Rookies of the Sea

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.

Obey your Master.

A much welcomed “chicken move”

I am crossing my fingers as I am writing this but it seems we almost made it through the ICW. Almost because we post-poned our departure again, 6 hours from the original idea of leaving right at low tide around 6:30 am.

Here is what happened.

We woke up in Morehead City, NC where we spent few days waiting for decent weather to sail offshore and keep sailing in a general south west direction. Everything was ready from the night before, we just needed to leave the docks, raise the sails and go.

It was 5:45am when I ventured outside heading for the restrooms. The sky was dark grey, rainy and windy, the nervous chop of the bay slapping Tranquility loudly. The temperature was 39F. For as much as I wanted to ride the Northerlies and get past Cape Lookout to finally head straight to the above average warmth of Florida, the scenario of this early start was not encouraging. The drizzle in particular was very disheartening.

Back under the blankets and with coffee in our mugs we held a brief crew meeting (Kate, me and Beta) and all agreed to postpone departure to next high tide with the idea of spending the next six hours napping,taking showers and in general being comfortable.

At first I was a little mad at myself. I considered that a “chicken move”. But then I acknowledged the wisdom coming from Kate and Beta. There is no need to make your life more miserable when you already are sailing in winter on a tiny sailboat.

We should still have a good 24hrs or so of Northerlies, enough to cover the 100 miles that will put us past Cape Fear and on a SW course parallel to shore. Then we expect another blow between Thursday and Friday, a cold front passing through and bringing other strong northerlies. This time the forecast indicates that it’s not going to be as long lasting as this past one, and by then we should also be hugging the SC – GA coasts with milder temperatures compared to North Carolina, which by the way, we are very happy to leave behind.

This North Carolina endeavor has been cold and rainy, with a lot of idle time waiting for the weather to behave properly.
It sure is challenging and rewarding to be able to sail inland waters, ditches and all, but it also very labor intensive and slow. It’s something between a chess game and an endurance race, played against a very capricious opponent.

With our electric motor we belong offshore, and that’s where we are heading.

See you later.

A sailing pilgrimage

When I think about our journey I like to think we are on a pilgrimage, even when it’s not clear what is the destination. I may not know the destination of the journey, but I know the sense of it, or at least this is what I tell myself. It sounds more or less like this:

Redesign life through interaction with nature and the discipline of sailing.

On this pilgrimage we are currently  in Portsmouth VA, where our Columbia 29 MK1 was manufactured in 1965.

According to advertising material of the time Columbia Yacht Corporation opened its eastern plant in 1964 situated on a nine-acre on 2400 Wesley street in Portsmouth,Virginia. Looking at her now, 51 years after leaving the factory, Tranquility is in a very good shape.

We didn’t want to walk for 1 hour under the rain to visit a site which with all probabilities has completely changed. I feel a little proud of our little boat, still sailing. Sometimes I have weird dreams of making her lighter, without an engine and other “extras”, to enhance her sailing abilities, but then I wake up to reality when I think about boatyard time and realize it’s not time to do that. Not yet, at least.

Tranquility is probably happy to be underway again after two weeks in Hampton VA. The family trips went well and we much enjoyed the time together, the request for the removal of the conditions on my permanent residency is in the mail, heading for Vermont, and we hope for a quick response. Now it’s time to go back to sailing.

The first sail after the break was nice and fast. The boat moved at a good pace down the Elizabeth River pushed by northerlies, surrounded by a surreal vulgar display of power. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, hospital ships and other less familiar types were docked or under shipyard care while jets, helicopters, and Command and Control aircraft buzzed around.

Navy ships under repair in Norfolk VA
Navy ships under repair in Norfolk VA

We reached the free public docks in Portsmouth, VA where we met a bunch of fellow cruisers docked for the night. It’s coldish, and we are not used yet to be with no heater. Temperatures are expected to plunge further in the next days, so we are moving carefully, using the days that are in the low 40s to stay at anchor and save money, and digging in our sailing budget to dock and use shore power when it goes down to 32 as it will.

It’s our second trip southbound, and for one reason or another, it seems that we can’t avoid to run late and face cold weather again. Days are short and we find ourself in bed after dinner at 7pm and up after 7 when the sun finally comes back. Our sleeping bag and each other’s body temperature are our best allies, even our cat limits his night roaming to snuggle with us and find warmth.

The good thing about it is that we can read a lot, write, cook hearty meals, listen to the radio. Kate and I are playing tug of war over a book titled Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a reportage written by Jeremy Scahill about the use of private contractors for security and military operations in war zones. It’s a bit repetitive in its construction, but it’s dense with truly scary information mostly about what happened in Iraq and in other unlucky places on earth.

Weird enough where we are now it’s only few miles away from Academi‘s (the new name for Blackwater) main facility: 7,000 acres (28 km2) in the Dismal Swamp. There is a canal where Tranquility could sail that runs between Chesapeake, Va to South Mills, NC. Unfortunately the canal is closed after hurricane Matthew created some obstructions on the tight ditch. I guess we will have to delay hearing gunfire until we get to Camp Lejeune.

More than marshes, barrier islands and wide sounds, it’s the military presence (with the colorful addition of their competitors in the private sector) that sadly dominates East Coast landscape by sea, a reminder of America’s strength and beliefs, if someone forgot.

On a lighter note I spent time focusing on the launch of the new website, Psychology of Sailing. I had the opportunity of interviewing few specialists, both in the Psychology and Sailing fields, about this project. I feel that I am researching the topic widely before I can confidently write about it. I forced myself to a deadline, so time is running and soon I have to break this doubts and publish.

To know better the world of live aboard cruisers I am also conducting a survey with the aim of studying a little more the phenomenon. I you know anybody cruising for more than 6 months please ask them to contact me.

If you want to receive the first post and you are interested in following this new website you can subscribe at Psychology of Sailing here. Help spread the word!

 

One man’s experiment with electric propulsion

Electric vehicles (EV) are the future of light duty vehicle, with some forecast that put internal combustion engines (ICE) to soon be less competitive when compared to EVs. Other experts are more conservative on how soon this is going to happen, but it seems clear that ICE is fated to become obsolete as EVs are “the rational, economic choice”.

The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S
The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S  (photo by Oleg Alexandrov)

But what is the situation with marine electric propulsion? Can small sailboat be propelled by electric motors?

Over the water, the most common form of auxiliary propulsion for sailboats over 25ft is marine diesel engine. This proven technology benefits from many years of successful use and a well established industry of dealers and technical repairs. It’s easy to say that the diesel ICE dominates the market on sailboats. Before owning a boat with electric propulsion, my only experience was with diesel engines and, less often, gasoline outboards.

The engine room of a small sailboat
The engine room of a small sailboat (photo by PHGCOM )

THE DIESEL BIAS
Diesel fuel has a couple of good features: a high flash point that allows a relatively safe handling and a good energy density that provides satisfying motoring range with limited storage required. Today new, smaller and more efficient units fit easily in every engine room. Marine diesel give a sailboat an extended range under power and enough horse power to face any difficult situation.
When I first faced electric propulsion it was a quirky novelty, something I was not prepared to deal with. The most important discovery was that we all share a diesel engine bias. The common temptation is to approach the topic trying to ask the question if electric propulsion can replace the diesel engine.

After carefully going through a lot of research, re-doing myself the installation, and using it for more than 2000 nautical miles, I finally have an answer.
No, electric propulsion can’t replace the diesel engine. What it did for me was to change the way I see and use auxiliary propulsion.

A DIFFERENT MINDSET
It is common practice on a sailboat to turn on the engine not only when you need to maneuver around tight docks or anchorages, but also when wind or wave direction shifts to an undesired angle, when the speed drops under a certain threshold, if the battery charge is low or to fight against tides and currents. No matter what is the source of the annoyance, it takes little effort to fix it. Just turn the ignition key on, wait one second and put the throttle in gear and the problem is solved.
Fuel and general consumables are what sit between the choice of motoring or not motoring, and they are usually very easy to find everywhere and reasonably cheap. This mindset implies that power is abundant and available at all times, we can get to destination in less time, going through very little trouble.
Electrical propulsion on the other hand, requires a switch from this mindset, from considering power abundant to scarce. Scarce however doesn’t mean non-existent, it simply means that your reserve has to be cared for and maintained.

ANATOMY OF OUR “LOW COST” SYSTEM
Tranquility, our Columbia 29 built in 1965 is powered by an inboard electric propulsion. The conversion from presumably an Atomic 4, was performed by a former owner who installed an earlier model from the company Electric Yacht. The motor is a simple DC Eltek brushed motor mounted on a 2 to 1 gear, and it works at 36Vdc-65Vdc (48Vdc nominal), with a maximum peak of 130Amps and 100Amps continuous. The power conversion is estimated equal to 6 horse power. It is small and weights a little more than 40 pounds.

Here is a video of Tranquility’s conversion to electric propulsion:

At the time of purchase the boat and the propulsion system needed serious updates, and we were forced to replace the existing battery bank with a new one. We opted for eight 6v Trojan T-125 batteries connected in series for a total capacity of 240ah at 48v. The reasoning behind the choice of a “traditional” lead acid 6v battery is both economical and practical. Lead acid batteries are at least five time cheaper than Lifepo4, and our sailing budget is very limited. Also, in case of a single battery failure it would be easier to replace one “golf cart” battery in different places of the planet, without dealing with expensive shipping and duties.
We use wind, hydro, the grid and fossil fuels to o recharge our batteries. In details, we installed a 48v wind turbine, a 20amp AC to DC battery charger powered by the grid when we are at the dock and by a portable gas generator when at sea, the 12×12 fixed three blade propeller that regenerates power under sail when boat speeds exceed 5 knots.

CRUISING WITH ELECTRIC PROPULSION: THIS IS HOW WE DO IT        With our current system we are able to motor in calm conditions at 3 knots while drawing 20 amps for approximately 15miles before we need any recharge. This estimated range is considered an ideal situation and we try to avoid to use our motor for that long. If we have to motor for more than 1 hour for instance, we would use our gas generator on deck to give some power back to the batteries. The motor rarely runs at more than 20 amps, and when it happens my hearth races as if they were taking my blood rather than electrons from the battery plates.
If we are drawing more than 20 amps it’s because we are fighting headwinds, currents in a narrow passage or a maneuver that requires high thrust, situations that should not last long if we plan our sail wisely and that not affect too much our power reserve. We always try to be very conservative with our batteries but at the same time we are happy to know that we can demand more power if conditions arise. How little we can motor became a game for us, and we feel particularly accomplished when we don’t use it at all.

Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway
Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway

OUR TESTING GROUNDS
Coastal sailing is the most demanding situation for auxiliary propulsion because of narrows, currents, navigational hazards that make sailing hard work and sometimes extremely time consuming. For these reasons, most of our sailing is done offshore where we don’t need auxiliary propulsion. Since we fixed our boat and hooked up the electric propulsion we have been sailing the East Coast of the United States from Massachussets to Georgia round trip with electric propulsion. As we are planning to take on more distance sailing, we considered that a successful test.
Occasionally we useD the ICW, especially on the southbound trip when we went from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC. In that situation, time was a constraint as we were cruising in cold weather and our priority was to get south as fast as we could.
One day for example we needed to sail from Manteo NC, to Hatteras, NC via the Pamlico Sound. The forecast gave us very light wind for the next day, not great sailing conditions. If we waited, we would have to face strong headwinds for the rest of the week and get stuck there. Considering the scenario, We decided to leave early, hooked up our gas generator to motor all the way in a flat Pamlico Sound. Because of the short winter days we arrived at night but once there we had no worries about when to leave for the next leg of the trip that was done under sail.
The rest of the trip we sailed and motor-sailed along “the ditch”. A gentle breeze is sufficient to sail faster than we would motor, and we also tolerate to move slower if that is possible under sail. Carefully timing the tides we can motor faster using less power and so our journey is entirely planned in consideration of weather patterns and current.

THE ART OF COMPROMISE
Kate and I live aboard and cruise full time. So far electric propulsion has never been a concern, nor we live it as a limitation. After some adjustments in our cruising style, we quickly adapted to it. Cruising with an electric inboard propulsion means to compromise. The reduced range limits our possibilities in terms of routes and landing options. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave earlier from places we like to take advantage of a favorable weather window. Sometimes we had to stay longer in places we liked less. More than once a sudden calm, a favorable tide or other “disturbances” led us to places we din’t plan to visit. With this limitations, we learned that it’s not a coincidence that most of the main harbors are built in locations accessible under sail in most conditions, as historically that was the only way to get there.

ELECTRIC PROPULSION MAKES BETTER SAILORS
Electric propulsion forces us to keep sailing even when the boat speed goes below 3 knots. These limits had forced me to work on having a better sailboat. Because of limited power we keep our bottom as clean as possible (I often dive myself or hire a professional when I don’t feel like). Because of our limited power, we purchased better sails for light air and installed a retractable bowsprit to increase our sail area. We spend more time studying landings on the charts, including alternative points of refuge in our planning and always trying to match the tide and the current. Paying closer attention to weather is another consequence of dealing with a limited range. Even if it would not be our first choice sometimes we have to leave at night or arrive with the dark. In other words, our sailing skill and navigation competence have improved thanks to electric propulsion.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
What I am doing today is a sort of a beta test, the science fair version of astrophysics. Considering our limited budget and resources, the results are encouraging and what is really exciting is that there are optimistic signs that this technology will be more and more viable for future use and diffusion in the marine industry.
Even if we are being thrifty, we are aware how our battery bank have a relatively short lifespan. Well cared lead-acid batteries can last 7-10 years but the test of electrical propulsion is a harsh one, that’s why we are doubly careful on how we treat how power reserve
With this in mind, I look forward to what may be available in 2020 in terms of batteries and their cost. The electric car industry, Tesla in primis, has shown the world that the technology is already here and that only scale production and policy are the limits to a wider diffusion. The marine industry is opening up to LiFePo4 technology for power storage, and even if today is still very expensive, there is no need for technological breakthroughs, just a more mature industry and a wider market.
I would use Lifepo4 batteries today if I could afford them. This way I would extend my motoring range by 40% at 50% the weight of my actual setup. In this way I would be less concerned to push down harder on the throttle if I feel like, or worry about the time between full recharges, as lead plate sulfation would not be an issue. I this way I would feel more confident and leave behind our gasoline generator. The much decreased weight would give me better sailing and motoring performance in return. In other words, power will still be “scarce” but less so.

A SMALL MINORITY
We rarely encounter other cruisers with electric propulsion (but thanks to the internet we met a guru and now we know some others) and we feel that somehow we are an anomaly, especially when it’s a calm day and other vessels motor at full steam, while we bob around with full sails trying to catch any breeze and spending very long time to cover few miles. Sometimes it’s not fun. We are lucky that our sailing doesn’t have to follow a particularly strict schedule, so it’s not dramatic either.
When we purchased our boat the type of auxiliary propulsion was not among the most important criteria in our selection, and the fact that Tranquility came with electric propulsion was somehow a coincidence. We thought that we could any time switch to a different system if we wanted to, but after trying it we got intrigued and realized that even with its limitations electric propulsion works for us.

Today electric propulsion would be my first choice for a sailboat up to 35ft. Its minimum maintenance, the fact that is quiet, reliable and simple and has no fumes from fuel and oil are the perks that balance the labor that takes to sail more, which coincidently is why we are on the water in the first place.

Walking in America

We are living a very peculiar lifestyle, we get to experience situations that very few people have access to. The good and the bad, like walking on a disused railway track like iconic vagabonds.

It happened yesterday, when we took our much needed stroll to the grocery store to gather provisions, 2.7 miles away from where Tranquility is docked. It may seem far, but to us it is a reasonable distance to cover for food. Walking gives us a nice opportunity to see the places we are visiting, have sometimes meaningful conversations, exercise. It took us almost an hour to get there, walking in the countryside of the Delmarva southern tip, passing by a golf course, fields of cotton, horse ranches and a cemetery. The path was not well suited for pedestrians, but at least traffic was not too bad, and the mild and sunny afternoon was a special treat.

Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA
Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA

When I walk in America I always feel a little bit subversive. First I always notice that nobody else is doing it. I am of course not talking about big cities, or downtown strips where people walk purposely on sidewalks that keep them safe from traffic. In that case they probably just parked the car not far away or left the train to cover the last steps to get to their destinations.

I am talking about walking in city outskirts, suburbs, small towns and strip malls. As live aboard cruisers we end up in random places where we need to get supply, or just visit particular sites, and we don’t have a car, mainly because we cannot carry one with us onboard I guess. Everywhere we need to go, we go on foot, hire a cab or rent a car if that requires long traveling. And we feel strange. Drivers give you “the look” (a combination of astonishment, curiosity and pity ) as they pass you, some of them even press on the pedal trying to “rolling coal” or honk to acknowledge your presence. It’s no coincidence that roadsigns state “stop for pedestrian” rather than “stop for people”.

With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are
With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are

Walking is becoming more and more dehumanizing. Pioneers who once used to walk through plain and savannas are now regarded as “pedestrians”, somebody who is in the way of the traffic flow. If this sounds a little too dramatic just consider for a second the very basic concept of “Jaywalking”, which happens when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. It is considered an infraction but in some jurisdictions, it is a misdemeanor or requires a court appearance.

What happens where there are not designated paths for pedestrian? Would that be a case where walking becomes a criminal act? “Jaywalking” is a clear sign that the road belongs to cars. That’s why we felt somehow safer when we walked alongside the railroad tracks, luckily not in use anymore. When we walk a random intersection we often ask ourselves if an officer would be entitled to fine us for Jaywalking. If you walk in America you know that it’s not always clear where you are supposed to step around intersections.

People we get to talk to always offer us rides or the use of their car out of kindness, when they learn about our walking intentions. But they are also concerned because  but also because it’s not normal to walk few miles to places like the grocery store. It’s not just that, it is straight-out dangerous. Many times we had to explain that it’s ok for us, that this is how we exercise and add other reasons to motivate this bizarre behavior of walking. Plus, on our boat we don’t have very much floor area so walking is very enjoyable every time we have a chance to do it.

The lack of safe walking paths all along the east coast is discouraging. The more people stop walking the more trails and walking path are disappearing. I am sure urban planners like Kate would have sophisticated explanations why America is so badly designed for walking, but it seems reasonable to boil it all down to one main responsible: cars. Everything in America is designed around cars, the most important form of transportation, in particular commercial areas like strip malls, shopping plazas and such.

It’s scary how an urban design issue is deeply influential in how we think about society. When we were in Georgia (the place where I lived the longer in the US) the sight of a walker on the side of the road would trigger a big flag. I remember saying this to Kate: “Oh look at that guy, he’s walking (not jogging) the causeway… that’s a big flag over there” meaning that when a somebody  in civilian clothes walks somewhere the reason must be a problematic one: a broken down vehicle, a homeless situation, too poor to own a car, a person up to no good. The sense of distress permeates these hypothesis as we drove by on our vehicle. “Can you imagine being there? With this heat?”

Now that we don’t own a car anymore our point of view completely switched. Now we are the anomaly, the vagrants, the subversives. At a certain moment, during our walk, Kate stopped and looked at me saying: “I feel weird, we are not supposed to be doing this”.

“You are right” I said, “It shouldn’t take us three hours to do groceries, it all should happen faster, so we can do more other things”. Time is a valuable resource, therefore it is better to do things as quickly as possible, especially moving, at the expenses of something that makes us truly human like walking.

Walking upright is one of the basic human characteristics, a revolution that boosted our survival skills allowing humans to walk faster and farther, facing up to spot potential dangers, and liberating our upper arms to accomplish more tasks. It is sad how today this is somehow endangered, how fitbits and other exercise apps had to be invented to force people to walk more, how it all became a workout and people can’t wait to go hiking during weekends, to regain the health we lost for not walking in the first place.

I like to walk, a lot. I think that together with sailing it is my favorite form of transportation. Walking is even cheaper, you only need a pair of good shoes, and that only if you are picky walker. Any shoes really would do fine. Walking is becoming more and more a privilege, regarded only to who have the time to afford it or to who live in communities where walking is possible and not a russian roulette played with cars.

Or to people that have no alternative, like us.

Living on a boat has its limitations

It took some effort to pull away from the coast. We are growing fonder of social interactions, family, friends, random people watching on a NYC train. We spent good part of early fall visiting people, re-establishing connections in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York City but also back in my home place, northern Italy. We met newborns and introduced each other to old friends and colleagues on both continents. As much as we are embracing an hermit-like lifestyle relationship and social interactions seem to grow stronger, as if quantity of interaction was not a good indicator of their qualities. This sailing life is not exactly as sequestered as one could think.

Once again we have been adopted by a kind family of Fairhaveners, and by the community at large. We have always felt like at home there, but eventually, after all we wanted to do was brushed off the wish list and after we enjoyed time with kindred spirits, we had no other excuse to linger in the ever cooler South Coast of Massachusetts and eventually we had to sail South. A pilgrim is thankful for the hospitality, but they know when it’s time to leave.

And so we left with the same destination in mind as three years earlier, this time on a more outfitted boat, a better stocked pantry and a tireless helmsman, our Norvane self-steering. The memory of the previous trip had faded in a blur of discomfort and fast downwind sailing. Going offshore in the North Atlantic in November is no joke under any circumstance, and this time we had it worse.

north atlantic sailing route
north atlantic sailing route

Relentless westerlies winds kept us far offshore, more than we actually desired to, pushing us dangerously close to the outskirts of the Gulf Stream. At first it was a spanking breeze, that later became near gale condition from WNW. Heeled on a close hauled course with nothing but a small portion of the mainsail and the staysail, pounding into increasingly bigger waves, Tranquility made slow steady progress to windward. The forecast pictured an approaching cold front bringing strong Northerlies. We were looking forward to it but the weather was late to the meeting and so we could only keep our boat bow to the waves, which was hard but safer than have the breakers on the beam. At that point we would see ten feet high waves, crest to trough.

Finally the Northerlies came so we sailed on a broad reach with winds and waves on our starboard quarter. Immediately the boat’s speed took off. It was adrenalinic. I had to take the helm from the Norvane and carefully anticipate winds and gust to avoid Tranquility taking off on the wave shoulder, accelerating to windward and exposing her beam to the breaking crests. Soon the companionway was boarded up as some of the crests were dumping gallons of water into the cockpit and on top of us. Kate and I had our fair share of showers from “rogue waves” as we called them. Down from our bunks we could hear the slosh of ocean water all over the deck, followed by the watch keeper’s curses.

Eventually I grew too weary of steering and decided to take the mainsail down completely and running on the staysail only. The boat immediately slowed down and became more docile, the Norvane flawlessly kept her on course as I switched roles with Kate. Winds and waves conjured to give us a good angle of approach to Ocean City, MD. After stopping here on our way North we benefit again of the easy inlet, probably the only good harbor on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva peninsula.

Ocean City boardwalk in winter
Ocean City boardwalk in winter

This place in winter felt even more like a bubble. You can look out the window and see the deserted beach of Assateague Island, or you can try another window and see waterfront properties with private docks sitting still in the brightest november day, empty and quiet, a lot of square feet of living space heated and cooled for none’s use. Ocean City MD is the outpost of humanity, the front that tries to resist the big emptiness flowing in from the ocean, the ruins of an idea that everybody knew was wrong but none could do anything to stop, an endless succession of buildings, streets and corners that are struggling to keep up with the passing of time, deserted by the general lack of interest. They keep silent trying to withstand another winter, in need of funding, maintenance, and love above all, only visited by scavengers who benefit from the lack of summer crowd.

Scavengers like us, who found a nice crack in this fabric and we wedged in, with fenders and dock lines and anchor and all. From three days offshore where Mother Nature gave us no discounts, to a temporary protected nest. In these ruins we plugged back in the social discourse to find out things don’t always change for the best and so we diverted our attention from that to fulfill our cruising needs, electrical power, showers and a chance to serendipitously acquire another object to expand our unassorted collection: a stowaway Kite.

Once defrosted in the waterfront comforts we sailed back to the anchorage. It had been a very, very long time since last time we dropped the hook. Since Cuttyhunk in September, if I recall, roughly two months earlier. It always feels a lot different when we are at anchor. It’s like the zero point, everything from there is just adding stuff. Adding shore power, adding freshwater, adding internet, social interactions, malls, driving, noise, smell, shame and judgmental looks.

At anchor we focus on the basics cooking food and eating, house keeping, reading, writing, sleeping long hours, watching Fellini’s movies thinking that Italy in the 60s was the most advanced peak humankind has ever reached (the romantic idea soon demolished by remembering the undisputed hegemony of DC party during those years), eating more, periodically changing the orientation of the solar panel to ensure that the maximum output is kept.

At our peculiar age, a precise step in the western society where on average we are supposed to increase our footprint acquiring a house, a car, hopefully a second one, that rice cooker, maybe a drill press for the garage, we are contained in these tight fiberglass walls that resist the natural expansion of humankind, tossing back everything that does not fall into a place, with objects constantly mixed and reshuffled by a washing machine-like motion that put moisture in the mix, leaving us, members of the advanced western society, crawling in tight corners trying to ignore the growing chaos, with our focus absorbed by primary technological needs. Eventually we reach the point where we can’t retreat any more and we have to surrender, re-organize the space through simple actions that take the entire day.

These walls resisting the colonialist expansion teach us an important lesson. Our living space is growing smaller and smaller. It takes some time at anchor to fight back and put things into place, to cut back, discard, stop acquiring. It can only take so much expansion before the growth become a double edged weapon. There is one thing I can say for sure: living on a boat has its limitations. Planet Earth is a similar type of vessel floating in an inhospitable space, and it can only take so much growth.

East Coast Northbound: climbing capes

CAPES
The Capes

Sailing in the vicinity of capes is always tricky. Wind, waves, tide and other natural events shaped their appearance and at the same time those forces are influenced by the mass of land they collide with. A vessel rounding a cape is subjected to variable conditions, and for this reason it’s always a good idea to give extra miles when rounding a headland or promontory.

The East Coast of the US has several capes that influenced our route in many ways. Mainly they were obstructing our NE progress.  After Cape Hatteras, we could all of the sudden head almost due North, and get faster to cooler weather. Sometimes to go around the coast feels like climbing mountains, the effort increases close to vertical peaks.

Wrighstville Beach to Lookout Bight, NC 72 NM

WB sunrise
Sunrise in Wrightsville Beach

A group of open water swimmers was taking advantage of the early hours and of the momentary absence of boat traffic to practice. Tranquility was the only boat under way and from the cockpit we watched carefully the colorful swim caps and kept a good distance from them. It must be a popular group in Wrigthsville as we counted at least 50 people taming the inlet at 6 am. The sun was barely up but it was clear it would be another hot day.

We had enough wind to leave the Masonboro inlet and head ENE again, but soon we hit lighter conditions and the boat speed suffered. We were hoping to get there at dusk but the pace was not ideal. The wind picked up later when we were already in sight of the Beaufort inlet and the sunlight was gone. After the last gybe we had all the rolling waves hitting us almost on the beam as we were following the bearing of two red buoys marking the entrance of the bight.

We were trusting our chart plotter that was giving us a depth of 30 ft. It was a lie. Right when we heard the sound of braking waves and realized we could be in trouble, the boat hit the bottom with the keel. A sandy bottom judging from the sound. The long keel of our boat just bumped in a sand bank, we turned immediately to port where we found deeper waters and we adjusted our position to the blinking red buoy.

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LOOKOUT BIGHT VIEW, NORTH UP

We had approached the entrance with a too tight angle and the Navionics Charts had assured we were in no danger. It was a lucky way to demonstrate how chart plotters are not the solution to navigation problems. Had we listened more carefully to the sound of the sea or took a wider, more conservative angle of approach and we could have avoided that. Good lesson for the future.

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LOOKOUT BIGHT FROM ESE

After the surprising and scary bump we were sailing in flat waters as the land had already cut the swell from the ocean. This time it was upwind as we turned SSW to get in the lee of the sand dunes. It was time to decide where to anchor. We observed the anchor lights at the top of masts, trying to judge the distances from the beach, from other anchored boats and find the good depth to drop our anchor. With a quick look at the horizon it became also obvious that a line of thunderstorms was on our way.

After a little recon we let the anchor sink to the bottom in 17feet of water and I was giving enough chain and rode out to absorb the thunderstorm charging for us. Just as I cleated the anchor rode and positioned the anti chafe gear the squall hit us with some violent wind gusts and blinding rain from the NW. As the anchor had no sufficient time to set, it started to drag away from the beach towards deeper waters.

Luckily we had no obstacles in our path and finally the anchor set bringing our bow to the wind and waves. I calculated that we dragged at least 200 yards before the anchor found a good bite and started to dig into the sand. The thunderstorm raged for few minutes more, before continuing on and leaving a quiet night behind. When visibility improved we noticed we were a little distant from the beach, but we were now trusting the holding of our ground tackle.

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Walking the dunes
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Facing the Atlantic Ocean

We spent few days in the bight. One day we swam ashore and walked all around on the beach. The next day we hiked the beach and the dunes and made it to the other side in the hotter and sunnier day I experienced this summer. We made it, but it was a serious feat. During these hikes, we talked a lot about ideas, a torrent of ideas. Business plans, life plans, travel plans a big collection of our imaginary world had been discussed, analyzed and then dismissed or saved for later discussion. We thought about possible uses of shells, writing ideas, financial investments. Walking enhance our imagination to the point that we could even end up arguing furiously over an imaginary plan that is far from having any foundation.

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Lookout Bight gets busy with any type of craft during weekends

I consider the Lookout Bight one of the nicest place on the East Coast of the US, especially if you have the opportunity ti visit it on a boat. Crowded during weekends, it is remote during weekdays and at night it is absolutely quiet. We swam a lot and I even did my first bottom scrub since we launched the boat. The day we left, when the conditions we were looking for to face the longest and most difficult section of the trip finally came, I noticed a sand shark surfacing and trying to reach my breakfast pot… Even though I am aware how harmless they are, I am glad I went scrubbing the hull without knowing about it!

Lookout bight to Ocean City, MD 289 NM

We expected very light conditions for an extended period of time before venture out of the Bight to round Cape Lookout first, and Hatteras later, and that’s exactly what we got. We had an upwind first part to get around the cape, so light air was actually good, as the flat seas didn’t obstruct too much our progression. Once around, we received a little help from the Gulf Stream that pushed us NE.

I think the best explanation ever of how an ocean current works is from the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo, when Crush the turtle shows it to Marlin <<You’re riding it, dude. Check it out!>>

It was a very nice ride indeed. The Gulf stream current flows close to the Outer Banks Coast. We were sailing downwind about twenty miles offshore in light winds and still we had a steady progress of 4kts even 5kts at times. On a calm ocean we slipped into our watch routine mile after mile and had no visits from thunderstorms. The depth sounder took a peak of what’s outside the Continental Shelf and settled to 385 feet (apparently its maximum reading), but according to the charts we were in an area of 1600ft of depth. Kate shivered trying to imagine such an ocean depth. Here the water was really blue and turned violet when the sun was setting.

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“You are riding it, dude. Check it out!”

The round of Hatteras went almost unnoticed. For the entire trip we kept talking about it like it was Cape Horn or Good Hope. Even if it’s blasphemous to compare it to some of the most stormy capes in the world, Hatteras has a bad reputation among sailors in the East Coast, and we were constantly warned when they heard us talking about going around. Cape Hatteras is also known as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of many shipwrecks happened in the area. The presence of the Gulf Stream, the fierce storms that hit both in winter and summer, and a very thin and steep Continental Shelf make this cape a place not to underestimate and to avoid in bad weather.

After Hatteras we turned the bow North and passed the Chesapeake entrance to continue along the Delmarva peninsula. Our destination was Ocean City where we had the mission to find supplies, regroup and organize the next leg. I remember looking at the charts and asking Kate “How is Ocean City?”. She replied that she spent few summers there when she was a child. “It’s a crazy place you must see”.

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Beta and I checking the approach to Ocean City

Ocean City was attractive to my eyes because of its easy inlet in case we arrived in the dark (as our habit) and for the presence of marinas and shopping facilities. After three weeks at anchor we needed to replenish our fresh water and get a good deal of food. With some 300 miles to get to New England it was one of our last chances to stock up.

We obviously arrived in the early AM in pitch dark and I hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF to ask if the inlet had any recent change from what the charts were telling us. They gave us green light and we approached carefully. With so many buildings and lights it wasn’t difficult to find our way into the inlet and we reached our destination, Ocean City Fisherman’s Marina at 3 AM, tying up at the fuel dock waiting for them to open.

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Our first landing

It was a Saturday morning and fishermen were already leaving. Kate called the owner of the Marina at about 3:30AM convinced that she would talk to the voice mail. Instead she woke him up. She apologized but he reassured her that he was coming earlier anyway because of the early birds coming to the fuel docks, so he told us to go tie up to a near slip and that we could talk later.

We checked in easily and with the BoatUS membership we were granted a discount. We stayed two nights for 101$, which considering the season is not bad at all. In the morning we noticed that ours was the only mast in the marina (and probably in all West Ocean City). All around us sport fishers and other type of powerboats were the only boats.

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Neighbors in West Ocean City

We walked a lot, but all the shopping was close by so we quickly completed the list of our errands. On a saturday night we walked to the board walk, which is this crazy loud, sugar fueled, amalgam of people flowing up and down. Kate wanted me to try any sort of sugary extra caloric eatables and I settled for sea water tabbies and caramelized cashews. On the next monday we left early  with a fully provisioned boat to get to Cape Henlopen, with the plan to sit there and wait for a good weather window.

 

East Coast Northbound: surviving 4th July

Leg 2 Charleston SC, to Little River Inlet 106NM

We left Charleston following the same pattern of the previous leg, leaving in light air and waiting for some afternoon wind, which came, as well as the much dreaded short period waves. We developed a little bit of sea sickness and generally tiredness when we had to dodge thunderstorms all night. We were lucky not to get too heavy squalls, but pouring rain got me quickly soaked. With little or no wind exhausted by the passage of these disturbances, I decided to heave to and just try to sleep in the cockpit.

At dawn, we decided to use the remaining daylight hours and the favorable tide conditions to bail out into Little River inlet, a nice inlet right at the border between the Carolinas. We identified a potentially good anchorage on the charts, on the lee shore of an undeveloped barrier island, Waites Island, and we went for it. Cruising life had already deformed our sense of time. We forgot that 4th of July weekend was underway. The memory came suddenly back when we started noticing a crowd of any possible craft roaming the inlet and generating continuous wakes.

We grew accustomed to all the wake and subsequent rolling of our boat and eventually, around sunset, the anchorage would become again our private property until the early morning brought new fast and furious vacationeers. We were happy to rest and we started to enjoy the show we were witnessing as if it was (and truly is) a fascinating natural phenomena, like penguins mating or wolves hunting. It was a truly American experience as we were not far from the popular Myrtle Beach, suns out, guns out!

Leg 3 Little River inlet to Southport NC 33 NM

After two nights at anchor we decided we were tired of Little River and left for a shorter leg, a daysail to Southport NC. From where we were, going around Cape Fear is a long way out and in again, and it makes more sense using “the ditch” to cut to the other side on Wrightsville Beach. Cape Fear river current is very strong and requires perfect timing so it makes sense to repair in Southport and time the next departure. We also had stopped here on our way south a couple of winters ago and we really liked the atmosphere.

Back then it was cold and not very populated, we gathered with fellow late migrators around the free town docks and shared meals and stories. This time, being the day before 4th of July we couldn’t find any spot in the anchorage or even at the marina. I performed few doughnuts around the fast running channel while Kate was making calls around to see where we could stop.

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Provision & Co. in Southport, SC

Luckily the Provisions & Co., a bar and restaurant right on the waterfront, granted us permission to stay overnight at their complementary docs and leave the next morning. We enjoyed the downtown crowd and a nice meal at the restaurant, and smiled to the many curious customers who came to the boat asking any kind of questions.

Leg 4 Southport NC to Wrighstville Beach, NC 23 NM

It was still dark when we slipped off the floating pontoon. As soon as sails were up and we entered the Cape Fear River we noticed a big help from the current and the winds.  It was incredible to witness how the boat could sail at five knots on completely flat waters and very little wind.

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The vast Army facility at Sunny Point

The quiet flat waters were racing at about two knots in the back bay while we passed Sunny Point, a big Army terminal which serves as “a transfer point between rail, trucks, and ships for the import and export of weapons, ammunition, explosives and military equipment”. The area surrounding the facility is intentionally uninhabited to create a security buffer in case something goes wrong, and of course anchoring is prohibited.

The scenery is stunning and a bit desolating at the same time, but at least is remarkably different from the monotonous waterfront property with dock facility that becomes ubiquitous after you go trough the Snows Cut heading towards Wrighstville Beach. At that confluence a powerboat approached us and an oversized fella at the helm saluted me with “Happy 4th Bro” wielding a beer. We were on the “other side”.

A video is worth 1000 words. Check Kate’s work on “eating wakes for breakfast”

We anchored for a few days in Wrightsville Beach waiting for good weather for the next offshore leg and enjoying the ability to come and go to the public dinghy dock, even though the best feature was definitely the access to free showers at the beach. We also needed a little provisioning as we were planning to visit Lookout Bight, a natural park with no shopping facilities.

East Coast Northbound: Brunswick GA to Charleston SC

 

This time we picked very light conditions to roll out of the inlet and soon after some bobbing around the wind was enough to start reefing the mainsail and learning how to tune our new to us Norvane Self Steering wind pilot. The predominant SW kept blowing stronger and stronger forcing us to gybe every few miles to hold our broad reach course to the North East. The shallow water of the Atlantic coast provided a carpet of short steep waves. It was a bumpy ride, with objects flying all over the boat. We did not respond well to the solicitations of the environment, trying to hanging in there without much enjoyment.

We also encountered the first ugly thunderstorm off Blackbeard Island. We went into T-Storm preparation, reducing sail area, wearing foul weather gear and battering down all the hatches and when we were ready to face the monster nothing too bad happened as we slipped in between squalls. We spent the rest of the night dodging ship traffic in front of Savannah and charging harder ahead making good speed.

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Encounter in Charleston Harbor

The next morning we were approaching Charleston and we decided that it was enough for the first leg of the trip. Thanks to the limited power of our electric motor we had no option but to tack our way into the harbor as it was obviously an upwind course. Luckily the inlet and the harbor are very wide and with the wind decreasing Kate and I revised out tacking maneuvers on and on. Eventually we arrived to the anchorage in Ashley River, right in front of Charleston City Marina, and dropped the hook for a well deserved rest. As I spent most of the night up I was pretty exhausted, and Kate took a great care of me. She literally fed me and put me to bed.

As soon as our body were rested we “dinghied” in and walked around the City. We obviously went straight to the library and on our way there we found out that the library is right beside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church where nine people lost their lives. It was June 17 2015 and many people were commemorating the sad event as we walked by.

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As it happened before we decided to stay longer in Charleston, to re-organize the boat interior after the first offshore leg and to make it our base to visit family in Pennsylvania. This time we rented a car and went for a long car trip, with Beta in tow. The occasion was the celebration of Sister Janet jubilee for her 50th anniversary as a Franciscan nun. The ceremony was very moving yet joyous and I was truly admired with Janet and her sisters’ dedication throughout their actions and words.

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Beta visiting the misty West Virginia
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Family group portrait at the Sister Janet’s jubilee
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Casual meeting in Charleston, brother Bernie!

Before and after the road trip we spent some time in Sullivans Island. We found a secret and creative anchorage and we rowed ashore. This pretty island has an infamous past being the main port where african slaves were brought into the New World. The only reminder of this traumatic past is a little section of Fort Moultry Museum and a bench overlooking the marshes where the Toni Morrison Society place a “bench by the road”. As the commemorative plaque reveals “nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island“.

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bench by the road

Today Sullivan’s Island is a quiet residential destination, where the ‘haves’ enjoy their time on the beach. During our walk we found time to visit the local library which is dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed on Sullivan’s Island as a private in the United States Army in 1827 and 1828, and who used the island setting as the background for his famous story, “The Gold Bug.” The library and many other spaces of the island are located in the disused fortification of the island.

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Eventually we finished our week stay and the weather conjured for another departure. It was time to leave Charleston. We felt like this time we had the opportunity to get to know each other a lot better.

East Coast Northbound: Leg 0, False Start

It’s time for me to write about our journey from Georgia to the New England area. We decided this is going to be our summer/fall cruising ground, so for a while our sailing will be shorter and local. As we came to a soft landing in Buzzards Bay I found more tranquility within to review our progress and Kate’s impressive photographs also helped my memory, so in the next few days I’ll recap the steps that brought us here.

Sailing has a beneficial effect on my writing and I am actively working on different topics. I am trying to publish an article about Tranquility’s refit and working on a science fiction novel I’ve been on for a while. Besides,  I am attending an online course on how to monetize my blog. It seems that the first important task in this process is to “find my niche”. I have no clear ideas of what is my niche yet. Do you?

From Frederica River anchorage to Frederica River anchorage, 14NM

I start this recap with our first fail of the trip. Back at the beginning of June we thought we were ready to catch some good South Easterlies and start our climbing along the East Coast. The expectations about starting the journey were heavy on us, especially after being tucked in the marshes for the first two Tropical Storms of the season. We felt anxious and wanted to leave very badly, feeling disgusted by any extra job list and preparation routine.

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The view from Tranquility’s cabin during Tropical Storm Colin

We picked an afternoon departure with an ebbing tide to weigh anchor. The sailing in St.Simons Sound, was promising and Tranquility moved fast and secure in the smooth waters, but as soon as we entered the inlet things started to get hairy. Big steep waves lifted by the wind blowing against the tide crashed on our bow as we were trying to keep Tranquility close hauled in the long shipping channel out of the Sound. Shoals on both sides did not allow for any leeway and soon we had to start tacking.

During the first tack we go stuck in the trough between two waves. As the boat stalled the jib started flogging very hard and by the time we  got control of the boat again I noticed a rip in the fabric in the vicinity of the clew. I ran to the foredeck and while Kate was controlling the jib sheet I furled the sail. I immediately hoisted the staysail and tried to make up my mind on what had just happened.

It was clear that there was no other call than to go back to the anchorage, as we needed our jib for the miles on. We knew that in Frederica River at least we had the resources to fix it. We turned around and with following wind and tide we rolled on the big waves until we were safe in the lee of Jekyll Island.

Sailing back in protected waters, our minds were focused on how the departure was a failure. Instead of being out sailing we had once again to deal with few more issues, more work to do. We were happy that after all nothing too bad happened but we were definitely bummed and demoralized as we were again dropping anchor in Frederica River, the curse was still on.

In the next couple of days Kate dropped her phone in the water, making us a one phone family. Our old android tablet that we use for navigation decided to give up, the display no longer responded to our finger touch. Two foam cushions that form our sleeping bunk blew off the boat during a squall as they were left on deck to air out. I was able to retrieve one of them during my row back to the boat but the second one was lost forever. Instead of one step forward we were three steps back.

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Our friend Bill helped repairing our jib

We thought we were ready, truth was we needed more preparation and time. With the not so happy mood of who has no choice but keep pushing the stone uphill, we put together some a work and a shopping list, restock our supplies, sew a strong patch in the jib with the help of our friend Bill and his good sailmaking skills, and we were ready to try again, with a mission to stay out as long as we could on our North East quest.

Sea legs and watch system

“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired, anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”

Sitting at anchor enjoying the nice breeze and the shade provided by Kate (and her mom’s) newly designed boom tent is a good payback for all the sweat and effort, all the tense moment when we couldn’t see an end to our work and it seemed that we could never leave. Gazing at the nearby beach, observing any kind of wildlife, from sea birds to dolphins to bros riding jet skis and rude power boaters (there are few kind individuals in the category) put all this preparation labor on perspective. Now it’s time to enjoy.

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Sunset at anchor in Sullivan’s Island, SC

Nonetheless to fully enjoy our new life afloat we had to go trough countless details and preparation. A couple of passages in the open ocean and very soon we found where our preparation lacked and how bad our sea legs were. Cooking meals, resting and even personal hygiene can become difficult tasks out there. Exhaustion by sun exposure, waves shaking and wind can bring to episodes of delirious speech with a low deep tone of voice. Auditory hallucinations are not rare either and happen when your brain mistakes a particular sound for a baby’s cry or for somebody calling your name.

It took a long time to get our sea legs and cruising routines back on track. Sea legs are what keep you standing (or sitting) on top of a vessel accelerating and decelerating under the action of wind and waves. I suspect sea legs are a combination of motor control (governed by the cerebellum in the brain) and muscle tone of the core, so it takes training and exercise to establish a harmonic posture in relation with a shaky floor.

The very first offshore legs put us in survival mode, with the rolling and tossing of the boat depriving us of our natural strength, appetite and comfort. Even without being fully seasick, we were carrying a sort of  malaise. We hung in there resting as much as we could and holding on as of we were waiting for the ride to come to a stop.

 

“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired,
anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”
An engineer’s observation about the collapse of Texas Tower 4 in 1961

 

Gradually we built up some resistance and developed routines. On board Tranquility we use a 4 hours watch system that starts at 20:00 (8 pm, First Watch) and cover the rest of the 24 hours so the boat is never unattended.The person on watch is in charge of navigation duties, making sure the boat stays on course, keeping a proper lookout for hazards and weather change and updating the Ship’s Log. The other crew member lays in the bunk, trying to rest but ready to be summoned in case of “all hands on deck” situation, or “condition one” as we like to call it. We strictly stick to the schedule but we are also flexible in case conditions arise or if it’s time to make landfall.

Beside navigation duties we have daily chores that are split between the two of us and include cooking three meals a day and washing dishes, redding up (Pittsburghese for cleaning), ensuring that the cockpit snack bag is always full, washing and drying rags, towels and clothes,  waste management (composting toilet redd up, trash and recycle locker) and Personal care and Beta care.

The watch schedule and the work routines help to keep us busy and comfortable. When it is properly planned a passage at sea will be mainly smooth, with occasional rougher bits, so it’s important to be ready to face the unpleasant weather in good condition and spirit. If you let the boat get dirty and messy it will affect your well being. If you don’t eat, drink or rest enough you will be tired soon.

As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and so we are picking up with the old habits and safety protocols, by trial and errors. Three years ago, we sailed the opposite route in much worse conditions, during the winter and in a barely fixed boat. Now we remember that trip as if it was not a big deal. Why we became such wimps? It’s probable that memory erases the bad parts and retain the good ones.

We are still learning a lot, and we are lucky that Tranquility behaves so well. She is a tough girl, we have been the weak ones so far. She protected and transported us during the first thousand miles of sailing while experiencing winds in the range of 4 to 40knots, the latter number only briefly during thunderstorm gusts.We have an ample range of sail area available to adapt to different wind and sea conditions and the modifications to the deck and sail controls seem all very successful. The introduction of a third reef in the mainsail, the new boom vang, the sheeting blocks for the staysail, the bowsprit for the cruising gennaker all contributes to a finer sail tuning and ultimately boat handling.

Now we are taking a prolonged stop in the friendly Fairhaven, in the South Coast of Massachussets. This is the place where Joshua Slocum rebuilt his 36ft. gaff rigged sloop Spray, before setting sail for the first ever recorder singlehanded circumnavigation of earth 121 years ago. Incidentally this is where we purchased Tranquility, fixed her up and set sail in November 2013.

We don’t have such an ambitious circumnavigation plan, but we feel the power of the maritime lore of this place. Fairhaven is the fairy tale New England village in front of the rougher city of New Bedford, the “city that lit the world”, the whaling capital of the world portrayed in Melville’s Moby Dick and the city where Tranquility was on stands in a boatyard while we feverishly prepared her for sailing. We have so much connection to this area, friends that keep helping us, favorite places and memories. We are going to keep sailing, visiting other wonders of New England, but this is probably going to be our home base for the next few months. Until winter will force our next move.

 

Bliss recharge

The last post of the delivery trilogy was holding up my writing and creativity for too long, and writing it was like a big let go. There was also something else occupying my resources: our wedding re-enactment in front of family and friends. We called it “Family blessing and feast” because technically speaking we are already married.

Photo by A.Zotta
Photo by A.Zotta

We didn’t have a public celebration when we walked in the Woodbine Courthouse a little more than one year ago, just a handful of witnesses who had a free day and a secret but lovely suprise party from local friends when we got back. Even if for “The Law” we are a family we felt important to celebrate our union in front of our kin people and also to check if our families were somehow compatible. We had some good vibes about it but you are never sure until you try so why not try to organize a family blessing and feast in La Cialvrina, a wonderful resort in the Lys Valley?

Lys Valley and Monte Rosa
Lys Valley and Monte Rosa

Kate and I have been busy planning a destination wedding for 80 people in the Italian Alps, with guests traveling from all over, one of those things I loved but that I really hope I would not have to do again. We were in Italy for a month to give us enough time to put something together for the people traveling and to try to make that a vacation for them. The amount of stress and work involved grew as we approached the event, and beside some invaluable help and support from our friends and family (and the amazing staff at La Cialvrina!) we did it all by ourselves, planning, executing and improvising. And we did a darn good job!

Photo by M.Lodola
Photo by M.Lodola

Kate is a terrific planner and organizer and I like to work with groups of people, especially leading tours and organizing transportation. But that should be a well-paid job because it’s a lot of work that really wore us down. I understand now why people who get married do honeymoon… We really need a vacation! Unfortunately our honeymoon will be delayed to Spring 2016 and between here and there there is a big chunk of work to be accomplished. We hope it will coincide with our departure on Tranquility, the original project that exists since before we decided to get married.

So now we are back in Brunswick, with the jetlag gone trying to pick up life right where we left it before the “Italian affair”. The restoration projects on Tranquility need a restart and this time of the year the priorities are set by the weather: because of the frequent thunderstorms passing everyday over the Golden Isles I must do a good job in waterproofing the last leaks on the boat. A boat with dry interior is a luxury we are ready to pay the price for, even if it’s hard to stop leaks under huge rainfalls.

But it’s not just that. We now live on land, in a nice house with a wonderful and popular roommate, a band of happy animals, a backyard a bathtub and many other luxuries. Over time we got used to certain comforts and we also accumulated junk to store and maintain. The plan to go back to a full time living in a 29ft. boat requires a re-downsizing and re-organizing of our life and this takes some serious work too. Not only muscular work but also mindset work. Luckily we did it once already.

We are trying to figure out “how” but the important step is that the “what” is pretty clear. As happened during past endeavors planning, executing and improvising will happen if we keep our eyes on the goal, and the holy energy emanated during the “blessing” is the fuel we need to get us there. I promise to post a little more about the how when I figure it out myself a little better.

Seek and Destroy

Mid March may not be the best time to start thinking about 2015 resolutions. Getting through the first quarter of the year however helps to skim the unreasonable off the cauldron of expectations. The recent  approval of my permanent resident status (Green Card) gives us more oxygen and several degrees of freedom to think about the next moves, and what is going to be with our lives. So with this renewed spirit one should think that now the way is all downhill (or downwind). Well, that’s not exactly the case.

First we have to ask ourselves one question: are we ready to resume cruising? Sadly the answer is no, and even if it’s unreal to think that one day Tranquility will be in perfect shape, with every detail addressed and we will be full “ready”, loaded with enough cash to sustain the costs of cruising, we have to be honest and admit that the day we are cutting dock lines and sail away is not imminent.

We were contemplating a summer cruise of New England shores, the same shores that saw us on the first chapter of our endeavor. The idea was to leave Coastal Georgia in May-June and head north to savor the wonderful summer in New England. That area had been my home for two summers, the first one as professional crew on Superyachts, and the second as a boat owner who was assembling his boat to go cruising. In neither case I had the option to freely roam the coves and anchorages and to explore historical and naturalistic points of interest, as I was alway “on duty”. It seems that this desire has to wait a little longer.

But why this is not possible next summer? Well something happened while we were wintering in Brunswick, waiting for the green light of the Green Card. And that something was me. I started to take apart Tranquility even more than I did during the previous months. One piece leads to another, and nearly every single component of the deck has been removed. The boom lays down on the deck, the electric motor and batteries hauled out, part of navigation station ripped off. Kate and I observed this process happening with fear and awe, as spectators of an ineluctable fate.

Removing rotten teak on the bow stem
Removing rotten teak on the bow stem

There no such a thing like a small or partial refit. Tranquility was in shape enough to sail the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and she did a good job in protecting us from the severe winter but yet she is not as we imagine her. There is a real Tranquility and a dream one, and the reason why we are investing more time and money is because this two Tranquilities are still too far apart from each other. To bridge that gap the extent of the refit must be enlarged.

Refurbishing the galley
Refurbishing the galley

It is extremely difficult for someone doing their first refit to accurately assess the time, expenses and details of preparing a boat for a voyage. I did other refits on different boats, and no matter the budget and the expertise involved it seems that project management and boat refits cannot go hand in hand. The process is pretty much the same: I start with a little improvement, like re-grouping the batteries in a more rational position and then I have to modify the existing navigation station to host the batteries, remove the existing electrical system, build new floor, and so on… For some reason this path lead to the replacement of the existing ladder and the creation of new and bigger counter space. Little by little every out of date part of the boat is going to be replaced or repaired or refurbished.

A little more destruction
A little more destruction

We have to say that Brunswick is definetely a good place for refitting your boat all year around. Almost too good as departure keep being postponed.

Brunswick, where the hell is that?

This is where we live
This is where we live

We initially moved to Brunswick when James Baldwin offered me an apprentship after visiting us on Tranquility. We were transiting in Jekyll Island, getting ready to land in Florida and find us a good spot to make some money and improve the boat. We never make it further than St.Mary’s on the State Border. We decided instead to give James and Brunswick a chance. After one year we are still here and this must mean that Brunswick is not a bad place at all.

Even if sometimes I feel like we ran aground in the marshes of Glynn, it’s remarkable how many good things happened to us here. We had been introduced to the South, with its culinary specialties (see Oyster Roast and Low Country Boil) and the proverbial courtesy warm hospitality of the population. Soon enough we friended some special people, keen souls who are rooted here or following a similar pat, ran aground. Kate is already a notable person in the community and I personally learned a lot working side by side with James Baldwin, having helped him in many of his sailboat refits.

Tranquility is not ready also because my standards have risen and seeing what James did on other boats changed the idea of what is possible and impossible in terms of boat customization. While we were summering and wintering here few important things had happened. Kate and I got married in very hot day in Woodbine, GA. Subsequently I applied for a Green Card which was approved just recently. The Green Card process itself was very demanding and time consuming, kind of a part time job. No wonder it was a very busy time here in Georgia!

Anyway, we can’t afford to live in a perpetual dream of boat perfection. Wether Tranquility will be closer to perfection or not, winter is coming, this time with some tropical weather and crystal clear waters waiting for us. The time of the distruction must end… just let me deal with a couple little more things that I don’t like…

Visiting Utopia

Franz Matsch - Triumph of Achilles
Franz Matsch – Triumph of Achilles

Recently Kate and I had a meeting about our finances and cruising budget. The atmosphere in the room was tense, almost as we were on the board of a financial firm who is deciding about their future in a shifting market. The tone of voice was high and the opinions divergent.  When you don’t have a fixed income or personal wealth and you dream about a life afloat it’s no joke. We not only have to figure out the way to make it through the everyday expenses, we have also to plan the future with variable and not predictable income.

Since we are stuck in the mud with bills to pay and things to figure out we feel that the original idea is becoming almost an impossible quest. Even when you have determination, the path is hard and steep, the courage itself doesn’t guarantee your success. Will we be able to resume our trip? What does it take to get financially untangled and self sustained? Will we be able to defeat the Forces of Evil? Of course we will.

We are still in a very priviledge position, we have the luck of being educated, with an ever growing network of good people around us and we are constantly on a learning curve, exposed to interesting situation and people. The only fact that we are contemplating the idea of spending some time cruising puts us among the very few fortunate people on this planet. It may sound silly that this is our biggest challenge, while other people face more dramatic and difficult situations. But still this is our Dragon, our Big Bad Wolf, the challenge we decided to face.

I love adventurers, people that risk their life to achieve impossible dreams. When I follow the sailors of the Volvo Ocean Race I am fully excited by the extreme conditions they face. When I read Moitessier’s and other singlehanded sailors’ recounts I feel the majesty and intensity of their experience. Their toughness is an inspiration. It’s a big boost of tension toward the everyday hassles of life, the fuel to propel us over the obstacles that sit in front of our goals. The danger and harshness of their adventures transcend their particular case becoming an ideal situation people can identify with.

That’s the reason why epic is important in our life. When  intellectual and critical thinking, rational intelligence and aesthetic are not enough, the primeval power of epic is what it takes to shake our soul and squeeze energy out of ourselves. We look at heroes from the bottom to the top, sometimes to distract us from the boring miseries of our existence, sometimes as a way to quench our thirst of energy to keep fighting our demons and enemies. Aim high to hit the target.

These utopias act as a beacon that leads to an unhabited island, where gods and demigods live, where the impossible becomes the norm. The Nobel Prize Wislawa Szymborska told us about this perfect place in one of her most celebrated poems. The island she depicts is ofted visited by humans, but none of them can stay. They all have to go back to the depths, where life happens.

 UTOPIA by Wislawa Szymborska

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

Blue water, green land

It’s been a while now since last time we went cruising. I am lucky enough to go out for quick daysails with James Baldwin on his F27 trimaran in St.Simons Sound. Tranquility is chained to the dock, her interiors are torn apart once again, tools and building materials scattered all over and a rich ecosystem of sea creatures is growing on her hull.

Trimaran

Tranquility tied at the dock
Tranquility tied at the dock

The long-term landlubber world is back with sweet and sour feelings. The awe for huge size fridge and freezer, water and ice dispenser, laundry anytime, full size shower and wide spaces is slowly disappearing and fading behind the curtains of normality and habit.

From this safe and comfortable territory the visions of the open ocean are haunting me. As frequently happens for the process of remembering, which is bounded to the sense of smell, what keeps stalking me is the smell of blue waters. Out there, starting dozen of miles from the coast and extending to thousands, there is a peculiar smell, a smell of fresh air and spindrift, a smell of gliding birds and jumping fishes, a smell of biomass drifting just below the surface busy in their photosynthesis and cellular respiration cycles, a smell of clouds and winds and evaporation and condensation. This is blue water smell.

This is where you find blue water smell
This is where you find blue water smell

When you miss something you start to recognize its value. That’s how I feel now that we have to stay on land for some more time, looking for a future departure that has not a date yet. The comforts of life in the society are not enough to nourish a soul who experienced the blue water. I feel that too much comfort is killing me.

But life on land is not without pleasures. I am enjoying having breakfast in the backyard, in company of a wide range of color and sounds. The squirrels are busy running up the pecan trees, birds are quietly scooting around, flying bugs patrol the weeds. Behind the fence I face while sipping my coffee lays a whole universe of intricate vegetation. This adjacent lot is part of the priopriety but has gone fallow, and when that happen in South Georgia you have to expect a massive uncontrolled growth. And so, among the duties of a busy land life and the never ending boat works, we are fashioning to embark in a new adventure: recapture the jungle and make it livable, ensuring a good level of biodiversity and creating a little and safe niche for human activities.

Safe Backyard facind the jungle © Kate Zidar
Safe backyard facing the jungle © Kate Zidar

The first step of this adventure started cutting the combination lock of the gate with the grinder. Once the access was granted we started the exploration of the jungle and made our own way to the creepy shed buried into the vegetation. Inside the shed we found any kind of treasures, including a couple of chairs to add to the collection of the backyard, more tools for the garden, building materials, a lots of other items all piled in a chaotic way.  After this first incursion, we withdrew behind the safe line of the fence to elaborate a future attack strategy.

Conquering the shed © Kate Zidar
Conquering the shed © Kate Zidar

This gardening adventure is keeping my mood up from the blues of blue water nostalgia as I am elaborating a personal project: I would love to make a place for Zen meditation practice inside the garden. I think it’s a good way to immerse myself in the nature and temporarily substitute the smell of blue water with the smell of a garden. The presence of nature is very important to me, there I find real comfort in this increasingly industrialized and technological society.