Thieves in the Night

Had the Atlantic trade winds been westerly, we would be living in a very different world. These relentless winds blowing ever from the east facilitated the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere; they made and unmade kings.

And they make beggars of all who choose to sail against them. We become thieves in the night.

It was a moonless night when we stole away from Luperon. Despite our best intentions. Our plan had been to find a window of time under a gibbous moon when the trade winds were disrupted by an intervening weather feature—a trough, a stalled front, a tropical cyclone that had already passed us by. But this did not come to pass.

As the third-quarter moon began to wane, we had decided to settle back in and wait until the September moon began to wax toward full. But then chance brought us something we’d never hoped for: a solid 3-day forecast of 5 knot winds for most of the Southwest North Atlantic. 5 knots! This might turn into 10 knots along the north coast of Hispaniola, and if so, we could sail by day and motor-sail (hybrid of sailing-motoring) through the night. It was too good to be true, we had to take it.

For months, Bill and I had sketched out our departure from Luperon on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. If we had been headed west or north, we could have planned our next sail over a few days time. But sailing east to Samana Bay meant that we would either be zigzagging for 40+ hours, clawing our way against 25-30 knot East winds and their associated wave patterns; or we would be motoring and motor-sailing at night with almost no wind, and hiding out during the daylight hours—when the trade winds gang up with sea breezes and coastal acceleration to create one of the thorniest passages along the Thorny Path from the Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles. Bill and I calculated that over the first year of our adventure we sailed against the wind about 90 percent of the time. It was hard on the boat, hard on us. And there was really no end in sight until we reached the Virgin Islands and could turn southward.

We opted for the light-wind night passage. Upon our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we purchased the bible for this route, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant. Van Sant spent 20 years sailing the route between Florida and the north coast of South America, via the eastern Caribbean. Over that time he became one of the crustiest salts in the sailing world, a fellow who hates “No Smoking” and “No Fishing” signs almost as much as he dislikes sailing to windward. He is also likely the most knowledgeable person out there about how to safely sneak east against the trade winds.

The Gentleman’s Guide has a title that sounds like it was published in the 1950s, rather than 2012, but still, when the derivation is explained by Van Sant, it strikes me as jolly good fun,( despite the years of jolly annoyance I’ve had over sexism in the sailing world). There was an old sailing adage, something to the effect of, “A gentleman never sails to windward.” Thus a gentleman would never voyage from the United States East Coast to the Caribbean, because it cannot be done without doing some of the least gentlemanly sailing in the world. Sailing to windward is a sometimes brutal sport, sailing off the wind is a genteel pastime.

I myself, prefer genteel pastimes and while I enjoy an hour or two of beating into the wind, I am apparently a bit of a gentleman. So I was keen to learn all Van Sant had to teach. I read and reread the book, as did Bill, while we were moored in Luperon hiding out from the epic progression of tropical storms that 2021 has been.

When this rare window of calm appeared, we began to ready ourselves, scraping the barnacles off all of our bottoms; weaving through the beauraucracy regulating travel by boat within the Dominican Republic; checking, rechecking, re-rechecking the weather forecasts. Finally, at midnight, the last Monday in August, when the wind had eased for the day and we expected a meager waning moon to soon crest the eastern hilltop, Bill climbed up on the mast, hooked on the mainsail halyard, and I prepared to cast us off the mooring by the light of a spotlight.

As I walked the lines aft and made sure they were clear of our propeller, I noticed why we hadn’t yet seen the tardy moonrise–the moon was already up, but obscured by a thick fog, the mist of which rushed through the spotlight beam like a billion tiny insects. I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. Had Luperon harbor had more of a strait forward entrance this would not have been a problem, but this bay’s entrance is shaped by shallow rocks and muddy shoals that make for a narrow channel that resembles a dogleg, broken and mended badly several times. There are markers, but they are not lighted and give little hint as to their colors in the dark. I went to the bow and tried to serve as eyes for Bill as he steered and consulted the chart.

“Ok, you’ve got a green to starboard and red to port. Then there’s a…I think that’s green, god, its really hard to say.” Bill replied through the dark, “Chart says it should be green.” (For those unfamiliar with boating aids to navigation, green marks the rightmost extent of the channel, often a shoal-line, when leaving a port. You don’t want to mistake red for green.)

And so it went as we groped along in the thick dark mist at 2 knots, figuring if we hit anything, we wouldn’t hit too hard. I could see fish swimming and leaping in the beam of the spotlight, an octopus legged languidly past the bow, headed toward Luperon, barely giving us a second glance, though its hard to tell with octopi. Occasionally the light would fall on a float for a fishing net and I’d alert Bill, or cliff face some 50 feet away. Then all would fade from view as I scanned the dark for clues to the deeper water.

After 15 tense minutes and 8 bouys passed, I couldn’t see any more channel markers. Standing on the bow I also couldn’t see the chart so I asked Bill, “Are we out?”

“We’re out,” he said.

I gave the water a few more scans for fishing floats, then went back to help Bill raise the mainsail.

As Maggie May made her way through the dark world we took turns at the helm, keeping the boat on coarse and watching the lights of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete fall behind us. The winds were light, so light that there was almost no wave action aside from an easterly swell—the ocean’s long memory of a wind somewhere, sometime. But we were able to keep the mainsail filled to take some strain off the engine and save a little fuel.

I hadn’t slept well for days before our departure, so Bill took first watch while I lay in the cockpit with my head near his lap, him stroking my hair, me looking up at the moon which was now clear of mist and accompanied by Orion striding purposefully toward the southeast. At 4:00am I took over the helm, just as Canus Major was following Orion into the sky. Bill rested beside me while I watched the dark horizon, only a pale reflection of moonlight and starlight ruffling the cloak of night.

I generally have no trouble staying awake on these passages, but before long, a powerful fatigue overtook me. My eyes began to cross, exhausted from the effort of holding their lids open. I pulled at my hair to stay alert. Ate some M&Ms one…by…one. Stuck my face out of the cockpit to get some air. It was then I noticed a dark line on the horizon in front of us, drawing ever nearer. Could be a trick of light, a huge trick of light. There is no land out here…is there? A rogue wave, the size impossible to tell in the darkness? How close is it? I didn’t want to wake Bill, but didn’t trust myself to decipher danger from hallucination, “Bill, uh Bill, there’s something on the horizon.” He jumped up like a piece of toast shot out of a toaster. “Wha! Whas going on?!”

“Do you see that?” He turned and then scrambled behind the wheel and flipped the boat around faster than I have ever seen it done.

Now facing the opposite direction, we both stared at the dark line, which began to resolve itself in the water.

“I don’t think it’s anything,” Bill said slowly, not entirely sure. “It must be just a giant matte of sargassum catching the moonlight in a weird way,” he said, turning the boat back the way we were going.

“Could be the garbage belt,” I said, referring to the line of garbage that follows currents around islands, 2-5 miles offshore. The garbage can come from all over the Atlantic. And it can destroy boats.

“Yeah, could be. Let’s head closer in toward shore.”

Back at the wheel, I steered us closer to the coast and Bill sat back down and began to nestle in to his pillow. He stopped and said “Are you ok? Do you feel sharp?”

“No,” just being honest. “But the sun will be up soon. I’ll be fine.” He went back to sleep. I didn’t tell him until later that I had been hearing music in the engine noise, first violins, then an angelic choir, then death metal.

A dusty pink dawn perked me up for a while, and I watched the coast roll by, along with patch after patch of sunrise-rose tinged sargassum. I shook my fist at it for making a fool of me.

The presence of this brown floating seaweed has been increasing over the past decade, significantly. Many places in the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism dollars, have named it a public enemy and much effort now goes toward controlling it, or desperately trying. Scientists are not yet certain what is causing the expansion of the plant’s range. It is almost certainly something humans have set in motion, either through climate change or increasing nutrients in the ocean from agricultural runoff. Sargassum provides important habitat for fish, sea turtles and other ocean organisms. But it can also be a hazard when it stacks up meters thick and miles wide and animals become trapped in it. But it is a force all its own, one of those immense mysteries we have yet to unravel, but you can be sure that when we do, we ourselves will be at the bottom of it.

I mused on this idea for a while as I watched flying fish dart by the dozens in front of the boat, etching 30-foot-long criss-crossed trails of disturbance in the glassy ocean. An hour later I woke Bill, handed over the wheel, and then crashed upon the couch belowdecks.

We spent the day making good, easy progress east, while passing by some of the most notorious locations on the coast of the Dominican Republic, including Puerto Malo (bad port), Punta Mala (bad point), and Cabo Cabron, or Cape Asshole, where we would snuggle in and anchor for the night. We had thought to keep going straight to Samana, uncertain whether we could trust the weather forecast. But the ocean was so placid, and I told Bill about my hearing music in the engine’s drone, and we really wanted to see the anchorage at El Valle, reported to be gorgeous.

Our anchorage at El Valle, near Cabo Cabron

In truth it was one of the most breathtaking anchorages Maggie May has ever, or perhaps will ever, visit. We dropped the anchor in late afternoon in the small nook where Cape Asshole meets the Dominican Republic’s mainland coast. The cape and mainland rise 1000 feet in mounded hills and sheer cliff walls where palm trees by the thousands cling improbably and birds soar on thermals flowing off the hillsides.

Once we were secure, I sat in the shade and watched a pelican dive for fish along the rugged coast. He wasn’t very good at it, but was fun to watch. The bird kept at it, over and over until he got some dinner, which gave me a sense of satisfaction for him. Bill had jumped in the water to cool off and check the propeller and engine water intake, which as suspected were partially clogged and crusted with barnys and other stowaways. When he climbed out a jellyfish tried to come along on his forearm and left some nasty tentacles behind. He brushed them off, but not before they left a nasty mark, as if someone had dribbled acid along his arm.

Bill giving thumbs up to El Valle, before jellyfish encounter

We made some dinner, watched the sun settle beyond the western wall of our anchorage, then lay down, hoping to get a few hours sleep before a late night departure. My alarm went off at 3:00am and we set about prepping the boat as tree frogs sang through the deep darkness all around. I pulled up the anchor and Bill drove us northward in the night stillness along the coast of Cabo Cabron.

The Van Sant method of transiting this coast uses what is known as the night lee to creep eastward. The night lee only works well when the trade winds are relatively light, 10-15 knots, and blowing from south of east, which happens somewhat infrequently. When it does, the sea breeze that accelerates the trades in the daytime, reverses to a gentle land breeze flowing off the mountains. This land breeze blows in opposition to the trades, gentling them and even changing their angle from east to southeast or even south. To take advantage of this, one has to follow the coastline closely, sometimes frighteningly close, within a few hundred yards, where a sudden strong shift in the wind or waves to northward could prove disastrous. Because Bill and I found a window where the daytime wind was going to so very, strangely light, less than 5 knots, we didn’t need to follow Van Sant’s method precisely, and could gain some distance from the rocky coast. But because we had the luxury of calm seas, we stayed close enough to Hispaniola that we could feel the power of this land and seascape.

As we rounded Cabo Cabron light began to glow on water and sky, giving a pale silhouette to Cabo Samana, the last cape would would pass before heading south and then west into the bay of Samana. Here the water was filled with sargassum, in places it flowed with unseen currents, elsewhere it lounged about as immense islands, hundreds of feet across. Some we tried to avoid, but others we motored through. Looking back behind us, I could see a clear water trail where the boat had passed through the sea vegetation.

Cabo Samana and a stream of sargasso

But as we approached Cabo Samana a few hours later, our speed inexplicably decreased by several knots. At first we figured it was a counter current that would ease when we rounded the cape, but it only got worse. When we were down to 3.8 knots Bill got worried. We tried tacking back and forth on sail alone for an hour, but we were getting nowhere because what wind there was, came directly from our destination. So we crept along under engine power until we could round Punta Balandra, enter Samana bay and anchor behind Cayo Levantado. Once anchored I dove down and found the prop entwined in pieces of sargassum. I cleaned it off, hopped back on board, and we got underway the last few miles to the Puerto Bahia marina, having regained most of our speed.

Cabo Samana

As we tied up at the marina, the first marina we have visited for six months, we looked forward to some real rest and the first real showers we had had in a month. We’ll stay at this marina while we sort out our Dominican Republic boat permits and do a few repairs, then will head out to one of our long awaited adventures, a trip to Los Haitises National Park!

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.

Luperon, DR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destination Unknown

One year ago today Bill and I woke at dawn in Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland. As usual the swallows and osprey had beaten the sun awake, and they chattered and fretted as we prepared the boat for its biggest day, the day we would cast off lines from our home port.

Within the hour, as we prepped SV Maggie May and ourselves for departure, some of our friends arrived to bid us fair winds and safe return. We were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, but the connection to these beloved people transcended space and time from that day to this. I can still see them waving goodbye from the docks, two of our friends following us out in their canoe until we passed the jetty into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Beering Committee Chairperson Margaret Boozer-Strother (bottom) and Margaret, Valerie Theberge and Anne L’Ecuyer on the docks at our departure. (Top)

That day I felt only exhilaration. A day we had worked toward for ten+ years, with many stumbles and falls along the way, was finally here. The biggest dream of my life was happening: to sail around the world.

I look back on that day now and think: how was there no apprehension or anxiety or fear in my heart that day? I know the answer. Because I was confused about our destination. I thought “around the world” was our destination. No.

We were not headed to “around the world”. We were headed to the unknown. And we have been spectacularly successful at finding it. This is the great beauty of the unknown. It can be terrifying, but it is very easy to find. And every day you are there, you become changed by it. For Bill and I, any romantic notions we had about ourselves as intrepid explorers have been dashed. We are cowering soft creatures quavering in the power of a world so much more awesome than our minds can even conceive. We have learned to head out on an ocean passage as well prepared as we can possibly be, knowing that it will not be enough if the capriciousness of the ocean and sky do not bend in our favor. When it’s time to pull up anchor and raise the sails we breathe deeply, swallow as much of our fear as we can hold and let the rest ride the wind around the boat.

45-foot blue in the Bahamas.

And in this way we have seen a palette of colored waters defined by the brilliance of the sun and the profundity of the sea. Colors that have made us cry out and catalogue our favorites by depth, and sit and just…stare…agape. We have been able to see some of the smallest creatures under the surface of the sea, some who have never been seen by another human eye and never will and yet their lives must delight the sun and moon and water beyond any of the billions of humans that strut around upon the land as if proprietors of all.

I have learned how to steer a vessel by wind and stars. Not as a true mariner. At this point I would probably end up in Antarctica if I relied solely on my celestial navigation. But I can keep a course this way and am learning more every day.

We have seen every single sunset for 365 days running.

We have also met with grief in all its guises, ever waiting in the unknown.

Today we find ourselves in a country we never meant to visit, planning to stay for longer than we meant to be anywhere. And it is perfect. We spent the past week with a friend, Eladio Fernandez, from the Dominican Republic. But not just any friend, one who knows the animals and plants and people of this island, who is tireless in his efforts to understand and protect the natural world, and who is generous enough to share this with us. We followed Eladio for days as he checked on orchid populations along roadsides and in federal protected areas of the northern dry forests and mountain foothills. Wild orchids sprouting from trees and the earth, painting a masterpiece of beauty solely for the eyes of the animals who pollinate them. Pollinator and orchid have lived in dynamic relationship for eons, each one prodding the other to become what it must in this world. Both molded and goaded by the gods of all things, sun energy and time.

Eladio in paradise.

This long stay in the Dominican Republic offers me a chance to fulfill or at least make progress on a dream of my life, to learn Spanish. I have scrabbled by with rudimentary Spanish for a decade of working on the US-Mexico borderlands, always wanting to improve but being so single-minded with my efforts to fight border wall that I didn’t think I could spare the time to really learn the language. Now I have that time.

Our watery route to the unknown.

I have begun to see this voyage not as a single dream of sailing around the world, but as a journey of a thousand dreams. To search for orchids and anoles in the Dominican Republic, to drink from a mountain stream, to swim with sharks and spend time with seahorses, to learn the ukulele and Spanish and sailing and celestial navigation, to spend time just enjoying and experimenting with photography and writing, to become the kind of friend I would like to be to all those I love, and the partner I would wish for Bill.

Captain Updike reading about creating a sustainable economic system, while sitting in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

And maybe above all, to face a journey into the unknown with courage and inquisitiveness and an open heart for whatever may come.

The Grace of Sharks

I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)

Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.

Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.

We saw this young turtle another time, on a dinghy ride in Hawksbill Cay.

Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.

“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.

Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”

“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.

“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.

“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.

“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.

The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

Bill at the beginning of a four hour hike that turned into an 8 hour hike. A gorgeous trek over Warderick Wells where we saw endangered hutia, narrowly managed to avoid getting a poisonwood rash and learned that the word “trail” has a different meaning in the Bahamas.

It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.

I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.

And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.

I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.

The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.

I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.

I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.

This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.

I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.

Andiamo’s Gift

Fort Pierce, Florida, Birthplace of Maggie May

Everything tastes so much better when you have reached the far side of an unexpected ordeal. My coffee this morning. The new box of Walkers shortbread I just opened. The breakfast eggs and potatoes Bill made. Some 16 hours ago I thought there would be no more breakfasts on the Maggie May. Just for about 60 seconds, or maybe 10 minutes, it’s hard to gauge this precisely when each second stretches and stretches beyond the theoretical elasticity of that particular unit of time. 

Stillness in the Camache Cove marina, the night before departure in St. Augustine, Florida.

We cast off lines in St. Augustine geared up to get south of West Palm, Florida, where we planned to take a relatively short, straight line across the Gulf Stream to reach the Bahamas. But first we would sail offshore to Fort Pierce, then get back on the inland waterway to travel another day south to the Lake Worth inlet. In central Florida the space between the Gulf Stream and land narrows to almost nothing. Fort Pierce was about as far we could go in the ocean before the current would be against us. For a sailboat whose max hull speed is 7.5 knots and average speed of 4-5 knots depends entirely on the generosity of the wind, a 2-4 knot current can send you backwards. So, we planned to go to Fort Pierce offshore, then head in for the last stretch on the Intracoastal Waterway. 

When we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet, we started to head out toward the ocean but the narrow channel looked rough. We had timed it for high tide slack, but getting timing right on tide and current, especially in unfamiliar inlets, is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you get it wrong, things can go oh-so-very-wrong. And we haven’t had a lot of experience. We checked tide tables and weather and even asked for advice from a local TowBoat US captain, who said something to the effect of:  Its a weird inlet. Days I think it is going to be near impassable and it’s calm as a pond. Other days I think its going to be easy and…

Not super helpful.

We hesitated at the entrance to the inlet, then turned the boat around and went to the mooring field in town. While we were talking over our options, we saw a sailboat about our size moving toward the inlet. We decided to watch them and then hail the boat on the VHF to see if it was a reasonable time to go. I made note of the boat’s name: Andiamo Two

We followed and watched their passage through the inlet. It looked a bit rough, but they managed it and made it to the ocean side. Meanwhile another sailboat much smaller than ours was also heading out. Bill followed that boat and I hailed Andiamo Two on the VHF.  “Andiamo Two, Andiamo Two. This is Maggie May,” I waited for an answer. Repeated. No reply. 

We then noticed the smaller sailboat had thought better of the thing and turned about. In a few minutes we saw the wisdom of their choice as there were 6 foot very steep waves that began to crash over Maggie May’s nose. It was too late to turn back without risking a hit broad side and getting knocked down in that narrow space between two jagged rock jetties. The entire space between the jetties consisted of a cement mixer of steep and breaking waves. Wave after wave rushing toward us and on every hit Maggie May’s bow would bury in the chaos. As her nose came up, water would crash over the boat toward the cockpit and over our dodger and bimini (cockpit covering). Maggie May had never taken such a pounding. I just kept my eyes on the waves and on goddam Andiamo Two beyond the chaos. If they could get through…

Finally the waves began to subside a few feet and we began to breath again. We both looked a little bitterly at Andiamo Two, now with her sails happily up and heading south. 

Andiamo. We should have known from the name not to follow them,” Bill said.

“Who is the greater fool: the fool? or the fool who follows him,”  I offered, referencing Obi-Wan. “And Andiamo Two? I think we know what happened to Andiamo One.”

With that out of our systems we began raising the sails. The waves were still somewhat steep and unpleasant, and I had gotten a good head start on some seasickness, but with the sails up Maggie May handles these conditions better than under engine. I was, since we had made it through, relieved that Andiamo Two had helped make our decision for us. We might still have been deliberating on the mooring field, or have decided to stay and wait out the cold fronts, or travel the ICW all the way to West Palm, and I was eager to be out on the ocean again.

We started our watch schedule. Two hours at the helm, two hours resting. I took the first turn at the helm. 

Conditions were not what we had hoped. The forecast called for wind going east, but it stayed north/northeast. Since we were headed south, that meant we were near dead downwind much of the time with waves frequently rocking the boat side-to-side as well as hobby horsing us when the wind would slacken. The wind was also lighter than expected, 5-10 knots rather than 10-15, which makes a big difference for a boat like Maggie May when running downwind. With so little wind to fill the sails, and with the main often blocking wind from getting to the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front of the boat), the genoa would frequently flap around wildly. The waves were disrupting the angle of the wind on the sails, making the boat want to jibe wantonly. We had a preventer rigged to keep the main from jibing accidentally, but the genoa was a wild card, herking-jerking with ill timed wind and wave. At one point the unpredictable motion knocked Bill against a teak corner down below, hurting his back. Had it not been for that we would have used our new gib pole, designed to make the genoa behave in just such conditions. But it takes some effort to set up and Bill’s back together with my seasickness made us disinclined to tackle this. 

Sometimes sailing can be the most beautiful, peaceful thing. Wind, sails, hull and waves in perfect connection. The best feeling, flying over the ocean quietly, as a living part of it, rather than as a machine plowing through. 

This was not that feeling. 

When you need to go one way and the wind strongly suggests you go another, you may be able to do what you want, but wind and water will make sure you suffer for it. We had to go our way. The wind wanted us to head toward the Gulf Stream, with a cold front blowing in from the north. That is the worst possible scenario. We were not going there. So we sailed on as best we could until the wind wandered off altogether. We also needed to get where we were going at a certain time. Inlets are often challenging for boats, as evidenced by our exit from St. Augustine. We hoped to time our arrival at the Fort Pierce inlet for slack tide the next afternoon, so we wouldn’t be facing the rage of an outgoing current against a wind coming from the east, or heading into the unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Rather than toss around on the ocean until the wind returned we switched on the engine. There was an upside to this. With just an hour of daylight left, I spotted a dolphin near the bow, and then another and another. They were following the boat, surfing our bow wake. I scrambled up to watch them darting in and out of our wake, a confluence of effortless power, speed and grace. Like creatures built of nothing but water and light, chaperoning Maggie May into the night.  

When the dolphins moved on I suggested to Bill that he go rest his back, while I take back-to-back watches. He protested.  But I reminded him that he had done that for me on the last passage and it was my turn. 

I was on watch when the sun went down behind the Florida coast and shortly afterward, when Sirius and Orion became visible on the southeastern horizon. These two guided the boat through much of the night, with a third companion surfacing from the east shortly thereafter. It appeared first as a strange irregular orange pinpoint on the horizon. Earlier Bill had pointed out an endless line of cumulus clouds to the east and said, “I bet that’s the Gulf Stream.” That white band had become a dark band and within it was a strange orange glow, not very large, which I mistook for the light of a ship. Then it dawned, no, that’s the moon mostly hidden within a wall of moisture risen from the world’s largest ocean current. I felt a sharp pang in my chest. On reflection, it brings tears to my eyes. We haven’t come that far, relative to our initial goal, but every inch was hard won physically and emotionally and this sight is a dream. 

I hadn’t expected the moon to rise quite so soon and before long it had risen above the cumulus wall and was fully visible, deep orange and enormous. Just a tad waning but fully gibbous. My mind went immediately to a memory from 25 years past of my boyfriend Dan telling me about the moon illusion. We had seen a full moon rise over Tucson, Arizona, a giant of moons it seemed. He explained how its apparent size was a trick of perception because in fact the moon remains the same size and can even be measured to show it occupies the same space regardless of where it is in the sky, but our eyes cannot see it as the same size. “You can take your finger and cover the moon from view on the horizon. Then take the same finger at the same distance from your eye and cover the moon anywhere in the sky. It is the same relative size. But your eyes see something different,” he said in awe. There are many hypotheses as to what causes this illusion, but it remains somewhat mysterious, he told me. 

What a gift to have such a moon bookending memories throughout a lifetime. Dan has been gone for more than 20 years now, cancer took him from my life and the world at age 28, but he was so present with me as the moon ascended, chasing Canus Major westward across the sky. 

I almost went down and woke Bill so he could see it, twice I got up to do so, but figured he should rest. After the moon had fully risen and shrunk to half its size in my eyes, he came up the companionway stairs. 

“You can still rest, I’m doing fine,” I said. 

“I can’t sleep, I may as well be on watch.” 

So I went down to record my watch log (weather, lat/lon position, sea state, observations, etc) and then climbed into my sea berth. (This is a special bed with high sides, or in this case a lee cloth, to keep one from tumbling out as the boat rocks and rolls.) It took a while to fall asleep, and as soon as I did, it seemed, Bill was shaking my shoulder gently. I looked up at him, “My turn?” 

I gathered my stuff under a red night vision light. When I climbed up the companionway into the cockpit, it seemed like a pale blue version of daylight had descended. The moon was now nearly overhead, just to port of the mast. On the starboard side, off the bow, Sirius and Orion. This orientation guided me throughout the watch. My seasickness had now ebbed almost completely. In the moonlight I could always keep sight of the horizon. I can see why so many sailors are inclined to start a passage on a full moon. The full dark can be so disorienting until you get accustomed to it. With the moon I could see everything I needed. Maggie May continued to be bounced by the ocean swell, but we were on motor through the night so at least the sails weren’t banging and thrashing with every wave. I dislike the sound of the engine, there is something troubling and tiring about the grind and vibration of it, so we try to sail at every possible moment. But if we missed our chance to enter the Fort Pierce inlet at slack tide the following day, we risked be caught outside the inlet for days without a safe window to enter. Such was the doom of the weather forecast.

Bill and I traded watches through the night and at dawn I rose and made myself some tea before taking over. When I got on deck there was already a faint glow to the east and a strange line of shadows all along the horizon, very near. The sight took me aback. For a moment I was sure I saw an impossible dark forest stretching the length of the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun about to rise behind it. In fact, while I slept we had come to our closest approach to the Gulf Stream. 

“Wow, the Gulf Stream is so close!” 

Before long the sun had broken the cloud forest spectacularly, the clouds fracturing its piercing rays into diffuse beams of yellow and orange. For the rest of the morning Bill and I sat watch together. When we were about 2 hours from Fort Pierce, the wind began to pick up so we were able to turn the motor off and sail the last stretch. The wind continued to increase to a steady 20 knots and we arrived early to the inlet, about 2 pm, with low tide forecast to be 3:08. We needed slack water, so we turned around and headed back out for 45 minutes before turning around again and sailing back in. 

At this point we should have hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF and inquired about timing on entering the inlet. With the strengthening wind, the ocean was beginning to heave. We were torn between getting through the inlet before it got worse, or making sure the ebb current had gone fully slack. We each had read that the number one thing is not to go into an inlet when there is a current opposing wind, especially the ebb current (the current created by the tide going out). But it can be hard to judge when the current will shift in inlets, and we did not know these waters. We waited until 3:25, thinking the tidal current had surely slackened or reversed at that point since we were well past low tide. But we had seen no other boats going in the inlet, a sign it was not yet a good idea. Just then, several boats arrived and appeared to enter successfully. (Though we were still a mile out and couldn’t see the details). 

We started our approach. Another boat, which seemed to have been playing the same waiting game, was following about 10 minutes behind us.

At first it seemed all was fine. We had about 3-5 foot ocean swell behind us, but it was manageable. I took the binoculars and looked at the inlet, rough, but it didn’t seem worse than what we were in. We continued on past the outer channel markers. I looked again through the binoculars at the narrow channel between the jetties. There were waves crashing occasionally against the rocks but the conditions in the channel appeared to be about what we were experiencing, I thought. I said as much to Bill. But doubt nagged me. Who am I to say? I don’t know what it should look like through binoculars. I know I’m looking at a distortion but is the real better than the distortion or worse? And if we wait does this get even worse and so is this our chance? 

Bill interrupted my inner dispute. “Keep a lookout behind me for big waves on the stern. I can’t see them and a big one could cause a broach.”

I looked behind him and the waves were not large but one hit us on the port quarter and threw MM’s nose to port. 

“Like that one,” Bill commented. 

“That didn’t look large, but ok,” I said. 

The waves remained constant for the 8-10 minutes it took to get the second set of red and green channel markers. It was clear the ebb current was still running against us, but so far it was only a knot or two. I could see the other boat behind us at the entrance to the channel, pacing back and forth indecisively, perhaps watching to see how we fared. And then I saw the wave sets between us begin to grow measurably, 5-6 feet now and increasing speed. 

“You have a bigger one coming on,” I said to Bill. It lifted Maggie May and twisted us about. “And another one.” Bill struggled to keep the boat straight. Thankfully, just behind us there was a lull, the waves 4 feet and not as steep but also not relenting. 

“You have a little breather, no big ones just now.” 

His face was focused, intent. 

Ahead of us the sea was heaping upon itself, marching in relentless battle-formation battalions toward the beach that lay south of the port side jetty. In the channel ahead, a melee of whitewater peaks and valleys awaited. The water broke violently over land and rocks. Perhaps 50-100 people were gathered on the jetty, fishing, wind surfing and perhaps as spectating at the inlet coliseum. We were still 500-1000 yards from the worst of it. I knew it was going to be hairy based on two things: the current was now 3.5 knots against us, and the waves were mounding up in front of us in a way that made our bow look improbably small. But it wasn’t until I turned around that I realized hairy didn’t begin to cover it. The lull had given way to 7-8 foot and higher waves as far as my eyes could see. 

Every soft thing inside my ribcage lurched and then plunged into a bottomless pit. I looked at Bill, steadied my voice and said, “You’ve got some big ones coming. Not too big, but bigger.” This was a lie. They were too big, but that didn’t seem like helpful information. 

When the first one hit it twisted Maggie May 40 degrees to port while pushing the whole boat some 10-20 feet to starboard. There were buoys marking the channel and wave after wave was tossing us to starboard and toward the red buoy and the rock jetty beyond. To compensate Bill would turn the helm to port and then starboard, the big danger being that every turn put us for a moment at least partially beam-to the waves and a direct hit broadside could knock us down or pull us under. Not compensating was not an option. Timing was everything and it was going to have to be impeccable if we were going to get through this. 

I looked forward and saw massive waves, lines of them mounded higher than our decks and heads, ceaselessly breaking from the weight of themselves. This was beyond my capacity to process. I’ve never wanted to not go somewhere so much in all my life. (This is saying something, because I’ve had to go many places I really did not want to go.) But options were limited to one. There was no way out but through. Beyond the middle of the jetty the water calmed to such an extent that there were people in small skiffs fishing peacefully. But I had almost no hope at that point that we could arrive there safely. I was certain that, if not this wave then the next, would hit us just wrong, sending the SVMM hurdling out of control and that here, the very place we bought Maggie May (then known as Vilkas) 7 years ago, was where she would end. I could above all else feel my heart pounding within my chest, or stomach or somewhere, trying to pump wave upon wave of blood, trying to keep pace with the angry ocean. I looked back at the waves charging behind us, thrashing against stern and beam and I looked at Bill, fierce determination, concentration, or was it blankness? This could be the beginnings of catatonia. Or, he is in that place of focus where it’s just him and the boat and the water. I hoped for the latter. I had stopped telling him about the giants behind. It seemed redundant. 

At one point, at the crest of a wave, I saw that the sailboat behind had followed us. This answered my question about the distorted image one sees from afar. Definitely worse. I wanted to hail them and say ‘don’t do it!’ but just then I could not move. I noticed then that the waves behind us were slightly smaller. I wanted to tell Bill but I didn’t know if it would last and didn’t want to break his focus. I looked ahead to an unbroken line of wave that reminded me of a hydraulic in a class 5 rapid. We entered, and when it spit us out, we were out, just like that, the end. But thankfully not The End. 

I looked back at Bill and gave a little whimper before turning back forward as we passed a man in a small skiff serenely willing a fish to bite his line. 

At anchor in Fort Pierce, Florida

We headed to the nearest anchorage, watching the sailboat behind us navigate the inlet, ready to call the Coast Guard if need be. When the boat was safely inside it pulled past us as we were anchoring. Bill read the name on the stern aloud “Andiamo Two.”

Breakfast the next morning offered time for calm reflection. We did not arrive at Fort Pierce unprepared. We did our best to find the right information. But local knowledge is key to inlet passage, and we didn’t have all the information we needed. We know now what more we should have done, including more in-depth research into tide and current stations for this inlet and more voices giving us local insight. We won’t make the same mistakes again. But having faced the worst conditions we have yet encountered with Maggie May, we have a confidence we would not have otherwise attained. Bill has some experience at the helm in handling seas that one hopes to never have to handle. His mind went to focus, not panic. For that alone the experience was priceless. And we were never truly in danger, with so many people and the Coast Guard nearby for a rescue. But the boat and this dream was.

Less tangibly, the passage at Fort Pierce gave us this: fear, want… these emotions connect us to all living things, and to the hardships that forged us each to our own kind. Challenge, terror and survival seem to pluck a string that resonates those universal tones, making colors seem brighter, food taste tastier, each breath seem sweeter. This is what adventure gives us that a vacation does not. Not just a rest from hard work or the usual sights and sounds of life, but a passage beyond the safety and security we intentionally build around ourselves, a fortress with no visible boundaries but which makes life smaller somehow. Longer, but smaller. I’m not a person who craves danger, I do my very best to avoid it. But having lived with death or danger nearby on many occasions in life—some inadvertently sought and some that came barreling over me unawares—I understand what nearness to this threshold offers the creaturely mind. Ineffable awe for the mere fact of being alive with lungs for breathing, hands for holding a coffee cup, and taste buds that spring to life for a cookie. 

We now plan to savor this life for a while in the land of manatees before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. There is a tricky dance we will need to do in order to align the demands of Covid restrictions with the implacable force of the Gulf Stream and ill-tempered winter weather. We will wait out the worst of the cold front season in Cape Canaveral, lessening at least one of the trifecta of hurdles between us and the Exhumas. 

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. 

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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.

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.

 

Confluence Moon

The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.

White-throated sparrow

Confluence Moon

For the past week a young white-throated sparrow has been camping out in my yard. His song wakes me every morning, very, very early, before the sun has made the slightest hint of light on the eastern horizon. Before I have any intention of getting out of bed. So I just lay there, awake and listening in the darkness.

Bird reference books often translate the white-throated’s song into the phrase Oh sweet Canada, Canada, an apt description of both the phonetics and the tone of these birds. Theirs is a wistful song constructed of minor notes, as if they are always preoccupied by thoughts of some other time and place, some melancholy memory or remembrance of a long lost friend. My visitor sings throughout the day, distracting me from my work as I would rather listen to him than do just about anything else. Though…I’ve gathered he is a young bird because he seems to be practicing…and in need of practice. Sometimes he gets it right, but often he goes off key or loses pitch entirely or devolves into a whistle. He sounds like a gawky teenage boy whose voice is changing; every time he opens his mouth, what comes out may be a boy’s treble, a man’s baritone, or some crackling squawk that lies somewhere in between. His song lacks the grace and assurance of a mature songster, and he appears to be quite alone. I have seen no other white-throateds for a few days. I doubt his pitiful song has chased them off. By now, many of my winter sparrows have begun to migrate north to Canada. Perhaps he is staying behind to practice before he journeys to the breeding grounds and attempts to woo a lady. That would be a good plan. He’s not ready from what I can hear.

Yesterday I noticed the first buds on the walnut tree outside my back window. A few have already dropped into their bright green bloom, like clusters of tiny green grapes; but most are little more than bare twig with the slightest brown nubs just waiting to sprout. Within days the green thoughts percolating within these nubs will burst forth, attracting the attention of hungry squirrels, and very soon after that, my house wrens will return from points south and begin their seasonal governance of the walnut tree where for years they have raised their young. They will scold squirrels, sparrows, and humans alike if we dare to enter their defense perimeter. I once saw a napping squirrel harangued for fifteen minutes by one of these feisty birds, which are the size of a ping-pong ball and about as heavy. If a squirrel was inclined, one punch of its paw in the wren’s face would send the little ping-pong bouncing, bounce-bouncing. But squirrels rarely seem inclined toward violence, and wrens are disarmingly cute.  This particular squirrel ambled off and found another branch further from the wren house where he could nap in peace.

Life seems to move so fast in these early weeks of April, everything becomes a battle for who will live the boldest and claim the best space for sun and food and shelter. Who will project the moxy that keeps interlopers away from their homes. Who can adapt to changing climates and conditions and still manage to thrive.

A juvenile beaver on the Anacostia River in Washington DC. Castor canadensis

In search of some of this wild life I head out on my bike. On the bridge that spans the Northwest Branch on Rhode Island Avenue, I see a swallow emerge from one of the drains that empties into the river. He flies around for a spell then returns to the hole, apparently having built a nest within. It’s just a small hole, about the circumference of a baseball, about the size of a swallow, in the center of a 30-foot high concrete wall that channels the Northwest Branch toward its confluence with the Northeast Branch. I can imagine that to this little bird it resembles a cave in a high cliff wall, the kind of place his ancestors nested in, though a lot, lot noisier. And here, watching the swallows flying in and out of their concrete cave near the merging point of main branches of the Anacostia, I consider the idea of confluence: two distinct arms, branches, ideas, coming together into one fluid stream. Throughout its modern history the Anacostia has been plagued with issues of injustice and environmental degradation: the felling of ancient forests, extermination of entire species, decimation of the native people, enslavement of Africans, dumping of sewage and garbage in the river, destruction of wetlands, dumping and burning in poor neighborhoods, decades of failure to do right by this river community.

In the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights paralleled the struggle for environmental protections. Both efforts sought to right wrongs, to end realities that were degrading to all involved, and both sought to compel the machine that had been ripping the garden to shreds–breaking the foundational bonds of community apart–to abide by the dictates of an increasingly more enlightened collective mind. Both were successful, to some extent, for out of this time came the legal framework that seeks to guide our river community on ethical environmental and social paths–the Clean Water Act and Civil Rights Act. But through the tumultuous 60s these efforts generally followed their own separate trajectories. At the time of Kelvin’s death, the ties between racism, poverty, and environmental degradation remained disconnected in the national consciousness.

Then in September 1982, the confluence of environment and justice struck the nation between the eyes when a poor, largely African American community lay down in the middle of a Warren County, North Carolina, road. The residents of Afton had protested the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their community, but they were ignored. Industry and government made their plans to dump society’s toxic wastes on people they expected would have no recourse against them. As trucks filled with PCB-laden soil rolled into town, the residents, and their allies from the Civil Rights Movement, blocked the opening to the new landfill. For six weeks they protested–marching, laying down, standing up, and sitting down, saying no, no, no we won’t be dumped on. In the end they lost, and toxic waste was unloaded on their rural town.

This wasn’t the first instance of a community resisting an environmental insult. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized farm workers in the early 1960s to protest exposure to pesticides and other workplace perils in California farm fields. In 1967, African Americans in Houston picketed a city garbage dump where two children had lost their lives. In New York City, 1968, residents of Harlem protested the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.

And of course, Kenilworth residents gathered to block the entrance to Kenilworth dump in 1966. But none of these efforts had garnered nationwide attention as protests for environmental equality. Something different happened after Afton’s failed protest. One of the protesters that joined that effort, Washington D.C. resident Walter E. Fauntroy, a long-time civil rights activist, took a decisive step. Fauntroy was by that time serving as the Congressional representative for the District, and though he had no voting rights, he did have the power to request a study from the Government Accountability Office about the siting of hazardous waste facilities. That study, published in 1983, found that three out of four hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast were located in poor and largely African American communities. More studies followed around the nation, and a trend became apparent–if you were economically disadvantaged and a racial minority, you were significantly more likely to have a waste facility in your back yard. Kenilworth dump was the rule, not the exception. There were thousands of Kelvin’s nationwide living, and sometimes dying, in the waste of an indifferent world.

 

I stand on the bridge watching swallows make do with their concrete cliff home as traffic on Rhode Island Avenue flies by, and the Northwest Branch rolls ever onward toward its confluence. Near the water surface, another pipe enters into the stream, this one with a stain of grime left where polluted water has trickled out for decades. I notice someone has painted the figure of a peasant, holding his hands under the foul pipe, washing.

And out of nowhere, on an Anacostia breeze, the words of a King return to me:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Forest in the headwaters of the Anacostia River.

 

You can buy a copy of River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia at your local bookstore, online booksellers like Amazon, and you can get a signed copy in my online bookstore.