Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Far Do You Range? (A Visit to the Everglades, and a Few Random Thoughts)

This spot in the middle Keys is a popular place with cruisers.  We've met many people with lots of sea miles, including two couples who have completed circumnavigations. One comment fascinated me.  The wife of one of the couples said that they have basically settled here, and in the last year she has rarely traveled more than bicycle distance from their marina.  Within that square mile was the grocery store, the t-shirt shop where she worked, the park where yoga classes and local festivals and concerts were held, a few restaurants and bars, the hardware store, marine store, move theater, and beach.  That, she felt, was all that she needed.

Now, if anyone has earned the right to settle down and think small, that world traveler has! Still, it's not for me, not yet anyway. And two other people I met here on the island claimed they lived in almost as small a range, rarely leaving the Keys and visiting the mainland. "If they don't sell it here on the island, I don't really need it," said one.  Interesting take on minimalism, to be sure. Again, not quite us. With the car, we've explored not just up and down the island chain, but also into south Florida.

I don't know, maybe it's just the novelty of having a car again, but whenever we go anywhere, we try to tag one or two explorations in addition to our primary purpose for going on that errand.  Back when we were in Annapolis, we had a dermatologist we really liked. We'd schedule an annual visit back every year to do the round of our doctors, and she was always included. So we were pretty disappointed one visit when she told us she was leaving.  Our disappointment turned to delight when we learned that she was moving and setting up a new practice in south Florida. So being "only" about a 4-hour drive away, we made plans to see her while we were here.  Of course, while we were on the mainland anyway, we'd add in a few side trips...

First stop, the Everglades.  Then on to the doctor's appointment itself (just routine and no issues discovered, thankfully). We deliberately asked to schedule the last appointment of the day and after the exam we did a bunch of social chatting, about the drivers in her new city; about the time she and her husband were sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Charleston, SC on vacation and we walked by and she said hi and I was totally unable to recognize her out of context and without her lab coat; about the plusses and minuses of having a solo practice instead of being a partner in a larger group; about the cost of jewelry in Aruba ... all in all, it felt a lot more like catching up with an old friend than a doctor visit. Then a bit of mainland shopping for material culture - unlike the person I quoted above, I do need some things that aren't available on the island, everything from vitamins and protein supplements to sapphire blue hair dye.

Next stop on our rather ambitious schedule was a visit with an old couple friend, J and J, who we hadn't seen since we lived in Annapolis and they lived in Chicago. We'd kept in touch via Facebook and were delighted to learn we were going to be in the same place at the same time -- or at least, within an hour's drive of each other.  We agreed to meet at the Ritz-Carlton. I had just as much fun getting used to saying "meeting at the Ritz" as I did getting used to referring to "on the mainland."

Of course we talked about absolutely everything, but one thing about the way J and J related to each other really stood out to me. They really admired each other.  It's the sort of thing that might have been cute, in a sugary sort of way, if they were newlyweds. But they'd been together many years, and the cute had mellowed into something totally authentic, and totally wonderful. J1 explained that J2, who has a background in finance, had gotten interested in local politics, "...and is really, really good at it" and may run for city council next. J2 explained in turn that J1, "rewired our whole house, you know, has that whole set of construction skills."  And then of course J1 had to talk about how J2 had designed all the plantings and the color scheme of their (sweet, funky, and oh-so-quintessentially-Florida-style) cottage.  We talked until the sun went down, and then one of them reminded the other that Dan and I had at 2-1/2 hour drive yet to get to Homestead where we were spending the night.  "No worries, though," the other J replied, "For Dan and Jaye that 2-1/2 hours doesn't seem very far. They're like tumbleweeds, you just never know where they're going to show up."  A 2-1/2 hour drive was a very small price to pay for that lovely little window into their lives.

Not a sign you see very often.  I was going to take a selfie in front of it, but it just didn't seem wise to get out of the car.


Birds rather like building nests above alligator waters, because the reptiles keep other predators away from the eggs. 

It's a telephoto lens -- I'm bold but not that close!

Passers by told us that this egret keeps vigil on top of whatever car is parked here, about a block from the beach, day after day. Sadly, they surmise that hizzer mate was killed here and he's waiting ... waiting ...

For our friends in Colorado -- mountain passes have a whole different meaning here!

Lovely shady boardwalk through the mangroves

Friday, March 17, 2017

Time Enough

Recently we've been in two conversations that illuminate diametrically opposite relationships with time.

Part 1: American Dream? Work-Work-Work!

During our first tour of duty on the Galeon, Dan's closest colleague was the lead carpenter, Juan. Given that neither of them could speak the other's language even a little, it was surprising that they were able to collaborate on many of the maintenance projects they completed, much less become friends. Language consisted of a lot of pointing and hand gestures, using the ship's bosun as an interpreter, and mostly the common language of tools and wood.  Juan is smart, incredibly strong, totally devoted to the ship, and one of the most passionate workers we know.  When he worked, he was totally focused and gave it every drop of energy he had. His background was more industrial, big projects like steel bridges and structures; yet he translated that to the more subtle and delicate structure of the maintenance needs of the historic wooden ship, like replacing curved beams carved from heavy wood. Juan eventually left the ship to marry an American woman and settle in south Florida.  Because of his excellent work we fully expected him to be able to fit well into US society.

He and his wife had just moved into a new apartment when we went to visit them one afternoon. We met his wife, briefly, and then she went back to work. Because they had just moved and everything was still in boxes, we ended up going to Pollo Tropical for lunch rather than staying in the apartment. We were eager to hear about his new life here. But his view of life in the US wasn't as happy as we had hoped for him.

"What is it with you people?" he grumbled. "Work, work, work, it's all you do. American Dream - bah! When do you have time to enjoy your family, your town? In Spain, we work, but we also take more time with family. Remember, on the ship, how hard we worked?" (Oh, yes, Juan, we remember, and how no one could keep up with you.) "And yet, it was 2 days on, 2 days off, and there was time to explore the ports we stopped at, for an afternoon siesta, or a beer in town at the end of the day.  Work hard, get it done, but life is not just work. I barely see my wife.  Work, work, work, always she works. What American Dream? It's just work work work!" (Of course, this conversation was half English, half Spanish, and a whole lot of body language, so you're not quite getting the full flavor.  But the phrase, in English, "American Dream - work work work!" was repeated, numerous times.)

We explained that what we call "work-life balance" was an issue that many people and companies here struggled with, and that we knew we still had a ways to go before we got it right; and that many people were acknowledging their frustration with the culture of material things that required the excessive work hours.  We talked about missing the simplicity and purity of life on the ocean, how little we really needed when we were on the ship, and promised to visit again when we sailed Cinderella north again in the spring.

Carpentry tools that Dan and Juan used on the Galeon. (Photo by Teaira Marque)

Part 2: All They Have is Time

On Monday we drove to Miami to hear a talk by the crew of Sailing Totem about their circumnavigation. I noticed that on their voyage they very rarely visited developed areas and big cities; instead they chose mostly smaller islands, more pristine and hard-to-get-to locations, more primitive societies.  Think South Pacific islands instead of the European countries surrounding the Mediterranean, for example. Of course, the snorkeling is better in those places, and the connection with nature is one of the reasons so many of us live on boats.  And, these folks are self-described introverts, so less populated places hold appeal. But it's more, because really, if you go long-distance cruising, you are doing so in part because of the people and the culture. "In places where tourism is a big industry," Behan told me after the talk, "most of the interactions with the local folks is transactional. And that's really not what we were after." Taking an airplane and staying in a hotel can give you the same thing, with a lot less work to there than sailing would be! She described instead spending time together, studying new languages, sharing stories, learning to cook yams with one of the local women.

"In the subsistence societies, all they have is time," both Behan and her wonderfully articulate son Niall told me.  No minivans, carpools, to-do lists, calendars. These people have few material things, and spend less time working than we do, leaving so much more time for interactions, for simple pleasures, for appreciating the world, or for making friends with visiting cruisers.  My anthropologist BFF Karen that the average time working to fulfill their physical needs in these subsistence cultures is around 20 hours per week, not the 40+ that we spend.

The whole Totem family, after the talk in Miami

Part 3: Making it Count

We've been here in the Keys for 3-1/2 months.  We've had some great times, met some wonderful people, and enjoyed lovely weather and scenery. (and maybe a bit too much rum!) But as we've started to settle into the local scene, our calendar has started to fill out and we're getting "busy." Each individual item - dinner with friends, a concert, a road trip - is lovely, but in the aggregate, less so, because what gets squeezed off the schedule are things that are important but not urgent, quiet mornings sipping coffee in the cockpit while watching the pelicans dive-bomb for their breakfast, kayak trips up the creek hoping to meet a dolphin or two (amazing to see these wonderful creatures from the boat, and indescribable to see them at eye level from the kayak or dinghy) or long spontaneous conversations with fellow cruisers on the dock.

This, ultimately, is why we go cruising. Because we want our relationship with time to be more like Part 2 and less like Part 1.  But now that we're (temporarily) settled, there is less spontaneity and more planning in our lives. When we're cruising it's just the opposite. The most memorable days for me are the unplanned ones, the ones that just unfold as they will, and there's time to explore whatever we encounter, go off on unlikely tangents. Because really, that's how the best adventures always occur. The most memorable days are not the ones where you Get. Things. Done., no matter how efficiently items come off the to-do list. The most memorable days are the ones where Things. Happen. spontaneous, wonderful surprises, personal connections, new experiences, unexpected interactions. Ultimately, we all have 24 hours in a day, and we all have needs and obligations and choices. Those 24 hours are never enough ... unless we live in such a way as to make it enough.

Piece of Land, Peace of Mind

Does this path look as inviting to you as it does to me?

I hadn't realized how much I love quiet walks in the woods until friends Mickey and Connie invited us to check out the local nature reserve, called Crane Point.  It's the last bit of virgin hammock (equivalent to old growth forest, but with mangroves) here in the Middle Keys. The word "hammock" comes from an old Indian word meaning "cool shady place" which certainly seems to describe the path we walked!

Another extraordinarily inviting path to walk

These islands are a unique ecosystem: they get the easterly trade winds, so many of the plants here come from the Caribbean and Africa. But the animals are North American, having walked a land bridge when water levels were lower during the last ice age. So, an odd but beautiful juxtaposition. We were so enchanted that we bought a family membership at the end of our visit so we could come back as often as we wished, and have been visiting for an hour or two, at least a couple of times every week since then. Photos and factoids follow.  But what has impressed me the most, is how much those visits help my head. Whether anchoring out ("angering out") on the water, or these simple walks on land, immersion in nature really is the reset button for my brain.

Intense tangle of mangrove roots reclaiming the land

The Gumbo Limbo tree is nicknamed the "tourist tree" because it stands in the sun, turns red, and peels.

Florida thatch palm. Properly woven, these make a roof that can outlast modern shingles. The Seminoles are expert at this, but they carefully guard their secrets; if they notice you watching them at work they will simply stop until you leave.  They also harvest the leaves very sustainably - one stalk from this tree, one from the next, and one from the tree over yonder, instead of getting them all from one tree, which would stress it so much that it would die.

The grounds are also home to a bird sanctuary. Here, a green heron with a dislocated wing. Sadly, it didn't heal right and he'd be unable to survive in the wild, so he's now a lifetime resident and educational exhibit. Bird bones are hollow, which saves weight for flight, but also makes them more fragile. On the other hand (other wing?) a break heals in 2-3 weeks, instead of the 6-8 weeks it takes a human broken bone to heal.

More gumbo limbo tree 
This is a milkbark tree; habitat for a species of local butterfly

The aptly-named poisonwood tree. It is in the same family as poison ivy and poison oak (and, oddly, mango) and it's oily black sap is an extreme irritant to humans. Some birds and insects enjoy its berries.

Closeup of gumbo limbo bark

An intense tangle of mangrove roots. Underwater, these make great nurseries for baby fish to hide in, as predators can't fit through the spaces between the roots.

Fallen flower from the "shaving brush" tree. If we were naming this tree today, I'd vote for "fiber optics" tree.

A single flower from the unusual local tree called the "shaving brush" tree for its resemblance to an old fashioned shaving brush.

Sunlight illuminates bottles on a table in the kitchen of the Adderly House.

Many textures and shades of green

Someone had the imagination to see a heron in this piece of wood displayed in the museum onsite

A room in the Adderly House. The half-height walls allow air flow for cooling breezes in summertime

The oldest house in the keys outside of Key West belonged to Bahamian settler George Adderly. It is made of tabby (a building cement made of crushed seashells and lime) and would originally have had a thatch roof. Windows and doors perfectly oppose each other on opposite sides of the house. This symmetry allowed cooling breezes to blow through -- and in the case of the doors, allowed hurricane flood waters to pass as well.  The kitchen is in a separate building behind the house, to minimize the chance of damage from fires.

Bird sanctuary director Kelly prepares to release a red-shouldered hawk that had been recovering in the bird hospital. But first, a bit of education for the bystanders. 
Mangrove roots

Pelicans and cormorants recovering at the bird sanctuary

Zebra (?) butterfly

The view of the Florida Bay, looking north from the "point" for which Crane Point is named

Very large, and perfectly symmetrical, spiderweb of the Golden Orb Weaver.

Beautiful, fragrant, and endangered sea lavender

A white heron and an egret at the bird sanctuary

Bird sanctuary volunteer with a young pelican who is recovering from an encounter with fishing hook

Close up of a section of the beautiful copper doors at the entry to the museum


Wednesday, February 8, 2017


This is our "economy" car + free upgrade. Not quite a convertible, but I'm diggin' the sunroof!

You know how every spring-break movie ever seems to start with a shot of college kids running enthusiastically towards a car, then cut to them laughing, wind in hair, as they zoom down the open road? Looks better with college kids than sixty-somethings, but still that happy scream of "caaaar!" and anticipation of freedom was us about 3 weeks into our stay here.  Hadn't been in our original budget but it was an affordable luxury, and great way for us to do more exploring.

Something funny about the way the human mind works. Intellectually I know that it would be cheaper to take a taxi each way to whatever we want to do on the island (groceries, hiking, out to lunch with friends) even if we did so every single day, than to rent a car by the month.  Of course I can figure that out, I minored in math in college, after all. But there's also the hassle factor, the nickel-and-diming feel of it, that says even though I know it's cheaper to take taxis than to rent a car for the month, I actually won't call a taxi to go out to lunch with friends or go to the beach on a whim if I know I'll have to shell out $10 plus tip each trip.  Conversely, though, if the car has already been paid for and each individual trip doesn't have a clearly associated reminder of cost, we'll go for those little whims.

So we called Enterprise, and, remarkably, scored a free upgrade (!!) from the economy car we rented to the luxe Chrysler above, and we've been putting plenty of fun miles on it.  Almost immediately we needed the ability to seat 5 comfortably when friends from s/v Octopussy sailed into town and we spent some fun time together. We also met fellow bloggers from Till the Butter Melts when we were anchored out one evening and I saw a Facebook post of theirs complaining about the rolly conditions where they were and thought, "Wait a minute, that sounds like exactly where we are!" Sure enough, next morning when it became light, I hailed them on VHF ... we were about 100 yards off their bow. We were able to spend some fun time with them, interspersed with trips to the grocery store, hardware store, and fresh bagels, thankful again for the freedom offered by the car.  This is the first time we've had wheels for an extended period since we sold our cars in 2013 when we left Annapolis, and it's feeling far better than I had anticipated. Let the good times ... roll!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Islands You Can Drive To (Florida Keys)

The "Welcome to Marathon" sign at the side of the road evokes the lighthouse that marks Sombrero Reef, a great snorkeling spot just an hour's sail from our marina

A chain of low limestone and coral islands over 100 miles long ... connected by a highway? Marathon, in the middle keys, has quite a reputation among cruisers as an easy place to spend the winter, and since we'd never been there, we decided to give it a try. Not as party-crazy Key West, nor as crowded as the keys closer to Miami, we were delighted to find the spot had a casual, laid-back Caribbean island feel. At the same time, it had the convenience of not having to leave the US.  In fact, the convenience extended so far as being only a couple of hours drive (drive! from an island!) to Miami and all the consumer goods we would want. Yet like the Caribbean we had palm trees and sandy beaches and clear water for snorkeling or kayaking, and warm, dry weather.

Marathon is really a small town on a group of small islands (less than 10,000 people per the last census) with a population boom during the dry season. (a.k.a., winter, but there's no such thing as winter here, no snow or frost ever recorded.)  There are literally hundreds of boats anchored or on moorings in the harbor or docked in marinas, and a similar influx of RVs.  The look, I've learned a new word, is "keysie," -- kitschy with a tropical nonchalance. It has something of a casual 50s vibe, with million-dollar homes just a few blocks away from trailer parks, and everything just a few blocks from the ocean. It has concrete block buildings with paint faded by the tropical sun -- not ill-maintained, just that the combination of strong sun and salt spray isn't kind to finishes. I'm getting used to that 50s look in south Florida.  Even though the islands were reachable by Flagler's railroad that connected them to the mainland nearly 100 years ago, large numbers of year-round residents didn't settle until air conditioning became accessible at the individual house level ... which happened, not at all coincidentally, in the 1950s, and I recognize that influence in many of the buildings here. For the rest, it does feel like we're on an extended vacation.  Dressing up means wearing the nicer of your pairs of flipflops, and a chilly day means wearing a hoodie and long pants.

The island we're on, by the way, is Key Vaca.  Vaca -- Spanish for cow.  But we're not talking moo cows here, the "cow" is the sea cow, the nickname for the manatee.

The marina itself is wonderful as well. It's got a few amenities we love, a nice lounge, a gym where I can do my physical therapy workout routine, a pool, a restaurant/bar with a good happy hour, and because it's on the west end of the island, an unobstructed view of the sunset. Our slip has a fixed, somewhat stubby concrete finger pier, and a view of a mangrove-lined cove where we can watch pelicans crash-dive for their breakfast while we sit in the cockpit drinking coffee.   Walking distance to two nearby restaurants, one Mexican and one Greek, in addition to the one on the marina grounds, and an inexpensive taxi ride to the grocery store or the beach complete our little world for now.

Some sights:

Manatees love fresh water. After a rainstorm this guy was hanging out near the curb so he could catch the drips.

Great sunset views from our marina!

A pink limo? Really? Don't take yourself too seriously!

50s-style motel

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Second Half of the Cruise: Less of a Marathon to Marathon

Cinderella  with double reefed main and staysail, in Hawk Channel on our next-to-last day. Almost done!
So I had this profound insight: even a great job has bad days. And having an awesome life doesn't mean that every single minute of every single day is perfect, or even pleasant. That ridiculously obvious perspective shift was all that it took for me to refocus my thinking after Vero Beach and start enjoying the trip again, taking the days more or less as they came.  Patience is not my strong suit, never was and never will be, but my new perspective helped me maintain my mental balance. We had just over 200 miles to go, and expected to arrive at our destination in about 2 weeks.  We can do this!

And it turned out that it was a good thing that I had my "revelation" because we continued to be constrained by weather the rest of the trip. We stayed inside the ICW the entire way to Miami, tackling many timed bridges in preference to being in the ocean in high winds. We had a Coast Guard security escort due to a VIP visitor at Palm Beach; spent a great layover day Thanksgiving Day at the apartment of friends Phil and Kay (Under the Boom) joined by the crew of Octopussy; and pulled into an anchorage near Miami and were surprised to be greeted by friends Bill and Erin who informed us that this spot was a longtime favorite of theirs. Then it was an easy hop to Marine Stadium, one of our favorite anchorages near Miami, where we settled in sheltered from what we knew would be several days of 20+ knot winds. We were almost immediately greeted by a couple of guys, friendly strangers, from one of the other boats also anchored there. They had an odd accent that I couldn't place. Turned out they were a couple of engineers from Israel who, along with the girlfriend of one of them, were restoring a classic Hunter sailboat. We had lots of geeky conversations about LEDs and solar power and amp-hours and watts to pass the time while the wind howled. Also, too many beers!

Just south of Marine Stadium, when the wind finally lessened four days later, we sailed into what was the beginning of new territory for us. We saw historic Stiltsville in the distance as we headed to the south end of Biscayne Bay with a strong but weakening north wind behind us, and at the end of the day were anchored near the end of Angelfish Creek, a pretty mangrove-lined cut leading out to Hawk Channel and the Gulf. The entrance and exit were somewhat shallow, so we waited for morning, and a higher tide, to motor through.

The Hawk Channel lies on the ocean side of the Florida Keys, protected by the second-longest coral reef in the world. Only Australia's Great Barrier Reef is longer. It looks and feels like sailing in the ocean, but it's only 20-30 feet deep even several miles from shore. It was plenty bouncy, but the reef softened the worst of the waves. The water was a stunning turquoise color and clear.  Unfortunately it was also filled with lobster pots, so we took turns with one of us standing on the side rail keeping a lookout while the other steered.

More patience was required as the anchorage we'd been hoping to stop at to break the trip into two easy days proved untenable with the larger-than-expected waves rolling in from the south. Two hours farther along we found our next option, and tucked in just as darkness and a huge rainstorm fell. It had been a long day, but the good news was that we only had a half-day for our final day and we could explore our new winter home in the city of Marathon in the middle of the Florida Keys.

Our final travel day had a colorful sunrise ... and proved the old sailor's adage "red sky at morning, sailors take warning," because by the time we'd had our coffee and had the anchor up, ominous gray clouds were building all around us. It looked like we were going to get wet for sure, so we got our foulies ready. The sky on the horizon ahead was such a dark gray it was almost blue, and we were headed right for that storm cell.  Oh joy.

Red sky on the last morning of the cruise 
At sea with the limitless horizon, you can generally see weather developing hours before it will reach you. This visibility increases the dread factor, and at the same time gives you plenty of time to get ready. And we watched the individual thunderstorm cells build and track slowly along the horizon.

We were already on double-reefed mainsail plus staysail, a very stable sail configuration for our boat in bigger winds, so we weren't concerned on that score. And those sails were adding about a knot of boat speed to what we could get by motor alone. But it still looked like we were going to get rained on before we could reach the marina.  Old sailing lessons were recalled as we watched one particular nasty cell build and slowly track in front of us, across our path ahead from left to right. We quickly checked the weather radar on the cellphone and confirmed it.  If we slowed down, and steered about 20 degrees left of our true course, further out to sea, we could miss the worst of the storm as it crossed in front of us.  More patience! It cost us an extra hour rocking and rolling in the ocean, but amazingly we stayed completely dry.

The curve of the island and the shoals seemed to go on forever, but finally our new home was in sight, and the sun was shining again. We motored down a sheltered, mangrove-lined channel and followed instructions to our new slip.  With stress, but no drama, we nosed in and handed the docklines to the waiting attendant.  Time for some sleep ... after a celebratory glass of rum!

Some sights we saw along the way:

Doesn't everyone need a lavender tuglet?
This house looks like it belongs in the Swiss Alps, not in the palm trees!
The further south we got, the more developed the shoreline.
Our escort through the security zone: first the sheriff, who handed us off to...
... the Coast Guard. They were professional as always, but watched us closely.
Anchored in Lake Boca Raton in the Fort Lauderdale area for Thanksgiving. "Lake" seemed an odd name for it; it was almost perfectly rectangular and again, all the shorelines were developed.
Ahh, this is more like it! This is the anchorage where we found Bill and Erin.  (and an opportunity for a quick morning skinny-dip)
Sunrises and sunsets bookend our days at sea, and watching them never gets old.
The view of the Miami from Marine Stadium
Same view, at dusk

M/V Theory and M/V Proof, in Manatee Pocket. What are the chances that these two boats just happened to dock side by side?