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Voyaging skills interview

Apr 20, 2012

Sailing on Silver Ruffian in the South Pacific

The aluminum schooner Silver Ruffian underway in Vava'u.

The aluminum schooner Silver Ruffian underway in Vava'u.

Robin McIntyre

Ken Larner and Ilene Byron took different routes to the life of a liveaboard ocean voyager. Byron always loved the ocean. She became a certified scuba diver at 18 and worked on a half day fishing boat out of Point Loma, Calif., when she was in college. When she graduated school she got her dream job working for NOAA. Byron’s last assignment was as captain of a 135-foot NOAA research vessel. Along the way Byron acquired a 1,600-ton USCG masters license and a second mate unlimited license.

As for Larner, the sea was never a big part of his family. He worked a desk job as a mathematician for companies in the insurance industry. In 1985 while in post-divorce mode and being between jobs, he did his first sailing with a week’s keelboat sailing class in the Solent in the U.K. and loved it. In 1992 at age 40, he decided on a two-year career break and bought his first boat, a 51-foot schooner called
Silver Ruffian. The aluminum alloy schooner had equal height masts and had just completed a circumnavigation. He contacted two friends who he thought might be up for an adventure. They left the U.K. in August 1992 to sail around the world. Larner met Byron at the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama in 1993. He didn’t know then how important that would be to his future life and happiness. Engine problems in Fiji in mid 1993 meant the two-year circumnavigation was off the table and they turned left for New Zealand. Silver Ruffian has been sailing around the South Pacific ever since.

Ken Larner and Ilene Byron ashore in Tonga.

OV: What are the top skills voyagers need to know before going voyaging?

KL: Navigation, although modern electronics help a lot, they do break down. Don’t try to learn how to navigate at sea; the kitchen table is the place, especially if you get seasick. My original crew learned this the hard way. I’m a mathematician and Ilene’s a professional sailor, so navigation was not a stress area for us, but being able to make logical timely navigation decisions has been critical at times.

Also managing the boat and the various breakages and crises as they arise, was particularly important for me as I had no engineering skills. I am running at a 50 percent average that anything I try to fix never works again. Temperament and teamwork becomes important. An oceangoing sailboat is like a professional athlete — there are always injuries, but you have to play through them. There is no point in griping about it. Learning how to set the sails most efficiently was probably not a critical skill as you get a lot of practice in the first week out there!

You do a lot of anchoring when you get “remote” so have the right set up and get the teamwork working.

IB: Knowing how to handle seasickness. Luckily different conditions set us off differently. I do not like to take any medicine; I just throw up and usually feel better. Ken first got seasick when the doctor put him on cholesterol medicine in 1999 and now takes half a seasickness pill for the first three ocean days.

Knowing your own boat and basic engineering knowledge is really helpful, because eventually everything breaks. Navigation in the open ocean is not as important anymore with a working GPS, but is certainly helpful when making landfall.

Ilene Byron on lookout at the mast of Silver Ruffian.

OV: What is your planning routine for going on a voyage?

KL&IB: Since 1998 we have been in the South Pacific doing Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and/or New Caledonia for the winter and leaving the boat in New Zealand for the hurricane season. This means doing a 1,000-mile open ocean transit twice a year. May/June up to the islands and October/November to New Zealand. We return to the U.S. for two to six months to see family, organize finances and see the doctors. We have been accused of being part-time voyagers.

New Zealand is a first world country with high-caliber engineers and we have been lucky to have the same engineer, Mark Lawson, work on our boat for 12 years. When we leave the boat in New Zealand, we leave Mark a list of things to do. We have a logbook that is dedicated to ship projects, which we constantly add to. There are about 30 items on the list at any one time.

We return to New Zealand in March/April and haul the boat to antifoul and usually something else. We do not leave New Zealand unless the boat and us are 100 percent. We will leave the islands with the boat not quite 100 percent on some items but require 100 percent for items that effect safety. For instance, our electric shower sump pump broke in Fiji and we will cross an ocean like that, but shearing a bolt on a plug on the oil cooler would be a showstopper. Once the boat is ready and we are ready we go on weather watch.

Over the years we have restricted the number of tropical countries we plan to visit down to one or two a year (e.g. Tonga/Fiji or Fiji/New Caledonia). This gives time to get our toys sorted out so we can do justice to the fishing, diving and other fun stuff.

OV: What is the most valuable skill you’ve picked up while voyaging?

KL&IB: The biggest skill was losing the ego. We both had high-powered, highly responsible jobs. You are out there together, but alone, in forced self-sufficiency, in a really big ocean. When the head backs up you are the one playing with the poop.

For Ilene, being outside the USA was an eye opener. She learned to adapt to the environment and experience new countries with an open mind.

For Ken, he was taught about fishing by Scott Bannerot and now feeds the two of them and has lots of fun with it.

OV: What skills do you most look for in a crewmember?

KL&IB: We only take friends as crew. Ken used to take crew on ocean voyages before we got together. His crew problems far outweighed any other issues on the boat. His “rule of thumb” is no crew should get on a pleasure boat that needs them to sail the boat, otherwise it’s a delivery! Crew need be no more than a pair of eyes as watchkeeper, although the ability to fix outboards is nice. Casual crew should beware. There are plenty of cruisers out there who are slowly sinking financially or under the burden of unrepaired breakages. Ken didn’t take couples as they can downward spiral and gang up if things start to go horribly wrong mid-ocean. Ken is scarred on crew issues!!

OV: Based on your experience, do you find voyagers more or less skilled than in years past?

KL: There will always be more and less experienced ocean cruisers. People will all have varied expectations and dreams for their sailing adventure. The electronics are better, much better, and this sometimes gives the new voyager a false sense of security. It does not take the new voyager long to realize that if they want to cruise around the islands they also need the paper chart, unless their nav screen is 20 inches and next to the helm!

A key issue here is that boats seem to be bigger now. Boats larger than 45 feet are normal and dinghies carry 15-hp outboards or more. Fixing engines, winches, and refrigeration in the larger sizes requires specialist knowledge and tools and is exponentially more expensive, especially in the islands. Often repairs are impossible, so many of the larger, better-equipped boats end up limping along in a degraded state. Not getting your ice maker working affects crew morale and so does losing your genset or fancy relay that works the bow thruster.

IB: I wrote the following on board this year: Each year a group, mostly Americans, leave the coasts of Mexico and Panama and do what they call the Pacific Puddle Jump. These cruisers usually have a goal of sailing around the world and usually have the most up-to-date electronics and toys. The dynamics of this migration changes from year to year, but usually there is a core group that does radio schedules and stick together. If we make an ocean passage when they do I like to find out their radio frequency and schedule and eavesdrop, because they usually have a satellite phone and use a weather router. It’s always nice to hear their paid professional forecasts match mine.

Most cruisers are amazingly interesting, nice, and self-sufficient people. Ken and I enjoy an anchorage with a few boats so we can meet new people and swap stories. Cell phones and DVDs have made cruisers less social. VHF radios used to be the only communication between boats. I admit to being a busy body and I kept my radio on scan to hear everything. Now cell phones keep the gossip secret. Before DVDs and hard drives, cruisers did get together more at night for potlucks and game nights. Now the glow of monitor screens is seen through closed curtains. Maybe when we all finish watching our movies we’ll go out and play.

OV: How has the experience of voyaging changed now that voyagers can stay connected even while at sea?

KL&IB: Ocean sailing is a lonely lifestyle so meeting new people each year is important, but it’s definitely getting harder to meet the new cruisers. Cliques seem to form during the various rallies. There are so many nets now on their schedules. We find the new cruisers definitely know more of what’s going on amongst fellow cruisers than we do. Sometimes I feel disconnected because I am not on a net.

Many boats carry satellite phones now but usually only use them on ocean voyages. Most islands have local mobile phones with good coverage. VHF and SSB nets are still the main way cruisers stay connected. From that point of view, not much has changed. When you are near the shore, wireless Internet and mobile phones are the norm although broadband connections are not ubiquitous.

OV: Does pressure to stay on a schedule make you take risks with bad weather?

KL: Safety is the most important priority when cruising. When it comes to crossing an ocean we try to have no schedule. We have been known to book a plane trip back to Florida from our destination port based on price and had to leave in near gale-force winds that continued for days. We don’t do that now!!

IB: I wrote the following on the boat this season about the weather: You must understand the weather yourself and not trust anyone for the weather. Boats and people all sail different and have different tolerances; you must understand the weather as it affects you. Silver Ruffian has been cruising the South Pacific since 1993 and this is the weather I will try to explain to you so Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and New Zealand can become your home.

Through the years, forecasting has become better and better, and now a seven-day forecast is available and usually very good. They are better at predicting the general patterns expected to emerge. Don’t expect them to get the position of that low correct within 50 miles after seven days though!

There are plenty of good websites you can look at to help you plan your passage. In New Zealand and when planning an ocean passage my favorites are MetService, MetVUW, PassageWeather, NOAA and the once-a-week McDavitt report on Pangolin. Bob McDavitt is the weather ambassador for New Zealand and worked in Fiji and wrote the book that helped me understand the South Pacific weather better.

Besides weather routers, there are also radio stations on the SSB that set up schedules for you to report your position and they can relay messages and give you a weather forecast. They have names like Opua Offshore Communications, Russell Radio and Rag of the Air. The individuals who man these stations are selfless and they can start to seem like your best friends when the weather gets tough, but you are the one out there suffering any consequences from decisions made, so you need to understand the weather too.

OV: How do you handle provisioning? Do you have a system for determining the amount of food and water needed for a particular voyage?

KL&IB: As regards water, we have a watermaker. We leave on an ocean trip full of water and arrive full. As back up, our stock of water can cover the whole trip if needed. We service the watermaker regularly. It’s a critical piece of kit for us.

As regards provisioning, Ken has kept detailed records on spreadsheets for more than 10 years. We have been cruising the South Pacific for more than 12 years now. Each year we update records and make a shopping list of tinned and dry goods to provision for many months ahead. When leaving New Zealand we are provisioned for the whole season except for maybe cooking oil or flour. We save maybe 20 percent by provisioning in advance. On Silver Ruffian we are lucky to have huge areas for storage. We can easily carry more than 100 cans of tomatoes and 100 cans of vegetables in the bilges. These stores would be topped up with interim shopping about two-thirds through the season.

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

IB: I find peace, calmness and beauty on the ocean. I love fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving.

KL: Ditto. I first fell in love with sailing back in 1985 during a coastal sailing course. It was the perfect antidote to a deskbound stressful job.  Now, I’m retired and sail because we sail together. If Ilene retired from the sea I guess I would too.
OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

KL&IB: Crossing oceans short-handed is hard on you. It’s an endurance test physically if only because of the difficulty of sleeping on the ocean in something with the motion of a washing machine, let alone the impact of bad weather or dealing with breakages. Eventually we expect the aging process will catch up on us, but we are still under 60. We know couples well into their 70s still sailing so we probably have another five years at least until we have to go “coastal” only. Illness and family deaths take their toll. We’ve had years when we thought we were coming to the end of the ocean adventures, but got a second wind.

We love the South Pacific islands and have many true friends there that are almost family now. We will likely cruise two countries a year for a few more years but return to New Zealand every other year now that we can, relatively safely, leave Silver Ruffian in Fiji for hurricane season.

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