Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My First Mini-Cruise as a Retired Person

Immediately after hanging up the phone from my last-ever teleconference, we untied the docklines and went out for a 4-5 day local cruise. No objectives and no agenda. I told husband Dan I needed some time with just the two of us to get my head wrapped around the idea of being a retired person. Because we didn't leave until almost 4 PM, we'd planned to spend the first night on Mill Creek, about 90 minutes from our marina. Our good friend Melissa had recently broken her foot and was recovering at the waterfront home of her friends Mike and Grier. They'd invited us for dinner and we were enchanted not only at the company and the promised menu, but with the idea of going to their house by dinghy - and staying out late on a "school night."
Remind me that this isn't a food blog, because I'm about to go off on a serious tangent raving about tortilla soup; and salad featuring tropical delicacies such as hearts-of-palm, chayote, and avocado; and salmon crusted with blue corn chip crumbs. But almost as much fun as dinner and conversation was walking down to the dock at the evening's end, climbing into the dinghy and motoring back to where our boat was floating gently at anchor. Not because we were anxious to leave, but because by dinghy instead of by car was the way it would be when we were cruising.
The rest of the week was windy, rainy, and chilly. Not very inviting weather for exploring the Chesapeake, but perfect for snuggling down with a cup of coffee and a good book. We talked - a lot - and explored the river and weathered the storm and learned that our anchor did just fine in the wind until the day after the storm when it was upset by a powerboat with a wakeboarder who went back and forth, passing and waking us about 5 times. As Dan pointed out, if the week had been warm and sunny, we wouldn't have learned anything.
I got a wonderful encouraging email from my sister-in-law Karen explaining the stages she went through when she retired. She said if my transition went like hers, the first couple of weeks would be like vacation, and by the third week "the melancholy surfaces of missing the enjoyable co-workers and the enjoyable parts of working. [T]hat starts lifting by the fourth [week] with setting future plans and settling into new routines..." and so on. I think that retired people are happy just because they get to sleep as late as they want. On Day 4 of our little retreat, I spent about an hour on the phone with friend Cathy. She said she I sounded totally different, like I was sixteen, excited and happy, warm and relaxed. (Okay, what does that say about how tightly wound I'd been before? I hadn't thought I was carrying that much stress.) Whatever the "before" version of me was, one incident a few hours after the phone call proved she was right about just how relaxed I was now. Our solar panels are positioned on a supporting arch across the cockpit with a gap between them just wide enough for the helmsman to look up at the trim of the mainsail. I was steering and looked up between the panels just in time to get dumped with very cold water full in the face. Gack! I was suddenly aware that this was one cartoonish moment, and instead of being irritated I burst out laughing. The best thing I've discovered about retirement so far is that we didn't have to start every day by saying goodbye to each other as we went our separate ways to work. Considering that we're planning to spend the next 8 months together on a 33-foot boat, the fact that we didn't drive each other crazy cooped up in what was effectively a 9x12 room together for 5 days bodes well for our trip.
One of my retirement gifts was this raingear with the USGS logo. This photo was at the very beginning of our trip - I look waaaaay too serious!

Retirement, Identity Crisis, and a Troubled Economy

My Facebook status is “Bittersweet - wrapping up a 34-year science career and beginning Act II.” I’d loved my job while I had it -it was a fantastic combination of interesting, important, not too stressful, and well paying, but its someone else’s turn now. It will be interesting to figure out who I am, now. I no longer have the assurance of being a Senior Environmental Scientist - that’s who I am, it says so right here on my business card. I’ve kept a few (very few) of my textbooks, the rest were donated to help build water science program in Afghanistan. Most of what was in my file cabinet were either notes from classes I took in grad school or reference copies of journal articles. There’s a giant blue recycle bin just outside my office door and I recycled them all - even the author copies of my own work. Times have changed and most of the articles are available online. There may be a deeper philosophical truth symbolized there - science evolves, time moves on, and perhaps scientific information and theories are more appropriately suited to a fluid medium like the Internet than a static one like printed paper.
I chose to retire, picked my own time in order to proceed with our sailing dream. I retire with good savings and a good pension and insurance plan, I have no financial worries. I would think that having had control of the situation, being here by choice would minimize any feelings of uncertainty. I have new sympathy for what people who have lost their jobs in the current economy must feel, because I'm still feeling a small identity crisis. And that's without money worries or the blow to self-image that being laid off must bring.

What Exactly Is So "Good" About "Goodbye?"

These weeks have been a round of farewell parties, farewell dinners with special friends, and “last times” for many things. When I retired last week they gave me a great sendoff from work [photo] filled with somewhat predictable touches like a letter from the Director thanking me for my service, and some unpredictable ones. My secretary Brenda, with whom I’d spent far too many groggy mornings coordinating review schedules at 7:30 AM, gave me a pretty battery-operated clock WITHOUT an alarm function - she must’ve been searching hard to find that.
Then there was the bon voyage party at the marina, where I delighted in flaunting my new retired status by introducing my FORMER colleague Frances to Dan’s FORMER colleagues Dick and Lynn and Matt, and to numerous of our dockmates and liveaboard friends. These are the people who’ve been my “family” for the last seven years. As we travel on our boat this winter, I think I’ll find a lot of friendliness from fellow boaters. The people we meet traveling will have similar interests to ours; we’ll all need each others’ help from time to time, and can benefit from each others’ insights. I’ve been told by people who’ve done the trip before that there’ll be lots of socializing, lots of potlucks and happy hours with other boaters. It will be pleasant and there’s always a rush in meeting new people.
Only now am I beginning to internalize the difference between friendliness and friendship. What makes a friendship? Sharing ordinary times, long walks together with dogs, meeting each other in supermarket or the parking lot, adjusting docklines on each others’ boats in a storm, is part of it. But a real friendship, for me, needs more. Shared goals and shared memories and shared stories, of times we’ve been vulnerable to each other, laughed together, helped each other. Amazing memories like John and Diane’s wedding. They were married on a small boat, so Diane didn’t walk down the aisle. Instead, Dan rowed her to the wedding in a flower-bedecked dinghy. Or the incredible help and support, the long list of friends who came to the hospital when Dan was ill, James and Ellen holding my hands and meeting with the doctor after the surgery, and then the wealth of visitors while he was recovering from surgery, Dick and Larry and Sarah and Juan and Melissa and Ellen and Diane and Kat and Eric and Ed. A deep friendship is built of those special memories as well as the ordinary times.
I’m sure we’ll make new friends on the trip, but we’re hoping to keep the old as well. It takes time and history to build those memories and friendships, and knowing that I would not have those friends nearby as we left on our travels was also part of what made embarking on this adventure bittersweet. At the same time, email technology will take most of the sting out of those farewells, as I told my friends “I don’t have to really say goodbye, I’ll just say ‘e’ you later!”


When we lived in a house and wanted to socialize with friends, the options were limited: go out somewhere together, or they’d come to our house, or we’d go to theirs. Living on boats, though, we have another option – bring OUR house to THEIR house. I.e., raft up. The biggest boat sets their anchor and the smaller boats tie onto the big boat so people can step easily from one boat to another. Most of the raftups we’ve attended have been fairly mellow – three or four boats getting together to spend an afternoon or overnight socializing. Last weekend our friends Scott and Lisa planned a far more ambitious version of a raftup. Instead of three or four boats, this raft had over twenty by the time the sun went down! [photo] Half a dozen more boats anchored nearby and came over to join the party by dinghy or kayak.

So what do you do when you’re rafted up? Chatting in the cockpit, touring each others’ boats, watching the sunset, maybe some swimming or exploring the shallower parts of the river by dinghy. As in many raftups, we spent the afternoon of this one visiting with folks on their boats – some were marina neighbors we see almost every day, others were new – and swimming in the river. But the mega-scale of this raftup allowed for some creativity. For entertainment, Scott staged blindfolded dinghy races. The person on each boat who was to row was blindfolded; a second person who was not blindfolded told the rower which way to go. Predictably, the result was good-natured chaos. [photo]

The outsize scale of this raft party continued after dark. Not content to blast music from someone’s ipod, Scott and Lisa hired local band The Geckos. They good-naturedly agreed to play the unusual venue – on the bow of a boat at anchor – which meant ferrying all their equipment and themselves by dinghy. Calm winds and a beautiful sunset contributed to the magic.

Finally, next day, back toward home. We passed the iconic Thomas Point light [photo] and back to the marina … and back to my last-ever week of work before retirement and full-time cruising. “Work” seems restful by comparison after a hard-to-top weekend like this one!

The Best Thing About Having Guests

We're trying to schedule some one-on-one time with each of our closest friends in the DC area in the last few weeks before we set sail for the Bahamas. Sunday, we spent the day with our cousins Rob and Amanda and their two sons. It's important to their parents that the boys have a broad sense of life's possibilities, and Charlie and Jamie are exactly the right age (7 and 4) to be fascinated with the idea of living on a boat. Until now, they'd seen kayaks and canoes and pontoon boats, but never before a boat that someone lived on full-time. "Like a little house," mom exclaimed, when she saw the upholstery and wood veneers below.

It was a lot of fun to see the boat through the boys' young eyes, as they found "cool" or "ooh" so many things we've come to take for granted. They climbed all over the boat and experimented with turning the winches and standing at the helm and the weight of the anchor. They slid the doors on the pantry and opened the lids on the storage lockers built into the table.They were intrigued with the V-berth, the idea that grown-ups would sleep in a bed with sides so you can't fall out, and we asked them to think about what would happen if you were sleeping in a regular bed and a big wave shakes the boat. They stood on the deck above, and looked down through the hatch while I demonstrated the pull-out shower faucet that you could hold in your hand. And they loved the idea that they could get the entire bathroom wet when taking a shower (I need to ask Amanda if this is a generic mischievous little boy thing, or if there's a story there!) They looked in the lockers and tried to prioritize which of their toys and books they would bring if that was all the space they had. We took them for a dinghy ride on the creek, where they saw ducks and herons and other boats big and small. They played in the playground and went for a dip in the pool, and for lunch at the Wet Dog cafe.

We did all the typical marina things they would enjoy, and their appreciation helped us suddenly realize all we had been taking for granted. That's the fascinating thing about having guests, the way they force you to look at the familiar through new eyes. We got a lovely thank-you note from the family, but really, for the gift of being reminded of how amazing our life afloat can be, I feel like we should be thanking them.

Murphy's Law

I'm positive that it was the sound of my own voice I heard, telling my new friend and fellow liveaboard writer Cindy that we pretty much had the big systems in place for the boat to be ready to go south for our trip. After all, we've been living aboard and making improvements for all that time. We're doing the little lifestyle touches now, I told her, things that don't make the boat safer or sail faster, but are comfort stuff and lifestyle improvement. Not "have to haves" but "nice to haves." We're changing the knobs and latches on some of the lockers, refinishing some of the teak trim, figuring out a faster system for lashing the dinghy to the deck. Just finicky stuff, because all the important stuff's done. Right. Seems Mr. Murphy, he of the famous Law of chaos that states that whatever CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong, he was listening too. Thus it was that on the way back from a picture-perfect raftup, as we steered a straight course, the autopilot informed us that we were turning two complete circles hard left. Thus it was that the wonderfully efficient refrigeration system we'd installed 5 years ago suddenly developed an obstruction in the line which made the compressor continue to run at maximum without chilling, while our food got warmer and warmer. And thus it was that a crack in the holding tank widened, and some VERY foul smelling liquids leaked into the bilge.
So fast forward a couple of weeks, because I really don't want to dwell on the scramble we have been doing. The new fridge is in place. They talked us into upgrading ("for only $50 more") and now that we're enjoying really cold drinks, I have to admit the previous one was a bit undersized for the task we asked of it. We *think* we've got the autopilot working again, at least, we replaced the compass and it performed properly on sea trials, though we haven't given it a proper test yet. A new holding tank is on order, and while we're waiting, Dan is taking the opportunity to upgrade the rest of the system, originally built in 1980, to current standards. Why did I ever think sailing away was going to be relaxing and easy???

Because Travel is What Boats are For

We've done lots of one- or two-week trips on other people's boats, in various places from Maine to the Virgin Islands. On *our* boat, we've also only been able to go out for one-week trips here in the mid-Chesapeake. I wrote about one such cruise, where we traveled to Rock Hall and Baltimore, last October. We've been limited to a week due to work committments. But that's changing.
This summer we’re retiring. Actually, Dan is already retired, and I'll retire at the end of this month. To celebrate, we’re taking an 8-month cruise on *our* boat. We plan to spend the month of September cruising the Chesapeake, coming back to Annapolis for Boat Show in October, then going down the southeast coast of the US, to the Bahamas, and expected back in Annapolis in April or May 2010. It's going to be a big change for us after almost 7 years having a fixed address here in Annapolis. I'm both excited and nervous about my soon-to-be new life. I'll be blogging about the trip here in "Life Afloat," because ultimately, even though it's our home, its also a boat, and travel is what boats are for.


I recently read an article that speculates that "many of our modern-day mental problems, including depression, stress and anxiety, can be traced in part to society's increasing alienation from nature." We evolved in sync with the air, water, plants, animals, and we're hard-wired to interact with them. Since the Industrial Revolution, though, we've started getting up to the alarm clock, not sunrise. Technology only makes it worse; some cubicle-dwellers rarely see the daytime sky, then go home to sit indoors and watch TV.
So what does that have to do with living on a boat? The article goes on to say that many Americans can spend as little as 15-30 minutes per day outdoors (walking to their car, no doubt). Living aboard both enables and forces us to spend lots of great time connected to nature in ways we never were when we lived in a house. There's sitting in the sunny cockpit with morning coffee watching the day begin, or sleeping in the V-berth under an open hatch watching the stars and moon. For the rest, even when we're tied up in the slip we're made aware of nature and its cycles. We know the rise and fall of the tide, as the boat moves. We know the strength of the wind and whether it's calm or rough on the water - in extreme cases things slide off countertops and tables. The patter of rain is loud with only a thin shell of fiberglass between us and it. I don't know how strong a force "eco-depression" is if one is isolated from nature ... but I know that the alternative, living on a boat, in touch with nature, makes me very happy!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Moving Aboard -- Extreme Downsizing

I always thought of Steve and Michele as the couple down the dock with the little powerboat and big dog. But this season they traded in the powerboat for a brand-new 40-something foot Jenneau sailboat, and now they’re spending every weekend aboard in Annapolis, and loving it. Suddenly, living aboard became a real possibility for them. There are a lot of things that could be obstacles, such as whether the move would make their commutes impossible, or simply dreadful; and aging parents; and the state of the real estate market. Other than showing them my super secret-agent route across the District, that avoids some of the traffic congestion, some of the time, I can’t help with most of their challenges. But one concern that Michele voiced, “What do you do about your stuff?” – that, we could talk about. Food for thought for some land-based downsizers, as well.
Moving from a house to a boat is a huge attitude adjustment. Can you say, “storage space?” Of course, none of your furniture comes with you, tables and seating are built in. But what about the rest? For scale, think about what you would chose to bring if everything – every. single. thing. – you contemplated bringing had to fit in the kitchen cabinets of your land-based house or apartment. That’s all the space you have, and in that space you need to find homes for not just pots and pans and dishes and food, but also all your clothing and your backpack and your toolbox and your books and the spare sheets for the guest bed and … you get the idea. When we were first thinking of moving aboard I asked my friend Linda Glaser how to prioritize and she said, “First, all your safety stuff. Then, your tools. Then, everything else.” That was almost 10 years ago and I still chant that like a mantra. It’s a sobering reflection on the difference between things you need, and things you want.
I hope I didn’t scare Michele – I haven’t seen her around the docks in the last week or so. But regardless, given the current economy, I know a lot of people who are reconsidering their relationship with their possessions – even the ones who aren’t toying with the idea of moving onto a sailboat.

Going Up!

One day our neighbor Charlee found that the wind-sensing instruments at the top of her mast weren't working. She considered trying to enlist the help of a passing seagull to fly to the top and assist ... um, with the expected result ... or lack of one. Instead, she asked if we would help her get up the mast on Saturday.
She got into her bosun's chair, a canvas sling that is a cross between child's swing and a mountain-climbing harness, and the standard equipment for sailors needing to go up the mast to make repairs. We attached two lines to her. Dan took the main halyard (strong, non-stretchy rope line that is normally used for raising the mainsail), and I held a completely separate second halyard for safety in the unlikely event that the first one broke. Using the winches usually used for raising the sail, up she (slowly) went. Our calling back and forth to each other didn't go unheard, and fellow liveaboard Cathy G. snapped this photo of the process from the next dock.
The trip is not for the faint of heart! Her mast is almost as tall as a 6-story building and she was at the top. Luckily we picked a calm day, because any swaying would be magnified as she was at the end of the pendulum. The job went quickly and before she knew it we were bringing her back down. If you don't mind heights, going up the mast can be a fun experience; here's the view she had of the mouth of Back Creek.

Funny Pun-ny Boat Names

One of the joys of being in an outside slip in our marina is that we can sit in the cockpit and watch the parade of boats going up and down the creek. On a beautiful holiday weekend like this one there's a steady line of everything from kayaks and sailing dinghies to big gleaming cruisers to the graceful charter schooners the Woodwind and Woodwind II. Early this morning we watched a medium size sailboat that seemed to be floundering around in circles, finally we realized they had a skipper on board, were probably relatively new, and were practicing docking to get the feel of their boat (good for them!). I'm intrigued with the range of names, some very self-important, and some more light-hearted. There were a whole batch of puns, such as "Fanta-sea" and "Seas the Day" and "Sea-duction."
I was particularly taken by one group of names. You can just imagine these are designed to allow a secretary to tell the literal truth when fielding calls for a boss who's playing hooky from the office. There are two different sailboats here called "A Sales Call" (Sails Call). Can't you just hear it? "I'm sorry, Dr Jones can't come to the phone right now, he's on A Sales Call, I'm expecting him back late this afternoon." There must be a lot of truth-telling secretaries and receptionists here, because in the same vein, I've also seen boats named "The Other Line" (with a picture of a telephone as their logo), "In Surgery," "Field Office," and my new favorite, "O-fish-ial Business."


That’s boatspeak for “back into the water” and far more comfortable than being “on the hard” as were for the last week and a half. The marina drove a kind of motorized frame over our boat and lifted it in a pair of giant webbing slings. Then they drove to a special slip designed for the purpose, and lowered us back into the water.
While we were hanging in the slings we asked them what the boat weighed – 21,000 pounds. Interesting, when we first bought the boat and had it moved by truck from Texas to Michigan, the driver told us – and charged us – for 17,000 pounds. So where did the extra 4,000 pounds come from? Part of it was fuel and water, the tanks were completely empty for the drive, but full last week. 120 gallons of water weighs about 1,000 pounds, and 50-odd gallons of diesel, another 350 pounds. And there’s some new equipment that we added, an autopilot and a windlass and 2 large anchors and 100 feet of anchor chain. All told, maybe another 500 or 600 pounds. Still, there’s 2000 pounds of additional weight unaccounted for. The only thing left is our personal possessions. That means that despite all our talk of simplifying and downsizing, after living aboard for seven years … we still have A TON OF STUFF!!! Literally!!!

Heard in Passing

I half-remember a children's story about a little girl who lived high in the mountains, and for whatever reason, she relocated to the city. Poignantly, the first few nights when she heard the unfamiliar sound of cars passing in the distance, she assumed the sound was wind in the pine trees - the thing she was familiar with.
Here on the hard, every time I hear a car pass, I interpret it to be a dinghy passing our stern, and flex my knees to take up the shock as I "know" that in another minute, our boat will be bobbing in their wake.
Can you tell I can't wait to get back in the water?

"On the Hard"

There are some items of boat maintenance that simply can’t be done in the water. Painting the bottom comes to mind. So does removing and cleaning the seacocks, those handy devices that keep the ocean out of the boat. Right – remove them for maintenance, then there’s nothing keeping the ocean out of the boat! So for those lovely projects, the boat has to be on land.

When I first heard a boat-savvy friend use the phrase “on the hard” I had all these poetic romantic thoughts about how static and unyielding land is compared to the restless ever-changing ocean. Now that we live aboard, when we’re hauled for maintenance, the phrase “fish out of water” seems a lot more apt. I think “on the hard” just describes what life is like when you live on a boat that’s temporarily out of its native element. Life on the hard is, well … hard … as living aboard begins to resemble camping out.

First there’s the climbing a ladder to come aboard. It’s interesting to be eye level with the trees, and it’s a new perspective to look down from the cockpit and see the tops of our cars parked just behind the boat. That’s about where the fun ends, though. It seems like just a few posts ago I was smugly pointing out how we conserve water by using seawater to flush. And how seawater also cools our refrigerator system, and air conditioning. Mmmm, right. No seawater up here. So bathroom, refrigerator, and A/C are replaced by older, simpler solutions -- bucket, ice blocks, and wishful thinking. It’s really good weather for painting, though, so hopefully we’ll get the jobs done and back in the water soonest.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Towboat “us” (a nautical comedy of errors? Or an ordinary day in the life afloat?)

One of the wonderful things about living in Annapolis is that sooner or later everyone who’s cruising up and down the East Coast comes through here. Sometimes they just stay for a day or two, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for a season. So even though we’re tied to one spot (for now) by jobs, we are in touch with cruisers from everywhere.
So we were excited to hear from good friends James and Ellen that they were arriving in Annapolis after coming up the ICW from Florida, and we were to look for them and their new-to-them sailboat at about 5:30 Sunday evening. Right on time they hailed us on the VHF as they were coming up Back Creek to anchor. Just as suddenly, a mini-crisis as their engine died, and they were drifting helplessly in the channel at the mouth of the creek. They managed to get their anchor down so they wouldn’t be pushed into the shoal, and called us to ask if we could launch our dinghy to tow them a little way up the creek to one of the City moorings. There they could safely spend the night and fix the engine problems in the morning. As we were lowering our dinghy and engine into the water, our dock-neighbors Richard and Joan came by in their dinghy. “Wanna play bumper boats?” asked Richard. “Actually, if you wouldn’t mind…” we replied, and we recruited them to help as tow well, since they would be able to get to the crippled sailboat sooner than we could. Ever gracious, they said not a word and headed off in the indicated direction. It was only later that I realized they were dressed awfully nicely for a game of dinghy bumper-boats. A few minutes later we got our dinghy launched and followed them down the creek.
When we arrived we found Richard and Joan had already attached their dinghy to one side of the sailboat and were towing it slowly toward safety, while chatting with our friends. We came up to the other side of the sailboat. After a comic scene that briefly had Richard and Joan’s small dinghy towing the sailboat forward while dragging us behind backward, we got straightened out and made a sailboat sandwich with one dinghy on each side. With two dinghies, we made good speed towing … until Richard and Joan’s erstwhile dinghy-towboat ran out of gas! To be fair, they had only intended to take their dinghy across the creek to go to dinner (thus the neat clothing) and they had had more than enough fuel for that. So this time it was our turn to tow the sailboat and second dinghy, while James passed a jerry-jug of gasoline from the sailboat to refuel the first dinghy. Finally our little raftup approached the mooring; our dinghy peeled off to get the mooring line and hand it up to secure the sailboat, and Richard and Joan headed out for dinner.
Next day, problems solved, James and Ellen took their sailboat to Weems Creek where they would spend a few weeks. We had plans to pick them up there by car to go out to dinner. Here at the marina, we can simply step off the boat onto the dock to walk ashore; but at the mooring they lack that convenience, so they would take their dinghy (in yesterday’s heavy rain) from where the boat sat on its mooring to the public boat ramp. Our friends are usually as prompt as only military or retired military folk can be, so we were surprised to be kept waiting. Of course, since we had the advantage of a warm dry car to wait in, having us wait was probably preferable to having them wait for us. We looked up the creek to where their boat was moored. For a moment I thought I saw a small spot motoring near their boat, but as it got closer I saw that instead of our friends, it was a small powerboat with four bedraggled rather subdued looking people aboard, motoring slowly toward the boat ramp. No sign of James and Ellen. But then - mystery solved! I had in fact seen them leave their boat in their dinghy. The small powerboat had had engine trouble and were drifting in the Severn. The recent recipients of a tow themselves, James and Ellen had detoured to help and were towing the small powerboat ashore. That’s the how it is with good deeds. You can’t pay it back, all you can do is pass it on.

Blue Angels

I telecommute; my boss lives and works in Florida. So when I told him that Annapolis virtually shuts down when the Blue Angels perform, his first reaction was something like, "Must be nice to live in a party town. Any excuse, huh?" (Oh, that makes him sound so curmudgeonly; actually I like working for him enormously and the line was delivered in a jokey manner.) But if you live here, you know exactly what I mean. They put on a spectacular show well worth using a couple of hours of annual leave to watch. More to the point, you simply couldn't conduct business even if you wanted to - hard to carry on a conversation when the unmistakeable WHOOSH drowns out your words.
Our liveaboard dock-neighbor Ed Menegaux planned on taking his boat out to watch the show and invited a group of us to go along. Anchoring in the harbor is a different viewing experience than watching from the hillslope below the WWII memorial directly across from the Academy. Granted, the viewing angle for some of the stunts isn't as good. That's more than made up for with the wonderful ambiance. Instead of a picnic blanket and lugging a cooler, we had all the comforts of home, because the boat is Ed's home. We all had comfy cushioned seats and Ed laid out a lovely spread with veggies and dips, sliced cheeses and sausages, marinated artichokes and olives. The harbor was crowded, and we saw some examples of dreadful seamanship (by others! Ed was excellent as always) before every boat found a spot to anchor. We had space and comfort, and at the same time, we got to share the event with lots of others, and participate in the energy of the crowd ooohing and wowing and pointing as the planes passed. Sometimes right overhead at treetop ... er, masthead ... height, it seemed. After they streaked away, all the boats blew their horns and upped anchor. For a few minutes the boat traffic was as bad as the Beltway during rush hour, then within an hour we were back in Ed's slip and the harbor was quiet.
Congrats to the class of 2009!

"Greening" the Bay?

We learned to sail in the Caribbean, and then kept our boat in northern Lake Michigan, so we took it for granted that water is clear. Our mooring in Michigan was in 21 feet of water, and we could look over the side and see the old railroad wheel that was our “anchor.” So it was a bit of a shock, coming to the sadly murky greenish-black Chesapeake. When I first found the satellite maps in Google, I did what most people do first – plugged in my own address. Then I excitedly emailed the link to my friend and boat-neighbor Charlee. “Hey, check this out! If you zoom in you can see our boats, green canvas on yours, tan on ours! And that’s our dingy floating in back!” Environmentally-conscious Charlee emailed back, “Look at all the growth in Back Creek! It’s as green as a grass lawn!” Ugh. She was right. So I found it encouraging to read the article earlier this week in the Capital that there are signs of hope for Bay recovery, and pledges by the governors of the Bay states to do still more. Some ways mentioned to reduce nitrogen pollution included upgrading sewage-treatment plants and septic systems, planting more trees and buffers along streams, planting more cover crops on farms, and curbing stormwater runoff. They seem to have mentioned all the sectors. I was relieved that they didn’t comment on boaters. We use our holding tank, and overall have a pretty small environmental footprint. (Yeah, I'm still feeling smug about our solar panels, too.) On the other hand, conspicuous to me by its absence, were contributions by the factory chicken farms.

Bye-bye electric bills, hello sunshine!

So for Earth Day Dan and I:
  • telecommuted and saved gas (okay, I guess I really did that for myself. love working from home!)
  • took the stairs instead of the elevator to my doctors appt
  • brought reusable bags to the grocery store, where we bought local produce whereever we could
  • wiped the hard disk from an ancient laptop, and collected a bunch of used batteries, to bring to the "personal electronics recycling drive" at work
  • hoped to install the solar panels we bought a couple of months ago, but discovered we had the wrong mounting brackets and had to reorder the right size.
Yay me!

Our plan for the following weekend was to have a nice fish dinner Friday evening, then install our solar panels Saturday morning (the clamps had arrived in Friday's mail). The weather was predicted perfect (80s during the day, 60-ish at night, moderate winds) so we'd planned to anchor out in the undeveloped Rhode River where I could do some long-overdue writing after we finished the solar panel project.

The weekend started great. Salmon brushed with some lemon-pepper-garlic oil that friend Melissa had given us at Xmastime, rice medley with portabello mushrooms and cream (NOT from a Campells soup can, either!) and green beans, and a bottle of wine. But then on Saturday morning, the solar panel installation proved to be more complex logistically than we'd expected. So by 3:00 in the afternoon, we had only the first of the two panels up, and no wiring connected.

We decided that finishing the project would be more gratifying than going out for the weekend. And in many ways, staying in our slip is almost as nice as being out. We're paying the upgrade for an "outside" slip directly on Back Creek, with a great unobstructed view of passing boat traffic - and worth every penny of it!
So we stayed in the slip and stayed on the job and, to make a long story short, two trips to the marine supply store, a lot of trial and error, a fair dose of self-doubt, and reading and rereading the instructions, plus two different textbooks on boat systems, and by mid-afternoon Sunday .... success!

One way or another, sailboats have to be their own power company. You can't very well run an extension cord out to the middle of the Atlantic, so you have to be self-sufficient. When power is limited, you get very aware of every usage, and every waste. The refrigerator is our biggest power drain, which didn't seem so surprising. But the fact that the computer was second-largest, was unexpected. I was pretty confident of my calculations for our power use. If the panels lived up to their advertising, and we continued to conserve as we've done in the past, we'd be able to make ALL our power needs on sunny days, until we have 3 cloudy days in a row. The only thing we wouldn't be able to provide is air conditioning. For that, we'd still need shore power. Of course, if we're on the water, its cooler and breezier so perhaps we'll need it less often.

The first couple of days after the installation were warm and sunny, and the panels produced exactly as expected. We were making 100% of our power needs! We were fixated on the battery monitors the way other people are glued to the TV. Our dinner conversation showcased our engineering nerdiness and contained such scintillating gems as, "Hey, babe, did you know that the fridge is using 4 amps when it runs?" and "What does the panel show now?" By Wednesday when the cloudy weather began, we were still able to keep up, but only because the relatively cool water this time of year did not tax the fridge overly much. Of course, now, after a week of steady clouds, we're unable to keep up until we get couple of good sunny days and needing to supplement with shore power. I can't find much fault in the solar panels for that; after this many dreary gray days in a row, I also need a couple of days of good sunshine to perk up my energy level!

Wait. Stop. Think.

So, we mail-ordered this amazing new light fixture for the main cabin. All our friends have been raving about this - great color light,super energy-efficient, attractive box, etc etc. It arrived yesterday and we can't wait to install it. We're reading the instructions and there's this warning about being careful about the input voltage, if the lamp is operating with input voltage too high it will burn out the ballast. Uh, oh, our new super-efficient solar panels? Could they cause problems when they're running at full capacity on a bright sunny afternoon while the lamp is on?

Panic. We're digging through the technical specs, dig out the volt-ohm-meter, what to do? We spend at least 1/2 hour trying to decide if it'll be safe to combine this lamp with these solar panels.

Wait. Stop. Think. How often are we likely to need to turn the light on during a bright sunny afternoon? Ummm, right, got it! Duh!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Water, water everywhere?

The world is heading for “water bankruptcy” in the next few decades, according to this article that came out of the Davos forum last week. This prediction is even scarier when you read that it’s going to come true just based on the way we use water now, even in the absence of climate change predictions. So what does that have to do with living on a boat?

There are only so many ways to get your drinking water when you live on a boat. Some high-end boats can desalinate their own from sea water, using expensive high-maintenance technology that only works if the source water is very clean. Some others catch rain water. Still others, including virtually all the marina liveaboards I know, have water tanks on their boats that they fill from garden hoses or taps on their docks.

No matter what system people use, the hassle involved in monitoring and refilling our tanks makes us much more aware of water use and waste than we ever were before. When we lived in a house on land, we turned on the tap, the water flowed, as much as we needed, clean and nearly free. Even though water here in the marina is still virtually free, the hassle factor changes our mindset completely. I’ve mentioned before that in summer, each boat slip has its own water tap. But these taps would freeze in winter, so “winter water” consists of one tap at the end of the dock, in a special hose that sits deep under water below the freeze level, tied to the dock with a rope. You pull the tap up from underwater with the rope, then call the marina to turn the water on, fill your tank, then they turn the water off and you lower the tap back underwater again. The tap is about 100 feet from our boat, too far for our garden hose to reach, so we team up with other liveaboards, chain all our hoses together, and fill everyone’s tanks in a “water party” on a warm weekend day once or twice a month. The more water you use, the faster you empty your tank, and the more often you go through this exercise.

Strathy lives aboard with his young family in Canada and writes a blog titled We Live On a Boat; he would find our inconvenient winter water system an upgrade. In one recent post he mentions as an aside that “We also consume much less than the average four person family, simply because we don’t have an unlimited supply. For instance water; I have to haul all our water to the boat in jugs during the winter. Because of that, I keep a very close eye on every drop that comes out of our taps and can really turn into the soup-nazi if I think for a second that my water is being wasted. (NO WATER FOR YOU!!!)” Hauling jugs of water for a family of 4? Over the ice-covered docks in a Canadian winter? Wow!

So exactly how much water do we use? Statistics indicate that the average household in the U.S. uses 100 gallons, per person, per day. In the West, some cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas use as much as 200 gallons per person per day, as shown in figure 19 of this report. Some of that goes to watering the lawn and washing the car; still, indoor water use is 70 gallons per person per day, broken out as shown here on EPAs website. On the boat, we decrease our household fresh water use by using sea water to flush our toilet, and take our clothing to the laundromat, so we use less water than the land-based, but by EPAs numbers, we would still expect to use 35 gallons per person per day. Our water tank is considered “large” by standards of a boat our size, and we don’t have to be quite as rigorous as Strathy, but if we didn’t do something toward conserving, we’d be doing the garden hose dance every two days. Yikes! I’m not going to list a series of “how to conserve water” tips (other folks do that better, here or here) or wax enthusiastic about the joys of Navy showers (turn on the water, wet yourself down, turn off the water, soap up, turn on the water, rinse off), but think about it, okay?

(originally published February 1, 2009)

An Optical Illusion?

It was cold and silent as we walked down the dock in the gray pre-dawn this morning. No birds - gone for the winter. No people - most of them have left for the winter, too, their boats hulking under white shrink-wrap. No little splashy sounds of moving water, it's immobilized under a skin of ice. I wanted to hurry inside for warmth but was stopped by this fallen oak leaf. It looked so much like a gecko sunning himself, and for a moment I wasn't in Maryland on the chilliest day so far this winter, but on a Caribbean island.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Electric Tools, Antique Tools

The average American kitchen has so many small electric appliances, and we take so much for granted that there's a "labor-saving" tool for every task. Downsizing these was one of the more dramatic adaptations we had to make when moving aboard. Here at the marina, we have electricity, but as you saw in the photo from the previous post, we have so little space in the galley that we had to prioritize on which to keep. Prioritzing meant, no one-purpose items - blender, okay; Belgian waffle iron, not so much. Now when someone asks me about a bread-maker or dishwasher, I hold up both hands and wiggle my fingers - "This is my dishwasher."

For those times we are anchored out, not attached to the shore power, hand-operated appliances are key. Here, the issue - in addition to space - is power usage. Things that use electricity to make heat, like a crockpot or toaster, are very inefficient and use huge amounts of battery power. After having a coffeemaker since college days, I'd almost forgotten that you can make coffee the low-tech way by pouring almost-boiling water through coffee grounds in a filter or French press.

Anchoring out does not mean "camping out." Although many of our meals aboard are one-dish soups and stews, we've done some pretty elaborate 4 or 5 course meals, even without electric appliances. Our favorite show-off meal is a cheese souffle. We once made this meal for our good friend and sailing mentor David Kummerle, and this led by a not-too-circuitous route to one of our favorite airport security stories. (Doesn't everyone have at least one?)

David has lived aboard a boat which is the big sister ship to ours for many years in the Virgin Islands. He hosts private learn-to-sail vacations there, where he also serves as gourmet cook. Every year, he visits us for a week sailing in the Chesapeake, and we visit him for a week sailing in the VI. One year when he was visiting, we made our signature souffle, using an old hand-crank eggbeater to whip the egg whites. (How many people have those any more? Where would you even buy one outside of an antique store, now that most cooks have KitchenAid mixers and their ilk?) He was suitably impressed with the final result, and speculated about learning to do this for his charter guests.

So the next time we flew down to visit him, we packed a house gift in our luggage - a beautiful white ceramic souffle dish and an eggbeater. Going through security at BWI was no problem, but somehow, by the time we changed planes in Puerto Rico, something raised a red flag. One screener frowned and called another one over and pointed to something on the monitor while they carried on a discussion too rapid for me to follow with my limited Spanish. Then they asked (in English) if I would mind if they searched my luggage. So while I'm smilingly saying "No, of course, go ahead" I'm thinking "Yikes! What are they seeing?"

Well, it seems the eggbeater showed a puzzling shape in the xray machine. The first screener didn't know what to make of it - is this a weapon? - but another woman working with him snatched it up with a cry of delight and started cranking it in midair. We couldn't make out most of the conversation but I caught one word - abuela (grandmother) - and the body language said it all. She hadn't seen one of these in years, but her grandmother used one to make birthday cakes. Next thing we knew, she had "borrowed" our eggbeater and was in the next screening lane, still madly cranking the air. There was laughter, and they called another woman from yet another lane over.

Finally when traffic had been disrupted for long enough and laughter and reminiscing had died down to a chuckle, a smiling security guard returned our tool and waved us on to our plane.

= = = =
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In the Galley

Our galley aboard looks tiny at first glance but works perfectly
 ... and has everything we need
It's the kind of gray and blustery day that can only be warmed by a pot of soup bubbling on the stove. Something spicy and bright-colored, maybe gold or orange. Hmm, pumpkin? curried yellow split pea?

From my favorite writing spot at the nav station I look across to the galley for inspiration. Several boat guests have described it as one of the best laid out galleys they've seen, yet by land standards it's utterly cramped.

In what seems to be a former life, Dan had a kitchen design-remodel business. For most clients, bigger was definitely better, for the small percentage of those who didn't want walls moved, it was about adding bigger appliances, long unbroken sweeps of counter space, maybe an added island or peninsula. In 15 years of the business, no one ever asked us to make their kitchen smaller. Yet our galley measures 4'x6' - about the size of the powder room in our townhouse.

We get our share of "the cobbler's children always go barefoot" jokes about the kitchen designer's tiny floating kitchen, but they miss their target - there are reasons for most of the design anomalies aboard. By land standards, or by the rules of kitchen design, the space between range and sink looks cramped. The kitchen design rules want the space between parallel counters to be 4 feet or wider; here it's a smidge under 2 feet. That narrow space, though, means you can lean against something solid if you're cooking at sea - and a wave can't hurl you across the cabin as it could in a more open plan. The apartment-size stove means I'll never roast a 20-lb turkey, but it's mounted on gimbals to stay level even if we're heeled (leaning sideways) underway.

The fridge is a pair of deep boxes that open from the top rather than the front, so that neither cold air nor food can spill out when it's opened. You can just make out the brass rings that are used for lifting the lids, directly below the spice rack. The boxes are so deep in fact that only 6-foot-tall Dan can reach the bottom of the box when it's time for cleaning and defrosting -- and we could certainly tell stories about the amazing things that were forgotten on the bottom that we rediscover weeks or months later! All the lockers have latches and the shelves have lips to keep things stowed when it gets lumpy out.

I'm so accustomed to small kitchen appliances, though, that giving them up was the most dramatic adaptation we had to make when moving aboard. I've got so many stories to tell about that adventure that it'll have to be saved for another post. Meanwhile, not to tread on fellow blogger Louise Kirk's territory, dinner turned out to be a fish chowder brightened with carrots, red bell peppers, corn, and black beans.


My favorite winter ritual - spectacle, really - is the Parade of Lighted Boats. I first moved to Annapolis in November 6 years ago, I was living on the boat alone while Dan finished his teaching contract for the semester in Michigan. He arrived after a snowy 12-hour drive with our cat and dog on a Friday night in mid-December and I said, "Guess where we're going tomorrow." My glassy-eyed spouse said, "Whatever," so next evening we bundled up and staked out spots on the dock of the Chart House overlooking Spa Creek, not quite knowing what to expect.
We were absolutely dazzled by the elaborateness of the displays, some serious, some humorous, but all generous gifts of the skippers' time and energy to the community. Proof that the holiday mood is indeed contagious, the restaurant staff came outside and served us all hot chocolate - unexpected, unasked-for, and hence doubly warming.
Sailboats are naturals for decorating with holiday lights, with their tall masts and rails to hang lights from. Ours sports a swirl of green rope lights, a sketch of an Xmas tree topped with an anchor light in lieu of a treetop star - a sort of nautical visual pun. But that's nothing compared to the extraordinary energy put into the displays for the parade. One of my marina neighbors explained just how much energy. Christy had been a liveaboard until she reluctantly gave up the liveaboard life in 2005 when the long hours demanded of her job as a lawyer made the commute to Annapolis ridiculous; she still describes herself as a part-time liveaboard. She volunteered her boat to do the parade for the Singles on Sailboats club simply because it was an opportunity to do something different. "I've never been in a boat parade before. You can keep your boat pristine and perfect if you keep it at the dock and don't do anything." Christy and fellow club member Frank Florentine began work on the display in September, for a project they described as "simple" compared to that of previous years. Frank's day job is as lighting designer for the Air and Space Museum, so he had perhaps an edge and he brought those tricks, as well as with meticulous computer drawings of the planned display. and 10 club members worked every weekend for the last few weeks to bring it to completion.
photo caption: Members of the Singles on Sailboats club Ron Pence, Jody Hutchins, Terri Craig, Mary Ann Bleeke, Christy Tinnes work on a display for tonights parade. Frank Florentine is up the mast.

The Carton Labeled Winter

Most of our land-based friends think of boating as a summertime activity, so "What do you do in winter?" is a common question. In a flippant mood, Dan will sometimes answer "turn up the heat, just like you do. We do, after all, have electricity." The second question is generally "what about ice?" Too many movies, perhaps - I think they have dramatic visions of our hull getting crushed like an egg between icebergs. The docks have bubblers to keep the water agitated and bring the warm water up from the bottom, to keep ice from forming. Actually, those bubblers protect the docks more than they protect the boats. If ice freezes around the pilings, and the water rises during high tide, the pilings could be pulled out. But the boats need little protection, we float up with the ice. As long as there aren't strong currents crashing slabs of ice into us, we're fine. And here in the creek, we're pretty sheltered - it's too calm for that doomsday scenario.

Last month we went on vacation for two weeks, and when we came back it was definitely no longer autumn. We went to the shed and removed the box labeled "winter." In it are scarves and gloves, Xmas lights and small space heaters, and we prepared to hunker down for another episode of living aboard in winter.
When winter comes, we turn the boat with its bow to the northwest, in the direction of the strongest anticipated winds. Luckily in our case, this also puts the stern to the dock for safer, easier access - although easier is a relative term. Even the lightest dusting of snow or frost can make the dock very slick, and a fall into that chilly water while weighted down with winter, rather not think about it. So we have yaktrax cleats from an outdoor store to put over our shoes when going ashore in the morning. Actually, 2 pairs - one on the boat, for going ashore; and one in the car in case it starts snowing while we're at work, so we can get back aboard. Long periods of strong winds from the north can also blow the water out of the bay. This seiche can be much more extreme than the mild tidal fluctuations we ordinarily get here in the Chesapeake. Because our docks are at a fixed elevation, when the water level drops so dramatically it can be a real challenge getting on or off the boat. The dock is waaay up there overhead and you can't simply step off. Hmmm, a novel reason to call in and skip work for a day? My equivalent to being snowed in - being seiched in?

Last Cruise of the Autumn, Part II

We expected urban Baltimore to be the opposite end of the spectrum from the small-town atmosphere of Rock Hall. Because we were prepared, we got only major, instead of devastating, culture shock when we arrived. After we passed under Key Bridge we motored up the Patapsco River for an hour, staying just outside of the buoys that marked the shipping channel. The further we went, the more densely developed the banks became, until we came to the very end, the Inner Harbor marina.
I've never been in a marina surrounded by skyscrapers before! This was unique. When the ad said "in the heart of downtown Baltimore," they weren't exaggerating. The location made the entertainment possibilities within walking distance incredible, with many museums, restaurtants, and shopping. The marina itself was recently rebuilt, they had all the latest conveniences, including docks that float up and down with the tides so its always easy to step off your boat and cable TV and Wifi at every slip.

We spent the next day exploring some of those possibilities within walking distance. So many choices! We strolled the red brick walk around the harbor, stopping to watch the students practicing acrobatic skills at the trapeze school (I have to admit I never really thought about a school for trapeze artists before), and past the science museum. We decided to soak up a bit of history an visit the old Constellation. The first thing that impressed me was the scale of the ship, not dwarfed against the skyscrapers as our little boat is. I was noted the contrast between the spaciousness and elegance and privacy provided to the officers, and the rows and rows of hammocks that sketched life for the ordinary seamen. We saw demonstrations of how the sails were hoisted that made us appreciate the modern winches and smaller scale of our boat. We learned the reason for the odd setup with two wheels back-to-back for the helm station. In very rough weather, it took the strength of more than one man to hold a ship of this size on course. We watched (with hands over ears) as they fired the cannon. After the tour came pizza and beer for lunch, then the big decision - what to do next? Visit the aquarium? Do some shopping at Harbor Place? Tour the historic submarine, lightship, Coast Guard cutter?

I found myself wondering, what my life would be like if this marina were home? Would this be a cool place to live year round? Would it be better than Annapolis? Would the advantages of the big city, with everything within walking distance, outweigh the to-us-major disadvantage of having to motor for an hour or more down the river to get to the Bay to go sailing?

I realized that when visiting a new place, I often mentally try out living there. There's always a sense that life would be just a little bit better if I could just find the right location. And, since the right location could be just one town over or across the country, then it's my own fault if I don't do enough homework/research to find that spot to settle. Sometimes I think this restless sense comes from living on a boat. Unlike the land-based, for us moving doesn't involve a house to sell and new house to be found, in order to experience a new place. We simply up anchor or untie dock lines, and go. No packing, no unpacking. Having a home that can so easily be moved to a new place in that sense eliminates one more possible excuse for not seeking the optimum place to live happily ever after. Another possibility is that this desire to find the perfect place is in our national character. After all, the U.S. was the place that people came when they were seeking more opportunities to make a good life than they were able to find in Europe. On the other hand, maybe my search for the perfect place comes from my personal history, having relocated so many times "in service to Uncle Sam." Dan and I count between us 23 moves since college, climates from the snowy pines of Michigan to sun-baked Arizona, and we still haven't experienced all the variety this country has to offer.

In the end, though, the fantasies of an alternate location remained just that, as we slipped the docklines and turned the bow towards Annapolis and the cars we'd left in the parking lot. We might spend some future winter in Baltimore. Winter - when we don't sail and the long trip downriver to get to the Bay would be a moot point.

Last Cruise of the Autumn, Part I

The boss who hired me, mentioned in "Getting Started," has retired. My new boss takes his job seriously. At the same time, he totally "gets" that we're more interested in living a rounded life than in building a career. So I didn't think that I was taking too big a risk when I told him that my work was totally caught up, and I'd like to take advantage of what could be the last good weather of the season to take a week off and go sailing. Sure enough, he agreed.
Thus we found ourselves last Thursday loading the boat with provisions and, joined by good friend and sailing mentor David, taking off on a rollicking sail with the wind behind us, headed for Rock Hall. We smugly looked at traffic jams on the Bay Bridge as we breezed by under the bridge, and before we knew it, we were carefully following the buoys to avoid Swan Point Bar, the sand bar that shelters the harbor. We had two options for spending the night. We could drop anchor somewhere up Swan Creek, which would give us a quiet night surrounded by undeveloped land, marsh grasses and natural beauty. The price to be paid for this was that it was going to be a cold night if we couldn't plug into shore power to run our heater; and a long trip to get into town. The second option was to pay to stay at a marina within easy walking distance of town, with floating docks and plug-ins. Because of the predicted chilly temperatures and our curiousity about the town, we chose option "b."
Cruising has a much slower pace than other forms of being a tourist, and perhaps we are entertained by simpler things. We had a leisurely breakfast aboard, then strolled into town on a perfect October day. Town was quiet as most of the summer people were gone, what remained was at the same time more authentic, and a fantasy of what 1950s small town America was like. We had time to walk past the schoolyard where kids were playing soccer. We wandered into the drug store and sat at the soda fountain for malted milk shakes. We had time to learn the mystery of the low doorknobs on the old buildings in town. They were at the "right" height when the town was built, with macadam roads, but as time went by street level rose as the roads and sidewalks were built up and paved with concrete around the antique buildings.

low doorknobs

Fortified with our sugar buzz, we walked back to the marina and took the dinghy for a tour of the harbor. We saw boats of every kind, but the highlight of the tour was watching the watermen come in to unload their catch. We'd heard so much about the declining industry that we'd expected the watermen to be grizzled old salts, but most of these men were young and fit. Not so surprising in retrospect - as we watched, we realized just how physical a lifestyle theirs is.
Next day there was no wind for sailing, so we took the dinghy again for a tour of Swan Creek. We went out of the harbor and around the point and into the creek. At first the creek didn't look like much, but every time we thought we were approaching the end, we went around another bend and more intricate little twists and turns, grasses and coves, were revealed. Like the Energizer Bunny, it went on and on and on and on. At the end of two hours, our backs were tired and we were chilly and ready for lunch, and we hadn't seen all of it - just enough to put on our list to come back when the nights are warmer.

"catch of the day" being offloaded

David had especially wanted to visit Baltimore, so that was our next destination. (To be continued in next post)

sunset from our marina slip at Rock Hall Landing marina

Boat Show!

I love Boat Show time in Annapolis! My efriend Melissa Renee put it this way: "I love this show. So many new shiny boats begging for owners that will love them. Many gadgets to buy in all the booths. Pussers painkillers in tin mugs to drink. The best weather in the history of the show."

We went on to detail our purchases. We can be excited about "girl stuff" - she bought the same nesting cookware I bought last year, and I got new shades for our portholes (expensive, but hey, this is my home). But we are sailors after all, and got equally excited about boat hardware - a snatch block for her and a 6-part purchase for me.

In our crowd, no one asks "if" you're going to the boat show; they ask "which day(s)?" And the only topic of conversation in the evening is "Whadjaget?" Answers can range anywhere from "a couple of keychain floats, beer coozies, and a t-shirt" to big ticket items like solar panels, watermaker, or sails. New breathable rain gear (or "foulies" as we call them), and binoculars were other popular items.

Our boat had been used as a daysailer and floating condo before we bought it, and we're gradually getting the systems up to standard for extended cruising. Dan and I went to the show on Friday, and spent 6-1/2 hours walking through the vendors' tents. Some really clever ideas in boat gear to explore, others I can only describe as "solutions to problems you didn't know you had." For us, it was equal parts Christmas morning (without the cold), and shoppers with a mission as we had quite a list of products to research. We barely had time to look at new boats, but we certainly contributed to the local economy and now there are a fistful of receipts on our board. And in the aftermath of the show, I'm blogging and Dan's bending pipe cleaners into a model of the arch he wants the steel fabricator to build for our boat.

Of course, it's a boat show, after all, so we had to look at the boats themselves. We're not in the market for another boat, being totally happy with the one we live on, but that doesn't stop us from shopping for ideas. A lot like going to open houses and looking at model homes, I learn the most in my own price bracket or slightly above. We tend to look at boats that are more or less within our own size range - 30 to 36 feet. I can't wrap my mind around the luxuries aboard an 80-foot megayacht. The boats at the show, and their prices, were impressive for the most part. Some of the production boats were forced to make some changes, compromising on materials to keep the boat in a certain price range. (Melissa Renee confirmed this with one of the sales people at the show.) Sad in that sense, but I'm all for anything that will allow more people to get into sailing.

Most of all, I love the energy of the out-of-town crowds, the chance to meet/reconnect with friends from far away who've come in for the show. We had parties or friends over almost every night, and I had more than my fill of pizza, munchies, beer. One particularly fun gathering was a group from an internet sailing site - some of us have been emailing for years, and now have a face to put with a screen name. Mike and Christie won the 'distance award' for that group, having flown in from Colorado for the show. Now the powerboaters are in town, and its a totally different vibe. Hoping to get downtown for some good people-watching this afternoon!

Mike and Christie, taking a break from the show

Going Through the Bridge

Last weekend we were invited to an engagement party that friends Eric and Carleen were hosting for their son, Jeff, and soon-to-be-daughter-in-law Dorri. E and C have waterfront property and it was just too tempting to visit them by boat. We went for a day sail on Saturday and finished by dropping the hook off Truxton Park. We could just hear the announcer calling the Navy football game.

Rowing in to the party certainly made for a dramatic entrance and a great conversation starter. I even managed to keep my white pants clean, no mean feat when the dock was high enough that I had to climb out on my hands and knees. The guests were a fun mix of their neighbors, soon-to-be-inlaws, and boating friends like us. Many photos were taken of the happy couple with the sunset and the anchored boats in the background. Time passed way too quickly, and it was dark by the time we went back to the dock. The tide had risen and it was an easy step back into the dinghy for the row back home.

Next day, we had hoped to have our friends over for coffee in the cockpit, but they were just too overwhelmed with the party and their houseguests, so we decided to save that for another time. Instead, our day included a long chat with the folks anchored next to us. We took the dinghy and rowed up to the very end of the creek, far too shallow for our "big boat" to go. A man in a kayak smiled at us and said not a word as we watched a heron stalking the shallows, moving in that odd, articulated, mechanical way they have. It felt like another world, although less than an hour by boat from our somewhat congested home on Back Creek.

But it *was* time to go back to reality, so we packed up and headed out, trying to time our arrival with the every-half-hour bridge openings at the Spa Creek bridge. After all those times we waited in traffic behind the open bridge to get downtown, or Dan stressed behind the open bridge wondering if he would be late for work, now the traffic was stopped for *us*, as the bridge tender raised the bridge and through we went.

Of Jellyfish and Plastic Bags

If you google "beaches" and "jellyfish" together, you get articles from the Med to Australia about resorts inundated with these stinging blobs. Here in the Chesapeake, NOAA publishes predictions of the likelihood of encountering sea nettles, based on water temperature and salinity: People are reduced to swimming in Lycra skins or in small areas fenced off with fine mesh nets. And much of the population explosion is due to overfishing the jellyfish's natural predators, sea turtles and tuna and other similar large fish.

The poor sea turtles! If that wasn't bad enough, when they do try to get a jellyfish meal, they can be far too often tricked by an imposter in the form of a plastic bag. We tried a little experiment:
We tried to see if we could make a plastic bag look like a jellyfish by putting it on the end of a boat pole and swirling it around in the water.

Here's a jellyfish we photographed in Mill Creek last month.

And here's our best attempt with the plastic bag.
Okay, it wouldn't necessarily fool me, but then, I'm not swimming in the murky water, either. And if nothing else, it was the starting point for some great conversation on the dock!

I doubt this was what the City of Annapolis had in mind when the plastic bag ban was being discussed last year. I hate seeing plastic bags caught high in trees or pasted to fences, and we've seen them, and mylar party balloons fallen back to earth, 50 miles off shore in the emptiness of the Atlantic. On the other hand, I'm not particularly a fan of such things as bans, it seems to me awfully like trying to regulate common sense. We bring reusable cloth bags to the grocery store (when we remember). Whether we do paper or plastic is so much about how we can reuse the bags after they've carried our stuff home. Paper bags so rarely work in our boat life - they are heavier, bulkier, and besides - you can hardly use them to pack your wet swimsuit home from the pool!

Click on the monkey's fist to read others bloggers on this topic.

The Monkey's Fist

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Over-promised and Under-delivered

When a business gets you all excited advertising a new product or service, but the reality doesn't live up to the hype, you can be justifiably annoyed. But when a hurricane turns out to be less than predicted, instead of annoyance, there's relief. That's what happened with Hanna. We were prepared for stronger winds and more rain than we received, and had no damage.

Hurricane Season

Images of flooding at our marina, 5 years ago during Hurricane Isabel. Wonder what will happen this time?

It's an impossibly clear, gorgeous morning, and if we didn't know better, it would be hard to believe that we're expecting an unwelcome guest tomorrow - Hurricane or Tropical Storm Hanna. We're nervously watching NOAA and the storm track and hoping we don't have a repeat of Isabel 5 years ago. Along the docks, everywhere you see people frowning and drawing counterclockwise circles in the air as they talk. They are describing the direction of wind moving around the eye of the approaching storm and trying to decide how it will affect them.

We don't have quite the same worries as our friends who are in houses. We're not as concerned about flooding, for example, we just float up on the rising floodwaters. Nor are power outages a big deal - we're designed to be self-sufficient and make our own power. You couldn't very well run an extension cord to the middle of the Atlantic. On the other hand, if the folks in houses do it wrong, they or their furniture might get wet. If we do it wrong, we might sink!

One of our Caribbean liveaboard friends told us it takes four days to have a hurricane: a day to prepare your boat, a day to have the storm, a day to rest and recover, then a day to put everything back together. And that's if there's no damage!

Almost as soon as it was light, before the breeze came up, we took off the jib (forward) sail and the bimini (the canvas shade awning over the cockpit), both to decrease the area we expose to the wind, and to keep them from damage. We lashed the dinghy down on deck, topped up the water tanks and moved our cars to high ground. We packed our abandon-ship bag with computers, cell phone, cash, meds, a couple of energy bars, and water. Still working on the dock lines - for Isabel, we tied a spiderweb of 17 dock lines holding us in our slip against wind from any possible direction. They were extra-long so we could ride up on the storm surge. We went around the boat about every hour through the night, easing lines and making sure they didn't chafe through. In between times, we tried to read. I gave that up when I realized that I'd been staring at the same page for 45 minutes, and I had no idea what it said.
Our reward was that we ended up with no damage. But we proved our Caribbean friend's words true when we spent the entire next day sleeping, chatting, but not having the energy to put things back together until the day after!

Two more pictures from Isabel: our dock-neighbor Bill's boat at normal water level, and then in high water after surviving the storm. Hoping we all do as well this time!

Here's part of the spiderweb of lines holding us in place, as the waters started to rise:


I was all set to blog about jellyfish, sea turtles, and the plastic bag ban when this article about housebarges appeared in the Capital. Links to articles in the paper expire in 30 days unless you access them from a library, so I'll try to summarize: the article is about the growing popularity of houseboats and the controversy over whether they are allowed in Annapolis. Current zoning is very restrictive, the manufacturer wants to have "discussions" with the City. Similar discussions are popping up in a lot of places, like this NY Times article : "Houseboats Emerge as a Cheaper Form of Housing" The manufacturer's spin on them is here Note that they're billed as "cheap waterfront living" NOT as boats. If your 3-year-old nephew saw one, he wouldn't say "Oh, look at the pretty boat." Nor would your Aunt Betty from Kansas. And that's my point.

Those barges? They look to me like doublewides on pontoons. And despite the manufacturer's claim, they aren't boats - can you imagine being in even mild waves in one of them? It is generally accepted that they don't move often, if at all. There are waiting lists for boat slips at many marinas here for recreational boats - do we really want to further decrease the opportunities?

I'll admit to my obvious prejudice - I live aboard because I love boating. The waterfront view and the community are tremendous plusses, but most of all I live this way simply because I like to sail. Most of all I think what offends me is this: Annapolis has tried hard to preserve its maritime heritage and feel. Enterprise zones to encourage marine industries to stay on the waterfront instead of ripping out marinas to replace them with endless condos. These housebarges impress me as a disrespectful way of trying to do an end run around that zoning.

Tourist in My Own Home Town

The weekend weather forecast was absolutely astonishingly perfect, and we couldn't *not* go out and play. We motored around after work on Thursday to take a mooring for the weekend in the thick of the action in Annapolis Harbor. What a treat, to travel like a turtle, taking our home with us, and not have to pack! Mostly we just sat in the cockpit and watched the world go by - the water taxis and power boats making their tours of Ego Alley, the silent glides of the classic WoodWinds, the kids shrieking with delight as they played pirate on the Sea Gypsy.

My very favorite thing to do as a tourist is to walk and people-watch, and the weekend didn't dissappoint. It was the first weekend that the plebes from the class of 2012 had liberty, so downtown was full of mids in dress whites. Each one seemed accompanied by at least 4 or 5 others - parents, a kid brother or sister, a girlfriend or boyfriend. Lots of people on City Dock looking at the boats in the harbor - hey, that's us! And of course my very favorite Annapolis anachronism - tour guides in Colonial dress, on Segways. We did all the tourist things - checked out all the shops, bought the obligatory ice cream, went out to dinner (grilled salmon in citrus butter, yum!).

Somehow this visit had a different 'vibe' than I'm used to when we go to events downtown and I wondered what it was. Maybe just that our boat/home was right there? Then I realized ... parking! Anything we do in town is twice as enjoyable when there's no roaming the streets looking for a spot, or paying the meter. We simply took the dinghy, tied it at the restaurant dock or a public dock downtown, and started walking. There's a moral in there somewhere, but it'll have to wait for another time <*grin*>.

Parking Dilemma Solved at City Dock

Getting Started

"So," asked my new colleague Trish sociably, "how're you settling in?" I had just moved here from Michigan and it was Day 4 of my new job at Headquarters. Husband Dan was still in Michigan finishing his teaching commitment; he would join me at the end of the semester.

"Well," I told Trish, "I'm still experimenting. I still haven't figured out the right time to leave to miss the worst of the traffic on the Beltway."She rolled her eyes at my naivete. "Have you tried 4 AM? Why Annapolis, anyway? Why not somewhere closer to the office?"

So I told her about our love for sailing and the water, and how we couldn't get this close and not take advantage of the opportunity to live in a place with such a distinctive character. Then she casually asked the question I'd been expecting and dreading: "How about your new place?"

Choosing my words very, very carefully, I answered, "Well, it's reeeally reeeally small, but it has everything - a place to socialize, a place to sit and think, a place to cook, and a place to sleep. And, if I look out the window over the range I can just see the boats going up and down the creek."

Every word was perfectly true...and perfectly misleading. Because the part I'd left out was that our new home on the water was "on" the water in a literal sense - we were planning to live on our sailboat.Why the secrecy? Well, I didn't have a sense of how my new boss would react - he was old-school gracious and stunningly conservative. Would he have second thoughts about his newest employee, wondering if he'd hired a hippie rebel, and how would she fit in? Nor did I know how Dan and I would react, if we would find friends in the people around us, and if even after 20 years of marriage we could fit our lives into a 33 foot boat. If our great experiment was to be a failure or a career-inhibitor, I wanted as few witnesses as possible.

Fast forward 5 years.Living on a boat has been, most of all, fabulously fun. I've learned a lot about boats, and weather, and Bay ecology, and downsizing. I've learned how to figure out what things really matter. I've got a different relationship with my "stuff." I've found a tremendous sense of community in my fellow boaters and liveaboards. And my boss? My fears on that score were groundless. Most people were more curious than judgemental.That curiousity is what inspired this blog, random thoughts about what day-to-day life in Annapolis is like, when "home" is a sailboat.

(An article about living aboard by the same title first appeared in the Capital on 5/27/07)