Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Electronics attrition, or learning to do without

Solomon Islands, Gizo Town
December 22, 2012 thru May 2013

The thing that gives this strange and beautiful nomadic existence depth is writing about it and sharing it with others. Living it is not enough. The view is not enough.

Then why has it taken so long to write about it? A simple answer would be that we have been experiencing electronics attrition. A longer one is that we have been living fully in a third world country and our irreplaceable modern technology has been failing routinely. Many electronics things have failed since we left Fiji. Maybe their 'two year life' had expired. I don't know. We've lost so many electronics there doesn't seem to be patterns to their fatalities. (And there have been the manual equipment failures as usual too.)

Living each day - making food as the pioneers did, and eating it (there is no fast food, little canned food, and the two restaurants are totally unaffordable - a single pizza is around $80 US); creating curriculum and teaching primary school (1st and 4th grades); washing laundry by hand, mending, altering, and making clothes; repairing everything that can be repaired and replacing the rest as it corrodes, breaks, dies - or better yet learning to live without. In the Solomon Islands, we have learned to live without.

There is very little here to replace what needs replacement on our boat - in our life. If we cannot make it, often we cannot get it. Gizo Town, the second largest city in the Solomon Islands, went without propane for 6 weeks - not a single bottle was shipped from Honiara (the capitol and largest city in the Solomon Islands) because there was a shortage in Honiara too. The local restaurant and yacht club, PT 109, bought a kerosene stove to stay open. Few locals use propane, most cannot afford it. Most still cook over wood burning fires or single burner kerosene stoves.

Even some clothing cannot be replaced here when it wears too thin. To make what you would buy takes a lot of time. Much of my creative energy has been devoted to designing and making clothes. I have had to learn to make clothing to fit without patterns (there are none). There are no boxer shorts here - I made Owen two pairs. Boys shorts are hard to come by - I made Griffyn 5 pairs (he burns through them). Boys do not wear underwear here, Griffyn's are disintegrating - but I cannot make them. Tamsyn is growing, I made her 3 pairs of shorts. I made some clothes for a local family. I have been able to find myself clothing everywhere we have been. In Gizo Town most clothing is second hand - coming from a donated bale - much of which is women's clothing. We are so hot here at 8 degrees south latitude - we have needed different clothes just to be 'dressed' yet feel naked. We barely wear anything on the boat - swim wear is too tight, too hot. I made myself a 'boat skirt' (not suitable for shore). On shore we wear what local customs suggest and we cover our skin out in the sun because it is cooler than having it exposed.

And of-course we swim to cool off. Griffyn has learned to be totally comfortable in 40 feet deep water while swimming and playing around the boat, despite the 5 foot Barracuda that shelters under our boat. Tamsyn, our local fish, swims faster and farther than me, she a fish in the water and loves to swim backwards underwater. She can swim under the keel and helps Owen clean the boat, she free dives down to 15 feet. Owen can go down 50 feet, Griffyn can go down 8 feet. I am still trying to figure out how to 'clear my sinuses' so I don't go deep, but love to swim the crawl - invented here in the Solomon Islands. Here kids swim home from school - from one Island to the next regularly, unless there are crocodiles. We have yet to see one of the salt-water crocodiles. We have not made plans to change that.

In Vanuatu we lost 3 GPS units in one week. Two were hand held units, battery powered and the batteries corroded and ruined the units. Yes they should have been stored with out batteries in them - but they weren't. Then the third GPS unit, the best one, the one we use for our main navigation which is wired into the computer and a built in antenna, just stopped working one day (in the same week that Owen discovered that the handhelds no longer worked.) We then had one more unit on board that worked, but it was very old and couldn't be hooked up to our computer. Which sent Owen into a panic. Only having one working unit means you may end up on a passage with out any. We couldn't do that. We were in Port Villa, Vanuatu and had become good friends with Ricky and Bruce (SV/Sea Going) - Bruce sold a GPS unit to Owen. It was also an older model, that wouldn't hook up easily to our computer, but at least we now had two. It is very difficult to navigate reefs and bays with out a GPS unit working while attached to a navigation program that shows you exactly where your boat is. Just knowing your coordinates is adequate for being out at sea far from land but not safe enough for entering foreign harbors, reefs or bays. When we left Port Villa to sail north out of hurricane areas, Owen had jury rigged one of the the GPS units to show us where we were in a navigation program - with a 10 to 15 second delay. The cords ran from the computer on the nav desk in the quarter berth up through the companion way and into the cockpit where the wire acting as an antenna could pick up the satellite signal. The companion way stairs were off limits to Tamsyn and Griffyn.

In Vanuatu, Monty, our wind vane broke, the oar (in the water) broke. We hand steered through 30 hours of successive storms, until we reached Port Villa. There was no stainless steel available (at all) in Port Villa. Owen had to make due with aluminum. Between Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, we sailed north through nightly electrical storms surrounding our boat with our fragile GPS system perched precariously. Mostly the seas were calm, mostly the electrical storms were 40 miles away and we just watched the lightning shows, while our back up computer, 2nd GPS unit, kindle and handheld VHF radios lived in the oven. Mostly there was light winds and we motored. It was an anxious passage that took longer than it should have. As we slowly made our way north away from hurricane alley and the coral sea.

The next most significant electrical loss was our main computer, the big one we use for navigation and the one Owen uses for his business. And two computers were out of commission by mid January. Sometime after January 9th, the big blue mac just wouldn't boot up. I was just about to start sending blog posts about Vanuatu and update everyone about what we had seen and done since leaving Savusavu, Fiji when we plugged in the smaller old mac, the one I use for writing and tried to charge it up. Owen needed to download a navigation program for that computer. He soon realized that our 2nd computer's battery wasn't holding a charge - which means that it can only be used when we have the inverter on, when there is enough sun light to convert to power. The rainy season had just begun. It rained for the next 4 months. We couldn't use the old mac on rainy days - not enough solar power.

Our third computer on board, purchased in Mexico, has a Spanish keyboard and an overly sensitive mouse pad. It is intolerable to use for any length of time, certainly I would have gone mad, had I tried to write a blog entry on it. That computer is the back-up nav computer, not meant for email or writing. In March, we decided it was time to purchase a computer. We were able to find a re-conditioned mac and another battery to fit our old mac. So we ordered them and the wait for our package from the US began. Our friend Jamie (S/V Isis) said his order from the USA took 6 weeks to arrive. That didn't seem too long - we focused on home schooling. Our computer and a new battery for the old mac arrived mid May.

Some other things that died in the Solomons are: our sewing machine, Tamsyn's video player, both headlamps, multiple flash lights, a solar calculator, the digital kitchen timer and Carrie's digital watch.

Our sewing machine died while we were making a rain catcher from old left over canvas. I made all those shorts at PT 109 with a manual Singer sewing machine purchased 30 years ago. It worked great. We used Griffyn's smaller video player to watch our nightly hour of 'TV' during dinner. We watched the series, 'From Earth to the Moon', the original 'Star Trek' episodes, Laurel and Hardy (from the 1920s and 30s) and most recently, two seasons of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' over the last 5 months. We have found a headlamp in Gizo - but it is made in China, thus it worked for about 5 minutes while we were trying it out in the store. The batteries available here in the Chinese stores last about an hour - no matter what they say on the package - so you have to "really need" a flashlight to use one. The solar calculator was 25 years old - but why now? The kitchen timer - now you wouldn't think a kitchen timer is that necessary in a lifestyle where there are few schedules except for prevailing winds and tide. But anything if relied on means an adjustment in how you function with out it. I just used my digital watch which has a timer on it - until my watch died too. I have learned to smell when the bread is done. I have developed a second sense about fully cooked rice. Some days I don't know what day of the week it is, what time it is, or how long something takes, but really none of that matters right now - I get up with the sun and get inside before dusk (when mosquitos spreading malaria come out to feed.)

Our kindle died for one week but we were able to re-boot. That sent all of in a spin - Tamsyn reads a book every couple days, Owen reads voraciously, and I was in the middle of Game of Thrones! Other than the GPS units and the computers, loosing the kindle was the most devastating (for that week).

So that is my explanation for our lack of communication. Now that we are back in computers - I will begin to illustrate the last 5 months - with as many pictures as I can, as soon as we get back to someplace with internet access.

Also we were invited to write an article for SAIL magazine. It will be published soon and we will let you know more when we do.


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Jennifer Johnson said...

We're so glad to hear from you! How frustrating it must be to have everything break. Is it the weather/sea water?

We're glad you are OK, though, safe and fed. We're finishing school for the year here. Glad to be almost done. We'll keep up with a few things over the summer so we don't lose skills in math and reading. :) Kids aren't happy about that.

Take care, and post when you can.

Clan Duncan said...

It is so good to hear from you! Thanks for the update. Good luck on fixing (or replacing) the electronics. It is ironic that in the US technology is so abundant that it is so quickly converted to a 'toy' and in some places in the world you need it as a tool and it can barely be found!

I will look forward to your article in SAIL!