For Gear Heads.

By Erik Dolson

When I bought the 25 year old boat, I was completely ignorant of electrical systems and the boat had three battery monitors: One in the charger /inverter (charges the main or “house batteries when connected to “shore” power, or takes direct current from the batteries and turns it into alternating current for appliances), one in the master switch panel, and a small round monitor labeled “Balmar” that only retired Balmar Inc. techs remembered and for which Balmar has no information anywhere. I asume it was sourced from another OEM.

None of the three ever agreed with either of the other two as to voltage or current. And, I wasn’t sure if the little round guage wasn’t actually connected to the battery that was used to start the engine, given that unlabeled wires run everywhere.

Let’s not get into the two huge alternators that hung off the main engine and were driven by two too small V-belts impossible to adjust, and a dumb regulator. Boy, did they eat belts. Even a Blalmar smart regulator didn’t cure that (a serpentine belt, did, with one larger alternator. Sometimes you have to KISS a problem away).

Oh, the generator regulator was installed such that the “dripless” shaft seal could toss salt water right at it. Talk about random issues! Burnt wires! The generator exhaust was plumbed into a cockpit drain, which allowed engine noise and diesel smoke unimpeded access to the cockpit during evenings at anchor. The tachometer didn”t need to be replaced despite the insistence of a tech who aparently didn’t grasp open circuit vs volatage under load, and the main engine would not start for a while in Alaska until, again, contacts were sanded and tightened.

So, if three guages don’t tell the same story, get a 4th! Bought a Balmar Smart Guage and wired it myself to one battery of the house bank so that I would absolutley know where and how. This battery monitor agreed with the voltage of the round Balmar guage which also gives amps draw. They were consistetly .2 volts higher than the old panel monitor, which also seems to report amps randomly between 2 and 200, which I put down to age/shunt issues, and a refrigeration system that does not go through the main panel at all but is wired up somewhere in the engine room. I’ll find the connections eventually.

But as long as things were working and somewhat consistent, I wasn’t worried. I was ignorant, almost as good!

That left the charger / inverter, which agreed in volts with the two Balmar guages when it was not charging, but was way off when it was. It also was not fully charging the batteries from shore power, I realized later, though my main engine and generator did, once new regulators were installed. The charger / inverter started to behave once a loose ground was tightened up during the process of sanding engine room electrical bus bar connections.

Then came solar, and the panels, and solar controllers, and a battery sensor that doesn’t broadcast beyond it’s own low profile shadow, and hence even more discovery.

It’s amazing to me how frustrating this can be, but at the same time, how much I love this stuff! I really mean that. What an education!

Like discovering after almost threeee yeeears and uncountable episodes of wiping up diesel while chasing the perfect flame that my Dickenson Diesel Heater doesn’t just want good draft, it really prefers positive cabin pressure! What a hoot!

The best of intentions

by Erik Dolson

Now THAT was a success. Planning the tides, the currents, time of departure, time of arrival … I’ll tell you, I have talent. A special talent, in fact …

Somehow, I got it all exactly wrong.

Not a little bit wrong, not off on the shoulder wrong, but current dead on the bow wrong, full flood, maximum flow.

I’d planned to do 9 knots in my calculations the night before. At first I told myself it was the wind. Not really supposed to be any wind, according to two different forecasts I consulted, but there it was, about 10 degrees off the bow of the boat and blowing 18 mph. So I wasn’t making 9 knots, I was making 7.2.

But, I told myself, when I turn to the west the wind will be just off the starboard stern, and I’ll make it up then!

Sure enough, I turned the corner by Roche Harbor and the wind, now going more my direction, was much less fierce. So the speed of the boat picked up to … huh? Now the speed was down to 6.8 knots, over the ground, as current sped against me through the narrow gap.

Okay, okay, we still have the longest leg, down Haro Strait. That should go much, much better. It’s a long run, wind from the port side rear quarter, I bet I’ll do … ah c’mon! 7.3 knots!?!

This time I looked again at the currents on my iPad, at the same program I looked at last night. They must have changed it while I slept! Because it clearly showed exactly what I was seeing on the water. Flood at 10:30 a.m. Maximum flow at this time. Against my direction of travel.

So instead of 3 1/2 hours to Victoria, it took over four. No big deal, nothing to do when I arrived, anyway. I was there at 12:30ish, only because of having made my 8 a.m. sunrise departure which, honestly, was a bit of a miracle by itself though it would have been a faster trip if I’d overslept an hour or two.

I pulled into customs exactly as I wanted, it all felt good as I backed into the wind, tossed a line over the new cleat on the dock, realized I was still going aftward because I’d not shifted into neutral, jumped to put the shifter into forward to stop the backward momentum, regathered the line and again threw it over the cleat on the dock … then tried to hold the boat for a second before realizing it wasn’t the current that was pulling me forward but the slowly chugging Yanmar I again had not taken out of gear … banged my head on the corner of the new house getting to the gear shift …

Okay, stop. Just stop. This is not that hard. Be deliberate, my mentor once said.

Stop the boat. Throw and secure spring line. Position boat against the line. Tie the stern line, then the bow. Now you can call customs. Whew!

Leaving customs, I left all the fenders down and lines ready to deploy at the marina two minutes away. When I saw the slip I’d been assigned, in the easiest possible location, I spun Foxy about in the harbor full of boats with holiday crowds at the wall, backed smartly up alongside the dock, stopped the boat and had her tied securely in about a minute.

Oh, yeah, done this before, not a big deal. (Sshhh.)

Farther but faster, of course less travelled

by Erik Dolson

This evening I plotted two courses from Friday Harbor to Victoria, B.C. I’ll take the longer one tomorrow, the last day of 2018, and maybe get there sooner.

The route around the southern tip of San Juan Island is 26.2 miles. The route around the north end of the island is 30 miles. All things being equal, the southern route would be about a half hour faster.

But unless I’ve misread tide and current tables, I’d be going against the flow most of the way on the southern route.  If I head north, currents should give me a boost first toward Roche Harbor, and by the time I get to Haro Strait, they should carry me south. Go with the flow.

If that’s correct, the longer route should take about 3 hours 26 minutes from just outside Friday Harbor to just outside the breakwater at Victoria. The shorter route would take 3 hours 48 minutes, or so.

A quarter hour is meaningless, of course. It’s a sailboat. It motors along at about 8 knots under power, which actually isn’t bad for a sailboat. But I was born impatient, and my other hobby rips along at 160 miles an hour. There the competition is against other drivers, and there’s competition with myself, the scramble for tenths if not hundredths of a second, the roar, the thrust, hanging on to the edge of traction.

This is a different focus: repairing dorades so they don’t gulp water, placing mooring lines where they’ll be accessible when close to the dock, tying down solar panels so they don’t flap like wings in a bit of chop and wind; making sure the jib can be deployed if the engine fails, or the anchor if drifting close to shore. Look, think, be deliberate, step carefully. Prepare, execute.

Taking the longer but faster route is really more about the challenge of seeing if I’ve plotted the course correctly, read the current tables, done my homework. If not, I’ll pay the penalty of a slow slog. I’ve done slogs against the currents in Juan de Fuca, and it really stretches out the distance.

Plus, I’ve made the southern passage a number of times, never taken the northern route and would like to see something new. It might be a good idea to become familiar with a back-up transit, too, in case Juan de Fuca is particularly nasty some day when I need to be someplace.

But that’s just a rationalization. I’ve been doing that a lot, lately. Explaining myself to myself. Let’s just put the new passage down to a mild case of adventuring, of seeking the heightened senses of not knowing exactly what’s around the next bend.

World’s best university…

… is in China.

By Erik Dolson

This is according to an article in The Economist: “In 2013-16 it produced more of the top 1% most highly cited papers in maths and computing, and more of the 10% most highly cited papers in stem, than any other university in the world … ” according to the article, which can be read here. Read more…


by Erik Dolson

Lars was leaning on the rail at the top of the ramp, gazing out at the water below. Bandit, a small and alert Australian Shepherd lay at his feet watching another dog approach from the parking lot above, a larger dog at the end of a leash held by a woman carrying groceries.

“You look like you’re trying to decide something,” said a man dressed all in black who came from the direction of town, a backpack on his shoulders. The man with the pack bent down and rubbed Bandit’s ears.

“Hi, Bandit,” he said. The dog stood at mention of his name by this man he had seemingly met before, but didn’t take his eyes off the other dog that was sniffing rocks where dogs peed on their way to and from boats packed side by side in their berths.

“Wondering if I should go to Alaska,” said Lars, his face rudy and unshaven, his hair thick, reddish and gray, the beard long and sparse. “Get me some kings.”

“It’s been a bad year for king salmon,” said the man dressed in black. “Even the Orca can’t find them.” The huge mammals that were totem for the western edge of Canada and the Pacific Northwest were starving. Nobody knew where the king salmon had gone, whether the absence was caused by dams, over fishing, global warming, foreign fleets depleting the resource far out at sea. Many theories, few answers. The story of a female that had carried her dead calf for 17 days made world wide news.

“Yeah, it’s been a bad one. The prices for a permit are down to half what they were just a couple of years ago. Lot of men have given up. Maybe I can get one cheap,” said Lars.

He moved his feet without standing or shifting his considerable weight from the rail. His right foot came forward to carry more of the load, his left foot went back to take some off. He switched hands, too. His hands were huge, reddish too and scarred, but looking as if they could grab and tie without effort the three-inch hawsers that held ferries in place at the landing.

“It’s a little late in the season,” said the man with the backpack.

“Well, yeah, not now. But later. I need to eat some kings. Get healthy.”

“You’re not healthy?”

“Was until six months ago. Felt great. Bought that boat,” Lars pointed by raising his chin toward a small troller tied to a dock where the bull rail was painted yellow, signifying that was not a place to tie up.

The dog with woman with groceries was about even with where the two men stood. Not making a sound, Bandit darted out toward the other dog but stopped after about two feet, well before the end of his own tether. The larger dog, startled, spun, barking with fear and aggression. He lunged, nearly pulling his owner down, but she retained both dog and grocery bag.

The woman, who had not seen Bandit’s feint, yanked hard at her dog’s leash, scolded him harshly and hauled him down the dock. Bandit, mission complete, had already turned to lie again at Lars’s feet before they’d taken five steps.

The man with the backpack laughed loudly. “Bandit, you set him up! You were just yankin’ that dog around!” he said to the Australian Shepherd, who looked for all the world like he was pleased as could be with his prank.

“So what happened six months ago?” the man asked Lars.

“Doctors said I had two strokes. And cancer. They tell me there’s not much they can do.”

“Aw, Lars. I’m sorry.”

“I just need to eat some kings, not all the garbage they sell in packages up at the store.”

The two men looked out over the harbor as a green and white ferry came in the harbor entrance, three decks high, the bottom lined with cars and motor homes and trucks. Bandit was looking the other way, as if for another victim.

“You have family?” asked the man with a pack.

“Not really,” said Lars.

“No kids?”

“Got a son. Lives in New York. He prefers city life.”

“Have you told him?”


“About the cancer.”

“Nah. He wouldn’t want to come back here. He was raised here, but he likes the city. He works in a restaurant, I don’t know. Wants to be a writer. He’s living with some woman whose uncle or something is into the publishing.”

“You don’t think he’d want to know?”

“I don’t know,” said Lars, dismissing that conversation. Minutes of silence followed.

“You know, before they told me about all this, the cancer and all, I felt great. Now they keep saying that I can’t do this and I can’t do that and I feel awful all the time, barely make it up the ramp some days. If they wouldn’t just say the same thing over and over again, I could get well maybe, and if I had something decent to eat.”

“Is there a food share in town? Something from the government or the churches?” the man asked.

“Oh yeah, there is, for those folks who need it. I’m not so good at asking for a hand out.”

“Maybe you need it just for a while, to get you by.”

“I don’t need much,” said Lars. “Not like I’m starving.” At that he leaned back a bit and nodded at his sizable belly pushing out beneath a faded and not too clean sweater. On top of that he wore a black quilted vest that would supply some warmth without binding the arms of a working man. He wore sweatpants, a concession to the difficulty he was having bending and moving around. On his feet, worn out work boots of high quality that he’d had as long as he could remember and would probably last forever.

“I don’t have any bills. I just need some good food. If I could get some kings, I think I’d get better. I lived on a farm once, on a creek not far from here. Kings would come up that creek and I could almost pick’em up with my hands. I didn’t take more than I needed, either.”

Lars seemed to be making his case to the God of Salmon that since he hadn’t taken more than his share, perhaps a little could be returned now in his time of need.

“How old are you,” asked the man dressed in black with a backpack and silver hair who wasn’t wearing a coat despite the chill air, and it looked like he’d just finished a run.

“Sixty-five,” said Lars, looking the man in the eye as if waiting for him to say that Lars looked pretty good for a man that age. He didn’t.

“You aren’t leaving for Alaska in November,” said the man.

“Nah. Well I could, head up the inside.” Inside is behind islands that guard the North American continent from the often violent northern Pacific sending storms that build all the way from Asia. Starting at Vancouver Island, one can get deep into Alaska with only a couple of stretches exposed to the open ocean.

One can wait for benign winds and water to cross those. But the bays and passages and channels are still lethal if things go wrong. Survival longer than five minutes is unlikely in the cold water.

“You could,” said the man, again bending down to rub Bandit behind the ears. The dog put his nose to the man’s nose and held it there, as if they were sharing whispers. The black of Bandit’s long healthy coat was the same black as the man’s sleeve; it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

“You know, there might be a way,” said the man, standing.

“Way for what?” asked Lars, settled back on the rail as if he were merging with the wood.

“What do you need? Full tank of fuel, provisions for six months?”

“Not even six,” said Lars. “I’d catch kings to eat, crab and bottom fish, too if I couldn’t catch kings. I wouldn’t fish every day if I didn’t need to, but could if I did.”

“Yeah. If you needed to,” said the man. “We could set that up, you could leave in a few days. Write up what you need, I’ll bring it to the boat. We’ll fill your tanks with fuel, water. You can take off as soon as you want.”

Lars didn’t say anything, but he looked at the man who now had the backpack in his right hand, and who looked back and held Lars’ gaze.

“Why?” Lars asked.

“There’s a catch.”

“There always is.”

“You leave Bandit with me.”

Lars looked down at the dog at his feet. The dog looked back at him, into him, aware of his man’s deep distress though not a word had been said.

“Why that? You could get your own dog for a lot less.”

“Yes I could, Lars. But it’s not about just having a dog, or any dog.”

“What is it then?” His voice was quicker and louder than it had been at any point in the conversation, motivated either by opportunity or fear it was impossible to say.

“It’s because I don’t think you’ll make it, Lars. I think you’ll die out there somewhere, at night on the rocks in a storm, in your bed at anchor in some cove, slipping on some slick, bird shit covered dock in a nothing town on some forgotten shore. I don’t know. But I don’t think you’ll make it, and I don’t want Bandit to die that way too, or trapped while your body rots and soaks into your blankets.”

“You’re a cold bastard.”

“Yes, I am. It’s what I do.”

“What is that, exactly?”

“We must all move forward, Lars, but it’s easy to get stuck. I unstick people, help them make decisions or decide for them if they can’t.”

“You work for the state?” Lars asked, which caused the man to explode with laughter. He laughed so hard he couldn’t speak for a long time.

“I’m going to share that one with friends,” was all he said when finished.

Lars then gathered himself and stood, pushed himself up with his hands and arms, until his back was straight for the first time. At full height he stood easily a head and a half above the man with a backpack who was dressed in black. Lars looked every inch the son of the norsemen from whom he descended, a Viking, in rags but proud, blue eyes alive.



“No. I raised him. We’re together now, and will be until we can’t be.” Lars bent down and gently put his huge hand, it looked like it could wrap all the way around, on Bandit’s head. The dog stood immediately, knowing they were off together to wherever their journey might lead.

“What’s next, Lars?” asked the man.

“We’re going to get something to eat. Then I think I’ll call my son.”

Lars slowly made his way down the ramp, toward the small troller tied where it shouldn’t be at the dock. He was headed home. The man in black carrying a backpack smiled as Bandit frequently paused, waiting for Lars to take each difficult step.

Single handing

By Erik Dolson

Ferry servicer between Anacortes and Sidney B.C. was shutting down until late the first week in November. The boat needed to be in Friday Harbor around the beginning of the month. Weather looked good for a passage down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria. Time to go.

Engine checklist completed, I cranked over the engine. Oil pressure good. Temperature good. RPM smooth and good. Light gray smoke coming from the exhaust with the water.

Foxy’s a little over 13 feet wide. The slot between boats looked to be about 15 feet. I was pretty sure we could make it, but threading backwards required a little help, less than I was given, in fact.

“Don’t push! Don’t push!” I called out to the young man who thought he had to clear a boat by two feet when we only needed one. He leaped to the stern where the prop on my outboard hanging at the transom was about to dig a long groove in the side of his own boat. Damage averted.

In the harbor, I reminded myself of Roy’s advice: “Be deliberate.” I walked slowly to pull up and stow the fenders. I carefully wrapped mooring lines around the life lines. I walked slowly back, watching where I put each foot. I should have put Foxy in neutral, I realized. A stumble and fall overboard would have likely the same result here as out in the strait, unless I fell right in front of one of the little yellow water taxis buzzing about the harbor. The water is that cold.

Thoughts began to settle out in the straight, as did turmoil of last months. The unanswerable question: “How can you say you love me, and leave at the same time?” remained unanswered. I had no answer. But the volume receded even as I knew I had turned it up to ten, not Irish.

Oil pressure good. Engine temperature good. RPM good.

Life is not simple, for anyone. Sometimes I think there’s a dynamic balance between our capacity to organize versus the chaos we create just by living. Whether it’s the drunk  who struggles with the ATM machine, or me sitting silently in a patch of afternoon sun, or Irish, who referenced that “sinking feeling when you realize your life is a mess.”

The dinghy is secure. Hot coffee is in the pot up at the helm. Life jacket is at hand if I have to go forward. Fire Extinguisher. Tool kit. Oil pressure good. Engine temperature good. RPM good.

I gave her best care I could, so I thought. Physically. Spiritually. Financially. I knew it wasn’t enough, because I knew me. Of course I could see that in her eyes, too, though what I saw was pain because  I was unable to immerse myself in what we had, unwilling to change my priorities, to find a compromise that I didn’t believe in.

I told her I was toxic. She denied it but that made it worse because it said that I made this awful choice and could have chosen differently if I truly loved her.

There were no boats nearby. Large islands drifted slowly by. Tides were with me again, now twice in a row on a transit between the U.S. and Canada. The GPS showed nine knots, then over ten for a while as I rode the flood in from the Pacific Ocean.

I’ve not had Foxy out in the Pacific yet, and won’t consider myself a sailor until I do, with twenty foot waves or forty foot or even higher, hatches battened down, strapped by harness to jack lines, green water washing over the deck. Books and pans on the floor, maybe even having to heave to, sail opposite rudder, just to ride out the storm. That could well actually kill Irish, destroy her Parkinson’s weakened body, as if the boat and I had not come close enough already. May nausea of that shame mark me forever.

Recently I read that some choose to just tie everything down and go below during fierce storms, let them blow over, let the sea have her way, bob like a stick of wood if far enough out that a continent won’t get in the way. That’s something I should learn to do.

Flunking the test on fog, I untied from the mooring ball, everything looking good. I squirted across the channel to the dock where I wanted to tie up for a few weeks while some work is done. I heard no bellow from ferries in the fog, and kept a sharp eye out. Uneventful. Did good, I thought.

Ten minutes later I heard a ferry cross the track I’d just made. I heard it’s horn. I heard it’s engine. I damn near heard people talking on deck, but I couldn’t see its three story hulk 150 feet away, no further from me than it would have been had I been in its path without a radar reflector and the AIS for broadcasting my position sitting uninstalled on the desk below.

Hard to know what you don’t know.

But on the solo trip up the strait, I hadn’t had that experience yet. Then a long wake stretched out behind the boat, in a moment undisturbed by wind or wave, future or past. Oil pressure good. Engine temperature good. RPM good.

Connie Chung’s remarkable letter

by Erik Dolson

During the aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing, retired newswoman Connie Chung wrote a remarkable letter to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who had come forward to describe a decades old assault by Kavanaugh.

Chung empathized with Ford after Republican men on the committee, and the president, implied the assault could not have occurred as she remembered it, in effect saying: “This didn’t happen or you would have told someone at the time.”

In the letter, Chung revealed a painful truth: As a young woman, still a virgin and in college, she had been assaulted by her family doctor from whom she had asked for a prescription for birth control. Read more…

A piggish man

By Erik Dolson


The awful words; the sneers; the mocking of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford by the President of The United States. What an execrable little man.

That was obvious long ago, when he mocked a disabled reporter; by his use of disparaging nicknames; lying to the nation about affairs even as he was paying $130,000 to a woman he had sex with shortly after his wife gave birth to their son and he was bemoaning the impact of childbirth on her body.

Read more…

Men, imagine your rape

by Erik Dolson

Men should imagine themselves as victims of sexual aggression by other men. Go ahead, pull up that prison nightmare you’ve joked about for years, bar of soap included in the unlikely event your attacker wants to be gentle.

Feel the powerlessness? Experience the violation? How would you feel the next day? The year after that? What would you remember?

Imagine that if you report to the guards that you were raped, they won’t believe you, then ask if you encouraged the rape in any way or tried to avoid it, that they might simply laugh and say it’s not such a big deal, or even get off on it. Read more…