Destination Unknown

One year ago today Bill and I woke at dawn in Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland. As usual the swallows and osprey had beaten the sun awake, and they chattered and fretted as we prepared the boat for its biggest day, the day we would cast off lines from our home port.

Within the hour, as we prepped SV Maggie May and ourselves for departure, some of our friends arrived to bid us fair winds and safe return. We were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, but the connection to these beloved people transcended space and time from that day to this. I can still see them waving goodbye from the docks, two of our friends following us out in their canoe until we passed the jetty into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Beering Committee Chairperson Margaret Boozer-Strother (bottom) and Margaret, Valerie Theberge and Anne L’Ecuyer on the docks at our departure. (Top)

That day I felt only exhilaration. A day we had worked toward for ten+ years, with many stumbles and falls along the way, was finally here. The biggest dream of my life was happening: to sail around the world.

I look back on that day now and think: how was there no apprehension or anxiety or fear in my heart that day? I know the answer. Because I was confused about our destination. I thought “around the world” was our destination. No.

We were not headed to “around the world”. We were headed to the unknown. And we have been spectacularly successful at finding it. This is the great beauty of the unknown. It can be terrifying, but it is very easy to find. And every day you are there, you become changed by it. For Bill and I, any romantic notions we had about ourselves as intrepid explorers have been dashed. We are cowering soft creatures quavering in the power of a world so much more awesome than our minds can even conceive. We have learned to head out on an ocean passage as well prepared as we can possibly be, knowing that it will not be enough if the capriciousness of the ocean and sky do not bend in our favor. When it’s time to pull up anchor and raise the sails we breathe deeply, swallow as much of our fear as we can hold and let the rest ride the wind around the boat.

45-foot blue in the Bahamas.

And in this way we have seen a palette of colored waters defined by the brilliance of the sun and the profundity of the sea. Colors that have made us cry out and catalogue our favorites by depth, and sit and just…stare…agape. We have been able to see some of the smallest creatures under the surface of the sea, some who have never been seen by another human eye and never will and yet their lives must delight the sun and moon and water beyond any of the billions of humans that strut around upon the land as if proprietors of all.

I have learned how to steer a vessel by wind and stars. Not as a true mariner. At this point I would probably end up in Antarctica if I relied solely on my celestial navigation. But I can keep a course this way and am learning more every day.

We have seen every single sunset for 365 days running.

We have also met with grief in all its guises, ever waiting in the unknown.

Today we find ourselves in a country we never meant to visit, planning to stay for longer than we meant to be anywhere. And it is perfect. We spent the past week with a friend, Eladio Fernandez, from the Dominican Republic. But not just any friend, one who knows the animals and plants and people of this island, who is tireless in his efforts to understand and protect the natural world, and who is generous enough to share this with us. We followed Eladio for days as he checked on orchid populations along roadsides and in federal protected areas of the northern dry forests and mountain foothills. Wild orchids sprouting from trees and the earth, painting a masterpiece of beauty solely for the eyes of the animals who pollinate them. Pollinator and orchid have lived in dynamic relationship for eons, each one prodding the other to become what it must in this world. Both molded and goaded by the gods of all things, sun energy and time.

Eladio in paradise.

This long stay in the Dominican Republic offers me a chance to fulfill or at least make progress on a dream of my life, to learn Spanish. I have scrabbled by with rudimentary Spanish for a decade of working on the US-Mexico borderlands, always wanting to improve but being so single-minded with my efforts to fight border wall that I didn’t think I could spare the time to really learn the language. Now I have that time.

Our watery route to the unknown.

I have begun to see this voyage not as a single dream of sailing around the world, but as a journey of a thousand dreams. To search for orchids and anoles in the Dominican Republic, to drink from a mountain stream, to swim with sharks and spend time with seahorses, to learn the ukulele and Spanish and sailing and celestial navigation, to spend time just enjoying and experimenting with photography and writing, to become the kind of friend I would like to be to all those I love, and the partner I would wish for Bill.

Captain Updike reading about creating a sustainable economic system, while sitting in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

And maybe above all, to face a journey into the unknown with courage and inquisitiveness and an open heart for whatever may come.

The Grace of Sharks

I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)

Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.

Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.

We saw this young turtle another time, on a dinghy ride in Hawksbill Cay.

Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.

“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.

Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”

“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.

“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.

“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.

“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.

The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

Bill at the beginning of a four hour hike that turned into an 8 hour hike. A gorgeous trek over Warderick Wells where we saw endangered hutia, narrowly managed to avoid getting a poisonwood rash and learned that the word “trail” has a different meaning in the Bahamas.

It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.

I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.

And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.

I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.

The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.

I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.

I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.

This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.

I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.

Reading the Water

My computer still refuses to turn on so in lieu of a normal blog, while we have WiFi, I’ll post some thoughts/mini-blogs to try and catch up the SV Maggie May story.

This photo was taken as we neared Highborne Cay, after the waves on Exuma Bank had calmed.

We left Great Harbour in the Berry Islands on March 28 hoping to get to the Exumas over a couple of days, in advance of a cold front that was sure to bring some unpleasantness.

Great Harbour to Soldier Cay

The first day’s sail was a perfect downwind run up to the northern tip of the Berries, where we headed east on a gorgeous reach to the east side of the island chain, along Great Stirrup Cay, which cruise lines have made into a ridiculous amusement park—the paradise of the Bahamas just isn’t quite enough.

Blue-good, aqua-pretty good, white-nogood

Sailing anchorage to anchorage in the Bahamas requires a keen eye toward reading the water. It is inadvisable to travel on cloudy days, with the sun in your eyes or too low on any horizon, because glare obscures the various colors of the water. These waters are much better charted than they ever were, but still there are rocks and coral heads and shoals that you can only avoid by knowing what color the water around them looks like. In general, blue and blue-green are good, black, white and yellow are bad, but also some browns are bad and some are good. The nuances escape a newbie and for Bill and I, having known a good deal of bad luck aboard the Maggie May, anxiety follows us from anchorage to anchorage.

When we arrived at Soldier Cay, a nurse shark swam a couple laps around the boat as we were setting the anchor. We marveled, watched the sun set and moon rise and slapped together some dinner before hitting the bed. We rose at dawn, prepped the boat and followed our GPS track out as soon as we could see reasonably well, because we needed to get from Soldier to the west side of Nassau in time to read the water into our next anchorage. That day the wind was ever on our nose and the waves and wind were building more than expected. The sea, seeming in a big hurry to get somewhere, piled upon itself. The waves were only about 2-4 feet but steep and close together and battling us every step toward Nassau. We arrived in plenty of light to see the few rocks that were sprinkled about Charlotte Bay, a beautiful harbor of green glass water encircled by mansions so we felt compelled to grumble just a bit about the gross excesses of the rich.

When the anchor was good and set we made dinner and downloaded the weather forecast on our Iridium Go. Then we spent dinner discussing our options. The cold front would be blowing from the north/northeast. There were only a few places within a days sail where we could find a protected anchorage. The forecasted wind direction wasn’t really good for any of the options, we would be heading into the wind wherever we went. From the list of uncertainties and mediocre options we chose to get up before dawn and go to Highborne Cay in the Exumas.

With a near full moon we followed our route back out to deep water in the pre-dawn hours the following day. For the first hour it was as quiet and pleasant a moonlight sail as we’ve had. And then the wind picked up and shifted to come from precisely our heading to Highborne. We could no longer sail with the wind dead ahead and were ever mindful of timing our entrance to Highborne for daylight. What followed is a long unpleasant story about one of the worst days we’ve had traveling across the Exuma Bank. I’ll spare you the details but here are the lowlights…Every dozen minutes we asked ourselves if we should turn back as the waves got bigger and steeper with the wind at 20-25 knots. We alternated who would steer every 30-45 minutes because it was so exhausting and stressful trying to maneuver safely through the constant 6-8 foot+ waves at 2-3 second intervals. This requires a different kind of water reading. More of a feeling your way through the path of least resistance. Where the waters surprisingly steely violence will do the least harm to boat and crew. Often getting it wrong if your attention strays just a little. And then Poseidon pounds against the sides of the bow with a thick wooden plank, hurling the sea over the bow, dodger and bimini.

Nassau to Highborne Cay, Exuma

There was a moment we almost turned back, then we realized we were halfway there. The waves slowed our forward motion so much that our speed wavered from 2-6 knots. It was a misery. And seeming without end. 10 hours on constant alert, getting thrashed up! Down! Side! Side!

Highborne Haven with rainbow beacon

But when we got within a few miles of Highborne the waves began to calm and as the island came into full view a rainbow appeared over Highborne and remained all through our entrance to the anchorage. A squall that could have made things even worse passed mercifully around us.

When the anchor hit the sand and held, relief washed over us both like a giddiness.

We would worry about the cold front tomorrow and never, ever, plan to sail at an angle less than 60 degrees off the bow, unless in an emergency. Ever. Every day we learn a little something new. The next lesson: How to emotionally confront daily life in the most beautiful place you have ever seen.

A Very Pungo Thanksgiving

A bald eagle perched in a long dead conifer has been witness to a spectacular procession of light-on-water these past 12 hours. He and Bill and I. We are all in the upper stretches of the Pungo River, near the point where the Alligator River – Pungo Canal reaches its southern terminus in North Carolina.

This canal was cut through land to create an inland connection between the Pamlico and Albamarle sounds and thereby facilitate safer boat passage along the Eastern Seaboard. It is one of many canals along the Intracoastal Waterway (known as the ICW), which connects New Jersey to Florida through an inland water route.

Yesterday Maggie May transited this canal. Yes, we have officially left our home waters on the Chesapeake Bay, as of November 19. After all that has befallen this boat and crew in the past seven months (not nearly the half of it is told in previous blogs) our departure from Norfolk on the ICW was more momentous than we had imagined it would be. The mechanical, electrical, structural, financial and emotional issues that led us to set aside our original dream of sailing around the world have not really ceased. But we have new goals. To learn Spanish and ukulele, to find clear water where we can see life below. To conquer our fears and learn to be kind to each other, even when we are afraid. And of course, the goal of all goals, to not have to have goals.

Today we find ourselves in the Pungo River watching the tail end of a rainbow alight on our bald eagle neighbor in its snaggy tree. It is coincidentally, Thanksgiving Day, my own favorite holiday. For the food. (Our propane is gone so we will be eating rice today.) For the resilience of this holiday against the ever-expanding consumerist takeover of holidays. (Not counting Black Friday because it comes after.) But mostly I love Thanksgiving for what it it celebrates. Not the part about Europeans coming to conquer and take this land for themselves, for profit, for religious expansionism. I wish that history had gone differently. I can imagine a different present day if those who carved European history into this land had held a different view of themselves and others and the land itself. To love Thanksgiving I accept its disastrous historical beginnings with a heavy heart, and look beyond to the feeling that prompted the first observance. A feeling universal in all creatures in some fashion. Gratitude. An overwhelming feeling of humble appreciation that through hardship and struggle, even at times near unto death, we live …for now …with the eagle in the tree, and our next door neighbors, and best friends and family (be they near or far), and our most beloved of fellow creatures. We can see and listen and be awed by this beautiful world. By rafts of arctic birds resting out the winter on the Chesapeake Bay. By the sight of raindrops pregnant with sunlight falling from the boom. By the sound of loons calling through fog. By the sight of my sleeping bag and pillow fluffed up and laid out with care by Bill on the coldest of nights, and the knowledge that in a little while I will be warm and safe and have some time for blessed rest.

As I write a steady rain begins to fall. I sit in our protected cockpit looking out on the world, listening to the rain tap and patter against the canvas that shelters me. The temperature this morning has risen to the mid-60s, giving a welcome reprieve from near freezing temps much of the past week. The eagle has left its tree in search of a more protected perch. My mind lingers on the sunset of yesterday. Around 4:00pm we had just anchored and I bid Bill to make haste so we could watch the sun go down. I had a feeling about this one. The sky was getting ready to share some secrets. I set out some pillows on deck and we sat for an hour as a parade of light and cloud and watery reflection marched across the horizon and consumed our every emotion and thought. Perched in a tree behind us, the eagle had also watched the scene unfold. We three watched and watched until the darkness was full upon us.

I don’ know how eagles are with the giving of thanks, but Bill and I gave all we had. For this moment and the last, and any future moments we may be privileged to have. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Important reminders posted in the head.

I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported this journey. My thoughts are with you today and always.

The Wealth of Time

A friend asked me yesterday what we do with our time now that we live on the boat. I came up with a list of things, awkwardly put together and here expanded:

  1. (In summer) Priority 1, find shade or a clean-ish place to swim
  2. Check the anchor
  3. Check the weather
  4. Find and fix broken things on boat
  5. Learn the things we need to know and don’t yet, like how to fix broken things on the boat
  6. Organize/reorganize
  7. Clean boat
  8. (If raining) Clean ourselves
  9. Feed ourselves
  10. Explore
  11. Check the weather
  12. Check the anchor
  13. Write
  14. Read
  15. Stretch, meditate
  16. Check the weather
  17. Go to bed
  18. Remember to turn on the anchor light
  19. Check the anchor
  20. Go back to bed.

Oh and also sailing.

Prior to moving onto the boat I had all sorts of ideas for what I was going to do with the immense amount of time I would have on my hands and the tremendous peace of mind I would find being away from work that daily tore me up inside, leaving me so mentally and emotionally exhausted by the end of the day that all I could manage was a few hours of television before laying awake fighting insomnia.

Time gets filled.

There is always something to worry about.

I realized pretty quickly that time would be liberally spent doing things I didn’t need to do when living on land (trying to escape oppressive heat, making sure my home wasn’t floating away toward some shoal or other boat, keeping a constant eye on the weather) or doing things that now take three times as long as they did on land (everything). But, something big has nonetheless shifted. Anxieties are real, related to the well-being of the boat, Bill or myself, in the right now, and these worries must be managed, but they are also manageable in a way that climate change and wildlife extinction are not. Also, I find that when I do have an hour or so free I don’t have to spend as much of it decompressing from nebulous anxiety and can instead spend it diving deep into a single Mary Oliver poem, or jotting down notes for a fiction book, or reading, reading, reading. I’ve read more in the past 5 months than I did in the 5 years leading up to this trip. And this week’s blog is a recap/review of what I’ve read.

First come the books I have already finished. I have limited physical books, because space is so tight, a kindle with many dozens of books, and a good list of audiobooks.

I generally read physical books during daylight hours and listen to audiobooks when I want to fall asleep–it helps to shut out boat noises so I don’t lay awake worrying that each new click or rattle is telling me the boat is sinking.

I’ve enjoyed each of these books in some way… some more than others.

  • A Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami. Here we have a zany book, part mythology, part slacker comedy. I highly recommend it if you want some light but smart reading from an incredible author.
  • Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee. The main character in this book is a creep in the beginning of the book, a creep in the middle, and a creep at the end (spoiler alert). As a reader, there’s something difficult about that, but Coetzee is such a deft writer that the story of this creep’s minor enlightenments is enough to make this book charge forward and stay with you. I continue to ponder the meaning of the word disgrace and conversely the meaning of the word grace, long after closing this book and passing it on to Bill. I recommend Coetzee’s Disgrace for sure, but this is not light reading.
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R Tolkien. This should really be first on any list of books for me. I have read it perhaps a dozen times in my life, listened to the audiobooks almost as many times, and seen every LOTR movie ever made more than a few times. Of any single work of story, I have devoted more of my life to Tolkien, than any other creator. And I will never tire of this story or the way Tolkien has told it. Flawless? No, some of the language is stuck hard in the gooey amber of time. But I have read and loved a lot of fantasy books and for me none even comes close to the sincere genius of the LOTR.
  • The Witcher series, Andrzej Sapkowski. This is one of those good fantasy series that doesn’t measure up to Tolkien, but I still really like it! I’m listening on Audible to this series. It has elves, dwarves, even halflings, and some interesting conflicts that reflect modern political times.
  • The Chosen, Chaim Potok. I read this book in college and just re-read it on the boat. It’s amazing how a few decades changes your perspective on a story. I still love it as a great coming of age story set in the Jewish community of New York City, post World War 2. But there are plot complications I didn’t understand back then, such as the violence that sprang from the formation of the nation of Israel. It is hard to read this book the same way having seen how the world unfolded since it was written in the late 1980s. Still, I recommend it. It is a story well told and gives such an interesting insight into the diversity of the Jewish community/culture.
  • The Book of Dust/La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman. This book is a prequel to the Golden Compass series. I don’t think I like it quite as well as the older series of Lyra’s adventures in a twisted world where adults are experimenting on children to see if they can rid the world of Original Sin (a story both unsettlingly familiar and fascinatingly foreign). But I’m a big fan of Pullman and the book fills in some history of Lyra’s story while also telling the story of a plucky young boy with a magical little boat La Belle Sauvage. Pullman recently released another book called The Secret Commonwealth that picks up the story after the events of The Golden Compass. I’m eager to read this one after I re-read the original book series.
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman. I listened to a great audio version of this book. So goooood. I’m not sure I could say what it is about. A guy, a bunch of gods nobody believes in anymore going to war with the new gods of technology and commerce. Heady and ridiculous at the same time.
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). This was another audiobook, not a great choice for listening to at night, too suspenseful to get me sleepy. But if you like mysteries this is a good one and the audiobook is very well done.
  • The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. This is a sweet novel about a woman in Botswana who opens a detective agency. The audiobook is excellent, the story both light and heavy and full of charm. Makes me hope that the Maggie May makes it to Africa someday.
  • The Mists of Avalon series, Marion Zimmer Bradley. I am not the biggest fan of this series, but I got sucked in! It is a story of the Arthurian legend but told more from the perspective of the female characters. Zimmer Bradley offers an interesting take on the legend, but some of the things these characters do and say…questionable. Still, it’s light and pretty entertaining and takes a known legend to a different place. And I’m listening to the audiobook, which puts me to sleep nicely.
  • The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller. Another excellent audiobook. This book is by the same author as the well-known Circe, and both are fresh reimaginings of characters from Greek mythology. Miller has a clear talent with retellings like this, and Achilles explores the relationship between a Greek demigod and his closest friend/lover Patroclus. Like Circe, Mists of Avalon, and well, most of the books on this list, The Song of Achilles is at its foundations entertainment. But it is also such a well-told love story between two men that it offers a profundity that sneaks up on you. The audiobook is very well done.

Current Reading

My current list includes all of the above titles, as well as a book on tides, and I’m loving them all for different reasons. I am less than halfway through The Writer’s Map, but can already say I highly recommend it. It’s a collection of fictional maps and essays by writers who rely heavily on maps, or who were inspired by other author’s maps. Visually it is fathomless. Each map contains an entire world, from which sprung some of the most inventive stories throughout human recorded history. I am rapt. I read this book in the mornings, after writing in my journal, while drinking coffee, before writing in my fiction journal. I love it so much. And it is a book I never would have picked up over the past 20 years, just because I didn’t have time to let my imagination wander through its pages.

Modern Marine Weather by David Burch is a different animal altogether. This is a book I read for survival. So that when we, s’cuse me, if we get to a place where we don’t have easy access to communications, I can assess what to expect from wind and waves just by looking at a spare surface chart, the barometer, clouds, wind directions and shifts, and sea state. I need to read this book three times to get to the point where I am competent. I’m about halfway through my first reading.

Myths and Legends is basically an illustrated encyclopedia of mythological characters worldwide. I use it as a reference and hope to make it to some of the countries whose myths are contained in the book.

Last, but certainly not least is The Cloudspotter’s Guide. My friend Edward gave me this book last week to my delight. Last time Bill and I saw him, right after we moved aboard the boat, Edward was telling us about how he had joined the Cloud Appreciation Society and was reading a book by its founder Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who also wrote a Manifesto about appreciating clouds. Every morning the first thing I do upon waking is to read this book. Every evening Bill and I watch the sunset and practice appreciating clouds, so that one day we may join the society with our heads held high. I love this book. It is, depending on the page, a nutty examination of the history of cloud pornography, a declaration of the oppressive nature of blue-sky thinking, and a serious explanation of the classification and formation of clouds.

Thanks to all who have gifted me books. They guide my life and thinking aboard the boat, help me sleep at night, and shower me with profound riches. Many days this is the only shower I get.

If you have any book recommendations, or comments on the books herein, please leave comments.

The Bluejacket’s Manual

Spa Creek, Annapolis.

Betwixt wind and water: That portion of the hull that can be above or below water, depending on the angle of heel.

The Bluejacket’s Manual

On Spa Creek in Annapolis, I watch the sun rise and listen to gulls lending their unruly voices to the morning reveille being bugled from the US Naval Academy. Maggie May sways on her mooring ball and  I sit with my morning coffee perusing a 1943 edition of The Bluejacket’s Manual, an instructional tome written to orient enlisted sailors for life in the US Navy during the second world war. It belonged to my grandpa.

My brother Nick gave me the book one Christmas after Bill and I announced our plans to sail around the world. Nick had followed in my grandpa’s footsteps, enlisting in the Navy in the late 1980s—serving at a different time, in a different war. I will return the book to him one day after it has been around the world or at least around the sun a few times as part of the orbit of items that live within Maggie May. For now, the book sits in an honored location next to Original Maggie May’s ashes and an angel bookmark that was my granny’s. 

This week we have been stationary in Annapolis while Bill studies for the Captain’s exam at the Annapolis School of Seamanship and we get some projects done on MM, including yet another repair to the mainsail. This one, thankfully, is a much smaller rip that happened when the sail got caught on one of the reefing hooks. An unpleasant surprise, but pale in comparison to what has come before.

While Bill is in class all day long, I am working on my own studies and projects and leafing through Grandpa’s manual, written more than 60 years ago, much of it right here in Annapolis. Grandpa died when I was around 10 years old. I still have clear memories of a gentle but orderly man who made duty, responsibility, family and discipline the foundations of his life. I wish I could have known him longer, but reading this manual effectively connects us through time, space and the sea. 

The book is more than 1000 pages and it covers every aspect of being a member of this branch of the armed forces, from how to serve with distinction upon the sea, to how to kill and how to avoid being killed. There are sections on duty, discipline, advancement, retirement, hygiene, and seamanship. Some of it reflects a past that, while distant in time, remains all too near in the cultural psyche. All sailors are men, and all men are white. Also, if they are exercising they all wear French cut bikini-briefs. 

Germany has a swastika on its flag. The British flag is the flag of empire. 

The book is chockablock with information—I learned this term in the definitions section, along with betwixt wind and water and freshen the nip. I plan to work these into casual conversation with Bill, to ascertain whether his Captain’s Class was worth it. 

The Bluejacket’s Manual includes this proud fact: “Our Navy is as clean as any navy in the world.” Not the cleanest, but at least as clean. It contains this crucial advice: “The best type of bath is the shower”. Perhaps this bit was intended to help us gain a competitive edge over the other clean navies.

“Our Navy is as clean as any navy in the world.”

The Bluejacket’s Manual

The “Prophylaxis” section begins, “Bad women can ruin your bodily health.” There is no definition for bad woman. I am keenly interested. There is also information on how to chew your food—this topic comes up several times in the manual, which suggests there had been problems. There is a guide for how to fold your clothes the Navy way—this was mandatory with a guide for every type of garment and spot inspections to ensure that clothes were folded properly. Shoreside-me finds this hilarious; boat-me immediately begins planning an implementation strategy, knowing Bill will not buy into it. He will sit by and watch me refolding all my clothes, shaking his head quietly.  

The book is filled with lists (daily schedules in 15 minute increments, inventories of mandatory clothing items, procedures for launching the vessel and putting out fires, insight into the Navy’s chain of command). I can fully appreciate these lists, as there are dozens of things to be aware of at any given time when a boat is underway, and forgetting even one could put the boat and crew in jeopardy. 

For a sailor, The Bluejacket’s Manual of 1943 remains useful with tips on sail trim, knots, and navigation. Some of the thinking on these things has changed in the past decades, as has the style of underwear men do their calisthenics in, but since I don’t yet know enough to discern, I’ll probably suggest we try these techniques out.

My Grandpa must have read the entire 1145 pages, perhaps more than once. But he only marked one page, one single paragraph. It was about discipline, and said, in part: “A body of men which has good discipline is not subject to panic.” It doesn’t surprise me that if he was going to outline one paragraph, it would be this one. I am only now beginning to understand the critical role of self-discipline in warding off terror and panic. Later on, the manual advises, “It means to restrain your impulses.” For instance, the impulse to dive off the boat screaming when the vessel is bow-down in a 5-foot high breaking wave. I found another quote that is useful in this regard, the 1943 Navy’s definition of courage: “Courage is that quality which enables one to meet danger and difficulties with firmness and with ability unimpaired… It does not mean absence of fear.”

I can appreciate the manual’s advice on many topics, including how to get chocolate out of a uniform, though we don’t carry naphtha or chloroform on the boat, so I can’t actually try it out. I’m less interested in the advice that I should take a cold shower every day. And perhaps this is one bit of advice specific to a boat full of men.

As the sun rises higher in the sky I finish the last of my coffee, lay down my book, and get on with my chores for the day. I start by taking everything out of the V-Berth to find the source of an unpleasant odor. While Bill is at Captain’s Class, I’m working on a list of deeds that need doing to keep the SVMM in ship-shape. In the evenings, Bill tells me what he has learned, I outline what I have accomplished, we eat, head to our cozy berth and lay down betwixt sheet and mattress, betwixt wakefulness and sleep, betwixt gratitude and greasy hair. 

ONE LAST THING

One night in Annapolis, we happened to catch the very last race of the Wednesday night summer sailing season out of Spa Creek. Purely by accident we moored our boat right in the middle of one of the craziest sailing spectacles in the country. The boats race on the Chesapeake Bay, but the final race of the night actually ends inside the mooring field in downtown Annapolis.

There were hundreds of sailboats, small and huge, all heading straight for us at full speed, then dodging our boat on last-minute tacks, racing to the finish line a hundred yards away. The sun was just about to set, lighting this magical moment with golden hue as Bill and I watched open-mouthed and breathless. It was some of the most incredible maneuvering either of us had ever witnessed so incredibly close. Bills summary: “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” It was a good reminder, not all unforeseen events are bad. The future also holds unimagined and unimaginable surprise.

Thank you so very much to all of you who responded to my donation link on my last blog. And all of you who have supported this journey in any way. It is one of those unforeseen serendipities to find so much love and support in the world, my heart is chockablock.

Barnacle: An animal that is inclined to stick to a boat’s underside.

–The Bluejacket’s Manual

A Chesapeake Summer

Summer on the Chesapeake Bay, in five lines:

Hot, humid, thunderstorm.

Bald eagle tries to steal fish from osprey. Osprey crying out indignantly, loses fish.

Great blue heron barks  at both of them, at no-one, at everyone and the general effrontery of the world.

Hot, humid, storm.

Jellyfish.

Great blue heron in the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the Chesapeake Bay.

In a few more lines

Several days ago, at anchor near the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, dusk was quietly descending when Bill said, “Is there bioluminescence in the Bay?”

There wasn’t as far as I knew, but I went up on deck to see what he was seeing. A pale orange reflection of the dusky sky lay upon otherwise dark water. We watched and waited and presently there appeared a blue light. Then quick as a heartbeat it was gone. I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. 

“Am I seeing things?” Bill said. 

If so we are having the same delusion, I thought. We kept on watching as dusk faded to dark.  There was another pulse of blue light, floating along the side of Maggie May, and another, and another. Disks of pale blue, about the size of my open hand, drifting along with the tidal current, turning on, turning off. Bill and I sat in rapt audience.

We were the only boat in sight near the wildlife refuge, where wetlands and coastal forest cover the land and protect the water community, offering a haven to bald eagles, herons, gulls and terns, little snakes, blue crabs, and apparently bioluminescent jellyfish. This was my guess, as I had read somewhere that some jellyfish could illuminate in this way. The lights seemed to move in the manner of a jelly, kind of haphazard, without any apparent intention other than as a silent passenger upon the prevailing current. Utterly without aspiration they seem, like a dimly lit shadow of some listless being, but also radiating a profound passive grace. And full of blue surprise.

Bill looked up “bioluminescence” and “Chesapeake Bay”, and sure enough, there are several forms these watery lights can take, from the bacteria that lights the water itself at certain times and in certain places, to jellyfish.

Osprey on an abandonner sailboat in Swan Creek.

Living on a boat in summer in the Chesapeake, one hopes for such gentle wonder to distract from the heat, flies, not nearly enough wind for sailing or far too much from frequent storms. And the pollution.

The Chesapeake has made great improvement in the past decades, thanks to efforts by thousands of individuals and organizations and regulations that are leading us toward the right track. But it is still a deeply wounded ecosystem, as is its sub watershed the Anacostia River, and for many of the same reasons. Reasons that date back to Captain John Smith, herald of environmental and cultural woe for the Bay 400 years past. 

When we decided to stay in the Chesapeake through hurricane season, I did some research into the healthiest waters of the bay, hoping to find someplace we could swim and cool off without worrying too much about one of us getting another skin infection, or worse. Such info is not easy to find. There are sites that list which beaches generally pass water quality tests that indicate the water is healthy enough to swim in. But even these waters after a rain and through much of the summer can carry dangerous bacteria and viruses. The ecology of the bay has been too deeply eroded over too long a period. 

I found a site created by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that mapped the state’s “Tier 2” waters. This Orwellian term is the official designation for the 253 relatively healthy streams, many of which lie within the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed. Most of these are not on the bay itself, but up in the smaller creeks. By the time their waters reach the bay, they have mixed with the foul runoff from farms, roads, and cities with antiquated sewer and stormwater systems. As a rule, healthier waters are not accessible by a sailboat. Most are nestled in some swath of natural land that has escaped the fate of most of the Mid-Atlantic region: becoming a shopping mall, housing development, urban area, agricultural or industrial development, or sporting complex.

Fishing boat in the Chester River.

The reality is, for hundreds of years we have treated this precious estuary, the largest in North America, as a tool for transportation, commerce and human recreation. The Chesapeake’s intrinsic value and its essential value to thousands of other species has escaped us.

Maryland’s environmental department estimates that 20 percent of the land in Maryland can be classified as a Tier 2 Watershed. This is much more than I would have imagined. But one-quarter of that is in danger of development or other harm. And fully 80 percent does not qualify as healthy watershed. With the large majority of the state’s landmass considered to be unhealthy for its waters, we have a long way to go. Still, 50 years ago, a healthy bay wasn’t even much of a consideration. Today it is, and tomorrow it will be more so if history is any guide. There is reasonable hope that one day the heroic efforts of every riverkeeper, watershed organization, motivated public servant and responsible citizen, will lead us closer to the state of grace the Chesapeake existed in once upon a time.

 

The Eastern Neck, much of which is healthy forested land, is one of those rare places in Maryland that offer a vision of what was and could be again. On the passage to our anchorage we saw skates sailing through the water, blue crabs, schools of fish attended by hungry gulls and terns, and many jellyfish. ( Generally this last item is met with groans, as swimming with them is just slightly less desirable than splashing around in E. coli. But the light show off Eastern Neck has given us a new appreciation. ) And over the past month living on the Bay aboard Maggie May, we have encountered enough wild surprise to imagine how a resilient watershed could rebound if we humans could learn to love the land just a little more. 

As for Bill and I, we are currently in Rock Hall again, doing what I hope will be the last of the boat repairs for at least a little while. We are back at Haven Harbour Marina, which has truly been a haven for us through some emotional, financial and literal storms (this is where we weathered Tropical Storm Isiais.) Looks like we are back just in time. Hurricane Laura may be on its way to the Chesapeake.

 

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COVID Dreams

It’s a COVID miracle. Maggie May’s bottom is finished.

 

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.

Captain Bill with our new life raft. Our friends and family donated the funds to buy this important piece of survival equipment. One of our good friends named the raft.

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.

Photo by: Margaret Boozer-Strother

Enter COVID.

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.

The deck is still in disarray, but this is the last major project before Maggie May can be launched.

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.

Working on some boat carpentry while Maggie May is self-isolating in the shop. This piece will be part of a hatch frame.

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.

 

SV Maggie May: The final countdown

Sailing around the world was a 5-year-plan launched in 2002. It’s now 2020 and we still haven’t left. How did 5 years stretch into 18 you ask? Well let me try to tell you in one blog post.

If you are rich you can buy a new boat, maybe even hire a captain and be ready to launch in a year or two. If you grow up eating government cheese things are a little more complex. This was factor one in the long timeline.

FACTOR 2 The Original Maggie May, the boat’s namesake, might have been able to make an around the world sailing voyage in her youth…she was a spry pup who climbed trees and scaled rocks like a mountain goat. But as she got older she developed arthritis and other ailments and by 2007 (our theoretical departure date) she was almost 10 years old. We didn’t want to put her through life on the boat, and we wanted to enjoy her golden years.

FACTOR 3 There was another important reason. Bill and I are both very devoted to our work. Bill crafted government policy that would help the city of Washington DC become more sustainable and climate responsible. I worked as a photographer and writer to engage the American public in wildlife conservation and ecological protection, including a 10-year+  effort to stop the construction of border wall on the US-Mexico border. While Maggie was healthy, we were content working for environmental conservation.

IMG_0278

Maggie died in December 2012. This was a devastating loss for us. Our triumvirate was broken and in some ways she was the best of us. So we found a new role for her, as inspiration for a dream.

We had long been setting the stage for the sailing trip on the sidelines of regular life. In 2009, we moved into a very small, very cheap and unloved house and rented out our previous house, a 1,250 square foot bungalow. We are pretty good at living simply and cheaply and therefore we save a good amount of what we make. So in 2013 we were ready. We sold our rental house and bought a sailboat. Everything was finally coming together nicely. We would be on our way in a year or two.

We bought Vilkas, the werewolf, in Florida and sailed her up to the Chesapeake Bay in Summer 2013. Our boat search had spanned many years and the werewolf seemed to have the right balance of interior space, hefty build, and care by previous owners, as well as some extras that would be very useful on the trip: life raft, generator, water maker, wind generator, dingy with motor, sails and backups, a relatively new diesel inboard, and a totally redone hull (due to a problem with osmotic blisters). The only problem we would need to address would be the decks, which were original and a bit of a mess, but an easy fix for about $10,000.

What we didn’t know was that the full moon had not yet risen.

IMG_1291

Bringing our new bundle of joy, Vilkas, up from Florida.

I was more excited than I’ve been most of my adult life. Bill was immediately feeling buyer’s remorse and less than excited. There was immediate conflict due to these contrary emotions. And then the moon came out and Vilkas bared her teeth. The only thing in the list of positives that turned out to be positive, so far, was the diesel engine. Everything else was either broken or breaking and the deck repair turned out to cost 10X our boat broker’s estimate. A year or two stretched into 5 as we fixed all the problems and drained our hard-earned savings, but in fall of 2019 we were ready to go. Vilkas had been transformed, or so we thought.

IMG_1737

The first round of repairs for Vilkas

We pulled Maggie May, (newly named but not yet christened), for one last bottom paint job before our scheduled launched in November. When first we set eyes on her,  Bill immediately noticed hundreds of puffy spots on the bottom of the hull. His face turned grey.

“If this is what I think it is, we’re done. The trip is over,” he told me.

Vice on heart. Shake head. Move forward.

I’m usually the optimistic one in boat-related matters so I proceeded to inspect the hull. I poked one of the spots and an oily liquid poured out. I smelled it… vinegar. Weird.

I took out my phone hoping some quick research would throw us a lifeline. Instead, the Google had  dire news about the search terms puffy spots + sailboat + vinegar smell. You have osmotic blisters, aka boat chicken pox, the Google declared in no uncertain terms. And you can expect the cost of repair to be $20-$30K.

IMG_5365

Vilkas is officially transformed into Maggie May

My role over the past 15 years had been to stay positive when Bill was losing faith in the dream. But I couldn’t figure out how to spin this in any way that allowed the trip to continue. What had been more than a decade and a half of planning, and had consumed most of our life savings; what had sustained me through years of heart-rending documentation of environmental destruction, this dream, was going to dissolve into nothing.

Nausea set in so we headed to Burger King, figuring it couldn’t get any worse. We sat down to something like food, and silence.

My mind was mostly blank, but as ever doing some background calculations about what could be done. We had set aside some funds for the trip and some savings to get us by when we returned, until Bill could get a job again. But we had exhausted our budget for fixing the boat. Any further expenditures could put us in a risky position upon our return. We had promised we wouldn’t spend that cushion. And based on our research we would need at least $15K a year while we were sailing. I planned to keep working, writing stories for magazines, licensing photos, but even in a good year I am not our primary earner. I was running numbers when all the sudden a thought occurred to me. We have to fix the boat. 

Even if we could no longer afford to take the trip, we would have to fix the boat in order to sell it and return to our regularly scheduled lives. No one was going to buy a boat with blisters. And we had to fix it right, because the people who repaired this exact problem before we bought it, did not do what was needed for the boat to be permanently fixed. I told Bill as much.

“We have to fix it,” I said. “How about we start there and then later make a decision about whether we can still go?”

Bill was too heartbroken to say much, but he agreed we would figure out the cost of fixing it, and let this new catastrophe percolate for a while.

We ate our fries.

The initial reports from Bill’s research were grim, with estimates at or well above what we had expected. But then he talked to a contractor who said they could do it for less. There was a chance if we could save some money on fixing this, we could still go on the trip, and just eat into our yearly budget and our cushion.

But the issue wasn’t just cost, it was also time. The process of fixing boat blisters right took months. And there was no way it would be done by November 2019 when we planned to depart. Sailing out of the Chesapeake in January can be challenging or impossible but sometimes you get a window in February. This was the best we could hope for. And there was a moment we just looked at each other and said, “This is our dream. We can’t give up on it.”

So we made arrangements to get the boat to the shop in December, the first available option the contractor had. December rolled around and we set everything up…but the machine that would remove Maggie May’s mast so she could fit in the shop was broken, for the whole month of December and half of January.

Finally in January Maggie May was placed in the shop and the work started. We began a two month countdown to our departure. We would finally, after more than 15 years of planning, launch our sailing circumnavigation on or around March 15, 2020.

Enter the Coronavirus.