Off Soundings

Tyrell Bay, Carriacou. 3:16 am

This would have been a night to get some sleep.

The past few days blur in heat and exhaustion, long dusty uncomfortable days trying to get everything ready for a 400-mile sail to Bonaire but not knowing if the weather will shape up to make the passage feasible. As of 3 am it looks good. The wind forecast is between 10-20 knots and waves 4-6 feet, down from 6-8 at one point. Yesterday we picked up our laundry, scoured the town for veggies and fruits, found a few sad potatoes and cucumbers and a small cabbage. We hauled about 360 pounds of water to the boat in 5 gallon jugs, spent hours scraping barnacles from the hull, got Covid tests, checked out with Grenada customs and immigration. Precooked some meals, set up the sails, mapped our route on the charts. We were ready.

In these sleepless hours I recheck the weather and go over our route. I watch the moon light the sky, as it will light the darkest hours of the coming days. I listen to fretful birds nesting nearby, and to our rigging singing along with the gusty wind in a high pitched whine.

I think about that moment when our depth sounder goes from 290 feet to – – –. That’s somewhere beyond 300 feet, how much beyond is practically irrelevant. This passage the depth will fall to almost 10,000 feet. The sounder will read – – –, off soundings.

We put so much trust in this boat, a few centimeters of fiberglass carrying us over water 10,000 feet deep. I didn’t realize how important that trust was two years ago when we left. How it would need to be built passage by passage. How trust in general would shape so much of our experience on this voyage.

Our wake-up alarms clamor. I shut them down quickly so Bill and others in this anchorage can sleep a bit longer. About 4:15am I feel my way through boat shadows to the aft cabin where Bill is sleeping under a ray of moonlight streaming through the deck hatch. I put a hand on his shoulder and he slowly opens his eyes. He remembers where he is, rises with effort. We check the weather one last time. Wind 15-20 knots, waves 4-6 feet. We go.

There are just a few final items on our Anchors Up list: sunscreen, nausea medication, secure compartments below decks, check the bilge. We raise the anchor and drive out beyond the sleeping sailboats to raise the sails in the calm seas of Tyrell Bay. A yellow glow hangs thinly on the eastern horizon.

The downwind sail set-up is new to Maggie May and crew. It’s more complicated than our usual sail plan, the one we’ve used for most of the thousands of upwind miles we’ve traveled, a main sail and genoa. But now, at last we are traveling with the wind. We won’t be using the main sail at all, and will have two sails flying on opposite sides of the bow. This double headsail set-up requires a matrix of lines to keep it in check. The genoa sheet on the starboard side runs through the end of a gib pole affixed to the mast, which is held up parallel to the water by a topping lift line and tensioned forward with a guy line that runs to the bow and then back to the midship cleat where we can adjust it without having to stray too far from the safety of the cockpit. The web of lines crisscrossing the deck looks like a laser alarm system in Mission Impossible. With the genoa thus unfurled on the starboard side we begin setting up a second sail on the port (left) side of the bow, on a wire solent stay just about a foot aft of the genoa. This sail’s sheet is run through the end of the boom, which we have pushed out as far to port as it will go and secured with a line to prevent it from swinging wildly around in a wind shift or big wave.

Bill hauls the second sail up and we trim both sails, then pull the kill switch on the engine, returning quiet to the dawn. An engine extinguished, the world sighs in relief. Light wind pushes gently from the stern, ghosting us out of the bay on a course of 280 degrees, almost due west and dead downwind.

At 3 miles offshore, the sounder falls to infinity .

Soon the wind picks up and the waves double in size. We are leaving the protection of land behind. But the Atlantic does not quickly forget the abrupt interruption of Carriacou and its mountains upon the water’s westward march. Waves continue arguing over which direction they ought to travel. Pushing and shoving ensues. Their chaos makes for an unpleasant ride on Maggie May, who is attempting to make her way through this unruly crowd. Every wave hits from a slightly different direction and sets Maggie May into a wobbly, jerky roll. Human bodies do not adapt to this ever changing motion. We wedge ourselves tightly against the boat and brace when the bigger waves hit. Bill and I are both wearing a prescription scopolamine patch for seasickness and have taken a ginger pill as well, hopefully it will be enough.

I take first watch, 6 to 9 am. Bill will take over 9-12pm, then me at 12-3, Bill 3-6 and the cycle starts again and rolls on for the next 50 hours or so. The first watch will be easy. Just now the sun becomes visible beyond the mountains of Carriacou behind a thick veil of mist. So dense is this shroud of haze that the sun appears as a yellow wafer in a muted yellow sky above the charcoal outlines of Grenada’s jagged mountain peaks. A painterly sky, emotive and grandiose. A sky under which it feels just fine to be small and filled with awe. To be a brushstroke on a great canvas too immense to behold.

Through my watch, as I fuss the sails and watch the horizon, land recedes into indistinct haze where the lines between sea and sky blur.

I pull the genoa flatter than a downwind course generally wants, hoping to minimize the jerking and loud snapping of the sail when waves disrupt the angle of the wind on the stern. This seems to help. It requires trimming the genoa in, then easing the guy line on the midship starboard cleat so the tension is not too great on the three lines and pole connected to the forward sail. There is much trial and error. If the guy is too tight, it fairly screams with tension. If too loose, the pole bangs against the rigging. Each time I adjust the guy line, I have to clip my inflatable vest harness to a line that runs along the side deck, so that if the boat moves unexpectedly and I lose my balance, I’ll stay attached. Bill is asleep. It’s my job to keep myself on board.

The complicated nature of the double head sail makes me wary of squalls. There is no changing these sails quickly and the setup won’t work if the wind is anywhere but behind us. A squall with shifty wind would require turning off course to find downwind wherever the storm might put it.

I don’t worry overly, a storm seems unlikely. The haze that has subdued the sky for days is very likely a huge cloud of desert dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara. This tends to discourage squalls. Around 7:30am clouds begin to gather and darken and I watch for changing weather, but the darkness disbands after dropping a light sprinkling of rain. And throughout my first watch the wind stays almost due east.

At 9:00 Bill climbs into the cockpit to relieve me. I sit with him for a while and then go down below to record my watch log: where we are, how far we traveled, at what speed and in what conditions. It is a log of our journey and the boat’s performance under certain circumstances, but more importantly it’s a trail of breadcrumbs so we can find ourselves upon the globe if ever our instruments fail.

I lay down in the sea berth we have prepared in the main salon. The boat is equipped with lee boards for both of the settees (couches) in the main salon. These boards slot in to notches along the outside of the settees, making a snug little crib for staying put in a rolling sea. But just because you don’t fall out doesn’t mean you can sleep. Every few seconds waves push the boat to starboard, then to port, then starboard, and sometimes hard. The sails loudly protest the ocean’s treatment. This is not an environment I’ll sleep in until I’m good and tired, there will be no banking of sleep for the midnight to 3 am watch. Still it is restful, a time for the body to relax from the constant energy required for staying upright. I lay and let my mind wander for an hour before rejoining Bill in the cockpit.

We sit watching water, endless water. Land is by this point no longer in sight and the waves have begun to agree on a direction of travel, so Maggie May is taking a bit less of a random pounding. Many seabirds, mostly boobys, terns, tropicbirds and gulls, fly near the boat heading north. I wonder if they are headed to the far north for nesting, or just to some good fishing grounds they’ve heard of. The nearest land to the north is Montserrat, 250 miles away.

Tropicbird flying past Maggie May

Isolation sets in as they fly past. There is only silver-blue ocean, thousands of feet deep, and blue-white sky unfathomable. I have to remind myself where I am. Often this is the case when I wake in the morning, having traveled afar in dreams and forgetfulness in the night. In waking life I can usually place myself. But in this scene we could be anywhere, in any ocean where the trade winds harry the sea westward.

During Bill’s 3-6 pm watch the winds accelerate, 15-18 knots. This helps Maggie May move better through the uneven terrain. I make us some bowls of premade potato and pasta salad and we sit with our dinner as the sun sets on our first day.

After I eat, I go below to gather my watch items ( headlamp, first aid kit, nausea medicine, sunscreen, glasses, crackers, etc). Bill calls out “Come up here!” I poke my head up and he points to the ocean. “Look at that huge mat of sargassum! It’s so beautiful in the sunset light.” A copper sheen is on the water under a yellow-orange sky and this island-sized raft of sargassum is undulating upon the shimmering sea. The blur between water and sky offers the eye an illusion, hard to shake: we on this boat, that undulating carpet of sea plant, we are floating weightless, aimless and utterly alone upon an unbroken sunset sky.

We are not truly alone. A universe of life hums beneath this living, breathing carpet. Fish and jellyfish, eggs and larva, millions of bacteria, baby octopuses, schools of small fish, perhaps some hunters following from the darkness below. We humans often make the mistake of believing the illusion, of understanding the world to be the known world, the visible. What we see and understand. It is perhaps more comfortable to believe this pretty lie. But also much lonelier.

I take up watch as the sun slips beyond the horizon and darkness creeps across the sky, making of the seas a churning leaden plain. Gradually, pale stars appear behind the haze. As darkness deepens, the greatest source of light appears in our wake as Maggie May cuts through steely water, creating mounds of white froth filled with thousands of green sparks, bioluminescent bacteria. Fireflies winking on and off, disturbed by the passage of the boat. Stars in the sky, stars in the sea. Those invisible souls you will never see by daylight, though they are always there. Darkness is their time.

Before leaving Carriacou we had decided not to use our running lights and to switch off our AIS transmitter (which normally sends out information about Maggie May to other boats in the vicinity) in order to avoid the attention of pirates. There are several isolated locations in the Caribbean where attacks have occurred, and the north coast of Venezuela is one of those places sailors often avoid. We are more than 70 miles off the mainland coast. An attack is highly unlikely. But before our departure I read a disquieting account of some unusual vessel behavior sailors encountered along this route. As a precaution, we travel in darkness.

At 9:00 pm Bill takes over. I write my watch log and then manage to sleep a bit despite the continuing erratic rocking motion of the boat. When I enter the cockpit at midnight, the world has been brightened by a waning gibbous moon now high in the eastern sky. Stars and bioluminescence have faded under a river of moonlight spreading across the sea. Over the next few hours the river broadens as the moon hikes the sky.

In the north the lights of a ship appear. I find an AIS icon for it on our chart plotter and check its information– a 200-foot vessel headed on a coarse of 135 degrees that will pass within 5 miles of us in 20 minutes. A pirate vessel would not likely be on AIS or so well lit as this ship, not a clever pirate anyway. Still, I keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t change course in our direction. When it has passed on its way southeast I return to watching the moonlight on the water, on the white sails glowing brightly on the dark sea. And I feel suddenly very conspicuous in the moonlight. The same light that had been a comfort for what it allowed my eyes to see is now a concern for what it allows other boats to see. I scan every horizon near and far for the dark outlines of boats. I consider how I would react if another boat did appear. And I breathe deeply to find some calm. So much of the past few years have been geared toward this mastery of self, of fear and anxiety. Sorting out what fears are real, what dangers are actually present, and which are not. The first year on the boat we lived in a perpetual state of hypervigilence, both Bill and I in our own ways always anticipating the next challenge. Gradually that has shifted, with much effort. With many deep breaths.

The fact that we are still on the boat, sailing to Venezuelan islands, the fact that I didn’t wake Bill upon seeing that ship, all of this is testimony to how much we have learned. When Bill comes on watch at 3am I let him know about the ship and then go to log and berth. This time I am tired enough to fully immerse in dreams for most of my time off-watch. When I wake near dawn the wind has increased again, averaging 20 knots and the waves have grown accordingly. The equatorial current pushes us along, adding about a knot of speed. And we are often surfing down the face of waves at 9 knots or more, a giddy speed for a girthy girl like Maggie May.

This is a nice change from clawing our way into the face of the wind over the past few years, but it is speeding our trip so much that we are now ahead of our scheduled landfall in Gran Roque, and will be arriving in the dark hours of the following morning. We make it a rule never to arrive at night if we can avoid it, so we roll up the genoa several turns to slow our speed. This helps but we are are still averaging 7+ knots on my afternoon watch and creating enough of a bow wake that a pod of dolphins takes notice of our swift big-bellied Maggie May and starts weaving back and forth across the front of the boat. They swim with us for 10 minutes before disappearing into the blue.

As wind and waves increase throughout the day and night we reef the genoa more and more until it is little more than a picnic blanket in size. On my midnight watch the moon is bright enough I can see waves rise above the solar panels on the stern, some 7-9 feet above the trough and 3-4 feet above my own head. When we rise onto a wave crest I look down onto the solar panels and the horizon beyond. At times the stern kicks out to the side as we surf down wave faces. I reach the beginning of concern, but we never go near full broadside to the next wave as Maggie May quickly rights herself square with the seas. She has earned much trust over these years.

When Bill comes on watch we discuss the building seas. We are nearing the place where thousands of feet of rolling water hit the shelf of shallow ocean surrounding Los Roques. This is likely to agitate the the already lively seas. We both make a mental note to be prepared, and I go to sleep for a bit. When I return to the cockpit Bill is hand steering to keep the boat squared off with the sea, a somewhat grim look on his face. I recall at once that it is his birthday today, but think maybe now is not the time for cake.

We can see the summit of Gran Roque rising from the water in the near distance, and soon we will reach the more protected waters on the leeward side of the island. But to get there we need to turn southward, and our downwind sail setup won’t work with the wind any further forward. But we also don’t want to go to the bow to untangle the sheets and guy lines and pole while the sea is so rough. So Bill carefully steers along the edge of the sails’ comfort. When they start to complain loudly, thrashing and snapping in their confusion, he turns westward and downwind to appease them. Then he tries to sneak upwind and southward for a bit before being forced to turn downwind again. In this way we sneak into the calmer lee of Gran Roque where we roll up the genoa fully, haul the boom back onto the centerline and then Bill goes forward to wrestle down the second sail and lash it to the deck as the bow bucks up and down and side to side. When he returns to the cockpit he sighs, “That was intense.”

Gran Roque, Venezuela

“Happy Birthday!” I say. He smiles tiredly.

We motor the final mile or two in the shadow of of the Great Rock that rises hundreds of feet out of the endless horizon of the Caribbean Sea. Pelicans, terns, gulls and frigate birds patrol the waters, following close behind fishing skiffs on their morning runs. A bold line of turquoise marks the boundary between sandy shallows and the deep. We get our anchor down in the sand and the boat settled and then we both lay down and fall asleep for half an hour. When we wake, it is approaching 9 am and time to check in with Venezuelan customs and immigration. We had planned to stay in the Venezuelan islands for two weeks, the maximum stay allowed by visiting boats. After that we would travel on to Bonaire from the far western Venezuelan island, Sotavento in the island chain of Los Aves. But after a disheartening morning running from office to office and back again, we come to understand that alone among all countries visiting this nation, United States citizens must have a visa. We do not. We will need to pull up anchor and continue on to Bonaire.

This was something we should have known ahead of time. But for the past two years the politics of the United States has been distant, a poison left on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Here in some of the most remote islands in the Caribbean it catches up to us. Trump. Some words to the effect of: I might invade Venezuela. Sanctions. Threats. Posturing. In 2020 a boatful of US men and guns landed on the Venezuelan coast (almost directly south of where we are now), planning to foment an overthrow of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Trump denied official involvement.

We are officially not welcome here and our own government does not want us coming here.

Sadly, it is also one of the loveliest places we have been. A place unique in all our travels. The town of Gran Roque is small, just a few sand streets criss cross a town of brightly painted houses, shops, and restaurants along the coast of a small aquamarine bay. Almost everyone we meet is kind and welcoming, apologetic about the policy that will require our swift departure. We stop for lunch at a seaside restaurant. Bill is glum. “Great birthday,” he mutters. We order some lemonade and a veggie burger and vegan taco, surprised to find these items on the menu. When they arrive I take a bite of the veggie burger and smile big at Bill. “Your birthday is looking up.” I hand it to him, he takes a bite and the same smile spreads across his face. “Impossible.” We have seen very few Impossible burgers in our travels and this is a good if improbable time for one to pop up. The restaurant also has a chocolate torte to round out Bill’s birthday lunch.

After lunch we walk back to the Port Authority to tell one of our new friends Jose that we will be leaving right away by order of customs and immigration. To this he says: “No, that’s not right. You have 72 hours to rest and relax. You cannot travel around the islands but you can provision and rest.” He makes some phone calls, confirms that all the officials are on the same page, and helps us with our paperwork. He tells us he’s sorry we can’t stay, that it is politics, but in his mind, “todos somos hermanos.” We are all brothers.

This makes all the difference. Over the next 24 hours Jose arranges for us to be able to make a rest stop at one of the most beautiful islands in the Los Roques chain, which will aid us on our travel to Bonaire and let us see some of what we came to see.

We go through all the inspections, health checks and paperwork we need, then pull up anchor in Gran Roque with 48 hours left to go on our transit visa, and sail toward Cayo de Agua. This small spit of land is about 15 miles west of Gran Roque and lies on the far western edge of the Los Roques island chain. As we travel we have to pass by many great anchorages we had marked on our charts, including one Bill has dubbed “the greatest anchorage in the Caribbean.” There is a sadness in passing them by unvisited, understanding that this is likely our once-in-a-lifetime sail to Los Roques. We discuss the idea of returning after several months in Bonaire, if we could get the United States to issue a visa, if we could find a perfect weather window where the wind shifted north or south without a major storm. Both highly improbable.

We are drawn by the remoteness, the quiet, the impossible beauty of these waters. Bill says, “I’m glad we learned to read the water in the Bahamas, or this would have been terrifying.” It’s true, we had to go through a process of sailing over water that appeared to be 3-4 feet deep to understand that it was actually 8-10 feet and we could tell by the color. Charts are not reliable in remote places like this, you have to trust your eyes and what you have learned. But beyond the skills we have learned, our comfort and well-being is a matter of perception.

Any adventure is a process of seeing something out ahead of you, something you yearn toward. But inherent in the adventure is uncertainty, a shroud of mystery that prompts fear and anxiety beyond the challenge of the thing itself. The only way you can move forward toward that thing you want, is to take steps toward self-doubt, to walk through the veil of the unknown. To see that , where depth falls to infinity, where you have no solid footing, and to feel your heart flicker and threaten to fail, yet still to take that next decisive step. It is of course better to do that after you have some foundational skills, but some skills you cannot acquire without first finding the courage to walk blind into the mystery.

I am still uncertain of myself. But I am no longer drowning in self-doubt.

A small pod of dolphins approaches the boat. Many of them are little ones but there is one very large dolphin that comes to the side of the bow and surfaces, then lifts its tail and smacks it hard on the water surface. It does this twice, and the pod swims quickly off.

Resting behind Cayo Elbert

When we arrive at Cayo de Agua, we decide to anchor on the windward side of the island, tucked behind another small island called Cayo Elbert, which we think will afford us more protection from strong gusty winds. The water shifts quickly from dark royal blue to aquamarine to green-blue, shallower and shallower, we watch the depth sounder obsessively as we ease in as close as we can get to the sandy strip of land. I put the anchor down in 7 feet and when we are snugged up we look around upon a paradise of sunlight caught in white sand and blue green glass. Hundreds of pelicans, boobys, terns, frigate birds and wading birds wander the sand and stone of Cayo Elbert. We lower the dinghy from its stowage place beneath the solar panels and head in toward shore where the birds are congregated. There are the usual seabirds but also black noddy and even a great blue heron. And there are masses of them, fishing in the shallows, resting on the rocks, flying about. Through clear water we watch baby sea turtles darting here and there and fish swimming about the dinghy, schooling away from the pursuit of birds and other fish.

We watch the urgency of it all as the sun goes down and then we open a couple of Venezuelan beers, lounge in the dinghy and float back to the Maggie May. We take our baths in the cockpit as night falls, have some dinner and are asleep by 9pm.

Our anchorage behind Cayo Elbert

In the morning we discuss our next move. I would like to stay here but we only have 24 hours left on our transit visa. We are supposed to leave the country by tomorrow, May 24. But we don’t have a slip or mooring in Bonaire until June 1 and anchoring is prohibited there. So we might get there and have to continue on to Curacao if we can’t get a space in the marina. We remember two things: 1.) The main halyard (line that hauls up the main sail) is wrapped around the radar reflector near the top of the mast. We have to get up there to unwind it before it rips the reflector off. 2) There is a tropical wave approaching, possibly bringing some foul weather with it. We decide to stay and wait out the weather and fix the halyard.

Bill’s up there somewhere

I haul Bill up the 50-foot-mast and he frees the halyard then we rest from that exertion by lounging about the boat. We do some snorkeling and then spend an hour cleaning the bottom of the boat. The wind stays strong and gusty throughout the day, but no storms arrive. During the night Bill goes on deck and sees lightening in the distance and the following morning dark clouds roll in along the southern horizon. Our transit visa is up today, we need to get to the Coast Guard station at the far western edge of the Venezuelan islands of Los Aves, some 40 miles away and a full day’s sail. But we are wary of leaving under this sky. We watch the clouds for an hour. They are rolling along to the south, along the mainland coast, but don’t seem to be threatening our path westward to Los Aves. We pull up anchor and get sailing toward Sotavento.

The wind is 20-25 knots and we’re making fast miles. After a few hours a ship appears from the east. It’s not on AIS. It is the only boat we’ve seen for more than 24 hours and looks to be a fishing vessel. It is getting nearer, but very gradually. “Why is it going so slow?” I wonder aloud. We watch as it moves closer and closer, three-quarters of a mile, half a mile, one-quarter, on an overtaking course just to port of our stern. Then it points directly to our stern and gradually slightly to starboard. It crosses over behind us, maybe 1000 feet away. Bill and I have been watching it closely, quietly.

“Where is the flare gun?” Bill says. I go to our emergency kit and get the flares and gun, then stop at the navigation table and grab some bear spray I have on board. (Just in case there are bears.) I am sitting there with the spray, Bill is holding the flare gun, when the boat passes behind us and begins to pull slowly ahead. I say, “Well, it looks like they were just changing course to go around us.” Bill responds, “Yes, maybe to be upwind of us, easier to overtake us.” It is odd to travel so close to another boat when there is so much ocean out here. And they were matching our speed, when surely the power boat is capable of a lot faster speeds than a boat sailing 7 knots. Still, the idea of boarding another boat in these rough seas seems crazy, as both boats would be damaged badly.

Our friend Jose in Gran Roque spent 20 years in the navy and he told us that piracy was only an issue along northeastern Venezuela coast, in the seas between Venezuela and Trinidad. The rest of the coast, he told us, is too well patrolled by the coast guard and navy, which are a combined force in Venezuela. This made a lot of sense to me. The reality of piracy in a very limited location has been inflated by stories passing from sailboat to sailboat, (sailors can tell some stories) creating a culture of fear around the entire 500+ miles of the Venezuelan coast and 100 miles offshore. It happens easily. We are vulnerable on so many levels out here. Fears take flight and actions of other boats are interpreted through this lens.

The boat stays a fixture on our starboard side for about 20 minutes and then moves slowly ahead of us toward Barlovento in Los Aves.

“A fishing boat most likely,” Bill says. We put our makeshift arsenal away and continue on.

It is a torture to pass Barlovento, a dream island for us. A bird island, home to thousands according to what we have read. Fish and reefs and birds and nothing else, the surrounding water a blue flame of liquid sunlight. We discuss stopping, but know we need to respect the directions of the Venezuelan authorities.

As we sail onward, a large flock of boobys descends upon the boat. This bird is a strange one. Every time one flies near the cockpit where we are sitting, it peers in, eyes locked in on us for several seconds before continuing on its aerial circuit. Many of them do this, staring at us so intently. What is it they look for? Are they just curious, or trying to ascertain something about us that would be to their advantage. Their faces don’t express curiosity. They have a face something like the plague masks of the 17th century. Not sinister, just blank and probing.

They accompany the boat for 20 minutes, following us west. When they aren’t circling around us they skim along the water surface, sometimes so low their wingtips slice through the churned up sea. This entourage of plague-masked busy bodies gave me joy. Even though we can’t visit Barlovento, some of Barlovento visits us.

A booby circling the boat, turquoise water reflected off his wings.

By the time we reach Sotavento the sun is deep in the west. The wind bends around the coast and accelerates, whipping the water into a choppy chaos. This anchorage will not be peaceful, but if the coast guard lets us stay, it will be better than continuing on to Bonaire or even Curacao overnight. The coast guard station is a small outpost on a remote strip of sand. Just a few towers and small buildings. We anchor as close to the station as depth will allow, and as it turns out, right behind the only other boat in the anchorage, our pirate pursuers, who have also stopped here for the night.

I hail the coast guard on the VHF and in my best bad Spanish ask if we can stay. I can barely hear the response but understand that they are coming out to inspect us. In a few minutes five men in full military attire circle the Maggie May in their boat, then hand us their lines to tie on our starboard cleats. When they are secured, they wait an awkward moment, then ask if they can come aboard. I think in that moment I was supposed to invite them but I missed this cue while trying to think of useful Spanish words. The Comandante of the base speaks English well, though I do my best to speak Spanish back to him. I’m not sure if this is a kindness given how I butcher the language, but he seems to understand me and it feels important to make the effort. One of the officers comes below with Bill and I and gives Maggie May a thorough search inside and out, picking up cushions and opening storage compartments, enough to be certain we are not smuggling anything. Both he and the Comandante are polite, professional and efficient. Much of my recent life experience with law enforcement has been with US Border Patrol, so I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of aggressiveness.

The Comandante gives us leave to spend the night. We are grateful for this reprieve from the rough waters and strong wind. After they leave, we eat some leftovers and go to sleep.

At first light we are anchors up and on our way.

The final 30 miles to Bonaire goes by quickly. When the towers on the southern lowlands of the island become visible, an exhausted euphoria begins to set in. It is still setting in. I had no hope we would reach this island a year ago. Bill had been ready to go home, too exhausted by disappointment after disappointment early on in the trip. I wanted, needed, to continue. I said to him, “Please, just get to Bonaire with me.”

It took us another year, but we made it.

Bonaire!

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 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.

Harry Potter and the Pistol of Shrimps

Guest blog by Bill Updike, El Capitan of the SV Maggie May.

Krista and I have witnessed many examples of magic out here on the seas of our little blue planet. We spent our nights at anchor in Warderick Wells (Bahamas) marveling at the bioluminescent laser light show of hundreds of Bermuda fireworms floating, dancing, glowing and mating along the current rip flowing by our boat. Seriously, google these littleguys—it’s a crazy wildlife spectacle. And seeing other bioluminescent creatures, like the microscopic dinoflagellates that sparkle along the hulls of boats and sometimes dangling-feet in Atlantic and Caribbean waters.

We paddled a kayak through crystal clear mangrove “creeks” abounding in baby and juvenile sea turtles—it turns out that, unlike their massive parents, the little ones move like lightning. When diving, we’ve seen myriads of underwater marvels—giant sea worms, silkily moving sharks, the bird-like motions of mantas and spotted eagle rays, a “cleaning station” set up by a small shrimp where a fish would come to have their scales and gills cleaned by the shrimp, only to depart and let the next fish have their turn. Imagine paying for a car wash with nothing but bacteria.

These moments with nature’s magic have led me to think a lot about the idea of human-made mediated magic, and of its presence, or rather omnipresence, in our modern world. Krista and I recently finished listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook. It brought us a lot of joy to listen to the entertaining books while floating around in the sea. There’s nothing quite like hearing Dumbledore and Harry amidst breaking waves outside Voldemort’s evil horcrux-holding cave, while sailing on a boat hearing the crashing of real ocean waves on rocks.

But I have also been pondering the crazy popularity of the series, and how it speaks greatly to our modern need for magic. A part of me sees beauty in that longing, but another worries about what it portends. Beautiful because it reveals our human capacity for imagination, for thinking outside of the curse of endless explainability, from our info-transfused Wikipedia-ified world. What happens to imagination when you can get an immediate answer to basically any question you ever have? Our longing for magic may also reveal our ability for stepping outside of ourselves, and hopefully for a potential to accept otherness, something we desperately need in this historical moment.

But our current obsession with magic has I think, like many things, a shadow side. It seems like we are moving towards a culture, at least in the United States, where the only movies made by Hollywood are those full of Marvel or DC superheroes. We have drifted to a culture where our basic (base?) humanness is no longer enough to satisfy the big screen. Perhaps, the mundanity of our conspicuous consumer-ness has left us with a void that demands filling from the outside, from outrageously superheroic acts of heroism impossible for us clumsy humans to achieve. It has left me feeling that we need to relearn how to marvel at our humanness and our natural world, rather than marvel only at our Marvel superheroes.

We’ve been filling that void left by our conspicuous consumption (at least those of us with the means to be conspicuous in our consumption in the world) by consuming more and more narratives of magic, but I think it may ultimately be a negative, and not just a zero sum game. Our insatiable consumption creates an arms race against ourselves, and has left much of the U.S., and other places in the world, in a self-inflicted war of indebtedness and buried in piles of plastics.

Beyond just regular folks fighting debt and consuming things we don’t need sold by companies that don’t care about us, there’s an even larger and environmentally damaging arms race of consumption happening among the elites. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the multitude of megayachts we have witnessed along our travels, in particular along the coasts of the small islands in the Bahamas. These sea giants, sometimes 300-400 feet long, rivaling cruise ships and costing 100s of millions of dollars, show up at a previously quiet anchorage towing another 50-foot-long powerboat (their “play boat”), and then quickly disgorge even more small boats, jet skis, and other machinery from their stern garages. They tie the offal behind the behemoths in a row so that it looks like a mother goose with her goslings, except with polluting and noisy machines, so not as cute. These 300-400 foot long yachts generally have more serving staff on them than passengers, similar to those 20,000 square foot McMansions with only two residents and rooms never used or seen.

The passengers then proceed to tear around the anchorages as if they owned the world, which I guess in a sense they do (in fact, some whole islands in the Bahamas are owned by one person). These “dei in machinas” create massive amounts of noise, pollution and waves, all the while missing the (formerly) quiet beauty of the magical and multihued Bahamian islands. After blazing around the anchorage, they then quickly leave to find a “better” beach even though pretty much all beaches in the Bahamas are the very definition of perfection. I even heard one of the megayachties complain on one beach that the sand was not “fine” enough—oh nooooooo, what will happen to one’s perfectly pedicured and silky soft feet! The horror!

In my less kind moments (after a wave from a jet ski has nearly swamped us rowing our little kayak), I would say that the size of the megayachts are inversely proportional to the depths of owners’ souls. But really I think that the size of the megayachts, and the total number of spewing toys, is more directly proportional to their fear of the void.

Which leads me back to magic. The megayachties magic is in money and machines. And in their conjurations of machines from the bellies of their beasts, I think they miss out on the greatest opportunity that life on the world’s oceans has to offer—the time to live outside of what most would call a “normal life,” the immense gift that silence has to offer for free and with no debt attached, and the opportunity to use that silence to explore deep inside ourselves and wrestle with the void and try to come to peace with it. Essentially to create our own magic out of mundanity.

In our obsession with mediated magic, and its offer of a temporary break from thoughts of the void and of our fear of silence, I think we miss perhaps the greatest gift that our little blue planet offers us. Not food and water (though those are pretty damn important too), but the magic that is literally all around us, and the unmediated awe that descends gratis when we slow down, step into the silence, and look again like children do at the fantasy world in which we live.

One ubiquitous example of nature’s magic comes in one of its smallest packages—the diminutive but powerful pistol shrimp. Only around 1.5 inches in length and less than an ounce in weight, the pistol shrimp moves its claws at more than 60 miles/hour. For this small creature in a small space, the speed is so fast that it creates a vacuum bubble that has such a low pressure that a water pulse emerges with a noise of almost 220 decibels—louder than a bullet, hence the shrimp’s name.

Perhaps more astoundingly, the snap creates a resultant temperature of around 4800 degrees Celcius (around 8600 degrees Fahrenheit)—similar to the surface temp of the sun! It’s all just crazy times infinity. The enormous pressure also creates a visible plasma arc which causes another compression and a flash of light from the sound itself—in a process known by the weighty word sonoluminescence (similar to how lightning and thunder interact). We humans think we have a monopoly on magic in all our Harry Potters and Marvels, but the teeny tiny pistol shrimp begs to differ, or really doesn’t care I guess. It’s just down there in the sea making its magic every day without a care in the world (except for getting eaten).

When we are silent, Krista and I hear the snapping sounds of the shrimp under our boat every night and are chock full with wonder. Hollywood has nothing to do with it. And although I love a good superhero movie as much as the next nerd, for me I will take the humble pistol shrimp over the $300 million Marvel movie any night of the week. And when I struggle with stepping into the void, I try to think of the little pistol shrimp snapping away as a constant reminder of the magic all around us all the damn time. And it helps.

Donuts in the Desert

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

Golden-crowned kinglet in St. Mary’s River

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

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

Spider balloons streaming from the shrouds.

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

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

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

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

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Krista Schlyer

“I’m 100% Clean!”

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

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

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

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

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

Gratuitous fog photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support this journey and blog

My plan was always to do a free blog to share the journeys of Maggie May and any cool, interesting and important things we might find along the way. Even with all the setbacks we’ve had, I want this to be a free blog. But if you are enjoying the story, and have some funds to support this journey and ongoing storytelling, the funds will help us continue on this path. Thanks!

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Some october sights on the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac

Into the Abyss, and other fun things

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Oliver, The Buddha’s Last Instruction

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

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

At Home With the Gods of the Chesapeake

We made it. After 15 years of planning, 7 years of working on the boat, 2 months of pandemic lockdown, we are finally moving aboard Maggie May. Bill and I have spent the past few days carting carloads of stuff from our home basement and our friend Dave’s home, (where we were staying for the past few months), to the boat in Deale, Maryland. 

Bill and I have a bet as to how many carloads it will take to get it all here, and also whether there is any chance it will all fit aboard. I guessed 10 trips, Bill guessed 6. We are on 6 now, with at least 1 more to go. This is one bet I was hoping Bill would win. 

Our final trip from Dave’s house. Bill said we couldn’t get it all in one load. I begged to differ. As my reward I got to spend 45 minutes on the passenger side floor fighting off car sickness. Hooray.

 

Glad we were able to fit that sponge.

So far everything is fitting nicely on the boat, but we are already making some sacrifices, books, clothes (we won’t need those), backpacks, some tools and other things we can do without.

The process of trying to organize a small amount of space to contain enough food, water, clothes, gear, cleaning supplies, tools, sails, spare boat parts, medical supplies, charts and everything else we need for 3 years uses a part of my brain that I rarely access. But I find it liberating rather than constraining to think about what I actually need to be safe and happy. It’s not much really. 

The stuff we have on this boat represents about 10% of the stuff we had in our 700 square foot house. But it still seems like a lot right now.

The V Berth will be my office as well as guest quarters, sail storage, and scuba center.

One of the inspirations for this trip was to put myself in a situation where by necessity I had to live as simply as possible. I try to do this anyway, but it’s easy to be lazy about resource conservation when all the energy, water, space, and food you could want is a drive, walk or phone call away. And all of the waste from that way of living is carted away every week so I don’t have to look at it. On the boat, there is limited energy, water, space, food and everything that is a byproduct of my life—plastic, paper, metal, food scraps, human waste. Well now it’s all mine to deal with in a responsible way. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how to do this. I’ll share some of this over the coming years. 

Dinner our first night aboard.

Yesterday the wind blew across Rockhold Creek with gale force. I’ve experienced gale force winds before, even on the boat while sailing. But never while living on a boat and it struck me yesterday as the angry wind howled around the mast, that this force will be ruling my life over the next few years. The wind is nothing to be trifled with. 

We live our lives generally with the wind as an afterthought. If it’s windy we may fly a kite, or maybe some of us get our energy now from wind power, or maybe it musses our hair, or cools us down on a hot summer day. But it doesn’t really play much of a conscious role in our lives. Yet, the wind is a god of this planet—a conductor of weather, a circulator of energy and moisture around Earth, a force as big as the oceans in the life that is lived all over the globe. I’m going to spend the coming years honoring this god like I never have before. My heart skips a beat at the thought of being enveloped in its power and spending every day thinking about what the wind is planning for the world at this moment, and how to I need to behave to live in concert with its whims, and what exactly will happen if I don’t. I’m already awestruck and no small amount scared. But also thrilled to my marrow. 

Another impetus for this journey was exactly this. To immerse myself in the natural world. Our species, (I can say our, because if you’re reading this, you probably are a member of that party) lost our humility in the face of nature ages ago, back when we decided to throw over the nature gods of early myth in exchange for ones that looked like us. And we have grown more and more estranged as industry and technology have further elevated our perception of ourselves. I have swallowed a sickening sense of this year after year as I watch more and more of the natural world succumb to our hubris and excess. It has been a poisoning of the soul to see this everywhere I look. And this journey is designed to extract that poison, even if it means cutting some deep wounds to get to that toxin. For me this means humbling myself to the elements, wind, water, sun, earth.

The first night on the boat after we moved in I couldn’t sleep. Excitement, anticipation, wonder over reaching this state of living after so much time and effort. I lay awake in the stern cabin, with less than an inch of fiberglass between me and the Chesapeake, listening to the gentle water slap against the boat. Living in the waters of Earth, this is what I have needed.

I am awash in gratitude, relief and contentment.

Coming up in my next blog, a tour of the Maggie May.