Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Ashore Again

A massive stone fireplace is the first clue that we're definitely not on our sailboat at the moment! (The chimney needed to be cleaned out, so we couldn't light a fire. The rope lights swirled in lieu of logs on a whimsical moment) 

Once again we find ourselves temporarily living on land. We had several very practical reasons to be off the boat for a while. Being reluctant to face a second Maryland winter aboard was one, and this winter promised to be snowier and colder than the last one. Also we were needing a place for Dan to recover from the FUS treatment. We had been were warned that the treatment could affect balance for a while after, and though luckily that phase passed quickly, we hadn't known that at the time. And when you're having balance issues, stepping from an icy dock onto a moving sailboat is probably not the best option. We'd been a bit disillusioned with the suburban location at the marina anyway – too far away to easily, spontaneously participate in the cultural opportunities of downtown; and yet not far enough away to give us the restfulness of pristine nature. We sort of had the worst of both in a car-centric location. (Funny bit of trivia – birds in suburbia chirp louder than forest birds, due to having the sound competition of cars and lawnmowers and trash trucks and other suburban conveniences.) And then, at exactly the right time for us, an opportunity presented itself of a cool place to rent, 10 minutes drive away from the boat and 15 minutes walk to downtown.

But in addition to the practical reasons, we were also feeling an increasing need to hit a giant reset button and sift through our possessions again. In every single category it felt like we had Just. Too. Much. “Our boat is choking on our stuff!” Dan complained. It was true. There wasn't a single locker that wasn't packed with absolutely all it could hold. (Hey, no worries about things shifting and breaking if we are rocked by a wave! Things are absolutely jammed in, holding each other in place, no where to go!) Getting anything out required taking three other things out first, then carefully putting everything back in precisely the right order, interlocking. It was psychologically exhausting and the lack of air flow around things made it a more likely breeding ground for mold.

So what had first started as a hurricane evacuation necessity for us years ago has since become a regular practice of emptying all our stuff to somewhere and sorting it into what needs to stay aboard and what goes into storage. Hard to believe after our trip with Big Yellow Truck little more than a year ago we were feeling the need to do it again, but it seemed that was the case, so we were off and packing. 

And the weirdest thing happened – all our stuff fit smoothly, comfortably into the rental. That sounds unsurprising … until you realize that our stuff shouldn't have fit. We lived on a 33-foot sailboat. We were moving into a 1000-square-foot apartment. There should have been tons and tons and tons of space left over. But there wasn't. 

Our kitchenware spread out and filled an ordinary smallish land-based kitchen. Granted that things were spread out more than they were aboard, and hence were easier to access, but still, they “shouldn't” have needed that much space. There was an entire drawer with a silverware organizer instead of a small tube that held our forks and knives and spoons all together in one end of a small drawer, and a crock next to the stove for tools  instead of aligning them in the other side of that same drawer. Our canisters of rice and beans neatly filled a couple of pantry shelves instead of being carefully tucked under the heavy electric wire that ran along the top of a locker to power the windlass. It wasn't difficult to put everything in its place, it was just surprising that we had so much. How had we ever gotten it all into the boat to begin with? No wonder we felt choked! 

Our clothing fit in the dressers; there was enough room around everything to put things away easily. But I would have expected whole empty drawers left over after we'd put our things in, which didn't happen. Our books didn't over-fill the book shelves, but they filled them. Et cetera, et cetera. The end result was an apartment that felt comfortable and calm, certainly not stuffed but not minimal either. And a lot of head scratching – how had all this ever fit onto the boat to begin with???

Sorting, decluttering, streamlining, minimizing – we've got our winter's work cut out for us. The hope is to use the space in the apartment to (once again) rethink what we have, and when we do move back aboard to do it with less accumulation. 

The furniture, of course is not included in what feels like our glut of possessions. On the boat, everything was built in, so on land we needed to source a desk, a bed, a table, some chairs, etc. It was fun to revisit things we had packed away 20 years ago, when we thought we'd only be cruising for a few years before moving on to the next fun thing, and realize we still liked the choices we had made back then. 

We “shopped” from the items we had in storage to furnish the apartment. It was quite the guessing game to figure out which lumpy piece, meticulously wrapped in padded moving blankets, was which. And it was stunningly unhelpful to find boxes that some mover had written “picture” with a black sharpie. Um, yes, thanks, I can see that, since the box is pre-printed with a label that says “glass, picture, do not lay flat” on all sides. (But it really would have helped to have known if it was a picture that came from the living room, or the office, or the bedroom.) My favorite was a 7-foot roll labeled “rug.” Not quite sure what else it could have been mistaken for…

We felt like the apartment was set up, but Dan pointed out what was all around us but had not been acknowledged. We had “moved in,” but not really settled in.  We were just here temporarily. We never hung artwork. We never unpacked our very most precious antique furnishings, favorite lamps, Grandma's quilts. Partly that was by design, to keep the calm, light, minimalist vibe the apartment seemed to require.  A spiritual friend who visited said she felt a very light aura, but whether that was the ghost of the former owner or our decorating style or both she couldn't say. To me artwork on the walls draws the eye, defines the mood, and also is an anchor that grabs the eye and stops its flow, demanding attention. The blank walls, on the other hand, gave nothing for the eyes to purchase, just glided past, receded. But also, “We've never really taken ownership of this place,” Dan observed. We don't want to, I think. If we really move in, surrounded by things that have deep meaning for us, would it be the first step toward transitioning off the boat and back to land-life, our adventuring done as we approach old age? Or even simply harder to uproot ourselves again at the end of winter? We do like the in-unit washing machine, and the solidity. The apartment doesn't rock in the wind like the boat does. In fact, we barely notice the weather outside, wind or rain or cold, with a massive system to keep the temperature constant. Better not to get too comfortable, because for all its rewards our life afloat does require some sacrifices. For now we are in a fabulous apartment in a superb location … and we can't wait to get back to the boat. C'mon spring!

Thursday, January 13, 2022

A Fort You Can See, and a Fort You Can't

I alluded in a previous post about how different the Castillo felt, nearly empty of visitors. Perhaps that contributed to my lack of feeling any emotion at the visit. Had an email exchange with a friend who is one of the park rangers stationed there: "Saw [mutual friend X] at the Castillo when we visited last week ... it was weirdly empty and quiet without school kids or soldados, etc. Hope everyone stays safe and we're back to normal (or "new normal" whatever that looks like) soon." 

"It has indeed been strange, for those of us who remember the Before Times!" my friend replied. "What's also interesting is, we have a number of new employees who have come on board since March 2020 who have no idea what "normal" looks like for this place." So, a brief photo tour, of the Fort you can no longer see, and what it looks like now. 

In the "Before Times" costumed reenactors helped visitors understand what things might have been like. 

Special night events, candlelight tours, added the aura of mystery. We've attended and participated in many of these events, often portraying shipwrecked sailors. Next morning, energized by my interactions with people, I posted that my garb smelled of woodsmoke, black powder, and adventures.

Preparing to visit last week ... what a difference!

The weirdly empty courtyard. During the sieges the entire 1,500 townspeople stayed here for 1-2 months. Today, not a visitor in sight.

The casemates were originally used as storerooms for food, tools, gunpowder.

Then later during the British period the walls were expanded and these rooms were used as living quarters.

After this visit, and the administrative work which had been the primary motivation for our trip complete, we spent an hour or so the last morning at the site of Fort Mose, 2 miles north of the Castillo. I delight in the rarely-told story of this place; the first free Black settlement in the US; the place where escaping enslaved people folloowed the Underground Railroad south instead of north from Georgia and South Carolina, to the then-international border between England's and Spain's colonies. In the US, we tend to think of ourselves as derived from the British – Boston Tea Party, 13 original colonies, 1776 and all that. We forget that New York was Dutch, Michigan and Louisiana were French, and Florida was Spanish. Unlike the Castillo, this fort is gone and its struggles remembered only in stories, the landscape given back to the birds and marshes. 

The long boardwalk to the site, dubbed "Walkway to Freedom."

It looks so peaceful, but it's anything but quiet, filled with the squawks, chirps, and quacks of the birds making their living fishing in the marsh.

An Accident of Time and Place (How We Saw the Town)


Seen through a car window, the lights are ... underwhelming

We continued our short visit to St Augustine that night. We drove around town looking at the famous 3 million white holiday lights, and I felt nothing. I was an observer of the city, but I wasn't “of” the city any more. I felt on the outside, looking in. Maybe it was my heart, protecting itself again. Or maybe it was the difference between being in a car, and walking. 

I was texting about this with a friend the next evening, and he agreed. If we hadn't docked in the municipal marina, in the middle of the action, and had to walk everywhere, we'd never have seen and appreciated the city's fine details. We'd never have spent long enough to learn the history in more than the broadest-brush overview. We wouldn't have had the chance to play pirate on the Black Raven, or gotten to volunteer at the Castillo or on El Galeon. We'd probably never have fallen in love with the city. 

In the city, of the city; strolling the plaza during Nights of Lights in the Before Times

This was probably the most profound lesson I learned from 4 years of touring with the Spanish tall ships and 8 years on our own boat. Every port we visited, we saw the city the way it had originally evolved, growing outward from the waterfront. And we'd learned about it human-scaled, walking scale. These narrow cobbled streets were laid out long before cars were even a dream. Our frontier was maritime long before Hollywood glorified the “wild West.” And coming into town by car, coming in from US-1 and the brightly lit strip malls; historic downtown seemed just a dusty crowded inconvenience, with no real story to tell. (Also, coming into town as a crew member on a dramatic tall ship, I was a rock star. A far different reception than I would have gotten as “random retired lady driving a minivan!”)  

We think so much depends on big decisions (“What state shall we move to? Colorado? Florida? Maryland?”) But sometimes it's the tiniest microclimate -- downtown marina, walkable but parking is a major hassle? Or one that's a little further away but car-friendly? -- that has the biggest impact on the way we perceive the place. 

[FWIW, this may also explain why we haven't felt at home in Annapolis yet either. Our marina is located in suburbia: not rural enough to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature while living aboard, yet simultaneously not central enough to really participate in the downtown vibrancy and experience (Covid notwithstanding). Hopefully things will settle to the point where we can get more involved in the future.]

Monday, January 10, 2022


A pile of rocks, or stones with souls? This is part of the western wall of the gun deck. An accident of geology led to the almost magical resilience of the coquina walls to cannon fire, which in turn is why the Castillo never fell in battle, but only changed hands by treaty. 

Gun deck and sentry tower January 2022 ... almost empty of visitors

Us, dressed as soldados in almost the same spot eight years previous. The Nao Victoria is behind my right shoulder on its way to a visit of St Augustine. Little did we know how much that ship and the others from the Foundation would shape our lives!

We made a quick trip back to St Augustine to renew our driver's licenses. There's probably an easily-explained reason this couldn't be done online (in the middle of an ongoing pandemic (!) ), but the person who can do the explaining … isn't me. An-y-way, we packed our bags, scheduled as many get-togethers with our local friends as we could orchestrate on the calendar, and we were off.

As it turned out, we bolted out of Annapolis the day before we had planned to, due to forecast bad weather, and good thing too – there was a massive, massive traffic disaster that would have had us stuck in sub-freezing weather on an ice-covered I-95 for more than 24 hours if we had left on our original schedule. Hey, an extra day in St Aug? I'm not complaining!

Actually I wasn't quite sure what emotions to expect, going back. It about tore my heart out to leave St Augustine for Annapolis a little over a year ago and ever since, I've been splitting my loyalty between the two cities. I claimed that I've got “one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock”.  As you can imagine, that's a pretty precarious place to be, much wiser to make a commitment to one or the other, because with one foot on each, a minor shift and you're off balance and fallen into the water between the two. Which about describes my mental state, this past year.

With an extra half day unscheduled, and the weather warm and dry, we headed immediately to our favorite bit of history in town, the Castillo. From our very first visit I had been drawn to this place and its story. I had spent so many hours dressed as a soldado (Spanish soldier), standing on the gun deck gazing out to sea exactly as my predecessors would have done 300 years earlier, dressed in the very same uniform. The difference of course is that my duty was far less stressful – they would have been fearing for their lives and looking for enemy ships while my biggest fear was being asked a question by a tourist that I couldn't answer!

“There are people with hearts of stone; there are stones with hearts like people.” This quote was the hook to a popular Israeli song (protest song?) from the 1960s, more lyrical in the original than my translation. It was written about the remaining wall of the temple in Jerusalem, but stones with hearts or souls seems to me to apply to other special places as well. I've always thought the Castillo had a unique aura and attributed it to the fact that the place had never fallen in battle but had safely housed the city's residents through two long English sieges. I'd felt the reassuring “my walls will keep you safe” vibe the very first time I'd visited, and every other time since, through public crowds and  special events and night events and private after hours tours that were closed to the public just staff and volunteers only. Now with attendance still limited by pandemic restrictions, no school kids or cannon firings and a smaller number of visitors, I thought I'd feel that again. 

Instead, a different quote came to mind. I was reminded of the heroine of a fantasy/sci-fi story I had read as a kid. She'd been given a pair of magic spectacles, and when she'd put them on she was able to walk through the wall of the place in which she'd been imprisoned and escape. Next time she got into a jam, she tried the glasses again, but this time got no help. Maybe they were meant to help just that once, she mused. “But now, the magic has gone out of them, and they are simply glass.” 

The park staff had done a commendable job of setting up vignettes in the different casemates to tell the story of the fort through time in the absence of costumed living history reenactors, but some of the magic had gone. The walls were … just rocks, silent. Though sometimes I wonder whether anything had changed at all, really, and my lack of feeling anything was just my heart's way of building protective walls around itself, to prevent being torn again.