Enjoying Downtown Brisbane

Brisbane Skyline

We have spent the last few days at Dockside Marina, right across the river from the central business district of Brisbane. We really like this town. We bought a weekly ferry pass but wind up walking most of the time. The summer heat has not yet kicked in, and this is a town built for walking. We continue to engorge ourselves with fruit — mostly mangoes, stone fruit, and melon — to make up for their absence in our diet for the past few months. As we walked into the Botanical Gardens adjacent to downtown last night (Saturday), there was a growing horde of people walking with us, all about our age or older. It turns out that there was a big concert in the park — Peter Frampton, Brian Wilson, Chicago, and America, each doing a 45 minute set. It was sold out and tickets where $128 – $168. We were able to hear Frampton as we strolled through the park, over the river on the Goodwill Bridge, and back towards the marina at Kangaroo Point. Lots of 50ish and 60ish people without tickets had set up chairs and food baskets on the other side of the river to listen to the concert.


Photos from Huon and Chesterfield Reefs

These are a few of the photos from our visits to these uninhabited reefs. Click on the first photo to enlarge and to continue to the next.

Wombats, Crabs, Sharks, Eels, and Us at the Reefs

Turtles at Huon Reef:

Birds on the Reefs

M. & L.

Departing for Brisbane, Australia

We will leave the “Trois Ilots” anchorage at Chesterfield Reef at 0600 local time tomorrow morning (Saturday, October 23) heading for Rivergate, Brisbane. The passage is about 550 nautical miles on a heading of 216 degrees true. The forecast calls for fairly strong winds of 22 – 25 knots from the east-southeast during the first day, declining to 14 – 18 knots on the second day, and then 6 – 12 knots on the last day. Seas are forecast to be 3 meters the first 12 hours, then declining fairly quickly. We hope to be at the Customs Dock at Rivergate, Brisbane before 6:00 pm on Tuesday (October 26).

“Wombat of Sydney” with Mike and Lynn aboard will be leaving when we do, although they are planning to make landfall at Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales, before proceeding on to Sydney. The course to Coffs Harbour is quite close to the course to Brisbane.


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Clouds of birds

Chesterfield Reef is quite a beautiful place. Although there are turtles mating and nesting on the tiny small islands of Chesterfield Reef, as on Huon Reef, the highlight here is the birds. The island across from where we are anchored has a perpetual cloud of birds over it. Going ashore makes the cloud even larger as hundreds of birds take wing and squawk at the interlopers. A thousand more of the smaller birds stay on the ground guarding their eggs or fledgings. Unlike Huon, there are “trees” on most of the small islands. They stand only 5 to 10 feet tall and are filled with gnarled branches, perfect for the nests of larger birds who fear that the crabs will eat theirs eggs or babies. Frigate birds and boobies of an unusual variety (tan heads, blue beaks, pink facial coloring, and bright red feet) nest in the trees. The attached photo is of one of the boobies.

Frigate birds nest in only a handful of places in the world (we visited their nesting site in the Galapagos) and they are incredibly acrobatic flyers. However, it would be easy to despise them. They live only by predation. They cruise slowly at a higher altitude than the boobies and terns, and when the other birds dive into the water and catch a fish, the frigates dive and attack them in a vicious fashion. They go for the wings, forcing the attacked bird to drop its catch and sometimes breaking the wing of the victim. Breaking a wing is certain death. When the victim of the attack drops its fish, the frigate catches the fish even before it hits the ground. The frigates even look evil up close. They have a beak like a vulture and, except when they are still chicks in the nest, they lack the pleasant demeanor of the boobies and terns. Yet, boobies and frigates nest in the same trees, just feet apart.

It has been very windy since we arrived, consistently in the 25-35 knot range. Along with “Wombat of Sydney”, we have been unwilling to anchor close to the islands and fringing reef because of the prevalence of coral bommies. The consequence is that we have about 2 miles of fetch, that is, there are two miles of open water between the nearest protection from waves and where we are anchored, and a considerable wind chop builds up in those 2 miles. The islands with birds are less than one-half a mile away, but they are not in the direction that the wind is blowing.

We were the only boats here when we arrived, but to our amazement, a boat called on the radio the night before last asking for help getting through the pass and into our anchoring area. Entering this place in the dark is just not a reasonable risk in our opinion. Chesterfield Reef is barely charted — almost the entirety of the lagoon area is greyed out in the charts, meaning you are on your own. In the dark, one cannot keep a watch for the coral bommies that litter the area. A boat has to come straight into a 30 knot wind and a steep wind chop to get here from the pass. Sabbatical III, a bigger than average boat, pounded up and down in the seas for the 8 mile trip and averaged less than 4 knots coming into the wind and seas. If a boat pounded onto a coral bommy in these conditions, she would surely be holed. The entering boat was very lucky that Mike of Wombat was willing to guide them to safe anchorage via VHF radio by providing a course into our anchorage that avoided the coral bommies we encountered during our trip in. We tried to follow the boat’s progress on radar but could not pick it up. Turns out it is a small wooden vessel with almost no radar return.

It is now one month since we left Noumea and headed out to uninhabited places. So we have not reprovisioned our food supplies in all of that time, except for the wahoo I caught during the passage here. The wahoo is now gone after providing 5 meals for the two of us. We are down to our last 2 oranges and then it is just canned fruit for us. Still have lots of canned food and frozen meat. Also lots of rice, crackers, chocolate, yogurt (in packets that we make every few days with a yogurt maker) and cereal.

We are looking for a weather window for the trip to Brisbane, Australia. As of now, it looks like Saturday is a good day to start that 3 and one-half day passage. As I write this blog, the wind has fallen to only 20 knots, although the seas are still in the 3.5 meter range outside the reef.


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Passage to Chesterfield Reef and the boiling batteries

We arrived in Chesterfield Reef yesterday at about 4 pm after a 53 hour passage from Huon Reef. The passage was longer and harder than we expected. The difficulty was not just with the wind and seas, which were more contrary and uncomfortable than expected, but also with some serious electrical and mechanical issues with Sabbatical III. We have been at Chesterfield Reef for 24 hours now and the electrical issues with the boat have been resolved thanks to the expertise and generous assistance of Mike of “Wombat of Sydney” who spent three hours with me this morning resolving our battery charging issues. The mechanical issue turns out not to have really been an issue. Last night I went to bed exhausted and anxious about the boat and that was an improvement from the night before when I was more concerned about the condition of the boat than at any other time since we have sailed. Now I am feeling pretty relaxed — and I have not been drinking.

The story, in brief, is this. We have had a battery charging problem with our 100 amp charger for nearly two weeks. A defect in a new high pressure hose of my watermaker caused a spray of salt water in the area next to the charger. Although the charger seemed fine after the salt spray incident, the voltage regulation circuits must have been damaged. The charger put out more volts than it should. Once I detected the high voltage (I have an in-line voltmeter on the batteries), I stopped using the charger and reverted to using my backup 30 amp charger. But the damage to the batteries had already been done. On the second night of the passage to Chesterfield Reef, the wind died and I ran the engine. At about midnight, six hours after starting up the engine, I noticed that the battery box was very hot and that the alternator on the engine was putting out more amps than it should. I opened the battery box (under the sea berth) and found that one battery was boiling acid and was grossly deformed and that another had a crack, at least two had vented, and all 12 sealed AGM batteries were very hot. I quickly shut down the engine and moved a fan to blow on the batteries. There was no wind and we were drifting. There is no on/off switch for the engine alternator — when the engine is on the alternator provides power to the batteries, and can provide lots of it — up to 175 amps at 24 volts. Clearly, some or all of the batteries were “cooked” by overcharging, and the overcharging was probably due to a short or other failure in one or more of them. The batteries were not coming up to charge and were accepting unlimited amps from the alternator and turning it into heat, melting cases and lead plates and causing the acid to boil. Not a good scene.

Laura got up from sleep to watch over things while I went into the engine room to take the alternator off-line by removing the two belts connecting it to the engine. It is not difficult to unbelt an alternator, but I was frazzled and tired, and it was hot and dark. It must have been 150 degrees or more next to the engine, and the alternator was extremely hot.

The boiling batteries were not the only thing to make me frazzled on this awful night watch. At the start of the evening, our fridge suddenly went out. I could not get the compressor to come on, even when I switched to a different thermostat. We have a second fridge which was not on, so I turned it on and moved all of our food to the second fridge. More concerning was our slow progress. We were only making 4 1/2 knots over the ground (according to the GPS) even though I had the engine powered up at higher rpm’s than usual. There was no wind but there was a misty fog unlike anything I have seen in the tropics. We were burning precious fuel at a faster rate than I thought prudent, and it did not seem likely that we could enter Chesterfield Reef before dark the next day, which would mean a third night at sea in a uncomfortable roll. I could not figure out why we were making such slow progress. It might have been adverse current but my knotmeter was gummed up with coral growth and not working. After I unbelted the alternator after midnight, I decided to check the engine transmission, and, using a flashlight in the dark, I saw seawater in the transmission (the connection between the engine and the propellor). Seawater in the transmission means that the seal around the prop shaft was damaged and sea water was replacing the lubrication oil. That would explain the slow speed. There was nothing to do but motor on, but at a slower rpm so as to reduce the chance of breaking the transmission. Laura took over and I collapsed in bed for four hours of sleep. I did not even hear the squalls with lightening that blew by in the night.

In the morning, I called Mike on Wombat of Sydney on the sat phone to report on our problems. He was by then 25 miles ahead of us, but Mike was willing to turn around and take us in tow if that was necessary. We had not come to that yet. In the light of day, I checked the transmission oil again and it looked much better. In fact, there was no water in it at all. The flashlight in the dark, and my being tired and frazzled, just made me think I saw sea water in the transmission oil. So that worry was gone — the engine would still be able to turn the prop. Although the batteries were still hot after eight hours without a charge, the voltage was getting low so I started a routine of running the generator for 45 minutes every two hours to keep some power in them so we could run our navigational instruments and autopilot.

It seemed unlikely that we could make it to Chesterfield Reef before dark,a unpleasant prospect,unless the wind went from 2 knots to 20 knots very quickly. And then the wind suddenly came up around 9 am and in minutes it was blowing 20 – 25 knots on the beam and the boat took off at 7.5 – 8.0 knots. One more problem solved. Unfortunately, we left a hatch partly open and when the wind picked so did the seas and sea water drenched the forward head. Plus the toilet seat broke off. But these are minor issues.

Once at anchor at Chesterfield, Mike advised me over the radio to take the damaged batteries off line right away to avoid a variety of problems they might cause. The batteries were still hot, and I was too tired to pull 75 pound batteries out of the case and rewire the remaining batteries. I checked the individual battery voltages with a multimeter and found that the voltages were all over the map — no wonder they kept sucking up power from their charging sources.. Instead, we turned off the fridge and freezer, which are are biggest draws on battery power, and kept lights off. Laura cooked up some of the fresh wahoo fish that I caught the day before, and we ate 3 servings each of coconut sorbet before it turned to goo in the warm air, and we slept for 12 hours.

In the morning, Mike came over to help. Mike is a problem solver and he soon identified four batteries that had to come off line, and quickly got the remaining ones appropriately paired and wired. Some of them are in marginal shape, but should get us to Brisbane without too much trouble. He also found a broken voltage sensing wire at the alternator. We got the reduced battery bank to take a full charge without generating heat using the backup charger (the main charger is dead), and then rebelted the alternator and got it back on line, although we are not sure it is working properly. Everything in the freezer — steaks, chicken, wahoo, veggies – was still mostly frozen when we the power came back on. I even got the dead fridge working. The firdge must of died when Laura pushed a big hunk of fresh wahoo in an already full fridge, the pressure accidently disconnected a wire from the thermostat. Once I reconnected it, the compressor came back on.

So thanks to Mike and some luck, Sabbatical III is in decent shape again. We have not been to shore, or even set up the dinghy yet. All this fixing took much of the day and all of our mental energy. Chesterfield Reef looks like a beautiful place from the boat and tomorrow we hope to have a closer look.


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Leaving Huon Reef tomorrow

We expect to leave Huon Reef tomorrow at about 11 am local time and make the 284 nautical mile passage to Chesterfield Reef. Light and shifting winds are predicted and we expect the passage to take 44 – 48 hours. Chesterfield Reef also belongs to France (New Caledonia) and is an important nesting site for turtles and sea birds. Our permission letter from the French Ministry of the Environment includes Chesterfield. More on Chesterfield once we arrive there.

A storm came through here on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we did not go to shore on either of those days. We saw the storm coming more than a week ago in the GRIB weather charts. Along with “Wombat of Sydney”, we decided that the safest place for us to be was right where we are. All we did is reposition the boats a bit to get more protection from the island, and put out almost all of our anchor chain. The waves were 15-18 feet outside the reef (but just wind chop inside the reef) and the wind was consistently above 30 knots gusting to 40 knots on Tuesday night, but we were comfortable onboard Sabbatical III. There was a report of 57 knots in the anchorage at Noumea. It was not the best sleeping weather with the howl of the wind and the sound of the anchor chain and snubber straining. The good thing was the driving rain that cleaned the bird droppings off of the deck. It was the first rain we had seen in at least a month.

The seas are coming down rapidly and during our passage the wind will be clocking around to the north, then west, and back to southeast, so it is a good time to leave. Huon only provides protection from the southeast quadrant. The east-southeastly trade winds should be re-established by the time we get to Chesterfield. Chesterfield reef has only a few sand islands, and our entrance to the reef complex is located at about:

S19 degrees 49.3 minutes
E158 degrees 23.7 minutes

The course is 248 degrees true from Huon Reef.


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My theory on boobies

The first day of the Huon Turtle Survey conducted by Wombat of Sydney and Sabbatical III counted 48 egg-laying turtles as having crossed the line we drew above the high tide mark. This line only covered the southern 1/5 or so of this mile long island. We still await the data from day two of the turtle survey.

Sabbatical III continues to be extremely popular with the boobies despite vigorous efforts to dissuade them from roosting and pooping on the boat. We cannot sit out at night and watch the stars for fear of falling guano coming from the birds that sit up in the mast speaders (cross trees). In addition, they wake us up early in the morning with their chatter and squabbles over turf. There is a beautiful island where no one bothers them just a 100 meters away, so why do they insist on sitting on our rails, spreaders, anchor snubber, and other parts of the boat? I have a theory.

The boobies get tired of having sand always clinging to their big, blue webbed feet and their legs. When sand sticks to you, it just gets annoying after awhile. There are only a couple of protruding rocks on the shore, and those rocks are filled with boobies sitting 10 abreast or more. There is never room for even one more booby on the rocks. However, the rocks are filled with booby “dung”, and I presume that the advantage of having no sticky sand on the rocks is offset by both the crowed conditions and by having to stand in the droppings of the one million boobies that stood on the rock before you did. So what’s a booby to do if he/she wants to keep their blue feet clean and dry for even a little while?

From the perspective of the booby, Sabbatical III is the ideal roosting station. She has a steel rail all the way around her, and she has flat mast spreaders 35 feet and 50 feet above the deck if the rails get crowded. Best of all from the booby perspective, there is no sand to stick to your blue webbed feet, and if you need to crap, a need which boobies seem to feel every 10 minutes, all your droppings fall to the deck so the rail stays nice a clean. Sabbatical III is the perfect “Pitt toilet” if you will. So what if the human inhabitant shout and wave their arms, hang CD’s from strings, put scary shapes on the halyards, no harm seems to come to the boobies and the human wash the deck clean every day. And there is none of that bird guano odor that permeates the rocky outcroppings of the island.

So the first boobies to alight and crap on Sabbatical III have told their friends and now Sabbatical III is the most popular meeting place within a hundred miles. The preferred location is the bow pulpit where boobies can act out “Titanic”, hanging on tightly with their blue webbed feet, while lifting a wing to get some fresh air through their “armpit”. If the bow is full, boobies either knock off a current inhabitant, or go up in a spreader where they get a good view of their droppings falling 50 feet to the deck. I am not sure how they will entertain themselves once we are gone.


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The Huon Turtle Survey

When I wrote the French Ministry of the Environment requestion permission to visit Huon Reef, I offered to assist in their turtle survey. Yesterday afternoon at high tide, along with “Wombat of Sydney”, we began the survey by drawing a line in the sand just above the high tide. This afternoon, we will count the number of turtle tracks that have crossed the line. Turtle tracks here are not dainty footprints in the sand. These are huge, lumbering creatures that are built to swim, not to walk on land. Late in the afternoon, the females drag themselves slowing up the beach leaving tracks that look like they were made by a tractor. They then find a place they like, and start digging. The hole they dig is 3 to 5 meters wide and at least 3 meters deep. They then lay 15 – 24 eggs, partially coverup the hole, and then leave. The beach area is littered with hundreds of these holes, one next to the other, so that they look like bomb craters.

Yesterday, Mike, Laura and I went swimming with the turtles at a place we call the “turtle swimming pool.” It is an area of shallow sand to to the west of a sandbar that is above water only at low tide. It is only 100 meters from where we are anchored. From the boat you can see a dozen or more turtle heading for the swimming pool around low tide. Many beach themselves, probably to warm up. Even at sea, green sea turles like to bask on the surface. Two sea turtles have become our favorites, and so we have named them. We named the girl turtle Kamakshi, but we call her Amou for short, and the boy sea turtle Adithya, who we call Adi for short. Pretty names for such beautiful creatures.


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Some mighty big turtles

What a fascinating place Huon Reef is. We have seen dozens of gigantic sea-turtles here – swimming by the boat, sunning themselves in the shallow water by shore, lumbering up onto the beach, digging big holes in the sand with their flippers in order to nest. It’s hard to know how many turtles are here -but it must be in the hundreds. They are immense – anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds. Many of them are mating in the water and we watch the strange coupled pairs floating by us (for incredibly long periods of time) – often with a lonely male following the couple hoping for a chance to push off the other male and do what nature is telling him to do. Then there are the seabirds – thousands of boobies flying, sitting on their eggs, watching over their chicks, and watching us as we walk down the beach watching them. Other birds are here too – frigates and terns and others we don’t recognize. We see and hear them as they make their strange call from the railings of our boat and make the term “poop deck” very appropriate. The beach is also filled with innumerable crabs, all scuttling around, with the smaller ones crawling around in a multitude of beautiful shells. Big clusters of them are found under the hunks of driftwood on the beach. Then in the tidal pools there are lots of small and very beautiful black tipped sharks. We are having a great time – pure National Geographic type experience. It is also great to be here with Lynn and Mike (Wombat of Sydney). They love walking along the beach with us for hours just watching all the wonders of the island, picking up shells, taking photos, and marveling at the beauty of the place. It is also great to be here with another boat – it is just so far away from civilization….hundreds of miles away from any inhabited island.
Nice place…..we’ll stay here at least a few more days before heading further south and west..en route to Australia.
P.S. The photo is of me and one of the turtles here on Huon Island. He is mid-sized compared to some of the giants we have seen here. (I am the one in the pink shirt)

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Safe arrival at Huon Reef

We arrived safely at Huon Reef this morning after a very good 25 hour (170 nautical mile) passage from Puom, in the company of “Wombat of Sydney”. As tired as we were, we still put the dinghy in the water and spent a few hours ashore. The long thin sand and coral island has no trees,
rises to no more than 3 meters above the sea, and has grassy patches away from the beach. There are hundreds (thousands?) of sea birds which nest here. Large boobies flew out to greet Sabbatical III some miles from the anchorage, trying to catch a ride to the island. Once we were anchored, they roosted all along the bow — cackling and pooping without end. On shore, the boobies sit on their eggs (at most two), or on the newborn chicks. Fluffy feathered fledgings wait for their parents to feed them. Male and female adults do their synchronized mating dance, oblivious to our presence.

The big attraction to us here is the green sea turtles that come from thousands of miles away to mate and nest. Green sea turtles are the largest of the hard shell turtles — adults weigh 200 to 500 pounds. We saw lots of them on shore and in the water. The beach is covered with turtle tracks leading to the holes that they dig for their eggs. More on this later.


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Our recent passage and our next passage

October 3, 2010We arrived at Poum yesterday late in the afternoon, and had planned to continue heading north to Isle Pott today. But the wind came up very strong this morning — gusts to 30 knots — so we stayed on the boat all day. We left our nylon ballooner sail furled on the headstay with the big genoa yesterday, and this morning it seemed like a real liability. There is no way we could unfurl this sail along with the genoa in such a blow, and that meant there was no way to get it down. At 4 pm today, the wind suddenly dropped to less than 10 knots and we used the opportunity to up anchor, unfurl the two sails from the headstay, and drop the ballooner and stuff it in its bag, and return to the anchorage. Now we are good to go.

Tomorrow we will sail all the way to Huon Reef — a distance of 170 nautical miles and 25 hours of sailing — in the company of “Wombat of Sydney”, which is anchored right next to us. Huon Reef, which is uninhabited, is hard to find on a map. It is part of the D’Entrecasteux Reefs well out in the ocean to the northwest of New Caledonia (almost 400 miles of sailing from Noumea). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitation is prohibited as it is a very important turtle nesting site, as well as popular with boobies and other sea birds. We have permission from the French Ministry of the Environment to visit. We will write more about Huon once we get there. The coordinates of Ilot Huon, the tiny sand island at the east side of the atoll is:

South 18 degrees 02.89 minutes
East 162 degrees 57.17 minutes

As I reported yesterday, our sail to Poum from Ilot Tenia was not good at all. The good winds that were forecast were hardly in evidence — we spent the first 5 hours burning diesel. Once a bit of wind came up, a nasty sea came up from a distant weather system in the Tasman Sea almost 1000 miles away. We had the big genoa set on a pole to port and the nylon ballooner on a pole to starboard — which is a much sail area as we can possible put up — but made slow progess. It was not the slow speed per se that made this a rather unpleasant sail. The wind was directly from asterm — the most unstable point of sail for a boat — so we rolled miserably in the swell. When the boat rolled deeply, the wind spilled out of the sails and they started to collapse, and when we came out of the roll, they snapped back with a boom. The shock loads of spilling wind and catching it again made the rigging shake — I could see the steel cable holding up the mast bend and tighten. The roll was so bad in the middle of the night, the poles dipped into the ocean and were at risk of breaking. The poles are set about 12 to 14 feet above the water and extend out 14 feet in each direction from the mast.

Sabbatical III sails with two poled out head sails

Shark Story

Things improved with the sunrise yesterday but we still worried if we would make it into Poum before sunset. At midday the roll diminished enough for me to put two fishing lines in the water (at Laura’s urging — my wife like fresh fish). It only took three minutes for the biggest mahi-mahi I ever hooked to take a lure. Given the size of the fish and the roll, I decided to let him tire himself out fighting the latex shock absorber for 20 minutes before I began the job of hauling him in. I use a handline to fish — 60 meters of 210 pound test line coiled on a plastic spool called a yo-yo — and wear thick leather work gloves when handling the line. It was hard work hauling him in. When I had him halfway to the boat, we suddenly saw a second “fish” alongside the mahi-mahi. It took only seconds more before we saw the distinctive fin a a very large ocean shark. The shark wanted my fish. I was sure he was going to just go and take him at once, but he did not. He swam circles around the mahi-mahi, darted away and disappeared below the surface, then quickly return and repeated the process. The mahi-mahi, weighing about 40 pounds, was thrashing wildly trying to get off the hook and away from me and away from the shark, and it seemed the shark was reluctant to strike at him. So I hauled in the fish a fast as I could. The shark, big enough to make an easy meal of a 40 pound mahi-mahi, kept darting in but was unwilling to take my prize while it was thrashing. If he did, he would have my fishing gear too.

I always bring fish onto the boat off the stern. It is by far the easiest place to land a fish. Laura strongly insisted that I try to bring the mahi-mahi on-board at midships, suggesting that if I fell in, the shark would have me for dessert. It seemed a sensible suggestion at the time so I stayed at midships. Just as I started to pull the mahi-mahi out of the water and onto the boat, at the point that his huge head was pointed skywards and the lure clearly visible, the shark struck. In an instant the mahi-mahi and shark were gone. The lure was pulled free so I retained my fishing rig. My arms were shaking from the effort of pulling in the fish at double-time, and I felt badly for the mahi-mahi. For some reason, I feel he would have a less gruesome end on the deck of Sabbatical III than in the jaws of a shark.

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