Travels with S/Y Thetis

Thetis only

1999: Preparation

The Black Sea is a place that I always wanted to sail to. Not only because it was there, not too far from the Aegean, but also for emotional reasons. A great deal of traditional Greek maritime history is associated with the Black Sea from the story of the Argonauts to last century’s merchant-pirates all have been voyaging in the Black Sea. Many hair-raising stories have I read as a child about the dreadful weather there. Many shipwrecks…

These stories aroused my curiosity and so did the many furnishings and items in my Grandmother’s house, some of which we still have, which came from her great uncles, sea captains who plied that mysterious sea. So, I have been planning this trip for some time. Few years ago, I mentioned this to my old school mate from Athens College, Andonis Ephremides, now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. He got excited and fired up by the idea because his family roots are also from the Black Sea. So we planed to go last year. Alas my health problems prevented us from doing so, and the planned voyage was postponed for this year.

April-May 1999

I flew to Athens for 3 weeks to prepare Thetis for the long voyage to the Black Sea. She was already on dry land at the Olympic Marine shipyard in Lavrio. This year I was not going to take a chance and repeat last year’s mishap. I wanted to be present when she would go back into the water. But before that moment there was a lot of work to be completed.

First of all, the windows had to be re-worked in an effort to fix the water leaks that have been plaguing her for the past few years. Then all the rigging had to be inspected and any item found suspect replaced. The wind generator which I had brought back with me from the US for service at the factory, had to be reinstalled. The sails, the inflatable dinghy, and its outboard all had to be serviced. The life raft had to be inspected, the fire extinguishers re-filled, and the boat documentation renewed. The manual water pump which brings water to the galley when the electric pressure pump fails was repaired and a new valve was installed that allows complete flexibility in choosing which fresh water tank is to be used. Now we can draw water from the port tank, the starboard tank, or from both.

Also Thetis was in need of new batteries. I have been in contact with Mr. Christodoulou in Piraeus. He has a small factory that specializes in deep-discharge batteries for fork-lifts. The batteries come in 2 V elements and he guarantees them for 5 years. They are, however, much taller than the conventional batteries. The old batteries were located under the berths of the rear cabins. That location was not too desirable because not only did they occupy valuable space, but they also created a possible fire hazard with their hydrogen fumes vented into the cabin. After many deliberations, we decided to install them at the stern, next to the rudder post. This saves space and avoids the hydrogen leaks, but it sacrifices some sailing performance by introducing a load of about an extra 150 kg at the stern. Once the location was decided, the batteries were ordered with a 400 Ah capacity and a suitable fiberglass box was constructed at the shipyard.

Finally, all was ready and Thetis was launched on April 24. On May 3 she was ready and I sailed her back to her home port in Glyfada. There I had Mr. Mpekatoros service the engine, while Mr. Christodoulou brought and installed the new batteries. Then it was time for the painters. The whole interior was stripped and re-varnished. She looked beautiful. Now she was ready to go.

Another area that needed improvement was communications, in particular a means of sending and receiving e-mail. Thetis has a 25 W VHF radio coupled with an Autolink dialer/pager. This system had served me fairly well in Greek waters but now that I plan to sail into the more remote regions of the Black Sea it will not work. For years I have been looking into what would be the most sensible next step. I have considered the classical solution of a SSB radio but I have shied away for the following reasons: It is fairly expensive and its performance depends very much on the quality of a rather extensive installation. This installation has, for bureaucratic reasons, to be done by a licensed technician. Given the bad experiences I have had with electricians in Greece, I have serious reservations that a “good” SSB installation can be done there. Also, to use the SSB for e-mail, more equipment is needed, all of which needs a computer with a Microsoft Windows operating system instead of the Apple Macintosh that I have been using professionally for the past 15 years. In addition the promise of affordable satellite systems in the future has made this "old" and unreliable technology less attractive.

In the fall, when the global satellite Iridium telephone system became operational I made inquiries. Their lack of interest in individual rather than corporate accounts, coupled with their exorbitant charges ($4,000 for the handset, $60/month, and $6/minute) plus the lack of data transmission capabilities were very discouraging. I then looked at the INMARSAT systems. My old colleague from COMSAT, Carl Sederquist who owns Quest Telecom International, a company specializing in satellite communications systems for boats, was extremely helpful. Again, I found the Mini-M too pricey, but I seriously did consider the data-only, no voice, C system, although again it is fairly expensive. It costs about $3,500 and charges 1¢/character, no monthly charges. It is kind of bulky and also demands a non-Macintosh computer. On the other hand, it is very reliable, has global coverage, and provides weather (same as Navtex), GPS, and automatic distress calling capability.

So, while in Athens I investigated the option of a cellular GSM telephone. These systems have become very widespread in Europe and Asia and are very competitive. I located a marvelous device, the size of an eyeglass case, made by Nokia, the Nokia 9110 Communicator. It is not only a GSM telephone but a small computer with e-mail, fax, and web browsing capabilities, as well as a calculator, an electronic address book, and an organizer. It costs 170,000 GRD ($560). The connecting charges with the Greek Company Panafon are 8,000/month GRD (about $26) and 210/minute GRD (70 ¢) for voice and 120/minute GRD (40 ¢;) for data. In practice, this translates to about $1 for a longish e-mail of 500 characters versus $5 for the INMARSAT-C. Costs are higher, about twice, when operating from outside of Greece. Given the overwhelming cost advantage and its ease of operation and portability, I decided to give it a try.

I installed a noise filter in order to eliminate interference noise to the VHF and the Navtex, but since the later was in storage I could not test the filter’s effectiveness. I also procured 2 extra fuel cans, of about 20 L capacity each, and lashed them on the railing. Now Thetis carries: 100 L in her main tank, 2 x 25 L in the sail locker, and 2 x 20 L on deck for a total of 190 L. This at 2,600 RPM and a consumption of 1.2 L/hr and an average speed of 5.6 knots gives her a motoring range of 880 M. Not bad!

Back in D.C., a number of details had to be attended to: charts and new C-map cartridges had to be procured, marina and hotel reservations had to be made, etc. The plan for the voyage was rather complicated, too complicated for my taste, but I had to accommodate the friends and relatives who wanted to come but did not have the time for the whole trip. Here is the general plan:

  1. My wife Alice and I will sail Thetis from Glyfada to Samos.
  2. In Samos I will be joined by my daughter Cynthia and her husband Scott and we will sail along the Turkish coast to Ayvalik.
  3. In Ayvalik Cynthia and Scott will leave Thetis and my old school mate Manos Castrinakis and his wife Mary will board for the trip to Istanbul.
  4. In Istanbul Mary will leave and another friend and old school mate, Andonis Ephremides will join us for the Black Sea portion of the trip.
  5. When we return from the Black Sea back to Istanbul, Manos will leave and my daughter Corinna and Andonis’ wife Jane will embark.
  6. We four will then sail to Limnos where Andonis and Jane will leave us while Corinna’s friend Mark will join us for the sail back to Samos.
  7. Finally, I will leisurely singlehandle Thetis from Samos back to Glyfada.

All of this took a fair amount of organization and planning. I also wanted to do a fair amount of reading on the Black Sea so that I could appreciate the voyage. By the beginning of June, all was as ready as it would ever be and the adventure could start.