Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Best Place to Be for a Hurricane Is ... Elsewhere!


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

Scared of Silence?


What thoughts go through my head, watching sunset at sea? No distractions -- no cellphone, no internet, no other people, just little tiny us and the ship in the big uncaring Universe. Ocean makes you feel introspective, salty, elated, and humble, all at once. And depending on the weather, either bored or terrified; there is no in between.


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!