Boiling, Guadeloupe

About midway down the western edge of Guadeloupe there is a small bay where the town of Bouillante nestles within the foothills of towering green peaks. Here most of the population speaks French, the air smells strongly of sulfur, and every day, for most of the daylight hours and long into the night, the community gathers in water that pours first out of the mountain in boiling fits, then through a geothermal plant, and finally out of a channel into this bay on the ocean.

It is a lovely scene, the islanders at their ease with neighbors and friends and a few tourists as the sun comes up and passes in and out of the clouds that gather always over these volcanic peaks, and finally settles down over the Caribbean Sea at day’s end. I have felt something here I haven’t felt since the Dominican Republic, a feeling of community, a feeling of home. I am just a bystander, but I feel it in my bones and my mind goes wandering back to Mount Rainier, MD.

Bill and I arrived here just a few days ago after a several months of restless movement, never quite at ease because something important needed doing. When we were back in the Dominican Republic, in October, a leak we had been chasing for years had finally revealed its source. If you have ever had a leaky boat, or even a leaky roof, you know this feeling. Water is coming in. You address one suspect, water is still coming in. Then another and another until you are pretty much ready to just accept the unacceptable fact that you have a leaky boat.

When we finally found the culprit, it was not the worst of all possibilities but it wasn’t good. We had overlooked that the previous owners of Maggie May (then named Vilkas) had done some less-than-stellar work on a thru-hull for one of the cockpit drains. ( A thru-hull is a hole in your boat where water is meant to go out, in the case of drains, or in through a closed circuit and then out again.) The fitting had no backing plate, just a goopy mess of sealant. How had we not noticed this before? By the time we did, the thru-hull moved easily in its bed when we shook the hose, and more water would seep in. If the fiberglass had been compromised, we didn’t know how long the fixture would endure the flexing of a boat pounding to windward for months on end.

From then on Bill would lay awake nights imagining the thru-hull failing altogether and Maggie May sinking to the bottom of wherever we happened to be. Fixing the leak moved from somewhere in the middle of our list of tasks to number 1. But that wouldn’t be so easy because we needed to get the boat out of the water to fix it properly, and we could not do that until at least Puerto Rico. We talked this problem over with several recent sailor acquaintances in Samana, DR, a few of whom who told us, with the bravado of one referring to another person’s boat, “Just go ahead and fix it in the water! All you have to do is back the thru-hull out and jam a bung in there…”
This may have worked. It could also have sunk the boat.

Crazy cloud on the passage to Puerto Rico through the Mona Passage.


We resolved to get the boat out of the water as soon as that was an option, and came up with an emergency plan in case the thru-hull failed in the interim. There were no travel lifts for sailboats anywhere near where we were, or where were going in the Dominican Republic. So we kept a close eye on the leak and made plans to move on as soon as hurricane season was over. We made passage in late November to Puerto Rico, where we found a travel lift on the southern coast, but boat yard owners there and elsewhere told us they were essentially closed for the holidays from November through February. (This is my kind of country, but that was not very helpful in our situation).

Enjoying the interim on St. John.

By the time we got to the US Virgin Islands, the leak had not worsened and we didn’t find a good place to haul out, so we waited. Finally in Sint Maarten, we got Maggie May pulled from the water where we could refashion the thru-hull, repaint the bottom and fix some other items that very much wanted fixing. When she was splashed a couple of weeks ago, I felt better about SV Maggie May than I had for some 18-months, since we realized our costly hull repair had utterly failed, then we fouled our prop on a fishing net and a squirrel ate our mainsail.

The past weeks since then have been a journey south past St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat to Guadeloupe, where we are now anchored in one of the loveliest parts of the sailing world. Many of these islands in the eastern Caribbean are dormant or active to semi-active volcanoes. Montserrat is the most clearly active so far, with sulfuric steam pouring from a cone that erupted just a few years ago.

The path of the lava flow can still be seen on Montserrat.

In Guadeloupe, there are no brooding cones to see yet the lie of an Earth at stasis is ever laid bare. When Bill and I jumped into the water to check the anchor upon our arrival, it was some 10 degrees warmer than the bay we had swam in the day before. We snorkeled to shore where the community of Bouillante (boiling in French) seems always to be gathered and soaking in the minerals pouring forth from their mountain. But it isn’t just the humans of this community who are drawn to this wonder. Also gathered are hundreds of fish, sergeant majors, blue tangs, trumpet fish and many more. I wouldn’t expect them to be able to survive the heat and the concentrated salinity of the water pouring out of the mountain. But in truth, water of the bay, and indeed of the ocean, is complex. The hottest water forms a surface layer of surprising current and a dreamy obscurity, but when you dive down to the bottom a colder layer is crystal clear and nearly still. Between them a brief middle ground forms a barrier between the two extremes where the temperatures diverge, and I imagine the chemical make-up also differentiates.

The surface layer of geothermal water is a blurry dream of sergeant majors.

I have been reading lately of the global currents that govern much of Earth’s climate. How the Gulf Stream, a warm water current, rides swiftly above a colder water current that runs in places at a different speed and even in the opposite direction of the Gulf Stream! There is so much going on under the surface of things and all around us. Here in Bouillante one can feel the power of that unseen and unimaginable energy circulating through air, water and earth. And also get a really damn good baguette.

Many many thanks to all those of you who have supported this journey and blog.

The Beginning

I woke this morning at first light and climbed the four steep companionway stairs into the cockpit. I have climbed these stairs 1000 times in the past 18 months.

St. John, US Virgin Islands

The boat interior was dark but the sun, still below the mountains to the east, cast a pale light on the clouds in the western sky. Presently it began to rain, a light sprinkle only, and a rainbow appeared, arcing with one foot in the puffy green mounts of St. John, US Virgin Islands, and the other in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

A narrow channel separates these two island nations, and some 15 years ago Bill and I got in a dinghy in Tortola and motored through its swift currents so we could snorkel in the national park waters of St. John (where we are moored right now), in Waterlemon Bay. This strikes me now as unwise, both because the current can run four knots through here and also because it wasn’t strictly legal.

That trip 15 years ago was a beginning, the spark that set us planning over so many years to save money, buy a boat, learn how to sail and navigate and care for her, and so many other steps that have brought us to this place at this time.

That trip was taken with five other friends on a charter sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. One of those friends, Jeff, we had sailed with for many years on the Chesapeake Bay. Jeff was the first friend I made when I moved to Washington DC more than 20 years ago. Friendship came easy with Jeff, but an added appeal to this friendship was that his dog Cody was the only dog that my dog Maggie respected. I won’t say liked, because she didn’t like dogs. But Cody she respected. And Cody tolerated Maggie. And we had ourselves a friend family.

Many years later when we headed off to the BVIs, it was a dream trip for Jeff and Bill and I, and there was a moment, somewhere between the islands of Virgin Gorda and Anegada, when a new dream took root, the one I find myself living now. We were all sitting in the cockpit and the boat was sailing so beautifully toward the northeast where the shallow passages between islands ended and the Atlantic Ocean began. One of us, Jeff I think, said “Let’s just keep going.” And we all smiled and nodded and agreed that that was where our hearts would go.

We didn’t own that boat. And none of the other friends aboard would have shared our enthusiasm for the wide open Atlantic, not in the least. But for Bill and I, that experience marked the germination of a seed with dogged roots that clung to a dream for all the years between then and now as I sit writing in the small bay we illegally visited in the charter dinghy so long ago.

We are here legally this time.

Waterlemon Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands

This morning, during ‘morning time’ (an unspecified amount of time usually before 11am when Bill and I sit in different parts of the boat and read or write or think quietly) I began reading a book I’ve been holding onto for years. Not because I didn’t want to read it. But because I wanted to read it so much that I was saving it for the most perfect time and place. I wanted to be a certain me when I read it. The me that could understand and appreciate it most. Maybe I am that me now because I opened it this morning while sleep still clung to me and the sound of the ocean rustled against the rocky shores of Waterlemon Cay.

Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was first published in 1951. Today she is known better for Silent Spring, but it was this book that first brought international attention to her work and ideas, which have since altered the neural pathways of the human species.

I just began the first chapter, which is about beginnings. The beginnings of Earth, the moon and of the sea. In a way it is about the concept of time itself, a phenomenon so hard to grasp for such short-lived creatures as ourselves. We wring our hands about so many details of our lives. About this action we or someone else did or didn’t do. About getting to this and that on time, meeting deadlines, making grades, finding purpose, having an impact. Saving the world. But we are so very small. A stardust mote floating through space time. So small we can’t even really understand time, any more than we can understand how a butterfly sees the world.

I think about everything that went into getting Bill and I to this little bay with its clear waters and thousands upon thousands of creatures living their lives beneath the surface. It is nothing in the scale of time. It is everything to us.

Yesterday I spent one long infinity of a moment with an octopus while snorkeling. I myself was utterly changed forever by this vision of a creature so wondrous, so improbable, built cell by cell through an alchemy of ages and ages of Earth. This living, shimmering, thinking, feeling, water-made-flesh flowing through the shallow sea.

The beautiful octopus has perhaps forgotten me already.

Octopus and frenemy in St. John waters.

I can feel the symmetry of this day of octopus thoughts to that day so long ago with Jeff, so long ago but in the same space on Earth, when we decided we wanted to be…here. Despite so many events, excitements, heartbreaks and stumbles in the intervening years, we have come full circle in a universe of spinning circles hundreds of thousands of millions of years old, embers sparking and glowing and flaming and dying.

Every moment matters so little and so much.

Autumn: 19N Latitude

I wake, check the clock, 4:00 am. Through the open hatch above, stars pulse their brilliance through a dark inconceivable distance as a gentle breeze wanders over me. I toss the crumpled sheet that sleeps beside me over half my body and wonder, why don’t houses have hatches so the stars are always present when one wakes at 4:00 am?

This has become a habit of late. Wake, and begin thinking random thoughts until the flycatchers’ dawn chitterchatter commences.

The autumn I know. Bull Creek on the Waccamaw River, South Carolina.

This particular morning when the random thoughts have coalesced around a topic, I am pondering the sheet that now covers me and how this curious, somewhat, slightly cool breeze is something new under the Dominican sun. Is this autumn?

I’ve spent much of my life marking time as work would have me do it, by deadlines, projects started and projects finished. And by dates on the calendar, new years, birthdays, anniversaries. And by cycles of the clock to some extent. But always in the background there is that more enduring measurement of time, the one that connects us to the motion of a tilted Earth around the sun and the accompanying seasons of cold and heat, of flowers blooming and leaves budding. Of the sprouting season and the oppressive wet hot air when dog days seem to slow the world into a dreamy haze. Of goldenrod alive with the haste and bumble of September bees frantic to find every ounce of life’s nectar before summer’s end sends their bodies into the earth. Of cool mist on warm waters and red leaves fluttering through crisp blue skies which fade to gray and snow and ice under an absent sun.

Fog on Mattawoman Creek, Potomac River watershed.

4:00 am is a time for nostalgia. I have been seeing some photos lately of dear friends in sweaters with leaves changing in the trees above their smiling faces. The fall, my favorite season at 38 degrees north latitude, has come home to Maryland, USA, and I am not there. And where I am the meaning of the word autumn is quite different, if it has any meaning at all.

At 19 degrees north latitude, I don’t know the land well enough to know what autumn means. I know that this moment under the hatch before dawn is the coolest part of a day that will have me hiding from the sun wherever I can. But over the past night, November 1, a subtle change appeared. A soft wind along the north coast of the Bahia de Samana pressed a handful of cool breezes through the hatch, and for once in a very long time I was glad to have that crumpled sheet at hand. The season is changing.

Our season is also changing, my partner Bill’s and mine and SV Maggie May’s. The season we live by here and now, far from our temperate home on land is not marked by the color of leaves or great shifts in temperature, but by the likelihood of a catastrophic tropical storm. There are only two seasons for us on the boat in the tropics, we order our lives around them: the hurricane season, and the not-hurricane season.

We have stayed in the Dominican Republic for almost 6 months in deference to this season of storms, which comes to an official end November 15. Very soon we will be moving on eastward.

Hurricanes, or tropical storms, can occur any month of the year. But they are most likely July through mid-November when water and air are at their warmest and most energetic. Many of these storms are born off the west coast of Africa before they charge westward across the Atlantic. All my life I have lived in the temperate climates where tornadoes, blizzards and thunderstorms are a real threat and hurricanes are a distant peculiarity, as distant as those stars through the boat hatch. But since moving onto our sailboat in May 2020, hurricanes have become a looming presence in my life and mind.

And so it turns out that fall is my favorite season in the Caribbean tropics as well. It marks the ending of the season of ocean turmoil and rage, the kind of ocean that can conjure a storm, where, if we are caught in it, our only recourse is to accept what the fates decide for us. The ocean can rage year round, but we have better odds against the short tantrums that come with random squalls and so we begin to have a certain kind of freedom of movement and freedom from a certain set of fears. Weather still remains our chief concern on the journey forward, but we can stand a little taller and peak our heads out of our hurricane holes and travel on southward.

We are again migratory. As the birds are prompted by the coming winter, and the humpback whales are traveling south to warmer waters, we are released and allowed to roam by the drawing down of the tropical storm season.

This time in the Dominican Republic has been a serendipitous pause in our journey, a gift, but it’s time to face the Mona Passage and what lies beyond…Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia…

A murmuration of fish gathered around the SV Maggie May in Samana, Dominican Republic.

Through the hatch I hear the stolid flycatchers making the first noises of the dawn, chorusing with one another through the dark. It is time to get up.

I rise, make a cup of coffee and go on deck where a pelican is pacing on the marina dock, trying to defend fishing grounds from the perceived threat of two killdeer who, minding their own business, don’t seem to know what the pelican’s problem is. They turn their backs on the strange agitated bird, and orient their bodies to the rising sun. Both the pelican and I watch them. I don’t know what the pelican perceives, but this is what I see: The first light of a new day striking the white breasts of a pair of killdeer.

An image etches itself in memory like a photo etched on a glass plate. I look down at my coffee and see for the first time in six months, steam coming off of it. Steam! The morning is, as usual, warm, but the breeze coming along every so often is just cool enough to condense the hot air rising from my coffee. Fall has floated in with little fanfare. No red, orange and yellow leaf pageantry; no frost or even fog, no blue jays calling, no blustery cool wind to pull the last brown leaves from naked branches. Just a bit of steam rising from a coffee cup, born away on a gentle wind. The killdeer must feel it too because as the sun breaks the horizon they stand utterly motionless while a warm rose-tinted glow lights the white feathers of their breasts and the white ring around their necks. I can almost feel what it means to be them in this moment, the grace of the sun upon them.

The pelican flies off in a huff.

I myself for the first time in a tropical-hot long time am fully contented to have a warm cup in my hands as I sway on the SV Maggie May and watch the softest light of day break across the softest breasts of two small silent birds.

***

Given that my mind has been on changing seasons, for my annual holiday print sale in collaboration with the International League of Conservation Photographers, I put together a special set of photo prints that represent autumn to me now–the nostalgic autumn of my home, and the autumn of tropical boat life at the ending of hurricane season.

All images in this collection are printed on environmentally-friendly Hahnemühle Hemp paper, a beautiful paper that minimizes our carbon footprint. Every effort is made to reduce waste in packaging. Forty percent of profits will support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The sale ends December 2.

You can see the prints here and order at: https://www.conservationphotographers.org/print-sales-schlyer

THE BOAT LAB: Energy & the Sun All-mighty

Many early religions had the sun at the pinnacle of their pantheons. The reason for this becomes more apparent with every minute passed under the direct stare of the tropical sun.

This thought comes to me as we are cleaning Maggie May’s decks in the Dominican Republic. The yellow face is pressing down upon my cranium with its orange-hot thumb, causing my knees to buckle in supplication. After a mere 20 minutes my thoughts grow hazy and my skin begins to sting, I scramble for shade and crouch low, shaking my feeble fist at the yellow face. Just leave me be! Por favor.

It’s not just me. The most important person on earth, the most powerful, the most beautiful, graceful, the strongest will bend and weep in the face of the unrelenting sun, this central cog in the nature machine, which gives and takes everything we have, right down to our very own bodies. You would think we humans would have more humility in the face of this blinding force, but that is not our way.

I myself never gave much thought to the sun before this voyage. Sure, I luxuriated in the warmth of a sunny spring day after the enduring chill of a frigid winter. I strategized about where to plant my tomatoes so they would have the most sunlight. I schmeared on sunscreen for protection. But I didn’t really think much about the sun as a power responsible for, well, my whole world. I now think on it every day as my life has become much more obviously wound up in the cycles of the sun.

From the sun comes everything. The golden fruit of a mango, the wind in our sails, sunburn and heat exhaustion, the tides to some extent, hurricanes, cabbage, the shifting patterns of rain, drought, dehydration, warmth. Coffee.

I am pouring myself some just now. I heated the water for it by plugging into our boat electrical system, a bank of Firefly batteries connected by wires to 5 solar panels which are at this very moment collecting solar energy like leaves on a tree from the Sun Almighty.

These leaves power the fan that is blowing on me, the rice I’ll have for lunch, the batteries in my camera, the blender for making Bill’s signature banana coladas, the lights, the automatic pilot, the VHF, the freshwater pump, the emergency bilge pump, the electronic charts, all of it, everything electrical that we have used for a year and a half has been powered almost entirely by solar energy, with some assist from the wind— though in reality that is also solar power since the sun makes the wind.

THE ENERGY PLAN

Still life with LED light, fan, Krista’s raggedy homemade port cover, and Bill’s special pillow.

Several years before we moved onto the boat, Bill began devising an energy strategy that would allow us to be as free from fossil fuel use as we possibly could be. We’ve had some challenges over the course of this sailing dream, things that in our lowest moments we have grieved as personal failures (or at times a cruel joke of Poseidon), but we’ve also had successes beyond expectation. In the arena of energy independence, I don’t think even Bill anticipated how successful we would be.

The first step of the strategy was to build in efficiency and conservation everywhere, to minimize energy needs before even thinking about how to meet that need. Often in energy policy this comes as an afterthought, we think first of securing enough energy for the current need, rather than reducing energy demand through efficiency and conservation so we don’t need to supply so much. (If you’ve already secured the energy for current need, why conserve? Aside from some pesky distant future worry like climate change, which Homo sapiens can’t get their heads around enough to afford it the deadly seriousness it deserves.)

On the Maggie May the first practical step we took was to get rid of the air conditioning and the generator that came on the boat. This wasn’t too hard a decision as neither of them worked properly, but we could have chosen to repair them or replace them. This would have meant carrying more fuel on board and using fossil fuels to keep ourselves cool in a world that is warming due to excessive use of fossil fuels. We decided we could do without it and simplify the boat and our lives, while learning to live the way most of the world’s humans, and all of its non-human animals, live.

Bill also took the important step of changing out every light bulb on the boat, most of which were either incandescent or halogen, and replacing them with more energy efficient LED lights. There are a lot of lights on a boat, even small boats like ours with only a few hundred square feet of living space. We needed about 35 new light bulbs. Some of these lights are linked to safety and survival, and they run from bow to stern and up to the top of our 50-foot mast. Having long-lasting, low energy lights not only significantly cut our electrical demand (the demand from lighting is now about a fifth of what it was), it increased safety by increasing brightness of navigation lights and decreasing the number of times we’d need to climb the mast to replace bulbs.

Bill getting winched up the backstay to do some maintenance.

The lack of air conditioning would obviously mean much warmer temperatures on the boat. Bill bought foil-faced recycled denim insulation to insulate every nook and cranny he could find on the SV Maggie May. The insulation reflects radiant heat and cools the boat, so we are slightly more comfortable on the hottest days (currently that is every day) but more importantly we require less energy to run our fridge—the biggest energy hog on the boat—and have less need for fans to keep ourselves coolish. I also made some raggedy white shades for our boat hatches and ports which helps keep the temperature inside the boat down and wards off pirates who think our boat looks too trashy to be worth their time.

We minimized electronics as much as possible. We’ve seen boats out here with washers and dryers, big screen TVs, huge freezers and everything else you can imagine to make life on the water exactly like a life of comfort on land. But it all requires energy and there is only so much space on a boat for solar and wind. So many people have generators or use their diesel engines frequently to charge their batteries.

When we had tightened our energy consumption belts as much as possible, we bought five solar panels and a Rutland wind generator. Bill had calculated that the solar panels, with a 428 watt total output, would meet most of our needs and that the wind generator — capable of 500 watts —would serve as a backup on cloudy, windy days.

At the same time Bill upgraded the electrical system and, as a back-up for the back-up of the wind generator, added a new more powerful alternator on our Yanmar diesel inboard (more on this diesel engine in a bit). The alternator can be used to charge the battery bank when the diesel engine is running. The new alternator would have the ability to charge the batteries faster, thus requiring less diesel fuel.

But everything depended on the battery bank. Our lead acid batteries that came on the boat when we bought her were struggling to hold a charge. They were essentially old-school car batteries. If we were going to gain some distance from fossil fuels, we needed better batteries. Bill researched our options and we considered whether to replace the batteries with the same kind of cheap battery, to buy new expensive lithium ion batteries, or go the middle ground with some type of absorbed glass mat (AGM) battery. Bill found a relatively new kind of AGM battery called Firefly that uses carbon foam in its internal structure. They function somewhat like a lithium ion battery in terms of capacity, but the price is closer to the standard AGM. Being a new and somewhat untested technology, the choice of Firefly batteries was a bit of a risk, but they have performed very well for us over the past year and a half.

When we bought our 30-year-old boat 8 years ago, she came with a gasoline outboard for her dinghy, which of course died shortly before we were about to leave on this voyage. We decided to replace it with an Electric Paddle, a light electric engine I can carry in one hand. This has its downsides (see below) but the greatest upside was that we would not need to bring any gasoline on board the boat.

Even when in a marina we generally don’t plug into the electrical system, unless we need to do some battery maintenance.

ENERGY STRATEGY RESULTS

For 18 months we have lived on sun power. Once or twice we have been under extended cloudy skies and the wind generator has stepped in to save the the day. But we have never once needed to start the diesel engine to charge the batteries. The solar panels have kept up with our needs even on partly cloudy days. The feeling this engenders for me is a sort of weightlessness, I am unburdened of the undercurrent of guilt I feel on a daily basis at home, where most of our energy comes from the dirty electric grid. We purchase through a wind power supplier, but it is industrial wind. (I feel better about wind than coal, but it is still infrastructure and it disrupts and degrades the land and poses dangers for wildlife.) We could put solar panels on our house, but it would require cutting down a large walnut tree that provides shade for the house and almost everything for a suite of animals who live in it.

On the boat it’s simple: we collect sun energy as though foraging for mushrooms or collecting rainwater.

There are two caveats. The Yanmar diesel inboard engine on Maggie May, and the propane stove.

Budget is always a factor. Had we unlimited resources we could have transitioned to an electric engine. But that was not a viable option. The cost of replacement would have been at least $20,000. We didn’t have it. But we are primarily a wind and sail driven vessel. And we use our engine as little as possible, to get in and out of marinas and tight anchorages, and to get to our destinations safely when the wind shifts or dies. It is primarily a safety device rather than a means of propulsion. We buy on average about 40 gallons of fuel every 4 months and that may decrease once we start heading a better angle on the trade winds (ie, south or west; going east can require some motor sailing because the angle on the wind is at times not conducive to safely making our destination).

To minimize our use of propane we bought small electric appliances that could run off of our battery bank, including a cute two-cup rice cooker and a small super-efficient hot water pot. Many days we get by with just these appliances which keeps our fossil fuel use down and keeps the heat from cooking at a minimum. We refill a small propane tank about once every six months.

Wind generator pulling its weight on a rainy day.

Lessons and Challenges

Choosing not to have air conditioning was no great loss. But one thing has made it much harder, the fact that humans have polluted most of our waters. Cooling off would be as simple and enjoyable as jumping in the water. But the majority of the past year and a half we have been traveling through unhealthy waters–along much of the United States East Coast and most of the Dominican Republic—essentially everywhere except the Bahamas. The fact of this state of affairs is nothing short of tragic. But we stay cool by finding trees to sit under during the hottest part of the day, pouring cups of drinking water on our heads, creating boat shade however we can, keeping our daytime activity levels low and cooking only at night. Not having AC also means we have to be more vigilant about mold growth without the dehumidifying effect of climate control. We spray down the boat often with vinegar+water+tea tree oil.

We are both very glad we opted not to have a generator. The comforts and luxuries afforded by these machines are those we can do without, along with the noise, smell and carbon footprint of a generator. The one thing we miss is the ability to fill scuba tanks, and we may want to remedy this at some point.

When thunder booms and an Electric Paddle feels especially slow.

Our electric dinghy engine is quiet, doesn’t smell of fuel or pollute the water, requires no maintenance and is super light and easy to get on and off the boat. It is slow, but this to me is a benefit as we are more likely to see wildlife and notice cool things that are happening around us. There are situations where speed can be helpful, say when you are chased by a thunderstorm. But this happens rarely if we are being careful. The other drawback for us is the distance our motor can go, only about 5 miles and that is only at half speed. Other electric motors have a bigger battery capacity, but they also are heavier and bulkier. Trade offs.

The solar has performed so well, and we minimized our energy needs so well, that Bill is often heard mourning the purchase of the wind generator and the new alternator. To which I say, “You never know, they may save our lives one day.” But it may also turn out that they were a huge waste of embodied carbon and money.

Which brings me to embodied carbon.

I was not going to put this blog out there without some discussion of embodied energy consumption. My partner is Bill Updike after all. This is a phrase I would not be aware of if not for him. Every single thing we buy new or construct has a cost in embodied energy and carbon. The energy required to mine the raw materials, the energy required to fabricate and transport the materials to be sold. Every item of clothing, bite of food, tool, pillow, cup of coffee, battery, engine, road, wall, bridge. We rarely count these costs when making policy decisions or governing our own lives. But choosing not to buy or construct is the greatest rebellion against our dark role in the breakdown of global biodiversity and our climate system.

Me and Dingy on an exploration in Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic.

In our lives and on the boat we try not to buy, or we buy local or used as much as possible. We didn’t buy a new dinghy, even though ours is 20+ years old and falling apart (and we have named it Dingy), because if we can make it through the trip without buying one, Dingy will have a longer, more fulfilled life and the world will have a little bit less toxic vinyl to have to contend with. But we did buy an inflatable kayak so we could have some independence of each other (this is a serious safety factor) and a backup for Dingy. It may turn out we didn’t need the wind generator and the new alternator. There is embodied carbon in our emergency life raft and we may, (hopefully), never need it. But we may. There are always these choices and while we have tried to make the best choices we could by conserving and building in efficiencies, and installing solar and wind power, I know we will find places where we have not made the best decisions.

But the best decision can at times be unclear or just out of reach. So at best we reach for the decision that is informed by facts and leans toward a healthier world for everything under the Sun Almighty.

THE BOAT LAB: Crash Diet for Freeeedom

Aside from a long-term vegetarian diet I generally have eschewed dieting. Physical expectations for women in my culture are toxic, and also, I’m just not a very regimented person by nature. But since we moved onto a boat the idea of dieting has gained appeal. I’m talking bout a regimen. A conscious approach to what I consume, where it comes from and what the implications are for the microcosm of me and Bill and Maggie May, and perhaps more importantly for the places we visit and the world at large.

SV Maggie May during a three week stay in the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

One of the most interesting things about boat life is the degree to which we can be self-sufficient, storing or producing everything we need to live for more than a month at a time. This requires a level of effort and a degree of consciousness not demanded by life back in Mount Rainier, Maryland—where garbage is set on the curb to disappear and never be heard from again; sewage goes out of body, down a drain and out of mind; endless water is in the tap; endless energy is wired into the house; heat extremes are as easy to deal with as stepping into and out of the house; food is a block away at the Glut food coop; and doctor, dentist, therapist are a metro ride or walk away. What a comfortable, easy life! At home I could choose to be conscientious and recycle, compost, buy wind power, or really conscientious and reuse or reduce my household waste, energy and water. But I could also not do that and everything would run just as smoothly from my comfortable vantage point in my home (though of course not for the planet).

Why buying local produce carries the smallest carbon footprint.

On the boat, the system of unseen services a land community (in a privileged wealthy nation) provides is largely absent. Our comfort and even perhaps survival depend on us managing resources wisely, figuring out how we will have enough food, water, energy; what we will do with our waste; how we will cope with medical crises and mechanical or structural failures on the boat. If we act without forethought, we will feel a cost. In this way, natural scarcity is imposed upon us in a way that I personally have never felt before. This challenge, these costs, this consciousness, is the bargain we make for our wandering lifestyle.

One of the places we’ve been able to visit for long periods, Los Haitises National Park in the Dominican Republic.

In exchange for a certain thoughtfulness about how we use space, water, food and energy, and money, we are granted an unlimited access to something so precious, so rare, so lacking in our lives before this–time. A richness of time I have never before experienced, (except maybe as a child, but then everyone is always bossing you around).

We also have a type of freedom deeper and broader than any expanse I have ever felt. There is no such thing as total freedom. Life without the imposition of constraint is a mythology. We are animals and we must eat and hydrate and find shelter. But within these inescapable confines there exists a profound space to be encountered. The closest parallel for me would be a long backpacking trip. But even then you are constrained by what you can carry on your back and whether there is fresh water at hand. What we can carry on Maggie May’s back allows for exploration of weeks at a time in the stillness of the wild, away from the endless noise and haste of an engine driven world. If we are wise and abide the laws of natural scarcity.

Freedom and time.

We fill our bounty of time with various wonderful and tiresome and terrifying and edifying things, one of which is mindfulness about topics I just didn’t have time, or maybe energy, for before. Often these thoughts turn to the laboratory of sustainability that a closed system like a boat can be. Which brings me back to diets.

Before we started this trip, years before, Bill and I began turning our minds to the challenges of scarcity and how we would greet them on the boat. Because his background was energy policy and green building, Bill was in a good position to set us up on the energy front. I took on the problem of waste, particularly trash and plastics. We both thought about water scarcity, Bill wrangled the sewage question, I managed food scarcity. We created plans for dealing with each of these challenges in new ways (for us, in our lives) and all of these solutions have in some way required an adherence to diets, regimens.

A visit to a landfill in the Bahamas was hearty inspiration for our low-waste boat regimen.

Challenge inspires innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention. This truth is the universal fuel of evolution, the bold and unmerciful hand that shapes all creation. It is also one of the most important tools of social evolution, the tried and tested philosophy behind things like bag fees, stormwater fees, and carbon taxes. Putting a cost on something forces recognition of a value that is being squandered, like clean rivers, a healthy climate system, clean air.

On the policy level, taxes that place a value on resources we tend to abuse are meant to prompt us to think about how we are using those resources and to spark innovative ways to conserve them. And they work, when governments are courageous enough to use them and communities are wise enough to embrace them. Imposed costs spur creative solutions, much like fire forces adaptation in plants and animals. 10 cents for a plastic bag doesn’t seem like a forest fire, certainly a lot less painful, but in a matter of a few years this small fee cleared the Anacostia River of most of its plastic bags and raised important funds for river restoration in Washington DC.

An imposed cost on plastic bags has almost eliminated one of the most persistent forms of pollution plaguing the Anacostia River in Washington DC.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to impose costs because we would all be aware of the intrinsic cost of all resource use and we would voluntarily choose to conserve. That is not the world we live in. Not yet. At this stage of our evolution when something is free and seemingly endless, we as a species squander it. Putting a price on carbon and plastics and pollution, things we all want us to generate less of, causes people make different choices in response to these valuations. A person could choose to reuse their plastics or reduce their purchasing of items with single use plastic. Under a carbon tax they might decide to drive less and bus or bike more. Or buy an electric vehicle instead of one that requires gasoline. They may ultimately decide that having fewer kids is a smart answer, since everyone’s consumption and carbon footprint is multiplied by the number of kids and grandkids they have. But the large majority of people will not think about these things until society places them squarely in front of their eyes and says: act responsibly, or pay accordingly so we can fix the damage that you do. For the common good.

For us aboard the microcosm of Maggie May, the danger of not conserving is very real and present. In addition to the costs to the global ecosystem, we feel immediate impacts to our boat wide common good in loss of self-sufficiency, loss of freedom when our trips must be cut short for lack of water or food, or trash overflowing, or no energy to run critical boat functions like navigation lights and emergency communications. Or, if we are on a long ocean passage the cost may be our health or our lives if unforseen weather extends the trip and we have not conserved wisely.

Solar panels working hard in the intense sun of the Bahamas.

Over a series of blogs within the Maggie May blog, The Boat Lab blog, I’m going to share some of the things we’ve learned while addressing the various challenges of self-sufficiency and conservation, including energy/carbon, trash, human waste, food and water. Each of these will be handled separately, though they are all interconnected.

The blogs will address some interesting questions: Just how far off the grid have we been able get? How might we do better? Are there things we know we could improve on, but well, we just love potato chips and peanut butter and so we are going to allow ourselves some guilty pleasures? Just how many types of biological life can infest a composting toilet and which ones are the least desirable companions on a boat? And how might this all translate to our lives back home?

So much learning.

I won’t be saying anything Ben Franklin didn’t say or get credited with saying, so if you don’t have time to read the blogs, here they are in short Franklinian phrasing:

He that would live in peace & at ease, Must not speak all he knows or judge all he sees.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

When the well is dry they know the worth of water.

If you desire many things, many things will seem few.

No gains without pains.

A stitch in time saves nine.

Hunger is the best pickle.

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!

Luperon, DR

Here’s a strange thought. SV Maggie May arrived in Luperon on the north coast of the Dominican Republic on May 17. Our almost three-month stay here constitutes the longest time either Bill or I have lived anywhere other than the Washington DC metro area since 1998.

A strange thought. Especially considering this is not a place we meant to come. 

We came to the Dominican Republic because the trade winds had worn us down. Because a pandemic had created too many obstacles, and worn us down. Because transitioning to a life on fluid ground exacted and extracted so much more of us than we had imagined it would. Because the hurricane season was looming and we needed a hidey hole.

But in Luperon, quite unexpectedly we found rest, safety, time to learn, heal, acclimate, explore.

In a week or so, when the moon begins to wax gibbous, we will begin looking for a weather window to make our next passage.

This passage will not be easy. We are heading to Samana Bay, also in the DR, where we hope to wait out the rest of the hurricane season. This requires a trip of about 100 miles due east before we round the northeastern edge of Hispaniola. A hundred miles is not a long distance. But 100 miles in a boat whose max speed is 7.5 knots, directly against 15-20 knots of trade winds, which accelerate to 25-30 knots along this mountainous coast, is an infinity of hard time stuffed into a compactor and spit out as about 24 hours of shallow-breath, white-knuckle sailing. The consistency of the trade winds is a wondrous thing, a thing that has shaped the course of natural history and within it, the small but weighty mass of human history. These winds have been the delight of sailors for thousands of years. They have also been the bane of sailors who try to oppose them for just as long. 

Luckily, there are islands and weather systems that disrupt the trades at times and these disruptions constitute narrow windows for making passage. And there are sailors who have studied how this works and passed their knowledge forward so that newbies like us can get east when prevailing wind patterns are dead set against it. I’ll go into the strategy in a future blog. It is enough to say that Bill and I will be better prepared for this next leg of the adventure than we have been for any passage since we began in May 2020. And we are excited to face the challenge ahead. That is saying a lot given how we felt when we limped into Luperon back in May.

So much life has happened here, and I have focused on living it, rather than writing about the experience of living it. I want to share some of what we have seen here, but there is too much to recount so I’m going to make this a photo blog. Hopefully each thousand-word photo will convey something important about our life in the Dominican Republic.

SCUBA! For the first time on this SV Maggie May voyage, which was supposed to be all about diving, we were able to scuba dive. We saw seahorses, rays, eels, so many fishes, turtles and superbly strange sea creatures. We saw coral reefs, thriving, dying and dead.

We got to spend time relaxing, learning about and enjoying Punta Cana with our friends Gabby and Rick.

Sometimes, perhaps even often, the thing unsought is the thing you need, an offering of time and space to stash away as an immortal treasure, ever impactful even if only rarely remembered. Such was our unplanned arrival in the Dominican Republic. And who knows what comes next.

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.