Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico

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You can also find me on G+ and twitter, and most of my photos get uploaded to radpin.imgur.com

Friday
Nov082013

i finally did something with thekeel.com

About five years ago I picked up the domain name thekeel.com and had some loose ideas of what to do with it. Nothing materialized, and last month I found myself at an interesting crossroad:

- Sitting around, remarkably, with decent Internet access in La Paz, Baja Sur.

- Wanting a way to record all the places we go and stuff we find out about. 

- Wanting somewhere to upload my GPX tracks.

- Wanting a way to share our current location on our website (like on the front page of our site).

So, poof-whalla (and many bug fixes later, with many more to come) I have a version 1 up that works.

I (and you) can send in position reports via email (with an SSB or satellite connection). It also integrates with Spot messengers.

For some of our passages, like this one from Puerto Escondido to La Paz, there really is valuable insight I wish I would have known. Refraction around the islands (during northerlies). The incorrect lighting indicated on Isla Las Animas, the better weather found going around the San Jose Channel. 

There's still a ton more to do and I'm regularly seeing an error or two come through every day. But, things are generally working okay and if you have any feedback or ideas let me know. 

Friday
Nov012013

one year as "real" sailors

It was exactly one year ago that we motored out of San Diego Harbor and started what has been, for me, the most amazing year of my life.

I've been trying to put my thoughts together about it for a while and just keep shaking my head. Charlotte and I sat around for a few minutes tonight just going through the list and it feels like decades worth of experiences, crammed into a single calendar year.

Our youngest daughter was born following the reenactment of a Benny Hill skit with Cole Trickle. I singlehanded ~1300 miles from Ensenada to Bahia de Banderas. I did my job from a developing nation. I took a train across the United States, and got the flu in New Orleans. We've crossed the Sea of Cortez, myself twice. I've weathered half a dozen cyclones. We've eaten fish we've pulled from the sea. We've met incredibly interesting people.

We've swung into tropical springs with rope from a tree branch, nets up to keep the crocodiles out. 

Charlotte and I sat in Puerto Escondido and found Lyra in the stars

The hardest things to put into writing though are the transformative impacts of it all. 

The problem with being an adventurer is that you'll never again belong in any one place. 

This year has been like a surgical operation, pulling away pieces of us that we don't really need and buttressing areas that had grown soft from "real life".

I'm summarizing a bit, but a core aspect of Robert Pirsig's commentary on sailing is that is indeed more "real" than "real life". So much of modern living is about insulating a person. Insulating away from the environment, from fear, from discomfort, from challenge, and ultimately from themselves. 

In Walden, Thoreau spoke of modern inventions:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

It's really hard to believe that we'll be leaving for the South Pacific in a few months. Sailing with the family is physically, emotionally, and financially tough but looking back on the first year I can say this: it was absolutely worth it and I can't wait to write the next installment from New Zealand. 

Friday
Nov012013

cruising blues - by robert pirsig

In my wildest dreams I will be half the writer that Robert Pirsig is, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In addition to writing what is often considered one of the greatest modern American stories, Robert Pirsig is also a sailor and spent a lot of time sailing about and crossing the Atlantic. This is from an article in the May 1977 edition of Esquire magazine that he penned.

Their case was typical. After four years of hard labor their ocean-size trimaran was launched in Minneapolis at the head of Mississippi navigation. Six and one half months later they had brought it down the river and across the gulf to Florida to finish up final details. Then at last they were off to sail the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles and South America. Only it didn't work out that way. Within six weeks they were through. The boat was back in Florida up for sale. 


"Our feelings were mixed," they wrote their hometown paper. "Each of us had a favorite dream unfulfilled, a place he or she wanted to visit, a thing to do. And most of us felt sheepish that our 'year's escape' shrunk to eight months. Stated that way, it doesn't sound as if we got our money's worth for our four years' labor." 


"But most of us had had just about all the escape we could stand; we're overdosed on vacation. Maybe we aren't quite as free spirits as we believed; each new island to visit had just a bit less than its predecessor." 


"And thoughts were turning to home." 


Change the point of origin to Sacramento or Cincinnati or any of thousands of places where the hope of sailing the world fills landlocked, job-locked dreamers; add thousands of couples who have saved for years to extend their weekends on the water to a retirement at sea, then sell their boats after six months; change the style and size of the boat, or the ages and backgrounds of the participants, and you have a story that is heard over and over again in cruising areas - romantic dreams of a lifetime destroyed by a psychological affliction that has probably ended the careers of more cruising sailors than all other causes together: cruising depression. 


"I don't know what it was we thought we were looking for," one wife said in a St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, harbor after she and her husband had decided to put their boat up for sale and go home. "But whatever it was, we certainly haven't discovered it in sailing. It seemed that it was going to be such a dream life, but now, looking back on it, it just seems . . . oh, there have been beautiful times, of course, but mostly it's just been hard work and misery. More than we would have had if we had stayed home." 
A husband said, "We find ourselves getting on each other's nerves, being cooped up like this with each other day after day. We never realized that in order to enjoy being with someone you have to have periods of separation from that person too. We sailed on weekends and short vacations for years. But living aboard isn't the same." 


Statements symptomatic of cruising depression vary from person to person, but common to most are long periods of silence in a person who is normally talkative, followed by a feeling of overwhelming sadness that at first seems to have no specific cause, then, on reflection, seems to have many causes, such as: 
  • Everything is breaking down on this boat. 
  • Everything is going to hell. Considering the number of things that could break down, the attrition is actually quite normal, but now there isn't the time or tools to make major repairs, and the costs of boatyard labor and overhead are out of sight. So now every part failure - a pump that won't work, a loose propeller shaft, a windlass that sticks - looms up as a catastrophe, and during the long hours at the helm while the problem remains unfixed, it grows larger and larger in the mind. 
  • Money is running short. 
  • Most of the big supermarkets are too far from the boat to walk to. 
  • Marine stores seem to overcharge on everything. 
  • Money is always running short, but now that fact, which was once a challenge, is a source of despair. A serious cruising person always seems to find the money one way or another, usually by taking short-term waterfront jobs, and taking them without much resentment. His boat gives him something to work for. But now the boat itself is resented and there is nothing to work for. 
  • The people are unfriendlier here than back home. Back home people seemed friendlier, but now cruising depression has put a scowl and a worried look on the sailor's face that makes people keep their distance. 
All this is just running away from reality. You never realize how good that friendly old nine-to-five office job can be. Just little things - like everyone saying hello each morning or the supervisor stopping by to get your opinion because he really needs it. And seeing old friends and familiar neighbors and streets you've lived near all your life. Who wants to escape all that? Perhaps what cruising teaches more than anything else is an appreciation of the real world you might otherwise think of as oppressive.


This last symptom - the desire to "get back to reality" - is one I've found in almost every case of cruising depression and may be the key to the whole affliction. If one bears down on this point a little it begins to open up and reveal deeper sources of trouble.


One first has to ask where those who are depressed got the idea that cruise sailing was an escape from reality. Who ever taught them that? What exactly do they mean? Scientists and philosophers spend their entire working lives puzzling over the nature of reality, but now the depressed ones use the term freely, as though everyone should know and agree with what they mean by it.


As best I can make out, reality for them is the mode of daily living they followed before taking to the water; unlike cruise sailing, it is the one shared by the majority of the members of our culture. It usually means gainful employment in a stable economic network of some sort without too much variance from what are considered the norms and mores of society. In other words, back to the common herd. 


The illogic is not hard to find. The house-car-job complex with its nine-to-five office routine is common only to a very small percentage of the earth's population and has only been common to this percentage for the last hundred years or so. If this is reality, have the millions of years that preceded our current century all been unreal? 


An alternative - and better - definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components ...air...sunlight...wind...water...the motion of waves...the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike twentieth-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory life-styles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to. 


If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from reality have got their understanding of both sailing and reality completely backwards. Sailing is not an escape but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape. For centuries, man suffered from the reality of an earth that was too dark or too hot or too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of lighting, heating and air conditioning. Sailing rejects these and returns to the old realities of dark and heat and cold. Modern civilization has found radio, TV, movies, nightclubs and a huge variety of mechanized entertainment to titillate our senses and help us escape from the apparent boredom of the earth and the sun and wind and stars. Sailing returns to these ancient realities. 


For many of the depressed ones, the real underlying source of cruising depression is that they have thought of sailing as one more civilized form of stimulation, just like movies or spectator sports, and somehow felt their boat had an obligation to keep them thrilled and entertained. But no boat can be an endless source of entertainment and should not be expected to be one. 


A lot of their expectation may have come from weekend sailing, whose pleasures differ greatly from live-aboard cruising. In weekend sailing, depression seldom shows up, because the sailing is usually a relief from a monotonous workweek. The weekender gets just as depressed as the live-aboard cruiser, but he does it at home or on the job and thinks of these as the cause of the depression. When he retires to the life of cruising, he continues the mistake by thinking, Now life will be just like all those summer weekends strung end to end. And of course he is wrong. 


There is no way to escape the mechanism of depression. It results from lack of a pleasant stimulus and is inevitable because the more pleasant stimuli you receive the less effective they become. If, for example, you receive an unexpected gift of money on Monday, you are elated. If the same gift is repeated on Tuesday, you are elated again but a little less so because it is a repetition of Monday's experience. On Wednesday he elation drops a little lower and on Thursday and Friday a little lower still. By Saturday you are rather accustomed to the daily gift and take it for granted. Sunday, if there is no gift, you are suddenly depressed. Your level of expectation has adjusted upward during the week and now must adjust downward. 


The same is true of cruising. You can see just so any beautiful sunsets strung end on end, just so any coconut palms waving in the ocean breeze, just so many exotic moonlit tropical nights scented with oleander and frangipani, and you become adjusted. They no longer elate. The pleasant external stimulus has worn out its response and cruising depression takes over. This is the point at which boats get sold and cruising dreams are shattered forever. One can extend the high for a while by searching for new and more exciting pursuits, but sooner or later the depression mechanism must catch up with you and the longer it has been evaded the harder it hits. 


It follows that the best way to defeat cruising depression is never to run from it. You must face into it, enter it when it comes, just be gloomy and enjoy the gloominess while it lasts. You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau. 


When depression is seen as an unavoidable part of one's life, it becomes possible to study it with less aversion and discover that within it are all sorts of overlooked possibilities. 


To begin with, depression makes you far more aware of subtleties of your surroundings. Out on a remote anchorage, the call of a wild duck during an elated period is just the call of a wild duck. But if you are depressed and your mind is empty from the down-scaling of depression, then that strange lonely sound can suddenly bring down a whole wave of awareness of empty spaces and water and sky. It sounds strange, but some of my happiest memories are of days when I was very depressed. Slow monotonous grey days at the helm, beating into a wet freezing wind. Or a three-day dead calm that left me in agonies of heat and boredom and frustration. Days when nothing seemed to go right. Nights when impending disaster was all I could think of. I think of those as "virtuous days," a strange term for them that has a meaning all its own. 


Virtue here comes from childhood reading about the old days of sailing ships when young men were sent to sea to learn manliness and virtue. I remember being skeptical about this. "How could a monotonous passage across a pile of water produce virtue?" I wondered. I figured that maybe a few bad storms would scare hell out of the young men and this would make them humble and manly and virtuous and appreciative of life ever afterward, but it seemed like a dubious curriculum. There were cheaper and quicker ways to scare people than that. 


Now, however, with a boat of my own and some time at sea, I begin to see the learning of virtue another way. It has something to do with the way the sea and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated, because there's no choice.


You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and produces a certain change in values. Old gear that has been through a storm or two without failure becomes more precious than it was when you bought it because you know you can trust it. The same becomes true of fellow crewmen and ultimately becomes true of things about yourself. Good first appearances count for less than they ever did, and real virtue - which comes from an ability to separate what merely looks good from what lasts and the acquisition of those characteristics in one's self - is strengthened. 


But beyond this there seems to be an even deeper teaching of virtue that rises out of a slow process of self-discovery after one has gone through a number of waves of danger and depression and is no longer overwhelmingly concerned about them. 


Self-discovery is as much a philosopher's imponderable as reality, but when one takes away the external stimuli of civilization during long ocean hours at the helm far from any land, and particularly on overcast nights, every cruising sailor knows that what occurs is not an evening of complete blankness. Instead comes a flow of thought drawn forth by the emptiness of the night.


Occurrences of the previous day, meager as they may have been, rise and are thought about for a while, and then die away to return again later, a little less compelling, and perhaps another time even weaker, until they die away completely and are not thought of again. Then older memories appear, of a week past, a month past, of years past, and these are thought about and sometimes interrelated with new insights. A problem that has been baffling in the past is now understood quickly. New ideas for things seem to pop up from nowhere because the rigid patterns of thought that inhibited them are now weakened by emptiness and depression. Then in time these new thoughts wear town too, and the empty night dredges deeper into the subconscious to tug at, loosen and dislodge old forgotten thoughts that were repressed years ago. Old injustices that one has had to absorb, old faces now gone, ancient feelings of personal doubt, remorse, hatred and fear, are suddenly loose and at you. You must face them again and again until they die away like the thoughts preceding them.


This self that one discovers is in many ways a person one would not like one's friends to know about; a person one may have been avoiding for years, full of vanity, cowardice, boredom, self-pity, laziness, blamingness, weak when he should be strong, aggressive when he should be gentle, a person who will do anything not to know these things about himself - the very same fellow who has been having problems with cruising depression all this time. I think it's in the day-after-day, week-after-week confrontation of this person that the most valuable learning of virtue takes place. 


But if one will allow it time enough, the ocean itself can be one's greatest ally in dealing with this person. As one lives on the surface of the empty ocean day after day after day after day and sees it sometimes huge and dangerous, sometimes relaxed and dull, but always, in each day and week, endless in every direction, a certain understanding of one's self begins slowly to break through, reflected from the sea, or perhaps derived from it. 


This is the understanding that whether you are bored or excited, depressed or elated, successful or unsuccessful, even whether you are alive or dead, all this is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. The sea keeps telling you this with every sweep of every wave. And when you accept this understanding of yourself and agree with it and continue on anyway, then a real fullness of virtue and self-understanding arrives. And sometimes the moment of arrival is accompanied by hilarious laughter. The old reality of the sea has put cruising depression in its proper perspective at last. 
Thursday
Oct312013

west coast is the best coast

I'd like to take a minute to crap all over east coast sailors. I myself am from the east coast of course, born right outside the city of brotherly love. But thankfully I got my sailing chops on the west coast, which I will now explain to you why it is indeed the best coast.

The distance from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas is 97 miles. Ninety seven. That kind of wimp ass distance us west coasters do standing on our heads. 

For us to get from San Diego to Isthmus on Santa Catalina Island was the same distance, and that was amateur hour. Hell, Cora rode out a gale in that run, twice, when she was three months old.

No, for us west coasters to "go cruising" we have three choices:

1) Sail the two and a half thousand miles to Hawaii. 

2) Sail the four thousand miles to French Polynesia.

3) Sail over eight hundred miles through no-man's land of Baja, and that just deposits you on the end of a peninsula for which you must either continue on for another hundred miles to get anywhere decent or go another few hundred miles across the Sea of Cortez. Broken up normally that is four passages of three days a pop, over a thousand miles of which there is no safe haven from anything.

 

So with that, I salute you, 2013 Class of Baja HaHa'rs whether or not you're actually in the rally matters not. What does matter is that you're currently in Mexico, probably for your first time, offshore right at this very moment slugging away at over a thousand nautical miles of distance to get to the mainland. 

You left in the rain. There is a cyclone forming at this very moment that you'll need to contend with. You probably got a bunch of slop thrown at you from Hurricane Raymond. There's a low pressure system on your heels from the Gulf of Alaska. These conditions which you simply accept as the baseline of sailing is why east coast sailors should buy you a drink any time you're around.

 

Sunday
Oct202013

puerto escondido to la paz

We had actually decided to leave Puerto Escondido (Spanish for "a goat's filthy asshole") two weeks ago. We got as far as Candeleros, 7nm south, but Hurricane Manuel headed our way so back to Puerto Escondido we ran. When we finally dried off from that we put our metaphoric foot down: we're done with Puerto Escondido. We bought whatever miserable provisions we could: stale bread, paper towels, and Red Bull. We spent two days prepping the boat for passage making mode and away we went.

Sunrise on the Sea of Cortez. Single reefed main, heading south.

I was pretty happy with my planning on this one. Diesel usage in the Sea of Cortez is normally a huge joke. The joke is you motor around all day and then get blown out of an anchorage at night. But on passageweather.com I saw a pretty good window of steady N-NE winds in the 10-20 knot range and combined with Charlotte wanting to put some miles between us and Puerto Escondido we punched it.

In the end, we managed the whole affair in two rather straight forward days. Twenty four hours, sailing through the night, then dropped into Isla Partida for some rest the second night. Woke up this morning, motored down to La Paz, and clinked our margarita glasses together to a safe and speedy passage. The total diesel consumption was somewhere around 4 gallons: a joke in these parts.

Moonrise over the Sierra de la Giganta.

Ever since single handing the Pacific side of Baja I've grown to favor the longer and more offshore routes. Granted, "offshore" is a relative term in a Sea that's barely two hundred miles across in some places. But in the middle of the Sea you get steadier winds, less refracted waves, and less of the current-induced choppiness that can be common in places such as the San Jose Channel. 

I've done and will continue to do night time gybes between islands in the dark, hoping that your plotting skills are dead accurate otherwise a rocky cliff is in your future. But if I can avoid that by going around something, even if it adds a few miles, count me in. Two hours spent with white knuckles in the middle of the night versus three hours relaxed listening to some MP3's of This American Life while sipping tea: which would you pick?

Cora with the Hydrovane in the background.We managed to knock out just over 100 nautical miles (of a ~130 nm run) without running the engine which is a miracle on the Sea of Cortez. Even better, we hauled ass. This was really my first time putting the Hydrovane through it's paces and I've got to tell you: I'm impressed. If there was enough wind to sail, the Hydrovane could steer. Even better it doesn't use a single electron of electricity and is built like a tank. Note to self: trying to pull into a marina with the rudder down is like walking around your friend's apartment holding a 20' long pole. The reduction in steerage response is dramatic in close quarter maneuvering so typical in a marina. We had a cross wind and cross current (opposing each other), but still, I'll be popping that sucker off before we take up another slip.

Our plan is to sit tight here, wait out Hurricane Raymond who hopefully doesn't come up this way, and haul butt down the 4-5 day passage to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. 

Tuesday
Oct012013

now reading: The World's Most Dangerous Place

I don't know when I became a foreign policy wonk but I think it had something to do with seeing the often glaring disconnect between what we think we know and what's actually happening.

The first time one of your long cherished opinions gets rattled by evidence to the contrary tends to leave a mark.

I'm not sure if the Internet has made us dumber, but I know it's made it a lot easier for people to read news and articles that re-enforce their own beliefs. People on the right and left of the political spectrum listen to their respective prophets but they both have a similar weakness: over simplified and boiled down arguments.

This is on purpose of course, since we hate nuance and rarely have time for detail. Research is dangerous: you may very well end up learning something that conflicts with what you believe. 

Take the "fallacy of the single cause". After any major event there is the simple question of "What was the cause of this?" The question implies that there is only one, or at least one primary explanation. Unless we're talking about how ice cubes are made, real life is rarely so polite to make itself simple.

Needless to say I was intrigued when I saw The World's Most Dangerous Place reviewed in Foreign Affairs

I have seen Black Hawk Down, I know there are pirates, and I know Mogadishu is a great place to get killed. To put it another way, I didn't know anything and my opinions were based in Hollywood movies and some cable TV news, both of which are entertainment. 

On a practical level Somalia comprises the majority of the Horn of Africa, and of course is the global hotbed of ship piracy. For the latter reason alone it would behoove any sailor transiting the Indian Ocean to understand the dynamics involved and crank up their knowledge beyond second hand information and a few websites. At a geopolitical level there is also the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab.

Author James Fergusson moves between Somalia, Kenya, London, and the United States to provide the full picture of Somalia and its diaspora scattered around the west. 

May 2013, Mogadishu. Note the guy floating in the inner tube, relaxing.What struck me the most about Somalia was actually something similar to Mexico. To many there is an over-simplified belief that Mexico is a "dangerous place". Once that stamp is applied there is little interest in learning more. That over simplification, that you can hold an opinion valuable enough to express based on Hollywood movies and readily-consumable-journalism, is precisely why this book is so valuable.

The trouble ain't what people don't know, it's what they know that just ain't so.

James Fergusson put together a very engaging book which arms the reader with an educated look at a country that is on the brink of peace or argmeggedon. Whether your interests lie in your own personal safety or that of your nation, or simply in the plight of the vast majority of innocent Somalis, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Saturday
Sep282013

the hall monitors strike again at cruisersforum.com

I've spent a lot of hours, and in particular most of this morning, combing through the language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), trying to help other sailors understand it. Its impact to people living and traveling abroad, like cruising sailors, is nuanced and in flux. 

You would think that, perhaps, a website devoted "cruising boats, cruising people, and cruising answers" would allow a helpful discussion that has a huge financial and regulatory impact on many of its members. If you thought that however, you'd be wrong. CruisersForum.com deleted the discussion, and in typical CF-style offers no rebuttal or explanation. Some vague and non descript policy was violated, or wasn't, and that's the end of that.


The thread has now been removed.I don't dare breathe a word of this on CrusiersForum itself, less I recieve yet another official scolding from the moderators. My last one was because I dared to mention a previous thread that was also removed for some unknown reason. I was told that I was "instigating dissent", and the moderator did not know why I insisted to do so.

CruisersForum really is a great resource for anyone with a sailboat, but nuking a thread about health care for international health insurance? And don't claim that there's some high minded goal of curating content before you look around for yourself at some of the drivel that passes moderation muster.

Saturday
Sep282013

the affordable care act (obamacare) and cruising sailors

Lyra seeing the doctor in Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico.If you're an American citizen the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA or Obamacare) affects you. If you're a sailor heading to far off locales or residing in foreign lands for prolonged periods of time, your interaction with the PPACA is going to get interesting.

As a full disclaimer, I work in the insurance space but am not acting as an agent or providing personal counsel. I'll source everything directly; you can read the details yourself. This legislation is also evolving so look for updates. In fact the law is changing so rapidly that I urge you to view the real Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) viewer on ECFR.gov. In researching this article I found several out of date CFR's from sources as reputable as Cornell Law and CFRRegsToday. Cornell at least notes that there are updates not reflected in their texts.

Q. I'm sailing outside the United States, do I need health care insurance even though I'm not in the USA? Come on bro, I don't need insurance, do I?

Basically, by January 1, 2014, almost every American citizen requires health insurance that meets certain standards ("minimum essential coverage"). The IRS has listed a few exemptions from the PPACA, criteria that if you match, you do not need to have insurance. Two of these exemptions are relevant to many long distance sailors: the 330 rule and the no-filing-requirement rule.

Q. What's the 330 rule?

The IRS has had the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) for a while, which basically lets you exclude up to ~$90K of income every year from federal taxation. To qualify, the IRS has a Physical Presence Test to verify that you spent 330 or more days of the year outside the United States.

Why this matters is that the IRS is using the same logic to determine if you are exempt from the PPACA's individual mandate

There are a lot of variables to the physical presence test, so consult IRS Pub 54 for more information. In short, if you qualify for the FEIE, you are excluded from the PPACA's individual mandate.

Charlotte getting a checkup and sonogram in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico.

Q. But bro, the requirements and realities of medical coverage are completely disjointed. In some places there aren't even medical services, and even just the definition of preventive coverage is different.

The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury (noted as "The Departments") have joined together to address problems with the PPACA, including its enforcement to expatriates. To that end, there is a smidgen of wiggle room because they are still working on it. New legislation will come into play by January 1, 2015, and until then you'll see the 2014 year marked as the "temporary transitional period."

Q. I'm on Medicare Part A, Medicare Advantage, or a Medicade plan. Do I need to buy coverage?

No. Medicare Part A and Medicare Advantage provide "minimum essential coverage", and most Medicade plans do but you'll need to check specifically on your plan provider's website.

Q. Well I still need insurance, what kind of insurance do I need to have then?

If you're covered under Medicare Part A, Medicare Advantage, or most Medicaid plans you don't need to do anything. All of those, and typical employee (or self) provided health insurance plans provide"minimum essential coverage". These coverages are sufficient through the 2014 temporary transitional period and onward through 2015.

Note: this does not include "self insured plans" where you just squirrel away money in an account and call that a medical insurance plan.

This however is of little help to people who meet the following conditions:

If that's you, starting in January 1, 2015 you'll need to have a PPACA compliant health care plan. Starting in January 1, 2014, you'll either need a USA plan that covers you when you travel internationally or you'll need an expatriate plan. The definition of an expatriate plan is as follows:

For purposes of this temporary transitional relief, an expatriate health plan is an insured group health plan with respect to which enrollment is limited to primary insureds who reside outside of their home country for at least six months of the plan year and any covered dependents, and its associated group health insurance coverage. 

So you'll need to read the specific plan details to see if your expatriate policy has the exclusion of it only being available to people outside their home country for six months.

Lyra's birth, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico.

Q. So wait, we saved up for a couple of years of cruising. We're not planning on working and if we do it will probably be under the table or just random non-reported income. Do we need to buy insurance?

Probably not. You can be exempt from the PPACA individual mandate for several reasons, one of which is if you don't make enough money that you need to file a tax return. Use the IRS's calculator to determine if you need to file a tax return, and if you don't, the PPACA individual mandate does not apply to you.

Working on a guy's boat or in a local bar for cash on the barrelhead is one thing, but take note of FATCA which now has many foreign governments reporting the transactions of US account holders directly to the IRS. 

Additionally, if you spend at least 330 days or more every year outside the USA, you meet the physical presence test, exempting you from the individual mandate via that mechanism.

Q. What is an expatriate health insurance plan?

Most "expatriate plans" (a.k.a. international plans) do not include coverage inside the USA, however most USA plans do include coverage abroad. The reason is simple: health costs in the USA are astronomical, usually to the tune of 7x the international average. A regular check up in San Diego might cost $100, as where in Mexico it can be $10.

Also note that nearly all expat plans, and USA plans rendered abroad, are reimbursement plans. You pay out of pocket and file a claim, to which you'll get paid back by the insurance company upon their review. Check the terms and notes in your policy as it will generally be quite different than what you may have experienced in an employee sponsored stateside plan. 

Whether you travel with a stateside or expat plan you'll need to keep your receipts, file claims, and take an active role in your insurance. 

Q. This all seems expensive, I'll just pay the ~$100/year per person penalty.

I'm sure many will but by 2016 it will be roughly ~$700/year per person getting pretty close to the cost of most health care plans. At that point you're spending a decent amount of money without getting anything from it.

Also note that for some countries, like France, if you want a long-term visitor visa you'll need proof of medical insurance (which has nothing to do with PPACA). So ignoring the law in the short term, forgetting about the value of medical insurance itself, is feasible, but as the years tick by you'll probably feel the squeeze. 

Q. What are my options and where can I get a policy that satisfies the 2014 year and then the 2015 year?

This is already a pretty dry blog post, but in a future one (soon) I'll review some some health care plans and discuss their details. 

If anyone has any comments, questions, or thinks there's a different interpretation of the laws please let me know.

Tuesday
Sep242013

answering some questions (wall of words, tl;dr)

Maybe Charlotte will take a stab at these as well, but I'll provide my answers here. A very nice person emailed our website and asked some questions which I thought might be helpful for a few other folks out there. I'll omit the person's name and contact info.

My family and I are thinking of taking up sailing and sailing the world for a few years.  I was wondering did you grow up learning about sailing or did you learn once you decided that that is what you wanted to do?

I grew up knowing about sailing, but certainly not in a diehard sailing family like Joshua Slocum or the various icons that I read about. Living in San Diego and surfing I knew about wave trains, fog, (local) storms, swell, marine life I had encountered, and other things fairly common in the surfing community. I had gone on out sailboats with my dad and his friends when I was little, read a lot, sailed dinghies, sailed with friends, rented some sailboats, and around 23 owned my first keelboat.

There is a very accurate expression that you can teach someone to sail in a weekend and they'll be good twenty years later if they keep practicing. I'm definitely in the "keep practicing" realm, but I generally make new mistakes instead of repeating old ones, so that's a good yard stick for progress I suppose.

You can learn the basics in an ASA course but there is a lot of nuance and things you simply can't get out of a book. Reading and studying can certainly give you a leg up but the reality is that sailing is very hands on and requires a lot of judgement. Happily you can (and will) acquire skills over the years, generally one lesson at a time. If you try to stay within your limits the sea will naturally throw you curve balls but with a good mind and a sound vessel it will probably be nothing you can't handle. 

How long have you been sailing and have you ever run into safety issues?

Realistically I've been sailing keelboats as a skipper (as opposed to dinghies or just sort of being a useless crew member) since about 2001. I've run into safety issues all the time; it's just part of the learning process. Normally there are enough layers of safety that even if you do something stupid (like fly across the cabin when a swell rolls the boat hard) you don't get truly hurt because you didn't do something else stupid (like have sharp objects jutting out in the cabin).

Personally I think there's a correlation between hyper-safety and newness to sailing. It sort of makes sense and honestly it's better to error on the side of being overly cautious. As your experience expands so will your ability to identify risky situations and more importantly to identify the type of risk. 

As an example, if I had to pick between jacklines and a preventer, I'd pick the latter. They don't sell them in West Marine's safety isle, but the damage caused by an accidental gybe in a big wind is severe. I'd really advocate for doing what you can to make the boat safe: preventers, reefing, understanding weather, safe handling of ground tackle, tying a rolling hitch, etc. An organized and well maintained boat goes a long way towards being safe.

What did you wish you knew before you set sail that you have since learned?

That's a tough one because I'm still learning. A lot of challenges have been about living in Mexico as much as being on a boat, and I imagine that being in the South Pacific will present a new host of issues (and wonderful things, of course).

People talk about flexibility a lot. "Plans are best written in the sand at low tide," and all of that. It's true to a large extent although if you don't make plans and prepare to cross an ocean (as an example) you never will. The boat won't just magically get ready by itself: you do need to have plans and work towards them, but at the same time you need to be flexible.

If I could go back in time I would tell myself not to stress out so much. I'd also thank myself for taking care of the important stuff (rig integrity, engine, steerage) and skipping on other things (brightwork, fancy electronics, and other non-essentials). No one's ever lost a boat because of blistering brightwork. 


What is the best part of sailing?

The world is very much your oyster, and the things you learn make you a better person.

You can basically go anywhere you want to, including really remote places and stay there for long periods of time. You can marina hop along the popular cruising routes or become a nomadic voyager going to literally the ends of the Earth (in so much as a spheroid has ends). You can go to Cape Horn, sail into the rivers of Russia, get a slip in Paris, tour Washington, DC, or be a desert rat lurking around in the Sea of Cortez.

The challenges you'll face, in my opinion, are challenges worth having. You're forced to confront aspects of this world and yourself that would largely remain hidden in a conventional lifestyle. The realities of yourself and other cultures are in your face quite often. 

What is the worst part about sailing?

It's a lot of work, and much of it is uncomfortable and expensive. Worse, you often need to perform it in third world locales (or no-world locales such as in the middle of an ocean). And even worse than that, the tolerances are much smaller. If your car breaks down, you can call AAA. If your home toilet stops working, you can call a plumber.

I think most successful sailors tend to be a rather pessimistic lot, at least when it comes to their vessels.

There's never a break, as the ocean is a brutal environment with wave action, salt spray, moisture, and storm force winds.

Have you ever run into an unexpected storm?

It depends what you qualify as a storm, but according to the Beaufort scale a "storm" is force 10 and has winds in excess of 48 knots. We've been in a gale but knew it was coming. We in fact left on purpose so that we could ride it's southerly winds to Catalina from San Diego. 

I've also never crossed an ocean yet on a sailboat and from what my friends have told me it's normal to have short lived squalls. The highest winds we've seen underway were in the lower 40 knot range during a Southern Californian gale, and the highest in Mexico was in the mid 40's during Tropical Storm Ivo. For Ivo however we were nestled safely in Puerto Escondido which is nature's gift to boat safety.

There are sudden (and extremely rare) weather phenomena like microbursts and (true) rogue waves that it is effectively impossible to avoid anymore than you can absolutely guarantee you'll never be hit by a meteor. 

Weather prediction has come a long way in the last fifteen years, and it is definitely possible to avoid large storm systems or at least be aware of their existence. If you choose to enter known cyclone areas, like everyone in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea does from June through November, you're choosing to enter that area during known storm season. If you head to the polar regions, you're intentionally putting yourself in an area with poor weather prediction and notoriously violent seas. 

In short while you can't avoid bad weather entirely you can stack the odds dramatically in your favor. 

Sunday
Sep222013

farewell, solar furnace: the equinox has arrived

Cora's tan-dots from her Crocs.To Mr. Sun, you who are a third a degree lower in the sky today than you were yesterday.

You have left your mark on our bodies, our boat, and our minds. In the short run we all have weird tan spots, in the long run probably some skin cancer to go along with it. We've learned a lot about sunscreen, big hats, and long sleeve clothing. Varnish has peeled as if under a heat gun. Paint has cracked from the expansion and contraction of the wood underneath.

You are still high in the sky: roughly 7 degrees higher than our friends in San Diego are experiencing. But you are lowering, every day, as our planet makes its orbit around you. Like many of its inhabitants our planet is not upright but tilted. The northern hemisphere has been seeing you at a lower angle in the sky and for less hours. Starting today, at the fall equinox, we'll finally start seeing you for less than half the day.

One of Rebel Heart's two 135 watt solar panels, complete with bird shit and sun.

I must thank you of course, Mr. Sun, for all the electricity you created for us. Hundreds of gallons of fresh water, hours of movies and music, fans, lights, phones charged, and tools operated. Radar signals, AIS transmissions, VHF and SSB conversations, and even powering the Iridium phone that connects to satellites. Forgetting about the capital costs of the panels and associated storage and wiring, all of this power was free. So thanks for that, big fusion reaction in the sky.

Of course we're headed back further south this fall, so we'll be seeing more of you shortly. And then we'll be at the equator in the early Spring, where you never go away. And further still, just to flip this whole thing on its head, we'll be in the southern hemisphere. Down there winter is summer and summer is winter, people read right to left, and walk around upside down on their ceilings.