When Time Sleeps

One recent morning in Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic a land breeze blew gently from the west. For us this was unexpected, and a pleasant surprise. We were returning from a trip to Los Haitises National Park and were assuming that our eastward sail back to the marina northeast of Los Haitises would be nose to the trade winds, or no wind at all.

A gift from the Four Winds comes rarely for the SV Maggie May, so Bill and I were filled with gratitude for the broad reach in 10 knots, calm seas, the sweetest of sailing. As I steered the boat, I closed my eyes and guided the boat by the feel of the wind on my face. A good deal of our sailing happens at night, sometimes without moonlight, so feeling calm and confident in the dark, while taking responsibility for the boat and crew, is an essential and still-lacking skill for me. I hypothesized that closing my eyes and using the force (of the wind) to orient me might help ease my disorientation at night.

After a short while Bill said “Why are we 20 degrees off course?” And then, “Why are your eyes closed.”

I opened my eyes and righted us. Explained to Bill what I was up to. Tried again. Went off course again. It may take some time to develop this skill. A while later Bill took over steering and he too closed his eyes.

I watched the boat’s heading go awry, snickering to myself.

“How’mi doing,” he asked.

“You were steering 60 degrees, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re steering about 80.”

He laughed. We talked about how to discern if there was a lull in the wind or if your angle on the wind had changed. They tend to feel about the same. He tried again. This time, eyes closed for several minutes he stayed on course within three or four degrees. (Did you ever have a friend who was better than you at almost every damn thing?)

So it was that type of rare and wondrous morning. Easy. Gentle. Light and lightening. When long-held burdens of the soul lift and time seems to stretch out and relax, lounge about easily as if it means to stay a while. Just here.

Like childhood, when time seems endless, no endings pressing in on you. No expectations unmet or sadnesses than can weigh upon you for long, long years.

Timeless. Weightless.

I could have passed the morning this way and considered it perfect, as near perfect a sail as I have ever had. As near perfect a stretch of time as I could recall. But then something else happened.

Dark clouds began to gather ahead and to the east. Almost certainly they would soon be overhead and threaten to make our return to the marina difficult or impossible. I wasn’t worried, we could divert to nearby Cayo Levantado and anchor for a bumpy few hours while the storm blew over. But the moment of near-perfect ease was soon to end.

When the rain began to mist over the boat we stowed everything we didn’t want to get wet, closed all the hatches and stayed alert. But the mist never gathered into rain or deluge and the wind never rose. We could see a rain line disrupting the water to the north and east, but the dark clouds lightened to pale gray above us. From the east, light stole through holes in the wall of clouds and cast itself upon curtains of rain along the coast of the Samana Peninsula. White sun beams smashed into that wet curtain and scattered into a full spectrum rainbow that stretched across the dark western sky.

The morning had gone from near-perfect to perfect. And time lay back and stretched and yawned and slept. The rainbow seemed to come alive—it was for some time whole, a single arc across the sky, thin and pale. Then it broke apart into two ends of a rainbow which each had their own character. One soft and small, the other bold and animate, shrinking and growing as the clouds in the east gathered and dispersed then gathered again. At one point this half-rainbow grew thick and the color so intense it seemed likely to burst apart. And then it just stayed and stayed as time slumbered on.

“This is the longest rainbow I’ve ever seen,” I said to Bill.

“Crazy.”

And then several minutes later I said, “I mean, it’s still here!” I was incredulous. “It refuses to leave, no matter what!”

It did eventually leave. As rainbows do. But here was a gift from time and light and rain I’ll never, ever forget.

Thieves in the Night

Had the Atlantic trade winds been westerly, we would be living in a very different world. These relentless winds blowing ever from the east facilitated the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere; they made and unmade kings.

And they make beggars of all who choose to sail against them. We become thieves in the night.

It was a moonless night when we stole away from Luperon. Despite our best intentions. Our plan had been to find a window of time under a gibbous moon when the trade winds were disrupted by an intervening weather feature—a trough, a stalled front, a tropical cyclone that had already passed us by. But this did not come to pass.

As the third-quarter moon began to wane, we had decided to settle back in and wait until the September moon began to wax toward full. But then chance brought us something we’d never hoped for: a solid 3-day forecast of 5 knot winds for most of the Southwest North Atlantic. 5 knots! This might turn into 10 knots along the north coast of Hispaniola, and if so, we could sail by day and motor-sail (hybrid of sailing-motoring) through the night. It was too good to be true, we had to take it.

For months, Bill and I had sketched out our departure from Luperon on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. If we had been headed west or north, we could have planned our next sail over a few days time. But sailing east to Samana Bay meant that we would either be zigzagging for 40+ hours, clawing our way against 25-30 knot East winds and their associated wave patterns; or we would be motoring and motor-sailing at night with almost no wind, and hiding out during the daylight hours—when the trade winds gang up with sea breezes and coastal acceleration to create one of the thorniest passages along the Thorny Path from the Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles. Bill and I calculated that over the first year of our adventure we sailed against the wind about 90 percent of the time. It was hard on the boat, hard on us. And there was really no end in sight until we reached the Virgin Islands and could turn southward.

We opted for the light-wind night passage. Upon our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we purchased the bible for this route, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant. Van Sant spent 20 years sailing the route between Florida and the north coast of South America, via the eastern Caribbean. Over that time he became one of the crustiest salts in the sailing world, a fellow who hates “No Smoking” and “No Fishing” signs almost as much as he dislikes sailing to windward. He is also likely the most knowledgeable person out there about how to safely sneak east against the trade winds.

The Gentleman’s Guide has a title that sounds like it was published in the 1950s, rather than 2012, but still, when the derivation is explained by Van Sant, it strikes me as jolly good fun,( despite the years of jolly annoyance I’ve had over sexism in the sailing world). There was an old sailing adage, something to the effect of, “A gentleman never sails to windward.” Thus a gentleman would never voyage from the United States East Coast to the Caribbean, because it cannot be done without doing some of the least gentlemanly sailing in the world. Sailing to windward is a sometimes brutal sport, sailing off the wind is a genteel pastime.

I myself, prefer genteel pastimes and while I enjoy an hour or two of beating into the wind, I am apparently a bit of a gentleman. So I was keen to learn all Van Sant had to teach. I read and reread the book, as did Bill, while we were moored in Luperon hiding out from the epic progression of tropical storms that 2021 has been.

When this rare window of calm appeared, we began to ready ourselves, scraping the barnacles off all of our bottoms; weaving through the beauraucracy regulating travel by boat within the Dominican Republic; checking, rechecking, re-rechecking the weather forecasts. Finally, at midnight, the last Monday in August, when the wind had eased for the day and we expected a meager waning moon to soon crest the eastern hilltop, Bill climbed up on the mast, hooked on the mainsail halyard, and I prepared to cast us off the mooring by the light of a spotlight.

As I walked the lines aft and made sure they were clear of our propeller, I noticed why we hadn’t yet seen the tardy moonrise–the moon was already up, but obscured by a thick fog, the mist of which rushed through the spotlight beam like a billion tiny insects. I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. Had Luperon harbor had more of a strait forward entrance this would not have been a problem, but this bay’s entrance is shaped by shallow rocks and muddy shoals that make for a narrow channel that resembles a dogleg, broken and mended badly several times. There are markers, but they are not lighted and give little hint as to their colors in the dark. I went to the bow and tried to serve as eyes for Bill as he steered and consulted the chart.

“Ok, you’ve got a green to starboard and red to port. Then there’s a…I think that’s green, god, its really hard to say.” Bill replied through the dark, “Chart says it should be green.” (For those unfamiliar with boating aids to navigation, green marks the rightmost extent of the channel, often a shoal-line, when leaving a port. You don’t want to mistake red for green.)

And so it went as we groped along in the thick dark mist at 2 knots, figuring if we hit anything, we wouldn’t hit too hard. I could see fish swimming and leaping in the beam of the spotlight, an octopus legged languidly past the bow, headed toward Luperon, barely giving us a second glance, though its hard to tell with octopi. Occasionally the light would fall on a float for a fishing net and I’d alert Bill, or cliff face some 50 feet away. Then all would fade from view as I scanned the dark for clues to the deeper water.

After 15 tense minutes and 8 bouys passed, I couldn’t see any more channel markers. Standing on the bow I also couldn’t see the chart so I asked Bill, “Are we out?”

“We’re out,” he said.

I gave the water a few more scans for fishing floats, then went back to help Bill raise the mainsail.

As Maggie May made her way through the dark world we took turns at the helm, keeping the boat on coarse and watching the lights of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete fall behind us. The winds were light, so light that there was almost no wave action aside from an easterly swell—the ocean’s long memory of a wind somewhere, sometime. But we were able to keep the mainsail filled to take some strain off the engine and save a little fuel.

I hadn’t slept well for days before our departure, so Bill took first watch while I lay in the cockpit with my head near his lap, him stroking my hair, me looking up at the moon which was now clear of mist and accompanied by Orion striding purposefully toward the southeast. At 4:00am I took over the helm, just as Canus Major was following Orion into the sky. Bill rested beside me while I watched the dark horizon, only a pale reflection of moonlight and starlight ruffling the cloak of night.

I generally have no trouble staying awake on these passages, but before long, a powerful fatigue overtook me. My eyes began to cross, exhausted from the effort of holding their lids open. I pulled at my hair to stay alert. Ate some M&Ms one…by…one. Stuck my face out of the cockpit to get some air. It was then I noticed a dark line on the horizon in front of us, drawing ever nearer. Could be a trick of light, a huge trick of light. There is no land out here…is there? A rogue wave, the size impossible to tell in the darkness? How close is it? I didn’t want to wake Bill, but didn’t trust myself to decipher danger from hallucination, “Bill, uh Bill, there’s something on the horizon.” He jumped up like a piece of toast shot out of a toaster. “Wha! Whas going on?!”

“Do you see that?” He turned and then scrambled behind the wheel and flipped the boat around faster than I have ever seen it done.

Now facing the opposite direction, we both stared at the dark line, which began to resolve itself in the water.

“I don’t think it’s anything,” Bill said slowly, not entirely sure. “It must be just a giant matte of sargassum catching the moonlight in a weird way,” he said, turning the boat back the way we were going.

“Could be the garbage belt,” I said, referring to the line of garbage that follows currents around islands, 2-5 miles offshore. The garbage can come from all over the Atlantic. And it can destroy boats.

“Yeah, could be. Let’s head closer in toward shore.”

Back at the wheel, I steered us closer to the coast and Bill sat back down and began to nestle in to his pillow. He stopped and said “Are you ok? Do you feel sharp?”

“No,” just being honest. “But the sun will be up soon. I’ll be fine.” He went back to sleep. I didn’t tell him until later that I had been hearing music in the engine noise, first violins, then an angelic choir, then death metal.

A dusty pink dawn perked me up for a while, and I watched the coast roll by, along with patch after patch of sunrise-rose tinged sargassum. I shook my fist at it for making a fool of me.

The presence of this brown floating seaweed has been increasing over the past decade, significantly. Many places in the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism dollars, have named it a public enemy and much effort now goes toward controlling it, or desperately trying. Scientists are not yet certain what is causing the expansion of the plant’s range. It is almost certainly something humans have set in motion, either through climate change or increasing nutrients in the ocean from agricultural runoff. Sargassum provides important habitat for fish, sea turtles and other ocean organisms. But it can also be a hazard when it stacks up meters thick and miles wide and animals become trapped in it. But it is a force all its own, one of those immense mysteries we have yet to unravel, but you can be sure that when we do, we ourselves will be at the bottom of it.

I mused on this idea for a while as I watched flying fish dart by the dozens in front of the boat, etching 30-foot-long criss-crossed trails of disturbance in the glassy ocean. An hour later I woke Bill, handed over the wheel, and then crashed upon the couch belowdecks.

We spent the day making good, easy progress east, while passing by some of the most notorious locations on the coast of the Dominican Republic, including Puerto Malo (bad port), Punta Mala (bad point), and Cabo Cabron, or Cape Asshole, where we would snuggle in and anchor for the night. We had thought to keep going straight to Samana, uncertain whether we could trust the weather forecast. But the ocean was so placid, and I told Bill about my hearing music in the engine’s drone, and we really wanted to see the anchorage at El Valle, reported to be gorgeous.

Our anchorage at El Valle, near Cabo Cabron

In truth it was one of the most breathtaking anchorages Maggie May has ever, or perhaps will ever, visit. We dropped the anchor in late afternoon in the small nook where Cape Asshole meets the Dominican Republic’s mainland coast. The cape and mainland rise 1000 feet in mounded hills and sheer cliff walls where palm trees by the thousands cling improbably and birds soar on thermals flowing off the hillsides.

Once we were secure, I sat in the shade and watched a pelican dive for fish along the rugged coast. He wasn’t very good at it, but was fun to watch. The bird kept at it, over and over until he got some dinner, which gave me a sense of satisfaction for him. Bill had jumped in the water to cool off and check the propeller and engine water intake, which as suspected were partially clogged and crusted with barnys and other stowaways. When he climbed out a jellyfish tried to come along on his forearm and left some nasty tentacles behind. He brushed them off, but not before they left a nasty mark, as if someone had dribbled acid along his arm.

Bill giving thumbs up to El Valle, before jellyfish encounter

We made some dinner, watched the sun settle beyond the western wall of our anchorage, then lay down, hoping to get a few hours sleep before a late night departure. My alarm went off at 3:00am and we set about prepping the boat as tree frogs sang through the deep darkness all around. I pulled up the anchor and Bill drove us northward in the night stillness along the coast of Cabo Cabron.

The Van Sant method of transiting this coast uses what is known as the night lee to creep eastward. The night lee only works well when the trade winds are relatively light, 10-15 knots, and blowing from south of east, which happens somewhat infrequently. When it does, the sea breeze that accelerates the trades in the daytime, reverses to a gentle land breeze flowing off the mountains. This land breeze blows in opposition to the trades, gentling them and even changing their angle from east to southeast or even south. To take advantage of this, one has to follow the coastline closely, sometimes frighteningly close, within a few hundred yards, where a sudden strong shift in the wind or waves to northward could prove disastrous. Because Bill and I found a window where the daytime wind was going to so very, strangely light, less than 5 knots, we didn’t need to follow Van Sant’s method precisely, and could gain some distance from the rocky coast. But because we had the luxury of calm seas, we stayed close enough to Hispaniola that we could feel the power of this land and seascape.

As we rounded Cabo Cabron light began to glow on water and sky, giving a pale silhouette to Cabo Samana, the last cape would would pass before heading south and then west into the bay of Samana. Here the water was filled with sargassum, in places it flowed with unseen currents, elsewhere it lounged about as immense islands, hundreds of feet across. Some we tried to avoid, but others we motored through. Looking back behind us, I could see a clear water trail where the boat had passed through the sea vegetation.

Cabo Samana and a stream of sargasso

But as we approached Cabo Samana a few hours later, our speed inexplicably decreased by several knots. At first we figured it was a counter current that would ease when we rounded the cape, but it only got worse. When we were down to 3.8 knots Bill got worried. We tried tacking back and forth on sail alone for an hour, but we were getting nowhere because what wind there was, came directly from our destination. So we crept along under engine power until we could round Punta Balandra, enter Samana bay and anchor behind Cayo Levantado. Once anchored I dove down and found the prop entwined in pieces of sargassum. I cleaned it off, hopped back on board, and we got underway the last few miles to the Puerto Bahia marina, having regained most of our speed.

Cabo Samana

As we tied up at the marina, the first marina we have visited for six months, we looked forward to some real rest and the first real showers we had had in a month. We’ll stay at this marina while we sort out our Dominican Republic boat permits and do a few repairs, then will head out to one of our long awaited adventures, a trip to Los Haitises National Park!

Harry Potter and the Pistol of Shrimps

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.

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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