Posted on October 8, 2020
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.
Posted on August 5, 2020
One of our first big weather events is behind us. Maggie May made it through Tropical Storm Isaias virtually unscathed.
We spent the day of the storm on high alert, as the wind forecasts were constantly changing. This uncertainty was the greater part of why we decided to go to a marina rather than ride the storm out in a hurricane hole in the Chester River. It was a good decision. I don’t think we were in the best mental state to weather near 50 knots at anchor. The past weeks since I last posted have been difficult– Coming to terms with the likely end of our long-planned circumnavigation, trying to adjust to a new outlook, and facing a near constant set of new challenges.
The cumulative effect has been a gnawing, fraying self-doubt, an inner squirrel sitting prettily on a shredded confidence nest in each of our psyches. Open water is no place for such nagging uncertainty, a fact brought home to us every few days on the Maggie May.
A few days before Isaias, we were sailing from Still Pond in the northern Chesapeake to Rock Hall, Maryland, where we planned to re-provision before heading back into the Chester River for a while. The storm predictions at that point were mild for the Chester, and there were several protected anchorages we wanted to explore. We were sailing 15-20 knots, a good wind speed for Maggie May, but we were head to wind and the Bay was rough with unusually steep waves. We decided to forego the genoa (the large sail at the bow of the boat) and use our solent stay and a smaller sail we got for heavier weather. Bill was hanking on the sail, I was driving, and as he started to trim the sheet, CRACK!, the sheet snapped and started whipping around the deck, lashing hard against the dodger (the covering over the cockpit), out into the angry air beyond the boat, and back SLAM! onto the dodger, over and over…and over. The boat was being jerked by waves and tossed and pulled by wind.
Bill said “We need to take the sail back down.” We didn’t have an extra sheet on hand to replace the broken one. Good to know. And the flailing spasms of the sail were dangerous. “Lower the halyard to me when I get to the bow.”
Bill wrestled with the wild sail as the boat tossed about, I tried to keep us on the smoothest course, then put the helm on auto and went forward to help him stuff the sail down below. Once it was stowed, we rolled out the genoa and continued sailing through the rough bay waters.
This is not an unusual intense moment on a sailboat. A year ago it could have happened and not rattled me much. I might have even found it exhilarating. But that day it stuck with me, along with the nausea and fatigue I always get from rough days on the water. Bill took the helm most of the day, and I tried to steady my wavering heart and belly. We arrived in Swan Creek near Rock Hall, anchored, and I retreated into my thoughts.
So much has happened with Maggie May over the past 7 years, so much in the past year, in the few months since we moved aboard. I feel at this point as if I am always teetering off balance, waiting for the next thing to happen that will push me down again. Bill and I each have a constant inner monologue going, whatever we are doing, about what could possibly go wrong next. Though as the squirrel demonstrated, some challenges are just beyond the realm of imagination.
I consider myself a pretty tough person, but I am confronted by fear in a way I never have been before, on a sailboat or otherwise. I’ve spent a lot of time recently telling myself, ‘You are not equal to this task. You’re not strong enough, mentally or physically. You’re too old. I’ll luck has beaten you.” But my heart holds fast to everything I had hoped for in this journey, and I think about all that has come before, so many challenges met and made into memory all the way back to ancestral memory from the early 1900s in rural Kansas.
First the recent past.
The morning after the squirrel chewed up our sail Bill woke with a fever and aches and pains. His doctor set him up with a test for Covid 19. My mind reeled over the absolute worst that could happen. He got the test the following morning. As we waited for the test results a new friend at the marina came over to say goodbye, expecting we were heading out, and I told him about Bill’s illness. He already knew about the squirrel, and barnacles, osmotic blisters, faulty bottom job and numerous other challenges we had faced over the past years.
“Did you guys do a renaming ceremony for the boat?” he asked with some concern, the idea of very bad luck being written upon our lives. I told him we had done a nice blessing of the boat when we launched. His eyebrows knitted. Then he told me what he did when he renamed his boat, based on a lot of research into how you rename a boat. “I have a friend who renamed his boat without taking the proper steps and he has had all sorts of ill luck.”
I chuckled a bit, assuming he was at least partly joking, and thinking ‘Sailors, superstitious bunch.’ But after he left, I immediately went to look it up on the internet. I found one million entries about how exactly you rename a boat without incurring Poseidon’s wrath.
I started following the procedure to the letter. Renaming a boat requires taking all reference to the former boat name off the boat. I scoured every crevice and cranny aboard. Went through every binder and book. There were several Vilkas items, the wolf blanket and a key chain, and I even found one piece of paper that had the name of the boat two owners ago – Kahouteck (which sounds like an Aztec curse, but is actually the name of an astronomical phenomenon ). This occupied me for hours, but Bill was in bed with a fever waiting for test results, so I had some time on my hands.
The renaming ceremony requires writing the old name of the boat on a piece of metal with water soluble ink, which you will drop in the water. I didn’t have a metal name plate, so I wrote Vilkas on a potato chip in pencil, and Kahouteck on a Ritz cracker. I worried about not following proper procedure, but I figured if it was an item of great value it would work just as well, and dissolve all the faster. Poseidon would be pleased, and Vilkas and Kahouteck would give some “nourishment” to the fish.
You also have to take off any reference to the new name, prior to the ceremony. I gathered all this up, including Original Maggie May’s ashes, which sit in a central spot on the boat. We put all of this Maggie May gear on the dock. I covered the stern with a scarf, because Maggie May has her name there. Once all this was done, I waited til Bill was feeling a bit better and then roused him from his sick bed. We carried out the ritual, using the prescribed plea to Poseidon to vanquish the names of Vilkas and Kahouteck from his records, and to add Maggie May and watch over her.
I also said the proper prayer to the four winds and added in a plea to every sea god I could find in my book of world mythology.
We made ourselves right with the gods. Bill went back to bed and I figured whatever happens next is well beyond our control.
The next morning Bill got a call that his test was negative for Covid. He was in bed for another day, but felt good enough to head out the following day. So it worked! Well, not if the past few weeks are any guide, during which we have run aground twice (once was our fault), gotten stung by jellyfish, had a staff infection, run over a crab trap which got stuck in our prop and damaged our rudder and cutlass bearing, and snapped a sheet. These things are all par for the course on a sailing adventure, but happening on the heels of everything else, they knocked us down to the ground every time. The crab trap in the prop happened near Cape May, where we were planning to jump off north toward Maine. In Cape May, getting the prop untangled and assessed, we decided that we needed to instead head back to the Chesapeake Bay, stay good and safe during the storm season, work on our sailing skills, (an unlucky sailor has to be extra prepared) and regain our trust in ourselves and the future of this journey.
A tropical storm followed us here, and regaining my confidence has been a daily affair. Recently, my mind has turned often to the boat’s namesake, once removed. Not Original Maggie May, but the woman Maggie was named after, my granny. Her name was Pauline Margaret, and she went by Pauline all her life, but told me one day a few years before she died that she always wanted to be called Maggie. My granny was a tough woman. She grew up on a farm in Kansas and lived through two world wars, Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. She kept that farm girl fortitude all her life. She was also terrified of water and storms and mayonnaise and untidiness. But she kept her chin up, always. Now, when my heart begins to cower, I think of her, ball up my fist like she taught me, and carry on.
Note to friends:
I thank all of you for your care, kindness and support. We are ok. We’ve spent some hard days and done some reckoning and are at peace with looking at this journey in another way, waking each day and seeing what it brings, doing our best to live life ever present and appreciative.
Upon much reflection I can see very clearly that the leap of faith we took 15 years ago and every day since, the intension that brought us to this place was not in vain. For the idea was never truly to make miles across the ocean, but to learn how to live again. To set ourselves in the crucible of nature and see what its foundational motion made of us. To let go of whatever the waves erode, whatever gravity wears down, whatever the salted water scrubs away. To hold on to what the winds bear up, and whatever remains at the end of this adventure. I still believe we will be the better for it.
And I wish each of you courage in the challenges that come your way, and a stout heart in these uncertain times.
Posted on July 12, 2020
On the morning of July 9 my journal entry began, Setting off again this morning at high tide. We’ll see what transgresses. Headed to Maine.
It was to be our second attempt at a launch, but it followed the fifth or sixth major named storm in the life of our circumnavigation dreams. Still, we were both hopeful. We had no beautiful friends to wave goodbye to on the docks, and no champagne to sprinkle on the bow, but the day was calm as we pulled out of our slip and made our way to the mouth of Swan Creek and into the Chesapeake Bay. I’m not going to relay what happened next, it was the scariest moment I’ve ever had on a boat, but it’s a long, and in the end, humorous story that will wait for a book’s telling one day. This blog focuses on what happened afterward, which was not so humorous, despite the lead photo in this blog.
About an hour after we entered the bay, we still had no wind and were motoring along, which often makes me sleepy. So I laid my head down on Bill’s lap and looked up at the mast towering into the cloud-tufted blue sky. After a while, I asked Bill, “Can you still see the Bay Bridge?”.
“Just barely,” he replied.
So I sat up and scanned the horizon to the hazy south. I couldn’t see the bridge until Bill pointed. It was barely visible in the thick summer air, and I marked it in my mind, the Bay Bridge is behind us.
Just then the wind started to pick up and Bill got excited to raise the main sail. We had only sailed once in the month since we left our home port in Deale. So I took over the wheel and Bill went forward to prep and raise the halyard. As the sail was going up, suddenly Bill stopped and his face fell. All he said was “No. No.”
I saw a cascade of white feathers, or something light like that, scatter onto the deck and float back along the starboard side of the boat. I thought a bird had nested in the sail, or been killed by a predator and left in the sail. But then I saw Bill sink to the deck on all fours, so I knew it was something much worse. I steadied the boat and went up to the mast. There was a gaping hole in the sail, which, as it gently flapped in the mild breeze rained a shower of feather-light dacron onto the deck. Two feet of sail had been chewed away. Our brand new sail.
We had waited years to get that sail, wanting to spare ourselves the huge expense of it until we were ready to head out on the trip. It was ruined. It took a moment to make sense of it, but suddenly I remembered earlier that day I had seen squirrel footprints on our hatch and heard soft footfalls on the deck. Knowing how important a nest is to a creature, I went to scan the sail bag and sure enough, there was a terrified squirrel crouching at the back of the boom.
Bill and I were silent for a long time. Then a period ensued that I cannot recount here except to say that Bill turned the boat around, back toward the marina at Haven Harbour, and when I coaxed him into unfurling the only in-tact sail we had left, it was because I believed it would be the last sail we ever had and I wanted to remember it.
Two days later, we ushered the squirrel from the boat and have had the sail repaired as best as it can be. It will never be fully strong again, but it may last a while. We have decided that we can no longer believe in the circumnavigation dream. We can’t even expect we will get to Maine at this point. Or out of the Chesapeake Bay. But we have provisions for several months on the boat, and many, many books we want to read and some songs we want to learn and sunsets to see and squirrels to forgive.
We hope to head out again in a day or two with the only intention being to follow where the wind leads us, take what challenges arise, care for the boat as best we can, and love each other better than we ever have.
Thank you all for following along on this journey, wherever it may lead.
Posted on June 16, 2020
Last Tuesday, June 8, 2020 we cast off lines at Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland, and headed out into the Chesapeake Bay for what we hope is a 3-year voyage around the world. Dear friends began arriving around 8 am and we said a few words, read a poem of blessing, and sprinkled some champaign on Maggie May’s bow. The surge of emotion that accompanied all of this, caught me off guard. There are just some times in life when you have worked so hard on something, given everything you possibly have to make a dream become a reality (or stave off some catastrophe), when past, present and future well up together for a moment. All this to say, I barely got my words out, they were choked and garbled with raw relief, joy, apprehension and possibility. I think my friends understood. Here is the poem in full:
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
Several friends sent this poem to me over the past few months, knowing our departure was imminent. It is so perfect in so many ways.
I looked back for a long time at my friends Margaret, Valerie, Dave and Anne waving goodbye from the dock where we spent so much time preparing Maggie May, and at our friends Tom and Emily who had brought their canoe to see us beyond the jetty. I looked back as long as I could, to remember that moment forever, to feel that love and the waves of gratitude for the life we have lived up to now. When I turned finally towards the bay, I turned to the great unknown I have longed for for all these many years, through so much grief, anxiety and inner turmoil. I turned toward fear and wonder and adventure and a life scoured to its barest elements.
The first leg of this voyage will be northerly so we headed the boat up the Bay towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The wind was light, 5-7 knots, but we managed to sail most of the way up to the bridge. I’d never passed under this immense span before. I’m not one to find awe in infrastructure, given all the damage it does ecologically, but passing under the Bay Bridge was something to remember, in part because of its mammoth imposition on the entire viewscape, and also because it was further than I had ever taken Maggie May to the north.
Beyond the bridge we made straight for the Chester River, where we planned to anchor for the night. This river, the longest navigable waterway on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay, is home to the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to spend most of our time for the next days. But the wind was not favorable for an anchorage near the refuge, and the wind decides and we abide, so we headed deeper into the river to a little cove near the Comegys Bight. It was a good thing we did, because the weather grew nasty over the next few days.
Before the storm we had a few trips out in the dinghy to explore the nearby wetlands, beach and forest, finding many surprises, including the largest concentration of brown water snakes I have ever seen. Bill, terrified of snakes, vowed he would never set foot in this water after we made this discovery. We poled the dinghy into a shallow stream through thick wetlands and on the way out I noticed a little snake face staring out at us from the reeds. And then another and another and then, when we reached the mouth of the stream, a snake swam in right front of the dinghy with a fat, pale yellow fish with bewildered eyes, clamped in the snakes satisfied but anxious maw. The fish was easily three times the size of the snake’s head. I didn’t know they hunted for fish, and it was incredible to see this in action.
Bill did not experience the same delight over this discovery as I did.
As we got back to the Maggie May Bill was trying to secure the dinghy (Minnie May) and he wrenched his back painfully. His back had been bothering him for weeks, but I think the terror over the snakes and the jolting movement of the boat pushed him over an edge. And he probably had not been allowing his body to rest over the past weeks leading up to launch. Now his back has said, you will stay put for a while. So we have stayed anchored in this same Chester River spot for many days longer than we would have. Storms rolled over us and rolled on. Weekend boaters tubed in circles around us, their wakes tossing Maggie May about. Sun set and rose, casting its light and darkness upon the world.
I am content, wherever we are. I’ve spent the past 5 days learning how to live this life. I have learned many things, some important and some not so much. Here are 5:
Posted on June 6, 2020
So much has changed from when we first started planning this voyage 15 years ago, even in the past few months, right down to the direction we will be going. Our hope had been to travel southward along the Intercoastal Waterway to South Carolina, then head out into the Atlantic to the Bahamas, then following a westerly route through the Panama Canal and around the world back home again. That may still happen but Covid-19 has shut down most of the countries we were planning on visiting, including our first stop outside the United States. A few countries are opening, but tentatively, and it is very uncertain how their residents feel about sailors coming to their lands from far away, especially Covid hotspots like the United States. This may change in time, but hurricane season is looming—three named storms already, which means it is likely to be a bumpy summer in the hurricane belt.
This voyage has always been about finding some peace and beauty and getting to know the world in a deeper way. Foisting ourselves upon wary islanders during intense weather seasons just doesn’t fit that goal. So we are heading….north! We’ll stay in the United States for the hurricane season and reassess in November. For now, starting at any moment when all of our final projects come together and we have all provisioning and life-ordering finished, we aim toward Maine. We’ll stop at National Wildlife Refuges, National Seashores and other natural places along the way, taking our time, listening to the sounds of the water and the life that is ever drawn to it.
As promised in my last blog, here is a tour of the SV Maggie May.
And here’s a special musical treat from our friends Blue Plains, apropos for this moment. They played this song at our going away party in February, just weeks before the world shut down. So glad we got to see so many shining, beautiful faces that day. We carry you with us.
If you’d like to follow Maggie May as she travels, follow this blog and check out our Maggie May tracking map.
Posted on May 22, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
Category: Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: Chesapeake Bay, circumnavigation, environment, international league of conservation photographers, krista schlyer, Maggie May, nature, no-waste, philosophy, photography, sailboat, sailing, simplicity, sustainability, sv maggie may, united states