Risks that remain for our trip to Panama

My usual modus operandi in any difficult situation is to evaluate the risks involved, put considerable effort into eliminating or minimizing those risks, and create recovery options in case the risk factors actually do develop. Sometimes, before proceeding, it seems that the remaining risks are not worth taking. Other times, the remaining risk is acceptable. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes.

Having said that, I gave up flying helicopters when my children were born, because I found myself saying "what if" every time I took off. But my good friend Shawn Abbott flies his helicopter all the time, and to him, the rewards are worth the risks. We each have a different internal accounting for risk assessment, which is why there is so much variation of opinion on matters of safety in the boating world.

So, what do I see as the major risks in our Freedmans Of The Caribbean journey this winter? This entry is an attempt to answer that question.

Boat

As you can imagine, I've put a lot of thought and effort into both the selection of the boat and the understanding of her systems. There are other portions of this blog that speak to the boat itself, so I won't go into a lot of detail here. But I didn't just take it for granted that everything on the boat worked properly. In addition to exercising every system, I have either personally inspected or had inspected all of the items I felt might deteriorate over time, and have had repairs and improvements made in several cases. For example, we removed, inspected, and ultimately "boiled" all of the boat's heat exchangers. We inspected the inside of every fuel, water, and waste tank. We checked all belts, hoses, wires, hose clamps (I'm sure we missed some, but we did every one in the engine room), seacocks, vent lines, and deck drains. We traced and checked each hydraulic fitting, looked inside several fuel hoses (to check for deterioration), and generally went through the entire boat from stem to stern, making a list of every anomaly. 

And we found plenty of anomalies, which was what we expected to find. We knew that there would be oil or hydraulic fittings that had loosened slightly over the course of the last 600 hours of usage (even though Sea Spirit had only been owned by the manufacturer, it had been used up and down the East coast for boat shows). A few of them were in danger of beginning to drip, a few hose clamps had loosened, a few deck drains were partially blocked, and so on. For example, we needed to tighten up a couple of fittings on the oil change system, pictured here (it is the system that lets us pump new or used oil from the storage tanks or transom inlet to the engine, generators, and so on - that's why there are so many valves).

 
 
The purpose of all these checks was to preemptively get ahead of the boat's maintenance issues, so that they could all be taken care of while still safely in a convenient, well-supplied port. I spent time, money, and considerable mental effort getting ahead of the boat, but the reward will hopefully be an exceptionally good dispatch reliability factor -- the ability for the boat to perform perfectly when asked to do so, rather than having a portion of our trip ruined by something going wrong.

We used Seakits to predict the entire boat's maintenance schedule for the next 300 engine hours, and the next 180 days. While some of those maintenance items cannot be done in advance (for example, it doesn't make sense to do the next 6 months' worth of monthly inspections), other items can be done ahead of time. For example, we accelerated a check of the turbocharger boost pressure that wasn't actually due for another 50 hours or so. Rather than doing it while on the trip, we did things like this ahead of time.

I don't mind telling you that we put a LOT of work into this, over the course of the last 4 months or so. Our goal was to ensure that not only was the boat in 100% perfect working order, but that our understanding of the boat's systems was improved to the point where we had a good feel for whatever might go wrong. It is now several months later, but I feel we have achieved this level of perfection and understanding. Can things still go wrong? Of course. But I hope we won't be left feeling "gee, that's something I should have checked ahead of time".



Route

[Note: To see our itinerary and route, click here]    To get from Ft. Lauderdale to the Panama Canal, one has to go around Cuba. There are two choices: around the west end of Cuba, and around the east end. The west end is much closer to Florida, but has the distinct disadvantage of having to go against the Gulf Stream current. That current, which can easily be 2 to 3 knots, often opposes the wind, resulting in very steep, uncomfortable waves. The east route is much further from the US, putting the boat between Cuba and Haiti, but often avoids the wind versus current problem of the west route. In the end, we chose to go around the eastern end of Cuba, because it let us explore the Bahamas for a good couple of weeks after leaving Ft. Lauderdale. While the Bahamas are very nice, we would have been comfortable skipping them if we had felt the western route was better. But on the other hand, the Bahamas are a fantastic place to have a shakedown cruise. It has both interesting water and interesting places on land to see, plenty of anchoring choices, plenty of hazards to practice avoiding, and so on. But, the deciding factor for us was that if something was going to go wrong, the Bahamas is very close to the US, so getting parts and service, or even getting towed back to the US (not very likely, and we would VERY CAREFULLY pick the day), was possible from the Bahamas, but much more difficult from Mexico.

I was initially worried about going between Cuba and Haiti. I'm not too worried about Cuba, for two reasons. First, Cuba is not known as a "piracy" nation. Second, the path around the east end of Cuba takes us quite close to Guantanamo Bay, which I presume has a substantial US naval presence in the water (not just at the base). This is probably not a good place to be a pirate, and probably quite a good place to sink, if one is hoping to get picked up quickly by the US Navy. Hopefully, we won't get to put that to the test. Haiti is another matter. Haiti is a very poor country (white contrasting to its Hispaniola neighbor, The Dominican Republic). It has also been ripped apart by natural disasters in the last year or two, and so the poverty and desperation factor is extreme in places. While that doesn't make Haitians pirates, it does mean that it is a place I'd rather not be forced to stop. I did a lot of research into the matter, and it turns out that this channel is safe and well used. Those familiar with the area will likely already know this, but for me, it was all new.

We had to pick a point to stop once we had rounded Cuba. The western route points to Cancun as a place to stop. The eastern route points to Jamaica. However, even though we favor the eastern route, we didn't particularly want to stop at Jamaica. There are equal and opposite opinions about Jamaica, and I am sure it is possible to have a great time there. But we have been there before, and while we didn't have a bad time at all, we felt no compunction to return. In the end, we settled on the Cayman Islands as our next stop after we leave the southern Bahamas and round the east part of Cuba. The transit turns out to be about 48 hours, so 2 overnights. In addition to great snorkeling and diving, the Caymans has a couple of great marinas, good fuel, good airports, good service if needed, and leaves us well positioned to continue the route south. While we can easily make the full trip without refueling, I have planned to refuel in the Caymans, to maintain the greatest flexibility later on in the trip.

From the Caymans, we could choose to run for the coast and then wend our way down to Panama, or to simply go straight there. What we're planning is to head straight from Grand Cayman to San Andres Island, which is off the coast of Nicaragua, but which belongs to Colombia. Its about a 50 hour run, so another 2 overnights. Naturally, we'll need a good weather window to do so, but we have allocated plenty of time at each end for that.

After San Andres Island, we intend to head for the San Blas Islands, which is a single overnight run. And after a few days there, to head for the Panama Canal, which will be a day run. We intend to refuel in Panama, and to attend to any mechanical issues that may arise. We also are considering leaving the boat for a week or two, and doing a trip by air to the Galapagos Islands. We could take the boat, but apparently there is little point in doing so, since the islands are restricted by law as to who can go where.

Once past Panama, our intention is to cruise up the coast to Golfito, Costa Rica, where we will likely leave the boat until such time as we are ready to make the long runs up the west coast to the Seattle/Vancouver.

When I considered all the factors, including the amount of time we have available, the spots we are interested in visiting, the prior experiences of cruisers whose accounts I have read, the seasonal weather and currents, the political and geographical situations, and the availability of facilities and resources, this is what I came up with as a route. There are many interesting places that we are passing by, but it really wasn't our intention to "do" the Caribbean on this trip. Our intention was to jump in with a serious boat passage, yet never be too far away from help. Our point of maximum distance from land is about 140NM. This puts us well less than a day's journey from land, even under difficult conditions, and closer to half a day under ideal conditions. It exposes us to being well out of sight of land, yet we remain close enough to obtain help (say, by helicopter) if the unthinkable happens and we sink. We're not traversing politically or socially dangerous waters except perhaps for the Haiti transit, and for that, we are close enough to American help so as not to feel in danger.

Of all the things in this list, I'd be most interested in your thoughts about the route, about what we might watch out for along the way, about what we have not yet thought of, and so on.





Navigation

It's really tough for me to feel that there's much navigational risk left in our route. Naturally, we have GPS on board. Actually, if you count the GPS units on board, they are as follows: 3 Garmin chartplotters (each has its own GPS), one AIS (with its own GPS), Mini-VSAT (which computes its own position - I think using GPS), Inmarsat iSatPhonePro portable satellite phone (with its own GPS), two iPhones, one iPad, and probably a few other bits and pieces I have forgotten about, such as the EPIRBs and PLBs. Additionally, we will be plotting our path on paper charts as we go. Truly, there is no excuse for us not knowing where we are.

 
 
Uncharted or mis-charted shoals, peaks, and bars, are what remains of the navigation risk. We are not likely to encounter fog on our route, although we are equipped with radar to help with that.





Family and crew

Although my family and I have spent over 200 days at sea, it has all been on cruise ships. Indeed, we've done some of the most exciting passages possible - all by cruise ship. We've been from Seattle to Singapore via the Aleutians on this ship, for instance (it's MV Diamond Princess, and travels at around 23 knots, but it's not exactly shoal draft).

 
 
We've been from Vancouver to Honolulu a couple of times, in a dead calm the whole way. We've been from Sydney to Bangkok. And we've loved every minute of every trip, even when half the ship was barfing their substantial buffet lunches out (in particular, in the Bering sea).

Despite all this, the central question for us is will we like moving the boat, particularly in the good to moderate offshore conditions we anticipate for our trip. We don't expect to love rough conditions, but we expect to simply delay our departure if conditions are rough. And if rough conditions develop en route, we expect to simply put up with it, be miserable, and congratulate ourselves that these sorts of conditions won't happen to us every time we move the boat.

But if we hate moderate conditions, then cruising simply won't be for us - not outside of protected waters, anyway. This will change the character of our cruising aspirations, and only time will tell. Still, this is the central question for me, my wife, and our children.

To mitigate mal de mer, we have an ample supply of the almost miraculous Transderm-Scop or Transderm V scopolamine patches, that are worn behind the ear, and that last 3 days. Importantly, we've tried these before, and they do not make us sleepy. They are for adult use only, so we have Dramamine (sometimes called Gravol) for the kids. But these are sleep-inducing. We'll see what we end up using. If anyone has any hints for children, please let me know. One thing we are considering is whether to send my wife and kids ahead of the longer passages, if they simply don't like offshoring.

For the family, I'm not at all worried about living in close quarters. We've lived in a motorhome for 4 1/2 months at a time, and had a blast. Sea Spirit has far more room. But what about our captain and (for the overnight passages) crew? We know them, and they are lovely people. But will we drive each other nuts on the 10 weeks or so of this trip? Time will tell. Let's just say that we selected VERY carefully, balancing "saltiness" against "sweetness". Some people pointed us at truly old salts who were known to be able to forecast weather in their sleep, etc. etc. etc., but who weren't that great to get along with. We didn't hire those people, although perhaps for a delivery cruise we would be well advised to do so.

Let's just say there are unknowns here, and we hope we have chosen wisely. Both of the people who are coming with us have worked for Sea Spirit Yachts before, and came very highly recommended. One, I hired as captain of Sea Spirit for the time between purchase and start of trip, and also to act as training captain while on the trip. The other has more experience on Sea Spirit herself, but wasn't local to where Sea Spirit is docked (South Florida), and so wasn't our first choice for looking after the boat pre-trip. It has been GREAT to have someone local to the boat to whom I could trust the execution of the completion of Sea Spirit's commissioning. Without her availability, much less would have been completed by now.





Weather

The weather will be what the weather will be. However, I've looked in depth at historical seasonal data for the route, and indeed used that data to pick the route. I was looking mostly at wind, wave size, and current direction, in order to get a sense of what conditions would be like. For about the last month, I have also been looking at sites such as www.buoyweather.com and the NOAA weather sites in order to ask myself each day "would today be a good day to go"? I believe this has been a very useful exercise. We also spoke with "Weather Bob" -- Bob Jones from OMNI Weather. He as recommended by many people, and will be helping us with weather routing during the trip.

My background as a commercially licensed and instrument rated pilot gives me a good appreciation for weather, and for the uses and limitations of the various forecasts available. Nonetheless, there is one big difference between aviation and marine trip forecasts. Flights are over in hours, passages may take days. Weather forecast reliability decreases exponentially with how far into the future they predict. The upshot of this is that I expect to determine broad swathes of likely weather from marine forecasts, versus narrow patches of very specific conditions from aviation forecasts.

Perfect conditions for us would be flat calm with a brisk following current. The worst conditions would be high headwinds opposing a strong current. We picked the route to give us the former much more often than the latter. Let me close this section by saying once again: The weather will be what the weather will be. But we don't have to go out in it if we don't like it. This is a significant luxury -- the luxury to pick our own schedule.





Schedule

I've arranged all of our passages so that we depart and arrive during daylight hours. Wherever possible, we arrive well before sunset. This should avoid having to anchor or enter a strange marina in the dark. Our only weekend arrival is into Panama, and we can easily delay that by a day if our agent says to do so. This should avoid having to look for customs officials on a Sunday afternoon, which I've heard can either be hard or easy, depending on the situation.

The main scheduling luxury that we have is that we are not on a fixed schedule, except for one item: We must drop my parents off in Marsh Harbour (Bahamas) on the morning of February 10th. But this is an easy thing to achieve, given where we are coming from. Not having a fixed schedule to keep means that we can always defer to Mr. Weather.





Clearances

What will it be like to clear into and out of the various countries? In Panama and San Andres, we'll be using an agent. In the other countries, I would love to use an agent, but have been told it isn't really necessary. My goal in using agents is simply to avoid having to spend hours and hours running around getting paperwork done. I recognize that this may not always be possible, but I would at least like to minimize the running around. If you have had good luck with agents, or have advice on the matter, please let me know.



Medical

Anything can happen at sea, medically. However, we have taken a lot of precautions to minimize, and then to manage, the risks of medical situations. First, we chose what we consider to be a safe boat, and a safe captain to train us. Second, while our trip is certainly ambitious, we are by no means reckless adventurers. We take safety very seriously, both by our nature, and by our prior training as pilots. Indeed, I was shocked by the lack of mandatory safety training in boating, when compared to aviation.

Second, we have stocked the boat with a highly regarded offshore medical kit, that contains just about everything we might need in an emergency, except knowledge. 

This kit includes items for stitching up wounds, splinting, disinfecting, and so on. It also includes prescription medications, in case of an infection offshore. It contains items for dealing with heart attack, such as nitroglycerin, a defibrilator, and such. It also contains oxygen - a significant factor in reducing shock.

But we are still missing knowledge. I have not yet signed up with, but am close to signing up with a yacht medical service that puts doctors on call 24 hours per day. The idea is that you use the satellite phone to call them if you need advice about someone's illness or wounds.

There is one big gaping hole in our medical preparedness. Neither my wife or myself refreshed our CPR courses, so we are now relying on knowledge that is 10 years out of date. And, neither of us has EVER taken a first aid course. This is probably the silliest omission we've made so far, but we realized it too late to do something about it without putting the trip at risk. Some would say that without this training, the trip is always at risk, and I accept that point. Perhaps we will fill the gap before we leave, perhaps not. If there is anything reckless about our operation at this point, this is it.

I could not complete this section without mentioning what I believe to be absolutely the most dangerous of all the activities we will be undertaking on the  boat: fishing. My 10 year old son has grown to love fishing, but we've never bagged anything more than about 6 pounds. Very likely, that will change on this trip. We are going to be extremely cautious with how we deal with any fish that we land, particularly anything big. But bring big animals and people together, and there will always be risk. I saw a television show recently in which a swordfish of some kind surged onto the back of a boat, and lanced the fisherman in the mouth, causing significant bleeding. Bad as it was, it could have been much worse. While I don't expect to have fishing injuries, the opportunity for everything from knife cuts, to bites, to getting hooked in the eye, to slices from sharp fins, to being thrown off balance and falling overboard or onto a piece of equipment -- those all seem very real risks to me. Those of you with greater fishing experience than me (and that's likely all of you) PLEASE send me  your suggestions for fishing safety.



Collisions

I don't expect to hit anything except, perhaps, a sandy bottom in a shallow channel. Obviously, even that is to be avoided, but groundings clearly do happen. We will be very conservative in our use of charts and navigation, and will keep a keen lookout for everything from ships to fishing pangas to buoys to shoals to whales! While I don't expect a collision, I do expect to be on the lookout for one.

Sea Spirit has a bulbous bow, which I'm hoping will take the brunt of any forward collision. Whether it pushes back into the hull creating a big hole or not, that's anyone's guess. The manufacturer says it will absorb energy, not simply pass that energy through to the main hull. I hope so. But if we do get water intrusion, I have a number of approaches to keeping the ocean on the outside. First, there are 10 bilge pumps on board, plus the engine emergency bilge pump, plus a hand bilge pump, plus I bought a gasoline powered portable bilge pump. All in all, we have well over 15,000 gallons per hour of bilge pumping ability, but only if the water is on top of the pumps. If there's a hole, then for a good while, the water will only be on top of the pump in the area of the hole (this is a good thing). In each such area, we have about 4,000 GPH of pumping ability (at least in theory).

Second, I have various plugs that can fill small holes. Of course, we also have pillows, cushions, blankets, and so on, which can also fill some holes. Third, I have a huge tarpaulin. If conditions permit, I can go over the side, and can stuff the tarp up under the hole, where it will hopefully get sucked in and slow the flow of water to the point where the bilge pumps can keep up. I'm not sure how to further reduce the risk of sinking in the event of a collision, but this, I think, is a good start.



Prop foulings

If the prop fouls completely, we lose all forward motion. Yes, we have a back-up engine, but it is attached to the main shaft. This is not quite as good as a well-maintained wing engine with its own prop and shaft, but experience has shown that it is much better than neglected wing engine, which is what many of the wing engines apparently are. In return for putting up with this, there is more room in my engine room, since the get-hom engine is really just a hydraulically powered gearbox that is attached to the prop shaft behind the gearbox.

To mitigate prop foulings, I've taken the following steps. First, we will of course, keep a good watch. Ok, everyone says that, but props still get fouled. Second, we have a Shaft Razor system on the boat, that is supposed to cut any lines that get wrapped around. You can see it here, behind the zinc, in front of the propellor.

 
 
Third, for any ropes or cables that get past the Shaft Razor, I have numerous knives and saws aboard, along with a huge "cut through the padlock" kind of cable cutters. Fourth, I have put aboard a set of air tools that I consider disposable. We have compressed air on the boat, along with a Brownie "Third Lung" SNUBA system. This means I can go over the side, and saw or grind away at anything on the shaft. This will probably ruin the tool, but so what.



 
 






Fuel

With 2105 US gallons of fuel, an 1800NM trip, and well less than 1GPH consumption, we should be able to do the whole trip without refueling. But if the generators use 1GPH and run 24 hours per day, then on the 70 days of the journey, we will use 1680 USG of fuel just for the generators. Of course, the generators won't run 24 hours per day, and won't consume 1GPH for 24 hours per day. Still, we would arrive pretty low on fuel in Panama if we didn't refuel somewhere en route. Our intention is to refuel in the Cayman Islands, where good clean fuel is readily available. Cheap, it will not be. But it is available. We'll also refuel in Panama, where fuel availability is also of no concern.





Piracy / security

I have thought long and hard about what to do about unwanted boardings by non-governmental parties. My position is this. Avoidance is the ultimate defense, and we will avoid any area where such boardings occur. We have many other ways of touring those regions, and many other regions to visit. Is it a pity to miss out on a region's offerings due to piracy and theft? Yes. But we accept it in order to not be looking over our shoulders the whole trip.

What remains in terms of risk can be categorized three ways: thefts, threats to people by amateurs, and threats to people by professionals. While I won't publicly describe Sea Spirit's security systems in any sort of detail, let me say that anyone who boards looking to steal something is going to be significantly impeded, even if we are not on the boat at the time. I am happy to talk privately to people who have enquiries in this area.

I also won't enter the war about the carriage of guns aboard, although the subject has been amply discussed in almost every forum at one time or another. It would clearly be a mistake to shoot a curious fisherman, for example. But also a mistake to shoot a thief, whose brother is the local island's chief of police. Also a mistake to do nothing and be killed by heartless thugs. There is no right or wrong answer to this one, since situations you or I might encounter will never be the same as the previous situation, where something either "worked" or didn't. 

I will say this: In my opinion, anyone who believes they can repel a professional piracy attack is, in my opinion, fooling themselves. But dealing with amateurs (ie: drunks, thieves, troublemakers, and so on) is another matter. Even with them, avoidance is the best policy. But unless you have a long list of enemies, a professional is likely after money, and has no interest in depriving you of your life. Those looking to avoid violence should simply never leave their home town - oh, wait a minute, violence happens there too. Sorry folks, I have no great answers here. If you do, please let me know!

My final word on the subject of security: While there are no absolutes, in general, what goes around comes around. Being nice to people results in nice things coming back to you. Making a nuisance of yourself will result in people bothering you much more readily than they otherwise would. Worse yet, if you've been nasty to someone, and then they see your yacht sinking, or see someone making off with your dinghy, what are they likely to do? Being nice to people has wonderful rewards.



Home-schooling

We have a huge advantage in that we are already home-schoolers of our children. We expect to school at approximately half the usual progress rate while on this trip, supplementing the academics with the richness of a travel education. We derive our curriculum from many sources, and would be happy to answer questions about it. Once again though, it is a subject where one size does not fit all.

What have I forgotten to worry about?

If you have some tips, please let me know!

Thanks very much in advance.

We leave home for the boat in 5 days!

    --- Dan

Comments

I think something might be wrong with your registration process, I registered for e-mail updates but am not receiving them. Thanks.

 Fred K  1/9/2011

 Reply

Fred - I will look into it right away. Could you email me with your email address please? dan [ a t ] fsa [ d o t ] ca Thanks --- Dan

 Dan Freedman  1/9/2011

 Reply

I am very impressed with the forethought and preparation you have put into this new venture and voyage. You have reduced the risk of unwanted surprises significantly. I hope all goes well and that you and your family end up enjoying the process of ocean cruising in a motor yacht. I have followed several blogs of families in Nordhavns, and some work our wonderfully for the whole family and some work out well for some of the family. Good luck! Keep up the interesting and informative postings.

 John Schieffelin  1/9/2011

 Reply

Thanks for your kind words of encouragement, John. All helpful advice welcomed! If you can stop me from making a mistake that you've already made, or seen someone else make, that's a win! -- Dan

 Dan Freedman  1/9/2011

 Reply

Great Blog. We live in Baltimore, and cruise the chesapeake bay, seasonally. You would enjoy this book for planning purposes: World Cruising Routes by Jimmy Cornell. It is the bible for knowing the big picture about when and where to be on any sea in the world, to help avoid certain times of year and certain oceans. Best of luck and please post lots of pictures and underway video clips!! Thanks Charlie M/V Promises 42GB Classic

 Charlie  1/9/2011

 Reply

Thanks Charlie. I have a copy of that book, and have found it quite insightful, although mostly for the sailing yachts. I also found his "survey" book interesting, where he asked people how they went about the many things associated with yachting, and tabulated their answers.

 Dan Freedman  1/9/2011

 Reply

Dan, I'm excited to read more about your adventure. I recently took a first aid/CPR course through the Fire Dept. ( In Phoenix) that was endorsed by the American Heart Association and recognised by US Sailing. The courses are offered every week in major metropolitan areas to help train nursing assistants.It involves 4 hours on a week-end. There may still be time to find a course.

 David Evans  1/10/2011

 Reply

Now I see you're leaving in 5 days.

 David Evabns  1/10/2011

 Reply

David - thanks for the suggestion. You're right, we're leaving too soon to do something about it, which leaves us exposed from a first-aid perspective. However, perhaps we'll find something in our couple of weeks in Ft. Lauderdale before TrawlerFest. Regardless, I absolutely DO see us renewing our CPR and getting trained in first aid sometime this year. It just might not be before we cross the Caribbean.

 Dan Freedman  1/10/2011

 Reply

Hi Dan, As to your first aid risk, I wouldn't be too concerned. I have updated my first aid within the last couple of years and to me the most valuable "take-away" was the book. Sure, it is beneficial to be able to practice the things in the book in front of a trained eye but the most likely first-aid scenario you'll be presented with is stopping bleeding. It is pretty easy to see if that is working or not. Make sure you have a couple of good books along and have everyone practice the stuff in the books. Also, if you are going to be able to connect with a doctor they can fill in any of the blanks there. We all know how meticulous you are, but I really think this is one area where your risk is very low.

 Kenton  1/10/2011

 Reply

Kenton, thanks very much. I have a couple of first aid books aboard, including "Where there is no doctor" and the US Marine Corps Special Ops medical manual. But I still think I could get a basic first aid book too. -- Dan

 Dan Freedman  1/10/2011

 Reply
Winter 2011: Training from Lauderdale to Georgetown and back!
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