Sailing to Panama: Bahamas, the gateway to the Windward Passage

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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.

Crossing the Gulf Stream in calm weather

 

 

ACROSS THE GULF STREAM

Our route across the Abacos

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.

Quarantine (yellow) flag signals that we have not been cleared into the country by officers

 

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.

Rowing to check in the Bahamas

 

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.

Conch out of the shell, the first step of a very laborious preparation

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.

Kate tests ankle high Bahamas water

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.

LOG: 458nm

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.

Sailing to Green Turtle Cay

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 enjoyed exploring 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.

Typical view of an upwind passage

 

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 3rd During 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.

Tranquility alone at anchor near Bennet’s Harbor

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.

Walter, the gas man, and our guy on Cat Island

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.

A water spout by the downburst of a cloud. Not on our trajectory.

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.

The foot of the hill
The hermitage built by Father Jerome

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

As Beta teaches us, sometimes there is nothing you can do but rest and prepare for the next leg

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.

Haitian vessel manouvering in the harbor under sail

 

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.

Sailing to Panama: Georgia to Bahamas via Florida

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.

Provisioning before departure

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.

Brunswick Landing Marina: the Chaos before departure

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.

Leaving downtown Brunswick

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.

Well, as I wrote in a previous post, things changed as usual.

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.

Anchorages and City Marina in New Smyrna Beach

 

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.

The “treacherous” St.Lucie Inlet

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.

Peck Lake Anchorage

LOG 268NM – May 8th The 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.

Hell Gate anchorage in Jupiter, FL

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 9th We 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.

North Palm Beach

 

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.

Bye bye Florida, it’s been real.

 

Sailing to Panama: the route

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.

New way, new life

17th May 2017, Allen’s Cay, Northern 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.

Sailing slow into your fears

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.

The Church in Cumberland Island

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.

Tranquility at anchor

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.

Tranquility’s new home for February

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.

Northern route across the Atlantic

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.

I think I will have to start taking cold showers.

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.

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) Part III: The Gulf

Click here for Part II

A wet re-start

It took a while to get back to the regular rhythm of life at sea. The storm created a big, rolling swell that we admired for hours. Slowly we put more and more sails up as the wind decreased, not too quickly, as if we had no energy for more trips to the mast nor for operating halyard and winches.

We sat there.

Everybody onboard was exhausted so we bobbed a little more without pushing the boat and ourselves. It felt like I was washed out, my belongings scattered and damaged. Like formatting the hard drive of a computer. My watch was also missing. It was a beautiful watch that my dad gave me as a present. Boats are very good in swallowing objects, so I thought I would see it again at the end of the trip when we would unpack and repack into our suitcases.

The worst part of the storm was the damp interior and the lack of dry clothing left behind. Before leaving Ft.Myers we meticulously washed all the beddings and clothes to have a comfortable passage to Houston. With no change of clothes and no dry bunks for sleeping we still had to sail for more than 450miles. There is nothing more miserable at sea than a damp boat. Patiently we arranged the cabin the best we could to have a little comfort, but our hearts were as heavy as a piece of waterlogged driftwood.

As night approached so did thunderstorms. I couldn’t watch any more lightning on the horizon without fear and stress. I stood by the Radar display on the alert. Luckily this time it was only rain, even though we would die for some dry weather to help containing the moisture level onboard.

The winds decided to blow directly from Houston so we put the boat on a motor-sailing duty and we stuck on that, but our progress was slow. We played with the revs and the autopilot and the mainsail but nothing could un-stuck us from a wretched two knots of speed over ground.

Mississippi or Loop Current?

It was obvious that an adverse current had its hand in it, but without a knot-meter we couldn’t calculate how strong it was. Thw Gulf of Mexico proved to be a tough stretch of water, more than we expected. The adverse current did not ease for another day. All kind of hypothesis thronged our conversations: at first we believed it was the influence of the Mighty Mississippi mouth even if we were at least 100 miles south of it.

Ther Loop Current and relative eddies in the Gulf Of Mexico
Ther Loop Current and relative eddies in the Gulf Of Mexico

Then we considered the Loop Current influence. This warm water current could sometimes extend far north into the Gulf, before circle back and slip in between Florida and Cuba creating the Gulf Stream that heads north through the Atlantic.

We couldn’t check our hypothesis and when we had a chance we called a distant ship on VHF to ask if they knew anything about it. The captain was annoyed by the current as well but he was apparently ignorant of the phenomenon or maybe he was just aware that he could not do much about it.

Oil Rigs

When passage planning for the Gulf of Mexico portion of this trip I considered and decided to sail south of the Oil Rig extension for as much as we could, before turning NNW and head for Galveston. The Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas is disseminated with platforms of any size and shape, and any work conditions.

Before the trip many people told me how some of them aren’t active and not even lit during the night. Obviously no one could prove this rumor personally without hitting one.

Platforms in the Gulf of Mexico
Platforms in the Gulf of Mexico

After being swept by a furious storm and barely progressing against the Mighty Mississippi current or whatever it was, the idea of shortening the trip by more than a 100 miles taking a direct cut through the jungle of platforms was a siren song we could not resist. We plotted a straight course to Texas that brought us in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico drilling operations. At the beginning it was heart bumping, but after a while we took confidence sailing through oil rigs and all the related marine traffic.

People are often concerned about traffic and maritime operations while offshore sailing. In theory this is a concern that only a singlehanded sailor should have, as there are going to be times when nobody is standing watch on deck and he or she should adopt strategies to minimize risk of collision.

A well manned vessel with crew standing watch all the time should be able to avoid any collision. The truth is that the Ocean is not as populated as we think it is, and the congested areas are very few and it’s usually where sailors pay maximum attention and further aids are offered (like buoys, pilots, etc.).

Still, the Gulf can be pretty busy in terms of marine traffic. Facing an area with high density of marine traffic and miscellaneous obstacles can be a source of stress for the crew of a small sailboat with limited instrumentation.

But after a little time to get used to the new horizon, sailing through the oil rigs was not bad at all, and we were lucky not to end up on one of the infamous unlit platform that allegedly populate the area.

What bothered us most was the not cooperation from the wind, very light and mainly adverse, and with a 13,000 lbs displacement boat our only option to get to the completion of the trip was to motor. Motoring through oil rigs was just a boring and repetitive task. The inboard diesel proved to be very frugal but we were growing anxious about the lack of wind and the possibility to run out of fuel. That’s why we started talking about an on-the-go refuel stop at one of the oil rigs!

First we picked that card as a last resort dictated by fear. Even when we put down the math and realized that the fuel onboard was just enough to get to destination, we still wanted to try the new experience of asking for fuel to an oil rig.

Friendly Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
Friendly Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

After we located our target, it took few attemps to get somebody answering our VHF call, and then few extra efforts to explain what our intentions were. We realized that passing fuel to cruisers was not an everyday task for the workers on the rig who were definetely surprised by our request as they kept looking for a supervisor who could authorize it.

Finally somebody on the phone gave the consent and we started the operation: at first a line was sent down from a bridge to collect our empty jerry cans. At the end a piece of paper with two words: trade please.  The lack of wind and waves made the operation easy even though the vicinity of the huge metal pilings was haunting my concentration during the manouvre.

When the jerry cans came down filled with diesel we had nothing to trade but some cold cash and a thank you note. I believe booze was what they were looking for, but this is just speculation.

Refueled and happy for the help from our new friends we resumed our course to Houston and during my evening watch even the wind started to blow and turn South. I opened the jib and staysail, trimmed the main, adjust the windvane autopilot and started playing with the revs to see if we could finally turn off the engine.

The wind was light tough, probably too light for a boat like the Southern Cross, but I was ready to trade the lower speed for the quietness of sailing. The boat moved at 5+ knots, which was a surprise and made for a very smooth ride. This time the Loop Current was our loyal escort as we caught the Westward eddy flowing towards Houston. At dawn we entered Galveston Bay and reached Clear Lake City, where the owner proudly docked the boat in his slip.

There Roberto and I spent an extra day helping the owner and his wife to empty, re-organize and clean the boat, plus we made few repairs and improvement that we identified during the trip.

southern cross 31
Southern Cross 31 drying her sails

Unfortunately my watch never re-appeared, joining my phone and few other belongings in the casualty list. In 14 days trip we left Georgia, sailed south in the Atlantic, cut across the middle of Florida and spent some intense days in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the fatigue and the effort we were happy to succeed and glad the new owner could enjoy the boat close to home. He got himself a sturdy and safe boat that went through some serious tests keeping the crew safe during a very demanding trip.

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part I

I like boat deliveries. It’s one of those sailing jobs where you are actually paid to sail. Sometimes when skippering private or charter boats I end up sitting somewhere doing maintenance and waiting for guests that undertake short trips, mostly day trips in protected waters. Nothing wrong with that but when it comes to sail a boat and squeeze miles out of her, deliveries are my favorite because you are on the clock and your customer satisfaction depends on how quickly you can move the boat from point A to point B. Even if it’s not a race, and the safety of crew and vessel are of the utmost importance you can’t simply take it easy, you have to keep going and sail as efficiently as possible to destination.

Southern Cross 31 before departure
Southern Cross 31 before departure

Deliveries are good learning opportunity as you have to sail different boats, try different designs, gear and equipment. When the owner of a Southern Cross 31 was looking for skipper and crew to move his recent purchase from Brunswick, GA to Houston, TX I immediately felt like I wanted to jump onboard. I found the route interesting as I never sailed the Gulf of Mexico (never been to Texas either) and I was curious to see inland Florida through the Okeechobee Water Way. On the other side, the reputation of the Southern Cross 31 as a very seaworthy boat was another attractive feature of this project.

Designed by Thomas Gillmer, the Southern Cross 31 is a stout, double ender cutter. Her full keel and heavy displacement of 13,600 lbs (for a 31 footer) suggest that she is not a bolt and that her windward ability may lack some efficacy. The cutter rig however allows for a generous amount of sail area and flexibility in terms of adjustments to various sailing conditions and wind force. The SC31 is also known to have a very comfortable motion in high seas, and being relatevely roomy and able to carry supply make a boat for sailors that intend to go long distances.

As other designs built with the same philosophy (which can be dated back to the pioneeristic work of Colin Archer) such as Westsails, Allied Seawind and some of Bob Perry’s designs, this type of boat is often considered as the ultimate bluewater boat, for the extreme sturdiness and quality build, the conservative sail plan and hull shape above and under the waterline.

While I am not a great fan of the design, this delivery was a great opportunity to test my opinions first hand. It’s incredible how dogmatic and opinionated you become as soon as you start sailing, and it’s good to remind myself how little I know about boats and how much to learn is out there. I have to admit that even if I developed preferences and opinions about designs and outfittings, I like almost any boat. It’s hard to explain but there is something interesting in all of them!

To help me in this trip I once again had the luck to have Roberto, that helped me before with leg one and leg two of Tranquility’s trip. He helped me very much in assessing the boat conditions, making all the adjustments we needed and offering solid manpower during the hardest parts of the trip. He is the kind of person I’d sail anywhere with, and I am glad I could share another trip with him.

First Leg: Brunswick to Ft.Pierce

The first part of the trip was harder than I expected. Not only did the crew have to learn how to properly set up a boat that’s been filled with the latest equipment and accessories but never really sailed hard, also the weather didn’t cooperate. Since the beginning we had our share of hard work trying to make South and East against a moderate southeasterly breeze.

Just after leaving St.Simons Sound we had to steer clear of the shoals out of Jekyll and Cumberland Island, and that took us almost 20 miles to the East, and very little to the South. That same evening Coast Guard issued a severe thunderstorm watch, with a whole set of damaging winds, torrential rain and lightning strikes. We listened to the advisory on the VHF radio and having lived few months on the coast of Georgia I experienced how most of the times those advisories resolved in a bluff, much ado about nothing, and we were hoping to get a bit of a favorable blow from the W to finally start to make progress towards our destination. We furled the jib away, took one reef in the main and left the staysail up with blind optimism.

This time USCG predictions were accurate and the first hit of the squall sent the boat on her side and as I was taking the tiller from the hands of the Monitor Windvane, Roberto had to run to the mast and reef the mainsail down to reef number three. Lightnings were all around the boat, very loud and creepy and in just few minutes we were completely soaked and shivering. After the first violent blow we managed to stabilize the boat and put her on course for maybe half an hour before the wind died again and turned from the South, leaving us wet and with little progress done.

To try to put miles behind us we spent the night motorsailing and the same happened the next day. Luckily we had a reliable inboard Yanmar diesel engine and we didn’t hesitate to crank it up when necessary to make progress to point B. Again, 24 hours later, off Cape Canaveral we had severe thunderstorms but this time we were well prepared and we anticipated the downburst and kept a good control of the boat during the squalls giving also the owner the opportunity to be at the tiller on a fresh broad reach in near gale conditions.

Light breeze the next days put our arrival time in Fort Pierce for late night and after tackling the inlet channel riding a strong incoming tide we made a sneaky approach in the dark and tied up in a marina with the plan to refuel in the early morning and continue to Mile 0 of the Okeechobee Water Way in Stuart, Florida.

Second Leg: Okeechobee Water Way (OWW)

Loaded up with fuel we began the long motoring days of the OWW through the St.Lucie River. The calm waters and little traffic allowed us to reorganize the boat and make the necessary repairs and upgrades.

Despite thousands of dollars spent in equipment and gear (including enough spare parts for a couple of circumnavigations), this boat had been sitting on a dock in Brunswick for several years and never sailed anywhere. A sad story heard before, the dream of long distance sailing vanished and the boat moved in different hands a couple of times. As often happens during deliveries this was more of a sea trial that pointed out the condition of the boat. Thinking back to our experience on Tranquility and other boats I am starting to understand how you need a passage of at least 500 miles to really put a boat through a minimum test. Few systems that worked perfectly when the boat was tied up to a dock started to fail, the brand new sails were not properly hoisted, the fridge failed and the AIS stopped transmitting.

As we were steaming around the inlets of the East Coast of Florida, we found and removed some seawater inside one of the lockers under a bunk that was not there before the trip. We used all our brain cells to try to unfold the mystery, with little success. The occurrence did not repeat so we put our mind at rest.

The crazy freshwater-macerator-holding tank system for the boat’s head failed almost immediately but Roberto was smart enough to MacGyver a fashionable repair that allowed us to use the head again, even better than before. Then the fridge stopped working, so I had to start pulling out feasty banquets of meats and perishable food to avoid the spoiling of our provisions. The spirits were high when we moored in Indiantown, FL at the local marina (obviously after working hours) where we also enjoyed the company of other cruisers and a load of fresh beddings from the laundry.

Port Mayaca Locks: Roberto waiting for divers in the lock
Port Mayaca Locks: Roberto waiting for divers in the lock

Not all evil comes to harm, and so do the failures onboard. During the trip the new owner had the chance to assess the boat and to have an idea about what he really needed onboard and what were haute couture sailing accessories. His desire was to undertake an offshore passage and learn more about sailing. Instead of waiting on an armchair for his boat to be delivered, he bravely decided to be part of the trip despite a recent injury that limited his mobility. Together we formed a cheerful trio that endured the difficulties and discomfort of long distance sailing.

Lake Okeechobee: it's like to be in the middle of the ocean
Lake Okeechobee: it’s like to be in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the trip on the OWW depended on locks schedules. Divers doing extraordinaire maintainance on Port Mayaca locks messed up our timing and progress, as we had to wait for two hours tied up to dolphins. Once they let us pass, the crossing of Lake Okeechobee was like an offshore passage, as in some portion of it no land was on sight. We chose the Route #1, directly across the lake, as it is the most direct way. We encountered hostile armies of mosquitos when we anchored out of Moore Haven after missing the last opening of the lock by 5 minutes. The clutch and the throttle failed right there during anchoring operations, so we had a nice repair project to deal with. Luckily it was no big deal so we enjoyed a quiet afternoon, spotting birds and alligators and eating more chicken.

Ft.Myers signed the return to civilization, and busy life. After a comprehensive provisioning at the local supermarket, refueling and deserved showers, we checked online weather forecast that stated no hazardous weather was on our trajectory for the first part of the trip. We also found a solid block of ice to keep our provisions fresh.. Everything conjured to make a prompt departure the very next morning.

Click here to read part II

Misty Mountain Hop

Mountain wilderness has always fascinated me, long before the ocean did. The Alps are just at a stone’s throw from my hometown in Italy, and most of my growing up memories are related to walking in the woods, swim in mountain lakes and climb rocky peaks.

When it was time to figure out where to travel for our New Year’s Holidays it wasn’t difficult to pick the mountains. Kate and I needed a change of scenario from Coastal Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta were the closest available option. Relatively close, I have to say, as it takes almost 7 hours driving to get there from Brunswick.

Even if life is sweet in the marshes of Glynn I felt the need to look at a different landscape. It takes some courage to find the time and the determination to do it, to subtract it to social life, work and money and general everyday schedule that ends up trapping our lives. It so much rewarding to be able to leave and go, and see what you haven’t seen before, and I am so lucky to share this attitude with Kate. We can say that we took  our souls on a date.

New Year's Eve ©Kate Zidar
New Year’s Eve ©Kate Zidar

With the burden/blessing of a multiple course feast we had for New Year’s Eve and tired by the consequently cooking and clean-up we jumped on the car the very first day of 2015 and started the journey. We killed two birds with one stone (I am practicing stone’s related idioms) visiting Kate’s siblings in Atlanta. It was nice to spend holiday time with family. Atlanta is so close yet so far there are not many opportunities to do it in the course of the year, when the Schedule reign.

After the Atlanta stop we drove up the mountains to a cabin in Chattahochee National forest. The forecast for the weekend was heavy and non/stop rain. Leaden sky, misty and grey, a true Appalachian atmosphere. We had to make a change in our plan, from hiking to sight seeing, using our car to explore the scenic roads of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi
Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi

UNICOI STATE PARK

Nestled in the Georgia Mountains, Unicoi is a state park that surrounds the 53-acre Unicoi Lake on Smith Creek. Kate dragged me to see the Lodge, which is a fancy building that serves conference groups, families and individuals with guest rooms, meeting space, restaurant and catering. We had no business there but to get a bit of free wi-fi to continue our planning of the visits. Nonetheless the staff was very welcoming and allowed us to walk around freely and to visit the building. They also gave us a straight forward advice: if we are interested in booking a room during low season we should just bypass the reservation area of the website and call the lodge: when the season is low they are always willing to meet your budget for a room in the lodge. Forewarned is forearmed.

HELEN, GA A FAKE ALPINE TOWN

Economic development strategies are to be judged by their effectiveness and the one that transformed Helen, GA into a touristic destination was a very successful one, even though bizarre. Once a logging town, Helen suffered a severe economic depression until a group of businessmen decided to invest and create a replica of a Bavarian village in the Alps in the 70s. Even national franchises as Huddle House and Wendy had to surrender to the style imposed by the zoning authority. Today Helen is a popular destination, with many restaurant and shopping areas.

We were unimpressed by Helen (as you see no pictures were taken), which is a bit disgusting for the kitsch style and the obvious inauthentic architecture. We had to take at least a stroll through the city and dine out. Thanks to Kate who is always able to extract local knowledge from store employees, we found the best restaurant in town, which obviously is not Bavarian and it doesn’t even have a Bavarian-style building. Bigg Daddy’s proved to be an authentic non-german restaurant and we still remember with pleasure the Jumbo Wings with lemon pepper hot sauce!

ANNA RUBY FALLS

Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi
Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi

The twin waterfalls lie in the hearth of the Chattahoochee National Forest and can be reached after a short and pleasant walk from the parking lot, the ideal condition for our rainy day. So when we hit the road to our NW route to McCaysville we made our first stop at the falls, where we had a wet little hike, some moment of meditation in the mist and a curious encounter with a pine-needle/spaghetti worm.

The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi
The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi

MOUNTAIN CROSSINGS

Visiting the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center at Neels Gap was like a pilgrimage for us, as the site is an important crossing of the Appalachian Trail. In 2012 Kate and I took a summer trip to Maine and we visited Baxter State Park and Mount Katadhyn, the northern end of the AT. We were fascinated to learn about the AT and dreamed that one day we could hike it.

The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar
The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar

Walasi-Yi is a Cherokee word for “big frog” and it’s the original name of this area at Neels Gap. The native american people used to have a village very close to the actual position of the building, but they had to leave through the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the removal of the Cherokee Indians and other native tribes from their life long home in 1838. According to eyewitness John G. Burnett, “… many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefoot. […] The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire.”

A recount of the "Trail of Tears"
A recount of the “Trail of Tears”

The actual stone building was built in 1934. Through the years it served as restaurant and dance hall, and today it houses a Hostel and an Outfitter shop right on the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the building, marking the only covered portion of the trail’s 2100 plus miles.

HANK B.

Our itinerary was designed around a specific appointment. We wanted to go and visit Hank, a man we met exactly one year ago in Cumberland Island. He was very interested int Tranquility, sitting at the dock by the ferry and we started to chat. After few words, we were all sat in the cockpit eating nuts an talking about sailing, and life afloat. He offered to trade his mountain cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains for our boat. We felt very tempted but we sticked with Tranquility. When we decided to go up in the Blue Ridge Mountains we called him, to see if he was still around, and he invited us to meet him in McCaysville, where he lives.

Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar
Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar

Hank took us on a tour of the area, first crossing the border to Tennessee, where we visited the abandoned copper mines in Ducktown. The scars of the mining is still evident, but trees are starting to grow back and repopulating the area. For Kate this was the sign of a profound legacy with her Pennsylvania ancestors who used to work in a mine town.

The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
olympic course
Olympic Course on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar

The second point of interest that Hank showed us was the system of dams on the Ocoee River. TVA manages the dams to produce electricity and to control the river flow for recreational purpose. The whitewater course on the Ocoee River was created for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and it is dependent by the water control system of the dams. In Spring, when they open the water, a group of kayakers and whitewater rafters gather to run the first wave down the river. Sounds like great fun!

TALLULAH GORGE

The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar
The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar

Weather improved the following day so before driving back to the lowcountry we stopped in a gorge-ous place. Tallullah Gorge is a set of waterfalls that flows in a steep little canyon. The interpretative center give tons of informations about the history and the nature of the Appalachian Region, and the trails around the waterfalls are easy and accessible.

The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar
The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar

Walking around the gorge on a finally sunny day gave us the opportunity to discuss some of the plans we have for 2015. After a static 2014, where we consolidated our situation after leaving New England in a hurry, we expect to start travelling again. There are plans to point Tranquility’s bow on a northern route later in Spring/Summer, to explore the great crusing grounds of New England. There is also a plan for a family meeting in Italy next August, in the beautiful scenario of the Alps. Quod erat demonstrandum, I live on the Ocean but I belong to the Mountains.

In praise of Public Libraries

Public libraries are the best places in the whole civilized world. You may think I am exaggerating here, but the service they provide is invaluable, and I am very happy to visit public libraries wherever I roam. They have always been a friendly place for me, where I can entertain myself or do some hard work, or simply pass time. In fact, during my travels they serve as refuge and nomadic workplace.

You can really enjoy libraries only if you have spare time, a luxury that few people in the world can afford nowadays. For this reason children and kids are natural inhabitants of public libraries, as well as elder people. Public libraries are one of the few last public spaces in this privatized world, you can walk in even if you have no money, and you are not invited to buy stuff. A wide range of services are available: a collection of media for any use, free access to the internet, toilets, water fountains, comfortable seats warm/cool place to rest. All for free.

Limbiate Public Library
Limbiate Public Library

I experienced libraries from different point of views, throughout my life. As a little kid in Limbiate, my hometown in Italy, I was an avid reader of Game books and mystery novels, expecially the Alfred Hitchcock presents seires, the one with the three little detectives. I clearly remember walking to the library every Saturday morning, listening to my walkman, and swap books. I was a better reader then than I am now. When the wastrel era of adolescence arrived, the library became the perfect spot to meet friends and to squander time that could have been more profitably spent studying. I was quenching my thirst of knowledge wandering around the shelves without a plan, and absorbing what was catching my attention. I have always had this feeling of wonder when facing a wall of books, with my eyes and my legs following the succession of titles. I was also there few years later when studying was not an option anymore and I had to pass exams while attending university. In the library I would feel more concentrated than at home and the presence of peer students with a common destiny reinforced the motivation to study. Finally I also realized one of my dreams: after being an user for many years I had the opportunity to work for Limbiate’s library, and there it’s where I started to deal directly with users.

Brooklyn Public Library in Greenpoint
Brooklyn Public Library in Greenpoint

Because libraries don’t make distinctions of age, race, mental and physical ability, class or income, the users of a public library constitute a rich and heterogeneous group. And that’s where a good librarian has the most arduous task. Managing the human relationship in such a diverse environment is no joke. Sometimes I think that the job of a librarian incorporates the one of a social worker, a cop, a psychiatrist, a nurse. He/she is not only a person who knows how to catalog media and knowledge and where to find what you are looking for (an incarnated Google). Librarians also have to deal with the humanity that finds refuge in this last outpost of public space.

shhLibraries are free public spaces but this doesn’t mean they don’t have rules. The most important rule, which is the fundament of this institution, is to be quiet. I find this truly amazing. You can’t have this in Starbucks or any other secular place. Everywhere else, there’s violent chatter, loud speaking on the phone, blasting music. What’s better than having the right to say <<Shh!>> to people who threaten your concentration and peace?

Beside this very important one any library has its own set of rules, which are often very different. Anyway after reading some of the Rules and regulations found online there are common (and sometimes funny) rules. Sleeping is usually forbidden and enforced by staff (as I witnessed in Savannah, GA at the local library). Now I consider myself lucky that nobody kicked me out for sleeping with my head on a book more than once during my hard study time. It probably makes a difference if you are holding a book or a newspaper, or if you simply crash in an armchair. But there are lucky exceptions. In Boulder, CO Public Libraries, it is forbidden to “down, doze or sleep in any library facility except this rule shall not apply to children“. Rules of Common Decency are requested to all visitors everywhere but some libraries gets very detailed as it happens in New York Public Library “you must wear clothing and shoes in the Library, and your body odor must not be so offensive that it disturbs others.” Lakewood Public Library, OH prohibits “loitering in the Library without making use of its materials is not acceptable. Aimless wandering through the building or anywhere on the grounds is likewise prohibited“. I wandered too without making use of the materials, and more than once, but maybe I looked like I was in search of a book.

There are so many funny rules out there, if you want to read some here is a link.

Today, in the era of Internet and E-books, public libraries are facing difficult times, as some people may think they are becoming obsolete. However there is a great difference between server stored digital media knowledge and libraries. A library exists inside a physical building, often a fine example of architecture. It has bones and muscles, but it also has heart and blood, the real people that keep alive this important institution. We surely can keep studying and reading books even without libraries, using screens instead of book pages. But we would be terribly alone, isolated and lost in a digital void. That’s why, whenever I have a chance, I go to public libraries. We all should support them.

Ship of Fools

Albrecht Durer The Ship of Fools of Sebastian Brant, Title Page
Albrecht Durer, The Ship of Fools of Sebastian Brant

“Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to that great uncertainty external to everything. He is a prisoner in the midst of what is the freest, the openest of routes: bound fast at the infinite crossroads. He is the Passenger par excellence: that is, the prisoner of the passage. And the land he will come to is unknown—as is, once he disembarks, the land from which he comes. He has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him.”
 

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

Eternal apprenticeship

Gran Roque - Venezuela
Gran Roque – Venezuela

“Che i sogni siano un rifugio? Una fuga dalla realtà? Può essere, ma non riesco a fare altro, né so che altro fare”

I wrote this sentence in a notepad about five years ago. Soon it’s going to be five years since I left Italy, soon my niece is going to turn five as well. The moment I told my mom I decided to leave is still so clear in my memory. It happened in the waiting room of the hospital, my sister was in labor delivering Melissa, and I cried a little because I felt that my decision was taken. Less than two months later I moved to Venezuela. I was 27 and leaving my former career of psychologist. In that moment I let the dreams rule.

It was a jump in the unknown, an hazardous move. I also tried to sabotage my departure telling my father to drive me to Malpensa airport while instead I was leaving from Linate. Both airports serve the city of Milan but they are quite distant from each other. That morning I forced my dad to a race through highways and traffic, and l took that first plane for a matter of minutes. Not even my unconscious could avoid it.

Along these 5 years I continued to be a moving target, crossing boundaries of different countries. All this happened without a specific strategy. Kate would say this movement is “Planktonic”. Similarly there is not a particular reason why now I am in  Coastal Georgia. If the current pushes towards unpredictable destinations, the fil rouge  of this drifting seems to be the condition of apprenticeship.

When I left for Venezuela my mission was to manage the operation of a charter yacht. I never did such a thing before. For my biased mind sailing was an activity for snob and rich people, and I carefully avoided it. So when I approached this job I was completely unexperienced.  I had to learn everything on the field, find help and learn how to be helped which is not exactly something foregone, expecially when you don’t speak the language.

When you are in such a situation you feel like an idiot most of the times. It is hard to linger in this state of constant awareness of your own deficiency. Sometimes you don’t have a clue and at the same time you have to endure the fatigue of being far from your own comfort zone. It also true that any success it’s worth the double and it’s easy to get enthusiatic. During my first self-taught apprenticeship across the ocean I seeked for the help of a professionl coach in understanding how my role was changing and that was a great support.

After being an apprentice charter manager I had to be an apprentice sailor, then an apprentice captain and now I am an apprentice restorer of old fiberglass boats. Even if it seems the trajectory of this growth belongs to the maritime world, the change of scenarios and tasks keeps me grasping for some prior knowledge to sustain my efforts, and it’s hard to predict what is coming next. I moved so much in the last 5 years but it seems I didn’t get anywhere in terms of seniority.

How long will this condition last? Will I ever master anything? Sometimes I wish I had arrived. If you ask where I probably won’t be able to give an adequate response, but the feeling remains. The narratives of reinvention usually portray people in their second-half of life who distance an established position because it no longer satisfy their needs. It is the broken dream of a corporate life, where too much stability and benefits, and maybe a too narrow task build into a state of boredom and lack of sense. In this case the reinvention pass through a reintegration of a solid knowledge into something more meaningful.

I wonder how to put two and two together, how to reintegrate the constant conflict between the discovery of something new (and being unprepared) and just do what you know and be firmly attached to something valuable. Maybe it has something to do with becoming middle-aged and this eternal apprenticeship it is a social trend that affects my generation.

But there is also some active research for new objects thst propels the movement. This dilemma was well described by Michael Balint, a psychoanalist who defined two personality types, the “Philobat” and the “Ocnophil” in his theory of Object Relations. In simple terms the Philobat enjoys thrills, adventure and the unknown, avoiding to get trapped by a specific object. The Ocnophil has to get a firm grip on something, or a situation to avoid possible danger and the fear of getting lost in the void. It seems that I qualify as a Philobat and I keep looking for something new to leanr and experience, even though there is a certain grade of Ocnophilia that protest against this chaotic wandering. In life there is not such thing as pure Ocnophil and Philobat, they will be chained in some asylum.

 A long apprenticeship brings together the ghosts of never grow up, the persistance of a state of deficiency and the difficulty of accepting the gap between what you are and what you are going to be. It surely has a positive side, expecially because it allows to be receptive to new ideas and knowledge and to discover things I like and I do not like, which usually come after trials and errors. I feel that the challenge now is to balance and weave together experience and new knowledge and to  find continuity in change, which translated in a simple language sounds like “sit down, relax and enjoy the journey”

Let go

800px-Henri_Rousseau_010

A white explorer in Africa, anxious to press ahead with his journey, paid his porters for a series of forced marches. But they, almost within reach of their destination, set down their bundles and refused to budge. No amount of extra payment would convince them otherwise. They said they had to wait for their souls to catch up.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

Zen and the art of bringing the scale back to zero

I’ve survived a two days zen retreat last weekend. Being a beginner I had no clue how hard and disciplined a retreat in a Zen monastry can be. My longest sitting has always been 1h30minutes once a week and being in a meditative modality for two entire days it was like climbing a mountain without an adequate training. But I did it! Thanks to the perfect leadership of the Zen Providence Center’s staff, to the pure energy of the Teacher Nancy and to the presence of many beginners like me I survived this hard test.

I bring home countless insights and a renewed energy from the retreat and also a very beautiful image that has the power to describe exactly the effect that Zen meditation has on me.


In one of the rare breaks during the retreat I started to read a book of Zen Master Seung Sahn. It was about the letters he exchanged with many students in the years of his teaching. In one of these he uses a wonderful metaphor. Seung Sahn says to a student that we are like a scale that has a natural balance in the zero, the end of the scale. When we weigh an object the needle reaches the position corresponding to the weight of the object. When we remove the object from the scale the needle returns to zero. Zero is the position of peace and perfect balance before thinking, that is, when we are free from delusions, situations and suffering. Whenever we go through a situation, an event, an emotion the pointer moves to indicate the weight. If other thoughts and emotions are added before we unload the scale may break. Practicing meditation helps to go back to this state so we are able to face new challenges and hassles without breaking down.