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.

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.

Donuts in the Desert

ST. MARY’S RIVER, 11-5-2020 — Yesterday afternoon we sailed up the St. Mary’s River on a light wind from the southeast. This river, which we have returned to several times over the past months, runs southward from its headwaters to its mouth at the lower stretches of the Potomac. Along the way it twists and turns making for good Maggie May protection from any weather surprises. (As well as some great birding and one of the best bakeries I have ever been to. (ENSO mmmmmm))

Golden-crowned kinglet in St. Mary’s River

The gentle winds of yesterday allowed us to sail into anchor, rather than switching the motor on. Bill handled the helm, steering us into the watery nook where St. Mary’s College is located, nosing Maggie May into the wind, dropping her mainsail, and waiting for the wind to settle the boat’s forward motion. Then, my turn, I dropped the readied anchor. There is such a poetry to floating into anchor, rather than grinding to a halt with the engine. We can’t always do it, but it always feels good. 

After checking the anchor and tidying up the boat, I set to trying to capture on video a wondrous event that had, I suspect, happened when we were cowered inside the boat during the frigid gale of a few days past. Some thousands of spider balloons had become entangled in our rigging and now flowed like streamers of pure light from every vertical surface. Their spiders were showing up here and there, but most were utterly unseen, or perhaps had perished in the violent cold.

Spider balloons streaming from the shrouds.

I became caught up in the life of these spiders for quite some time. At one point I said to Bill, “It’s crazy. I only learned about spider ballooning a few years ago (from Charle’s Darwin’s journal “Voyage of the Beagle”) and now I see them all the time. But my whole life they must have been streaming past me, only my eyes never knew enough to see them.”

There is so very much my eyes don’t know.

Bill and I sat down to some beers and sunset watching, then Bill went downstairs to make dinner. He had recently gathered the ingredients to make his favorite soup, Tofu Kimchi Soup, and was setting to it.

I drank my beer and thought about spiders, elections, and bird migrations. I felt calmed by the sail and the spiders and the loons, surf scoters and mergansers we had seen on the water. But the night was about to take an exciting turn.

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Krista Schlyer

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Such was my declaration to Bill after dinner. He jolted a little. I must have startled him out of some thoughts he was lost in. But the moment called for it. I had just brushed my teeth. As a rule, I don’t consider the brushing of teeth to qualify me for such a strong statement of personal hygiene but this time it followed a bigger deal that had transgressed an hour earlier: I took a shower. 

When life is whittled down to the bare elements: heat, food, personal safety, water and health, each comfort that goes beyond this becomes like a gentle rain of donuts from the sky, or a waterfall of donuts in the desert, or something else where donuts are involved. 

Such profound personal and bodily delight from the simplest of things: a hot shower.

It was hot because on the passage from Lower Machadoc Creek on the Virginia side of the Potomac to the St. Mary’s River, on the Maryland side, we had very little wind and it was coming from the wrong direction. (Note: Wrong for us, not wrong in the metaphysical sense.) So for a portion of the trip we had to have the engine on. Thanks to a heat exchanger, our diesel engine quickly heats a tank of very nice hot water.

A hot shower these days does not mean what it used to mean when I lived in a house. Does not mean 10 minutes of luxuriating in a constant stream of heated water, stretching out wherever needed, all soaps, washcloths, shampoos, conditioners, a little combing of my hair, a little humming here and there, perhaps a facial scrub. No. A shower on the boat means a half gallon jug poured in strategic places while sitting naked in the cockpit (unfortunate term in this context), or dinghy, or in the very tiny head where there is barely enough room to stand up and none to stretch an arm or leg in any direction. 

Gratuitous fog photo

Last night, feeling the need for a little extra comfort and cleansing, I showered in the head and used the sink shower-head, which pulls out nicely on a hose. I had to stop and start the water over and over to limit myself to a gallon of water–still an egregious use of water by Maggie May standards. 

We have a 110 gallon freshwater tank. We are never more than a day’s sail from refilling the tank at this point, but because we are trying to test out living independently, in case we get to do some long ocean sails or tarry in some remote island chains, we are trying to limit ourselves to 4 gallons a day, TOTAL. One gallon each for drinking, one gallon for cooking and cleaning, and one gallon for miscellaneous uses. ( The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day according to US EPA. In our land-life Bill and I had gotten our daily consumption down to 20 gallons, with much effort.) 

So taking a shower that uses 1/4 of our daily water is outrageous. OUTRAAAAYYYGEOUS. Given the events of the past few days, I felt I needed it. 

And, given that it had been five days since my previous cleaning, Bill was not complaining. 

I blame the long dirty stretch on the divine Zephyrus, god of the west wind. For much of the past five days, 30-50 knot winds from the upper latitudes chilled the region, dropping temperatures inside the boat to 40-55 degrees. This is not showering weather. Thankfully Zephyrus has exhausted itself for the time being and Maggie May’s belly is now ranging from 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit. I call that showertime in the days of plenty.

Self-certified 100% clean, last night I lay down with my sleeping bag, refreshed the election results page, and breathed in some fresh air. Feeling clean, content, and ready to face whatever comes next. 

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Some october sights on the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac

Into the Abyss, and other fun things

One of the hardest things about this journey—beyond the heat and cold, the financial stress, fear and self doubt, the trying to live in a confined space with another (albeit lovable) human being, the banging my head on the bulkhead every damn time I go to the aft cabin—has been the absence of a mission. I anticipated that Bill and I would both be challenged living a life without clear purpose—without trying to do something intensely meaningful every day. But I didn’t know or guess what it would feel like, or how long it would last, or how I would plan to get past it. 

It feels like this: a void. A hungry void. An airy abyss of emptiness where the idea of food, fullness or sustenance hasn’t any meaning. It feels like a tightness and a looseness at the same time. It disorients, like you are in the middle of a vast body of water with no clue as to where you are or why. Rudderless, Bill says.

Bill had worked for 20 years in the environment and sustainability profession. First he wrote stories about wildlife and wild lands for Defenders of Wildlife and National Parks Conservation Association magazines. Then he built green houses of various hues with a visionary architect, Bill Hutchins. Then he installed solar systems…and finally began a long stint crafting energy and building policy for the city of Washington DC. All his life was geared toward one goal: helping to lighten the footprint of humanity so that other creatures would stand a chance. I did the same in my way.

This gave our lives a rudder, strong and deep. But also heavy. We decided not to have children guided by this same rudder and reason, to lighten the footfalls of humans on this already overburdened planet. Most adult Homo sapiens get much of their meaning and purpose from their kids. We had our own work-rudder-kid, but we dropped it when we stepped onto this boat, just dropped it, on purpose. We know where it is. We can go back and pick it up one day perhaps. But it was becoming too heavy and our souls too tired to carry it. We had a new rudder, hard but light, aiming us toward a new goal to sail around the world. A squirrel, some shysters, and some real bad luck broke that rudder. We may one day repair it, but for the time being we are drifting in the void.

I have days when I feel the hunger as a vibration in my bones, like restless leg syndrome of the soul. Those days I sit on deck all day watching the water, listening to birds and leaves, reading about wind, stars, weather, and meditating on some good old fashioned Mary Oliver: And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

Mary Oliver, The Buddha’s Last Instruction

This is one of those days. Today the wind approaches with obvious intent from the north, pushing the boat toward a forested shore within a deep cove in the St. Mary’s River, just off the Potomac, near the mouth. Bill sits beside me eating oatmeal while I practice my eagle call, hoping to approach the genius of John McCain’s 2008 rendition. (Sorry, this doesn’t actually sound like an eagle’s cry, but Bill does an imitation of McCain saying Ahmadinejad that sounds exactly like an eagle).

Crows fly out of the forest bluff as a dark cluster, a Gang of 8. Three of them break off and dive swiftly toward the water, then level off a hands-breadth above the sparkling surface. I can only presume they are wanting to feel the wind as it glances off the waves, pressing up against their bellies and shining, sun-warmed black wings. With little fetch the wind can only stir the water into low peaks, but they are insistent and serious as they march toward me, pass by without a glance, and continue ever on toward land. One after another, they take my every thought with them. Sparing only one. That as the juvenile bald eagle circles round and round on thermals that rise along the forest edge, he is engaging in something pointless, perfect, meaningless and a complete distillation of all the meaning the world has ever held: he is practicing his communion with all that is within, and all that is without. He is learning how to soar like only an eagle can.