Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hammin' It Up

Ain't it like most people? I'm no different, we love to talk on things we don't know about.” - The Avett Brothers, Ten Thousand Words

Harboring a fantasy and living it, let’s be honest, is not the same thing. Daydreams are ephemera. Vague notions that get us through a busy and otherwise tedious day. Fantasies not really supposed to be realized. Not really. Until they are. At that point our dreams, the passionate insight, become something else. They become something more tangible.

In my case it was the sharp stabbing pain of realization that while I’d been sailing for a good deal of my life, I’d never actually owned a boat. I’ve owned houses, cars, lawn mowers, step ladders, computers, but never a boat. What was once someone else’s problem, the charter company’s or the ferry authority’s, was now mine, or more correctly ours. The context has changed from whimsical vacations to a life or death lifestyle. Phrases that we blithely kicked around as amateurs suddenly become yawning gaps in knowledge and abject manifestations of ignorance.

Take the phrase ‘SSB’. Innocuous enough. Three simple letters that even a novice sailing BS’er could figure out meant Single Side Band (a type of radio). But in all honestly, when presented with the glowing screen and myriad buttons of Aleta’s iCOM-m802, I didn’t know my HF from TNC , or my arse from my elbow. But I’m a lifelong learner. As a child I hated school. Brought up surrounded by intellectuals I wanted to compete, but realized early on that I was bringing corkscrew to a knife fight. Far better to shut up and listen than get involved with expressing opinions. Thus an autodidact, worse an empiric, was generated.

Many years later I realized that life is made up of experts who as soon as they’re outside their ‘wheelhouse’ simply make stuff up to keep the conversation going. With that insight I’ve developed great respect for source materials, and I’m especially appreciative of apparent common sense - a depressingly rare commodity. To paraphrase Prof. Einstein, the hallmark of true genius is making the complex simple. For that people deserve Nobel prizes.

Thus when faced with 124 pages of iCOM instruction manual I first turned to the ARRL study guide for the Technician class ham operators. iCOM simply assumes too much knowledge. Now, thanks in no small part to the valiant efforts of several Forest Grove, Oregon, ham radio buffs, I now know enough to be consciously incompetent, and informed enough to skim the m802’s manual, start turning knobs, and connecting COM ports to computers. Let the 'net' partying begin!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Shake 'em on Down

We woke to drizzle and dragged ourselves and the anchor up to face the day. About two hours after leaving Rhode River it turned out to be the venue of a drama far greater than we’d expected. Monitoring channel 16 on the VHF is generally agreed to be good practice for yachtsmen. Turns out, though, that if you hear a call for help you’re obliged to render it. Hence many boaters simply switch their radios off until, like agnostics, they switch them back on with a cry for help. We are true believers. The drama playing out was a boat fire on a 25’ Catalina at the mouth of the Rhode River. A call to Coast Guard turned into a Pan-Pan-Pan, the boaters equivalent of a cry for help or a long-avoided confession. The Coasties kept calling and for long minutes received no reply. A voice cracked out of the ether, “Coast Guard this is ‘Selkie’ we are in the area and will lend assistance,” hailed a pucker British accent. That was the point at which we knew that all would be well. Several minutes later the captain of the stricken vessel finally confirmed that all aboard were wearing life jackets and they were doing their best to manage things and that despite a Mayday call things weren’t as bad as they might appear. Then, nothing… minutes passed, nothing. What the hell happened, we wondered? We waited and then got distracted by our own navigational questions, until 20 minutes later the Coast Guard ordered a stand down and that things were finally looking up. And indeed that sparked a bit of wind and we picked up a couple of knots. 

The weather never really lifted. It was a cloudy day, but any day on a boat makes for a better time. Mostly. With the best of intentions we focused our efforts on continuing south. The dual challenges of waking late and Autumn’s shorter days made for ambitious goals with conservative ends. Eventually we turned east into the channel between grounding and Tilghman Island and on into the Choptank River. With a drop in the wind we started up the engine confident that all would be well. Hah! Coughing and spluttering Otto gasped and wheezed and sounded like he had the day before. Unhappy indeed. He cried out for a draught beer, or at least some filtered fuel. There was enough of a draft that we continued on to the bay past Todd’s point and dropped the anchor under sail - just for grins of course. Having worked out that the secret to anchoring in the Chesapeake is to do as little as possible and let the anchor set itself, we figured that even with a wind shift we’d be set for the night. And we were. 

The next morning, that would be Saturday, we decided, with a small craft warning in the forecast, the least we could do would be to trouble Mr. Buffet for a lift from our new-found friends at TowBoat US. In short order Trevor turned up with his vessel the Tow Jamm II - earning bonus points for the worst/best pun within a hundred nautical miles. To Oxford we cried! And off we went to Brewer’s Oxford Marina because they answered their phones first. Trevor was both charming and complimentary of Aleta, ‘she moves well through the water.' 

The adventure begins when things go wrong. Had we not run out of gas for a second time in two days we would not have walked the entire town of Oxford, dined well at Doc’s, or met Eric the mechanic. None of that would have happened. Whatever the cost of our chagrin and embarrassment at now having, really(?), run out of fuel twice, we found solace in a wonderful neck of the woods populated with non-judgmental people that gave away as many flavors of ice cream on the last day of season as you could eat. We gassed up on departing and armed with the knowledge that all we have to do to keep going is continue to turn valves until every permutation of fuel filter was aligned with each and every fuel tank, the likelihood we’d ever stop faded like an old photograph. 

We liked Oxford. We thought we might stay longer. But the south called and on we went. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Adventure Begins

As they say, the adventure begins when things go wrong. And wrong they went. After a week of figuring out how to make several of the punch list items work, Aleta (formerly: The Beguine) made her way in slings down to the water and settled in. Once she was tied up at the quay we ran around provisioning and getting things ready for our first shake-down cruise. Of course we needed another week, but that’s always the case. The key to any sailing adventure is leaving the dock and by Thursday we were ready to go. If only Aleta has felt the same way.

First she wouldn’t start - dead after a months on the hard. Her starter battery was exhausted, just not enough amps or oomph turn her big Westerbeke over. Meanwhile the solar panels and wind generator had kept the house batteries sufficiently charged and by combining both sets of batteries we got her cranked over. After 45 minutes at idle an engine alarm suddenly sounded and I quickly switched her off. We scratched our heads for a minute. Still at the dock, we called Bernie, our broker, down from his office and asked for his advice. Bernie is the proud owner of Aleta’s sister ship, literally built at the same time. The engine’s temperature was normal, oil pressure was normal, but the alarm sounded every time we dropped the revs. After a little troubleshooting we narrowed it down a false alarm brought on by the warm engine oil’s lower viscosity and a dicky sensor. With that we decided to hell with it! To hell with the rain that just arrived! To hell with Port Annapolis! We were leaving dock and it was time to sail!

The last few hours of daylight got us as far as the Rhode River, a narrow, well protected inlet perfect for our first night’s anchorage. Chesapeake Bay is as flat and shallow as a bad joke. We picked our way carefully along the river from buoy to buoy staying in the main channel until we turned the corner into the pool and looked for a spot to drop the hook. White marker buoys marked the boundary of High Island shoal. Two hundred years ago many of the shoals around the Chesapeake were farmer's fields. Carol, a little panic stricken at depth sounder reading 3.5’ when we draw 6, flung the wheel over and skidded us back to safer depths without incident. Either the sounder is off, or there was lots of grass, or we got lucky. Our insurance broker told me that rates for boats in the Chesapeake are generally lower simply because running aground is unlikely to damage anything besides the helmsman’s ego.

We finally found the perfect spot. A place where the muddy bottom was 10’ from the murky surface and many yards away from land and other boats. We lined up head to wind, dropped the anchor and 50-ish feet of chain and backed down. Aleta’s heavy Delta-style plow immediately pulled free and we drifted for a bit as the windlass started its slow, steady, and ultimately dirty work. We repeated this falderal twice more until it finally occurred to me we should let the anchor settle, rest in the muck a spell, then, slowly, under gently increasing pressure, encourage it to set. It worked. Marylanders call it ‘wetting the anchor’. We called it a night.  

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Cupcake Years

Dogs don’t speak human. Therefore, to have a healthy relationship, humans have to learn to speak dog. That’s just the way it is. I was lucky, I had a great teacher in Banjo, our late Border Collie/Australian Shepherd rescue. Banjo touched the hearts of everyone he didn’t bite, and even then managed to charm his victims. Throughout his life Banjo taught me about dominance and submission in the dog world, how to wrestle like a dog, and that dogs smile and even dream. I’m not anthropomorphizing here, dogs really do smile when they’re happy, especially if there’s the chance of getting a tidbit of food. Annie does it, but then labradors generally smile all the time. Marlon smiles when he’s trying to ingratiate himself, particularly after a surprise midnight dump on the carpet. The one thing dogs don’t do well is communicate pain, they don’t really have a means of expressing it other than by resting more as they get older. They don’t whine or complain or put their paws on a pain scale of 1-10 frowny faces. 

Nor do dogs want to grow old any faster than the rest of us. Their desire for companionship and getting out for long walks on the beach doesn’t flag, just their ability to do so. Joints get creaky, backs get painful and generally they slip quietly into what we call the ‘cupcake years’. Those final years, or more realistically months, when a dog can’t walk much, spends most of its time sleeping and breaking wind. It’s a time of life when they want to be made comfortable and will often slow down or even stop eating. We humans respond by getting them to eat whatever the heck it is we think they’ll keep down - even cupcakes. After all, what’s the downside risk to dog? A couple of weeks less of life in pain? The upside is smiles and engagement. 

If you think your dog is entering their cupcake years be warned. There’s a phase they go through which is really a con. It’s when they’re pretending to be lame to garner a cupcake. Just understand, once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no way to put it back. And if you really want your puppy back, toss them a pain killer like Tramadol wrapped in a slice of chicken. Once that kicks in the pain eases and all of a sudden your puppy returns, if only for the half hour before Morpheus rocks your drugged up doggie to sleep. 

Do people have cupcake years? Undoubtedly, but doctors tend to fill humans up with so many drugs your grandmother may pass into the next life without ever knowing that all she really needed was a toke and a lemon vanilla cupcake at tea time. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Situational Awareness

Here’s the issue with technology - it’s distracting - even deadly. This video of a guy getting bowled over by a rogue wave is a great example of how your cell phone can kill you. Take a second to watch the video.Now, from simple deduction we know quite a lot about the lad in the video. For instance, we know he is a millennial for the following reasons:
  1. He’s standing outside in a hurricane demonstrating a youthful sense of invulnerability. 
  2. He’s videoing the seething ocean with his smartphone’s camera. 
  3. Because he’s completely absorbed by the images on his screen he’s paying absolutely no attention to his surroundings or the danger that he’s in.
  4. He’s obsessed with capturing the moment digitally, not with actually being in the moment and creating a memorable experience; as a result his life is lived at a digital arms length.  
Our hero is no different from hundreds of other millennials crossing the street and insouciantly walking out in front of cars. The idea that because pedestrians have right of way cars must see them and stop for them is, at best, optimistic. Often drivers have no idea there’s a pedestrian in the area - after all, who walks any more? And like the giant wave that nobbles our hero, distracted pedestrians are at the mercy of much more powerful forces. 

Dealing with technology on a sailboat is not really any different. Electronic charts are a wonderful thing - except that there has yet to be a system that equals the simplicity and readability of a good old paper chart. Nautical charts have over 400 years of development behind them and have pretty much figured out how to present large amounts of complex information quickly. Meanwhile electronic charts are relative newcomers and human interface design still in its (relative) infancy. 

A big part of the problem is users get distracted by all the bells and whistles afforded by modern software. Because we all look at information differently and interpret it differently my view of a paper chart simply may not be yours, but with paper the information itself is at least static. With an electronic chart plotter the information is dynamic and can be tuned the whims of the viewer. With such customization enough variance in can be introduced that two people will first have to agree on what they’re looking at and then what is missing. 

So while we’re all digging around in the software trying to get our virtual bearings, the real world is moving on and before we know it - poof! - our situation has changed and our awareness of our surroundings compromised. It’s then we may find ourselves suddenly at the mercy of one of Mother Nature’s rogue waves and ourselves get toppled. Perhaps I’m a Luddite, but I like paper charts. I might compromise with a digital display of a paper chart, as long as I have a hardcopy close to hand. After all, batteries, like old sailors, often simply fade away. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Plans are useless

"I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” - Dwight Eisenhower

As we drove up and down the east coast we pondered our options. Ever since Plan B became Plan A we’ve taken something of a tactical rather than a strategic approach. In other words, having established a vision many years ago and considered the possibility of simply running away to sea, making that successful has been, perhaps, less well thought out. At first blush here’s a rough summary of where our plans are at:

July, 2017
Decide to quit our jobs and go sailing
Carol & Mike
July, 2017
Research boats
Complete (Mike’s research was already complete in 2002)
July, / August 2017
Find a boat
Carol & Mike
August, 2017
Buy a boat
Carol & Mike
Dependencies: selling everything we own, liquidating our savings and a successful marine survey
November 2017
Sail away
Carol & Mike
Dependencies: see above 
December 2017
Drink rum
Carol & Mike
This may get pulled up to September (completed for September.

Simple as that really. Given that our checklists are mostly in our heads right now, we’ve been scatalogically riffing down a list of questions that ranges from, ‘what if we’re caught in a hurricane and will we need a sea anchor’ (yes, probably), to ‘how about starting a podcast for sailors to monetize things’ (given the dearth of good podcasts out there I’m not selling my Røde mic yet).

Having spent a career in strategic planning our approach may seem a little disjointed, but on reflection it’s not as chaotic as it might appear. About 10 years ago I started getting more serious about sailing and began getting some training. The most recent was this year’s trip outside Vancouver Island to secure the American Sailing Association’s (ASA) 105 (coastal navigation) and ASA 106 (coastal cruising) certifications. A few years ago I got my Wilderness First Responder certification, and recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Will that last one help crossing vast expanses of ocean? Only inasmuch as it’s going to take a whole bunch of creativity to do that successfully.

What about Carol? Well, Carol’s a kinesthetic learner and it seems the best thing is to shove her head into a book or two for a few minutes and then put her on watch for as long as she can stand it. Meanwhile, whatever vessel we end up with, there will be dozens of systems to learn how to repair. As long as the biggest items are in good working order, then the mysteries of chart plotters, radar and sine wave inverters will reveal themselves in due course.

Note to self: it’s probably time to start developing some lists...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Having taken the big decision so early in our trip, we now had lots of time on our hands. So like good ‘uns we hightailed it for Cape Cod and a visit with Mike’s Aunt Vickie and Uncle Hugh. Mike and Hugh sailed together for years out of Marion, Massachusetts, where Hugh’s Vindö 50, Mashantam, is moored. 

Even as an octogenarian, Hugh’s love of sailing hasn’t diminished a bit. He remains active as an instructor in his local chapter of US Power Squadron and sails whenever he can get crew. When we arrived he was busy preparing for a weeklong cruise of Buzzards Bay and Block Island sound and he suggested that a daysail on Tuesday would be beneficial as a preparatory shakedown. We immediately agreed. 

I’ve been using a nifty iPhone app called PocketGrib for some years and its proven to be a usefully accurate forecaster of weather on sea and land. Thus, while Monday night's radio forecast kept changing its mind about the amount of rain we could expect and when it would end, the gribs stuck to their schedule. By 08:30 the rains ended and the clouds began to lift slowly as we made our way down to the harbor. With winds out of the northwest at 5-10 knots it wasn’t going to be a strenuous day, but enough to get us moving.  

Hugh familiarized Carol with boat operations as I put a reef in the main for no other reason than it hadn’t been done this year. This was, after all, a shakedown. Dropping the mooring bridle we made our way gently out of the bay and headed towards Cleveland Ledge Light. 

Away in the distance we could see a helicopter hovering near a boat, its bright white searchlight flashing occasionally in our direction. Inching closer it became clearer that the Coast Guard was conducting some kind of exercise with a support vessel that looked like it was towing something like a ladder or rescue litter. The object was being dropped in the water, picked up and then passed back to the support vessel. Rinse and repeat. Conditions for training were pretty much optimal. 

Given that these maneuvers were being conducted directly along our course, with the helicopter hovering close enough to the water that it was nearly engulfed in spray from its rotor wash, Hugh decided to hail the crew and find out what was going on. After all we didn’t want to disrupt things or cause a GoPro moment by entangling Mashantam’s 50’ mast with $17 million dollars of flying ambulance.

Picking up the handset, Hugh dialed in channel 24, the Coast Guard’s preferred hailing channel for public correspondence. 

“Coast Guard, hello Coast Guard, hello over Buzzard’s Bay, this is Mashantam, sailboat approaching you from the northwest. I just want to know how far away from you I ought to stay.”

——— Pause (four beats) — ——

The radio crackled on and an impatient New England accent spat out: “Why do you need to know that? The fucking thing is in the fucking air!”  

Really? We collectively caught our breaths at his response; it was both unbusinesslike and downright rude. Our tax dollars at work have, it appears, new instructions on dealing with the citizenry. 

“Ahem, roger that. Got the message. Mashantam out.”, Hugh replied. He then maintained course and we watched as the exercise moved northwards and out of our path. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What would Buckeroo do?

We're not going all the way Down East, but we are heading east to Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts with a goal of viewing boats. The stronger likelihood is we'll spend hours in sweltering traffic jams, but if you want to buy a boat there's an order of magnitude more of 'em along the mid-Atlantic seaboard than there are out here in God's country. Good news? And there is good news. The good news is that we've narrowed our list down to 43 possible alternatives ranging in price from $95,000 to $389,000. Given that any of these boats are likely to 'get us there' it's remarkable that there's an almost 4X cost spread from top to bottom. The differences aren't all build quality and can only, I guess, be ascribed to successful marketing.

After all the reading, and the short-listing, and the opinionated reassurances gleaned from legions of sailing forum dwellers (who have, frankly, no experience with your particular boat) our decision will be some mystical reckoning of the surveyor's report, refit costs, negotiated price, and the sort of energy given off by the boat herself. Because, after all, boats speak to you - and you as a sailor should listen. To those with dreams of sailing deep waters with the big fish, boats content with living at the dock will be distant and aloof. The livelier types will call to you. Eagerly pulling at their painters so they can head off to the ends of the earth. As a buyer you have to feel and read these energies and distinguish between caution and fear, competence and desire, youth and experience. And whether, despite all the right vibes, the poor vessel is really just too damn old for the trip. (Cue metaphor police.)

At its heart sailing is a kinetic, omni-dimensional balance of natural forces and spiritual exploration. Your boat is an active partner to whom you have to open your heart and your mind so you can make the best decision you can within your constraints. As Buckeroo Banzai might have said, don't embarrass us - your lives depend on it. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Fog in the Channel

La ConnerSunshine spread across the fields behind La Conner and snuck up to our hotel and broke through our curtains early enough to remind us we had a full day ahead. After breakfasting, we got in our car and turned towards the Pacific and Anacortes. Low, grey clouds brought the smog of the refineries into clear relief and made our destination that much less attractive. In 20 minutes we were at the Anacortes Marina parking lot and in contact with our yacht broker who was another 30 minutes away. We found good coffee at the Penguin Café and bided our time looking over a few boats on the hard, comparing the relative advantages of keel and rudder designs - at least in the abstract.

We made our way down B dock to a venerable Bob Perry designed, and Taiwanese built, Norseman 447. This is a big boat and given it's 30 years of age seemed pretty well found. Sporting its original teak decks begged the question of how much, if any, water may have found its way into the laminate. Whatever! It was going to be a lot of work and substantial amount of money to bring her back to blue water standard, but her bones looked solid and for the right price she might be quite splendid again. 

From Anacortes we planned a short drive to Keystone followed by a quick hop on the ferry to Port Townsend. That did not happen. On arrival we discovered that morning fog had forced the cancellation of two ferries and without a reservation we were looking at a three hour wait. Now what? Well there was the long route back through Mount Vernon and down 1-5, itself glowing a furious red on Google Maps, or we could hop off the south end of Whidbey Island via the ferry from Clinton to Mukilteo. From there it's a short drive on down to Edmonds and another ferry hop to Kingston. Elapsed time was roughly the same, but the adventure factor was higher on the ferries, so that's what we did. 

Our last viewing of the day in Port Ludlow, a Pacific Seacraft 40, being much favored by your correspondent since he was a pup, was delayed only 90 minutes thanks to all the ferrying falderal. Our broker, Murray, has been sailing the area since he was a boy and remembered Port Ludlow as a timber town without a marina, but good anchorages and fresh oysters along the beachfront. Now as a retirement community it has enough money for a yacht club and a harbor-full of expensive and seriously under used fiberglass. The Pacific Seacraft 40 is a fine boat and our example, while little used, is still 20 years old - with all that implies in terms of what needs attention. Close inspection is necessary before a purchase, but it's still a boat that will get you there. Her faded luster and spirit pulls at the imagination and whispers of distant anchorages reached there in security and relative comfort. Ahhh, yes... But this is a partnership after all - man does not make decisions alone. Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

What's in a Name? far we've narrowed it down to Selkie or Rainbow Gerbil - both of which meet some, if not all, of the criteria for naming boats. You see, I believe that boats, like brands, should be memorably named, and reflect something positive about their owners. They should also beg a question or two in new ports to help break the ice. The name should ideally be no more than two syllables and definitely not some naff mnemonic made up of yours and your pet's names.

Taken to its logical extreme, you might, for example, name your boat "Yo Momma!" Thus when asked the name of your boat, you'd say, "Yo Momma!" To which your inquisitor would rightly reply with a fist in your face. Your 'brand' thus demonstrates your preferences for bar fights and generally getting the crap kicked out of you. Needless to say, Yo Momma! hasn't made the cut on our list of boat names.

Here's a short selection of ideas, please post your favorites or better ideas, within the rules of naming outlined above, of course.
  1. Rainbow Gerbil - two words of two syllables apiece - so not bad. Logic would dictate a dinghy named RG Bargie as a companion. Her port of call would naturally be Portlandia, Oregon. 
  2. Selkie - pretty much meets all the criteria, the question of dinghy naming remains open at this point. 
  3. Boaty McBoatface - fails miserably. 
  4. Schrodiger's Cat - but only if she's a catamaran. 
  5. Banjo - not a mnemonic, but still a (highly favored) pet name. The dinghy would be Annie, and the life raft Marlon. BAM! Just like that! 
  6. Carol - then name the dinghy Lynn and when docked the boat would be C, L, Quay. It's a stretch, okay? 
  7. Anagrams like Karmic (from the letters carolmike) also lead right to Miracle, Earlock, and Calorie. 
  8. And, well, that's pretty much it right now... any and all suggestions appreciated...