Capturing Jupiter Opposition 2019

Living in Houston, I don’t do much astrophotography. When I do attempt to capture the night sky, it’s usually with a wide angle lens and a long exposure, like this shot from the Lick Observatory in California a few years ago.

However, this month all of the news outlets in Houston were hyping up Jupiter and claiming that you would be able to see not only the planet, but also its four largest moons with only binoculars June 10. I decided to had to check it out.

I pulled out my vintage Leica R 400mm f6.8 Telyt and stacked both a 2x teleconverter and a 1.4x teleconverter before attaching it to a Sony A7II and bolting it all to a good tripod.

I’m not a big fan of teleconverters since you lose stops of light and some detail, but I was going for maximum magnification, and this rig got me the equivalent of a 1120mm lens.

For reference, this is how close 1120mm gets you to the moon on a full-frame, 35mm equivalent camera.

I have the StarTracker app on my phone, so I knew right where to look in the sky. The hardest part of the evening was waiting until Jupiter made its appearance above the neighbor’s trees about 10:30 p.m.

I took a couple dozen shots at varying shutter speeds and ISOs, but it seemed like f8 (plus the lost stops from the teleconverters, so actually f22), 1/500 second at ISO 1600 gave the clearest results. However, I had to develop the RAW files twice — once to properly expose Jupiter and once to expose the moons. Then I combined the two files into one photo.

There is Jupiter with Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s pretty cool that you can see at least some amount of detail on Jupiter even using old lenses from the 1970s.

Backpacking Guadalupe Peak

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Our backpacks were too heavy. Nobody had trained. Nobody had even worn their packs before except me, and mine hadn’t left the garage in at least ten years.

On paper, the hike seemed easy. It was four miles up the trail with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, reaching a final height of 8,600 feet above sea level. The logistics of getting to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and back to Houston in one weekend were what had me the most worried … at least until we stepped on the trail.

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We formulated a plan to leave Thursday after work and drive to Kerrville, then get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to to the park. Once there we would obtain the limited backwoods camping passes for the Guadalupe Peak Trail from the rangers, then hike up the mountain. After we set up camp, we’d hike the rest of the way up the peak to watch the sunset. Then I’d take some amazing milky way photos, maybe even do some starry sky timelapse videos before heading to bed. Then we’d wake up before dawn to hike back up to the peak to watch the sunrise before walking down the mountain to go explore other things like Carlsbad Caverns or the strange Prada store in Marfa.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

We did leave Thursday night, and we did make it to Kerrville.

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The Holiday Inn Express had a fancy Texas-shaped pool. Unfortunately it was far too cold and late in the evening to try it out. The next morning we were back on the road.

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We made it to Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 1 p.m. and were very lucky to snag one of the few remaining backwoods camping permits. We unloaded our gear and headed up the mountain.

I’d done a fair amount of backpacking when I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was lucky that I still had my gear. However, nobody else had really tried out their packs, some of which had been procured through eBay, so everyone was starting the hike with discomfort.

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I also didn’t have time to open each person’s pack and ruthlessly throw all their belongings back in the car saying, “Nope, can’t take this,” like the guides and counselors did to me back in the old days. No deodorant. No extra batteries. Not even a toothbrush unless you break off the handle. What’s worse is I didn’t even follow my own rules and packed in two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod in anticipation of all the amazing photography I was going to do. (So glad I brought a tripod for this …)

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Let’s just say it was a very long hike up the mountain.

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We stopped to rest often.

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We really should have paid attention to the fact that the trail was marked strenuous.

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Although we made sure to find plenty of photo ops.

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Five and a half hours later, we finally reached the sign for the camping area.

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Unfortunately that arrow on the sign doesn’t actually point in the right direction. The trail is off to the right of the sign, so the girls took a break while TJ and I wandered the mountain looking for any sign of a camp.

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It turned out to be just over the ridge of lower peak, so we made the last march of day into the camping area and set up our tents.

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We started cooking dinner just as the sun was setting. No, we weren’t going to be able to watch sunset from the peak, but there were times throughout the day when we weren’t sure we were even going to make it as far as we had.

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As I set up my cameras to capture some stars, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen rose into the sky. I thought it made the night look a bit unique, so I set up a timelapse anyway. Then, since the moon hadn’t been able to dissuade me, the clouds moved in as mother nature had a good laugh about the fact that I’d carried all that camera equipment for nothing.

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The weather in the desert makes massive shifts between day and night, so we all layered up to fight the cold. The dehydrated food never tasted so good. Our friends passed around a flask, and we all took a nip of Scotch before climbing into sleeping bags and quickly falling into a deep, black sleep.

Around 2 a.m. the wind had picked up to better than 25 miles per hour. It had been impossible to drive stakes into the hard ground where we were camping, so Mary sent me out with rope to tie the tent down to whatever rocks and trees were within reach. The moon loomed over me, lighting the work. I never even had to turn on the flashlight.

We slept through sunrise.

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The dehydrated egg scramble had never tasted so good, and spirits were high as we knew we didn’t have to carry our backpacks up to the peak.

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Yes, we’d missed the sunrise, but it would still be a nice hike.

 

I packed some water and my camera into a sleeping bag stuff sack, slung it over my shoulder, and we headed for the top.

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The last mile was full of beautiful scenes. We couldn’t get enough photos, but even without packs, everyone was still having a bit of a struggle.

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Once we passed El Capitan, we knew we were almost there.

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A few portions of the trail crossed steep rock face, which had Mary crabwalking, but she overcame her fear of heights to cross them.

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Despite various threats of quitting, we all made it to the tallest point in Texas together.

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Inside the ammunition box at the base of the monument was a log book, signed by all who make the hike. Some people put serious thought into what they write. The book is full of poetry and quotes. We added our own signatures to the pages.

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Had we had more time, water and a permit, I think everyone would have been content to stay another night before breaking camp and hiking down the mountain, but we didn’t have that luxury. We made a quick lunch and then reluctantly put on our backpacks.

Mary had a sore knee, so it was slow going. Even so, it only took us about two hours to get down the hill — a marked improvement compared to our ascent.

I left my pack with everyone at the base of the trail and hiked over to the ranger station to get the car. Everyone was very excited to sit down.

We drove to Van Horn and celebrated our achievement with dinner and drinks at the El Capitan Hotel.

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We made the long drive back the Houston Sunday with one question in mind, what mountain do we conquer next?

The cheapest way to add Wi-Fi to any camera (or your boat)

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When you’re boating or backpacking, it’s not so easy to just pull out your camera’s memory card and dump the photos onto a computer. Half the time I have the camera sealed in a dive case or wrapped up in plastic to protect it from the elements, and most of the time I don’t even have a computer with me.

When we were in the Spanish Virgin Islands I really appreciated the fact that my Sony had built-in Wi-Fi. I could climb back on the boat, towel off, then turn on the Wi-Fi to send all my snorkeling photos to my iPad for review without ever having to take the camera out of the dive case. I could then Instagram a good one and hop right back in the water to dive some more. I didn’t have to worry about unsealing and resealing the dive case, defogging the lens again, or any of that rigmarole.

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Unfortunately, not all cameras come with Wi-Fi. However, Wi-Fi SD cards have been around for a few years now and are getting better all the time. You might have heard of Eye-Fi. They were the pioneers of Wi-Fi SD cards, but an Eyefi Mobi Pro card still runs about $99. There’s also the Transcend Wi-Fi option.

I was almost ready to spend the money on an Eye-Fi when I came across the Toshiba Flashair. Apparently, the FlashAir has never been too popular, and the iPhone and Android apps were downright terrible when it first came out. However, a 32GB FlashAir SD card is now only $30 (I ordered mine on eBay). At that price, I decided to give it a try.

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Setup of the card was easy. You just pop it in the camera and download the free FlashAir app to your phone. Each time you launch it after the card has been formatted, it gives you the option to change the Wi-Fi name and password. This is a nice feature if you were shooting a professional event where lots of people might be using Wi-Fi, however, it has one major flaw. Every time you format the SD card in the camera, it resets the SSID and Password to the factory default. I might format the card three times a day when I’m working, so I gave up on setting a custom Wi-Fi name.

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Once the app is launched, your phone or tablet will automatically connect to the Wi-Fi generated by the SD card and allow you to browse the photos on the card. (I found Android devices are much faster at connecting than iOS devices, which sometimes need help finding the network.)

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Just select the photos you want to download to your phone, and it beams them right over. But here’s the cool part, the FlashAir app doesn’t just work for photos. It also does music and movie files, so you can use it in other devices like a Zoom recorder or a video camera.

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Perhaps you do have a computer, but you don’t have an SD card reader available, or maybe you just hate installing apps on your phone. If you connect the computer or a phone to the FlashAir Wi-Fi and then open the web browser, it reads the card in the web browser and lets you browse and download the photos that way as well.

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But wait, that’s not all! If you stick the FlashAir in an SD card reader, it still generates Wi-Fi. That means, if you need Wi-Fi on your boat, you could grab one of these FlashAir cards and a card reader, stick it in an SD slot on your chartplotter or even a 12 volt DC plug and suddenly have a portable Wi-Fi network for all the devices on your boat.

Now don’t get too excited. It won’t give you Internet, just a Wi-Fi network that allows all of your devices to connect to each other. For instance, if you have an AIS system that needs Wi-Fi to send info to your chartplotter, this $30 SD card will allow that. It can connect up to six devices. (However, if you do have an Internet connection, it also allows Internet pass through.)

So what’s the downside to a Wi-Fi SD card you ask? Well, although the transmitter has a very low power draw, it still drains the battery faster. Cameras with built-in Wi-Fi like the Sony are able to turn it on and off to conserve battery, but with the FlashAir, from what I can tell the Wi-Fi is on all the time. However, in use I can’t say I’ve seen a noticeable change in battery life.

Yes, the FlashAir app does transfer RAW files. I shoot everything in RAW, but I honestly don’t know why anyone would want to transfer a 45 MB file over Wi-Fi. I shoot RAW + 1.2 MB JPG Small. The RAW is for my photo archives and for making prints. I download those files when I get home. The JPG small file saves space on the SD card and my phone or tablet but has plenty of resolution for social media. Here’s a few examples straight out of the camera via the FlashAir card.

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So there you have it, the Toshiba Flashair 3 Wi-Fi SD card, the $30 solution to adding Wi-Fi to any camera.

GBCA Cruzan Rum Race #5

Saturday we reported to Kemah Boardwalk for Rum Race #5 of the current series. Hippokampus was out of action for the weekend, so their crew joined our crew on Antares. Mary took her post working the main sheet, but with plenty of able bodies aboard, I skipped winch duty and spent the afternoon sitting on the rail and taking photos. Here’s a few of my favorites from the day.

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I decided to shoot this entire race with my vintage 90mm Elmarit. While it provides a great crop for landscape shots of the race and gives me enough reach to capture the crew of passing boats, it’s not so good for capturing any pictures of the crew on your own boat.

While I was goofing off taking photos, Mary was doing a great job on the main sheet. I would say she has definitely conquered her anxiety in regard to heeling since we came across the finish looking like this.

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We had a great run, but a bittersweet ending to the day. The diesel wouldn’t start, so we had cruise up and down the channel a few times waiting for a tow boat to come get us.

But hey, at least we got another photo op when we sailed back past the committee boat.

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Thanks to Scott Lacy for the photos of Antares. Click here to see the rest of his shots from the race.

Up in the trees

While walking the dogs this weekend we heard quite the racket coming from the trees around the marina. There was an incessant chorus of what I guess I’d describe as a croak-squawk mixed with regular squawks and a bunch of wing-flapping and branch rustling. We had to go investigate.BlackCrownedNightHeron01

Black crowned night herons were everywhere in the trees, and as we stared harder, we discovered the source of the croak-squawking.

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Nests with very large baby black crowned night herons were everywhere. Most nests had two chicks, and some trees had up to four nests. They were all demanding to be fed while their parents hopped from branch to branch nearby, nervously wondering what we were doing under the trees.

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It was hard to capture a good photo due to all the leaves and branches, but the chicks seemed comically large for the size of the nests.

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When we walked back by on Sunday, we actually saw the adults starting to coax the chicks out of the nest for their first flying lessons. Of course, not all of them looked happy about being evicted.

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I’m sure that in another week or two we’ll see these little guys balancing on dock lines and grabbing fish out of the water, just like their parents.

Critique, evaluation, curation and rejection

The original focus of this blog was supposed to be sailing and sailboat repair projects, but not yet being full-time cruisers (and due to the fact that it hasn’t stopped raining in Houston for almost two months), Mary and I often end up distracted with our other hobbies, so I hope you don’t mind the tangential topics.

I have a tendency to push Mary out of her comfort zone with ideas like “sailing close hauled” or “creating boat cooking videos,” and she does the same to me — this time with photography.

I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures. I bought my first camera, a rectangular 110 point and shoot, with S&H Green Stamps when I was in elementary school. In middle school my parents sent me to photography day camp, and by high school I had my own Canon AE-1 Program, which I carried through college and into my first years as a newspaper reporter — right up until I finally joined the digital revolution. Then, about three years ago I got interested in historical cameras and started shooting with an assortment of TLRs and vintage rangefinders.

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Long story short, I’ve invested lots of time and money in cameras, lenses, film, tripods, bags, memory cards, batteries, etc. through the years, so Mary decided it was finally time for me to have a show.

I’ve never done the gallery thing. I have no idea how this really works, but Mary had already started contacting various galleries and cafes in the Kemah area to see if they would hang and sell my prints.

One small catch. I had no prints.

With an impending meeting last Sunday I had to really sit down, go back through all the terabytes of photos I’ve shot over the past few years, really critique myself, decide which photos were worth printing, and create a portfolio to show the galleries. That meant taking what I considered to be my very best work and opening myself up to having it rejected.

It was a very stressful exercise. The old saying goes, “You are your own worst critic,” but criticism from other people can sting much more.

Here’s a gallery of the photos I selected if you want to check it out.

I decided to go with a sailing theme, put in my print order, and tried not to grind my teeth while I waited for them to arrive.

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Mpix and Mpix Pro have started offering prints on Kodak Metallic Paper for just a dollar more than the regular prints, and wow, they really pop. I highly recommend it.

Now, a very long time ago I had attempted to do my own matting and framing, so I still had an old box of mats in the garage and a mat cutter in the attic. After picking up some foam core and a test frame at Hobby Lobby, I spent an evening attempting to mount, mat and frame one of the prints.

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My mounting and matting weren’t too bad, but when I actually examined the Hobby Lobby frame, it had two big nicks in the wood and a scratch in the glass — which was definitely not UV or glare resistant. When I factored in the cost of the supplies even with sub-par frames and the fact that it took me almost two hours just to finish one print, I decided it wasn’t worth it to do it myself.  I have too many other projects that need my attention.

Sunday afternoon rolled around and Mary, being the great manager/agent that she is, advised me to “dress artsy and seem interesting.”

We met with Roberto, the owner of Cerise Crepes, a new European-style cafe. Roberto was great, he told us about all his hopes for the restaurant and his vision of an art show with local painters and photographers as well as how he wanted to start a French club in the area. Plus, the crepes and the coffee were delicious.

There were only two problems. The first was that Cerise Crepes is located in Spring on the north side of Houston, not anywhere near the ocean. (My agent said she knew the cafe wasn’t located in our target region, but that she really likes crepes.) The second problem tied into the first, being that with the cafe located in Spring, Roberto wasn’t really interested in sailboat pictures.

I suggested that perhaps his customers would have more interest in some of my travel photos from Paris, Rome, London and Rio, so I packed up my display and made my way home where I spent another two or three hours going back through the terabytes of archived files, trying to find new worthy photographs. If I had thought the first time through this exercise was stressful, it was nothing compared to having to throw out all my favorite photos and then pick again.

Here is the new gallery I put together for Cerise Crepes if you want to check it out.

Mary has another meeting scheduled for me in Kemah next weekend, so hopefully that one will go better. If not, at least I did take a few steps out of my comfort zone, and if nothing else, Mary might end up with a wall of really nice prints at the house.

And here’s an ending note from my agent, who swears to me that a 90% cut is industry standard: If you’d like to book Fred for a shoot or order any of his outstanding fine art prints online, just visit www.fredfacker.com.

Going topless at Port St. Joe

Sometimes there’s just no way to avoid renting a car. Our weekend trip to St. Joe, Florida has us flying into Tallahassee, which was almost two hours away. Then, our adorable rental house was within walking distance of downtown St. Joe, but it was a few miles from the beaches.

I first investigated the average cost of rentals. It seemed like we were going to pay about $35 per day for a mid-size sedan while a convertible sports car was $90 a day. An extra $55 per day didn’t seem justifiable, but I had this fantasy in my head about driving down the coast in a convertible that just wouldn’t go away. Plus, Fred always had a convertible back in his bachelor days, and I knew he missed driving one, and I really wanted to surprise him.

I decided to try the Priceline name your own price tool, and I put in $50 per day for a Mustang convertible. Boom, it was accepted by Budget Rental Car. Thanks, Shatner!

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Driving that car around with the top down was close to the funnest thing about the trip. (After hanging out with my sister, of course).  Fred really loved driving it too, and we had no shortage of friends willing to ride with us to the beach.  All in all … I think it might be my new favorite splurge.

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Now, it did tend to make our hair a bit unmanageable, but hey, that’s the price you pay for fun.

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It’s a very pretty drive from Tallahassee to Port. St. Joe, and we got a unique view of the scenery.

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We were still envious of the boaters anchored out along the route, enjoying life on the Florida coast … but not AS envious.

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The 2015 Mustang handled well, and the top was quick to move up and down. We had space in the trunk for multiple folding chairs, coolers and bags during our treks to the beach. And while Mustangs have never had a luxurious backseat, we had no complaints from the two medium-sized adults riding with us. However, the car electronics proved a bit glitchy. The entire first day there was a “hood open” warning on the dash even though the hood was definitely shut and latched. It wasn’t until Fred finally popped it and shut it again that the warning finally went away. Sometimes the back-up camera would stay on for what seemed an extended period of time after shifting back into drive and moving forward for quite a distance, and the entire info-tainment system was laggy. The Eco-Boost engine was zippy, but not what I would call “fast,” and averaged 25.8 mpg during our four days of driving.

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But probably the coolest (and definitely most unnecessary) feature of this car was the fact that when you unlocked the car in the dark, the side view mirrors project the running horse Mustang emblem onto the ground beside the car!

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Despite quite a bit of driving, when we returned the car Sunday afternoon there were no hidden costs or additional fees. The Priceline price was solid, which was more than we can say for the next car we rented straight through Budget Sunday evening — but that’s for another blog.

Saturday Morning Sunrise

For the first time in forever, we finally had a weekend of nothing but sun. Not that I mind the rain, but it was nice to be able to open all the hatches and just enjoy the spring air. I couldn’t resist getting up early Saturday morning to sip some coffee and watch the sunrise.

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Momma duck brought all the babies by to say, hello as they started their morning routine.

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And even this sleepy head got out of bed earlier than usual for a walk around the marina.

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We had guests!

We invite lots of people to go sailing with us, but schedules are complicated, lives are busy, and the weather hasn’t been too cooperative lately. However, we did finally have a break in the rain long enough Saturday afternoon to take our friends Andy and Jayne out to Redfish Island and back. They were the first guests we’ve had on Gimme Shelter since Thanksgiving.

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The wind was shifting around a bit, but we made it from the Kemah bridge to Redfish with only two tacks, and we had no trouble setting the anchor. Mary had chicken legs marinating in a honey mustard sauce, so we got a chance to use the new grill again.

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It was perfect weather for an outdoor dinner in the cockpit. We’ll be on the same catamaran as Andy and Jayne in the Spanish Virgin Islands, and I’m definitely looking forward to more of these dinners overlooking beautiful blue water.

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After dinner we followed the sun home and watched it disappear over the horizon.

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Thank you to Andy and Jayne for sailing with us. It’s already raining again, but hopefully we’ll be back on the water next weekend.

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After the boat show, a new vessel appeared in our marina — something unlike any of the others.

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This thing was fast, and it was definitely violating the “no wake” policy in the marina.

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But nobody seemed too concerned.

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I don’t know the exact price, but I’m pretty sure our neighbor paid more for this thing than we did for our first sailboat.

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It runs off a small one-cylinder two-cycle engine and sounds like a weedeater. You have to remove the cowling and pull a cord to start it. Then you’re off to the races.

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At least until it dies in the middle of the fairway, and your neighbor has to dinghy out to bring it back.

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Power boaters … SMH.