Friday, April 27, 2012

With A Little Bit Of (Geographic) Luck

It’s just the way luck works.  Sometimes little, and seemingly irrelevant things, can have a big impact.  Take geography.  South Carolina and North Carolina, for example, although adjacent states, evolved into two totally different places culturally because of an accident of geography.  I never thought about this before I read it in the excellent guidebook “Managing the Waterway”we’re using. South Carolina got all the good harbors, North Carolina got three dangerous Capes – Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear -- and shifting shoals.  It was so dangerous that the coastline of North Carolina is nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” (We’re glad that nowadays, with the building of the ICW, we have a safer inland alternative instead of going around these!)
Here’s how the book explains it: “It’s not just that South Carolina is warmer than North Carolina; the culture is different. South Carolina is the Deep South: palm trees, southern cooking, and plantation architecture.  South Carolina’s harbors, much more hospitable than North Carolina’s, led to the development of a wealthy plantation society with booming aristocratic cities like Charleston, Beaufort, and Georgetown.   This economic head start and cosmopolitan culture still influence South Carolina’s coast.” [p SC-67]  By contrast, “With its dangerous inlets, shoals, and capes, North Carolina developed very differently than its neighboring coastal states.  Virginia and South Carolina, with their large protected harbors and easy ocean access, dominated maritime commerce.  … Bustling ports, merchant wealth, and cosmopolitan cities developed on South Carolina and Virginia’s harbors.  But North Carolina largely missed out on the boom.  You won’t find large commercial and naval ports like Norfolk, nor cosmopolitan cities like Charleston.  In North Carolina, the towns along the ICW are smaller maritime communities…” [p. NC-39]  Oh, yeah, one other thing North Carolina got instead of deep harbors good for commerce?  Pirates.  Those treacherous shifting North Carolina shoals were great opportunities for high seas raiders to plunder and then get away where it was too shallow for naval vessels to follow them.  The wreck of the famous pirate Blackbeard’s ship was recently found near Beaufort, North Carolina; we saw an exhibit of the first artifacts recovered from the wreck at the North Carolina maritime museum  while we were in town.
We mused about how “geographic luck” colored our experiences over the winter in St Augustine as well.  Had we picked any other marina than the municipal downtown location  we did, we would have been in a more suburban strip-mall setting instead of walking distance to the old downtown.  Those spontaneous evening strolls are what stand out in my memory and make us want to return someday.  I probably wouldn’t have been so charmed by the town and its rich history if we hadn’t been right in the midst of the action.
And speaking of luck in a more prosaic sense, look what the mechanic found on our boat yesterday!  Can’t say enough good things about the expertise, or the hospitality, here at Deaton’sYacht Service.  Why does the discovery of a broken rudder stop cable have us doing a happy dance?  Well, because it was found at the dock, instead of failing catastrophically at sea. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's All About The People You Meet Along The Way

It's All About The People You Meet Along The Way

Posted: April 19, 11:59 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)
 [photo: This gateway just says "Deep South" to me.]

Charleston is a fun city to visit; we’ve never missed a chance to stop here. I think of it as the real, classic “Deep South” – gracious architecture, gracious hospitality, tradition, and, oh yeah, the FOOD. We arrived in late evening racing just ahead of some severe thunderstorms that heralded a cold front. The next day, therefore, was cold and blustery and we were tired, so we hung out at the marina and did “ship’s work;” refueling, taking down and stowing the jacklines and other equipment we needed in preparation for the offshore trip from St Augustine, updating the log, and giving the boat and ourselves a good wash.

Next two days were the Easter weekend, sunny and bright and just perfect for our plans of being outdoors and doing all our favorite Charleston things, walking downtown, people-watching and architecture-watching, eating and drinking and shopping. There was a farmer’s market, and a parade, and Sunday afternoon a big section of the main downtown street was closed to traffic to turn it into a pedestrian mall. Continuing on the festival theme, several of the restaurants put tables and chairs out, expanding sidewalk café style into the street. I love reclaiming the middle of the street from the cars! And somewhere in town there was (a) a beer; and (b) a chocolate ice cream cone; with my name on it. At least, that was the plan. And although we did all those things, this visit, the memories turned out to be about the people, even more than the place.

We met Steve Dowdney at the farmer’s market where he staffed a stall containing lots of tasters of southern-style foods, preserves and sauces and creamy grits. We got to chatting, and learned that he was also a former liveaboard and hoping to live aboard again; his story(as well as his peach chutney recipe) was written up in the Charleston paper a few years ago. At the end of the conversation, he refused to allow us to pay for the food we purchased. Not that it was a big-deal amount of money to either of us, but the gesture, whether old-fashioned southern hospitality, or boater’s camaraderie, just put a goofy smile on my face for the rest of the morning.
 [photo: Steve at the farmers'market, along with too many good eats to sample!]

We continued our foodie theme of the day with visits to two cooking stores, and I’m sorry I never got the name of the wonderful sales associate with the blond hair and yellow shirt. She had a lot of fun with the challenge of finding products in her store that would work with our liveaboard life, once I explained that my gadget drawer was the size of a shoebox, and things had to be chosen with an eye to sliding, breaking, rusting … no glass, no bulky one-purpose items, no electricity required, and an oven the size of a toaster oven. She brought nesting plastic mixing bowls with non-skid bottoms, a collapsible colander, a few odd-shaped spatulas and mixing spoons, for our inspection; it was like a treasure hunt. We had a blast, and got some cool new toys. Which, of course, we promptly put to use cooking up the food we got from Steve Dowdney; thank you both!

Perhaps the most fun sight was during the street festival on Easter Sunday. We were sitting at an outdoor table (in the middle of the street!) eating pizza and listening to some street performers, when I saw a woman strolling down the street, elegantly dressed and wearing the archetype of what I could only call a classic “Easter Bonnet.” And then another. And another … I loved how these ladies honored their tradition with both flair and a sense of fun; and my respect only increased when the leader of the group (who told me that the group called themselves the Charleston Hat Ladies and that she herself had the delightful title “Top Hat”) told me that they aren’t just about fashion, they were a group who liked to volunteer for various good local causes, and just do it while wearing these wild hats.

[photo: The Hat Ladies! I think it takes a unique flair to pull off something like this, honoring and playing with a tradition. And they have it.]
So filled with the memories of those, and other, people we met along the way, we were ready to sail off again. The stretch from Charleston north the NC/SC border is probably my favorite of the entire trip for its scenery and peace. I was feeling pretty grumpy when I realized that I had miscalculated and we were faced with foul currents that slowed us down considerably for about 30 miles of the Waccamaw River. Dan, though, is always one for out-of-the-box thinking. He asked, “What’s the problem? It just means we get to spend more time in one of your favorite stretches!” And we did.
[photos: Cow House Creek, a favorite anchorage, and cypress along the Waccamaw River. After our people-centric time in Charleston, the isolation and natural beauty here was an even more amazing contrast.]
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Living in the Moment

Posted: April 11, 12:50 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)

IMG_0194 [photo: Low Country Sunrise, near Beaufort, SC]

When we’re sailing, it’s impossible for me NOT to “live in the moment” – but perhaps my version of doing so is not quite like the popular sense of living in the moment. When we’re sailing, if the weather is good and the day is beautiful, then in my mind, all sailing days are wonderful, they all always were wonderful, and they all always will be wonderful in the future. And if the weather stinks? Sailing always did stink, and always will stink. (Okay, in my mind I’m using a different s-word than “stink.” But this is a nice newspaper, ya know?) Anyway … that’s what the trip from St Augustine to Charleston was like. We left through the Bridge of Lions (“bye-bye, lion statues, luvya guys, see you next time”) and started out the inlet. We’d ride the Gulf Stream overnight about 20 miles off the coast, bypassing Georgia and coming into Beaufort, SC the next afternoon; from there, it was only one day motoring up the ICW to Charleston. The ocean water was sparkling blue-green, the winds were just right and the sun was warm and soon we had the sails up and were skipping along, making good time northbound. The weatherman had promised the winds to continue from the south (a comfortable direction for our planned passage) and we were looking forward to a magical moonlit night on the water. Ah, I love my life!

Before midnight, though, we started seeing distant flashes of lightning and the moon and stars were obscured by clouds. The wind grew stronger, colder, and shifted from comfortably behind us to in our faces, kicking up waves. Now chilly fat raindrops were falling and the lightning was getting closer. I hate this! Never never again! Night passages stink, they always stank and always will stink! I never want to be on the ocean again! I started having fantasies of cottages in the forest, cabins in the mountains, in the desert … Sorry, Dan, promise me we’ll only keep living on the boat if we stay safely inside and only go out on the days with perfect weather from now until forever.

Until next morning, that is, when the wind went back to its proper location and a fair current whisked us on toward our destination. We saw the sea buoy exactly “on time” as I had predicted at 2 PM, and it guided us in to a sheltered anchorage for a placid night. Next morning after a lovely sunrise we continued north. I’m lovin’ my life afloat again. Good thing I’ve got a short memory!

three dolphin escort [photo: We had a three-dolphin escort! C'mon, how can you NOT love this life?]

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Turning our Bow Towards Home

Posted: April 2, 10:22 pm | (permalink) | (1 comments)

P2062351 [photo: looking out toward the misty ocean]

And just that suddenly, the winds which had been blowing strong and dry from the north, shifted. Now they became softer, moister, gentler, and most importantly, from the south. Winds bringing springtime. Winds we could travel on, these winds from the south. Winds we could ride homeward back to Annapolis.

First, we had to prepare the boat, switch from small-floating-dockside-condo mode to vessel-under-way mode. We’ve gotten used to setting things down on flat surfaces, surfaces that are no longer flat when we’re underway; things that could easily get tossed off needed to be stowed, and everything decluttered. There were a zillion projects to do. We made lists, and a list of all the lists, and spread out the chores over days so we wouldn’t be too overwhelmed. We topped up fuel tanks and scrubbed the growth from the hull – amazing how much accumulated in the 4-1/2 months we’ve been stationary at the dock here. We prepared the boat to run on its own power and solar panels instead of the fat yellow cord that supplies electricity from the dock. Hoisting the sails, just our own kind of flowers spreading their white triangular petals to the spring sun, making sure the lines ran free and there was no winter mold or critters hiding in the folds. Land-based toys like our scooters and backpacks were stowed away, and out came the life jackets and nautical charts and guidebooks. We rented a car for seemingly endless trips to the hardware store, grocery store, and yes, the liquor store; everything we need to be independent for a while. We also visited our favorite places one last time (for this year, anyway), to hear the old-time sea shanties sung a local pub, our last visit to the historic fort guarding the city, our last chile relleno meal at our favorite funky family-owned Mexican restaurant, and soon (not just yet, but very soon) our last people-watching stroll up St George street, dressed in historical costumes or pirate garb, posing with/for the tourists .

The really hard part, though, was not the scramble of errands. The “problem” anyone should be proud to have – how, exactly, are we ever going to have time for visits with all the friends we’ve made while here? I can’t remember when we’ve had so much fun, or met so many people we liked all in one place. The friends we’ve made here have ranged widely, some kind, some a laugh a minute, some smart, some just a little odd, and all have enriched our lives.

I hate goodbyes and I’m not good at them. As far as I’m concerned, goodbyes are the very worst thing about living on a boat and traveling, worse than scary storms or big waves or odd sounds in the night. But we packed the schedule with a little time for Melissa and Rosaire and Jose and Shelley and Diego and Dave and Trish and Bill and John and Mark; spent a night laughing uproariously playing liar’s dice and eating pizza with Tiger and Pearl and Grace. I’m gonna miss you guys so much it hurts. We realized how much our thoughts were already on the ocean passage ahead, when we went to a cookout at new friends Michelle and Tony’s and spent much of the evening focused on getting insights on the tricky harbor inlet from one guest, Larry, who happened to be a former TowBoat US operator. If the weather holds, we leave tomorrow. The empty ocean calm will be a phenomenal contrast to the happy-crazy-busy times we’ve been having.

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But How Do You Get Your Mail?

Posted: March 30, 11:04 am | (permalink) | (1 comments)

[photo: St Brendan's Isle mail-forwarding service owner Doug Moody and employee Anna Eden with one day's incoming mail]

I love it when people who are thinking about living aboard and traveling ask me about how we get the mail. It means they’ve gone from the fantasies of crystal water and pristine beaches, to the practical realities of “how could we make this life work?”

Think of every form you’ve ever filled out. What goes in the little boxes right after your name? Ninety-nine times out of 100, it’s your address. So automatic, you don’t even need to think about it. But what if you don’t have an address? What if you’re truly wandering? “John and Jane Jones, sailing vessel FreeBird, somewhere in the Atlantic …” probably just wouldn’t cut it.

So, how do we deal with the mail?

The first thing we did was decrease the amount of mail we get. When you think about it, you realize that most of the time you do not need the actual piece of paper, you need the information printed on it. So we shifted our banking and bill paying and news and magazines to online-only. We could access these from anywhere, and – extra bonus – we no longer had to file and store the paper copies.

Other times, though, we need the actual physical thing. From holiday cards to prescription meds, to anything you order from the internet, you need someplace to ship it to. For each specific item, if it’s a one-time thing, we could use the address of the marina we happen to be at. But sometimes we’re only there for a few days, so that approach would involve changing our address on a weekly basis. We could have used the address of a good friend or family member – in fact, MVA suggested we do exactly that when we tried to renew our car’s registration early* - but asking someone to perform that kind of favor for years on end, seems to me, would get really old. We’ve been living aboard for 10 years so far, and not planning on moving back ashore any time soon. Ten years or more of favors seems quite a lot to ask.

The obvious answer became a commercial mail-forwarding service, and we were lucky enough to end up with one, St Brendan’s Isle, that caters specifically to travelers like us, cruising liveaboards and RV-ers. They collect our mail, hold it for us, and then periodically, when we’re at a place we’re going to be for a while, we contact them, they bundle up everything that has come in for us, and ship it to wherever we are.

They’re located in Green Cove Springs, FL just about a half-hour’s drive from where we are currently, so one weekend when we had rented a car, we took the opportunity to visit. I haven’t decided if it was ironic or symmetrical. Here were people we’d dealt with for years over the internet and cellphone; the whole purpose of the mail-forwarding service was to have what amounted to a virtual location instead of having to go to a physical one, so here we were going out of our way to see the physical space? Huh? But it turned out to be a very cool experience. Okay, I’m busted on geekiness – but I’ll admit that I love to get behind the scenes and under the hood and know how things work.

Not sure what I expected. What I found was a calm, quiet room with about a half-dozen employees sorting mail into rows and rows of stacked numbered and color-coded plastic inboxes, one for each of the 4,000-odd subscribers. Lots of computers and scanners, too; these guys were definitely living in the 21st century. Owner Doug Moody explained that before he bought this business 12 years ago he was in the paper-distribution business, and mail-forwarding is just a specialized kind of warehousing. I thought about the amount of mail we got every day when we lived on land, all those different sizes and shapes and packages (and junk mail, ugh) and mentally multiplied it by 4,000, and asked Doug how they kept it all straight. He talked about process and training and quality control, bringing back memories of my grad-school engineering project management course. Their focus, he explained, was to make the process extremely accurate. If they could do it right, he explained, “instead of fixing problems, [they] could spend their time on ‘extras.’” Extras meant dealing with the sometimes quirky circumstances of our mobile existence. I’ve been able to phone them – and gotten a live person to answer the phone after just a few rings – and had someone able to go to my box, and tell me if a particular piece of mail or package I was waiting for had arrived. They’ve even opened some letters at my request and read me relevant parts over the phone; or scanned the contents and emailed me a pdf. I’ve never ever gotten someone else’s mail mixed in with mine, for example (and as far as I know, no one has ever gotten a piece of my mail by mistake.) And when we received a package of refrigerated medication that needed to be forwarded, they were able to advise us on the safest way to get it. They couldn’t eliminate the sticker shock for the overnight package, unfortunately, but at least we were prepared. Being able to get it right the first go-round to have time for extras sure seems like one of those simple concepts that we’d love to see more of in so many areas of life, doesn’t it?

(* Before we left Annapolis, we wanted to renew the registration on our cars early, knowing they would come up for renewal while we were gone. Frustratingly, MVA could neither take the payment early, nor forward the registration out of state. “I’m trying to do the right thing here, what to do you suggest?” I asked. Their solution was that we use the address of a trusted friend in Maryland.)

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Work-Life Balance

Posted: March 26, 5:23 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)

Here’s a popular concept -- balance -- that seems logical on the surface, desperately needed, yet I’m just not sold on it. Balance? Balance implies some good, some bad, some black, some white, and lots of shades of gray. Finding compromise between competing goals of how you spend your time, accepting some of what you don’t want. My image is a seesaw, “work” on one side and “life” on the other. Trade-offs and a zero-sum game. When one goes up, the other must go down. That’s not what I want in my life. Why do I want some bad, some gray? I want no bad, no gray. I want passion, exuberance, saturated bright colors. Instead of a “balanced life” I want what my former colleague Imogene Bynum called a “congruent life” – one where work life and home life point in the same direction, toward parallel goals. Doesn’t mean bad stuff won’t happen, and it doesn’t mean I won’t sometimes have to do work I don’t like. But I don’t want my goal to be “balance,” I want my goal to be “extraordinary.” What if I aim for mediocre, and fall short? Where am I then? “Aim for the moon,” the quote goes. “Even if you miss, you’ll land somewhere among the stars.”

My congruence has been water. It has been the thing my work, life, and play are organized around. When I had a career, it was all about various aspects of water – water pollution, water supply, water quality, floods and droughts and water law. Water was also what supported my home and my recreation; with living on the boat and sailing as recreation, I’ve been unusually aware of environmental concerns and how they affect my life afloat. 

But a vacation in Aruba last year was my first serious introduction to life under the water. My father, Mel Lindner, had been a pilot, and he’d often joked with us about navigation. He said that he had to think in three dimensions flying at various altitudes, while we in our boat were restricted to the surface of the water and only had two dimensions at our disposal. But going scuba diving changed that. Here was our third dimension, but it was down rather than up. We floated weightlessly in fantasy landscapes, and with weird creatures. Our guide, Manon Houtman, at a unique dive shop/pool/café called Aqua Windie’s, was an extremely competent and (patient!) instructor and tour guide, who became a friend in the time we were there. She was also a wonderful photographer; the stunning images here are all hers and I hope will give you a bit of a feel for what we experienced. Saturated colors and exuberance indeed! The t-shirt I brought back said it all – “same planet, different world.”Seeking the congruence of water in my not-balanced life afloat has given Dan and me access to new adventures that were magic far beyond our expectations.

[All photos by Manon Houtman, 2011, and used with permission and my deepest thanx.]

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