GUEST INTERVIEW James and Jennifer Hamilton – Dirona N52 June, 2014.
So, James, Jennifer, you’ve crossed many oceans how have you found it so far?
Generally, it’s been pretty good. But statistically, if you spend weeks at sea, you will encounter some poor weather and we have certainly seen some. With care in choosing the right time of the year and favorable weather windows, the risk of truly horrendous weather is manageably low.
How was crossing the notorious Tasman Sea?
The Tasman Sea, like many large bodies of water, has been crossed by kayak so it’s not really impressive to cross it in a mid-sized power boat. But, it does have a well-earned reputation for rough water and there have been many boats lost in the Tasman. It deserves respect.
Dusk during our incredibly calm Tasman Sea crossing.
Before we left New Zealand we were talking with one local who has crossed many times and he said “don’t worry about the weather when you start – no matter how you time it, you are always going to get a butt kicking.” With that introduction we felt lucky to have experienced the best weather in the last 150 years of recorded history. I’ve seen swimming pools with a larger swell running. We had our best crossing ever at this picture taken at dusk perhaps tells the story best. It was an excellent crossing.
Dirona anchored off Harriman Glacier, Prince William Sound
What has been your cruising highlight so far?
You wouldn’t think that would be a difficult question but it really is. We have been lucky enough to have been able to visit so many places and seen so many diverse sights; it’s close to impossible to choose just one. Anchoring directly off a 300’ sheer glacier wall in Alaska’s Prince William Sound with ice chunks the size of small cars breaking off the wall and crashing into the water near us is both exciting and an amazing spectacle of natural beauty. Locking through a massive single commercial lock lifting Dirona 105’ on the way inland up the Snake and Columbia river system is an impressive sight and exciting technology. Standing on the edge of a live volcano in Vanuatu ejecting molten rock 100s of feet above our heads every 60 to 90 seconds is exhilarating and incredible example of the power of nature. SCUBA diving in the Tuamotus in water so clear that looking up from more than 130’ down, we can clearly see our dingy bobbing above is memorable. Cruising alone down the center of New Zealand’s great fiords and watching Dirona’s wake stretch out behind towards towering mountains on either side without a cloud in the sky is something we have dreamed of doing for nearly two decades. Cruising into and docking our boat in downtown Victoria, Canada where I was born and we both lived when we were young was memorable. Spending weeks at the Waikiki Yacht club in Hawaii felt pretty decadent. Visiting Fanning Island and realizing as the flashlights come out at night that the entire island has no electricity was eye opening. We felt lucky to be the only boat visiting the research station at Palmyra atoll. It’s been amazing so far and we are just getting started.
Yasur Volcano, Vanuatu
What do you like most about Australia so far?
As much as we love getting away from civilization and spending months enjoying natural beauty, it’s also fun to enjoy great metropolitan centers. We’ve only been in Australia for 3 weeks now and all of it has been spent in Brisbane, but what a cool city. We’re right downtown, have enjoyed cruising 40nm up river, have gone down river to visit the sea port, have taken the local ferries all over the city, and have enjoyed everything from nice restaurants to great times at a pub watching rugby games.
We have already met some incredible people and been universally impressed with how generous people are with their time and how willing people are to help. It makes it a really easy and relaxing country to visit.
What we are most looking forward to in Australia is weeks in the Whitsunday Islands, plenty of time to explore the Great Barrier Reef, New Years in Sydney and the southern hemisphere summer exploring Tasmania.
What don’t you like about Australia so far?
I’m not sure what to say – our experience thus far has been really good. We were warned by fellow cruisers that the customs and immigration experience would be taxing, time consumptive, and perhaps even a bit annoying. But even that was a good experience. The officials were detailed, helpful, and really efficient and we were fairly well prepared so it was easy and it ranks as one of the quickest country clearances we have been though.
How old is Spitfire, the ships cat?
Spitfire is nearly 11 years old now but still as energetic as he was when he was a kitten and first earned his name.
Spitfire on deck in French Polynesia
Why didn’t Spitfire have to spend time in Quarantine?
That’s a good question. It’s not possible to our knowledge to bring a cat or dog into Australia without a quarantine period somewhere. This almost prevented us from entering Australia but with care and preparation, only minimal quarantine was required and none of it was in Australia. What Jennifer found is that you can’t visit Australia or New Zealand without quarantine but, if you visited one and then the other without intervening stops, no further quarantine was required. With detailed vet work and government certification from the US and the last country we visited prior to New Zealand, Spitfire was able to qualify for the minimum New Zealand quarantine period of 10 days. That allowed us to spend nearly 8 months in New Zealand with Spitfire on board. And, it will also allow us more than a year in Australia without further quarantine period.
Contrary to what is broadly written, visiting Australia with a pet does not require a month of quarantine.
Does Spitfire like Australia so far?
He’s taken to Australia a little too well. Normally, he’s pretty well-behaved and stays on the boat. But since arriving here, he’s super interested in “going native” and doing a walkabout. The Nordhavn 62 Gray Matter next door to us in Brisbane has been particularly fascinating for Spitfire. Consequently, he’s wearing a harness and leash when the doors are open on Dirona and he’s definitely not a big fan of that.
James, we know that both you and Jennifer are programming geniuses but what is it that you actually do at Amazon?
I have a long history of interest in high-scale services and the data center, hardware, and server infrastructure that supports it. Amazon Web Services operates one of the largest deployments in the world and is a great fit for someone with my interests. Even small ideas when deployed broadly can make a big difference, so it’s a fun place for me to work.
Come on James, tell us more as we know that Adrian Cockcroft, the director of cloud architecture at Netflix, Amazon’s biggest customer said, and I quote “He’s really sharp” when referring to you.
I’ve been lucky to have worked with and learned from many good engineers over the last 30 years and Adrian is a good example. The folks I’ve worked with at IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon have taught me a lot and I feel fortunate to have worked on so many exciting projects over the years.
Jennifer, we understand that you are the brains behind your amazing tracker map (http://www.mvdirona.com/maps/LocationCurrent.html) how on earth did you make it happen as it’s the best tracker map I have ever seen.
Like many software projects, it started off so small it really wasn’t a big deal but, over time, we kept growing and enhancing it. It started out years ago on our previous boat where James wrote software to multiplex NMEA0183 data. We then added support to store all navigational data every 3 seconds into a database. Then we wrote reporting software against this database. One program shows weather data in graphical form and the other summarizes trips: distance traveled, max wind, minimum depth, etc.
When we got the new boat which was based upon NMEA2000, we again store most data on the bus into a relational database. Now we have all main engine, generator, wing engine, navigation, electrical, hydraulic system, weather data, and navigational data all available. It’s a lot of data so we only store it every 5 seconds now.
We ported the boat reporter system that shows trip summary data to the new database format and I wrote all the code to extract real time position and speed telemetry from this database, push to our web site (http://mvdirona.com) and show the boat’s position in real time on Google maps.
Excerpt from Dirona tracker map in Fiordland, NZ (http://www.mvdirona.com/Trips/NewZealand2013/NewZealand4.html)
Please understand that there are number of folks who want the program, any thoughts on releasing it to market?
One of the first thing professional software engineers learn (usually the hard way) is that it’s relatively easy to make software “work” when compared to the complexity of making it work well for 100s of customers with different environments. Given the scope of the work and the size of the market, it would be hard to make this work economically. Boating looks like a lot more fun :-).
Jennifer, if there is one thing James does that irritates you while under-way what would that be?
James has way more energy than me during crossings and often wants to make fixes or improvements to the boat, when I’d rather just read or relax.
And it’s only fair I ask James the same question, so James, if there was one thing Jennifer does that irritates you what would that be?
When sea conditions get rough, Jennifer can get sea sick and sea sickness can be pretty debilitating. But, Jennifer doesn’t really like sea sickness treatments all that much due to side effects like dry mouth and drowsiness, so she puts off using the treatment until the problem is well advanced. A rough trip always gets better as soon as Jennifer is using Scopolamine.
Onto irritating things, have you ever run out of something while at sea that has caused problems?
The reason our boat weighs in at 110,000 lbs when the manufacture lists it at 90,000lbs is, well, we’re not ever all that close to running out of anything 🙂
Would you describe yourselves as more hunters or more gathers?
I would say explorers. We love new experiences and adventures.
Why did you name Dirona?
The name is derived from Dirona Albolineata, or the Alabaster Nudibranch, an invertebrate indigenous to the Seattle area that we often saw when scuba diving there. Over 3,000 Nudibranch species live throughout the world’s oceans–their fantastic forms and psychedelic colors make them among our favorite sea creatures.
Image of Dirona Albolineata on Dirona’s bow.
What other names did you consider?
Miss Behaving, Knotty Dog, Reel Busy, Never Again 2, and our all-time favorite, Nuclear Fishin’.
There is a rumour that you thought of naming Dirona, Amazonas, is there any truth to that?
I love my job but, no, not quite that much.
What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while at sea?
We had a small hydraulic leak, but a little goes a long way. The forward thruster area was uniformly damp but it wasn’t clear from where. James leaned in to see if he could see the source of leak. Still nothing. He then tried the forward thruster using the remote helm control and jet of nice warm hydraulic fluid coated his face. It turns out it wasn’t really that hard to find after all.
What’s the biggest mistake you have ever made on the water?
10 years ago when Spitfire was a kitten, he made a mistake and fell in the water. Unfortunately, for some reason, instead of swimming back to the boat, he instead swam in the other direction. I jumped into water with my clothes on to save him. The water was in mid-40F range which shouldn’t be debilitating but it was cold enough that between holding Spitfire’s head above the water and trying to swim back to the swim platform, I actually was having trouble keeping my own head up. I should have thrown a life ring to Spitfire rather than jumping in without a life jacket.
The good news is that in the 10 years since that incident, he has only fallen in once and he was accident free for nearly 9 straight years so I’m guessing it wasn’t a great experience for him either.
Tell us something about yourself that nobody knows?
Unless you have no bank accounts, no credit cards, no grocery discount cards, don’t use social networks, only buy with cash but don’t generally keep large amounts of it on hand at any one time, don’t use internet search, don’t use telephones, don’t subscribe to services, don’t use computers, don’t vote, and aren’t in any way interesting to any sovereign powers including the US NSA (who appear to have rather broad interests), I’m pretty sure that there is nothing about me that “nobody knows”. It’s a complex world we live in :-).
Tell us a little something about DIRONA?
When we got Dirona, we sold the house to live on the boat while still working full-time. That makes the boat requirements somewhat complex in that it had to be a downtown condo, able to cross oceans, a good coastal cruiser, and a comfortable vacation home. We want it relaxing watching the sun set from the tropics while at the same time safe in high latitude weather. All boats are compromises and you really never know about them all until you have spent a year or two with the boat but, after 5 years and 4,400 hours, we’re pretty happy with how Dirona delivers on the diverse and sometimes conflicting set of requirements we have for it.
Dirona’s salon and galley.
Are you scared of spiders?
Probably shouldn’t be frightened of spiders since I grew up without any native dangerous species but there was an incident when I was young where I was woken up in the middle of the night by a spider landing on my face. It kind of stuck with me so I guess I’m not a big fan.
You are aware Australia has some very, very, nasty spiders?
That is true, but Australia also has 7’ crocodiles and 11’ sharks to offer as alternatives. The crocodiles are enough to make you yearn for poisonous spiders.
What’s your favourite photo ever taken whilst at sea and why?
Sunsets and sunrises are incredible. Sunset above en-route to Hawaii from San Francisco
What would you never leave behind (besides Spitfire and each other) when heading out to sea?
Safety items are the first things that spring to mind, particularly many, many ways of getting water out of a boat in a hurry. Water ingress and fire are both pretty dangerous so it’s worth taking the time to think through management plans and trying to avoid needing them.
And finally, where to next after Australia?
The vast Indian Ocean awaits us.
By the way, did I mention there are also some very large sharks around the Australian coast?
Yes, that and the spiders and don’t forget the extraordinarily hungry crocodiles 🙂
Thank you very much for your time, will be watching this year’s progress closely.
Thank you James and Jennifer
James’ blog can be found at: http://blog.mvdirona.com/