Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Karma, Southern Bridge Style

My view for most of the day: me on navigation and communications, Dan at the helm ... and a series of boats following us.
You know all that stuff about karma?  It doesn't particularly work for me.  Feels too passive.  I'm all for karma getting back at people, but, you know, rather than sitting back and letting karma fight my battles for me, I'd kinda like to help the process.  

So I have to tell you about yesterday, and karma.  We're headed to a fixed bridge, late in the afternoon, first in a line of 4-6 boats.  The two boats at the end of the line, who apparently had a faster cruising speed than the rest of us, start speeding up to pass everyone.  They don't call first on the VHF to arrange the pass, which is considered somewhat rude in the constrained stretches of the ICW.  By the nautical rules of the road, the burden is on the overtaking boat.  Generally the overtaking boat will ask permission to pass, and say something like, "I'd like to slide past you on your port side" [or starboard, depending on the circumstances].    This will give the boat being passed lots of options.  They could ask the passing boat to do whatever they think is reasonable to make the pass safe and comfortable -- slow down to make the pass easier and decrease wakes, or they could alert the passing boat to hazards they might not be aware of, or arrange to pass on the other side for whatever reason (once we were trailing instruments from our starboard side and would make sure people passed us on the other side, for example), and on and on.  Anyway, so here come these rude boats, barreling on ahead with radio silence, apparently in a blazing hurry to get to the anchorage first.  They got to us at just about the time we were approaching the constriction of the bridge, and there wasn't room for two boats to go through side-by-side.  I was really, really, ticked; to avoid collision (!!) we had to throw our boat into reverse and get way over to the shallows outside of the channel.

So I'm on the VHF to them: "Cinderella to the boat overtaking on my stern, it is NOT advisable for two boats to pass through the bridge at once!"  They never slowed but steamed on past. I saw in their cockpit as they passed us, he reached for the VHF mic but changed his mind and put it down.  She waved.  I didn't flip them the bird, though I wanted to, I improvised an angry gesture and shook my head.   And of course, they were making for the same anchorage we were, just a couple of miles down the waterway from the unfortunate bridge.  We anchored as far away from them as we could.

(For the record, while I steamed, I reviewed what I really should have said: "Cinderella to the boat overtaking on my stern, it is NOT advisable for two boats to pass through the bridge at once! As I am the stand-on vessel, request you THROTTLE BACK and pass me AFTER we have cleared the bridge." I also decided I hated cruising, drank an extra glass of rum, wished that the jerkboat would have exactly the trip that he deserved, got into a long chat with the boat next to us, who was also headed to St Augustine, and decided I didn't hate cruising after all.)

So next morning at low tide, we left the anchorage leading 3 boats, including our new friends from St Aug (who had jokingly asked if we minded if they followed us, so they could see if we ran aground and they'd know where to stay away from).  A little later that morning, the jerkboat that passed us yesterday and his friend appeared at the end of the line.  Each time we approached an opening bridge, I'd hail the bridge for the whole group: "Mudpuddle Bridge, Mudpuddle Bridge, this is southbound sailing vessel Cinderella.  I'm the first of a group of six southbounders traveling together, requesting an opening please."

The "jerk" stayed behind us all until after the second bridge, then again started to speed up.  But this time, apparently chastened from the day before, we heard him calling each boat in turn on VHF to arrange the pass before passing.  Cool!  My mission accomplished! When he got to us at the head of the line, he even asked us to switch to a private VHF channel, where he apologized for crowding us at the bridge the day before.  Lesson learned, I think ... but karma apparently thought he needed more reinforcement.

At Bridge #3, the guidebook warned that the bridge operator preferred boats to go together in groups, and although the opening times were on request, he made boats wait between openings so openings we at least 15 minutes apart, to clear road traffic that had stacked up behind the bridge.  Jerkboat is now about a mile or two, 10-15 minutes ahead of us, and he calls the bridge to request an opening ... and the bridgetender replies, "Well, I see four more boats just a little way behind you, [us and our companions!] and I'm going to wait until they get here so I only open once and you all go through together." Just this once, at least, karma really did all work out.  And I hadn't had to say a word.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cruising: The Highs are Higher, the Lows are Lower, than Life on Land

Cruising boats in the anchorage at sunset -- living the dream
Cruising, and living on a boat in general, seems to me to be life in saturated color.  The good times are more intensely good than the good times on land.  The scenery, being in touch with nature, the amazing friendships that grow so deep, so fast, because on some level we know that our time together is limited as cruising itineraries draw us apart as quickly and capriciously as they drew us together ... all combine to make this life spectacular.  The bad times are correspondingly worse than land life -- something's always broken, or moldy, or impossible to fit in or find in the cramped spaces of our floating home.  Despite careful navigation and planning we can be hurled about by rough weather.  When we lived on land, we never worried about waves or collisions capsizing our house!

Our friends James and Ellen described their cruising experiences through the life-in-the-moment eyes of their dog: If it was a good day, and beautiful on the water, then all days cruising were always good, and always would be good.  But if the next day was bad, then cruising sucked, it always did suck and always would suck.  I'm the same way ... if its unexpectedly threatening weather, then I hate this, I'm DONE, let's go back to land.  Then when we get to a pretty anchorage, or an interesting city, and are sharing sea stories with friends, ooh, I could live on a boat FOREVER.  Other friends, Jane and Ean, describe this phenomenon as the reason cruising has made them bipolar.

And that set of alternating extremes is exactly what the first part of our southbound cruise has been like so far.  However reluctantly we released our Annapolis ties at the end, release them we did.  With two companion boats, Seneca and Catmandu, we set out southbound.  Our first stop was the Seven Seas Cruising Association's Gam (old nautical term referring to a gathering of boats/sailors to exchange news and information and gossip) on the Rhode River just 2 hours from Annapolis.  The weather was perfect and we reconnected with old friends and met some new ones.  We again presented our round table discussion on books and digital resources for making the ICW trip, and it seemed well-received.  But Dan had an intuition that we needed to hurry out of the Bay.  With 3 days ahead of predicted light winds and clear skies, the three boats motored (mostly) and sailed (a little) down the length of the Bay, about 8 or 9 hours of travel each day.  While it was beautiful and warm and sunny, it felt a bit like "work" to be underway all day.  Each night, we dropped anchor and Catmandu (the smallest boat) rafted up to us (the heaviest boat).   Seneca anchored nearby and came over by dinghy.  Each boat took turns making dinner. We'd sit in the communal cockpit and share dinner and stories.  These days were like the fantasy of travel by boat, personified.

The fourth day was to be a half-day of travel, but with lots of new experiences, going through the first bridges; passing the immense commercial shipping traffic and Navy yard at Norfolk; and transiting the one and only lock of the voyage.  I love this stretch for its incredible variety and many sights to see.  After we were through it, we would tie up at a marina to take a day off, do laundry, go out to dinner, and reprovision.  Then, weather permitting, we'd move on - a few more underway days, then another break.

Except, the weather didn't permit -- Tropical Storm Karen and her remnants may have been what tickled Dan's earlier intuition.  At the end, we stayed a week at the stop that was supposed to be a single layover day while the NENE (never-ending nor'easter, my friend Bill termed it) brought winds and rain.  One day I expressed frustration that we had overreacted, the winds weren't that bad ... until I decided to go for a walk.  Then I learned that the secure hurricane slip they had tied us up in was fully living up to its reputation.  I hadn't thought the storm was that bad because we weren't out in it.  As soon as I got out from the shelter of the slip ... there were the winds.   Alrighty, then, we'll stay put and wait it out, thankyouverymuch.

Once we finally started moving again, we had a series of days that included misty gray ones and sparkling sunny ones, a rough passage,and the most acrobatic dolphin display I've ever seen, in rapid alternation.  Midway between "all too soon" and "after a passage that felt like forever" we tied up at Deaton's Yacht Service in Oriental, NC, our go-to small town boatyard for big systems issues.

But the biggest work that I want to attend to is my own brain.  I'm seeking a new think about this whole issue of the binary nature of cruising.  It's probably true that any given moment is either wonderful or terrible, with little in between (except maybe for boring; cruising has also been cynically described as hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror).  To reframe this I'm thinking of my excellent physical therapist Jen.  Her world is binary too, but the word "terrible" isn't in her vocabulary.  Situations in her world are either "awesome" or "challenging."  That's all - either great as they are, or opportunities for growth.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Do the First Part

Back when I was a manager in the business world, I attended a team-building/leadership retreat (actually, I attended many, but this one stood out in my mind for several reasons).  One of our group’s exercises during this retreat involved a 5-gallon bucket brim-full of water.  We had to move it without touching it or spilling any of the water, using only some ropes of varying lengths that we were given.  There were a convoluted set of rules: for part one, we had to move the bucket down the hall without setting it down; for part two we had to get the bucket to the middle of a 10-foot circle that none of us was allowed to set foot inside.  If any of various fouls, faults or “accidents” occurred along the way, our team would incur a penalty and have to complete the exercise with some members blindfolded or one-armed.  

We planned how we would do part one, suspending the bucket on a rope stretched taut between two team members, and walking it to the edge of the circle.  But we were unable to reach a consensus during the planning meeting about how to manage part two: if we tried to drag the bucket across the circle using a single line, would we risk spilling it?  If we tried to stretch the line from part one with a couple of team members on opposite sides of the circle, would we be able to lift it high enough? Would we be strong enough?  Back and forth the ideas went.

“Hey, guys, listen,” I said.  “We don’t know how to do part two, but we know what we want to do for part one.  So, let’s do part one, and stop when we get to the edge of the circle.  Maybe we’ll learn something doing the first part that will help us figure out how to do what comes next.”

During the debrief, the instructor pointed to this as a leadership moment.  Wait, leadership?  Who, me?  I got credit for it, but, all of you are my readers and my friends, so I’ll let you in on a secret.    If that moment was leadership,  it was accidental leadership, a byproduct of impatience.   I was just frustrated with standing around, I wanted to do something. We couldn’t figure out what to do next without more information, and we couldn’t get more information just standing around speculating about how the bucket would behave without actually, you know, manipulating the bucket.

. . .

There are some new cruisers-to-be on our dock, diligently getting their old boat ready to go.  Timing a departure is always a careful balance, and even more so in the autumn.  There’s a narrow weather window – leave too early and you risk hurricanes, leave too late and there are bitter cold winds and nor’easters.  You want to take the time you need to make your boat safe and ready and comfortable, but the clock is ticking and Old Man Winter is nipping at your heels.  Our neighbors were suffering a bit of analysis paralysis.   Last week it was about anchor chain.  The previous owner had left them several anchors and 300 feet of chain, which was sufficient for anchoring in the varied and extreme conditions of a round-the-world voyage.  But  most of the chain had rusted into an unusable mess.  The new owners were able to salvage 75 feet of this and attached it, along with 200 feet of rope rode, to the best of the anchors.  Then they began researching the best way to replace the other 225 feet, the best kind of anchor to attach it to, and the best way to store it to keep the rust from happening again.  They asked lots of people for advice and what to do, including us and our friend Dave.  But it was Dave’s answer that was the most startling.  Because what he advised them to do was … nothing.

Seventy-five feet of chain, plus 200 feet of rope rode, with the anchor they already had, Dave explained, was all they needed for their planned trip down the ICW to the Bahamas.  Once they had done that trip, they would know if they wanted to make living on a boat and traveling a permanent lifestyle and go further, or whether it was just a pleasant interlude and they were done and would sell the boat and move back to land.  If they decided this life wasn’t for them, they wouldn’t have invested unnecessary time and money in additional anchors. “If you decide to keep going,” Dave said, then you’ll need more that that 75 feet that was adequate for the first part of the trip.  “Just move that 75 feet to be your backup anchor, and get a new bigger primary and more chain. By then, you’ll know what you need for your boat and the way you like to cruise.”

In other words, do the part you already know, part one – get off the dock and GO.  Maybe you’ll learn something doing that first part that will help you figure out how to do what comes next.