Freelance working can be tricky. It comes suddenly after periods of calm, and it forces to reshuffle my schedule to fit jobs and other life commitments. The month of February looked already busy enough for us when Maria contacted me asking if I was available to help her with two charters aboard Joana. We had to make a total revolution to our plans, but the opportunity was too good to let it pass.
I’ve been introduced to Maria and Cathy, owners of Joana, by Kirk, a friend of a friend who I briefly met in Georgia and then finally again in Puerto Lindo. At the bar of Linton Bay Marina, getting to know each other, they told me that it was good that I charter experience as they could use some help on their ship Joana, a beautiful 72ft gaff rigged steel yawl. Of course, that help could be needed in a non specified time in the future, as life afloat is all but easy to plan.
I had admired the lines of this ship from afar when she dropped the hook in Linton Bay anchorage, particularly liking the low freeboard of the steel hull, the classic rigging and the general rugged appearance. In a world of mass produced, performance-oriented plastic boxes, Joana stands out like a rare gem. If you don’t trust my words, check out some pictures of Joana on their website.
The job offer had to be fit into an ambitious plan, with the imminent Kate’s parents visit to Panama, our plan to haul out Tranquility on the hard for bottom paint and yard work, and an again postponed visit to Italy. I remember having meeting after meeting with Kate trying to fit everything in the short month of February, not without stress. What we would do with our boat and our cat?
Eventually we found a solution: I would spend few days in Panama City with Bernie Sr. and Sue and Kate after we made arrangements with our Guna friends and local authorities in Islas Robeson, to leave Tranquillity safely anchored and Beta earning his board on shore, helping make a Guna house pest free. Then, I would travel back to Guna Yala and start working on Joana.
I joined Maria aboard her ship in Esnasdup, a quiet anchorage in the vicinity of Green Island. In Guna Yala there are more than 300 islands and little cays, all with both local and Spanish names, and Attilio, the lancha driver, had a little hesitation when I told him where I needed to be dropped off. Lanchas are the taxi-boats that move people, goods and everything else from the arrival point of the only road in the ports of Cartì to the numerous islands. The reshuffling of our plans involved me taking many lanchas, from and to the port.
I could only arrive to Joana one day before the beginning of the charter so I needed a crash course: anchoring, sailing maneuvers, food and other supply stowage. Maria is very patient, and gave me a good tour and tutorial of my duties in the fore deck area, where my main actions would take place. As we left for our sailing training, she showed me how to set the gaff rigged mainsail, the cutter (that’s what she calls what I call the staysail) and the Jib.
Setting Joana under full canvas requires quite some sweat and fine technique compare to what I am used on Tranquility. By owners’ choice the running rigging has no mechanical help other than the purchase system of hand carved blocks. Without winches, everything has to happen in a specific moment, with a thoughtful planning ahead and sometimes with Maria leaving the helm for few moments to give a hand forward.
It all looks like a little ballet, as one of Joana’s guest once noticed, a sequence that I practiced everyday as we moved from one anchorage to the other. By the end of the trip I felt very at ease on the job, also learning few tricks of the trade that could be definitely used elsewhere.
Joana’s route for these two trips was in the area between Salardup and Rio Diablo. This chain of more than 30 islands stretches a mere 15 nautical miles but offer countless opportunities for snorkeling, laying on the beaches of uninhabited cays and fishing, all in the protection of coral reefs that create flat and crystal clear waters, a very relaxing and comfortable place to be even when the trade winds pick up to 30 knots as it happens for few days at the time during the dry season.
In the galley there was another kind of ballet happening. There was always activity down below, even under way, to make sure our guests received everything they need in therm of meals, snacks and drinks . During the charters we were blessed with good fishing, and we could put on the table a selection of seafood and fish, from lobsters and crabs, to red snappers, Spanish mackerels and conch. Maria and I served the catch of the day in many different ways, including sashimi, sushi, ceviche, grilled baked and steamed dishes.
In Green Island I had a particularly prolific fishing night, with four good sized red snappers brought on board. Also, we had the opportunity to spot the infamous two meter long crocodile that lives in the area, and that twice came alongside Joana before being scared away by our enthusiasms/excitement. Fishing is good where crocodiles live!
It is always a pleasure to see happiness on the guests’ face while they enjoy sailing in this environment. We surely do our best to help realize their goals and accommodate their needs, but the Guna Yala islands do us the biggest favor, as they naturally make one feel comfortable and surrounded by pleasurable experiences. Maybe it’s not a case that I keep coming back here, to absorb the good energy that are so plentiful in this corner of the World.
February is not ended yet and a new chapter awaits me. Work commitments will keep Kate here in Panama this time, while I will solo travel to Italy for a brief visit to family and friends. As I stated before, life on a boat is not as easy as one may think, compromise and complicated life arrangements are mandatory.
The last item on the list will be the yard period, that we hope to start around mid March. Tranquility needs some attention after being basically trouble free for a long time. Fatigue is unsparing at sea.
Impossible at the moment to make any further plans.
On Tranquility I often indulge in the luxury of early morning reading and scribbling over coffee and the quiet sound of wavelets lapping over the sides, with Beta running and jumping around for his morning workout and Kate beside me laying still in her slumber.This morning it was windier than usual and I was reading The Castle by Franz Kafka with the soundtrack of the rig whistling.
There are books that I constantly re-read because they are like labyrinths, offering every time a fresh point of view and a chance for meditative inquiry. The Castle, an incomplete novel published postumous by Kafka’s friend Alex Brod, is one of those.
The twisted snow-covered roads of this imaginary place and the grotesque behavior of the community that inhabits it make this book a literary puzzle, that sits in my memory as a real place that I like to go back to and visit, and the trip is never the same.
The following passage of the book, never really struck me as particularly poignant before, but this morning, during the umpteenth visit to the castle, I could not help but transcribe it in my notepad, amazed by what I found in it for the first time:
“And they indeed were walking on, but K. didn’t know where they were going he could make out nothing, and did not even know whether they had passed the church yet. The difficulty he had in simply walking meant that he could not command his thoughts. Instead of remaining fixed on his goal, they became confused. Images of his home kept coming back to him, and memory of it filled his mind.There was a church in the main square there too, partly surrounded by an old graveyard, which in turn was surrounded by a high wall. Only a few boys had ever climbed that wall, and K. had so far failed to do so. It was no curiosity that made them want to climb it, the graveyard had no secrets for them, and they had often gone into it through the little wrought-iron gates it was just that they wanted to conquer that smooth, high wall. Then one morning -the quiet, empty square was flooded with light when had K. ever seen it like that before or since?- he succeeded surprisingly easily. He climbed the wall at the first attempt, at a place where he had often failed to get any further before, with a small flag clenched between his teeth. Little stones crumbled and rolled away below him as he reached the top. He rammed the flag into the wall, it flapped in the wind, he looked down and all around him, glancing back over his shoulder at the crosses sunk in the ground. Here and now he was greater than anyone. Then, by chance, the schoolteacher came by and, with an angry look, made K. get down from the wall. As he jumped he hurt his knee, and it was only with some difficulty that he got home, but still he had been on top of the wall, and the sense of victory seemed to him, at the time, something to cling to all his life. It had not been entirely a foolish idea, for now, on this snowy night many years later, it came to his aid as he walked on, holding Barnabas arm.”
The foolish goal that K. achieved it was not only a mere itch that needed a scratch, but a pillar of his life, something he finds himself going back to in a moment of difficulty, following his confused thoughts during the hard walk in the snow. It was a small insignificant victory, but it was important to him, and the teacher’s blame and the hurtful consequence of K.’s act did not cancel the emotion of feeling greater than anyone in the present moment, the sense of victory over an ordinary desire, that proves to be useful many years later.
This passage reminded me of the importance of such foolish events in life, and that what we consider lacking good sense or judgement, may be exactly what we need. Similarly, I often ask myself about the sense of what I am doing afloat on the ocean in this small boat, if what I am doing is anything but a foolish act.
I try to rationalize and find excuses, motivations, sometimes to answer other people’s curiosity, sometimes for my own dead reckoning. The easiest, maybe the only true answer is that this is what I want to do, and I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do it. Why not?
Keeping up on an unscripted path is a difficult thing, as goals and specific objectives may fade into the background and the everyday happenings are hard to put in perspective. I look around me to find outside affirmations that I am on the right path, to shake off doubts and fears.
Don’t we all struggle, one way or the other, to find a way in life? How can we understand if our inner voice is telling us the truth? How do we learn to trust ourselves when it’s so reassuring to listen and follow other people’s opinion?
Maybe foolish, sometimes unimportant acts can be what we truly need to walk on.
An example of this intrinsically human condition came from a tall, white-bearded guy that we once met over soft drinks in front of a gas station.
Kris Larsen struck me as an absolutely eccentric and resourceful voyager, and only after he was long gone, sailing his way back to Australia, I found out that he was not just an old sailor with rather interesting stories, but also a terrific writer, fine artist and craftsman.
Serendipity introduced me to Kris for the second time during a recent vietnamese dinner with sailing voyager, author and friend James Baldwin. He had also met him long ago in Madagascar during one of his circumnavigations, and shared more interesting stories about this unique human being.
Later, reading James’ article, I found this beautiful passage of his book Bicycle Dreaming, a tale of his trip across the Australian outback on Kracken, a recumbent bike he assembled out of scrap parts:
This whole ride from Darwin had no meaning for anyone besides myself. I achieved nothing worthy, yet it filled me with pride. It’s a shame that these days you can’t just put on your shoes and go on an expedition any more. It has to have a socially relevant goal, it has to be in support of some charity, dedicated to some noble cause, well connected, word has to spread out, blog, website and school curriculum informed regularly by satellite phone, sponsors roped in. Why can’t you just stand up and say: ‘I am going because I feel like it. Because I’ve been dreaming of it for years?
I smile when I read this passage, as I also am trying to do my thing, run my own race, and even if sometimes it does not make any sense, I am confident that maybe one day, some of its foolish episodes, its unique lessons will come to aid in the moment of need or give unexpected inspiration. Or not.
In any case, I am pretty sure I will remember it as a sweet ride.
I am writing to wish you happy and wonderful New Year’s, and to give a little recap about our position, on the planet and perhaps in life.
I apologize for the long absence from writing, the transition from traveling to a semi-stasis in Panama waters was not particularly fertile for keeping up with this blog. I am hoping that something finally switched with this New Year transition. After all there is so much to tell, even if we moved so little!
At the moment we are in wonderful Kuna Yala, an autonomous indigenous region within Panama’s borders made of hundreds of tiny islands, encrusted by big sections of coral reefs teeming with marine life. It is definitely one of the nicest places I have ever sailed to (let’s say it, the best). If you don’t know anything about it I suggest you check out this Facebook Group I administer. If you are on of the lucky people who is not on Facebook, stay tuned on this blog for some pictures and an extensive description when I will encounter a broadband internet.
Panama is becoming a mid-term stop, a place where we are hoping to gather resources and finances for the next chapter of our voyage. Kate here is able to continue and improve her new career of scientific papers editor, but I struggled to find reliable sources of income. I had so many offers yet neither of those resulted in something concrete and long term. Right now I am freelancing as a chef for a Turkish Gulet named Jubilee, and keeping an eye out for other gigs on charter boats.
We are aware of the threat that this country pose on voyagers: calm waters and favorable weather all year round, modern infrastructure and services still with a laid back culture, and all for a reasonable price tag. It’s not a coincidence that this place is referred to as the elephant graveyard, as many vessels end up piling up here to finish their lives.
We are also aware that too much comfort could kill our voyaging desire, and we really want to get back underway and finally cross the tiny stretch of land that separates us from the Pacific Ocean, where a bounty of destinations awaits.
Our electric motor is not the best solution for a Canal crossing, as the vessel is required to keep a minimum speed of 5knots at all times during the transit. This is way too fast for our means, and we will have to get creative about that, either strapping an outboard engine to our transom, or looking for friendly bigger yachts that could give us a tow. The trucking alternative across the isthmus we were looking for does not seem to be viable, but we will keep asking.
Getting to the other side of Panama would be just one of the steps that allow us to continue voyaging, although probably the most important. Once there we would assess our best opportunity to set sail, depending on the conjunction between time of the year and finances. Luckily the Pacific side of Panama offers plenty of opportunities for cruising destinations, so in case of a prolonged wait we could enjoy more exploration of places like Coiba, Las Perlas Islands, and other great destinations.
We are trying to keep some dangerous habits in check. For example, we decided not to answer the call of the sirens of boat work, and get back to a total refit again. It is a tempting thought because the more we learn how it is to live and sail on Tranquility the more we like to design and make improvements. There is a bit of work scheduled for early 2018, including a haul out and bottom paint, But nothing revolutionary. It would be also important to give Tranquility a thorough check before setting sail for long ocean passages. After all, Tranquility is a good enough vessel as it is.
We are developing a plan to leave Panama. Even if it is still under construction, it’s a first step to start 2018 with a purpose. Rest assured that I will keep you on the loop of further developments. In the meanwhile, I wish you and your family and friends joy and tranquility for New Year, and hope for a bright future.
After an exciting beginning, long term cruising can become a fight for financial survival.
During some time spent cruising I observed some specific behaviors and strategies that people adopt to fuel the sailing dream.
I decided to classify this economical behaviors drawing 7 cruising types. Any attempt to classify individuals in typologies always carry the risk of oversimplification and generalization. In real life cruisers often adopt a cross-pollination approach, suitable case by case.
I originally found 5 categories that I think are classic ones, but then I felt the need to add 2 more, because times are changing, and, believe it or not, we are evolving.
Here are 7 types of cruisers divided into different economical behavior:
1. Harbor rats
A group of very dedicated and skilled cruisers, with budget limitations that enhances creative thinking. I saw some of them floating the hull above the waterline using truck tyre tubes and performing other crazy low cost, low-tech solutions. Their boats are put together with a collection of mad max type dumpster dived items. They soon get skilled enough to perform sketchy boat work for clueless and/or broken sailors that pay in boat parts, favors like car rides, boat sitting or food and shelter. They avoid sailing to countries with expensive cruising fees. If posssible they get to the point of deceiving officials by forging clearance papers themselves if that helps them save some bucks.
2. Comfy retired or semi retired folks
Easy spotted by their complex and heavy as hell stern arches and bimini structures that costed not only money but human lives during the fabrication. They usually live off their savings and or investments with different degrees of luxury depending on the case, but generally speaking on the lower end which translates in a very good ability to keep track of expenses. They try to save money nitpicking on contractors’ work and equipment, on food vendors and taxis and they may never leave the comfort of the harbor without a spare alternator but they don’t buy an available one because it’s more expensive than “back home”. They say they will pick up one next time they fly back, which is entirely dependent on the house or financial market returns. Due to all the crap on deck and above, their boats sail poorly and with great effort until they settle, usually in a part of the world which is cheap. Internet, chinese restaurants and booze are the expenses they struggle to keep in check.
3. World charter businessmen/women
They buy a big boat thinking that it will pay itself doing off-the-beaten-track charters and in general having paying guests. They settle in a country with loose regulations and tropical features but with good enough infrastructure for the guests to be able to reach the boat and for them to enjoy their vices with a lower price tag. As there are not many places like this around they compete with other boats over customers. This drives the price down and so the returns. Costs keep raising as they have to keep the boat in good shape because otherwise guests are going to leave bad reviews on the internet. Being in places where locals paddle dugout canoes and can only sell you fish and coconuts, where shipping is either unknown or crazy slow and expensive, and if you need a mechanic you need yo fly one in does not help with boat upkeep. Logistic hassles, booking fever and, sometimes terrible guests totally undermine the healthy lifestyle they were longing for, while their boats fall apart.
These are the pioneers of the internet revolution, people with a real job they could do anywhere they can be connected, even on a boat. I’ve met editors, skype english teachers, cruising consultants (I know this should not be a “real job”) coders and other tech people, that enjoy few hours of work per day on a computer in exchange of money. Their focus is to keep the infrastructure going, making sure the machines stay out of salt water or anchoring closer to the cell tower even if there the swell is good enough for surfing. Marinas and cruising destinations are chosen and rated by the internet signal quality and other close by amenities like internet cafes and libraries. They sail to nicer places only during weekends or holidays. Usually before any long passage there is a deadline panic that obstuct the passage planning routine. Finally, after the second day on passage they dream about quitting their job and find a different source of income.
5. Part-time cruisers
They are experts in packing/ unpacking the boat for long term storage, and they are a tough cookie for any yard manager. Haul out fees and collaterals are the main expense on their books, together with airfare and unnecessary compulsive shopping items, boat parts and souvenirs that fill the extra check-in bags each way. They are usually able to ratch up quite a sum during their work period that they then spend almost instantly in the first weeks of cruising. By the end of the sailing period they look a lot like the Harbor Rat type, sometimes having to borrow money to get back to work.
6. Girls and dudes with patreon accounts
These new group started to emerge when people decided that Youtube was the perfect place to quench their sailing thirst. This stalking platform is the new stage for the soap operas of the sea, with the most succesful one that even provide income for the creators. The basic idea here is that a group of “angels” (or patrons) pay upfront for a product that involve a lot of work and investment and that once released, anybody else can watch for free on youtube. So far I haven’t met many of those in the real world, just a couple, and not the superstars. Because the videos were not paying off they were also resorting to other forms of hustle to keep the finance in check. The internet makes it a bigger phenomenon than it is in real life and yet, because homo sapiens is mainly here to mimic other homo sapiens, the number of people who attempt this way is increasing.They say commercial fishermen destroy the oceans, but I think people buying and eating fish are the real culprits. Same with the vlogging: blaming the hardworking bluecollars of the camera for our inevitable loss of intelligence and taste is a form of hypocrisy. The odds for financial solvency using this approach seem pretty slim, as at the moment it pays off only to the few who can gather enough views and convince donors to pay for their videos. This challenge sometimes requires to the ones a cost in hours of work and focus on their public image that hinders a little bit the idea of traveling for fun, and to take themselves not too seriously.
7. Grifters and visionaries
It takes guts to be in this group. We are looking at a very small number of individuals that are willing to sail no matter what. To conquer donors and enablers they need a higher purpose or challenge and to look as much as possible as clueless trainwrecks doomed to fail. Stubborness and willingness to go down to the lowest possible points of human dignity seem to help as well. This is only for the very motivated ones, like Rimas and very few others. The good thing is that you don’t have to put any money in it.
Do cruisers out there recognize other type of economical behavior? If so, please let me know in the comments.
Sailing happened to me. It was never something I was inclined to, not even interested. My first love has always been the mountains.
In Italy sailing is thought to be an activity for rich people. It is of course a prejudice, as there are ways to make it more affordable, but on average the costs are pretty high. I too fell into the power of generalization and thought that sailing was an activity exclusive to a group of snobby rich obnoxious people. Of course I was not part of this group and I preferred the cheap and harsh alpine terrain, where I hiked and sometimes skied.
The first time I step on a sailing boat it was ten years ago, aboard Bicho, a Beneteau 51 designed by German Frers, that a friend of mine recently purchased to run charters in Venezuela. Bicho was big, comfortable, elegant, and she was waiting for us on a dock in Higuerote, to take us on a cruise of Los Roques. The owner invited me and other friends to celebrate the recent purchase and the beginning of the charter activities.
We had an overnight sail offshore in the Caribbean Sea, which during peak season of the trade winds has some serious waves, and you feel them all when they hit you on your beam.
I slept in the forward cabin, rolling left and right and sometimes finding myself in midair. Because I was not sick as other of the passengers, I had to keep the helm for a little bit, after receiving vague instructions on how to steer a course following the compass.
Once in the protection of the islands we enjoyed a week of island hopping, sailing through flat and crystal clear waters powered by a steady breeze, and surrounded by a wonderful scenario. Sitting on the rail on the windward side of the boat I let my legs dangle off the side while keeping my sight on the liquid horizon, enjoying a sensation of peace that I grew accustomed to during these years, and yet still so hard to describe.
Back to Good Old Europe, in the gray and busy Pianura Padana, I resumed my job of building and delivering courses for employees and manager of various companies, helping them navigate through the treacherous waters of corporate life.
A year passed by, and I enjoyed the mountains more than the ocean. I realized my dream to take a solo trip to India and explore the Himalayan regions of Kashmir and Ladakh. I also decided to move from Milan to Turin and that put me even closer to the Alps.
Until one day, serendipitously, I left it all behind and moved to sea level, again in Los Roques, where I started a new professional path that I had never thought could be suited for me.
It was only after months there that I realized how those islands were nothing but a series of very high submarine mountains, with their peaks piercing the surface of the ocean, providing beautiful beaches and habitat for marine life and humans engaged in tourism. Once again I could feel that my attraction to mountain peaks
And yet in my mind I was no sailor. I still thought of myself as a manager running a business, until one day during a period of shipyard refit for Bicho in Curaçao, I met a person that challenged this view and planted a seed that would change my life.
I was living on a gutted charter boat in the Tropical heat. Only one cabin, where I slept and kept my belongings, was left untouched. Everything else was dismantled and under reconstruction, covered in dust and grease, and littered with tools and building materials. The project was very ambitious and I was doing my best to keep it underway while the chaos was unraveling around me.
In that shipyard I met a young guy who was doing the same thing, only on a smaller boat. He was fit, fun to be around and hard working, and he was outfitting his own boat to sail across the pacific to Polynesia, where he had a seasonal job as crew of a luxury Motor Yacht.
We were the two youngest people living in the yard and we quickly bonded. He had a temper and was very energetic, I am low key and relaxed, so we found a natural way to coexist. For me he was an encyclopedia of boat work and I couldn’t restrain myself from asking him about anything sailing related and observing his work.
He would also share his sea stories with me, on how he sailed that old leaky wooden racing boat, bought sight unseen, straight from Nova Scotia to Saint Martin during the winter, with a couple of backpackers that had never sailed before, or how once he got dismasted in the Caribbean Sea and decided to decline rescue and instead drifted back from where he started to fix his mast and sail again.
His stories were eye opening for a rookie like me that thought boats only meant business and plummeting bills. He also debunked some myths about sailing that I had taken as axioms, first and more important that you need a big boat to sail across oceans.
I immediately identified with him. He was a young guy enjoying life on a boat on the cheap, and this was a revolutionary idea for me. Beside his long sailing experience, we were not so different.
After few months of hard work in the yard and long night talks he set off solo from Curaçao, to his destiny across the ocean, but before leaving, he gave me a suggestion. He told me that Back in Los Roques there was a good old boat, perfect for me. It was a Rival 32 that his friend was selling for 10.000$. When I got back to Los Roques I quickly found the boat. It was in need of a bit of TLC but that was not so important as visions of a new life afloat were flooding my daydreaming.
There was another option, which I also took from his personal example, that had a similar price tag: to take a professional license and make sailing my new career.
I chose the second option, because I knew that eventually another boat would show up at the right time and in the right place, and I would be better prepared to take on the challenge.
Despite the complicated jargon and the many moving parts involved in sailing, it’s no rocket science, as some may say, and with enough practice and dedication it is possible to quickly become competent in using the wind to move through water, to navigate across oceans and near shore and to keep your vessel in good working order. However very few people seem to be out there enjoying the cruising lifestyle. That stands true even if today we benefit from a lower knowledge barrier than 30 or more years ago.
“Se fosse facile, lo farebbero tutti” says Max, a good friend of mine,talking about sailing and cruising. In English it sounds more or less like this: “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it”. I have been working on sailboats for 8 years now, but only after three years sailing on my own boat I am starting to realize what Max’s words really mean.
Despite what people who push their books, websites and youtube channels tell you, it is not for everybody. Like anything else, sailing and cruising has a cost. What I didn’t know is that is not merely a financial one. It is more complicated than that.
Sailing per se is easy. I say that because, in my humble opinion and personal experience, there is nothing too difficult about it. Despite the complicated jargon and the many moving parts involved in sailing, it’s no rocket science, as some may say, and with enough practice and dedication it is possible to quickly become competent in using the wind to move through water, to navigate across oceans and near shore and to keep your vessel in good working order
However very few people seem to be out there enjoying the cruising lifestyle. That stands true even if today we benefit from a lower knowledge barrier than 30 or more years ago, thanks to the GPS, reliable auxiliary propulsion, step-to-step DIY resources like youtube, to name some technological improvements that make sailing more accessible. It still takes effort and dedication to learn how to sail, but that’s the easy, even fun part.
The costs of sailing
A recent article by Fiona McGlynn on BoatUS magazine takes a wide look into this subject while trying to answer the question why the so-called Millenials don’t own sailboats as much as the same age group did in the past. This arbitrary label apparently is stretching its ends and now I fall in this group too.
Like many times when you focus on age groups there is the tendency to fall into stereotypes and prejudice (see ageism), but I think the author did a good job collecting different voices on the matter, drawing a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon, and leaving open questions.
According to the article, the main reason for fewer young boat owners is a financial one. Today salaries are simply not enough to take on an expensive hobby like sailing. But despite of this economical barrier, we still meet younger people on the water that get away with the costs of ownerships adopting a shoestring approach.
This was definitely what we did when we bought Tranquility. We bought the boat that we could afford at the moment, cash, and we slowly put her and ourselves in the water, instead of taking a loan or waiting to save a huge cruising budget. We ended up with a small old boat, but at least we could pay for it.
Unfortunately, there are also other dimensions than money that are easily overlooked, and those constitute nonetheless a cost that can be as limiting as the financial one.
The workplace is becoming more and more competitive as the adult population increases and work longer in life. Having a good job today could be a good enough reason to stick with it. Successful careers entice people with status, income and a sense of a higher purpose. Workers without access to good jobs live with the expectation of finally landing one and focus obsessively on their career path and skill set, to the point to make it unthinkable to “lose ground” joining a more time consuming sailing lifestyle, like cruising your own boat on a sabbatical. The time we pass in school to develop these skills also extended, and an activity like sailing can be hard to justify in the overall picture, especially at a younger age, when students are challenged to think a bout their future.
The Fear Of Missing Out while cruising means much more than losing the last trend or gossip on websites and Social Media because of limited internet access. It means fear of missing the joyful and sad events of one’s closest family and friends. Cruising distant destinations puts more obstacles between family visits, that require expensive airfare and logistic hassles. I sometimes regret not being able to participate to a group vacation, celebrate births, being close to beloved ones in face of deaths or personal needs, attending family celebrations like Thanksgiving or Christmas, or simply reaching out to a friend for a chat and a bite of food. While traveling it is always possible to meet and enjoy the company of interesting like-minded people, but the disconnection from family and friends is definitely an emotional cost of this lifestyle.
The assumption that you are able to keep your car, your apartment, health or dental insurance, retirement savings and also take off for a long distance cruise is an illusion for most. Bills and cruising are mutually exclusive. There is definitely who is able to go sailing and take care of assets as well as a safety net back home, but most of the people we meet cruising don’t have such luxury, and have to risk and sacrifice their security for an endeavor that could end in a hole in the water.
On one side this situation is a gift, because it could bring a reboot of the system, and open up space in life for new and interesting projects. On the other side there is the risk that the “economy of staying afloat” could prevent any future move for lack of funding.
There are good reasons why human beings evolved in the direction of living indoor and on land. Excessive heat or cold, light or dark, avoidance of bugs and parasites and bothersome if not dangerous wildlife, impacts from severe weather are some of the nuisances of outdoor life in general, and cruising in the specific. As you learn while cruising distant locations, this is still an inescapable reality for many people on earth, and you could learn from their example how to deal with it.
One clear example is the simple act of bathing. What we perform everyday in our home bathrooms mutates when you step on a boat. It becomes more similar to what I learned from my grandmother’s stories. From the expectation of having pressurized heated water, you are happy when you find clean, spring water to fill your jugs.
Even if this experience can be eye-opening about the insane consumption typical of our developed societies, you find yourself thinking a lot of times about the long hot shower you can’t have, an air-conditioned room or the full collection of snacks and leftovers waiting inside a refrigerator.
CONSTANT PROBLEM SOLVING
Problems are the salt of life, but self-reliance on a boat that visits remote areas means being able to cope with various number of problems. I learned it the hard way myself, as I watched my hands change look when I started to use them for manual hard work, instead of just for typing on a keyboard and playing basketball. It was a painful process like most of changes in life.
On a positive note, I discovered how rewarding solving problems can be, especially if you have to find creative ways and have limited resources. It enhances self-perceived efficacy and pride. As a downside, the feeling that reality constantly put you under test and challenges generates stress that could provoke avoidance of the problem in the first place and high doses of frustration and procrastination. A boat not able to perform can be a haunting entity and diminish the pleasures of cruising. While you grow in resourcefulness and competence, you definitely go through moments of feeling stuck and unable to progress, as it appears that there is always something unexpected that has to be taken care of.
I hope my words don’t sound excessively like a whine or a plead for pity. In this blog I attempt to overcome the solitude of my own thoughts and to help the process of sense making, a process that have to pass necessarily through the difficult parts as well as the good ones.
I can assure you that overall Kate and I are doing great and we feel very fortunate about our decision. I also want to avoid depicting us as martyrs or heroes because we deal with such harsh condition. I feel very privileged for being born in a certain geographical location and family, both of which I did not chose nor I can say that I deserve. I am blessed that because of this special situation I have the opportunity to travel and to gift myself with time and new experiences.
The reason I wrote about the less desirable parts of this lifestyle is because I wanted to be honest about it. There is a tendency to depict the entire thing as an endless vacation, full of awe and unforgettable moments. Worst, there is another assumption that you can only do it if you have the money, but as I hope to have shown in this post money is not enough.
I love sailing, but I would be a liar if I tell that it’s only fun. It is expensive, uncomfortable and demanding. Part of it is fascinating, but another part feels unnecessary and masochistic at times. Everything has a price. The cruising lifestyle has its own way to charge for the experience, but we are happy to pay this price because we really like the rewards. As one of my readers wrote: “once you are hooked, there is nothing like being out there with just the wind and the waves”.
While waiting for a weather window in Great Inagua, we had a full time recap about tropical weather. Metereology is a fascinating discipline, and it’s also very important to know the basics when you live outdoor and your safety depends on good weather conditions.
Along the 750 miles that separate the last island of the Bahamas from Panama lays the Caribbean Sea, an open stretch of ocean surrounded by land and islands on its 4 sides. This alley is crossed by tropical waves, low pressure systems that generates in Africa and travel west across the Atlantic ocean, towards the Caribbean and South America and generally dissolve over Central America.
During the peak season of tropical weather activity (August through October) these tropical waves could very likely generate hurricanes and tropical storms if they encounter conducive conditions on their way. The sad events of this very active hurricane season reminds us how small we are compared to the forces of nature, and that avoidance is always the best strategy.
We held our position in Great Inagua because Bret, the “earliest named storm to develop in the Main Development Region of the Atlantic basin on record”, had just formed from “a low latitude tropical wave that had moved off the coast of Africa on June 12”. As soon as Bret went its own way we resumed to follow closely the tropical waves to find the right moment to sneak in between them.
We knew that we would encounter at least two tropical waves during this leg, because they usually run every 2 to 3 days. Tropical waves could bring stronger winds, higher waves and thunderstorm activity, and each tropical waves seems a little bit different depending on the conditions encounter during their long trip. The closer to the peak of hurricane season, the higher are the chances that those low pressure system develop into a life-threatening storms.
Luckily we were about on time in our schedule, and the water temperature and general conditions were still not too favorable for tropical depression development. Making sure no yellow Xs were anywhere on the Atlantic charts (the yellow X is the symbol for potential tropical depression forming on National Hurricane Center website), we prepared to leave as soon as possible.
During the entire passage we also had the fortune to be in contact with two friends on mainland US, Chip and Elliott, that sent us daily weather updates via Delorme messenger along the way. We are very thankful for the great help and company from these cool dudes.
We pulled the trigger of our “as soon as possible” departure strategy during a day of strong southeasterlies that blew over Inagua and made even the sail in the lee of the island a bit of a challenge. Pulling off the umpteenth false start, we re-anchored a few miles to the south from where we started and decided to wait one more day before trying again.
LOG 1002nm June 23 Departure from Great Inagua
The wind was lighter and on the beam when we set off again. Once we cleared the south point of the island the swell and wind waves from the trades turned on the washing machine motion on Tranquility. We made a full day of steady progress until we found pockets of light winds inside the Windward Passage, in the lee of Hispaniola. It slowed us down a lot, with only 60 miles logged in 24hours which was exactly half of what we did on Day 1.
Those hours were uneventful from a sailing point of view, but Kate had the luck to see a pod of pilot whales during her watch, while sea birds visited us regularly, with boobies, gannets, frigatebirds and white tailed tropicbirds, very elegant looking birds, flying in circles while scouting for fish. The Windward Passage is a corridor open to everybody, from small old fiberglass sailboats to Freighter and tankers, from wildlife to floating garbage.
South of Navassa Island, a steep walled island that used to harbor a US military facility, the wind came back and we finally pointed Tranquility to 240 degrees shooting for Puerto Lindo in Panama. With no land in sight and way less company, our only “obstacles” were two areas of banks East of Jamaica, areas of shallower waters that could potentially generate rough seas. With 90 degrees of apparent wind on the port side, we had enough play to adjust our course and clear the shoals with ample margin.
Shortly after we received the visit from the first tropical wave. The wind increased, 25 to 30kts from ESE bringing haze sky. Luckily we didn’t encounter significant thunderstorm activity nor rain, but the soaking was provided by the tall waves crashing on deck and on the watch keeper.
For the following 5 days we experienced very similar conditions, sustained winds of 25 knots and 7 to 10 ft waves, that translates in permanent use of foul water gear and constant change of clothes. All the hatches and portholes had to stay shut, and the cabin soon turned into a steaming hot sauna, with soaked garments hanging in the hope they could dry.
The persistent moisture was source of discomfort for the crew (and we suppose for Beta too) but at least the progress to destination was steady and fast, with average daily runs well above 100 nautical miles and a peak of 133 on Day 4. We counted three tropical waves passing us during this leg, each one bringing slightly different wind speeds and weather.conditions, but nothing too severe, with almost no squalls.
At a certain moment the shackle of our staysail halyard block, a sort of pulley that hoists our smallest sail, broke dropping the sail on the foredeck. After clearing the area from the tangled halyard and retrieving the block, I started to assess the problem. Our smallest sail is very important in our sail plan, and we made a great use of it during this passage. The staysail helps filling the fore triangle area catching more wind and working together with the jib during most of the point of sail. In the windiest conditions, when our bigger headsail gives us too much power, we prefer to keep it furled and fly the staysail only. After probably half an hour of concern about how to fix the problem, I finally remembered that we have a spare spinnaker halyard ready to use on deck that worked perfectly in hoisting the sail again for the entire duration of the trip.
LOG 1746 nm – July 1st Puerto Lindo, Panama
The vanishing winds dropped us roughly 30 miles to the NE of Puerto Lindo, where we were hoping to land and clear into the country. Panama has two main seasons, dry and wet. From December to April the trades are strong enough to bring constant wind and clear sky over the country, while from May to November winds are light and variable and depend upon weather patterns influenced by the mainland.
Those were the longest 30 miles ever on a boat; the rainy season brought the typical lack of significant wind. On top of that an adverse current pushed us east towards Colombia. It took 24 hours of patience and effort to cover those 30 nautical miles and make landfall, which of course happened around 3AM local time, in pitch dark. Our approach was very slow under electric motor. Luckily our Navionics charts seemed to be accurate enough to pass safely in between three islands and relative reefs before reaching the anchorage. After a brief marital disagreement on where it was safe to drop the hook, we successfully anchored in the unknown dark bay cluttered with other vessels. For the first time after 8 days Kate and I went both to sleep at the same time.
In the morning we called Linton Bay Marina, and proceeded to a dock where we tied up Tranquility. Showers, electrical power, fresh water from the docks and other amenities helped our recovering from the tiring passage. Finally we were in Panama once again. It was 6 years since the last time I was here.
Following the adage “stay North to go East” we crossed the Gulf Stream and sailed across the northern part of the Abacos, to take advantage of the protected waters of the Little Bahama Bank and the Sea of Abaco. Here, even if seas get choppy when winds exceed 15kts there are plenty of places to anchor and rest waiting for the right conditions.
When sailing upwind, we ideally wait for winds between 5 and 15 knots. When it blow less or more than that we prefer to stay put at anchor and find something else to do.
ACROSS THE GULF STREAM
May 11th Leaving Florida, the night trip was comfortable with enough wind from the SE to move, and barely no waves. We adjusted our heading to compensate for the Gulf Stream pushing us north at around 2 knots: for the 12 hours that we estimated to spend in the current, we will be pushed 24 miles to the north.
LOG: 366 nm
May 12th Our calculations were a bit too pessimistic (or too conservative if you wish), and we expected more drift than what we really had. Even if we could have sailed a little more off the wind, in the early morning we were already watching the different tones of blue that brightened gradually as the ocean floor raised to form the Little Bahamas Bank. These sand banks and occasional coral reefs create an incredible spectrum of tones of blue and azure when the light reverberates on them.
Of course, right when we were transiting from the ocean to shallower waters, the wind died, leaving us sailing at about 2knots. I was worried we would not make it to the closest anchorage before dark, and being my first time in this area I didn’t know how much I could trust the charts for night navigation.
The wind picked up later in the afternoon as forecasted: the wind at 15 knots from the SSW sent us flying to Mangrove Cay on a beam reach. We got to the lee of the island just after dusk and while Kate was at the helm I used our spot light to make sure we were dropping the anchor in a spot free of obstructions.
LOG 389 nm
May 13th Early in the morning, with a fresh southerly wind we sailed north under jib alone to Grand Cay, the island where we cleared customs and immigration. The officer didn’t have a proper office, he was just walking around the village with a backpack and came to me when I rowed ashore alone. We ended up filling the paperwork inside a local restaurant.
Officially checked in the country, we took a stroll to see the island. In hindsight I noticed that Grand Cay’s population live a different life compare to other islands in the Bahamas. The remoteness of Grand Cay does not seem to help its inhabitants though, and the sign of a recent Tropical Storm are still visible on buildings.
It looked like the few tourists there were in mainly for game fishing and while we were boarding our dinghy we bummed some scraps of snapper fillet from gringos that were cleaning fish to feed Beta. It turned out that our cat is so addicted to can food that he didn’t even consider eating fresh snapper. That was not a problem for us and we used the scraps for bait.
Kate is definitely the best fisherman onboard and this time she almost immediately had a big nurse shark on the hand line. Luckily the shark wasn’t really hooked to the line, it had just sucked the bait in without biting and when we got it to the surface it let go of it. That spared us from the trouble of unhooking the unfortunate creature.
May 14th and May15th
Next we moved to Double Breasted Cay, just a couple of miles to the east. Winds were light so the open anchorage was very calm. Here we finally got our snorkeling gear out and went for a celebratory swim. At the beginning it felt awkward, but after few minutes I regained all my aquaticity and I couldn’t stop exploring the coral reef. I also grabbed some dinner along the way: one lobster and two conch. The lobster made a perfect pasta sauce and the conch ended up in a ceviche.
Being a true planktoneer at heart, Kate would shine the spot light at night from the deck to the water underneath the boat to peek at marine night life. We saw a lot of different and colorful fish, until, out of nowhere, a huge loggerhead turtle, the size of a truck wheel, swam under the boat. Kate was extremely excited, as she felt this was a reward for her loyal years spent in “turtle patrol”, making actions that protects the life of turtles, from saving them from crossing Georgia causeways to remove plastic from the ocean.
The weather kept favoring the anchorage conditions and so we stayed for more swimming and we also walked over a low lying limestone island. More marine life visited us in the form of a sting ray and a small shark that followed us in the dinghy.
LOG 426 nm
May 16th After the well deserved celebration it was time to go back to work and to make some miles towards our destination. Sailing on a close-hauled SE course we arrived in Foxtown, not before occasional tacks to avoid shoals and shifting sands, that put us behind schedule with the sunset.
We read that the anchorage was well protected from the easterlies, and with a forecast of winds increasing to 20 kts from the east for few days, we needed a quiet spot to wait for better conditions. Looking closely at the charts I wasn’t convinced Foxtown would be a good place to be during stronger easterlies and so the very next morning we moved further.
LOG 433 nm
May 17th to 20th. Allan’s Cay which was very close looked better, not only for the wide bay protected from E and S, but it also has nicer waters and few trails on the island. We comfortably settled in our temporary neighborhood having a bit of leisure time, catching fish and exploring the island.
May 20th to 22nd As soon as we had an opportunity we set sail E and S heading towards Manjack Cay. The winds were blowing 10-15kts from the ESE, and during this leg we had to deal not only with headwinds but again with islands, reefs, shoals, and occasional traffic on our way. It took us an entire day to cover 25 miles and after so much tacking we entered the bay and dropped the hook under full sail as if it was a joke.
Of the little area we visited in the Abacos, Manjack Cay was our favorite spot. We anchored in the southeast part of the bay, close to the wreck of a freighter, a nice snorkeling point. On the other side of the island, we enjoyed to walk the trails that were maintained by the friendly owners of a private home, which cruisers refers to as “the homestead”.
May 22nd to 24th After focusing our time and attention to the more isolated and natural part of these islands, it was time to seek for civilization to fulfill some needs. After a brief sail in light air we approached Black Sound in Green Turtle Cay, the very next door island.
This island was a favorite spot for pirates during the golden age of piracy. The protected harbors offered good shelter and privacy, the shallow waters helped servicing vessels, and the once thriving population of Green Turtles provided food.
Black sound is a narrow stretch of water with a shallow inlet. Inside there are few marinas and two mooring fields, and it seems to be very popular among cruisers. It is indeed very well protected from any weather. After barely passing the shoal bar at low tide (5 ft or less at MLW), we anchored between two mooring fields with plenty of water. The anchor set very well, and we enjoyedexploring the village of New Plymouth and the vicinity.
After a couple of days and some costs comparisons, we picked Leeward Yacht Club, as a place to dock and perform our marina routine: showers, laundry, washing, filling up water. We also had a couple of day of strong winds with several squalls but Black Sound is a very protected spot so we barely felt it.
The rates of the Marina are high, comparable to the US, so the stop was not very affordable, but considering that we only visit marinas for a couple of days every month the budget is affected only partially. Groceries and supplies were also very expensive in New Plymouth, and there was not a lot to choose from. Before leaving for the Bahamas we did a huge provisioning, so really what’s left for us to buy is bread and fresh fruit and vegetables.
May 26th to 28th After we successfully completed all our chores, we left Black Sound to stave some bucks, but also to be ready to leave whenever the weather looked good. We anchored in the bay just south of the village of New Plymouth, and prepared to sail offshore, but we didn’t have any good weather window for a couple more days.
OFFSHORE TO CAT ISLAND
May 28th to 30th We left the Abacos through the Whale Cay passage and entered the Atlantic Ocean again. At the beginning we had southerly winds. The forecast was for light air so we couldn’t achieve our usual ludicrous speed, but life aboard Tranquility was comfortable and jovial. Only when later the wind turned to the SE and increased we started our upwind tack in a general ESE direction in the open Atlantic, and we were catapulted back to the reality of our home accelerating and decelerating in multiple directions under the influence of wind and waves.
We planned two long tacks, a starboard tack to go East using SE winds and a port tack to go South. Sailing upwind is like following the contour of a wall with your hand. Different boats have different upwind performance, so that imaginary hand can slice a into the imaginary wall or be a little distant. But every boat have a limit she cannot surpass, an invisible wall that can only follow very closely. Tranquility’s limit is perhaps 50 degrees off the True Wind Direction (TWD), and with stronger winds and pounding waves we probably get as much as 55 degrees.
We had picked the best possible conditions to do this trip, with headwinds at about 10 to 15 knots, and as light as 7 knots at a time. The Atlantic swell was big, but somehow more comfortable than the choppy waves of the shallow Abacos. Tranquility would ride some of the more round waves with no much fuss, till she crashed into one or few bigger or steeper ones that would bring her almost to a stop. We spent a couple of days of slow and uncomfortable sailing and with our world heeled 25 to 30 degrees from the horizontal line.
LOG 658 nm
May 30th to June 3rdDuring the last part of the trip the SE wind had backed a little to the ESE and picked up in intensity. We reached cat Island in full daylight and dealt with the strong gusts that were fueled by the interaction between wind and land.
The profile of Cat Island is very hilly, which is uncommon for the low lying islands of the Bahamas. Most of the times the interaction between headlands and ocean waters generates gusty conditions, and we had a couple of stronger gusts sending our rails well below the water line, even with reefed sails.
We chose to anchor near Bennet Harbor, where we stayed by ourselves for few days. It was an incredible treat to be the only boat (and humans) in sight, especially because the water and the beach were incredibly beautiful. Even if we don’t don’t live in very luxurious accommodation we felt like we like VIP as we had the most esclusive beach at our disposal.
We fell into a long restful routine. Kate recovered promptly from the offshore leg and she was excited to explore this new environment. Instead I was feeling a little weak. The sensation was so subtle that at the beginning I thought I was being lazy. But when I noticed that washing dishes in the cockpit was feeling like lifting stones, I realized something was wrong. We soon discovered that I had a strong fever, and when checking my temperature the thermometer read 104F (40 Celsius).
For two days I could barely leave the the bed and suffered from muscle aches and from cold chills and hot flashes that would alternatively come and go. When you are far away from the reach of a doctor, any weird symptom becomes a source of concern.
Thanks to Kate’s good care and to my immune system the fever dissipated quickly. It took a couple more days to feel completely recovered, but we were also in such a nice spot that we couldn’t feel any rush to move on.
June 3rd I am from Italy, where soccer is more important than religion, but I rarely watch a soccer game. This time though, maybe because I am so far from home, and because Juventus (my dad’s team) was playing the Uefa Champions League Final, we tried to find a place to watch the game.
Thanks to the internet we found Yardie’s, a Gas Station/Restaurant owned by a Jamaican woman. Kate called her on the phone and she assured her we could come see the game. We moved the boat closer to Bennett’s harbor, and jumped in the dinghy to get ashore in time for the game. While the game was on we had very tasty Jerk Chicken while drinking Kalik (the Bahamian beer), and chatted with Walter, a 10 year old employee that told us everything about Cat Island.
Juventus lost the game badly, so maybe I should have stayed on the boat.
June 4th The day after I was feeling fully recovered and so we started moving again. We sailed south along Cat Island to New Bight, sailing a slightly longer course in order to avoid a few nasty looking squalls, coming up from the SE . Our intended destination was New Bight, from where it is possible to climb Mt. Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas towering at 206ft (63mt.). It is also the best place on the island for provisioning. We arrived to the anchorage later in the afternoon and prepared to have a restful night.
June 5th First thing in the morning Kate tried to turn me in at the local Police Station that was right in from of our boat as we stopped to ask for directions. The officer said she had plenty of space for me in the Police Station, as apparently crime is not very common on the island. After extracting as many information as we could from the kind officer we proceeded to Mount Alvernia,where we visited the hermitage.
Built by sculptor, architect and catholic priest John Hawes (aka Fra Jerome) in 1939, the building is a monument to minimalism and simple living. Dedicated to St.Francis of Assisi and carved from local stones, the hermitage has interesting features, like a wind tunnel for cooling and everything one need to live a simple life: a dormitory, a pantry, an outdoor bathroom, a cistern with a hand pump for rain water, a church with steeple and bell. A short person like myself could almost pass through the small doors without ducking.
After the ascension we went back to sea level and hiked to the grocery store. It was a mile and a half walk but the sun was already high and ferocious. We got few supplies but we were not able to refill our propane bottle, as no recent shipment had come to the island.
Walking back to our dinghy we noticed Tranquility bobbing in the anchorage: with the wind now from the south the anchorage became a little choppy, so we had to leave for a more protected one down south in the bay, closer to Old Bight.
June 7th At this point, with some more food in our pantry, we started to study the weather to decide how our next leg would look like. We were shooting for Great Inagua, which is the doorway to the Windward Passage and the place where we would check out from the Bahamas. We had a lot of options for stops along the way and studying the weather we tried to compute a passage plan, and its possible alternatives.
When we thought we had a reasonable combination of wind angle and intensity to make progress we set out to anchor at the tip of Cat Island. To kill time, and to look for a little pleasure, we walked a mile or so down the beach to Hawk’s Nest Resort, where we visited the bar, used the wifi and sit by the pool. All at no charge.
CAT ISLAND TO GREAT INAGUA
June 9th: Departure was set for 12 PM and we commenced the series of tack that would let us clear Cat Island and start sailing East. The first part of this leg saw us following the imaginary yet so real wall of headwinds as we tried our best to make ESE progress.
We were able to pass well south of San Salvador Island (the place where Columbus made landfall in the New World) without the need to tack and we kept sailing ESE until we were north of Samana Cay. At that point we turned south, trying to squeeze in between Acklins Island and Samana Cay.
We had mostly ESE winds so we could sail a little off the wind, but once we reached the passage between Acklins and Samana the wind again turned to the SE and we were tempted to cut the trip a little shorter and find some rest visiting Attwood Harbor, which seemed a well protected anchorage where to catch some rest.
I was on watch while approaching the harbor. As soon as we had some phone reception I was able to catch a little bit of internet connection to check the weather and download some political news about Trump for Kate’s entertainment.
Looking at the weather forecast I realized that if we stopped there we could potentially be stuck for few days as wind would turn east and increase. Considering this new information I steered back east and cleared the shoal of Northeast Point before turning south and head straight to Great Inagua. We had another 80 miles to go but we were expecting the forecasted eastearlies that would put our course on a less strenuous beam reach.
LOG 964 nm
June 11th to 13th: At 8 am, after a fast night sail, I anchored in Man-O-War Bay in Great Inagua. Kate woke up to the sight of a beach with palm trees, crystal clear waters and an old concrete dock. Few people came to relax and to catch a sunday swim, but other than that, we barely saw anybody else for the rest of our stay.
June 12th and 13th It was a beautiful resting time, we completed few minor boat repairs and walked to explore a dismissed surveillance site used by the US Coast Guard and DEA to monitor the waters around the Windward Passage. Around the boat there were nice shallow corals where I practiced some spearfishing, until I spotted a big black tip shark, six feet or so long. At that moment I immediately left the premises. Luckily it was a pretty unsuccessful hunt so I did not have any catch with me.
When spearfishing I use the precaution to tow the dinghy and anchor it close to where I am, so in case I get a fish I can quickly raise it above the water and unload it into the dinghy to avoid any close encounter with sharks. These fantastic creatures are usually pretty shy. In Inagua waters I had two encounters with black tips sharks and in both occasions the shark disappeared not to come back.
June 14th to 18th We moved to Matthew Town for provisioning and to do a final preparation before sailing across the Windward Passage and onto Panama. Our first idea of multiple stops in Haiti and Jamaica changed when we started to analyze the tropical weather. Bret, the first named storm of the 2017 Hurricane Season, was moving west passing to the south of Hispaniola and Cuba, reminding us that lingering in this area longer would inevitably bring to keep a worrisome outlook to any developing weather system.
With all our easting completed, we could now count on the push of reasonable steady trade winds all the way to Panama, which lies at about 750 nautical miles to the the SW of Great Inagua. A trip with stops in Haiti and Jamaica would definitely mean shorter hops and shelter from weather but also dealing with authorities and unknown local conditions.
In Matthew’s Town, we first tried to anchor outside the harbor but the anchorage was extremely rolly because of the surge from the South. There is a small basin with flat waters and good wind shelter in Town. The harbor is under construction, and now used mainly by Haitians sailing vessel that come for trading goods and government ships. Because of the work in progress there is no real place to tie up for a pleasure vessel. However, after a brief dinghy reconnaissance we decided to come in and moor the same way the Haitians do, with a stern anchor and a line to shore from the bow. We then ferried ashore using the dinghy to cover the few feet that separated us from the boulders ashore.
Here I had an opportunity to use good internet signal to participate live to a Radio Show in Italy. I had a phone chat with Matteo Caccia the host of the radio show where we talked a little bit about our trip.
Pascal is one of our favorite Radio Show, and we downloaded many episodes that we enjoyed when we had no internet coverage. They collect stories sent from listeners and read them on air, then they try to call the authors on the phone to learn more about them. For me is a way to stay in contact with my mother tongue, and for Kate to keep learning italian.
I had sent a short story of our trip right when we left, and the staff contacted us while we were in Cat Island to arranged a phone call. Thanks to Great Inagua’s good internet reception, it all went smooth, and Matteo was very funny and entertaining on the phone. If you have some familiarity with italian language you can listen to the podcast on their website.
We spent four days in the dusty noisy and hot basin, but it was worth the discomfort because we could replenish our propane supply, get drinking water, buy cheap fruit and vegetables from the Haitians and get few supplies from the grocery store. People in Matthew Town are very friendly and not used to see cruisers or tourists.
The Island hosts a big Morton Salt Company site, for the production of sea salt. Almost all the inhabitans are employed by the corporation
June 18th to 23rd
When we felt like we were self-sufficient for a three week period, we went to immigration to clear out of the country and sailed back to Man-O-War cay to anchor and set into passage mode. This time we anchored close to the Morton Salt company site, which is a bit more protected from wind shifts.
There we were in the company of other boats. We knew one of those boat because they have a very popular website among people who want to go cruise with their family, and they have a very good social media presence. It’s the Totem Crew, a family of five that have been sailing for 9 years now, and they are planning to end the circumnavigation on the West Coast of the US where they originally departed.
For few days we shared the common destiny of cruisers, which can be summarized by the expression “waiting for the weather”. We often check weather forecast and discussion from different sources before deciding to set sail. Then we analyze our needs and judgments to foresee how a passage would look like, and if it’s going to be reasonably safe and/or comfortable. Then at a certain moment we need to weigh anchor, as perfect conditions may not ever appear.
Nowadays with internet access in most of the places it is definitely easier than in the past, but the reality is that weather patterns are still very little understood by mathematicians and the computer models seems to do a good job only most of the times. The navigator’s judgement is still important, and weather routing is still much like an art.
It took an insane amount of work to get to the starting point. In hindsight everything could have been done with a faster pace, but to be fair we really did the best we could especially considering that we were in Brunswick and not in some inhospitable and hostile place. Around us friends and familiar place pampered us making leaving a heart breaking business.
After 4 years though we had grown very tired of the East Coast of USA and that offered an important motivating factor to get going, and do what we had planned for so long.
As a first step, we relocated from Brunswick Landing Marina, where we made all final preparation, to the Frederica River, in the anchorage close to the Frederica Yacht Club. The yacht club is currently under reconstruction after tropical storm Hermine damaged docks and boats pretty badly in 2016. Tranquility was moored there for over two years while we were making her the boat she is now, and we had a great time in the beautiful marsh with the fantastic people we met during those time.
Before undertaking a longer sailing passage we like to spend the last hours at anchor, to get a little more used to the motion of the boat and the ocean. Usually that’s the time when we stowe everything and get the boat ready. Then we sit on weather watch, waiting for the right wind and the right tide to have a good start.
LOG: 00 nm
April 24th 10:30 AM We departed Frederica River anchorage with very gusty westerlies brought by a cold front. We saw it as a good opportunity to make progress south, because during spring the prevailing winds usually blow from the south-east or south. We were hoping to get past Cape Canaveral before turning to cross the Gulf Stream and make the Bahamas from there.
LOG: 130 nm – April 25th 8:30 PM we pulled into New Smyrna Beach right at sunset dropping anchor just off the ICW exhausted and not feeling well. The gusty westerlies created choppy waves that tested our guts and heads. It’s always trying to go offshore after a period spent in calm waters.
The next morning we moved to what we thought it was a better anchorage, bumped our keel here and there on sand banks till we finally got a decent spot. At least that was what we thought.
The anchorage was really affected by the current and the wind was sometimes blowing strong from the South which make it a bit uncomfortable. Even if we were at the very beginning of our trip we really got some cruising vibes, after all we were in a new place, for no particular reason. After a little bit of self loathing about our poor sailing shape, we regained enthusiasm and started to relax and enjoy visiting the area.
Even if we sailed only a little more than 100 miles our trip had technically begun and we were voyaging.
First we went for a three mile row to town on our dinghy (assisted by the tide). We visited the local library, shopped in a supermarket for fresh provisions and snoop around the downtown area. Then Kate decided to do like the locals, which means enjoy the sandbars that come out at low tide. She brought Beta along for some training.
After the recon we decided to pull in New Smyrna Beach City Marina for two nights, to do some resupply, including water, propane and groceries. We finally learned where Rockhouse anchorage (the good one) was and moved there on weather watch. The westerlies were coming back and we felt ready to give it another try.
May 6th 10 AM: We departed NSB toward the end of the passing front. From the anchorage we couldn’t tell how strong it was blowing and once out of the anchorage we felt all the power of the gusts, but it was just a matter of holding on for few hours before the wind would become more manageable, once out in the ocean the northern component of the westerlies was prevailing and we could sail a more comfortable broad reach.
LOG: 260NM – May 7th The wind gradually decreased and when light air threatened our progress south we used St.Lucie Inlet and the rising tide to tuck in the ICW again.
It’s funny how user generated content on the Internet tend to be extreme and therefore basically useless. On Active Captain (that we use as a research tool among other sources) the inlet is described as following:
“St. Lucie Inlet is dangerous and particularly hazardous to small boats not designed to the open seas. Persons using the inlet should be experienced boatmen and have local knowledge”. Another source states that “The St. Lucie Inlet has a reputation for being one of the most treacherous in Florida.”
We read those type of warning for many inlets all over the East Coast. Move from inland waters to the open ocean could brings risks and can be dangerous under the right circumstances. Precautions and safety should be used every time we are out on the water. However, I find that excessive alarmism does not provide an accurate and informative picture of the situation.
This may be a peculiar character of American culture, that I find found in other circumstances. Author David Sedaris, in his very funny and intelligent book ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, describes it in a very trenchant way:
“At the San Diego Zoo, right near the primates habitats, there’s a display featuring a dozen life-size gorillas made out of bronze. Posted nearby is a sign reading CAUTION: GORILLAS STATUES MAY BE HOT. Everywhere you turn, the obvious is being stated. CANNON MAY BE LOUD. SIDEWALK IS ABOUT TO END. To people who don’t run around suing one another, such signs suggest a crippling lack of intelligence. Place bronze statues beneath the southern California sun, and of course they’re going to get hot. Cannons are supposed to be loud, that’s their claim to fame, and – like it or not – the moving sidewalk is bound to end sooner or later. It’s hard to explain a country whose motto has become you can’t claim I din’t warn you.”
The warning from ActiveCaptain made us a little more anxious than necessary as we proceeded to the inlet. We had very good weather conditions, and the transit didn’t pose any hazard to our vessel and our well being. The inlet is wide and well marked and with enough depth even for bigger vessels. The trickiest part was to endure the wakes from insolent powerboaters, which, considering the habits of the population, give legitimacy to the alarmist warning.
After surviving the Inlet, we sailed pushed by a good sea breeze and with a little help from the current. We kept sailing until we found a nice spot to anchor in Peck Lake, right off the ICW just south of Stuart, FL. We found it to be a quiet anchorage with no wake and we had a very restful night.
LOG 268NM – May 8thThe next morning we continued south on the ICW sailing by the millionaires’ mansions. It was just a short trip to a new anchorage called Hell Gate, by the village of Tequesta,FL. The entrance to the anchorage is very shallow (5 ft. at MLW) and about 7 feet in the actual basin, but our small vessel had no trouble sneaking in.
We were the only vessel there and the location was perfect for a quick trip ashore to West Marine (we dropped a winch handle in the drink leaving New Smyrna), Publix, the Post Office, and a very well deserved burger with fries in a local diner. Without refrigeration on board meat is a luxury that we rarely enjoy, and this was a pleasurable exception.
LOG:283 nm – May 9thWe waited for slack low tide to proceed across another dangerous inlet (Jupiter Inlet) without adverse current. Instead of sailing out in the ocean we asked to break a sweat to our electric motor, especially because there was little or no wind. While we waited for the tide to change we rowed across the ICW to Blowing Rock Natural Reserve, the very first place where we started to perceive Caribbean vibes. Here we took advantage of a nice cold shower.
The motor-sailing down the ICW to the Palm Beach area was nothing special, something we did already many times, but the North Palm Beach anchorage was calm and quiet, despite being in the middle of the a very populated area. Beta went to the doctor for a quick check on his tooth that was removed in Brunswick and he was discharged. All good for him to leave.
LOG: 286nm – May 10th and 11th We moved to the starting line, right by West Palm Beach near the inlet. To be honest, a horrible place. If we needed more motivation to leave the US for good, this was the perfect spot to be: crammed with boats at anchor and on moorings, with barges and commercial ships moving in and out, surrounded by a horrible landscape made of condominiums and warehouses, noisy and filled with bad odors.
Luckily we had a nice neighbor, a young diver living aboard his sailboat who filled us up with all the rumors of this crazy place and its politics. Besides the nice chatting we just waited, and napped, with Tranquility ready to leave at any time, whenever the winds picked up and following an ebbing tide.
Finally the moment arrived at 11pm, we weighed anchor and got flushed out of Florida for good.
When you find yourself in the situation of having a fine sailing vessel, equipped and provisioned for long voyages and when you finally severed the ties that bind you to a specific geographical location, you could incur in the trouble of having to decide where to go.
It may sounds a silly “first world problem” but the world is big and there are so many beautiful places to visit. If you have the goal of circumnavigating the planet then at least you know that you will leave from point A to return to point A. The route then becomes a matter of preference in regard of type of sailing (warm vs. cold), budget and geopolitical situation en route.
We never had a circumnavigation as our main goal, so we faced a very open ended problem. Our only requirements were to stay out of the Hurricane tracks and, possibly, not spend too much money.
After long discussions, numerous changes and endless planning Kate and I agreed to point Tranquility towards Panama.
The reasons in favor of the central American country are the following:
This is were we first met six years ago and we haven’t been back since. We still have friends there that we regularly speak to and we want to hug them.
It is outside of hurricanes and tropical storms range.
Panama is a beautiful and very biodiverse country, touched by two oceans, with hills and mountains covered by rain forest, and surrounded by numerous tropical islands. All packed in a small, accessible territory.
Fruit and vegetables taste good, fish and seafood is abundant and not affected by ciguatera.
We have an option to continue towards the Pacific if we decide to, or alternatively, to explore the Caribbean side of Central America
THE WINDWARD PASSAGE ROUTE
Once picked our destination, we had to figure out which way to go. If you know something about sailing you understand that the obstacles involved are not only the visible ones. Weather patterns have a paramount influence over the possible routes, and they have to be taken into account to foresee which type of trip to expect.
The first important call to make was wether passing Cuba to the east or the west. Panama lies due south of Florida and the long and tall island of Cuba sits right in the way. Predominant winds and currents flow E to W fueled by the Atlantic trade winds, making it inevitable to beat upwind: you can either do it earlier, through the Bahamas all the way to the Windward passage, or later, once past the western tip of Cuba; you can face the fierce but steady Atlantic Ocean or try your chances with the capricious Caribbean Sea.
We opted for the Windward Passage route even if the one along the south of Cuba had its attractive and advantages. We thought the Bahamas way could be faster, and considering that it was already the end of April and we were approaching the beginning of Hurricane season time was a factor to take into account.
Over time, we had learned that we prefer to make longer stops and visit places in a relaxed way in between sailing passages, rather than keep moving in small sections. An offshore trip is always proving!
Finally with a destination in mind we started to feel excited about this new chapter. The only thing left was to wrap up the long process that we started one year earlier and sail to the Bahamas.
Tranquility rests in the wide anchorage, dressed in her full cruising gear, hanging from a 22lbs Bruce anchor clawed into the seabed. Bed cushions, laundry and anything that would benefit from the touch of the hot Bahamian sun and the fresh airs are out on deck or hanging from the lifelines. The wind-scoop (a spoon shaped nylon chute) hovers on top the front hatch funneling the breeze into the cabin, while the boom tent increases the shade surface on the deck and shields the cockpit from view.
The wind generator spins happily, replenishing our motor’s battery bank. At its side, the solar panel chugs the photons that hit its surface and sends them down below, where our electronics line up on the chart table to receive the precious juice. Charles Vane, our faithful wind vane self steering apparatus, hangs folded up on the stern. He is off duty, and probably dreams about the times when he was a feared pirate. The white dinghy bobs around in the wavelets just few feet off the stern, secured to the mother ship by a black painter line.
This is a typical scene that recurs every time we reach a new anchorage where we plan to spend few nights. We are in Allen’s Cay (or Allan’s Cay, depending on who you ask), a beautiful island in the Northern Abacos. The reason for our stay, beside the obvious experience of the marvelous nature in this uninhabited island, is a dab of strong easterly winds that are supposed to blow for a couple of days with peaks at 25 knots. Allen’s Cay is well sheltered from all the weather coming from the Eastern quadrant, so it checks both leisure and safety boxes.
We are traveling SE so every time the weather shows its angry face either from the E or the S we have to take a knee. Tranquility is happy to beat upwind. Us not so much, especially when the winds exceed 15 knots. We can handle and endure everything below that but we don’t put ourselves voluntarily into the business of making upwind progress when the breeze is too brisk.
Because of stronger winds we have to stay put for a couple of days and we would have to do the work of snorkeling, forage for conch and fish as well as taking care of never ending repairs and upgrades.
This waiting time is filled with interesting activities. We dug out our entire food supply for inspection, cleaning, inventory and organization purposes. We finally learned what we hoarded in weeks of constant access to groceries store. We are well off for a long time and we just need to get few perishables along the way and harvest the rest ourselves from the ocean.
Kate also caught three small fishes, which I quickly cleaned, scaled and cooked. They appeared to be small Whitebone Porgies and they were delicious. It reminded me of the simplicity of the life I was living in Venezuela and Panama, where most of the commodities where scarce, but where very little was needed at the same time.
For long our plan of sailing exotic destinations has been put under salt for many reasons. Little by little we removed our impediments and finally set our course South.
We departed Brunswick on Monday 24th and made it only as far as New Smyrna Beach, FL, a mere 120 miles away. We transited the Ponce de Leon Inlet right at sunset and dropped anchor in a random shoal just off the ICW.
The reason for such a short hop was health. Both of us felt pretty sick, not only for the crazy motion of our small craft but also for something that we ingested pre departure. I spare you the recounts of symptoms and experiences of this illness, nothing pretty. Without some disappointment we had to make the call to pull over and anchor, to heal and re-gather strength.
We sail a primitive boat, with limited auxiliary power so everything we do has to be timed with favorable weather conditions. Weather is a Master we have to obey.
We had such favorable conditions at the beginning of this week in the form of 15-20 knots blowing from the West allowing us to move South along the Florida coast and reach a favorable hop spot to Bahamas. We could have made it not stop in three days, but we decided nothing good could come from keeping at sea in our sick condition.
Now that we blew this weather window we may have to wait quite a bit. We felt pretty bad about it, as rookies who can barely handle discomfort. It was a tough call, especially knowing what the weather had prepared for us and what is showing for the next days.
Even if our current status is not what our imagination envisioned we are indeed “on the road” in a place we have never intended to visit as often happened before. Our Master will decide how long we will have to stick around and what will be next for us.
Among the many projects we are hurrying to complete there is one that concerns our security while at anchor or when we leave the boat to go ashore.
In our world without air-conditioning, the possibility to lock ourselves in when we go to sleep and still be able to have some airflow from what is the biggest opening we have is a big advantage.
Beta likes to roam on deck when possible and we want him to be able to go in and out of the boat even when we are not onboard. On the other hand, in warm climates it’s good to be able to leave the boat locked while letting air in and out. It makes a more comfortable boat at our return and also it avoids that Beta gets baked in the process.
I followed the concept that James Baldwin’s developed for his boat Atom to design our anti-intrusion bars. Here is a picture of the bars he built from his website.
We made some changes to the design to make it more simple to build and less expensive overall. The bars go in place of two of the three drop boards that locks the companionway. The top drop board sit atop and locks the companionway, and they all slide into solid stainless steel tracks that I installed back when I rebuilt the companionway.
The bars are made of 1/2 inch 316 stainless solid rod bought on Buymetal.com and sent from Pennsylvania, which makes Kate even prouder as she is originally from Steel Country.
The construction took 3 hours and James helped with the welding and the use of his equipment and power tools. I have to say that metal construction is fun, exciting and very useful. I look forward to polish my skills in this subject.
Well, to be precise we are back to one of the places from where we started. Our sailing trajectories often look like orbits and a big point of attraction is Brunswick Georgia.
Brunswick is where we stopped longer than anywhere else so far on our Tranquility tour. Incidentally, Brunswick is also where I lived the longer since I left Italy.
The perfect excuse to come back was the participation to the 1 Day Play, a theatrical event in which we took part two years ago when we were regular residents. We had such fun and gathered so much positive energy in that event that when we heard the call for writers, directors and actors we could not resist.
In the last edition Kate acted and I wrote one of the plays. The leopard does not change his spots, and so we did the same again.
As the name implies the 1 Day Play happens during a 24 hours span: producers, writers, directors and actors all meet Friday evening, bringing random props and costumes with them. The producers Evy and Emmi shared a schedule that would guide the efforts of everybody to be ready on stage at 7 pm on the very next day, having written, directed, rehearsed and produced the six short plays, just 22hours after the first meeting.
At 10pm I joined the group of six writers in the Old City Hall to write a 10 minutes play with three female characters (we had a shortage of male actors). The result was a sci-fi thriller set in a distant solar system where the three characters need to find a way to repair their ship and leave a hostile planet.
I am once again impressed with the magic that I witness in the 1 Day Play. The limited time works like a catalyst in the artistic chain reaction, forcing the writers to a simple and raw script that then get refined by the intervention of directors and actors, who have to do their best with limited time and technical resources. This teaches us an important lesson on how limits become opportunities.
I am thankful to director and actor Betsy who curbed the roughest areas of my dialogues, and Fredi and Jessica for their acting, and to Peggy for coming up with an incredible Jello-Brain!
So as often happen one thing leads to another and after our successful artistic endeavor we found ourself sleeping on our old couches in Susan’s place and varnishing and painting the interior of Tranquility with some nasty paint. We also indulged in eating our favorite food all over town, visiting friends, building safety bars for our boat, and other million entertain
As soon as we got back, we are stuck in a whirpool of maintenance and upgrades, and social life.
This final preparation is important though. We decided we will sail soon away from shore, probably for a long time, and in order to do so we have to build escape velocity to win the pull that this place is exerting on us.
The idea of snorkeling, eating tropical fruit and discovering new places and cultures are equivalent to strong propulsion jets that are helping us knocking out the departure list.
We will reach the point where careful and thorough preparation will become just an exercise of obsessive behavior and resistance to change. That will be the very moment when we will have to push harder and defeat the gravitational pull of comforts, friends and family, and what is known to us and head into something a little different, that we have longed for.
A little more than one week ago we were at anchor in Cumberland Island, enjoying the warm weather and the gentle wind. Mornings are still chilly this time of the year in these Southern lands and seas, but when the sun shows up they climb quickly and make it a wonderful place to be.
We anchored in the north side of Cumberland Island, by the ruins of Cumberland Wharf. Right in front of the stumps left from the old pier the water is deep enough for us to be still floating at low tide. Unfortunately it is a not very protected anchorage and can only be used with wind from the E or the S. That prevented us to stop here in other trips, but this time weather was with us and we had a pleasant day and night on the hook.
Kate wanted to take a stroll in this particular area of Cumberland Island to see the first African Baptist Church, built in this settlement in 1893. A beautiful forest, with many trees down from recent tropical storms, surrounds the Settlement, so thick that it is almost impossible to cross out of the only road that is built in the area. We disturbed peaceful armadillos, looked at wild horses from a safe distance, picked up juniper berries, while walking through the forest.
There is a need for loneliness and remote areas that has a profound effect on me. It must have something to do with my feet, which are my main form of transportation right now. In quiet an unobstructed places early mornings became my treat retreat. No internet connection means freedom from constant feed and social media. It calms my urge to express quick and shallow thoughts.
Places like this have a restorative effect. There is nothing wrong with people, but I don’t particularly like what is built for people. Roads, parking lots, concrete surfaces, they all bring clutter and negative vibes. They all serve a purpose: take you fast and comfortably to a place where you can spend money.
In the morning I usually take some time before making coffee to write whatever comes out of my mind, without a specific aim. Then I make coffee and continue with writing or reading as I wait for Kate to wake up. It is my only private moment aboard Tranquility. Kate usually enjoys the same privilege at night when I crash earlier than her.
There is an article about Tranquility’s refit coming up in the May issue of Good Old Boat Magazine. I’ve been in touch with the editor working on few details of the story and pictures. It makes me feel a little like a professional, the exchange of information back and forth, the check coming into the mail, the editing process. I am trying to read and write better, with more intensity, and focus. I am not sure if I could ever make a living out of it, it should be nice indeed. Writing itself stabilizes my mood. I become cranky and distracted when I don’t do it enough. So you won’t get rid of me so easily.
After Cumberland Island we sailed with a clear blue sky and enough wind to move consistently toward our destination: St.Marys. I am rather pessimistic when it comes to estimate our progress, especially when we have to use our slow motor. It might not be very powerful but is indeed perseverant, and we sailed quicker than expected to destination. There we reunited with our friend Bill and other people we got to know when we were in the boatyard for a month of hard work. We visited and saw their progress, indeed slow but perseverant. If you keep moving you eventually get there.
Saturday the strong Northerlies kept us at anchor. We tried to make it to Fernandina Beach in the afternoon but the effort was not successful, we couldn’t make way in a bend of the river, where the current and the headwind brought us to a dead stop. We retreated a few hundred feet back and dropped the anchor again, then we waited for the next day when the wind dropped, and started to move timing the tides, ebbs and flow, trying to get to the inlets at low tide to use the next flood.
Again, with the use of sails and motor we did remarkably well and we darted through the marshes of Florida’s barrier islands, a journey made of dolphins encounters, birdwatching, fighting the currents and the shoals. My mind that usually see the darker picture, predicted that we would have to stop in Amelia Island and wait for the next tide the following day. Instead, winds, currents and a little help of the motor when needed, put us all the way past the Talbot Islands to a free public dock in Jacksonville, right before the St.John’s River. There we celebrated, with delicious food and with a dose of spy movies to be precise.
With this unexpected progress, we arrived earlier than I thought to Palm Cove Marina, so Kate could go easily to her doctor’s appointment.
Why am I so pessimistic? My mind often wanders about how to build faith. Not in the religious term, or maybe so, but for me faith means a deep motivation and sense of direction. It’s possible that my interest in psychology comes from a desire to know deeper why faith is so volatile, why, basically, the mind gets in the way of your everyday life, with worries, negative thinking and other sort of anxiety-driven doubts.
Every reduction of this problem to a mechanistic view never really answered my questions. What’s the role of bad thoughts, of second guessing, of self pity? Is it something we can dismiss easily as just wrong or unadaptive or something to cure and eliminate? Is being happy and have a positive outlook to be normal?
These are some big philosophical questions, big crevasses that are hard to fill by knowledge. Depression is real, and it is no joke. It affects everybody, but in peculiar individuals, particularly sensitive ones, it takes an enormous toll and becomes a struggle.
I recently read a little more about one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. He was clinically depressed. And he was one of the most successful writers of his generation. Eventually he could take no more and committed suicide. I am sure he experienced extreme happiness, an perhaps extreme boredom. I can imagine his life was intense and full under many points of view, with vertiginous highs and bottomless lows.
Looking at people with severe clinical depression makes me withdraw from my self pity and negativeness. I don’t consider myself depressed. I have indeed my moment of darkness, boredom, laziness, cowardice and so on. Still, I look to people that show profound faith and hope with a bit of envy, as an example, or maybe as a myth, because we tend to share only our nice part with others. The undesirable thoughts and behavior are hidden by a curtain of shame. Even there, I look for faults. It seems that people obsessed with Positive Thinking go in a downward spiral because it’s so hard to really be positive all the time. Showing just the positive and shiny parts, they hide the dark ones.
Robert M. Pirsig, who also suffered from severe depression, wonderfully put it in words in an article he wrote for Esquire called “Cruising Blues”:
You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau.
I found that moving slowly, a little bit like Tranquillity, gets you out of any situation. Keep moving slowly and things will get better.
Another disturbance in these day of rest, is the role of fear and attraction. There is a common saying that you fear what you desire. My current fear is thinking about sailing the northern route across the Atlantic. At the beginning of all this it was like a fun idea that Kate and I created once we started our boat project. The scary part at this point is that we might do it. When you start considering that a thing may happen Fear shows up, and it can be paralyzing.
There is this stretch of ocean between Newfoundland, Canada and Iceland called Irminger Sea. Named after a Danish explorer, this part of ocean that borders the East Coast of Greenland is considered one of the windiest of the planet. It is studied by oceanographer because of its peculiar oceanic currents, that sink and resurface, and play a fundamental role in the nutrient cycle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is that scary? Yes, but it is also exciting, daring, emotional. It’s a place where not many people go. But somebody did, in many different crafts, with the more diverse crew.
Geronimo St. Martin, an Argentinian physician made it solo in a 20 ft fiberglass production sailboat, named La India. He later made it to Norway, Spitzbergen, and the Arctic circle, before turning around to reach Cape Horn, on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
A family of 5 who call themselves the Coconuts (two adults, three kids, now four with the last delivered while wintering in Iceland) made it on a racing boat in October, not exactly the “right” time of the year.
These examples don’t mean that this is an easy and comfortable trip. But it’s possible.
So why this fear? Because I am scared I am not disciplined enough to cope with potentially severe conditions? Because I think that my body is not strong enough to endure the trouble? That my mind will resolve to panic in a difficult situation? Because it is a place so remote that emergency responder may not get to? For sure, all the above.
Human mind assumes it is more likely to face death attempting that route rather than another one. It may be true but calculating the odds could not be that simple or possible at all, and death has very humorous ways to get to you. Fearing the Irminger Sea is both wise and stupid. Wise because it puts you in the face of a very hostile environment. It’s stupid because any Sea or Ocean is worth respect, and we as sailors should pay the same attention, awareness and preparation every time we go out at sea.
But I am also attracted by novelty, and at this point of my life a tropical beach with bar, wi-fi connections, crowded anchorages, fine dining and warm clear waters is not something that intrigues me anymore. Remote and rugged, quiet and isolated are all adjectives that sound more attractive. There is eternal beauty that waits to be discovered. Even cold assumed a new desirable meaning. The only thing I still can’t go over is cold water. I have a natural, visceral fear and avoidance of cold water. In this Kate is much braver than me.
So what am I really fearing? I am fearing the effort, the amount of preparation it takes, the awareness, and the bare thousands of miles in cold water, fog, strong winds? The fear of failure, that comes from the judgements of others?
I can’t make my fear shut up. Fear is energy. Fear is useful. In this case fear is telling me not to underestimate the task and to be prepared for it. And there is only one strategy that doesn’t work with fear. Avoidance. When you avoid fear you bring it with you for the rest of your life.