Sunday, April 5, 2020

Feels Like Defeat (But Really Isn't)

Confusingly, having a car is both liberating, and confining, when you live and travel on a boat.

We haven't owned a car since we left Annapolis in 2013. We've just relied on public transportation or rented when we needed, because really, when you're as mobile as we are in the boat, or spending summers sailing with El Galeon or Santa Maria, owning a car is a bit of a liability. It needs to be moved while we move the boat from one city (or island!) to another, and stored and maintained while we're off adventuring. So instead, we rent while we're in a new area, to explore and to do basic maintenance like provisioning or getting boat parts.

Not having a car, especially in a historic downtown like St Aug, has always felt a bit freeing and European... until now. With so many things in unsettled circumstances, and Dan's lungs so fragile that we don't dare put him in a taxi, uber, or bus, we needed a long-term rental.

The good folks at our local Enterprise office know us and our preferences well. They lined us up with an almost-new Chevy Spark -- simple, small and agile, perfect for the narrow streets of the ancient town. It was delightfully reminiscent of the kind of cars we generally rent on Aruba. Unpretentious, youthful, and fun. Unfortunately, with Dan so isolated and fragile, there weren't many places we could take it! Storage unit, pharmacy, once or twice to parks where we could go for a walk until those closed down as well, and that was about it. All dressed up with no where to go; we couldn't even buy our own groceries and had to rely on favors from neighbors. (There turns out to be something surprisingly intimate about sharing grocery lists, but that's a story for another time.)

As the weeks went on it became apparent that we were in this for the long haul. We went online to extend our car rental, only to see that our local office had closed, though there was another one 15 minutes away that could serve our area. That, I think, was when we realized it was time to buy (gasp) our own car.

If not owning a car feels like a defining feature of a lifestyle of traveling on a sailboat and open to any adventure that comes along, then what does buying a car imply? The beginning of the end of our floating lifestyle? A commitment to stay in one area for a while? Having a much more predictable life, where the boat is just a floating condo? Was it the first step to moving ashore? Committing to buying a car just felt like accepting defeat.

It felt like the virus had ended our cruising dream, and maybe for others as well, as we see the fragility of this lifestyle. All over the Caribbean, Bahamas, and East Coast, our friends who were traveling on boats were reporting weird situations. They were trapped, couldn't move freely or get back north before hurricane season; marinas and ports and borders were closed or closing. I'm not sure what we want either. Early on, when we realized the Spanish ships and tall ship festivals were out for us this summer, as was our plan B of playing in the Chesapeake, we decided that St Aug was a smart place for us to be. We had a great infrastructure here, and many people who could help. We were known, and we knew the area.

The good news is that we had the money available, and were quickly able to find a vehicle that met our needs and wasn't too expensive. With the practical logistics solved, settling our heads was more challenging. Owning a car again simultaneously symbolizes freedom and an anchor or tether. We can go anywhere we want, independently, road trips!; and we're not traveling by boat any time soon, we're staying in this area for probably the next year.

Friday, April 3, 2020


It was only six weeks ago, but the world is so much darker right now. But six weeks ago was exuberance, feathers, sequins. Loud music, dancing in the streets. Laughter. Crowds, kids, sparkles. Family groups. Friends.

The people who participate spend hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours on their costumes (sometimes more!) And walk/dance for hours in the sun; it seems everyone on the island is either in the parade, or watching the parade cheering from the sidelines. All the splendour is a gift to their neighbors -- and has been one of our favourite things to do witness Aruba, every spring.

This year was a "small" carnaval. It "only" took a few hours for the parade to pass the spot we were standing. So here are just a few pictures of the faces of random folks who stopped for photos, happily displaying their artwork. I found the secret of getting those photos, by the way: gesture politely with the camera that you'd like a photo. They'll pause and smile. Click the shutter. Look at the camera to check the image, make eye contact and a thumbs-up or other gesture indicating the photo came out okay and gesture thanks. Then they'll give you the real smile -- the one that is simultaneously "you're welcome" and "thanks for appreciating my art and our island tradition." That's when you take the photo that will become the keeper.

And a few of the "shoulder pieces." Imagine carrying this on your shoulders as you walk 4 or more kilometers in the sun -- then doing it again tomorrow! And paying for the privilege, for bragging rights but mostly just as a gift to your neighbors.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Building a Community

Burgees with the group's logo, the outline of the Castillo that is a symbol of the town and has never been taken in battle.

In late January 2012, a small group of cruisers who before this had only known each other on line met in a pub in town to match faces to screen names. We tried to develop a strategy to help people make real life connections and create a sailing community.  Different than a yacht club, we wanted to focus on cruisers who would be passing through, staying a day or a month or a season, and then in this nomadic lifestyle, moving on to explore new places.

With physical gatherings, virtual gatherings, happy hours and educational lectures and a morning VHF net (like a conference call that covers weather, winds, tides, welcomes newcomers and provides information about local services, general assistance, and fun events), the group now has a robust membership of over 2,000 people. What makes it feel totally different to me than any other sailing group I'm in, is that this one doesn't just include boaters although there are plenty of those. Marina managers, local marine trades and shop owners, even the local SeaTow operators and local law enforcement, marine sheriff and fire department, are all members. The community isn't just the people who play and live on boats, it's the entire breadth of maritime support people and industries coming together with the common interest in making the town a good place for boating.

I wish I understood how we made this happen, because I'd love to replicate it in other places as we travel. But even though I was there from the beginning, I have no idea how we got so lucky as to make this community coalesce. Must be some ancient St Aug city magic, I guess.

That first meeting in 2012 had only nine people -- plus an idea!

And look at us now, 8 years later! (photo from Mark & Suzanne Einstein)

Are We Done? Not Exactly the End of Cruising

Great blue herons remind me of Maryland. And also of patience, which they have and I do not.

There's a truism in cruising, that you make plans written in the sand at low tide, or plans are firmly cast in jello. Two summers ago, after an interesting but horribly hot stay in a lovely marina in Jacksonville while Dan healed from hip replacement surgery, we promised ourselves that we'd never again voluntarily spend a summer aboard in north Florida. Plan A for summer 2020 was to work another season on El Galeon; Plan B was to sail Cinderella to the Chesapeake; Plan C was to buy a van, fit it out for camping, and do a western US road trip.

But here we were, the word "voluntarily" in that vow came up thanx to the virus and quite suddenly all those options evaporated and it looked like we were going to be spending another summer aboard in north Florida after all. El Galeon was out -- we certainly weren't going to be attending lots of crowded tall ship festivals this summer. Sailing back to the Chesapeake was out too -- too many marinas are closing or closed, and we have too much uncertainty, to sail north, not to mention needing to be in a stable place where we have solid infrastructure while Dan continues to heal from his scuba diving accident. Not really game for a road trip, either, under the current circumstances, long distance travel just isn't in the offing. It looks to be an active hurricane season coming up, and Plans A, B, and C won't be available.

I had a bit of a meltdown last week, without thinking blurted out, "I want to go home!" And then, stunned -- what truth had I spoken?  I can't remember when I've had so much fun, or met so many people I liked all in one place, as St Aug. And the community we have here has been tremendous -- the fabulous people who've been helping us during Dan's recovery, and the support of the marine community in town is like nothing else I've ever known. But still, I realized "home" was not here. (Or, necessarily, anywhere.)

"Home" in the truest sense, is Cinderella, wherever she is docked. We still want to live on the boat -- but maybe not do the lengthy East Coast snowbird slog twice a year with the seasons. We've done the southeast coast 4 times south and 3 times north on Cinderella, and 3 times each way on El Galeon. Time for something different. I doubt that we're done with cruising, and definitely not done with living on the boat. The Chesapeake is calling; I want to try a place where we can sail more locally, just few hours sail and you can anchor in a different small town or deserted cove every day.  To get there faster, maybe we'll fly or drive to fun places for vacations. So, when things are stable again, probably next year, we're northbound again.

(image from here)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hadn't Expected THIS at All!

These flamingos are not social distancing!

Right? No one here did. After we got back to the States we were going to spend a few days in southern Florida before returning to Cinderella. I suspected, rightly, that those days were going to be my last feeling of normalcy for, how long?

There were a few days in a grimy hotel outside of Fort Lauderdale where we did our income tax paperwork and took cellphone photos of the resulting documents to email to our accountant. Dinner at a Thai restaurant with recently-engaged friends Phil and Kay. Overpriced pizza and nice microbrewed beer. A much nicer hotel, this time with a bar where the bartender poured extremely stiff rum drinks, and after we'd had our limit a stereotypical big spender who had done well in Vegas bought another round. A visit to our dermatologist. Then, because the boat was completely empty, a big stock-up shopping trip to Trader Joe's.

Back in St Augustine, we early-voted, bought more groceries, wine, dropped our things off at our storage unit ... and dropped off the planet, it seemed, into total isolation as the scale of the crisis became apparent. We were just slightly ahead of the curve; as events started being cancelled and pubs shut down the following week. The weather was beautiful, we had a rental car, but couldn't go anywhere, do anything, or visit anyone!

In a sense, the isolation is no different than a long sea passage. As long term liveaboards and cruisers, we're better prepared for it than most. We've had lots of experience entertaining ourselves and keeping our relationship harmonious, just the two of us in our tiny fiberglass bubble on the big empty ocean. We started discussing how to get some purpose to our days, otherwise we'd end the isolation as experts in nothing but playing computer games, overweight and alcoholic. The original plan was to commit to one hour each day doing: something practical, something physical, something educational, something creative. We deep cleaned the boat, went for isolated walks, sorted photos and music. Dan studied sign language and Jaye studied meteorology. We spent a lot of time reading the news and social-media-ing with friends. We read a lot, and went for drives to nowhere in our little rented Spark.

For me the most surreal was a comment my friend H made on Facebook. She was watching a movie and a character came into a crowded party and hugged another character. "Only a week ago," my friend mused, "this seemed normal; now it's impossibly quaint."

Our friends and neighbors have been awesome, buying our groceries and running errands and other favors to keep Dan's contact with the outside world as minimal as possible while his lungs continue to heal from the diving accident. And I'm enjoying the quiet, unpressured and unstructured time. I don't know how long this will continue, but we'll get through it, together -- separately.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Grocery Carts

This bit of social engineering just fascinated me. A very simple way to keep from stray grocery carts scattered around the parking lot when lazy people don't bother to return them to the cart corrals.

Rows of grocery carts, neatly organized and returned to the cart corral. How do they do it?
Simple, but elegant. See that little dangle hanging in front of the cart? The carts are effectively chained together. To get the cart out, you put a coin in the handle (a quarter, or an Arubian florin which is about the same size.) That pushes out the chain holding your cart to the next one, so you can take it shopping. But don't worry, you get your coin back when you're finished. All you have to do is return the cart to the corral, then use the dangling key on the cart in front of yours to push out your coin and lock your cart to the next one. You've effectively put a 25-cent deposit on the cart, which is returned when you return the cart. Elegantly simple, and simply elegant. Remarkably effective, too!

Putting a coin in the slot releases the cart for your use

When you're finished, returning it and inserting the key to lock your cart to the stack, returns your coin.
This was my favourite store on the island anyway because I like their products so much, but even if that weren't the case, I would shop there just for this!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Road Signs

There's lots of micro-scale cultural differences that remind me that even though we're in a European-style First World country here in the southeastern Caribbean, and the streets are safe and you can drink the water, we're still living island style. Check out these road signs: 

In some cases, the meaning is fairly intuitive:

It's a pedestrian crosswalk, yes?

Others, less so:

Rocket launch area? (Actually, this signals that the road you are on is the one that has the right of way; side roads are subsidiary and must yield.)

I got pretty darn good at roundabouts. I like them, they are self-adjusting and use intersections more efficiently than traffic lights; hence, less congestion. But there's one by the airport that is 3 lanes. I tried it a couple of times when traffic was very light to see if I could learn it. That made it better but once I did change lanes wrong and heard tires squeal behind me as I forced an oncoming vehicle to brake hard. Another time I ended up trapped and going around the circle 2-1/2 times until I finally got in the correct lane to exit!

Roundabout ahead! But at least the road directions are clearly labelled. 

But sometimes, they are just plain weird. I've never before been in a place where there's an actual road to "other directions." Must be an island thing.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Not Exactly What I Had In Mind

Okay, I did say I was hoping to do new and different things, and have more adventures, in 2020 but "unexpected encounters with the health care system overseas" wasn't exactly what I had in mind!

It started out like an ordinary dive. Pretty day, and a favourite reef we have visited before. Dan was looking forward to diving in his new wetsuit, warmer and more comfortable fit than his previous one. It was the one he'd worn during our manatee encounter, and we had already gone for one dive just the previous week, and he had been very happy with its performance.

Dan is an experienced diver; here celebrating his 100th trip a few years ago.

About halfway through the dive, things began to go wrong and he was unable to keep control of his buoyancy. Perfect storm, a combination of stronger than usual current, unfamiliar equipment (not the wetsuit, but the rented BCD and weights), and just plain bad luck, and quite suddenly he was at the surface with a lot of seawater in his lungs.

There's a gap in both of our memories and things were a blur, but an ambulance ride was involved, and for me, hours by his side in a very air conditioned hospital emergency room while wearing a t shirt and shorts over a wet swimsuit.

Really high-tech health support

The hospital and staff were excellent. Language wasn’t a problem as almost everyone had English (fortunately, because while we can get by in Spanish we can’t have conversations on complex or technical subjects). He was on a positive pressure breathing machine with 100% oxygen for about 12 hours, which helped drive the water back out of his lungs and reabsorbed by his body. This was followed by canned oxygen for another 24 hours. They kept saying his blood saturation was too low, and were getting worried. But they were measuring saturation at his fingertips and he has terrible circulation and cold hands so the reading was artificially low. Clever doctor measured it again at his earlobe and learned that his recovery had been going much better than the fingertip measurements led them to believe! He had been fine for quite some time.

There was one disorienting but delightful moment when a man I met in a hallway looked at me, stared at me, and then said, "Why are you here?" Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out if I knew him ... turned out I did! He had rented us an apartment several years ago. So after I told him why I was there, I got to ask him why he was there -- he and his wife had sold the building and left the island after the winter we stayed with them. Turned out he was back doing a temporary stint at the hospital, so it was nice seeing a familiar face.

One other thing that struck me was that visiting hours were kept pretty strict, especially in ICU where he was the first 24 hours, but also in the general ward where he was the second day once he was out of immediate danger. I was given a lot more flexibility than most of the local folks, however. The explanation was that he was far from home and the situation would be far more stressful for him. While that was probably true, I'm sure everyone is stressed when a loved one is in the hospital. I was simultaneously grateful for the VIP treatment, and a bit embarrassed by my privilege as I walked past the other waiting people.

The afternoon shift in A-2 really liked him ... and really liked sending him home!

Two days later, Dan was home and feeling quite well. We rested for a day, then the next day went for a hike at our favourite spot, Ayo Rocks. We walked slowly but he had no shortness of breath. He was also able to go for a snorkel at a very calm beach (kinda like getting back on the horse) and no problems there either. We know he’s still weak; he gets shivery chills in late afternoon or early evening if he’s tired but less so every day. He’ll be fragile for a couple of months. Very thankfully no decompression injuries or lung expansion injuries or they would have airlifted him to Curaçao or Miami. As is it was bad but not that bad.

Follow up visit with the pulmonologist occurred a few days later. Dan had no permanent damage and his lungs sounded excellent. After the medical details were covered, the conversation meandered a bit. We talked about universal medical coverage (more on that below; our doctor was involved in its implementation here); about politics (we both shared a disdain for Trump and a fondness for BBC News); about Amsterdam's history of pirates and prostitutes. Diving is off the table for a long time, maybe forever, but that's sort of okay -- at least we can say "forever" again.

= = = = =
From a U.S. perspective it was interesting to see the health care differences. Here on Aruba, universal health care came about for economic advantages, but also for social reasons. The former system had a combination of private insurance for the rich, and the equivalent of Medicaid for everyone else, and the difference in quality of care was very very major. Now, people pay for their health care by a small percent deduction from their paychecks (3%, compared to, when we were working, 7% for Medicare); employers pay another 9% of payroll, and another 3% of sales tax on goods and services, all support health care. Total 15%. For staggering comparison, we pay about 15% of our income for health care now, in other words the same percentage, but that is just our portion, with my former employer, and Medicare, both picking up the greater portion of the total cost.  It totally brought home to me that statistic I read several years ago, that we spend an amazing 42 cents of every health care dollar on non-health things, mostly administrative like figuring out insurance billing codes, but also advertising and profit. The total hospital bill, for ambulance, ER, a day in ICU and a day in a regular ward, xrays, blood tests and medication, was about half what the deductible alone would have been for a similar stay in the US.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Not Elephants

Do you know what species is among elephants' closest living relatives?

... they're gray like elephants ...

... and big like elephants ...

... and we've even occasionally seen some here in St Aug ...
... I didn't say whether they lived on land or water ...
If you guessed manatees, you got it!

I posted this question on my Facebook page and got a range of comments. See, this is what is so cool about my friends -- half of them were like, "Well, DUH, of course elephants and manatees are related;" and the other half were like "Wow, I learn the coolest things from you that I never would have guessed."

I committed in 2020 to have more adventures: go places we hadn't been before, do things we hadn't done before, and learn things we hadn't known before.  And only a week into the new year we planned the first of those adventures - a swim with manatees, in the wild.

We rented a car and drove to a section of Florida we hadn't seen before, dubbed the "Nature Coast." (All the sections of Florida's coast have these cute nicknames -- we're the "First Coast" from first settlement; Cape Canaveral area is the "Space Coast" for rocket launches, "Treasure Coast" is named for shipwrecks, etc). The area we were headed to is called the "Nature Coast" because it's so wonderfully undeveloped. We'd be visiting a spot with the poetic name Crystal River. The river's clarity comes from the thirty natural springs that add an average of 300 million gallons (1,135 million liters) of warm water to the river every day.

We booked a 1/2 day boat tour (heated, thankfully, it was a chilly January day -- but that chill was exactly what made the manatees flee the cold gulf and congregate in the warmer spring water where we saw them) and had a spectacular knowledgeable guide. Before we got in the boats to go to the not-so-secret manatee spots, we got a chance to learn some facts about these intriguing animals and their habitat. They can live in either fresh or salt water, but they like it warm. When the water gets below about 68 degrees F they seek warmth, swimming from the Gulf of Mexico up the river to the springs which are 72-74 degrees F (22C-23C) year round where we could see them in masses.  They are gentle, slow moving vegetarians, curious and with bad eyesight.  They can live to 60 years old, and generally grow to 3 meters (10 feet) long and weigh 500 kg (1,200 lb) although some have been recorded at twice that big.  But measuring them is not the same as understanding them.

"Just float," our guide and manatee whisperer José taught us. "Be quiet, let them come to you.They will be curious, they will check you out." We had just stepped off the boat and were swimming toward one edge of the warm springs where the animals liked to hang out.

At first, honestly, it was not that different from observing other fish while snorkeling or scuba diving. They did their thing, we did ours. We could observe them, but from a respectful distance. Like any aquatic creature, it was not like we could swim fast enough to catch up to them if they wanted to get away. A few members of our group did get close enough to touch the manatees. I drifted a little bit away from the group, and when I was alone, that's where the magic happened.

I swam (slowly, quietly) up to what I first thought were just big boulders on the bottom of the stream. Until I realized that boulders like that don't exist in Florida. These were mammals. Big ones, but not at all scary.

One manatee came over to figure out what I was. He slowly drifted up to me; I could see the sensitive whiskers and he put his face close to mine and looked at me with his weak, brown eye.  Another came close to me, and I lightly petted his (her?) side with a single gloved finger, almost as though he was made of glass. He rolled over, like a dog exposing his belly for a good rub - which delightedly I did. I watched a baby (well, not so small, probably a good 5 feet long!) nuzzle under its mother's left flipper to nurse.

Like many sailors, I never get tired of seeing dolphins. They have a bright, quick intelligence that is easy to anthropomorphize. They laugh, they play in the boat's wake. And I still remember the rush I felt, the first time I saw a dolphin from the dinghy instead of the boat, closer to its own eye level. But being eye to eye with the manatee in his own environment was totally different. More like meeting an old, old soul than a playful young one.  There was a slow steadiness there, and an ancient wisdom. It wasn't about whether they were more, or less, intelligent than dolphins; it was like going off in a different dimension entirely. Flailing with words, to communicate the indescribable, and things that cannot be compared directly. It was like asking which was better -- orange, seventeen, or salty? Mind=blown.

As we got back into the boat at the end of the adventure, José looked at me and said, "Your eyes look different."

"Wide with amazement?" I asked.

"They have been opened," he told me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
(All photos courtesy of River Ventures and used with permission.)

They looked a little like rounded boulders ...

Here's one coming over to check out Dan

They are so curious!

Maybe a bit like a dog's snout?

Well hello there!

Oooh! Rub my belly!

Star Trek friends -- this was like First Contact with an alien species!

Mom and baby

Back at the shop, with our fabulous guide Jose

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Project Creep (or something like that)

There's an old story, or fable, about a woman who was an indifferent housekeeper. She was given a beautiful bouquet of lilies. But when she reached on the shelf to get a vase to put them in, she found the vase grimy and dirty. So she washed it until it sparkled, and then put the flowers in the clean vase on the table. The freshness of the flowers highlighted the dustiness of the table top. So then she dusted and polished the table -- and that one bright clean corner in turn contrasted with the rest of the dingy cluttered room, kicking off another cleaning session. And on and on, until her entire house was the envy of the village.

This could be a cautionary tale about project creep, about how one seemingly innocuous thing leads to another and another until it snowballs into a massive venture. Or perhaps it is inspirational, that the seeds that inspire greatness can be found in the smallest of simple things. You just never know how things are going to turn out until you begin them.

To say that the first few years we had Cinderella there were many projects to be done would be an understatement. We were ruthlessly practical in what we tackled those first years, replacing the engine, leaky fuel hoses, propane sensors.  We replaced sails, installed a heavier anchor and chain, added solar power, strengthened lifelines, and many more. We had a simple litmus test for prioritization: if it didn't make the boat safer or sail faster, it fell to the bottom of the list.

But however slowly it felt we got there in the end, ultimately we did get to where the aesthetic projects could be addressed. It started two years ago as we stripped and sanded the teak trim to bare wood and painted on eight (!) coats of glossy varnish. Well, that kicked off a project cascade just like the lady and the lily, because the shiny refinished wood didn't stand out well against the patchy faded burgundy cove stripe. A good friend with Photoshop expertise helped us explore the possibilities of various colors until we settled on a deep navy blue. Two coats of primer, three coats of paint, sanding and allowing a day to cure between each coat. I got into a rhythm.

I can't paint without ruminating the same two thoughts in my mind. One came from a shipmate on the Galeon during our second year. She really enjoyed painting or oiling the teak, a task most of us dreaded as not difficult but boring; she described it as meditative. Her attitude totally changed my attitude toward the task. (Thank you for that helpful perspective, Challie.) The second thought that I always have while painting is my hydrodynamics prof in grad school explaining the concept of thixotropic fluids. The word sounds like it describes a property of a plant that grows in the Caribbean (tropic). Actually though it's a property of some fluids that change viscosity - in this case, paint that's fairly thick when you brush it on so it doesn't drip, and then actually gets more fluid as it sets, so the brush strokes fade away.

All in all, the project was tedious and I hope we don't have to do it again any time soon, although the varnish gets scuffed and recoated every six months or so. But we've gotten so many compliments since we came back to the dock. And my heart sings every time we walk toward the boat. And that, that little tune of joy in life, I learned last summer, really matters to me.
Final detail, using a small artist brush to add silvery-white metallic paint for the scrollwork on the bow.