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Communications plan for Haida Gwaii trip


Aug 30, 2006
Comox, BC
I am putting together a Communication Plan for my trip around Haida Gwaii. I have been struck by the coroner's remarks in the case of Andrew Mcauley, the Australian kayaker lost in sight of New Zealand having crossed the Tasman Sea. The coroner felt that the communications plan was inadequate, especially the lack of contact during the paddle and the lack of a previously agreed call sign (Mcauley gave himself the ad hoc callsign "kayak one" in his VHF message and he did not use "Mayday".

I have bought a second SPOT messenger because a loss of SPOT OK messages will create very real anxiety at home and probably ought to trigger a response, yet a single SPOT could easily become inoperable though crushing or water ingress. I believe that SPOT users should avoid unnecessary activation of a SAR response.

I am not taking a sat phone. This is because:
* they are not waterproof and require a bulky protective case. I have limited space and have already made sacrifices
* they cannot be used on the water in the conditions in which one might want to use them
* I believe in duplication of safety equipment to allow same-use back-up rather than multiple (confusing) modes of communication

So the following is the text of the Communications plan that I will leave with my family. I will have a copy.

It is lengthy but this is because it is detailed. Furthermore, my family are not kayakers and have no experience of marine communications. AER, WJR and MJR are family members.

I am posting it because I think it is useful for our community to discuss such plans. I will be very happy to hear any comments about it, although the nature of this particular plan is in part a response to my particular circumstances and risk estimations, so it may be very different from what others feel is necessary. I am not presenting it as a model for everyone to use, but as a document to stimulate discussion.

A point of information that many may be aware of, although I was not until recently (and I have checked this with the District Superintendent of the region): extraction from a remote beach when injured is an Ambulance service responsibility (even if devolved to SAR) and results in an ambulance fee - some hundreds of dollars for BC residents rather than the thousands of dollars it would cost a visitor.


Communications plan


Orange deck over white hull

Orange drysuit
Orange PFD
Blue helmet (if worn)

Call sign:
Bald Eagle :wink: (yes, I am - my wife's suggestion)


VHF radios x 2.
Each radio will be fully charged prior to departure on each leg of the trip. One radio has alkaline AA battery tray as well.

GPS x 2

ResQFix personal locator beacon
Beacon ID: *********

SPOT (“Little Spot”) with separate 911 + Help + Custom message + OK buttons.
SPOT (“Big Spot”) with separate 911 + Help + OK buttons.
SPOT does not have an ID # but SPOT HQ can identify user.
AER, WJR and MJR are Help & Custom message recipients.
There are nine SPOT OK message recipients including blog.
The 911, Help and OK functions are identical for both Big Spot and Little Spot and use of the messengers is therefore interchangeable for these functions.
Only Little Spot has the Custom message facility.

Parachute flares x 2
Personal flares x 6
Laser flare (red)
Signalling mirror
Camera flash


On the water / on land

Immediate help required (e.g. unable to re-enter boat and unable to reach land; injured on land and likely to suffer further harm if not recovered within hours; severe abdominal pain)

JGR action
ResQFix activation
SPOT 911 activation
Attempt to raise coast guard on VHF Channel 16 and give position from GPS

AER action
None initially (unaware)
When contacted by Coast guard / SPOT HQ, discuss contents of this Communications plan if appropriate in order to help authorities establish degree of urgency

Urgent assistance required (response in up to 3 days required)

JGR will be on land

Rapid help is required (e.g. expedition must end due to sickness such as non-resolving severe gastroenteritis, incapacitating injury such as severe ankle sprain or suspected wrist fracture).

JGR action
Attempt to raise Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16 and give position from GPS. Request extraction and for AER to be informed. If successful contact, no further action.

If unable to contact Coast Guard, SPOT Help activation every three hours from 0900 to 2100 every day for 3 days.

Switch to ResQFix and SPOT 911 activation (i.e. switch to Emergency mode) if:
* no assistance arrived within 3 days of first SPOT Help activation
* condition deteriorates and 3 day timespan no longer appropriate

AER action
When SPOT Help message received contact 911. Ambulance required. Explain significance of SPOT Help message. Ambulance service will co-ordinate response with Search and Rescue as appropriate.

WJR and MJR action
On receiving SPOT Help message, check AER has received the message

Alert message

JGR will be on land

Unable to paddle for the time being due to sickness or injury; no need for end of expedition. However, likely to remain in same position for some days. Conversion possible to need for Urgent assistance. This message is mainly to provide recipients (AER, WJR, MJR) with additional information about a prolonged pause in the trip.

JGR action
Continue to send SPOT OK daily message (see below). This will be a morning message as unable to paddle.

Also activate SPOT Custom (Alert) message daily immediately after SPOT OK message.

If condition deteriorates and expedition must end, follow “Urgent assistance required” instructions above.

If condition improves and paddling resumes, JGR will send a SPOT OK message in the morning on the first day even though paddling, followed by a message in the evening. This will prevent concern about his status which would occur if a period of SPOT Custom (Alert) messages was followed by no message at all the following morning.

AER action
Heightened attention to email messages (possible subsequent SPOT Help message)

WJR and MJR action
On receiving SPOT Custom (Alert) message, check AER has received the message.

Daily messaging

JGR will be on land or a short distance from land

Check in to establish JGR’s position each day

JGR action
Activate SPOT OK button in morning if no paddling that day
Activate SPOT OK button in afternoon/evening after paddling

If both SPOTs become inoperable, contact Coast Guard by VHF to inform them, in view of AER action required if SPOT OK messages stop.

AER action
If no SPOT OK message for two consecutive days (by midnight on second day), contact Prince Rupert Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) on
Phone 250-627-3081
Fax 250-627-3070

Give Coast Guard Longitude and Latitude from last SPOT message or email last SPOT message if requested to mctsprincerupert@pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca



SPOT Help message

ENDEX ENDEX ENDEX. Require extraction from current location within 3 days. :roll: A nod to my past - ex-British Army types will recognise Endex Endex Endex as the radio message given by a unit CO when halting a training exercise for good

SPOT Custom (Alert) message

ALERT ALERT ALERT. Sickness/injury currently prevents paddling.

SPOT OK message

Jonathan Reggler has reached this location.

That's a comprehensive regime.

One suggestion: with nine SPOT email addresses, someone should come up, for sure. Might be good to impress on those folks the need to discuss the situation amongst themselves, and act as a group. Conflicting communications to SAR services (etc.) from SPOT monitors might delay a response.

On the west coast of Moresby, I'n not sure where the CCG VHF repeaters are. Might be only Barry Inlet and Van Inlet, based on the info I have here. Probably you have better info than I do. And, stuck on a beack behind a headland, might be you could not get the VHF to reach out. You are wise to take a SPOT.
Excellent point, Dave.

I will ensure that the nine recipients of the SPOT OK messages know that they are to take no action at all if SPOT OK messages cease, because there is a comprehensive plan using a separate set of messages. Thanks.
PS - in fact, some of the 9 are actually going to get the Help and Alert messages (if any!!), but I understand your point and will ensure that those who only get OK messages understand that they are passive bystanders.
Very comprehensive and good that you're doing this. If the shit hits the fan this could make things less confusing.

Comoxpaddler said:
...Furthermore, my family are not kayakers and have no experience of marine communications...

In light of the above, I'd say that on my first (quick) reading it all seems somewhat complicated and I found myself wishing for a flow chart or some sort of visual aid to understanding it. It might help the family sort things out also?

A thought I just had is that if you're seriously dinged up and in pain/shock (or on pain killers, I don't remember from your first aid kit thread whether you're taking meds with you) you might not remember if you have sent messages or forget what to send and when to send it and then a laminated version of your plan might help you out also?

With the evident thought and preparation you're putting into this expedition you don't seem to need it, but good luck!

When do you leave?


PS What the hell are you guys doing up at 2 am? Don't you know you're supposed to be sleeping?

Good catch on the flow chart idea. I had the same feeling, but could not articulate it as well.

As to the 2 am ... I have a middle of the night period when the brain clicks on, and the best cure for it is to use the old noggin until it is ready for more sleep. I bet Jon is the same.
Thanks for posting your communications plan, I appreciate you doing it to stimulate thought/discussion. I've not used the SPOT system, so am not up-to-speed on its current capabilities, but here a few of the thoughts that came to mind...

-Technology sure has changed communications plans! On my first trip to the west coast of Van. Is. the communication plan with my family was "I'll call whenever I am in a town/village that has a phone; I should be home in a month or so."

-Have you discussed with your family what to do/think if SPOT transmissions cease for a day or two or...? I'm aware of situations in which someone carrying a SPOT was pushing the "OK" button, but no message was transmitted (heavy tree cover/narrow fjord in the case of one IP paddler and someone monitoring the SPOT messages back home called out the Coast Guard). Does the SPOT system offer positive confirmation that your message was received? At what point do family members initiate a search in case of no communication (or do they)? Before each trip, my wife and I sit down and discuss what she will do if I don't contact her within X # of days and what I will do if I'm unable to contact her, for whatever reason, within X # of days (I carry a satphone, PLB and radio) so that we each clearly understand the action(s) the other will be taking.

I'll be curious to read how others have worked out their communications plans.
My first thought is that the plan is too complicated. But then my entire comms plan is 'carry a VHF' to contact RCC if in trouble.


Get rid of this part of SPOT plan:

AER action
If no SPOT OK message for two consecutive days (by midnight on second day), contact Prince Rupert Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) on
Phone 250-627-3081
Fax 250-627-3070

There was another post about SPOT that indicated a number of false alarms exactly because of SPOT communications failure. Global Star satellite coverage is not reliable enough for this kind of plan. Coast Gaurd might not respond on basis of too many false alarms that result from SPOT. Then again they might respond only to find you are not in need of assistance.


Get a personal locator beacon (PLB). Sarsat coverage is 100% which is much better than Global Star that SPOT relies on. With Sarsat (Ground station CFB Trenton which ties into all of the RCCs), help will be sent if it detects a PLB signal. Sarsat is 100% reliable.


Don't repeat a word three times in a text message; thats only done with radios where voice quality isn't always good. Get rid of jargon such as endex. Send clear message such as "I need to be evacuated" or use a coded nonsense phrase like 'Blue Chicken' (instead of 'endex endex endex') that can't be confused with another meaning such as 'end of exercise'. That emergency signal might get passed to RCC and they might wonder what exercise you are talking about.


Parachute flares x 2
Personal flares x 6
Laser flare (red)

Too much ordinance. Get rid of the para flares; too much risk of starting a forest fire. Carry either 3 x personal flares or the laser flare and get a strobe light. If you really need more carry a dye marker; from the air, dye is much more visible than a flare in daytime.


There should only be one recipient of any messages being sent. Else there might be confusion. Nine people calling RCC because of an emergency for instance. Or none because someone thought someone else did.
Thanks guys for taking the trouble to look at what was a long post.

Regarding the "confusing" nature of the plan (which might be helped by a flow chart) remember that this is a plan that only needs to be understood by three people (AER, WJR and MJR) apart from me and that they have all read it and are declaredly happy with it. I might agree if it was being published more widely.

Furthermore, only one part of the plan needs to be read at any one time - depends on which type of message has been received.

ENDEX ENDEX ENDEX or ALERT ALERT ALERT makes the message instantly recognisable for what it is. It's pattern recognition. I take the point about the fact that the message might be transmitted elsewhere and that ENDEX might be confusing. I will think on it. RESCUE RESCUE RESCUE might be better.

As the Electronics list makes clear I have a PLB (EPIRB) as well as the SPOTs. The plan calls for both the EPIRB and a SPOT to be activated on the water if I am in an emergency situation. The idea is that I therefore utilise two systems (I do not believe than ANY system is "100% reliable", Ken). But perhaps this is poor practice. Any views on this? I will also ask the Coast Guard.

As for there being only a single recipient of any message, the "OK message" recipients know that no action is to be taken if messages cease.

I remain conflicted about the problem of what my family should do if there are no SPOT messages because of satellite visibility problems in an area where I am trapped by weather. The plan calls for me to alert the Coast Guard by VHF that this is the case. But that might be difficult. Thoughts, please.

As for the flares. Yeah, I have never been really sure about the parachute flares. Anyone used them?
Comox wrote: I remain conflicted about the problem of what my family should do if there are no SPOT messages because of satellite visibility problems in an area where I am trapped by weather. The plan calls for me to alert the Coast Guard by VHF if that this is the case. But that might be difficult. Thoughts, please.

As for the flares. Yeah, I have never been really sure about the parachute flares. Anyone used them?

I think the geographic conditions (enclosed by high cliffs satellite-ward) which will make getting a good SPOT shot are about the same ones which will make VHF contact problematic, unless the repeater is the other direction. IIRC, those two repeaters on the West side of Moresby are on tall promontories, so they are as good as you can get. Yet, we had spotty reception of WX via 21B (??) from those repeaters some places on the east side of Moresby: Skincuttle, Burnaby, and other places in 2000 and 1998; monitoring 16, sometimes TX from them to our location was very good, sometimes sketchy. Things could be different, now, and west side is not east side. You might contact Moresby Explorers for up to date info on how well those CCG repeaters work in reality. They used to be the go-to group up there, eons ago.

On flares up there: only useful for attracting attention of a vessel you can see, and typically only dusk to dawn. Parachute flares are not much help in an isolated place such as Haida Gwaii (west side). East side, buckets of people, most likely, in which case a Mayday on the VHF will likely bring instant relief, I suspect, and a parachute flare would be a decent backup. The Watchmen monitor 16 when they are near their huts, I believe, but likely a cruising boat or an outfitter en route to deliver/pick up kayaks are more probable targets. Off the beach, we could hit HotSprings from about 8 miles with a 5W HH VHF (vicinity of Burnaby Narrows), about the limit, I think for line of sight.
So, after conversations at home, the "no message for two days, call the Coast Guard" part of the plan has gone. Too prone to inappropriate activation of the SAR system. My wife has agreed that lack of SPOT message for two days (which was my initial suggestion) is insufficient reason to call the CCG. Still trying to decide just when the CCG should be notified about a lack of SPOT messages. Clearly there is a point after which a lack of any communication constitutes a justifiable cause for a phone call to CCG. Two days is too little, two weeks too long. Hmmm. As my wife has pointed out, if there are no EPIRB activations or SPOT 911/Help/Alert messages in that period either, then it is only going to be a matter of recovery of a body anyway (this is not an attempt at being melodramatic, just a frank discussion). So, the bottom line is that SPOT OK messages are exactly that - positive OK messages - and their absence should not be given any additional interpretation, at least in the short term.

The parachute flares will stay at home.

Dave, the folks at Queen Charlotte Adventures tell me that in their opinion the CCG VHF system is more sketchy than before and blamed the people at Telus for not maintaining the repeaters. I spoke with a tech at Prince Rupert Coast Guard who reassured me that the CCG repeaters are nothing to do with Telus (you knew this, no doubt), who do indeed have their own system but that is for the now virtually defunct Marine Telecommunications Operator system that Doug Taylor and I completely failed to rouse anywhere around Vancouver Island two years ago.

Still keen to know what others think about activating SPOT and EPIRB at the same time when in a situation of mortal peril on the water, although I will ask the CCG the same question.

Publishing my Communications Plan here has been very helpful for me. Thanks guys. Any further comments will be welcome.
At what point someone at home calls out the Coast Guard is a tough decision...my wife and I have pondered that one long and hard. Your (and your wife's) point about a Coast Guard activation being a body recovery exercise is, I think, an important one to discuss with family members (and not too melodramatic). As a frequent solo paddler, I've come to think that the best I and my family can do is develop a plan that seems to us to be responsible and that we can live with even though we recognize it may not be the "best" plan for every situation.

Asking the Coast Guard about dual SPOT and PLB activation seems like a great idea. If you get a chance before taking off, please post their response.
Thanks for sharing your planing!

On our 2009 PR2PH trip we carried Spot and a PLB in our group and like your plan had a person who would make The CG call. The family was instructed to contact him with any concerns that they might have. I had several meetings with him so he had a good feel for using weather data and the various route plans we had, I felt he had a good idea of the decision process we would like him to use for making that CG call.
One thing I wished I had done was bring backup batteries for the Spot and use the tracking feature which sends a signal every 10 minutes which would require more than a few battery changes for your trip.
I have the larger Spot and you really don't know if the signal is getting out, Once or twice I activted the OK signal from the water outside a steep walled camping area for fear of a lost OK message. As it turned out all sent messages were received and the family and friends enjoyed following the journey.
I look forward to following yours!

Dave R
I remain conflicted about the problem of what my family should do if there are no SPOT messages because of satellite visibility problems in an area where I am trapped by weather. The plan calls for me to alert the Coast Guard by VHF that this is the case. But that might be difficult. Thoughts, please.

The problem with Global Star is its satellite coverage. The variability is because Global Star is not based on geostationary satellites; the satellites move around relative to the earth. Because you are paddling in the periphery of the satellite coverage that means 85% of the time there is a satellite able to get your signal. With SPOT you don't know if you are in shadow for one of those short periods where there is not coverage and if you are then the message doesn't get through. It won't matter how many SPOTs you have if there is no satellite in line of sight. The problem of shadowing due to trees and cliffs needs consideration but is minor by comparison.

If it is essential to contact home every day or so then the only viable option is a satellite phone. Iridium is global. Inmarsat is oceans up to about 75 degrees North. Global Star, the same platform that supports SPOT, is North America to about 200 miles off shore. Coverage may be a temporary issue with all the systems but you will know on a two way channel if the message is getting through. Some radio/cellular stores might rent Satellite phones for a short period. Keep in water tight bag and use only on shore.

Last time I looked at an Iridium phone (and it was several years ago) it was about the size of an old cell phone. You know, the cell phones that looked and felt like a brick.

The only other option that comes to mind is to bring an HF radio. HF has its own bulky issues but it'll work around the globe.

ResQFix personal locator beacon
Beacon ID: *********

Okay. I guess I was looking for TLAs such as PLB and EPIRB...and I hate TLAs.

I have never been really sure about the parachute flares. Anyone used them?

Yes. Main purpose for para flares is to illuminate an area. When fired stuff comes out both ends of the tube. That means holding well away from anything that might be damaged. I wouldn't want to fire from a kayak.

Para flares really screw up night vision; once the flare goes out you can't see anything unless you have closed your eyes and turned away during the burn. There is also a fire hazard should the flare get blown into something flamable.

I would strongly recommend trying one out in a controlled situation before deciding to take one.

Still keen to know what others think about activating SPOT and EPIRB at the same time when in a situation of mortal peril on the water, although I will ask the CCG the same question.

Worst that will happen is RCC will get two messages indicating a problem at the same location. That makes it easier for RCC to confirm that they are not receiving an anomaly. I'd set them both off.
The new SPOT does allow one to see clearly that a message has been sent although my experiments at home showed that it was about a minute AFTER the message was received on computers at home that it showed as "sent" on the unit.

By the way, for new SPOT users, if any of your chosen email recipients say they are not getting the message, get them to check that it is not going into their junk mail (as was happening to my father).

Ken - re the flares. Even happier that the flares stayed at home. And there'll be less clutter on the front deck, too.
What about a canned fog horn? In case of dense fog (or a garbage bear), it could come in handy.
Hey, a couple comments:

I just completed a circumnavigation of Moresby Is (June 15 - July 2 - 18 days). I too brought a spot.

Radio Reception
: On west coast Moresby there were several times we could not pick up ANY weather radio. For several days we had no weather, or brief catches of forecast drifting from the heads of inlets. I often consider CG reception to be about equivilant to where one can recieve forecasts.

Other Boaters: On west coast, we saw a couple sport fishing boats from a lodge in Englefield Bay, but from there south we saw NO other vessels until we reached SGang Gwaay (otherwise known as Ninstants, or Anthony Island). Do not count on other vessels to relay a Pan-Pan or Mayday message.

My messages were fairly similar to yours. I have the SPOT 2 messenger, which allows for an OK message, Custom Message, Help Message, and 911 message (Plus track feature, but I did not pay for that).

I'll paraphrase what I wrote for each, again very similar:
OK - "We are camped here. We are on land. We are fine"
Custom - "We are camped here but will not paddle today... OR this is to mark a significant location [cape st James, etc)"
Help - "We are in a secure location [land], but require some form of outside assistance. Likely water taxi - Moresby Explorers #"
911 - "We require immediate assistance: CALL RESCUE COORDINATION CENTER (VICTORIA) 1-250-363-2339
- Description = [description of our two kayaks]
- People = [# and description of what we wore]
- Emergency equipment carried = [Flares, tarps, spare paddles, helmets, VHF x 2]
- Route Plan = [Description of where we came from, and where we were going]
- Description of people= [Names, experience, certifications, etc]

Please note: Phone number for Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) was the 250, as opposed to 800 #. As the SPOT system is a commercial System (globalstar) the 911 center is somewhere far away (Texas I believe), and most 1-800 phone numbers are regional. In other words, if someone in Texas called the 1-800 RCC phone number it would not work, so give the 1-250 number which will work.

Please take your Parachute flares. I carry 4 parachute flares personally. I carry:

- Parachute Flares
- Twin-star flares
- Smoke flares
- Hand held flame flares
- Dye packs
- Glow Sticks
- Strobe Light

Through vollenteering with Search and Rescue, I have seen a number of different Flare types used, and honestly, in many situations ONLY the parachute flares will be noticed. Who cares if you lose your night vision for a moment, you WANT It to be bright, you WANT another boater to see you. Parachute flares go higher, and stay lit longer, as they slowly drift to earth. Dont worry about burning your boat, if you are in a situation where you actually need to set off flares, the paint job on your deck is the least of your worries... and I highly doubt they will do much damage to a soaking wet spray skirt.

When you are in big swell, a hand held flame flare may be easily missed from far away, being only visible when both you, and your potential rescuer are both on the peak of swell. Smoke flares will work well in Daytime, but could be hard to see in big swell.

Twin Star flares are next to useless - They have a very high failure rate (duds), and since they only shoot a few meters into the air (if your lucky and there is no wind), they may not be seen from inside big waves.

Strobe lights and Glow Sticks - even a small light can mean the difference to spotting someone in the middle of the night. I carry a battery powered strobe light affixed to the shoulder strap of PFD. In the pocket of my PFD I carry two Glow sticks, with lanyards big enouugh to attach to my wrist. Glow sticks are not battery powered, and will last 8hrs.
nootka said:
Radio Reception: On west coast Moresby there were several times we could not pick up ANY weather radio.
Was this with the standard rubber ducky antenna?

Yes it was. One would likely have better luck with an extendable antenna.

Question? Does anyone know if the extendable antennas are waterproof??? Or would they fill with water and soak the contact, and ruin the connection??? Just curious.

Somthing else to consider, is that the weather broadcast stations (which is where I assume the CG repeaters are also stationed), will broadcast at a much higher wattage. I'm not sure how powerful they transmit at, but at a minimum 25 watts, but I would suspect somthing much higher to give a larger range. Remember that even at high power, the vast majority of hand held VHF only broadcast at 5 watts, meaning you have even less range. Throw in some swell, and if you are bobbing around in the ocean, your broadcast is going to be essentially whiped out from a trough of the wave.

SPOT 2 Waterproofness :( - When I recieved my new SPOT 2, The manual said one thing regarding waterproof, but there was a seperate slip of paper included with adjustments to the specifications on everythihng from Battery Life to Waterproofness. Long story short, I'd trust it to drop it in a puddle and snatch it back up again, but not an extended dunk in the salt chuck.

- My Solution: Pelican Case. Small Pelican case, and I made a lanyard which attaches the SPOT to the inside of the case.... I have tested transmission through the shell of the case, and it works fine. This set-up means I can open the pelican case, activate the 911 feature of the spot, re-close the Pelican Case, and than slip the lanyard on the outside of the case over my wrist. Than I would try and hold it high above my head as it sends off those precious GPS coordinates!
I too do not trust the "waterproof" claims of any manufacturer but take a chance with my radios. I have had two failures with my Uniden Voyager, none yet with my Standard Horizon unit. The Uniden dries out and works again after a couple of days.

I keep my GPS in an Aquapac, and my SPOT in this:

http://www.mec.ca/Products/product_deta ... 8803406392

Rated only as splash-proof but it stayed dry inside the bag in Haida Gwaii, and given that one is simply supplementing claimed-for waterproofness, I think it is a good enough answer. The advantage is that one can activate the unit through the bag.

Thanks for your input regarding the flares. I actually did not take the parachute flares but appreciate your points and might do next time. Moresby remains on my list - if the injury I sustained off Frederick Island, which is looking increasingly like acute onset pronator syndrome (also called pronator teres syndrome), settles down and is not reactivated by long paddles. Did you spend much time on windy beaches? An 18 day trip suggests you had a few weather days.