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The Two Captains


2C Update #124

The November 2004 SSCA Gam
(Photographs by the Two Captains)

What’s a “gam”? It’s the first thing everybody asks. According to the Seven Seas Cruising Association – which holds a big one every November in Melbourne, FL – it is defined as follows:

Gam (gam) n [prob. <Scand, as in Norwegian and Swedish dialect, gams,
loose conversation < ON gems, akin to GAME]
1 a social visit
2 a social visit or conversation between the crews of ships, especially
whaling ships, at sea
3 a school of whales.

Although the Two Captains have been SSCA members for many years, this was the first time we have been in a position to attend. And when I say “in position”, I mean it. My sister’s condo in Indialantic was just a few miles across the causeway from the Eau Gallie Convention Center. The only folks closer were the several dozen boats anchored NW of the Eau Gallie Bridge in front of Conchy Joe’s Restaurant.

The Gam officially spanned three days -- Friday through Sunday, but we started a day early by attending the Ham radio picnic sponsored by the Waterway Net. The most significant happening for us at the picnic was running into Sherry Beckett, whom we had met through friends in Trinidad during Carnival in 2000. Sherry now lives in Melbourne where she juggles a regular job, a website business, and an active racing schedule on her go-fast boat Fastlane with an (usually) all-women crew. Reconnecting with Sherry reaped us some memorable experiences later in the month when she took Don racing in 25+ knot weather and when she drew us into the hospitality of the Melbourne Yacht for their “Orphan’s” Thanksgiving Dinner.

The SSCA Gam itself consisted of three days of seminars in two rooms, a swap meet, a Saturday nite BBQ, the organization’s annual meeting, and a room full of vendors displaying products and services of unusually practical use to real cruisers. The gathering was a bigger deal with more real cruisers (as opposed to those still dreaming and planning their cruising) than we had expected, and we were very pleased to run into a number of old friends from the Caribbean and even a few from Mexico, in particular fellow CSY owners Dave & Stacy McCampbell (Soggy Paws), Ed & Daisy Marill (Siesta) and Ron & Dorothy Sheridan (Memory Rose).

The most frustrating part of the Gam was that tempting seminars ran concurrently in two rooms. On Saturday, the wonderful guys who make Winlink happen – Steve Waterman, Rich Muething, that genius Jim Corenman (the author of the Airmail program on which it all depends), among others – took over one room for a series of soup-to-nuts sessions that covered everything you’d ever want to know about ham radio email. Although we have been using...no, depending… on Winlink for five years, there was still stuff to learn, and Don and I took turns sticking our heads in and out while trying to catch other seminars. Our friend Stacy of Soggy Paws, who has had a two-year hiatus from using Winlink, wisely opted to refresh herself by sitting through the whole day, and I couldn’t recommend enough this annual, full day opportunity to new cruisers hoping to use Winlink email. Since it starts with equipment and installation issues, it’s never too soon, even if your cruising days are still years away.

What guru Jim Corenman is to me, Nigel Calder – the author of many mechanical reference books on our shelf – is to Don. Nigel, whose books are full of carefully detailed information, proved in person to be a low-key kind of guy who, in his seminar on how to kedge off (!!), wasn’t afraid to tell stories of his own misadventures of going aground. If you didn’t know that Nigel also writes cruising guides for areas little covered by anyone else, you might wonder how anyone so experienced could get himself into so many predicaments!

Another speaker was my friend Kathy Parsons, author of those incredibly ingenious language guides Spanish for Cruisers and French for Cruisers. Her presentation was designed to encourage new cruisers to visit islands and countries in the Caribbean that aren’t English-speaking. Likewise, the witty songster Eileen Quinn gave a slide-show look at the “real” cruising life, punctuated by live performances of her insightful songs. Although I missed this presentation (in favor of one on interpreting 500mb weather charts!), it was one of Don’s favorites. I mean, how can any cruiser deny the TRUTH of a tune entitled “Piranha Potluck”?!?! We bought her four-CD set.

The last seminar of the weekend was a cruiser’s panel on which I was privileged to be one of six guest speakers (seven if your count our moderator Dave of Soggy Paws). Our role was to offer informed opinions on a range of questions submitted by an audience of about a hundred cruisers. Questions ranged from ones on immunizations needed, to security issues, to alternative energy systems, to “luxury” accessories, to the age-old debates on folding bicycles (great asset or a pain), charts (electronic vs paper), dinghies (inflatable vs hard vs Portabotes) and anchors. Although there was a lot of kidding about it being a “Stump the Chumps” panel, and although (or perhaps because) we didn’t all agree, it turned out to be an informative interactive session that could, of course, have gone on for hours longer!

The “500mb Weather Chart” seminar that made me miss Eileen Quinn was the last of three seminars during the Gam that were presented by Lee Chesneau of NOAA. Obviously, if we have been cruising full-time for 5+ years (not to mention the nine years of chartering), we have some idea of how tropical weather works and how to read the weather faxes we download. However, we’d both have to admit that the operative word is “some,” especially upside-down down there in the southern hemisphere. Lee’s three 90-minute SSCA seminars were surprisingly substantive, but then again what can you really cover in that time. So we and a dozen or so others signed up for a more intensive three-DAY follow-up seminar Lee offered after the Gam.

Lee, a long time NOAA forecaster (whose name, by the way, appears on a forecast chart predicting the “Perfect Storm”), does a great deal of outreach to mariners who take their vessels on ocean voyages. By far the bulk of his students are commercial captains on huge seagoing vessels, who are under great pressure to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest time. Lee’s goal is to enable those seafarers to make intelligent, informed decisions in spite of that pressure before they find themselves in a pickle. Most cruisers we know are smart enough to avoid at all cost the pressure of a schedule, but inevitably, somewhere along the way, we get suckered in to setting a date we have to meet. Bad-passage stories more often than not come from those situations.

That Lee bothers to organize all this material into a presentation suitable for us little guys and that he does this annually at the SSCA Gam is to be seriously appreciated. Knowing how to read a real weather chart…one that doesn’t stop at the continent’s edge (“How many times,” Lee asked us repeatedly, “have your heard the weatherman say, ‘the storm is passing safely out to sea’!”) …is fundamental for any sailor. Learning how to use the multi-day set of forecasts issued twice daily by NOAA – including those 500mb charts -- and the weather principles that underlie them, was a real revelation and a tool no sailor venturing out to open sea should be without.

Although the focus of this course turned out to be mostly on higher-latitude weather (and northern-hemisphere higher-latitude weather at that) which we, like the vast majority of cruisers seek to avoid, I think we both found it very useful…not in the least for added incentive to stay OUT of those higher latitudes! But no matter how cautious we are in choosing our cruising grounds and season and no matter how patient we are in waiting for that good weather window, too many of us rely on the interpretive summaries we pick up off the various radio nets without bothering to back the summaries up with analyses of our own. This was a weakness that was brought home to us this past season when a storm caught a lot of us poorly-situated (although not at sea) in Fakarava.

As a great little bonus after the seminar, about half the class took advantage of an invitation to visit the local National Weather Service Station with its director Dennis Decker. The NWS, of course, is concerned with continental weather forecasting… a service which only reaches out about 20 miles offshore, but since the East Coast happened to be getting slammed about then by a strong cold front – bringing the Melbourne area winds of 30+ knots and sending most of the SSCA boats scurrying for shelter, the visit was a lot more interesting than it would have been in benign conditions. At the station we got to see all the data coming in live from the satellites. Boy, did we feel for the Caribbean 1500 boats just departed on their passage south.

We also got to see both the parts and pieces of a real weather balloon –which are still released into the atmosphere daily – as wells as the computer graph of the info they send back. We were as fascinated as a class of sixth grade science students! I really hope the SSCA will make sure this tour is available in future years.

So, would I fly up from Trinidad or Panama just to attend the SSCA’s Annual Gam? Probably not. But if you are anywhere within a day’s drive of Florida – by boat or car, whether you are a wannabe, newbie, or veteran cruiser (there were even a lot of “retired” cruisers on hand), spending three days at the Gam will be rewarding in info, contacts, and even stuff. Yes, even we, so far from home, managed to find some sweet treasures at the swap meet and the vendor’s show that we couldn’t live without.


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All text and photos on this site Copyright Gwen Hamlin 2006


Published at Burlington, VT