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.

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.

Gratitude, Maryland

Where to start? Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland…all places I wasn’t expecting or hoping to to blog about at the end of June 2020, but that is the way of adventures.

I’m writing from the dining room table of my good friends, the Goods, who have kindly and warmly welcomed Bill and I to stay with them while the Maggie May is, again, being repaired.

After seven years of fixing up an old boat you might expect there would be nothing left to fix, at least for a while. But sometimes you have to fix the thing that a contractor just did a terrible job fixing, so bad that it failed utterly within a few weeks. (This is not the first time this exact thing has happened with the Maggie May.) And sometimes that thing that was fixed and failed is the bottom of the boat, arguably the most important part if you fancy staying dry. 

This is a long tale in full, and one that could benefit from a longer format and some emotional distance by the author, but in short, we had the boat hull completely redone over the past few months in Deale, Maryland, spent about three-quarters of a year’s boat-living budget, and within a week of setting out found that Maggie May’s bottom was covered with a half-inch or more of barnacles that could only be removed by power sanding the bottom of the boat and repainting.

 

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This was the failure of the paint we chose, or possibly the marine contractor who applied it. Or both to some extent. Or us for choosing the wrong contractor and/or paint. So far neither business is taking responsibility. So we are left holding a heaping handful of slimy barnacles (no offense barnacles, you are actually slimy in the literal sense), and the loss of another half-year boat budget, several weeks of time, and our crushed hearts. 

The added loss of savings may ultimately have the effect of ending our dream of a sailing circumnavigation. That is a hard pill to swallow after dreaming and planning for 15 years. But it’s possible that the global pandemic already ended that dream and we just don’t know it yet. 

I didn’t want to write this blog, have been putting it off, hoping we’d be back on the boat already and I could write with optimistic hindsight, with the perspective of someone on the ocean, looking back. (With any luck that will be the next blog.) So much of what I have worked on over the past decade (see the Borderlands Project ) has been sad or at least tinged with grief in some way. I liked the feeling of offering only hope in this blog, a documentation of discovery and joy. But the world is filled with sorrows much deeper than the travails of Maggie May, and resilience and gratitude are good offerings too so I’ll finish on this note…

A day or two after we found out that the hull paint had totally failed, Bill was feeling especially low, and we were talking about our options, when suddenly a Carolina wren started singing. If you know this little bird, you know that it has incredible pipes, certainly some of the strongest per-ounce in the bird world. But this was the loudest I had ever heard a wren sing. It was not because this particular bird was  so especially loud, but because it was so extremely near. Bill looked up the companionway stairs and saw the wren perched on our main sheet. About 5 feet away, the bird was belting out the sweetest, most determined song. It brought tears to Bill’s eyes and prompted him to say, “Ok, I get it buddy, message delivered.” Then, about five minutes after that, Bill got a text from our friend Maribeth who was asking how his back was (she had read my previous blog). Bill explained what was happening with the boat and Maribeth replied with a Mary Oliver poem, Just As the Calendar Began to Say Summer, about going to nature to unlearn society’s obsession with success, machines, oil and money. 

The poem ends with these lines: 

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,

the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny

in the bank,

the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

 

Youghiogheny River in Western Pennsylvania, rolling its way to the Mississippi River and onto the Gulf of Mexico. We hope to meet these waters again one day far downstream in the SV Maggie May.

It’s impossible to say what will happen with this adventure. We hope to be back on the boat by next week and will proceed with a new dream of taking the journey as it comes, resting tired spirits and cherishing each moment for what it brings. It is a helpful reminder that the boatyard where Maggie May currently resides is just down the road from Gratitude, Maryland.

Garter snake in Ohiopyle State Park, PA

So far the past week’s detour has brought many things, including:

  • Moments on the Youghiogheny, Potomac and beloved Anacostia rivers, watching them rolling their pebbles, smoothing all hard edges as they make their water-way to the sea
  • A chance to hand off our car to Bill’s mom via his sister Laurie and her beau Bill on a country road in Ohio (Thanks Laurie and Bill!) 
  • Bill’s back fully healed!
  • A visit to the Double R creamery nearish to Cleveland for perhaps the best chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream I have ever had
  • A discovery of some weird larvae living inside a pitcher plant in an Ohio bog
  • A flock of cedar waxwings in a serviceberry tree
  • A visit to the largest remaining expanse of old growth hemlock in Maryland

    Wild turkey in Garrett State Forest, PA

  • An opportunity to grill asparagus 20-feet in the air overlooking the Haven Harbour gravel boatyard
  • The best cherry pie I’ve ever had, made by the clever hands of Michele Good
  • A chance to spend some time getting to know the nearly 1 year old Henry Good–oh boy what a charmer. 

 

A big year

I’m a fan of ritual, though I have few rituals in my life. One that I cling to is taking a moment every December 31 to assess the year I’ve had, and on January 1 to look at and plan some goals for the year that follows. So here we go, part 1.

2015 has been a big year–I’m going out on a note of gratitude. It’s been a year of fulfilling work projects with inspiring collaborators, unforgettable times spent with friends and family, mind-bending beauty in wild places and meaningful moments that will never leave me. As a freelance photographer and writer I was able to work in 2015 in landscapes I know and love–the Anacostia River watershed, the US-Mexico borderlands, the longleaf pine forests and pitcher plant bogs of the southeastern United States–as well as ecosystems new to my eyes or long-missed–the Mojave River in California and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

I live in a community of giving, creative people, I have enough of everything I need and I’m healthy.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park with the Snake River.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park with the Snake River.

 

 

Along with meaning and contentment comes challenge, and 2015 has not been without challenge. I’ve watched beloved friends struggle with illness and loss, offering what I could, which is never enough. I’ve seen the world swirl in violence, fear and hate while global challenges beyond our reckoning, as well as opportunity and possibility, sit on the margins unobserved by most. I’ve watched a lifelong dream of sailing around the world almost crumble in a 30-year-old boat named Maggie May that has drained most of my life savings. And I’ve relived over and over some of the worst hard times of my life in publishing  and discussing my new book Almost Anywhere.

 

Longleaf 2014-2181 web

 

2016 is a crap shoot. Anything could happen, though I’ll be working my ass off to effect hoped-for outcomes (to be determined tomorrow). I’m prepared to be unprepared and over or underwhelmed, and as for adversity, bring it on. I have been watching the fire-prone ecosystems of the Southeast for some time now and have learned a basic lesson of Earth’s ecosystems, be they personal ecosystems, cultural, or natural like a longleaf pine forest. That is, without fire, there can be no light hitting the forest floor. And without that light, all of the little beautiful things that sprout from the soil or the soul, simply cannot be. And all of the even tinier things that live inside those little beauties, well they don’t stand a chance. I would trade every McHappy moment for one of those lovely little fireflower forbs.

Wishing you all a year of fireflowers in 2016.