Setting Sail

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Our planned route. Just run that US East Coast line a little further north, and hopefully it won’t change much. PHOTO: Margaret Boozer-Strother

Launch is imminent. Destination flexible.

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.

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.

SV MMMotivations

Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA.

The virus has offered lots of unbidden time for reflection. Time is a coin I was yearning for, if not in this manner and upon dry land. But it is valuable and I spend a lot of it thinking about what has moved me toward SV Maggie May over a 15-year period.

Bill and I hatched the circumnavigation idea after our last big journey, a year-long road trip around the United States in 2001. We both felt that the time spent away from human-structure was important, fundamental even to our long-term health. And so we had a conversation about what our next adventure would be and when. Within minutes we had settled upon sailing the world within 5 years time. Sailing has stayed constant, the time element elongated considerably.

I wasn’t a sailor when we started thinking about this but I had always had sailing around the world somewhere in my mind. (I’ll have to try and unearth a first-cause back in my brain folds.) I was drawn to some intangible something of sailing life. I now have a more specific sense of what that something is, a sense that has become stronger over the years as the 5-year-plan stretched into 10 and 15.

Sailing, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, has a way of making you feel small and insignificant, but also powerful and eternal at the same time.

I’ve spent most of the past decade working on a project in the US-Mexico borderlands, witnessing destruction of land, decimation of wildlife and plants, desecration of culture, all of which made me feel small and powerless for years on end. This project prevented me from making faster progress toward SV Maggie May, and it also made her transform from an idea, then a desire and finally into a necessity. The borderlands kept me from the ocean, even as they pushed me toward it.

Desert cottontail near border wall, San Pedro National Riparian Corridor, Arizona.

I’ve worked on other projects, including extensive work on one of America’s most degraded rivers, trying to give voice to urban wildlife, documenting the British Petroleum oil spill. But none has been a driving motivation in my life for as long as the borderlands, and none has caused so much self doubt and undoing as fighting the border wall.

My motivations at the border grew out of a desire to make my life mean something. Not…just a desire, a compulsion, born of the greatest disappointment of my life in March 2000. I’ve written a whole book about those events, so I won’t go into it in this blog. But in essence I lost a good part of myself and afterward set out on a path to find what I had lost and find some grip on life again. I found a focal point in conservation photography, and a specific anchor on the US-Mexico border. I’ve also written about the borderlands extensively, so I won’t cover it here, except to say that by spending time with the wildlife of that landscape I felt I had made a compact with them, that I would do everything I could to be a voice for their future.

I stayed true to that commitment for more than 10 years, and over that time I went from feeling I was certain to be able to help turn things around, to feeling I had no power to even help, to feeling I could make a difference over a longer period, to feeling I had made no difference at all despite trying everything I could think of. And now, just feeling tired and destroyed, laying on a battlefield, eviscerated but somehow still living.

I’ve tried so many times to come to terms with the fact that I am small, just a person. And the forces that compel people to build walls are far beyond my scope to heal. And that the best I can hope for in any such endeavor is to open a window in people’s minds to see what they otherwise could not, something beautiful that might instill some responsibility for lives they will never encounter, but nevertheless impact gravely through direct action or passive complacency.

Kit fox in the Janos Grasslands, Chihuahua.

This is wisdom, but it requires a balance that I have always struggled to maintain. Instead I have often found myself on a roller coaster of belief in myself and my ability to make a difference, and despair over my insignificance. Teeter-totter-teeter-totter. And inevitably when outcomes are not what I have worked for, I am overwhelmed with guilt, and more acutely, grief, over what we are doing on the border, and so many other places.

My only true relief from this rollercoaster is on the Maggie May, where these two opposing forces merge peacefully. I am nothing, I am everything. Minuscule, microscopic, but connected to the very forces that make this world and everything in it. Wind, sun, water.

Mostly, I’m just alive.

***

Bill just came to tell me our Maggie May contractors called.  The last of our major boat projects is finished.

I’m coming home Maggie May.

 

COVID Dreams

It’s a COVID miracle. Maggie May’s bottom is finished.

 

In some universe, the Sailing Vessel Maggie May was launched by now. Not here.

On February 8, our friends and neighbors gathered  at Red Dirt Studios in Mount Rainier, Maryland, to bid us farewell. I’ve never been married, but I imagine this is what one’s wedding would feel like, an overwhelming feeling of love at a moment of great transition. Friends from our 20 years in the Washington DC area, many we hadn’t seen in more than a decade, and some family making surprise journeys from far away places, came together for chili, home-brew and music and to wish us well on this journey.

Our dear friends in the arts community of Mount Rainier also organized a fundraiser around the party event, gathering enough money to buy us a life raft–in hopes we come back safe even if the Maggie May does not. Thank you friends, we’ll carry your love and goodwill around the world with us…if by great fortune we set foot on a boat, in the water, ever.

Captain Bill with our new life raft. Our friends and family donated the funds to buy this important piece of survival equipment. One of our good friends named the raft.

A few weeks after the party, we moved out of our house, which we have rented for the next two years to a delightful young couple Cassandra and Mark and their dog Colby. We moved in with our friends Dave and Kendra on March 1. The plan was to be here for a few weeks until the boat was finished.

Photo by: Margaret Boozer-Strother

Enter COVID.

It was about a week after we moved that the coronavirus started gaining attention in the media. About a week after that its official name was changed to COVID-19 and Maryland was on lockdown. Dave and Kendra had to start working from home. Bill and I could no longer go work on the boat. Shipments of important boat components languished in warehouses. And our contractors efforts slowed to a painful crawl…along with everything else. The boat project, which was supposed to take 2 months, is going on 5.

Our window to escape the hurricane belt before the storm season begins is winnowing. Our years of planning and organizing our lives around this idea, locked in limbo.

A part of my mind says well boohoo, you can’t get on your sailboat and travel the world chasing a dream. Krista, your problems are ridiculous in the scope of what’s happening right now. The truth of this is indisputable. Yet here I am, feeling trapped and helpless.

The deck is still in disarray, but this is the last major project before Maggie May can be launched.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to practice patience, fighting with despair, feeling guilty about my discontent. I should be grateful at this time of unimagined uncertainty and grief, grateful that I am healthy, have shelter and food, a healthy family and friends and all of the things that so many of us either lack or take for granted. Plain and simple I should feel grateful. But should doesn’t always work in a stubborn mind. And so I look for reasons why I can’t let go. Why I can’t just be content. And I know, pretty quickly or at least in moments of clarity…it’s because I feel this dream slipping away from me. I’ve fought so hard to keep us on track despite so many pitfalls and derailments, and I’m starting to lose faith. Unbidden by me, my psyche returns to previous battles, where I tried so hard to make something happen or not-happen, something much more grave and important, and despite every effort I failed and in the end swallowed a living mass of acrid loss and self-doubt. The mass has knife-edges and it lives somewhere in my stomach, forever reopening wounds of inadequacy, hopelessness and grief.

This boat trip is in part geared toward dealing with that stomach-mass, blunting its hard edges by accepting my failures; Maggie May is transport toward healing some wounds. And within this overwhelming viral cloud, what I’m feeling is a malevolent echo, encouraging me to believe that this too will end in failure. The aperture through which I have envisioned this journey for more than a decade, narrows to the point that any possible success seems far more distant than it actually may be.

Working on some boat carpentry while Maggie May is self-isolating in the shop. This piece will be part of a hatch frame.

In fact, it may be quite close.  As of last Friday, the biggest part of the project, the complete redo of Maggie May’s hull is finished. The entire boat bottom was blasted off down to the bare fiberglass; new fiberglass and epoxy was applied; and a new kind of long-lasting, less-toxic bottom paint covered all.

The rest of the boat project, which over the past 7 years has included a list of no less than 1000 items, has narrowed to about 20, most of which Bill and I will do. The one holdup is the redo of the previously redone decks, the lingering bane of Vilkas. But we are expecting to see this finished this week, at which point the boat can go outside, get her mast back on, and get in the water as soon as our marina gets an opening in a backlog of boat launches.

We’re so close, closer than we’ve ever been. But given all the stumbling blocks that have arisen and the incredible uncertainty of this moment in time, I don’t think I can muster any excitement until Maggie May is placed back in the water where she belongs.

 

SV Maggie May: The final countdown

Sailing around the world was a 5-year-plan launched in 2002. It’s now 2020 and we still haven’t left. How did 5 years stretch into 18 you ask? Well let me try to tell you in one blog post.

If you are rich you can buy a new boat, maybe even hire a captain and be ready to launch in a year or two. If you grow up eating government cheese things are a little more complex. This was factor one in the long timeline.

FACTOR 2 The Original Maggie May, the boat’s namesake, might have been able to make an around the world sailing voyage in her youth…she was a spry pup who climbed trees and scaled rocks like a mountain goat. But as she got older she developed arthritis and other ailments and by 2007 (our theoretical departure date) she was almost 10 years old. We didn’t want to put her through life on the boat, and we wanted to enjoy her golden years.

FACTOR 3 There was another important reason. Bill and I are both very devoted to our work. Bill crafted government policy that would help the city of Washington DC become more sustainable and climate responsible. I worked as a photographer and writer to engage the American public in wildlife conservation and ecological protection, including a 10-year+  effort to stop the construction of border wall on the US-Mexico border. While Maggie was healthy, we were content working for environmental conservation.

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Maggie died in December 2012. This was a devastating loss for us. Our triumvirate was broken and in some ways she was the best of us. So we found a new role for her, as inspiration for a dream.

We had long been setting the stage for the sailing trip on the sidelines of regular life. In 2009, we moved into a very small, very cheap and unloved house and rented out our previous house, a 1,250 square foot bungalow. We are pretty good at living simply and cheaply and therefore we save a good amount of what we make. So in 2013 we were ready. We sold our rental house and bought a sailboat. Everything was finally coming together nicely. We would be on our way in a year or two.

We bought Vilkas, the werewolf, in Florida and sailed her up to the Chesapeake Bay in Summer 2013. Our boat search had spanned many years and the werewolf seemed to have the right balance of interior space, hefty build, and care by previous owners, as well as some extras that would be very useful on the trip: life raft, generator, water maker, wind generator, dingy with motor, sails and backups, a relatively new diesel inboard, and a totally redone hull (due to a problem with osmotic blisters). The only problem we would need to address would be the decks, which were original and a bit of a mess, but an easy fix for about $10,000.

What we didn’t know was that the full moon had not yet risen.

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Bringing our new bundle of joy, Vilkas, up from Florida.

I was more excited than I’ve been most of my adult life. Bill was immediately feeling buyer’s remorse and less than excited. There was immediate conflict due to these contrary emotions. And then the moon came out and Vilkas bared her teeth. The only thing in the list of positives that turned out to be positive, so far, was the diesel engine. Everything else was either broken or breaking and the deck repair turned out to cost 10X our boat broker’s estimate. A year or two stretched into 5 as we fixed all the problems and drained our hard-earned savings, but in fall of 2019 we were ready to go. Vilkas had been transformed, or so we thought.

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The first round of repairs for Vilkas

We pulled Maggie May, (newly named but not yet christened), for one last bottom paint job before our scheduled launched in November. When first we set eyes on her,  Bill immediately noticed hundreds of puffy spots on the bottom of the hull. His face turned grey.

“If this is what I think it is, we’re done. The trip is over,” he told me.

Vice on heart. Shake head. Move forward.

I’m usually the optimistic one in boat-related matters so I proceeded to inspect the hull. I poked one of the spots and an oily liquid poured out. I smelled it… vinegar. Weird.

I took out my phone hoping some quick research would throw us a lifeline. Instead, the Google had  dire news about the search terms puffy spots + sailboat + vinegar smell. You have osmotic blisters, aka boat chicken pox, the Google declared in no uncertain terms. And you can expect the cost of repair to be $20-$30K.

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Vilkas is officially transformed into Maggie May

My role over the past 15 years had been to stay positive when Bill was losing faith in the dream. But I couldn’t figure out how to spin this in any way that allowed the trip to continue. What had been more than a decade and a half of planning, and had consumed most of our life savings; what had sustained me through years of heart-rending documentation of environmental destruction, this dream, was going to dissolve into nothing.

Nausea set in so we headed to Burger King, figuring it couldn’t get any worse. We sat down to something like food, and silence.

My mind was mostly blank, but as ever doing some background calculations about what could be done. We had set aside some funds for the trip and some savings to get us by when we returned, until Bill could get a job again. But we had exhausted our budget for fixing the boat. Any further expenditures could put us in a risky position upon our return. We had promised we wouldn’t spend that cushion. And based on our research we would need at least $15K a year while we were sailing. I planned to keep working, writing stories for magazines, licensing photos, but even in a good year I am not our primary earner. I was running numbers when all the sudden a thought occurred to me. We have to fix the boat. 

Even if we could no longer afford to take the trip, we would have to fix the boat in order to sell it and return to our regularly scheduled lives. No one was going to buy a boat with blisters. And we had to fix it right, because the people who repaired this exact problem before we bought it, did not do what was needed for the boat to be permanently fixed. I told Bill as much.

“We have to fix it,” I said. “How about we start there and then later make a decision about whether we can still go?”

Bill was too heartbroken to say much, but he agreed we would figure out the cost of fixing it, and let this new catastrophe percolate for a while.

We ate our fries.

The initial reports from Bill’s research were grim, with estimates at or well above what we had expected. But then he talked to a contractor who said they could do it for less. There was a chance if we could save some money on fixing this, we could still go on the trip, and just eat into our yearly budget and our cushion.

But the issue wasn’t just cost, it was also time. The process of fixing boat blisters right took months. And there was no way it would be done by November 2019 when we planned to depart. Sailing out of the Chesapeake in January can be challenging or impossible but sometimes you get a window in February. This was the best we could hope for. And there was a moment we just looked at each other and said, “This is our dream. We can’t give up on it.”

So we made arrangements to get the boat to the shop in December, the first available option the contractor had. December rolled around and we set everything up…but the machine that would remove Maggie May’s mast so she could fit in the shop was broken, for the whole month of December and half of January.

Finally in January Maggie May was placed in the shop and the work started. We began a two month countdown to our departure. We would finally, after more than 15 years of planning, launch our sailing circumnavigation on or around March 15, 2020.

Enter the Coronavirus.