Saturday, October 8, 2011

How long will it last, this peace I have found at sea?

It is all of life that I contemplate-sun, clouds, time that passes and abides. Occasionally it is also that other world, foreign now, that I left centuries ago. The modern, artificial world where man has been turned into a money-making machine, to satisfy false needs, false joys. - Bernard Moitissier

I am currently reading Robin Lee Graham's account of single handing around the world in his 24 foot sloop Dove. He regularly refers to his frustration with the way he and his voyage were depicted by press coverage. This started my own reflection on the way our own little sailing trip was perceived and represented with a baffling degree of cynicism after we wrote and released a handful of songs documenting the experience.

Never once had I seen a sailboat before that day in early January when Patrick and I left Denver for Ft. Lauderdale and took a bus to the coast. As I watched, for the first time, a small ship's sails unfurl and billow in the wind, I was largely unaware of the prevailing association of sailing yachts with the wealthy leisure class, or of the tendency for the word "yacht" to leave a bad taste in one's mouth. My impression of sailing was shaped by what I had seen or read in the forms of Robinson Crusoe, The Island of Doctor Moreau, or The Old Man and the Sea. I thought of the ocean as a lovely and terrifying entity experienced only as a matter of necessity. I thought of it as a rite of passage, one that elicits our potential greatness and exposes our frailty. In this way, an encounter with the ocean of my own seemed more essential than frivolous.

So when our undertaking was referred to by one journalist as a "cozy excursion" of the middle class angst variety, it made me think only that what we tried to do isn't attempted enough, otherwise so many people would not feel affronted or bewildered by the idea of it.

In some ways this seems like a problem of shared experience. Different presuppositions and perspectives tend to recast meaning and significance. The most personal concepts or events stand to lose the most. I am sure I am not the only one who tends to interpret the vision and accomplishments of others in a suspicious and defensive manner. I wonder what it might imply about my own life and resent it for being intrusive even after it is clear that it has nothing to do with me, that I am merely a by-stander.

Why did we go sailing? I can tell you it had nothing to do with self-indulgence, as some might like to think. It was not motivated by arrogance. It was was an attempt to create meaning where there would otherwise be none. What is the harm in that?

When Bernard Moitissier, poised to win the first non-stop single-handed race around the world, decided to forfeit and carry on around the world once again without returning home, it was not to belittle his competitors or the lives of those he left behind on land. It was to protest prescribed meaning, and to create his own. There is no inherent value in sailing or the sea, nor is there any inherent demarcation of status or ability. Sailing is only a means to an end and that end is not the same for everyone. Everyone has their own ocean. The purpose of this blog, if it even has one, is to encourage others to seek it out and pursue it bravely, like the sailors who came before us.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Can't Have Nice Things

(The only cat I like enough to pet despite my allergies)

At least we can't. Since purchasing our classy new dinghy, it has become the permanent latrine for all duck passerby. Each morning, before clambering into our dinghy to go ashore, we thoroughly scrub the interior of it's...contents. In the history of our cruising, this never happened with our old dinghy. Apparently it was not even good enough for a duck to shit in.

(this woman knew she was jogging through our picture)

Monday evening, while leisurely making dinner, we noticed a squall line forming southwest of us. At first we thought it might blow over, but in the course of fifteen minutes it became clear that a menacing storm was building behind it and we were directly in its path. The usual storm-preparation ensued: cabin cleared, sensitive items properly stowed, cockpit secured, lines cleared, keys in ignition in case of a sudden need for the engine, foul weather gear made ready. By the time we had finished, a light rain had begun and lightning flashed every thirty seconds. The sky looked so threatening that we felt giddy in response. When we finally felt the full force of the storm, our anchor drug slightly but immediately fetched up. All of the shore was obscured from view, the combination of thunder, rain and wind erased all other sounds and we had to shout to be heard. Fortunately, that was the worst of it and the storm blew over within half an hour. We filmed the leading edge of the storm hitting us with our terrible yet water proof camera. Weather is so fascinating when it has actual power over you.

Once the weather cleared, Patrick finished making an excellent meal based on Kevin's crab crakes that he makes for us when we are in town. We only had canned-tuna, which is clearly not the same, but Patrick--who is a genius at combining bizarre, incorrect ingredients to emulate an actual recipe made something delicious. The final product:

(tuna cakes)
On a perfectly clear, warm afternoon I lay in the cockpit working on my first (and possibly last) Virginia Woolf novel, when Patrick suggested a sail. We were snug at anchor, and we had plans to meet Sean and Meredith soon. Since we had drug anchor in the thunderstorm the day before, I wasn't enthusiastic about resetting the anchor just before leaving the boat for the evening. While in the middle of saying, "no, I'm too comfortable here and we know the boat is secure" Patrick smiled devilishly and threw up the mainsail laughing, "you won't have to lift a finger." Which is of course, not true. He then hauled in the anchor himself and started tacking out of the anchorage, still laughing at me. He looked so cocky. "Don't get up, Alaina. I've got it." I didn't get up, except to make a mint julep.

I watched bemused as he single-handed the boat, tacking through buoys and ship traffic for an hour in a perfect 15 knot breeze. He then beam reached back into the anchorage. He perfectly timed furling the jib, and eased the mainsheet to de-power the boat to one and a half knots before heading up into the wind and releasing the mainsheet entirely. We came to a perfect stop and I went to the bow to drop the anchor while Patrick pulled down the mainsail. We have never anchored under sail for fun, and we have never sailed out of an anchorage before. It all went so smoothly, and Patrick only needed my help when the anchor needed to be released. I couldn't help feeling proud of how much we are improved that I am becoming unnecessary.

(me, useless)
After rowing ashore to make our way to Sean and Meredith's for the evening, we noticed this lovely woman working on a painting of the harbor. Swift Ranger was depicted happily tugging on her anchor, so we asked to take a picture.

It's been good catching up with Sean and Meredith. They always take us somewhere awesome when we are in Baltimore, like the divey bar Bad Decisions, which has an amazing name, and is known for it's specialty cocktails. Meredith says, "you can literally point to something someone else is drinking, order it, and not be disappointed."

(Meredith, Sean and their very well socialized Shiba Inu, Venkman)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

We Have Intentions, Not Plans

Late this afternoon, Patrick sat watching me spend several minutes swatting away a wasp that dove about the cockpit torturing me. Once I was aware of being watched, Patrick burst into laughter commenting, "I am so glad I married you. Best decision." His reaction was a bit baffling. But whatever his reasons I'm not complaining, as long as seeing me at my most ridiculous only reinforces his decision to share a very small living space with me.

We are feeling particularly nostalgic. This is the first time we have traversed the Chesapeake since the conclusion of our first sailing trip together two years ago. We were on our way to Baltimore from the west coast of Florida to get married and start a new life. Two years later, things have turned out rather unexpectedly.

Nothing about our current lives resembles our original plans, except for the part that includes each other. A fair amount of confusion and frustration have been present throughout this, but I feel glad that our futures were unpredictable. Fate gave me something better than what I had originally dreamed for myself. Seeking the new and unexpected resulted in unexpected things being seemingly drawn to me. Reflection on my past offers no elucidation of my present, and no indication of my future; to the effect that I now hold the things I want loosely. I cannot control the circumstance in which my dreams unfold, only yield to them without relinquishing my desires. I have become mutable without allowing my essence to be altered.

This is why sailing has been so significant a theme in Patrick's and my life. The lessons we have learned on the water are simple, self-evident and were discovered necessarily. It just so happens that there is a myriad of other applications for these revelations. Every time Patrick and I return to the "real world" from time spent on our boat, we feel wiser and abler.

We took a day off at Solomon's Island before mustering up the courage to strike out once more for Annapolis. Fifty nautical miles later, safely in Annapolis, we indulged in marinas, mooring balls and in the company of Kevin and Jan. It took a lot of work and all of our resolve to get here. Kevin and Jan made it feel exactly like a homecoming.

A gale swept through the evening of our arrival. We spent two days at the marina because the winds were too high to attempt to get out of our slip. The boat rocked so violently at the dock that we grew seasick every time we went below and were forced to take our meals ashore with Kevin and Jan (oh, the misfortune!). The northeasterly wind blew excess water into the Severn River and at high tide the docks and neighboring streets flooded about six inches. I have never seen a flood before, so the ankle deep saltwater bode apocalyptic for me. In reality it was a non-event. None of the locals seemed to notice or care.

Our last stop (which will complete the sentimental journey) is Baltimore. We leave tomorrow, weather permitting, to catch up with the only friends we made during our three-month stint in Inner-Harbor, Sean and Meredith.

More then from your marauding friends.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

You'll Get There When You Get There

(A Stowaway, one of many that were forcibly relocated)

Elizabeth City, NC to Solomon's Island, MD:

We left Elizabeth City in an irresponsible frenzy. To do lists were incomplete, tasks were unfinished. We needed to be on the move again. We retraced our trip up the dismal swamp without a hitch. It's still early in the season and we only saw one or two other boats before arriving in Portsmouth. The isolation was good for us and the only conversation aside from our own was with the occasional bridge tender.

We took a day off in Portsmouth for some repairs. Our GPS had broken the morning we pulled out of our slip in Elizabeth City. It seemed like a bad omen at first but it was actually really nice to get back into the habit of old-school navigation. Steering compass courses and using navigation aids is far superior to a screen that relays satellite transmissions. While in Portsmouth, I caught up with an old friend of mine who brought some friends over for cocktails on the boat. Unfortunately I didn't anticipate everyone else getting seasick from drinking alcohol on a rocking (albeit gently rocking) boat. I felt like a rather bad host, inviting friends over and making them ill. Next time we will just meet a bar like regular people.

I felt apprehensive about leaving Portsmouth for Deltaville the following day. It's a sixty nautical mile stretch and the forecast indicated heavy winds and a small-craft advisory warning for the lower Chesapeake Bay (although I am convinced those warnings are for flat-bottom fishing boats). We hadn't even raised the sails in over three months. Despite being forced to reef, double reef, shake out reefs and douse the sails entirely over and over, we had a fantastic day of sailing. The wind was too strong most of the time and scared the shit out of me a couple of times, but it was an exhilarating day all in all. We anchored in Deltaville, exhausted, only to discover that our alternator was broken and our batteries weren't charging.

The following day's forecast entailed a nasty cold front, so we decided to stay put and work on the engine. This meant hours of torment, with Patrick deep in the bilge of the boat, black with grease and nervously claustrophobic. I tried to be helpful, passing him tools, and then fishing them out of oily bilge-water when he would drop them. It made us really wish we weren't so reliant on our engine...but we are. We are no where near good enough to do without it.

The early morning was warm and clear. I made tea and we sat in the cockpit watching sparrows and hawks hunt over the water. We heard the shrimp running with the tide. Sparrows darted in and out of our rigging nipping at moths and flies while the hawks made dramatic grabs for fish the size of their bodies. They were nesting along the waterfront and we could see their little chicks peeking out to watch their mothers hunt. It was a perfect, yet incongruous prelude to a day full of thunder and rain squalls.

The forecast for the week was terrible for sailing to the north Chesapeake. Cold fronts swept through every other day, and the the high pressure systems that followed them boasted strong northerly winds that would make sailing impossible. We decided to take a risk and motor sail through moderate westerlies on a day that would at least be free of thunderstorms. We hoped for a close-reach, and planned to arrive at Solomon's Island, MD in 10 hours or less.

(view from a portlight)

The morning started easily enough. We motor sailed in a light breeze with favorable current and averaged 6 knots for the first two hours. The barometer had fallen but the weather seemed more benign than anything.

By 1100 we neared the Potomac River and conditions deteriorated in a matter of seconds. The wind increased and shifted to our exact heading. We had to drop our sails which decreased our speed to a pathetic three knots. The waves then built to a nasty chop with opposing wave patterns that collapsed in on each other. The Cape Dory was taking a serious beating. You could feel her lunge forward then collide with a wave and shudder to nearly a complete stop. Suddenly our ten thousand pound boat was catching air, flying off the top of one wave just as another would catch us on our beam. With no sails to stabilize us, the motion was terrifying. The sky was completely obscured by thick black clouds and I began to think we might be sailing into a thunderstorm after so carefully trying to avoid one.

I knew that the huge Potomac river was creating a counter-current and that conditions would likely improve north of the river. But the mouth of the Potomac is nearly ten miles wide, and we were barely making three knots. Patrick didn't think the engine could hold out. We started to wonder, would we make Solomon's before dark at this pace? Could we tack into strong headwinds, against the current all the way to an anchorage if the engine failed?

It took three hours to get north of the Potomac. We watched grumpily as bigger boats with more powerful engines passed us without a struggle. At Point Lookout the wind lessened but the wave action was still miserable. We considered falling back to another anchorage but the nearest one was almost as far south as Solomon's Island was north. Thanks to some encouragement from Kevin who knows the Chesapeake intimately, we decided to carry on and hope that some natural force would turn in our favor before nightfall.

Twelve and a half hours after setting off, we finally dropped anchor in one of Solomon's sheltered creeks. I felt like crying in relief, the day had been so wretched. We were frozen, our bones hurt from the jarring motion, and we had been seriously afraid that our boat couldn't handle the pounding. Rounding the spit into the sheltered Patuxent waters we were greeted with the happy sight of Sailboats racing with full-spinnakers. The sun emerged for the last half-hour of daylight and it's rays filtered over Solomon's Island as though lighting the way to refuge. I don't know why we put ourselves through that day, but it's over now, and we are only fifty miles from Annapolis. I don't know where we plan on leaving Swift Ranger for the summer, but I can guarantee it will not be on the other side of the Potomac, aka Little Gulf Stream Bitch.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We Were Meant To Explore

Returning to Swift Ranger feels uncannily like a family reunion. We are nervous, we only vaguely remember the in's and out's, and desperately want to impress each other but end up bickering self-consciously.

Immediately upon arrival Patrick and I revert to this bizarre routine. Somehow I am doing something I am totally unqualified to do, like chopping wood and splicing rope, while Patrick re-wires the boat without any of the proper tools. Small explosions of blown fuses mixed with the sounds of our intermittent arguing as we trip over each other, distract each other, and give incorrect advice remind us that we have partially forgotten how to do this.

Something about being in a marina creates a race-against-time mentality, and every idle moment seems like one that is waisted forever. As long as Swift Ranger is tied to a dock rather than free with her sails open to the sun it all feels wrong. In a mere twenty four hours we have repaired a water tank, patched wood, mounted new hardware, re-provisioned our food stores, scoured mold from every darkened corner and launched a new dinghy. Fortunately this frantic pace only lasts for a few days before we "get our groove back" as we like to say.

Unrelatedly, we bought a loaf of cinnamon raison bread today from a company called "Grandpa's Oven"...we couldn't believe it wasn't called Grandma's Oven. When is Grandpa ever in the kitchen? And this brand available exclusively in the South!

Anyway, we plan on having every project completed and Swift Ranger ready to set sail by this Friday. The highlight of today was the arrival of our new dinghy and oil lamp. The dinghy is, by far, too classy for us. She's unsinkable, with sleek lines and wooden trim. We made a point to document our first moments together in a terribly boring video that I attached below. The oil lamp is beautiful and transports us to an arcane world of dangerous wonder. If only we could find a place that supplies kerosene! Asking for kerosene while shopping today made me feel like a character in Oregon Trail. I am out of oil for my lamp and my sister has a snake bite!

The plan--this always ends up being the plan--is to head for Annapolis, homeland of our patron saint John Rousmaniere. More importantly, Kevin and Jan (from Pearl of Eastport) will be there for the next two weeks and we can't wait to see their smiling faces as we row up to them in this little number:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Soon enough, Swift Ranger

Patrick and I have been traveling with our band. We have been to so many places in the last few months that when we finally reunite with Swift Ranger in two weeks, we might be too exhausted to pick up anchor even once.

We spent November and December jaunting up and down the East and West coasts. We spent January in Europe--our first time abroad together. Immediately upon returning we made a huge loop of the US over February and March. This included an exploration deep into the South, and a trip as far North as Montreal in Quebec. Traveling by car is not nearly as rewarding as by sailboat, and we are anxious to return to our preferred mode of transportation.

Even though this is a sailing blog, so much has happened since the last time we were on Swift Ranger, I feel like I have to at least mention it. After all, it's not like time stops when we aren't sailing...although Patrick sure acts that way.

Here are a few pictures! My next update will be from the water.

Patrick in Edinburgh, Scotland

Me in Amsterdam

Patrick and some of our dear friends in San Fransisco

Patrick in the Rocky Mountains

Patrick and I with a friend in Austin, TX

Monday, December 27, 2010

East River, Chesapeake Bay to the ICW

After relaxing for an evening in Portsmouth we set off at 0800 for the intra-coastal waterway. It had been over a year since we had traveled its picturesque, wandering waters. It felt odd to be so excited to pass ICW marker #1, after emphatically swearing off the ICW only a year ago. But we had gained so much confidence over the last year that re-entering the ICW brought only feelings of happy anticipation. We even decided to take the shallower but more scenic dismal swamp route south, rather than the virginia cut we had taken previously. A choice well rewarded! The dismal swamp was a place of tranquil beauty, boasting unusually high water and not a single navigational challenge aside from occasional floating debris.

We went through several locks and bridges that were actually rather enjoyable. I derived so much pleasure hailing bridge tenders on the VHF radio again. I can't emphasize enough, that I was back in my element. I love radio protocol. I wish phone conversations were as formal. The only hiccup throughout our two day leisurely jaunt to Elizabeth City, North Carolina was a brief confrontation with--you guessed it!!--a power boater.

He had anchored in front of a lock waiting for it to open, whereas we timed our arrival perfectly with its opening. I hailed the lock operator and he gave me the go ahead so we motored straight into the lock. Meanwhile the power boat (who hadn't even hailed the lock operator to announce his arrival!) was frantically trying to get his anchor up. As we passed him, he angrily motored his anchor up and drove right at us trying to cut us off. Being a sailboat, we can't stop or turn that easily so we just held our course and he used his bow thrusters to back down. He ran to the bow and started shouting at us, "You must be really anxious to make that lock! Are you scared? You had to cut in front of me, huh? Well go ahead if you're in such a hurry!" I was really confused at this point. The lock was open, his anchor was down, so we just went on in. I didn't really know what else we were supposed to do, motor around in circles waiting for him to get ready saying, "oh no, after you, sir." We've never been in a situation where you are allowed to anchor in front of a lock or bridge, so we didn't know what protocol was. I yelled from the cockpit a sincere and confused apology and he shouted back, "oh no you're not! You're not sorry at all." I responded, "um...I actually am sorry, we didn't mean to be rude." But by this point Patrick had heard enough and called him an asshole, very loudly. This really undermined my apology so then I started yelling at Patrick, while he yelled at the power boater, while the power boater yelled at me. Then we entered the lock, tied up RIGHT next to each other and awkwardly travelled in tandem, through every lock and bridge all the way to Elizabeth City together. SOOO weird.

(inside the lock, they raised the water 10 feet!)
He never looked at us or spoke to us again, even when in the next lock, all the other boats were introducing themselves to each other and cracking jokes, this guy acted like we didn't exist. That will teach you, always be nice on the ICW!!! There's no escaping each other.

All in all, the trip was a dream! We left Swift Ranger looking like a dapper dandy, putting all the other boats to shame (except of course Pearl of Eastport, elegant as ever!) at the Pelican Marina. I felt like we were handing our pride and joy over to a foster care program. We still feel like bad parents and plan on moving her somewhere else no later than March.

I will leave you with a short, sloppily done video we threw together of the last couple days of our trip.
Amateur camera work: Alaina
Amateur editing: Patrick
Original score recorded on an old 4-track: Tennis (Patrick and Alaina)