Posted on August 24, 2021
Guest blog by Bill Updike, El Capitan of the SV Maggie May.
Krista and I have witnessed many examples of magic out here on the seas of our little blue planet. We spent our nights at anchor in Warderick Wells (Bahamas) marveling at the bioluminescent laser light show of hundreds of Bermuda fireworms floating, dancing, glowing and mating along the current rip flowing by our boat. Seriously, google these littleguys—it’s a crazy wildlife spectacle. And seeing other bioluminescent creatures, like the microscopic dinoflagellates that sparkle along the hulls of boats and sometimes dangling-feet in Atlantic and Caribbean waters.
We paddled a kayak through crystal clear mangrove “creeks” abounding in baby and juvenile sea turtles—it turns out that, unlike their massive parents, the little ones move like lightning. When diving, we’ve seen myriads of underwater marvels—giant sea worms, silkily moving sharks, the bird-like motions of mantas and spotted eagle rays, a “cleaning station” set up by a small shrimp where a fish would come to have their scales and gills cleaned by the shrimp, only to depart and let the next fish have their turn. Imagine paying for a car wash with nothing but bacteria.
These moments with nature’s magic have led me to think a lot about the idea of human-made mediated magic, and of its presence, or rather omnipresence, in our modern world. Krista and I recently finished listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook. It brought us a lot of joy to listen to the entertaining books while floating around in the sea. There’s nothing quite like hearing Dumbledore and Harry amidst breaking waves outside Voldemort’s evil horcrux-holding cave, while sailing on a boat hearing the crashing of real ocean waves on rocks.
But I have also been pondering the crazy popularity of the series, and how it speaks greatly to our modern need for magic. A part of me sees beauty in that longing, but another worries about what it portends. Beautiful because it reveals our human capacity for imagination, for thinking outside of the curse of endless explainability, from our info-transfused Wikipedia-ified world. What happens to imagination when you can get an immediate answer to basically any question you ever have? Our longing for magic may also reveal our ability for stepping outside of ourselves, and hopefully for a potential to accept otherness, something we desperately need in this historical moment.
But our current obsession with magic has I think, like many things, a shadow side. It seems like we are moving towards a culture, at least in the United States, where the only movies made by Hollywood are those full of Marvel or DC superheroes. We have drifted to a culture where our basic (base?) humanness is no longer enough to satisfy the big screen. Perhaps, the mundanity of our conspicuous consumer-ness has left us with a void that demands filling from the outside, from outrageously superheroic acts of heroism impossible for us clumsy humans to achieve. It has left me feeling that we need to relearn how to marvel at our humanness and our natural world, rather than marvel only at our Marvel superheroes.
We’ve been filling that void left by our conspicuous consumption (at least those of us with the means to be conspicuous in our consumption in the world) by consuming more and more narratives of magic, but I think it may ultimately be a negative, and not just a zero sum game. Our insatiable consumption creates an arms race against ourselves, and has left much of the U.S., and other places in the world, in a self-inflicted war of indebtedness and buried in piles of plastics.
Beyond just regular folks fighting debt and consuming things we don’t need sold by companies that don’t care about us, there’s an even larger and environmentally damaging arms race of consumption happening among the elites. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the multitude of megayachts we have witnessed along our travels, in particular along the coasts of the small islands in the Bahamas. These sea giants, sometimes 300-400 feet long, rivaling cruise ships and costing 100s of millions of dollars, show up at a previously quiet anchorage towing another 50-foot-long powerboat (their “play boat”), and then quickly disgorge even more small boats, jet skis, and other machinery from their stern garages. They tie the offal behind the behemoths in a row so that it looks like a mother goose with her goslings, except with polluting and noisy machines, so not as cute. These 300-400 foot long yachts generally have more serving staff on them than passengers, similar to those 20,000 square foot McMansions with only two residents and rooms never used or seen.
The passengers then proceed to tear around the anchorages as if they owned the world, which I guess in a sense they do (in fact, some whole islands in the Bahamas are owned by one person). These “dei in machinas” create massive amounts of noise, pollution and waves, all the while missing the (formerly) quiet beauty of the magical and multihued Bahamian islands. After blazing around the anchorage, they then quickly leave to find a “better” beach even though pretty much all beaches in the Bahamas are the very definition of perfection. I even heard one of the megayachties complain on one beach that the sand was not “fine” enough—oh nooooooo, what will happen to one’s perfectly pedicured and silky soft feet! The horror!
In my less kind moments (after a wave from a jet ski has nearly swamped us rowing our little kayak), I would say that the size of the megayachts are inversely proportional to the depths of owners’ souls. But really I think that the size of the megayachts, and the total number of spewing toys, is more directly proportional to their fear of the void.
Which leads me back to magic. The megayachties magic is in money and machines. And in their conjurations of machines from the bellies of their beasts, I think they miss out on the greatest opportunity that life on the world’s oceans has to offer—the time to live outside of what most would call a “normal life,” the immense gift that silence has to offer for free and with no debt attached, and the opportunity to use that silence to explore deep inside ourselves and wrestle with the void and try to come to peace with it. Essentially to create our own magic out of mundanity.
In our obsession with mediated magic, and its offer of a temporary break from thoughts of the void and of our fear of silence, I think we miss perhaps the greatest gift that our little blue planet offers us. Not food and water (though those are pretty damn important too), but the magic that is literally all around us, and the unmediated awe that descends gratis when we slow down, step into the silence, and look again like children do at the fantasy world in which we live.
One ubiquitous example of nature’s magic comes in one of its smallest packages—the diminutive but powerful pistol shrimp. Only around 1.5 inches in length and less than an ounce in weight, the pistol shrimp moves its claws at more than 60 miles/hour. For this small creature in a small space, the speed is so fast that it creates a vacuum bubble that has such a low pressure that a water pulse emerges with a noise of almost 220 decibels—louder than a bullet, hence the shrimp’s name.
Perhaps more astoundingly, the snap creates a resultant temperature of around 4800 degrees Celcius (around 8600 degrees Fahrenheit)—similar to the surface temp of the sun! It’s all just crazy times infinity. The enormous pressure also creates a visible plasma arc which causes another compression and a flash of light from the sound itself—in a process known by the weighty word sonoluminescence (similar to how lightning and thunder interact). We humans think we have a monopoly on magic in all our Harry Potters and Marvels, but the teeny tiny pistol shrimp begs to differ, or really doesn’t care I guess. It’s just down there in the sea making its magic every day without a care in the world (except for getting eaten).
When we are silent, Krista and I hear the snapping sounds of the shrimp under our boat every night and are chock full with wonder. Hollywood has nothing to do with it. And although I love a good superhero movie as much as the next nerd, for me I will take the humble pistol shrimp over the $300 million Marvel movie any night of the week. And when I struggle with stepping into the void, I try to think of the little pistol shrimp snapping away as a constant reminder of the magic all around us all the damn time. And it helps.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, animals, Bahamas, beauty, bill updike, boat, Caribbean, contemplation, Dominican Republic, environment, Harry Potter, Maggie May, magic, memoir, nature, ocean, philosophy, sailboat, sailing, superhero, sv maggie may, wildlife
Posted on April 23, 2020
In some universe, the Sailing Vessel Maggie May was launched by now. Not here.
On February 8, our friends and neighbors gathered at Red Dirt Studios in Mount Rainier, Maryland, to bid us farewell. I’ve never been married, but I imagine this is what one’s wedding would feel like, an overwhelming feeling of love at a moment of great transition. Friends from our 20 years in the Washington DC area, many we hadn’t seen in more than a decade, and some family making surprise journeys from far away places, came together for chili, home-brew and music and to wish us well on this journey.
Our dear friends in the arts community of Mount Rainier also organized a fundraiser around the party event, gathering enough money to buy us a life raft–in hopes we come back safe even if the Maggie May does not. Thank you friends, we’ll carry your love and goodwill around the world with us…if by great fortune we set foot on a boat, in the water, ever.
A few weeks after the party, we moved out of our house, which we have rented for the next two years to a delightful young couple Cassandra and Mark and their dog Colby. We moved in with our friends Dave and Kendra on March 1. The plan was to be here for a few weeks until the boat was finished.
It was about a week after we moved that the coronavirus started gaining attention in the media. About a week after that its official name was changed to COVID-19 and Maryland was on lockdown. Dave and Kendra had to start working from home. Bill and I could no longer go work on the boat. Shipments of important boat components languished in warehouses. And our contractors efforts slowed to a painful crawl…along with everything else. The boat project, which was supposed to take 2 months, is going on 5.
Our window to escape the hurricane belt before the storm season begins is winnowing. Our years of planning and organizing our lives around this idea, locked in limbo.
A part of my mind says well boohoo, you can’t get on your sailboat and travel the world chasing a dream. Krista, your problems are ridiculous in the scope of what’s happening right now. The truth of this is indisputable. Yet here I am, feeling trapped and helpless.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to practice patience, fighting with despair, feeling guilty about my discontent. I should be grateful at this time of unimagined uncertainty and grief, grateful that I am healthy, have shelter and food, a healthy family and friends and all of the things that so many of us either lack or take for granted. Plain and simple I should feel grateful. But should doesn’t always work in a stubborn mind. And so I look for reasons why I can’t let go. Why I can’t just be content. And I know, pretty quickly or at least in moments of clarity…it’s because I feel this dream slipping away from me. I’ve fought so hard to keep us on track despite so many pitfalls and derailments, and I’m starting to lose faith. Unbidden by me, my psyche returns to previous battles, where I tried so hard to make something happen or not-happen, something much more grave and important, and despite every effort I failed and in the end swallowed a living mass of acrid loss and self-doubt. The mass has knife-edges and it lives somewhere in my stomach, forever reopening wounds of inadequacy, hopelessness and grief.
This boat trip is in part geared toward dealing with that stomach-mass, blunting its hard edges by accepting my failures; Maggie May is transport toward healing some wounds. And within this overwhelming viral cloud, what I’m feeling is a malevolent echo, encouraging me to believe that this too will end in failure. The aperture through which I have envisioned this journey for more than a decade, narrows to the point that any possible success seems far more distant than it actually may be.
In fact, it may be quite close. As of last Friday, the biggest part of the project, the complete redo of Maggie May’s hull is finished. The entire boat bottom was blasted off down to the bare fiberglass; new fiberglass and epoxy was applied; and a new kind of long-lasting, less-toxic bottom paint covered all.
The rest of the boat project, which over the past 7 years has included a list of no less than 1000 items, has narrowed to about 20, most of which Bill and I will do. The one holdup is the redo of the previously redone decks, the lingering bane of Vilkas. But we are expecting to see this finished this week, at which point the boat can go outside, get her mast back on, and get in the water as soon as our marina gets an opening in a backlog of boat launches.
We’re so close, closer than we’ve ever been. But given all the stumbling blocks that have arisen and the incredible uncertainty of this moment in time, I don’t think I can muster any excitement until Maggie May is placed back in the water where she belongs.