Friday, September 28, 2018
Around 20 years ago, we kicked around the idea of retiring really early (we'd have been in our 40s), and living aboard Cinderella in the Virgin Islands. To supplement our income, in this fantasy, I'd learn marine refrigeration and air conditioning. Surely there'd be lots of demand for that particular service in the tropics! And it would fit nicely with my science background. I had known the theory of the refrigeration cycle since thermodynamics in college, so it would be a matter of working through the practical applications. I imagined it being both fun and profitable. I even named the business in my mind. Refrigeration girl? Ice Queen!
Although our lives didn't end up going in that direction, I've still always been intrigued by the process of making cold. It has an element of magic in a way that making heat doesn't. Humans have known fire and been making heat, by burning something, for thousands of years; we've only been making cold for a little over a hundred. (Yes, we've had ice blocks and ice houses for longer than that, but that isn't actually making cold, that's mining it like a resource during the winter and storing it for the summer.)
The practical knowledge would have been nice to have. In the last year or so we've had one problem or another with either our air conditioning system or the refrigerator, it seems every couple of months. Last year, after our marina was partially destroyed during Hurricane Irma, we lived at anchor for several weeks. Fortunately the weather was benign during that time. South of town where we anchored was a nice combination of airy and protected. It was peaceful, with dolphins and pelicans for entertainment. Making our own power with solar, we were better off than friends in town who were in some cases still without power. It would have been a nice relaxing time to catch up on our reading and do some creative cooking, except the fridge was broken. Logistics and other complications of our location made it impractical to get to the store more than once or twice a week for fresh food, so we learned to make do with the fridge-less life, a bit of a challenge for people who love to play with food. We managed a small ice box for protein sources like cheese, eggs, yogurt, fish, and tofu, and explored canned food, dried beans and rice and pasta, powdered milk, and sturdy vegetables like carrots and cabbage. I now have 14 different classes of recipes featuring canned tuna.
I expected to feel really, really frustrated by this, on top of the stress of the hurricane. But we discovered something interesting over time. Dan described living without a fridge as "liberating." He meant it in two ways. It was liberating in that the fridge is often the biggest power draw on the boat. We chose the model fridge we did because it was just about the quietest and most energy efficient style on the market at the time (pretty much still is, shout-out to our 12-V keel cooler) and sized our solar panels to be able to generally make enough power to run it as long as the days are mostly sunny. But it's a close thing, and we have to be very attentive to our other power uses (lights, stereo, computers) so we don't go over our power budget for the day. Suddenly, without the fridge, we had loads of excess power. We didn't have to budget it, or watch the battery monitor, or just even think about it. Liberating. You know what else was liberating? In meal planning, we always have in the back of our minds, a running list of which foods are getting ready to go spoil and must be used soonest. Sometimes that leads to odd combinations of flavors as we prioritize, and sometimes we're just a step away from a cookbook that a cruising acquaintance fantasized about writing that would be called, "Cooking with Rotten Fruits and Vegetables." We were pretty much liberated from that as well. On Day 1 and 2 after grocery shopping we might have broccoli or spinach, but after that it pretty much didn't matter, as everything that remained was shelf stable and we could eat it whenever. It was surprising that we'd never really noticed that nagging little voice in the back of our minds, until it was gone.
After our third service call on the unit in just over a year, our awesome marine refrigeration tech Chris cut into his own profits by teaching me how to charge the unit myself. I know, the real solution is replacement, and we've got that on next year's schedule. Hey, the thing is 15 years old, even a land refrigerator doesn't have a much longer life span than that. So we're just trying to limp this unit along until our haulout next year. Knowledge, self-reliance, independence? Most liberating of all!
"Phasers on stun." When Captain Kirk issued this command, you knew our intrepid heroes were about to go into a situation. But their wonderful technology would give them the edge; they could temporarily incapacitate any hostile aliens without breaking a sweat, and an hour or so later the aliens would wake up again with no worse impacts than a bit of confusion and a mild headache. So when I learned that we were going to talk about tasers last week, can you blame me for thinking that they were going to be similar to these convenient sci-fi gadgets? I mean, the names even rhyme!
Spoiler alert: real life is messier than even beloved nostalgic television shows. Real-life tasers are far more limiting than Star Trek's weapons. In real life, a taser shoots two tiny darts that trail hair-thin copper (?) wire to carry a 5-second electric jolt. And after that 5 seconds, it's over and they're up again, no hour-long down time to clean up. Range is limited to around 20 feet and those wires make a physical connection in order to work, so you're basically "tethered" to the person. There's lots of limitations (can't aim for the chest because if the person has a pacemaker the jolt could disrupt it, for example) and many opportunities for a miss. The two darts come out together and one goes straight and one curves downward so there is a good separation between the two to allow the electric jolt to be more effective, but that also increases the likelihood for one dart to miss the body, for example. This happened in the demonstration shot our instructor did for us, shooting at a life-size standup cardboard target with a photo of guy with his fists up, set expression on his face. So these things certainly aren't the panacea that are on TV. They can't just walk into a situation and assume they can safely zap their way back out of it.
Which led to a whole conversation about levels of resistance, 6 of them ranging from grumbling but compliant, through passively resisting, to physically aggressive; and appropriate escalating levels of response. You can know on an intuitive level about escalating and de-escalating, what seems appropriate and what would make the front page of the Washington Post, but this was the first time I had it articulated and quantified quite so clearly. I was listening, and paying attention, and taking notes, and the lecture made sense. However, I kept looking over at the target. Had he been just an ambiguous silhouette, or if he had the face of a certain political figure I am known to detest, it would have been different. It would have been easy to "shoot" him. But this guy? He was ordinary. He could have been someone I knew, could have been a neighbor or fellow boat-owner. I certainly made me pause for that extra microsecond. Stuff just got real.
Friday, September 7, 2018
Life can be more interesting if you're open to whatever comes along, spontaneous, go-with-the-flow. And I admit to having had more than my fair share of wonderful adventures that just dropped into my lap at various times in my life, just because I was in the right place at the right time and willing to take opportunities as they arose. Other times, though, it has helped us to have a bit of structure, a bit of a goal, else "leisure" can degenerate into "sloth." This was what seemed in danger of happening for us while we waited out hurricane season in a well-appointed marina in a quiet suburban area. There's only so many trashy novels you can read while hanging out at the pool. Our brains needed some stimulation.
I've written before about how viewing travel as a quest makes for a great way to frame and focus your experiences and serves as an interesting blog post writing prompt. The quests in my example ranged from profound ("searching for God") to profane ("searching for the best margarita in town.") So we started focusing our time in Jacksonville as a quest as well. We called it "M&M's" -- museums and microbreweries -- and planned to visit one of each, each week or two.
We've made more progress on the microbreweries than the museums, initially; having started with Hyperion Brewery during our first week. Our first museum was the "Museum of Southern History" in easy walking distance of the marina, which could as appropriately have been called "Museum of Civil War Artifacts and Stories from the Confederate Point of View." There were weapons, uniforms, flags, incredibly detailed dioramas of significant battles, and a huge library.
|Incredibly detailed and well-researched battle diorama; this is one small part of one of them. Another great image is on the museum's web page.|
There were some examples of spin that left me pretty uncomfortable. At one point our conversation with the docent evolved to me asking, "If not for the war, do you think the Confederate states would have come around to freeing their enslaved people anyway?" And I was assured they would have, within fifty years or so anyway, for economic reasons if not moral ones. "Because slavery made no economic sense after the industrial revolution" ... the failure to mention as inconsequential, fifty additional years of human misery based solely on skin colour, just got to me. But I also learned some pretty cool stuff and great context. The numbers were staggering. About 900,000 soldiers served the South, and 25% of the men who were eligible to serve during the war died. My hairstylist friend, a lifelong Jacksonville resident and student of history, went even further and told me -- while she was giving me a cute short haircut -- that she doubted there was a family in the South that hadn't been affected, lost someone to the war. The docent talked also about the time after the war, the tremendous cultural cost to integrate three to four million suddenly-freed African-American people, illiterate and not quite able to function in the larger society. Certainly not our finest hour as a nation, and certainly, there are subtleties to the story of that era. I'm glad I went, I have more to learn ... but I'm still uneasy.
|Admiral Raphael Semmes, whose career is portrayed in this case, was an extremely successful commerce raider. He had a reputation for treating both his crews and his captives very well. Interestingly, he was also a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Army and Navy at the same time? Interesting.|
|The museum also had an extensive library. The row of ivory-backed books above Dan's shoulder contain a roster of every person who served the Confederate cause.|
Sunday, August 26, 2018
|Remember this meme that was floating around a while back? It's a lot what I felt like, driving home from my second class, afraid to turn my head too fast because it was crammed so full of new thoughts, some might fall out.|
First, just a few stats to give you a feel for the magnitude of the endeavor. We're talking about an organization with about 800 people plus voluteers (full- and part-time; both sworn and civilian). About 2/3 of their $75 million dollar per year budget goes for law enforcement, but there are also people and activities in the background who support the deputies on patrol (the guys you actually see on the street): you need a jail so you have a place to take anyone you arrest, and the bailiff at the courts, and admin and finance and dispatch. You need investigators, and forensics, and equipment and bomb-and-drug-sniffing dogs and training and worker's comp. You need to pay to keep the lights on in the building, and keep the vehicles maintained. That was the first "wow I never thought about it that way" moment. To equip a new deputy costs more than his first-year salary, when you figure the cost of a car, uniforms, gun, radio, bulletproof vest, taser, the list went on. And training -- lots and lots of training and continuing education in crisis intervention, defensive tactics, firearms qualifications, driving, CPR, juvenile law, hazardous materials (hazmat) response ... that list went on and on also. All this stuff below the surface, the base of the iceberg so to speak, costs about three times their actual salary, not even counting the original issued equipment. That number seems large but it's in line with the number I used when managing environmental cleanup contracts for the Army back in Colorado or managing research scientists in Michigan.
The behind-the-scenes class that I'm in, and "ride-alongs" with officers on patrol is one way the office is trying to help communication, and help ordinary people understand the range and complexities and nuances of what law enforcement does. One of my classmates, a local author, first went on a ride-along to help get information for a previous novel. And I found out why they had to do a background check before any of us could be accepted into the class. You see, if a bad guy attended, he would get a little bit too much insights into the inner workings of the sheriff's office and could use that knowledge against them...not good! (And that was my second "wow I never thought about it that way" moment of the evening, courtesy of Brian Lee, chief(?) of the law enforcement division, who has had the responsibility to sign off on those background checks.)
The most powerful anecdote of the evening was about the wearing of body cams, or, in the case of our county, the not-wearing. Let's admit it, there have been some really egregious past abuses of police power. So a bit of public accountability should be a very good thing, and arguably has been, in several cases that have been in the news in recent years. Of course everyone's got a cell phone now, so police actions are a bit more visible anyway, body cams or no. But still, if department policy is to refuse to wear cams, the first place your mind goes is to ask what nefarious behavior they're trying to cover up, right? And to wonder if we'll be on the front page of the Washington Post any time soon. But now, imagine this hypothetical (but extremely plausible) situation as described by Undersheriff Cline.
Seventeen-year-old high school student, a cheerleader, where someone serves her too much alcohol. She comes home, not feeling well, and proceeds to throw up in the bathroom while her parents try to help. Then she lays for a while against the cool of the tile floor. Soon her breathing becomes a little labored and the parents call 911. The officer arrives and with his hypothetical body cam, not intentionally but just while he's walking to her, films the interior of their house and the sick girl on the floor.
Next day, the nosy next door neighbor goes to the office and requests a copy of the video, under the State of Florida's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, which he is entitled to because all these police body cam videos are a public record and can't be withheld. And then the girl in her very vulnerable moment, and possible the interior of the house, are all over the internet forever. Unintended consequence of a law that, as written, does a terrible job of balancing public right to know with individual right to privacy -- in this situation there is really no vested public interest in knowing details, but there is also no good mechanism for redacting portions to protect individual privacy. So until the law is modified, until judgement is allowed to handle stuff like this with a bit more sensitivity, the department is adamant that this particular can of worms remain unopened. Not as a cover-up, but as a protection.
"Wow I never thought about it that way,"indeed.
Monday, August 20, 2018
When we talk about our El Galeon time, people often ask us how we managed to get our positions aboard. I tell them I lucked out - I was in the right place at the right time. I was picking up my mail, and chatting with the person next to me...who turned out to be the ship's business manager. Who invited us to see the ship; then to come back for a photo shoot; then next thing we knew, it was "bring your passport, you're in bunk #10 on the starboard side, we're going sailing."
Just because we couldn't spend this summer on El Galeon due to Dan's hip issue doesn't mean I won't be having adventures and learning new things and having a novel answer if I were to write a "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay in adult life the way we used to on our first day back in school every September. And once again, I was at the right place at the right time to learn about a cool opportunity. For the next 12 weeks I'll be going behind the scenes at the St John's County Sheriff's office, learning everything from driving a cop car in the rain, to how interrogations of suspects really work, processing a crime scene, and how they make a split-second shoot/don't shoot decision. (Is that guy pointing an iPhone at you, or a gun? Do you assume a different answer if he's black or if he's white?) I'll ride along with an officer on a patrol shift, and sit in the 911 call center.
Last night was our first class, orientation. It was mostly introductions and logistics, but there were also several inspiring stories. The course coordinator told us that he was fourth-generation law enforcement in Florida -- his great-grandfather was the sheriff in neighboring Palatka, Putnam County; grandfather, father, and uncles were variously police and firefighters, and then here he was, a 20+ year veteran with the sheriff's office in St Augustine in St John's County. His career, he said, spanned the wide range of activities the office is associated with, from the adrenaline rush of the S.W.A.T. team, and what he called the "hard-charging" bomb squad and dive team, to the warm fuzziness of handing out teddy bears to traumatized children. The stories he told spanned an equally wide range. He told us about the time he was part of a team that staged a "bank robbery" as part of a training, and how none of the eye witnesses were able to provide reliable accounts of pretty much anything they saw. He told the sad story of one arrest gone wrong with the best of intentions as the arresting officer tried to treat the woman he was arresting with respect; she had soiled herself in the stress of the moment, and the deputy gave her the chance to keep her dignity and go clean herself up before she was taken to the holding area, but she shot herself instead.
The 35 attendees introduced themselves and their reasons for being in the class. A few were ex-military or contemplating careers in law enforcement, others were members of neighborhood HOAs, still others were just curious. I was particularly touched by one woman's story. She was the mother of three adopted African-American kids who were just coming into their rebellious years, distrusting police and concerned about being judged more harshly because of their skin color. Me, I can't exactly say why I was so intrigued to be in the course. I grew up very insulated in an upper-middle-class bubble. (Did you? Check out this interesting quiz.) So this was going to give me exposure to a world I knew nothing about except in novels, and characters I wouldn't otherwise have any chance to meet other than in the stories of the district court judge who was my carpool-mate during my Washington, DC days. We'd entertain each other on the long traffic-filled ride home with stories from our respective work days. He'd tell me about the most outrageous delinquents he saw in the courtroom, and I'd tell him about what was really in his drinking water. My other reason for interest in the class is that I'm an engineer, I love to know how things work. The cool analytical aspects of processing a crime scene will appeal to my science background. I'm curious about the detective work that investigates internet crimes or child porn, and there's even a session on the shooting range. I've shot a shotgun at an empty beer can a friend placed on a fence post for me, but that's about it so far. But I'm also fascinated with the tensions that my classmate listed as her reason for participating. People, on both sides, are not monolithic blocs, and I'm anticipating learning that many situations are more complex than our sound-bitey media portray. I think it's going to be enlightening. Oh, and fun --admittedly I also want to drive a car really fast, and play with the sirens and flashing lights.
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Our dock-neighbors were uniformly pleasant. We met a group for sundowners one evening, and asked for local knowledge. We learned that the best margaritas within walking distance were at the Japanese grill house (not what I'd expect, especially with a decent Mexican restaurant just 1 mile up the road). We learned that the marina is having a "dress like a pirate" party later this month. Yeah, we can do that. But the most delightful piece of advice, forcefully repeated, was that we simply must check out the local used book store. I was happy not only to have a great independent bookstore nearby, but also that this seemed to be a priority for our new neighbors.
During that first week, we made it to the bookstore (where I spent entirely too much money on some intriguing, and obscure, math & science titles). We figured out the bus system and went to a farmer's market nestled in shade of an overpass on the interstate, by the river. Way cool, by the way, the bus has an app that shows you the route on a map, and your location. There's even a tiny animated icon representing the position of the bus, that moves along the route in real time and tells you how many minutes until it arrives at the location you are standing at. Seniors ride free with an id card you can get at the main bus terminal downtown (which we promptly did). We soaked in the marina's pool and hot tub after dark and gazed at the sky looking for the Perseids meteor shower, but it was too cloudy. We drove around the downtown area just looking at the lovely old buildings, and stumbled upon some outrageous murals -- apparently the city is known for these. It's also known for having the youngest average population of all major Florida cities, so we are counting on having some fun while we're here. There's lots of museums and lots of microbreweries in the city; we will try to visit as many as possible during the next months. But probably not too many in August, just too darn hot.
|Farmer's market, in the comfortable shade of the I-95 overpass.|
|I'm learning to love the city's street art! (This is just one of my favorites, the link takes you to pictures of 20 of the murals downtown.)|
|And another favorite. (Again, the link will take you to the other murals.)|
|We started our beer tour here, Hyperion Brewing in Springfield (a historic, sketchy but now gentrifying part of town). It was a slow night so we had some time to chat with one of the owner/investors - he's also from Michigan! We also met the young woman who is the visionary behind the place; she is profiled on the brewery's web page. Our conversations ranged from Greek mythology to . Along the way we mentioned the bus route app, and she was absolutely amazed and delighted that people as old as us were hip enough to know how to use a smartphone. Really? Didn't seem so odd a juxtaposition as all that to me. (But then, my brain doesn't feel old, it's just my body that reminds me...) Then I remembered one evening on the Galeon, when one of our crewmates was startled that we'd want to go for a beer. He said he expected that old folks would want to just sit in a rocking chair with tea and the telly. Well, if nothing else, we can shake up some preconceived notions about aging!|
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
|Big city time! We sailed under this lift bridge. It looked low even in its raised position, but the bridgetender assured me we had almost 70 feet (we only need 50). Image from here.|
Is it three strikes you're out? Or, three times is the charm? After the last two summers with hurricanes in St Aug, we didn't want to learn the answer! So we made arrangements to spend the peak of hurricane season in a more sheltered marina, only 2 or 3 easy days' travel by boat to Jacksonville. We were ready to try some "big city living" for a bit.
The combination of tides and weather was not cooperating as well as it might. My best estimate had us making a lovely, easy two-hour trip the first day to a favorite anchorage, Pine Island, a quiet natural area in an oxbow off the ICW north of St Augustine. We left our home marina in the morning, and by about 11 AM we were settled in a cove surrounded by marsh grass and egrets, enjoying warm sun and a pleasant breeze. We spent a lazy day reading books, organizing a few lockers, cooking a nice dinner, and later, watching distant lightning. Idyllic.
Except that later in the evening, the breeze died and the humidity reasserted itself and the mosquitoes came out as we were getting ready to go to sleep; planning an early start for the next morning. Nothing really major happened, except that we had poor and broken sleep. Sometime during the night, Dan brushed at a mosquito that was buzzing around his head and shattered the glass on the barometer. Luckily the shards stayed in the frame and didn't cut him. That was the start of a day full of things that weren't disasters, but could have been.
Traveling on weekends isn't my preferred, because waterways are crowded with inexperienced boaters, but that was what we had. We had the anchor up before sunrise, timing ourselves to reach a particularly constricted bridge at slack tide, because we could barely fight our way through at maximum current of 4 or 5 knots that was possible at that location. Well, we arrived just in time and the passage was glassy smooth...but then 5 miles and an hour down river we reached the next constriction, which was flowing with a foul current against us, and even a few boils and whirlpools. It felt like it took us forever to go those few hundred meters/yards or so, and we were at maximum throttle. Apparently it's impossible to hit both of those two bridges at easy current. I feel good with my navigation, getting us to what I thought the trouble spot was at a good time, but hadn't understood there was more to come, and a boat of our speed just couldn't be two places at once! We survived unscathed, however, there was one white-knuckle moment when a boil in the current tried to grab the bow and push it into the bridge pier. Glad we hadn't come through any later when the current was even stronger; we would have had no choice but to simply wait several hours for it to slack off.
After the adrenaline dissipated we entered into the main St John's River. It's a big-ship channel so the navigation was easier, though we were dodging lots of small pleasure boats and their wakes. Ironically, now we were too early, ahead of schedule, and the current had not yet turned in our favor. It was a slow, hot slog upriver for about 15 miles. I should have been enjoying the scenery and the new experiences, but already crabby from last night's poor sleep, dehydrated from the heat, and grumpy from what I considered a navigation fail at the last bridge, I was just not in a receptive frame of mind. I just wanted the trip to be over, to be safely tucked in our new slip, before anything else could go (almost) wrong. The dialog in my head said we were too old for this. That voice scared me. What if it was, in fact, the beginning of the end of our cruising? We talked a little about getting an RV, or converting a van and road tripping. We'd done two build outs of empty vans before, during the time we lived in Colorado, and had many wonderful road trip memories. Maybe we'd do that again? Then I realized what that inner voice was really saying. Not, "I am done with cruising" but "I am done with working this hard, it's way too hot, surely I'm smart enough to find a better way." Although we've lived in St Augustine for almost 5 years now, we'd always been gone during the summers, either on El Galeon or cruising in Cinderella. This was my first summer living on the boat in Florida, and we agreed it would be our last.
We made it through the city without further incident, although it took forever coming up on the lovely lift bridge in the above photo before we got there. I had hailed the bridgetender too soon -- the bridge was both larger, and farther away, than I had understood. Soon we were through the city and headed off the main river into a shallow side channel to the Ortega River and our destination. The buoys were not marked on our older chart, but I had added them manually during my nav prep. But as we turned off, I couldn't find a thing. Thank goodness I had planned this part of the passage to happen during high tide to give us a little more room for error! Finally in desperation I pointed to a blank spot on the map. "Steer for here," I told Dan.
There was nothing there, but it was about the right spot for passage over a shallow bit of the mouth of the river. From there, we finally found the first of the markers -- not a standard post with daymark as we were used to seeing, but a small simple rod sticking up out of the water, whose red color was indistinguishable against the late afternoon sun.
The last bridge was the worst bridgetender experience I have ever had, in 20 years and 20+ thousand miles of boating. We called for an opening; they were doing maintenance work on the bridge so only one side was available. No problem, we have done that in many other places before. So the bridge goes up, and she tells us to come on through ... "Uh, ma'am? There seems to be a sailboat between us and you, pointing into the wind to drop their sails; we'll come as soon as they pass." (Can you see them, there from the office you're sitting in? It's designed to have a view of the waterway approaching.) When the sailboat passed, there was a view of ... the construction barge, which was repositioning and now taking up the entire span. "Uh, ma'am? Your construction barge is blocking passage." (Situational awareness? Surely you know they are working on your bridge, and moving about.) Finally they barge moved, and we accelerated toward the finally clear opening ... and the bridgetender sounded five blasts on the horn to indicate the bridge was closing! Before we got there? She was tired of waiting? Good thing our maxprop gave us a strong reverse, or our mast would have been crushed in the closing bridge! Wow. This person was the exact opposite of the excellent bridgetender in St Aug who spoke to our group in the spring telling wonderful bridgetender tales.
Annnnyyyyyway, after that last experience, we had no further issues; 10 minutes later the bridge opened (both spans this time as the work barge was now clear) and we found our lovely new slip based on a map the dockmaster had emailed beforehand. It was calm and easy to tie up unassisted. Honestly, we were so tired that we didn't even leave the boat that evening, although next day we explored the marina grounds (free laundry! swimming pool! community lounge!). New adventures await ... after a solid sleep. In air conditioning. Without mosquitoes.
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
A good friend of mine has booked a silent retreat at a monastery at the end of her summer work gig. She has spent time in monasteries or convents before, but always doing some sort of program where there would be quite a bit of interaction with people. This time would be a first for her; one week of silence. "There will be one meeting a day with a, what would you call it, a spiritual guide? Counselor? And that’s it," she explained. "Looking forward to it, a wee bit scared, and most of all curious...... It’s not so much the silence in itself that I find challenging but the letting go of distractions."
What does my friend's vacation plan have to do with sailing? Her confrontation with silence will happen within the structure of the monastery, where the bells define the rhythm of the day, with morning prayers, coffee, chores, noon prayers, lunch, ... etc. That's really not very different, in many ways, from our time at sea, with days broken up into watches and chores and staying alert for navigation hazards. We don't have enforced silence, but once we're far enough from shore, cellphone signal fades. No more bopping around the internet looking for soundbites or checking friends' Facebook statuses. Without those distractions, time shifts to a slower pace. We can read, or write, or draw or daydream, or whatever creative pursuits we choose. Or, simply watch the waves and the clouds.
At sea, we are alone, not lonely. The silence isn't static. (Silence? It seems such a living breathing thing that its name should be capitalized.) When your head isn't filled with busy-ness as it is non-stop in ordinary land-based life, thoughts that you haven't really had the time to think will bubble up to the surface to be examined. My friend is looking forward to this. "Something may just pop up from inside of you, from deeper layers, if that makes sense." You never know what that "something" is going to be until it happens, though. Occasionally profound, often mundane, or sad, or sometimes frightening, the thoughts come.
For some of our younger El Galeon crewmates, or for the midshipmen that Dan trained when he was a sailing coach at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, out at sea was the first time in their lives they had ever been disconnected from the internet and cell phone service and experienced that Silence. For some people, that might not be a good thing. I knew one person who had witnessed some truly horrific things when they were in middle school. I'll spare us all the graphic details, but let's just say he was entitled to all the slack you could cut him. Smart kid and straight-A student ... he tried very hard to always be busy and never be alone. On land, there were people, and parties, and alcohol, and the internet. And when he was alone he was playing on his phone. So when we were at sea (his first time!) for too long it was devastating. Without the distractions there was time to confront all those memories, no choice but to confront them really, and he totally fell apart. He was smart enough to know what was happening to him and why, but he couldn't figure out how to escape it. As far as I know, he never went to sea again; got a job doing two-hour day tours in the Bay. That too I guess is the power of silence without distractions. My friend said that there was a mental-health questionnaire she had to fill out before she could go on her silent monastery retreat; I guess they must have had some bad experiences with people in the past, similar to the kid I've described.
For us, the Silence has never been threatening. I think we've had lucky lives so far. For us, it's deeply introspective, and powerful, and revealing, and also very refreshing. We head out in a few days for an easy two-day trip to our temporary hurricane-season marina, and I'm looking forward to seeing what thoughts come up!
Sunday, July 15, 2018
|Despite living on a boat, we're not really without possessions.|
So when we moved aboard, we got rid of a lot, but didn't get rid of everything. We weren't sure how long our life afloat was going to continue to be fun, though if I'd known it was going to be 16 years and counting I definitely would have made some different decisions! We kept some things that will be useful when we move to land again. And other things that remind me of people and places in my past that make me smile. The basic guideline was that we kept enough to furnish a one-bedroom apartment, plus anything that couldn't be replaced simply with cash; i.e., all the sentimental stuff. That softened the pain of giving away all of our history There really weren't many resources for downsizing back in 2002, so we sort of stumbled through by trial and error and wrote our own. And our things lived securely in a good friend's basement ... until this year, when the friends decided to sell their big house and move to Colorado. And that's how we ended up in a basement in Philadelphia, in January, going through boxes and boxes of saved possessions.
There were a few things that had us scratching our heads -- what were we thinking when we decided to store and not jettison this? Some things it had made sense at the time to store, but were overtaken by events, like tax records we needed to keep for 7 years (but that was 15 years ago, so out they go!). But mostly, there were a lot more, "hello, old friend" moments than "huh???" moments when we uncovered some bit of our past. I guess the bottom line is that while I try to be pretty thoughtful about possessions, I'd have to call us "streamlined" but not full-on Spartan minimalists.
Remember my friend "M"? She's the one who was giving up her life in sunny "Key West" to move to the frozen north in order to get her son the help he needed. (Not exactly Key West, that's one of the details I changed to protect her privacy; the real move is an overseas one.) I was texting with her a few weeks ago, the morning before she and her family were ready to go to their new home. She told me they had downsized to the very very max, because shipping was going to be so expensive. They had checked a total of 160 kg (about 350 pounds) of possessions, for a family of 4, plus their carryons -- and that was all they owned anymore. Everything else had been sold, all their furniture, cars. The hardest for her, she said, was her books, but she found someone who had studied a similar subject in college who was delighted to have them, so that finding of a good home helped considerably. The boys also got into the act, selecting which toys to take and which to give away, and sorting through a lot of broken stuff. I joked that she was ready to live on a boat, like us. She said that with the going through everything, she found so many things that looked like they would be handy when first purchased, but in reality she only used them once or twice. Her house felt so much bigger with those gone. The last two weeks, they were living with just the basics, those essential things that were coming north with them. And, she said, "I'm definitely going to try to keep it small," in the next place. "I really enjoyed living with just the basics."
We get it, we really do. In some ways our last 16 years on the boat, has been a long vacation from our own "stuff" that has been in storage.
Saturday, July 14, 2018
|Visions of palm trees dance in my head. Cruising means tropical paradise, right?|
How do you define "successful cruising?" For some, it can be pretty objective. If you've set out to sail around the world, then you have achieved "success" when you've circled the globe and come back home. Or on a smaller scale, if you've set out to spend the winter in the Florida Keys, then you're successful if your boat is still floating in the spring. But if your plans are less specific, then your definition of "success" gets fuzzier as well. Or does it?
A few of my friends have had to pause their cruising for a while recently, for extensive boat work, for medical issues, to earn some money. And one of them posted in his blog yesterday, certainly not defeated but almost apologetic, twice over. Seeming apologies once as though he was letting his readers down by not having new stories to tell. Seeming apologies a second time because he had always been a proponent of "go small, go NOW." But after two years he and his wife had since decided that living on that much of a shoestring wasn't fun, so they were going to take a break and come back with a comfier budget.
I posted back to him, "But, you have gone! You've had adventures, and learned, and are refining your original plan based on what you've learned. Think of it as preparing for the next adventure. Some days are wild and some days are ... mild. And sometimes you just lay low while the bank account rebounds." Plans evolve. Or as our cruising mentors have quipped, "Plans are firmly cast in jello." "Plans are written in sand at low tide." I'm pretty sure my friend will be back, just in a different way and timing than he first expected. With the additional self-knowledge gained from his experience, it will probably be better than ever, because he and his wife are smart like that.
Heck, we're in somewhat in that not-quite-the-way-we'd-planned-it situation ourselves; between Dan's hip surgery and recovering the expenses of 2017 from winter in the Keys to summer in Canada on El Galeon to Hurricane Irma to reclaiming the possessions stored in my BFF's basement, Cinderella has been stationary the last year. And taking advantage of unexpected delightful opportunities is easier when plans are viewed as guidelines and not promises.
I thought we'd take Cinderella down to the Caribbean. It didn't quite turn out that way. I had visions of jumping off the stern to go snorkeling every afternoon, like we did when we were on vacation. Our first cruise took us down the ICW to the Bahamas. Two months getting there, then we spent three months in the islands, learning and exploring, and then three months headed back to Annapolis where we started. After we returned we spent some time comparing the reality to the fantasy. What I learned was, you can't be on vacation forever. Well, maybe you can. I can't. I get bored, want to learn new things, make a contribution, be part of a community. We learned that we love living on the boat, and we learned that about three months at a time was about as long as we preferred to live out of the U.S./Canada. Actually we'd known that last, the three-month limit, about ourselves before, and had proved it to ourselves multiple times; this latest was just reconfirming that. So our plans evolved, as plans are wont to do. We still have plenty of time in the Caribbean every year, just, not year round and not on this boat.
With what we've learned about ourselves so far we are designing a cruising life that fits our personalities even better than the one we first visualized, and it continues to evolve. Ours, we have now learned, involves tall ships, and road trips, and periodically, something new and wildly different. (Got one coming up this fall that I'll tell you about soon!) That's also part of the freedom of living a possession-light life, on a boat. You get to change your plans easily. When your only new year's resolution is, "have more adventures," it's pretty easy to declare the resolution honored. I never set out to be a great sailor. I wanted to have a great life, while sailing. I call that, "success."
Sunday, July 1, 2018
What were the biggest adjustments moving aboard after living on land? Well, certainly a major one was the drastic difference in square footage. We could take about 1/20 of our land-based possessions, and none of our furniture. We sought digital books except for reference books, scanned photos, ripped CDs, and converted recipe cards to tidy computer files. We prioritized what would come with us: first safety, then tools, then "everything else." And that "everything" had to fit in the equivalent of your kitchen cabinets -- not just pots and pans and food, but backpacks and winter sweaters and screwdrivers and blankets and hiking boots and beach towels -- so the downsizing was extreme.
Another big adjustment was -- it moves! That implied both that we could never set anything down unattended on a flat surface; an errant wave could dump your coffee cup in your lap. It also meant our freedom, as we could explore the world without ever leaving the comforts of home, because we traveled like a turtle and brought our home with us. (Also like a turtle as, laden with everything we own, we don't exactly sail fast.)
Past those two, the biggest adjustment involved no longer being connected to the limitless conveniences of life on land, like infinite water and power. If we're at sea, or anchored out, the water and fuel we brought with us is all we have until we make our next port. We might get lucky with a rainstorm to top up our fuel tanks, but the gasoline we brought with us for the dinghy is all we have until we're back in civilization.
And limited, not-so-environmentally-friendly fuel wasn't the only problem with the dinghy's propulsion. Add a bigger, heavier outboard than we would have preferred, and we began thinking about options. You've already learned of the crazy string of small world coincidences that led to our new-to-us folding dinghy to replace the inflatable. The existing 9.8 hp motor, weighing about 90 pounds, was massively oversized to be usable on the light and nimble folding boat.
I jokingly told my friends that we had equipped the new folding dinghy (now nicknamed "Pumpkin II") with a "reliable two-stroke engine." And it does row easily. Oars never need fuel and remind us of good times with our old rowing dinghy in Michigan. And for the times that rowing is not quite going to be enough?
Meet "Mouse," named for the mice that became horses and footmen for Cinderella's pumpkin-turned-coach. Like those mice, our "Mouse" is small and gray and slightly magical. Mouse is an electric Torqeedo motor that pairs perfectly with the new dinghy. Electric means that we won't have any further issues with ethanol in gasoline when we travel north or to places with unreliable fuel, or fuel at all, ever, really. We can charge its lithium batteries with our solar panels, doesn't get to be much more of a renewable resource than that!
We can set up or collapse the folding dinghy on the bow of Cinderella; here's a sequence of pictures showing the process, which took one person about 10 minutes. As fast or faster than pumping up an inflatable.
|Here's the dinghy on the foredeck. We lift it up using a spinnaker halyard on the anchor windlass, but honestly, it's just not that heavy; we could do it by hand if we needed to.|
|Taking out the bolts holding the front seat in place. We replaced regular nuts with wing nuts to make the process quicker.|
|Front seat removed.|
|The 3 supports under the seat are hinged so it folds flat for storage.|
|Now the aft seat is coming out.|
|Unbolting the transom.|
|Lifting out the transom.|
|Beginning to fold the side down.|
|Starboard side folded down.|
|Fold the port side down, then fold the boat in half!|
|And there it is. Folded down, we can tie it to the side rail. No davits, nothing hanging outside Cinderella's footprint, and no deck clutter.|
|And neatly stowed on the side!|
Friday, June 29, 2018
Some sets of words just don't make any sense when strung together. "Redundant feathered doorknobs." "Democratic airborne hypotheses." But the set of three words that I heard yesterday, which really shouldn't make sense strung together, are despairingly familiar. "Another mass shooting" has occurred, this one at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, the newspaper where Life Afloat first started 11 years ago. (The name "Life Afloat" itself was coined by one of the murdered journalists, community news reporter Wendi Winters.)
I'm a writer and I deal in words. I'm supposed to have words, but I have none.
The sordid details involve a guy who sued the paper because he didn't like the story they wrote about him. He lost the suit because the judge decided that what the paper had written was true. It portrayed the guy in a negative light, because he had done negative things. He had been convicted of stalking/harassing a woman he had gone to school with. The day after he lost, he brought a gun and shot up the newsroom.
Newspapers do not have a duty to write only pleasant things about people and events. You don't have to like what they say about you, as long as it is accurate. Newspapers have a duty to inform and educate, to tell the truth to the very best of their ability. To make a democracy work, voters need knowledge, information on which to base their voting decisions. That's also why we have free public libraries -- going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who understood that democracies can only function with educated citizens.
Skip the "thoughts and prayers," thanx. Here's what I ask instead. Find a newspaper that you can believe in, one that hires actual journalists to tell you actual facts, truth without spin or agenda. Buy a subscription, support them and quit looking for ways to circumvent their paywall. Second, vote. This November, every November. No excuses.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
|Statue of Liberty, my view from the helm of El Galeon last summer|
Virtually all of my El Galeon shipmates have photos or selfies with the Statue of Liberty in the background as we came into New York harbor last summer. Not me, I was at the helm at the time, so that's my view above. And I reminisced that exactly 100 years previously my grandmother would have had a similar view as she entered New York harbor by boat as I was -- except she and her family were fleeing World War I Russia when she was a young teenager.
But our current political immigration crisis has me wondering whether we deserve this graceful lady any more. I can't even fathom my former "friends" who aren't horrified.
One of my friends on the political right asked where I thought we go from here. Obviously I'm not setting policy in this administration but here's what I wish would happen:
- (1). Reunite these many families immediately, with journalistic access to provide some transparency. That's been frighteningly lacking, so far. (I'd try to hide it too, if I were doing what this administration is doing.)
- (2). Increase resources for Immigration so they can quickly vet people and distinguish legitimate asylum seekers from druggies and bad guys. No reason for people to be in bureaucratic limbo for months or years. And we wouldn't have, or need, the DREAM act any more because kids wouldn't grow up here without legal status.
- (3). Make sure that businesses have support for vetting job applicants before they hire knowing their potential employee is legally permitted to be here and work here (and local government agencies have confidence that they are providing assistance to the right people as well). (Maybe more resources for Social Security so they can prove id numbers quickly?) Then stomp hard on any business found to hire people who are not here legally and pay "under the table." Right now there are too many complaints by businesses of how hard it is to get verification, and penalties are so minor that if they do hire (and often take advantage of) illegal workers, those penalties are just a cost of doing business. So many people are here as asylum seekers, like my grandmother was, rather than looking for work though, so this would be as much about quelling the rhetoric as about fixing a real problem.
- (4). We need longer term conversation about the big picture. Like much of the developed world, our population is graying and declining in number as citizens have fewer or no kids. Our present birth rate is not enough to replace the aging population. Only 2 ways out as I see it, maintain our numbers from within or from outside. From within, would be finding out why people are having fewer kids. For some it's a choice but for others, well, I think parenting in the US right now is a giant game of gotcha. Everyone's looking and judging what should be personal choices like breast feeding. It's isolating and exhausting. Spend too much time with your kid and you're a helicopter parent, give them some independence and CPS is called because you dared let your 10 year old walk down the block to a friend's house alone. (Sorry, a personal soap box of mine.) For others it's just too expensive; we could do with better parental leave policies, affordable child care, and other supportive social programs. Or, we maintain our numbers by bringing in immigrants. That's what has happened so far, and why we haven't seen the kind of problems that Japan (for example) has had with population decline. I guess there's a third source, we could just build lots of robots. Somehow though we need to get the next generation of workers from somewhere. Just my thoughts about what to do from here, to continue to be worthy of this symbol.
|Lately I've been fearing we're living through the sunset of our democracy. Posted below is Emma Lazarus' sonnet on the base of the Statue of Liberty.|
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The Washington Post has a great fact checker piece on this here.
Here's a few additional facts from Michelle Martin, PhD Cal State Fullerton. She summarizes a lot of misinformation that is floating around about the issue; after each point is a link to the original article.
"There is so much misinformation out there about the Trump administration's new "zero tolerance" policy that requires criminal prosecution, which then warrants the separating of parents and children at the border. Before responding to a post defending this policy, please do your research...As a professor at a local Cal State, I research and write about these issues, so here, I'll make it easier for you:
Myth: This is not a new policy and was practiced under Obama and Clinton - FALSE. The policy to separate parents and children is new and was instituted on 4/6/2018. It was the brainchild of John Kelly and Stephen Miller to serve as a deterrent for undocumented immigration, approved by Trump, and adopted by Sessions. Prior administrations detained migrant families, but didn’t have a practice of forcibly separating parents from their children unless the adults were deemed unfit. link
Myth: This is the only way to deter undocumented immigration - FALSE. Annual trends show that arrests for undocumented entry are at a 46 year low, and undocumented crossings dropped in 2007, with a net loss (more people leaving than arriving). Deportations have increased steadily though (spiking in 1996 and more recently), because several laws that were passed since 1996 have made it legally more difficult to gain legal status for people already here, and thus increased their deportations (I address this later under the myth that it's the Democrats' fault). What we mostly have now are people crossing the border illegally because they've already been hired by a US company, or because they are seeking political asylum. Economic migrants come to this country because our country has kept the demand going. But again, many of these people impacted by Trump's "zero tolerance" policy appear to be political asylum-seekers. link
Myth: Most of the people coming across the border are just trying to take advantage of our country by taking our jobs - FALSE. Most of the parents who have been impacted by Trump's "zero tolerance" policy have presented themselves as political asylum-seekers at a U.S. port-of-entry, from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Rather than processing their claims, they have been taken into custody on the spot and had their children ripped from their arms. The ACLU alleges that this practice violates the Asylum Act, and the UN asserts that it violates the UN Treaty on the State of Refugees, one of the few treaties the US has ratified. This is an illegal act on the part of the United States government, not to mention morally and ethically reprehensible. link
Myth: We're a country that respects the Rule of Law, and if people break the law, this is what they get - FALSE. We are a country that has an above-ground system of immigration and an underground system. Our government (under both parties) has always been aware that US companies recruit workers in the poorest parts of Mexico for cheap labor, and ICE (and its predecessor INS) has looked the other way because this underground economy benefits our country to the tune of billions of dollars annually. Thus, even though the majority of people crossing the border now are asylum-seekers, those who are economic migrants (migrant workers) likely have been recruited here to do jobs Americans will not do. link
Myth: The children have to be separated from their parents because there parents must be arrested and it would be cruel to put children in jail with their parents - FALSE. First, in the case of economic migrants crossing the border illegally, criminal prosecution has not been the legal norm, and families have been kept together at all cost. Also, crossing the border without documentation is a typically a misdemeanor not requiring arrest, but rather a civil proceeding. Additionally, parents who have been detained have historically been detained with their children in ICE "family residential centers," again, for civil processing. The Trump administration's shift in policy is for political purposes only, not legal ones. See p. 18: link
Myth: We have rampant fraud in our asylum process the proof of which is the significant increase we have in the number of people applying for asylum. FALSE. The increase in asylum seekers is a direct result of the increase in civil conflict and violence across the globe. While some people may believe that we shouldn't allow any refugees into our country because "it's not our problem," neither our current asylum law, nor our ideological foundation as a country support such an isolationist approach. There is very little evidence to support Sessions' claim that abuse of our asylum-seeking policies is rampant. Also, what Sessions failed to mention is that the majority of asylum seekers are from China, not South of the border. Here is a very fair and balanced assessment of his statements: link
Myth: The Democrats caused this, "it's their law." FALSE. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats caused this, the Trump administration did (although the Republicans could fix this today, and have refused). I believe what this myth refers to is the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which were both passed under Clinton in 1996. These laws essentially made unauthorized entry into the US a crime (typically a misdemeanor for first-time offenders), but under both Republicans and Democrats, these cases were handled through civil deportation proceedings, not a criminal proceeding, which did not require separation. And again, even in cases where detainment was required, families were always kept together in family residential centers, unless the parents were deemed unfit (as mentioned above). Thus, Trump's assertion that he hates this policy but has no choice but to separate the parents from their children, because the Democrats "gave us this law" is false and nothing more than propaganda designed to compel negotiation on bad policy. link https://www.independent.co.uk/…/trump-democrats-us-border-m…
Myth: The parents and children will be reunited shortly, once the parents' court cases are finalized. FALSE. Criminal court is a vastly different beast than civil court proceedings. Also, the children are being processed as unaccompanied minors ("unaccompanied alien children"), which typically means they are sent into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). Under normal circumstances when a child enters the country without his or her parent, ORR attempts to locate a family member within a few weeks, and the child is then released to a family member, or if a family member cannot be located, the child is placed in a residential center (anywhere in the country), or in some cases, foster care. Prior to Trump's new policy, ORR was operating at 95% capacity, and they simply cannot effectively manage the influx of 2000+ children, some as young as 4 months. Also, keep in mind, these are not unaccompanied minor children, they have parents. There is great legal ambiguity on how and even whether the parents will get their children back because we are in uncharted territory right now. According to the ACLU lawsuit (see below), there is currently no easy vehicle for reuniting parents with their children. Additionally, according to a May 2018 report, numerous cases of verbal, physical and sexual abuse were found to have occurred in these residential centers. link
Myth: This policy is legal. LIKELY FALSE. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on 5/6/18, and a recent court ruling denied the government's motion to dismiss the suit. The judge deciding the case stated that the Trump Administration policy is "brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency." The case is moving forward because it was deemed to have legal merit. link
= = = = =
And finally, context matters!! There's this:
Thursday, June 7, 2018
|D-Day, June 6, 1944; on the beaches at Normandy (photo in public domain)|
I love museums, and while I enjoy the Smithsonian or the Natural History museum or the Guggenheim, what really intrigues me are specialty museums and local museums. I love the stories that small towns tell about themselves, a way to see others the way they wish to be defined. So when I learned that the Navy Seal museum in Fort Pierce, FL was designed by ... a group of Seals, telling their own story, well, I just had to make sure we planned time for a visit.
I'm not sure what I was expecting; military museums tend to be a bit self-congratulatory, but this place was as extraordinary as the Seals themselves. It would have been so easy to dazzle visitors with examples of futuristic technology and grand missions, and that stuff was there. But really, it was a sidelight. The story they told wasn't about technology, it was about their people. The most important tool the Seals had, was their mental resolve, their spectacular physical conditioning, and a surprising humility.
That D-Day photo doesn't show the whole story. As if running ashore under fire, with all the heavy gear wasn't enough, gaining those beaches wasn't just mucking through sand. The beaches were fortified with nasty obstacles beneath the surface at high tide that would prevent ships from coming close, and trip unwary running soldiers. They were duplicated for training purposes here.
|No landing craft could approach the shore with these in the shallow tidal zone.|
|The plaque explaining the obstacles.|
The most important tool used to clear these obstacles was ... people. Slipping behind enemy lines to recon, wearing only swim fins and mask to plant plastic explosive on the obstacle structures. There's a statue that greets you at the entrance to the museum called "The Naked Warrior."
I was just in awe. The tools are enhancements, but only as good as the humans that wield them. We often say that the coolest part of adventuring is the people you meet. In cruising, as in with the Navy Seals, it's all about the people.