Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My First Mini-Cruise as a Retired Person

Immediately after hanging up the phone from my last-ever teleconference, we untied the docklines and went out for a 4-5 day local cruise. No objectives and no agenda. I told husband Dan I needed some time with just the two of us to get my head wrapped around the idea of being a retired person. Because we didn't leave until almost 4 PM, we'd planned to spend the first night on Mill Creek, about 90 minutes from our marina. Our good friend Melissa had recently broken her foot and was recovering at the waterfront home of her friends Mike and Grier. They'd invited us for dinner and we were enchanted not only at the company and the promised menu, but with the idea of going to their house by dinghy - and staying out late on a "school night."
Remind me that this isn't a food blog, because I'm about to go off on a serious tangent raving about tortilla soup; and salad featuring tropical delicacies such as hearts-of-palm, chayote, and avocado; and salmon crusted with blue corn chip crumbs. But almost as much fun as dinner and conversation was walking down to the dock at the evening's end, climbing into the dinghy and motoring back to where our boat was floating gently at anchor. Not because we were anxious to leave, but because by dinghy instead of by car was the way it would be when we were cruising.
The rest of the week was windy, rainy, and chilly. Not very inviting weather for exploring the Chesapeake, but perfect for snuggling down with a cup of coffee and a good book. We talked - a lot - and explored the river and weathered the storm and learned that our anchor did just fine in the wind until the day after the storm when it was upset by a powerboat with a wakeboarder who went back and forth, passing and waking us about 5 times. As Dan pointed out, if the week had been warm and sunny, we wouldn't have learned anything.
I got a wonderful encouraging email from my sister-in-law Karen explaining the stages she went through when she retired. She said if my transition went like hers, the first couple of weeks would be like vacation, and by the third week "the melancholy surfaces of missing the enjoyable co-workers and the enjoyable parts of working. [T]hat starts lifting by the fourth [week] with setting future plans and settling into new routines..." and so on. I think that retired people are happy just because they get to sleep as late as they want. On Day 4 of our little retreat, I spent about an hour on the phone with friend Cathy. She said she I sounded totally different, like I was sixteen, excited and happy, warm and relaxed. (Okay, what does that say about how tightly wound I'd been before? I hadn't thought I was carrying that much stress.) Whatever the "before" version of me was, one incident a few hours after the phone call proved she was right about just how relaxed I was now. Our solar panels are positioned on a supporting arch across the cockpit with a gap between them just wide enough for the helmsman to look up at the trim of the mainsail. I was steering and looked up between the panels just in time to get dumped with very cold water full in the face. Gack! I was suddenly aware that this was one cartoonish moment, and instead of being irritated I burst out laughing. The best thing I've discovered about retirement so far is that we didn't have to start every day by saying goodbye to each other as we went our separate ways to work. Considering that we're planning to spend the next 8 months together on a 33-foot boat, the fact that we didn't drive each other crazy cooped up in what was effectively a 9x12 room together for 5 days bodes well for our trip.
One of my retirement gifts was this raingear with the USGS logo. This photo was at the very beginning of our trip - I look waaaaay too serious!

Retirement, Identity Crisis, and a Troubled Economy

My Facebook status is “Bittersweet - wrapping up a 34-year science career and beginning Act II.” I’d loved my job while I had it -it was a fantastic combination of interesting, important, not too stressful, and well paying, but its someone else’s turn now. It will be interesting to figure out who I am, now. I no longer have the assurance of being a Senior Environmental Scientist - that’s who I am, it says so right here on my business card. I’ve kept a few (very few) of my textbooks, the rest were donated to help build water science program in Afghanistan. Most of what was in my file cabinet were either notes from classes I took in grad school or reference copies of journal articles. There’s a giant blue recycle bin just outside my office door and I recycled them all - even the author copies of my own work. Times have changed and most of the articles are available online. There may be a deeper philosophical truth symbolized there - science evolves, time moves on, and perhaps scientific information and theories are more appropriately suited to a fluid medium like the Internet than a static one like printed paper.
I chose to retire, picked my own time in order to proceed with our sailing dream. I retire with good savings and a good pension and insurance plan, I have no financial worries. I would think that having had control of the situation, being here by choice would minimize any feelings of uncertainty. I have new sympathy for what people who have lost their jobs in the current economy must feel, because I'm still feeling a small identity crisis. And that's without money worries or the blow to self-image that being laid off must bring.

What Exactly Is So "Good" About "Goodbye?"

These weeks have been a round of farewell parties, farewell dinners with special friends, and “last times” for many things. When I retired last week they gave me a great sendoff from work [photo] filled with somewhat predictable touches like a letter from the Director thanking me for my service, and some unpredictable ones. My secretary Brenda, with whom I’d spent far too many groggy mornings coordinating review schedules at 7:30 AM, gave me a pretty battery-operated clock WITHOUT an alarm function - she must’ve been searching hard to find that.
Then there was the bon voyage party at the marina, where I delighted in flaunting my new retired status by introducing my FORMER colleague Frances to Dan’s FORMER colleagues Dick and Lynn and Matt, and to numerous of our dockmates and liveaboard friends. These are the people who’ve been my “family” for the last seven years. As we travel on our boat this winter, I think I’ll find a lot of friendliness from fellow boaters. The people we meet traveling will have similar interests to ours; we’ll all need each others’ help from time to time, and can benefit from each others’ insights. I’ve been told by people who’ve done the trip before that there’ll be lots of socializing, lots of potlucks and happy hours with other boaters. It will be pleasant and there’s always a rush in meeting new people.
Only now am I beginning to internalize the difference between friendliness and friendship. What makes a friendship? Sharing ordinary times, long walks together with dogs, meeting each other in supermarket or the parking lot, adjusting docklines on each others’ boats in a storm, is part of it. But a real friendship, for me, needs more. Shared goals and shared memories and shared stories, of times we’ve been vulnerable to each other, laughed together, helped each other. Amazing memories like John and Diane’s wedding. They were married on a small boat, so Diane didn’t walk down the aisle. Instead, Dan rowed her to the wedding in a flower-bedecked dinghy. Or the incredible help and support, the long list of friends who came to the hospital when Dan was ill, James and Ellen holding my hands and meeting with the doctor after the surgery, and then the wealth of visitors while he was recovering from surgery, Dick and Larry and Sarah and Juan and Melissa and Ellen and Diane and Kat and Eric and Ed. A deep friendship is built of those special memories as well as the ordinary times.
I’m sure we’ll make new friends on the trip, but we’re hoping to keep the old as well. It takes time and history to build those memories and friendships, and knowing that I would not have those friends nearby as we left on our travels was also part of what made embarking on this adventure bittersweet. At the same time, email technology will take most of the sting out of those farewells, as I told my friends “I don’t have to really say goodbye, I’ll just say ‘e’ you later!”


When we lived in a house and wanted to socialize with friends, the options were limited: go out somewhere together, or they’d come to our house, or we’d go to theirs. Living on boats, though, we have another option – bring OUR house to THEIR house. I.e., raft up. The biggest boat sets their anchor and the smaller boats tie onto the big boat so people can step easily from one boat to another. Most of the raftups we’ve attended have been fairly mellow – three or four boats getting together to spend an afternoon or overnight socializing. Last weekend our friends Scott and Lisa planned a far more ambitious version of a raftup. Instead of three or four boats, this raft had over twenty by the time the sun went down! [photo] Half a dozen more boats anchored nearby and came over to join the party by dinghy or kayak.

So what do you do when you’re rafted up? Chatting in the cockpit, touring each others’ boats, watching the sunset, maybe some swimming or exploring the shallower parts of the river by dinghy. As in many raftups, we spent the afternoon of this one visiting with folks on their boats – some were marina neighbors we see almost every day, others were new – and swimming in the river. But the mega-scale of this raftup allowed for some creativity. For entertainment, Scott staged blindfolded dinghy races. The person on each boat who was to row was blindfolded; a second person who was not blindfolded told the rower which way to go. Predictably, the result was good-natured chaos. [photo]

The outsize scale of this raft party continued after dark. Not content to blast music from someone’s ipod, Scott and Lisa hired local band The Geckos. They good-naturedly agreed to play the unusual venue – on the bow of a boat at anchor – which meant ferrying all their equipment and themselves by dinghy. Calm winds and a beautiful sunset contributed to the magic.

Finally, next day, back toward home. We passed the iconic Thomas Point light [photo] and back to the marina … and back to my last-ever week of work before retirement and full-time cruising. “Work” seems restful by comparison after a hard-to-top weekend like this one!

The Best Thing About Having Guests

We're trying to schedule some one-on-one time with each of our closest friends in the DC area in the last few weeks before we set sail for the Bahamas. Sunday, we spent the day with our cousins Rob and Amanda and their two sons. It's important to their parents that the boys have a broad sense of life's possibilities, and Charlie and Jamie are exactly the right age (7 and 4) to be fascinated with the idea of living on a boat. Until now, they'd seen kayaks and canoes and pontoon boats, but never before a boat that someone lived on full-time. "Like a little house," mom exclaimed, when she saw the upholstery and wood veneers below.

It was a lot of fun to see the boat through the boys' young eyes, as they found "cool" or "ooh" so many things we've come to take for granted. They climbed all over the boat and experimented with turning the winches and standing at the helm and the weight of the anchor. They slid the doors on the pantry and opened the lids on the storage lockers built into the table.They were intrigued with the V-berth, the idea that grown-ups would sleep in a bed with sides so you can't fall out, and we asked them to think about what would happen if you were sleeping in a regular bed and a big wave shakes the boat. They stood on the deck above, and looked down through the hatch while I demonstrated the pull-out shower faucet that you could hold in your hand. And they loved the idea that they could get the entire bathroom wet when taking a shower (I need to ask Amanda if this is a generic mischievous little boy thing, or if there's a story there!) They looked in the lockers and tried to prioritize which of their toys and books they would bring if that was all the space they had. We took them for a dinghy ride on the creek, where they saw ducks and herons and other boats big and small. They played in the playground and went for a dip in the pool, and for lunch at the Wet Dog cafe.

We did all the typical marina things they would enjoy, and their appreciation helped us suddenly realize all we had been taking for granted. That's the fascinating thing about having guests, the way they force you to look at the familiar through new eyes. We got a lovely thank-you note from the family, but really, for the gift of being reminded of how amazing our life afloat can be, I feel like we should be thanking them.

Murphy's Law

I'm positive that it was the sound of my own voice I heard, telling my new friend and fellow liveaboard writer Cindy that we pretty much had the big systems in place for the boat to be ready to go south for our trip. After all, we've been living aboard and making improvements for all that time. We're doing the little lifestyle touches now, I told her, things that don't make the boat safer or sail faster, but are comfort stuff and lifestyle improvement. Not "have to haves" but "nice to haves." We're changing the knobs and latches on some of the lockers, refinishing some of the teak trim, figuring out a faster system for lashing the dinghy to the deck. Just finicky stuff, because all the important stuff's done. Right. Seems Mr. Murphy, he of the famous Law of chaos that states that whatever CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong, he was listening too. Thus it was that on the way back from a picture-perfect raftup, as we steered a straight course, the autopilot informed us that we were turning two complete circles hard left. Thus it was that the wonderfully efficient refrigeration system we'd installed 5 years ago suddenly developed an obstruction in the line which made the compressor continue to run at maximum without chilling, while our food got warmer and warmer. And thus it was that a crack in the holding tank widened, and some VERY foul smelling liquids leaked into the bilge.
So fast forward a couple of weeks, because I really don't want to dwell on the scramble we have been doing. The new fridge is in place. They talked us into upgrading ("for only $50 more") and now that we're enjoying really cold drinks, I have to admit the previous one was a bit undersized for the task we asked of it. We *think* we've got the autopilot working again, at least, we replaced the compass and it performed properly on sea trials, though we haven't given it a proper test yet. A new holding tank is on order, and while we're waiting, Dan is taking the opportunity to upgrade the rest of the system, originally built in 1980, to current standards. Why did I ever think sailing away was going to be relaxing and easy???

Because Travel is What Boats are For

We've done lots of one- or two-week trips on other people's boats, in various places from Maine to the Virgin Islands. On *our* boat, we've also only been able to go out for one-week trips here in the mid-Chesapeake. I wrote about one such cruise, where we traveled to Rock Hall and Baltimore, last October. We've been limited to a week due to work committments. But that's changing.
This summer we’re retiring. Actually, Dan is already retired, and I'll retire at the end of this month. To celebrate, we’re taking an 8-month cruise on *our* boat. We plan to spend the month of September cruising the Chesapeake, coming back to Annapolis for Boat Show in October, then going down the southeast coast of the US, to the Bahamas, and expected back in Annapolis in April or May 2010. It's going to be a big change for us after almost 7 years having a fixed address here in Annapolis. I'm both excited and nervous about my soon-to-be new life. I'll be blogging about the trip here in "Life Afloat," because ultimately, even though it's our home, its also a boat, and travel is what boats are for.


I recently read an article that speculates that "many of our modern-day mental problems, including depression, stress and anxiety, can be traced in part to society's increasing alienation from nature." We evolved in sync with the air, water, plants, animals, and we're hard-wired to interact with them. Since the Industrial Revolution, though, we've started getting up to the alarm clock, not sunrise. Technology only makes it worse; some cubicle-dwellers rarely see the daytime sky, then go home to sit indoors and watch TV.
So what does that have to do with living on a boat? The article goes on to say that many Americans can spend as little as 15-30 minutes per day outdoors (walking to their car, no doubt). Living aboard both enables and forces us to spend lots of great time connected to nature in ways we never were when we lived in a house. There's sitting in the sunny cockpit with morning coffee watching the day begin, or sleeping in the V-berth under an open hatch watching the stars and moon. For the rest, even when we're tied up in the slip we're made aware of nature and its cycles. We know the rise and fall of the tide, as the boat moves. We know the strength of the wind and whether it's calm or rough on the water - in extreme cases things slide off countertops and tables. The patter of rain is loud with only a thin shell of fiberglass between us and it. I don't know how strong a force "eco-depression" is if one is isolated from nature ... but I know that the alternative, living on a boat, in touch with nature, makes me very happy!