Diving the Rainbow River

May 27, 2013

When I turned 16, the first two things I did were get my driver’s license and my scuba diving certification. Years of Jacques Cousteau as a child (I was even a member of the Cousteau society at one point) had me thinking that I might want to be a marine biologist.  That passed, but the desire to dive and explore remained.  In the many years since, I have dived (dove?) in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Thailand but always with years passing in between outings.

I wanted to take a scuba refresher class with hopes of doing some diving down in the Florida Keys.  The manager at the American Pro Dive shop in Crystal River asked Diane if she would like to try diving.  At first she said no, but apparently she enjoyed snorkeling with the manatee enough to consider it.  After a retreat to the RV for lunch to consider it, she returned to the shop the same afternoon.  We made arrangements to do a combined class, a refresher for me, and Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) for Diane.  Win-win.

Diane at the counter in the dive shop

Diane signing up

We arrived at the dive shop just after lunch the following day.  Our very young instructor Rich wore a beanie but was very professional.  After getting geared up, Diane watched a short video while I tried to figure out the cheap underwater camera that I’d purchased to record the event.  We also met our captain Zac who ate his lunch while the video played.

Diane standing on 1 foot putting on a wetsuit in a room full of wetsuits and diving gear

Diane getting geared up

We both took the short Discover Scuba Diving quiz.  I kept thinking that since I was doing a refresher course, that I should have received something more or different, and a record for my log book (which I don’t have with me anyway), but I basically did the same as Diane.

Driving the Dream Machine, we followed them and our dive boat about 20 miles to K.P. Hole Park in nearby Dunnellon.  The park charges $5 admission per person which is common in American state and some county parks.

A pontoon boat with cover being pulled by a white pickup truck

Chasing our dive boat

The very clean Rainbow River is fed only by underground springs.  It is very popular with kayakers and inner tubers, who float down the river enjoying the water, the wildlife, and the sunshine.  The county helps to keep it clean by banning disposable drink containers of any kind on the river (a $75 fine).

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boat while the captain stands at the helm at the rear

Heading up river

We headed up river, enjoying the scenery, while Captain Zac gave us the safety lecture.  We put on our wet suits and got ready to go.  Diane was nervous.

Diane standing beside Rich in their wetsuits while Patrick completes putting his on

Getting ready

Zac anchored our boat near the river bank and took pictures while we were in the water.

Diane, Patrick, and instructor Rich standing in shallow water in full scuba gear

Class in session

Rich led us through the basic scuba drills starting from the beginning…

Diane and Patrick with faces in the water while instructor looks on

Breathing with only your face under water

Patrick, Diane, and instructor just below the surface of the water

Breathing while sitting on the bottom

We then progressed through other skills like using the buoyancy compensator, regulator remove and replace, mask clearing, and equalizing the pressure in one’s ears.  The pace was fine for me, but I thought rushed for Diane or anyone who hadn’t done this before.  Diane had to try the full mask clear twice and seemed a little apprehensive, but did well.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich posing for a photo just before heading downstream

Posing (Patrick on left, Diane on right)

After a quick photo op, we headed down river.  Rainbow River is a drift dive, where for the most part you can just let the current carry you along.  Very relaxing.  The river is shallow, varying from 3 to 23 feet deep, which is great for a beginner.  Plenty of opportunity to practice ascending and descending.

Sign with words "Shallow Area" with a bird sitting on top

Shallow

The river bottom is sandy and mostly covered in long grass, which bends gracefully downstream.  The visibility is amazing.  Crystal clear water allows you to see over 100 feet (30 meters).  There are lots of fish and turtles.

We drifted down 1 mile of beautiful river for about 40 minutes.  I took pictures of Diane to record the event.

Diane diving just above gras with a blue water background

Diane in the grass

Diane scuba diving and pinching her nose to equalize her ears, with only blue water in the background

Diane equalizing her ears

Diane with black wetsuit and yellow framed mask with a blue water background

Diane looking like a pro

Closeup of Diane's face wearing a scuba mask with bubbles

Diane — It’s time for my close-up Mr. DeMille

Diane asked to come up at one point, “just so I knew I could”.  Despite the wet suits, we both got a bit cold by the time we were ready to board the boat.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich floating on the surface just behind the pontton boat

Fun’s Over – Ready to board

Diane was happy.

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boar wrapped in a multi-coloured towel

Diane smiling

Until she saw the alligators.  You see, there are almost no bodies of fresh water in Florida that don’t have alligators.  And snakes.  We passed 2 alligators on the way back, both about 4 feet long.

Alligator floating on the surface in the weeds

Let’s go swimming!

Alligator head among the weeds

Time for his close-up!

Diane said that if she had known about the alligators in advance, she wouldn’t have done it.  Perhaps that’s why Zac and Rich didn’t point them out until after her first scuba dive.

Oh, and I had a great time too.  Now I have visions of Diane and I scuba diving together in exotic, crocodile-free waters around the world.  Diane’s not so sure.

Patrick on the pontoon boat wearing black swim trunks

This guy needs a tan!


Comparing The Dream Machine and The S&M Motel

April 25, 2013

Last year we traveled around Europe by motorhome for 9 months. Our friends Sue and Martin loaned us their camper van (British for motorhome) which we nicknamed The S&M Motel. Now that we’ve been traveling in our own motorhome (recently named The Dream Machine) for 3 months, we’ve been able to appreciate some of the differences between our North American motorhome and those that are commonly available in Europe.

The S&M Motel Camper Van in front of a grassy field with mountains and a castle in the background

The S&M Motel

What follows are some of the differences between our Forest River Solera 24S and how we traveled in Europe. Most of these differences would apply generally to all Class C and Class A motorhomes in North America versus their European counterparts. This comparison is not in any way intended to be a criticism of The S&M Motel nor our generous British friends who took a giant leap of faith in loaning it to us.

Our motorhome on a gravel road by the river

The Dream Machine

Note — This comparison is lengthy and detailed in places.  Feel free to skim to the topics you’re interested in.

Size — Our Solera, although it’s on the small end of the scale for North American motorhomes, is longer, wider, taller, and heavier than most in Europe. At 24 feet 6 inches (24’6”) it is 5’8” (1.75m) longer than the S&M Motel, not including the bike racks on the rear of either unit. At 11’6” (3.5m) it is 2’3” (0.68m) taller and at 7’7” (2.3m) it is 5” (0.13m) wider.

Engine – To power our bigger, heavier coach, the Dream Machine has a 3.0 Litre 6 cylinder engine while the S&M Motel has a 2.8 Litre 4 cylinder engine. Both are turbo diesel and seem to have sufficient power, especially on hills where the diesel engines really shine.

Fuel Economy – Our larger engine gets lower gas mileage, currently averaging around 15 mpg (15 L/100km) versus the S&M Motel’s 21 mpg (11 L/100km). Our motorhome has a 26.6 gallon (121 Litre) tank for a theoretical range of 400 miles (645 km). The S&M Motel has a smaller 21 gallon (80 Litre) fuel tank but a slightly greater range of 440 miles (725 km).

Fuel Cost – Diesel fuel is cheaper in North America than in Europe. I’ve estimated a blended rate of $4.58 per gallon for our route (lower in the United States and higher in Canada). The lower fuel economy and less expensive fuel balance each other out though, and both vehicles have an operating cost for fuel of about $15 per hour. However, the distances are much greater in North America.

Transmission – The S&M Motel has a 5-speed manual transmission, which is more common in Europe.  The Dream Machine has a 5-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and tip-shift, which also allows the gears to be shifted manually while driving.

Handling – With a longer wheel base, the Dream Machine isn’t as maneuverable. It drives well, but requires more room to turn, especially ‘U’ turns. With a longer overhang behind the rear wheels, the ‘swing out’ is greater and needs to be considered in tight spaces. Being taller it tends to sway a bit, particularly at slow speeds on uneven ground like speed bumps traversed at an angle or potholes.

Interior Space — Our Solera is 7 feet (2.13m) tall inside, which will allow our height-endowed friend Martin to walk comfortably inside. It’s a much tighter squeeze for him in the 6’5” (1.96 meter) tall S&M Motel. When our coach is parked the slide can be extended which adds an additional 23.6 square feet (2.2 sq. m) of floor space and 142 cubic feet (4 cu. m) of interior space. Although the Dream Machine is still very usable with the slide in, it is positively spacious with the slide out. The difference between in and out is like night and day.

Storage – Because of its larger size, our Solera has a lot more interior and exterior storage. Even though we have a lot more stuff with us, we have room to spare. The limiting factor is weight not space.

Cook Top – The S&M Motel has a 4 burner cook top (3 gas and 1 electric). The Dream Machine has 3 burners, all gas. Having an electric burner is great because it saves on gas when connected to shore power. We’re thinking of buying an electric frying pan to achieve the same result.

Oven – The S&M Motel has a decent-sized oven and a separate broiling compartment. Despite both ovens being about the same overall size, our oven compartment is only 5 inches (13 centimeters) high, barely enough for a casserole dish, and has a questionable broiler underneath.

Refrigerator – Our refrigerator has 2 separate compartments for fridge and freezer, each with their own door, and is much larger than the one in the S&M Motel. Ours runs on propane or 110 Volt electricity when connected to shore power, but can’t run on 12 Volt electricity during travel like the S&M Motel’s fridge. Ours runs all the time, automatically switching between propane and electricity if it is available. This means that we always have cold food, cold beer, frozen food, and ice in the refrigerator.

Microwave – The Dream Machine has a small microwave that is great for defrosting and reheating. It requires 110 Volt electricity though, so to use it we either need to be plugged in or start the generator.

Bed – Our rear corner bed is available all the time, and doesn’t need to be made every evening and morning.

Shower – The Dream Machine has a separate shower, so the toilet area stays dry. This uses more space, but makes cleanup easier. Perhaps because of the dedicated shower, leg room on the toilet is limited.

Vanity – We have a small sink, mirror, and cabinets located just outside the bathroom. This sink can be used while the toilet or shower are occupied, and provides convenient access to a second sink in the main living area.

Batteries – Our motorhome has 2 household batteries rather than 1, providing more capacity. We connect a small power inverter to the batteries to get AC power without a hookup (e.g. for charging camera batteries).

Electricity – The S&M Motel uses 220 V European power and requires a few adapters for the different plugs used in various countries. Ours uses 110V North American power and we also need adapters to fit the various RV plugs available (20, 30, and 50 amp).

Generator – The Dream Machine has a 3.6 kilowatt generator which runs on propane. This provides us with 110 Volt electricity if we need it, but we try to limit its use, especially if the noise might disturb someone.

Interior Lighting – Our coach has more interior lights. They are all flush mounted and so they aren’t directional, which would be nice for reading. We have installed LED lights throughout, which use less power than florescent or halogen lights.

Entrance Step – The Dream Machine’s electric step extends automatically when the door is opened and retracts automatically when the door is closed or if the engine is started.

Door screen – Our Solera has a screen door, great for keeping out the bugs.

Windows – The Dream Machine has fewer and slightly smaller windows. For its size, the S&M Motel has larger windows that any motorhome I’ve ever seen (in Europe or North America). Our motorhome is more typical of motorhomes in both countries, with smaller windows and a slightly darker interior. It has tinted, frameless, awning windows (jalousie or louvered windows with a single large glass panel) which tilt open a few inches at the bottom by turning a knob inside. This style of window, in addition to being stylish, can be left open during most rains. The drawback is that they don’t open fully. The S&M Motel’s large side windows swing up to create a glorious open feeling and are also handy for visibility at angled intersections.

Skylight – Both motorhomes have 2 roof vents in the main living area, plus one in the bathroom, but the S&M Motel also has a nice skylight.

Black and Grey Water – Our black water tank is built-in and does not utilize cartridges that can be emptied by hand. Both the black and grey water tanks must be drained via a large sewer hose at a dump station.

Tank capacities – Our fresh water tank is 41 gallons (155 Litres) versus 17 gallons (65 Litres) for the S&M Motel. Our grey water tank is 33 gallons (125 Litres). Our black water tank is 35 gallons (132 Litres) whereas the S&M Motel toilet cassette holds only 4.6 gallons (17.5 Litres), a huge difference! Larger tank capacities mean that we can easily go a week or more without filling or emptying fluids.

Propane tank – The Dream Machine and the S&M Motel both use propane gas for the cook top, oven, refrigerator, and furnace. Ours also uses propane for the generator. We have a single, fixed propane tank while the S&M Hotel has 2 separate but integrated refillable cylinders. Both coaches can be filled easily at a propane filling station. Our propane tank has 9.8 gallons of usable capacity (80% of a 13 gallon tank) and the S&M Hotel has two 6 kilogram tanks which I estimate have a total usable capacity of about 5 gallons of propane.

Furnace – Our furnace is propane only, whereas the S&M Motel furnace will run on propane or electricity. We carry a very small electric heater with us to use when we have shore power.

Air Conditioning – The Dream Machine has air conditioning in the dashboard (part of the Mercedes-Benz chassis) and ducted throughout the coach ceiling from a roof-mounted air conditioner. Running the 110 Volt rear air conditioner requires shore power or the generator to be running.

Arctic package – Our grey and black water tanks have electric heating pads that can be used to prevent them from freezing, but only when the RV is connected to shore power.

Bike rack – Like almost all European motorhomes, the S&M Hotel has a built-in bike rack high on the rear of the vehicle. On ours we had to add a rack on the rear receiver (aka trailer hitch) which led to some other issues (see << LINK Layed Up in Lynnwood >>).

Safety – Our motorhome has smoke, carbon monoxide, and propane gas detectors, which are standard in all new North American coaches.

Multimedia System — Our Solera has a built-in flat panel television that can receive ‘over the air’ high-definition television broadcasts using the adjustable roof antenna or display video (DVDs) from the cab multi-media system. This system can also display images from a CD, DVD or USB storage device. There is an iPod docking station and auxiliary input for other devices. The same multimedia system provides in-dash navigation with voice commands integrated with the audio.

Design – Overall I would say that the practicality of its design and the quality of the S&M Motel are slightly better, despite it being a few years older. Our Solera, though newer and probably prettier (though nowhere near as cute), isn’t quite as robust. Although all motorhomes seem fragile compared to houses or apartments, European design and attention to detail are noticeable.

Overall, I would say that each coach has its advantages. With its smaller size, the S&M Motel was excellent for Europe where roads are narrower, parking is scarce, and fuel more expensive. Its large windows and skylight create an open feel despite it being a smaller coach. The Dream Machine, due primarily to its larger size, has the advantages of more interior space and storage, a dry shower, a bigger refrigerator, a microwave, a flat screen television, an extra battery, and larger fluid tanks. It also has a generator, which isn’t common in European motorhomes. Each coach is well suited to its environment.

Note — all gallons referred to in this article are US gallons because The Dream Machine was made for the US market.


American Atheists

April 23, 2013

Atheists are perhaps the most unjustly reviled minority in the United States. Often criticized as being nihilists, anti-American, or even devil worshippers, atheists are one of the few remaining minority groups that it is not considered politically incorrect to publically criticize.

In Austin, Texas, I attended the National Convention and 50th Anniversary Celebration of the American Atheists, the most outspoken organization representing atheists in America. I had never attended any atheist event or gathering before, and didn’t know much about the American Atheists before arriving.  When I heard the opening remarks of David Silverman, President of American Atheists, and noticed that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, I wondered if perhaps I was in the wrong place.

Founded 50 years ago by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, once branded the ‘most hated woman in America’ because of her successful supreme court challenge against compulsory prayer in schools,  American Atheists is a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the separation of church/mosque/temple and state.  They promote freedom of thought and religious beliefs, secular education, and humanist ethics and they defend the civil rights of Atheists and other nonbelievers.  They are a provocative, grumpy organization known for in-your-face atheism, running billboard campaigns and launching legal challenges regarding state and church separation.  Some of their recent court challenges include the erection of a cross at Ground Zero, site of the former world trade center towers in New York, and displays of the 10 commandments on public property.  In the style of many religious proponents, they practice firebrand atheism, leading the fight against the privilege of religion in America.  David Silverman argues that his organization’s aggressiveness is critical to advancing the broader acceptance of atheism in the U.S. by shifting the debate and creating space for less strident organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.

The number of Americans who say they are religious has been steadily dropping in America, down from 73% to 60% between 2005 and 2012 according to WIN-Gallop’s Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism.  According to this poll, the number of Americans who say they are atheists increased from 1% to 5% over this same period and the number of Americans who identified as atheists or ‘not a religious person’ was 35% (Canada was 49%).  The Pew Forum October 2012 Poll  found that 20% of Americans are not religiously affiliated.  This unaffiliated group has grown more than any other particular religion and more than religiosity overall.  This trend is likely to continue as young adults aged 18-29 are much more likely than those aged 70 and older to not be religiously affiliated (25% vs. 8%) and are more likely than the adult population as a whole to be atheist or agnostic (7% vs. 4%).

Despite these trends, American atheists still face widespread discrimination.  Although Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, no avowed atheist has ever been elected to either of the U.S. Houses of Congress (only Congressman Pete Stark, who came out while in office, has been re-elected).  Although there are many suspected atheists in the over 500 members of the current 112th Congress, all profess to be members of an organized religion except one (an openly bisexual U.S. Representative from Arizona who won’t call herself an atheist).  Two Muslims were elected at a time when America is at war with fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but not a single atheist.  This stands in stark contrast to Australia where the Prime Minister Julia Gillard is openly atheist.  Nonbelievers outnumber every religious group in the American military except Christians, yet have no secular chaplains to provide ethical and family counseling geared to their own non beliefs.  Atheists cannot be Boy Scouts of America nor members of its leadership.

In some parts of the country, to identify oneself as an atheist results in blackballing by the community, including the loss of one’s livelihood and friends.  In many religious groups, apostates are denounced and ostracized, eliminating their only support network.  In some families, coming out as an atheist results in rejection by one’s parents, siblings, and perhaps even one’s spouse.  Clergy who lose their faith often keep it a secret and continue to preach rather than lose their only profession, their livelihood, and perhaps their only means of funding after retirement.

I support freedom of religion.  Religious people have a right to worship, to organize, and of course to free speech, which includes the right to proselytize to consenting adults.  When I am in the home of a religious person, I follow their traditions, and I am courteous in houses of worship.  I am also a secularist and believe in an absolute separation of church and state.  The government should never promote not impose any aspect of any religion on others, nor allow this behaviour by its representatives or on its properties.  Will those promoting a Protestant Christian America, who are currently barely a majority (51%), be as supportive of public prayer and religious education when the Muslims or Catholics have the numbers to impose their will?


Are prices in Canada higher than in the United States?

April 17, 2013

I’ve noticed that many prices seem to be lower here in the United States than in Canada. Am I imagining it? With the help of my Canadian friend Annette (an experienced shopper), I decided to find out.

Methodology

I selected a basket of 20 common retail items (food, alcoholic beverages, and fuel), and compared the prices for these items in Vancouver, Canada (my home) and San Antonio, Texas (my location when this crazy idea struck me). Annette and I gathered regular retail prices (not sale prices) not including sales taxes from comparable retail outlets (to the extent that they are available in both cities) within a few days of each other. The American prices were converted to Canadian dollars at the current exchange rate. Where quantities or package sizes differed, the prices were adjusted to equivalent volumes.

Findings

The table below shows the items we checked, the U.S. price, the Canadian price, and the percentage difference of the Canadian price compared to the U.S. price.

Product U.S. Canada Percnt
Frosted Flakes (760g box) $3.92 $7.23 84.6%
Cheerios (396g box) $2.90 $5.02 73.3%
Milk (3.78L = 1 gallon) $4.32 $4.56 5.4%
Eggs (12 Large Grade A) $1.71 $2.63 53.5%
Coors Light beer (24×355 ml cans) $20.39 $43.99 115.7%
Corona Extra beer (12 x 330 ml bottles) $13.25 $25.69 93.9%
Yellowtail Cabernet Sauvignon (750 ml bottle, Australia) $5.07 $12.99 156.2%
Woodbridge Merlot (750 ml bottle, California) $8.64 $13.99 61.9%
Coca Cola (12 cans) $3.04 $5.97 96.4%
Coca Cola (2 Litre bottle) $1.41 $1.87 32.9%
Chicken thighs skin-on, bone in (per pound) $5.04 $4.98 -1.2%
Ground beef (85% lean, per pound) $3.25 $6.28 93.0%
Ground beef (89% lean, per pound) $3.79 $7.98 110.3%
Ground beef (93% lean, per pound) $5.08 $9.88 94.5%
Bananas (per pound) $0.49 $0.58 18.5%
Fuji Apples (per pound) $1.70 $1.19 -30.1%
Yellow Onions, medium (per pound) $2.43 $1.28 -47.3%
Russet Potatoes (per pound) $0.90 $0.48 -46.5%
Gasoline (regular, per Litre) $0.91 $1.34 47.9%
Diesel fuel (per Litre) $1.01 $1.41 39.4%

Analysis

Vancouverites are paying a lot more!

Of the 20 items on the list, 16 were more expensive in Canada. 3 produce items were significantly cheaper in Canada (apples, onions, & potatoes), and there was a trivial difference in the price of chicken thighs. All other items were between 5% and 156% more expensive in Canada.

The price differences were the biggest for wine and beer (61% to 156% higher). The probable reasons for this are: a government monopoly on alcohol distribution in British Columbia, high government taxes on alcoholic beverages, and restrictions and tariffs on importing alcohol into Canada.

Grocery items (other than the few that were cheaper) were between 5% (milk) and 110% (ground beef) more expensive in Vancouver, with the remaining 9 items between 18% (bananas) and 96% (Coca Cola) more expensive.

Vehicle fuel was priced 47% higher in Canada for regular gasoline and 38% higher for diesel fuel. This is due, in part, to higher taxes.

I recognize that this was a very limited sample size (20 items, 2 stores, 2 cities, none of which were randomly chosen), and so few general conclusions can be drawn from these results. But it does confirm my suspicions. In my experience, groceries, alcohol, and fuel are consistently more expensive in Canada than in the United States.

Why is this the case? What can Canadian consumers do about it? Stayed tuned for more on this topic.