sun shines on Seward Harbor.

Continue reading More than surfing, it’s an adventure

What the heck’s going on aboard Yahtzee?

There’s been a lot of progress going on aboard Yahtzee these days. While Jill’s been working during the week, I’ve been getting as much done with the boys as possible and then when the weekends come, I’m on it. The thing is, I’ve found that even though a number jobs have been started, there aren’t many that have been finished. And the ones that have been completed would probably be noticeable to only Jill or me. Ahh, such is the life of boat projects.

Thankfully I get to walk down to all the boat projects with views like this.

Upon last report, I’d ripped out some plumbing to the sink in the aft head and built a new drawer, re-finished the windlass motor and basically gotten the boat ready for an Alaskan winter. Since that time there has been a flurry of things happening, decisions being made and lots of indecision about which way to go on a few projects.

Though a lot may not be “finished” yet, here’s what’s in the works:

Re-finishing Woodwork

A primary consideration when thinking about moving off the boat for the winter was that we could tackle some work we otherwise wouldn’t with four souls aboard. Sanding and varnishing was very near the top of that list.

While Yahtzee has some nicely finished brightwork down below, there were some places that had become a little lackluster over the years. Chief among them were the areas around the companionway and the main bulkhead behind our cabin heater. Due to a lack of heat displacing material, heat from the diesel fireplace dried out the wood and made the finish look a bit off. Also, there were a few dings that needed fixing.

Woodwork isn’t necessarily difficult, but neither is it interesting or fun to write about. It’s just time consuming and relatively messy. I’ve spent days sanding, cleaning up the dust, varnishing and then sanding some more. And then I put in some new aluminum flashing to protect the wood.

Part of the companionway before…

Continue reading What the heck’s going on aboard Yahtzee?

Struggles of a stationary sailor

I can’t wait to be sailing out here again.

It’s no secret that I’m absolutely infatuated with Alaska. The place is truly amazing. But I’m also not going to mince words in that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be the sailor and writer who can contentedly sit by and write about sailing while not actually being on the water. I know some folks can pull off the tired shtick of writing about their boats and telling years-old sea stories while rarely, if ever, leaving the dock. To me, all that bluster is for the birds.

I want to be sailing and writing about it!

Maybe I need to get Hornpipe out for some winter sailing.

I guess I’m having a hard time with it because the dock- and desk-bound sailor isn’t really my style. Never has been, never will be. And after the past three years and thousands of miles spent as a sailing nomad in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, I’m finding it’s not so natural for me.

With winter rapidly approaching here at 60 degrees north, I’m reminiscing more and more about past winters spent on the water. This will be the first in a long time that I won’t be out cruising or sailing on a regular basis, and coming to that realization is painful. Especially because wandering under sail has been such an integral part of my, and our family’s, life. Up until this point, it’s literally all we know together.

Faithful readers are well aware that we’ve spent the last three winters continuously cruising the Pacific Northwest and loved almost every minute of it. Sure, the days were short, cold and sometimes windy, but we found fun, adventure and some magic in discovering the bountiful Salish Sea cruising grounds in the offseason. The Gulf and San Juan islands, in particular, were true gems when the crowds of summer sailed for home and the parks, anchorages and coastal communities were left for the few willing to explore them in the din of winter.

A winter sail in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

Continue reading Struggles of a stationary sailor

Welcome to The Great Land

Sitting on a rocky outcropping next to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, I looked intently across the glacial plain towards a ridge of white peaks. Snowflakes swirled in the air and a broad smile beamed across my face. Next to me the boys were bursting balls of energy at the moment — we all knew we’d just witnessed something unique.

Minutes prior while hiking towards the glacier, we’d come across a large mountain goat in that very spot. We observed each other intently for what seemed like a lifetime before it made a slow and deliberate retreat down a shear cliff. Stunned at the close encounter, I wasn’t actually sure who was more surprised by the experience, us or the furry white goat.

The boys and I have made a ritual out of these Monday hikes, and each has become rewarding in its own way. The outings started with short walks to the river behind our cabin then extended farther afield and to other days of the week. There are so many places to get out and stretch our legs around here. So much to see and learn about each time we depart a trailhead into the woods. Continue reading Welcome to The Great Land

Reflections on a favorite part of summer cruising

From sociable friends made at the grocery store to folks walking the dock and new neighbors at the marina, we’ve fielded quite a few questions about our lives under sail and our journey through Alaska while getting settled here in Seward. And one query that Jill and I fielded separately yet agreed upon instantly went something like this: “What was your favorite?”

Meaning, what was your top moment from your spring and summer sailing north?

It’s a good question. Given that we left Puget Sound in late February, cruised the San Juan Islands and then sailed up the west coast of Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii and Southeast Alaska before hopping across the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak, the Kenai Peninsula and then Prince William Sound, you’d think the answer would warrant a long pause. It didn’t.

Our unanimous and unequivocal answer was given without hesitation — it was our 500-mile passage across the Gulf of Alaska.

Sunset on the Gulf of Alaska

Of course, with that answer came a slew of other questions about weather conditions, timing, life aboard, watch-keeping and the big one, “how did they boys do?”

Now that winter is knocking firmly on our door, and boat projects are mounting, it’s fun to take a look back at our summer to recount our favorite moment and answer the questions that came our way. Here are a few:

Why did you love it so much? 

While we realize that the gorgeous sailing weather was part of why our Gulf of Alaska crossing was so memorable, that’s not solely why it was our favorite. If that was the case it would have been easy to pick Glacier Bay or the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. The reason we both chose this particular moment is because it was our most indelible as a family — we absolutely loved sailing overnight for multiple days and nights in a row, together. It was awesome, and at the end of that big hop we truly felt like we could have kept going and going.

An idyllic day at sea

There are people who hate passagemaking, those who tolerate it and those who love it. Jill and I can firmly be put in the latter category. And after our passage across the Gulf we were ready to do more and go farther. When we thought about sailing south to California from Alaska, part of the reason we wanted to go was because we’re excited about doing it non-stop from Seward to San Francisco. We were thrilled at the notion of sailing offshore for what would have been 10 to 14 days. Actually, we still are. Continue reading Reflections on a favorite part of summer cruising

Salt life to cabin life, and the projects begin

Freshly cleaned lines dangle from the railing in our little cabin nestled amongst woods and mountains. Sails are neatly folded and stowed under our beds. The windlass motor has been removed, cleaned, sanded and re-painted. A pesky leak has been fixed. And more projects are underway on a long yet doable list.

Along with the boat stuff, firewood has been split and stacked. Our freezer is stocked with salmon. The cold morning air has become increasingly more crisp, causing us to pull on warmer clothes. Fresh blankets of snow have covered the many surrounding peaks and any day now we’ll get some of the white stuff down here, too.

We’re ready for winter and to keep working on Yahtzee.

Moving Off

With glorious sunshine and warm-ish weather, we moved off of Yahtzee and got her ready for the seasons ahead. It was bittersweet, to be sure. It’s the only home the boys have ever known and Jill and I haven’t lived in a house together in a long time. The adjustment period into a temporary land life has been understandably up and down, but mostly up.

Continue reading Salt life to cabin life, and the projects begin