Thursday, January 31, 2013

Blog Neglect

Nothing sadder, says my friend Moni, than a neglected blog.  Actually, I've been writing, just not here. Struggling with ongoing format issues for my blog at the Capital (if you've noticed, my last few posts there have no paragraphs at all, just a single run-on jumble.)  So here's what I've been up to:

Living aboard together in a very small space is, in some ways, just amazing.  We're totally in sync with each other's moods, and rarely need to finish sentences to know what each other is thinking.  Here in our little winter cocoon of white plastic, we're cozy and happy.  At the same time, I explained in a piece for Women and Cruising, (my first!) we have some tricks to keep from getting on each other's nerves and maintain our

Balance of Power ... Afloat

The other wonderful project I've been involved in is the launch of a new website, The Monkey's Fist: Collect Cruisers' Perspectives.  It's a collection of blog posts about particular topics related to the cruising/liveaboard life.  My first one was a glorious batch of stories from both new and established writers about what went through their heads as they moved aboard.

Moving Aboard: Transitions

Sunday, January 13, 2013

No Cardboard Aboard!

“Cardboardophobia” probably isn’t a real word, but when you live on a boat … it should be. Nothing – nothing – made of cardboard comes aboard. We know folks who take new purchases out of cardboard packaging on the dock before coming aboard or getting into the dinghy.  (And doing so gives you a very real understanding of just how much waste our packaging generates, oh my!)  So why are boaters so weird about this?  Roaches can live in corrugated cardboard and eat the glue and lay their eggs; once you bring these little hitchhikers aboard they just love to hang out in the dark moist bilges.  This is a concern especially in warmer climates, which of course is where most of our boating takes place.  Isn’t being warm the whole point? Even if you’re not in a warm area, cardboard doesn’t do much to protect food in the humid boat environment; instead of keeping water out it’s more of a moisture magnet. Soggy crackers and moldy pasta just don’t work for me.  Yuck.

Since moving aboard I’ve become obsessed with canisters and containers.  No cardboard aboard due to bugs and sogginess, so food once purchased needs to be transferred to something else.  But what?  Glass?  Better not, it could break in rough seas.  How about metal?  Nope, it’ll rust.  That leaves … plastic.  My e-friend Diane Sullivan is moving aboard and transitioning from a land-based kitchen to a cruising boat’s galley. She posted on Facebook recently, “Looking into things we'll need on the boat. Dehumidifiers, more line (rope) for the anchors, plastic storage bins, etc. All things plastic and polyester? Who woulda' thunk it? Me? Ms. Natural everything? How things change.” [slightly edited by me for clarity since I’ve taken her slightly out of context] Yes, Diane, we liveaboards and cruisers really do get into lengthy conversations at happy hour about the relative merits of zip-loc bags versus vacuum sealers and Snapware versus Lock-N-Lock or Rubbermaid or Tupperware or Pyrex.  Welcome to our world!

But once we’ve decided on plastic, there are still so many choices!  We invariably like square containers better than round when we have the option – less wasted space when lining up squares or rectangles on a shelf.  Some of our containers are purchased and others are reused packages from things we buy a lot of.  The purchased ones have the advantage of nesting to store compactly when not in use.  The recycled ones may lack that efficiency, they take up as much space empty as full, but make up for it by being free.  Selecting items in the grocery store can be as much about whether we can reuse the package it comes in, as it is about our choice of brands.  Ziplock bags with the air squeezed out, or vacuum sealed packages, have the advantage of taking up no space at all besides the volume of the contents … but if you’re unfortunate enough to get pests, they can eat right through the thin plastic!  

Sometimes I feel like a little kid playing house as I shuffle the contents from one canister to another as we use down the contents, trying to maximize space efficiency.  What gets me the most is somewhat funny, though.  By the time I’ve run out of something that has been carefully de-cardboarded and stored, I forget what the package looked like, necessitating a weird scavenger hunt at the grocery store.

After we ate all the wild rice or salted peanuts that these once held, they are now on their second (or tenth!) lifetime storing dried beans or couscous. Don't they look cozy in there?
For a while these big gallon containers held our main stock of pantry staples in an out-of-the-way locker, and we used them to replenish a smaller “day-use” jar in a more convenient location to save space.  This arrangement sounded great in theory, we thought we were really clever, until one went buggy and contaminated our entire 10-lb supply.  Now we break everything up into smaller quantities so if one package goes bad we don’t lose it all.  
These both hold about 5 pounds of flour.  Sometimes it is worth paying for the space-efficient square one, other times, being eco-conscious (and free!) is more important.  We've done both.
Now what do I do with all this stuff?  Transfer it to bug- and moisture-proof containers, for one thing!

Thursday, January 10, 2013


December is the darkest month, so we have to make our own light and warmth.  And I love love LOVE the madcap swirl of holiday parties, sparkle and lights, reconnecting with friends that we let slip a bit, good cheer and the relaxed mood at the office.  Looking at our December calendar, there aren't very many days here that don't have something to do written on them!
And for us the party season continues through early January, with our anniversary on New Year's Eve and Dan's birthday on the 9th.  But now, even I've had enough.  Time to slow down the pace, hunker down with just the two of us, and hibernate.  
I'm looking forward to the (relative) quiet.  

We're staying in Annapolis for the first winter we'll experience since 2008.  And the first question people ask us when they learn we live on a boat and will live on it through the winter is what do we do about heat.  Um, the same thing you do - we turn up the thermostat.  Sort of.  When we're at the dock, our primary heat/cooling is a heat pump.  When it's in "heat" mode, it sucks water in, extracts some of the heat that's in the water to warm the room air, and then discharges that water, chemically unchanged but 5-10 degrees colder than it was when it came in.  Well, guess what?  If the water coming in is only 40 degrees (as it was at Thomas Point buoy yesterday) and it discharges 5-10 degrees colder, we could be trying to discharge ice cubes.  That isn't going to work, obviously, so our heat pump is shut down for the season.  Instead, we use electric space heaters (those oil-filled things that look like an old-fashioned radiator) and the built-in diesel heater that we generally use at anchor.  Besides, as the previous owners pointed out as they were explaining some of the features of the boat, "The heat pump is really meant primarily for air conditioning and to take the chill off an occasional morning, not to run full-time heat all winter long.  What would you rather put the wear and tear on and have to replace sooner - the $1000 marine-grade built-in heat pump, or a $20 electric space heater from Home Depot?" In addition, our boat does not have an insulating liner so it could get c-c-c-cold in here and the system have to work even harder.

Living on the water is a humid environment to start with.  Put two people aboard, breathing and taking showers, and we're adding humidity to the air.  One of our favorite hunker-down activities, cooking soups and stews, adds even more humidity.  And we can't open the hatches to let out the moist air - it's cold out there!  So to avoid living in a chilly rain forest we've added a room-size dehumidifier.  Bonus - it produces waste heat which helps keep us both warmer and drier.

Our biggest winter concern of course is getting a load of snow on the deck.  We've also had to prepare the boat in a way that we haven't for several years.  The heat leaking through the uninsulated deck could melt that snow, then let it refreeze to ice, or sit on the deck for long enough to leak through the fittings into our living space below.  So we've encased the boat in a bubble of white plastic shrink wrap.  It will help shed snow and keep us just a little warmer.  On sunny days the little insulating bubble soaks up solar gain and makes almost an extra room outdoors, mitigating our tendency to get cabin fever cooped up below for months.  What I find niftiest of all, though, is the way the boat looks in the shrinkwrap - exactly like a cocoon, perfectly in accord with my "hibernation" theme for the month.  
All tucked in for the winter.  This isn't our boat; it belongs to a dock -neighbor.
Due to the orientation of our slip, I couldn't get an uncluttered photo of ours, but we're using the same plastic.
Ours has a bit more visibility at the stern, clear plastic there in the cockpit.  Note the zipper flap "door."

Monday, January 7, 2013

Raft UP: "Alike" and "Equal" are Two Different Things

Our first trip down the ICW we traveled with the best cruising mentors anyone could ever have had.  Every evening we’d anchor near each other, and dinghy over to gather in one or the other cockpit for some rum and some laughs.  And every morning at the agreed-on “hooks up” time, we’d look over and one of them would be at the bow raising their anchor as Dan and I were raising ours.  It was fascinating to watch because they alternated duties – literally.  One day, he’d be at the helm while she operated the windlass and washed off the anchor chain coming aboard; the next day it was her turn to helm and his turn to wash.  Underway, they’d take 1-hour watches, while one of them was at the helm steering down the ICW, the other one would be below “doing their own thing” – reading, baking bread (they were both quite good cooks), playing on the computer, whatever.  The next hour, they’d switch.  If you hailed them on the VHF you never knew who you were going to get, you had a 50-50 chance, because both took turns.  In a cruising community where the stereotype so often is the reality, the guy is the sailor and the boat is his and the wife is just along for the ride, (especially in that age bracket just a little bit older than we are), I can’t communicate how unusual this absolute interchangeability of skills seemed.

Unlike these friends, Dan and I aren’t alike in our skills.  Each of us can do each one of the tasks that the boat requires, after a fashion.  But that doesn’t mean that we’re both equally good at, or both interested in, the same things.  We both acknowledge that Dan’s the better sail trimmer, he can eke an extra quarter of a knot out of any configuration, and he loves to tweak and try.  I can adjust the sails well enough to get us going where we’re going, although it may not be as fast or comfortable as when he does it, and frankly, I’m not very motivated – as long as we’re moving smoothly in the right direction, that’s good enough for me.   When it matters, he’s got the expertise to pick the best way to accomplish the task.  Similarly, I’m the better navigator, quicker to read the charts and geekier with the chartplotter. He can do it, but it isn’t fun for him, while I love the mathematical elegance.  Some tasks we divide along traditional gender lines; I’ve had the sole responsibility to plan the provisions for our last long cruise, and he’s always held the unenviable duty of rebuilding the head.  Sometimes, we reverse traditional roles.   When we come into a dock I’m generally at the helm, more often perceived as the position of power and a guy job.  But it more practical for us to switch; either of us can command the 40 horses that move this boat with a touch of the wheel and a bit of finesse, but should we need to fend off at the bow, Dan has the greater upper body strength to do it. 

There always seems to me more than a hint of a power imbalance when jobs are divided up along traditional gender lines, with the husband in charge of the boat and its mechanical items, and generally being the skipper and commander while the wife is in charge of support duties like cooking and provisioning.  All the tasks necessary to keep our boat running smoothly and safely and keep the crew comfortable are just that – necessary – and I rebel against the implication that some are more important than others.  Yet the traditionally female (“pink”) jobs just uniformly don’t get the kind of respect that the “blue” jobs do and seem to be viewed as less worthy, important, desirable.  But really, which is more unpleasant – spending the afternoon shopping for 3 months’ worth of groceries, or spending the afternoon playing with the inlet valve for the holding tank?

So in a cruising community that often defaults to sorting and ranking tasks by gender, what does it take to make a relationship equal?  Back to our good friends and mentors that I described earlier. They both had their captain’s licenses and their skills were almost exactly alike – what seemed the foundation of a perfectly egalitarian cruising relationship, which in fact they had.  And yet, having skills that are “alike” is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a relationship that is “equal.”  I think their relationship was equal because they lived that way on land or afloat; and would have treated each other that way regardless of whether their skills were identical, or even at comparable levels or not.  I believe Dan and I are equal in in power terms in our relationship, but our skills are not at all alike.  They are complementary rather than similar in the way our friends’ are.  What I’m good at, Dan is less good at, and vice-versa; together we cover the full spectrum of what we need to stay afloat metaphorically and nautically.  “Alike” and “equal” are two different things.

* This month’s RaftUp topic is “Pink Jobs and Blue Jobs.”  I inadvertently jumped the gun on my Raft-UP blogging colleagues; I wrote about that last autumn when I learned to work onthe outboard engine.  Other RaftUp contributions are linked in the sidebar to the left.

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