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.

Started from New Bedford now we are here

We decided not to continue down to the cruisers’ heaven of Southern Florida as planned. We are a bit worried of what being in Florida might mean: high season prices and overcrowded anchorages/marinas. But the main reason is that we found a cozy place to be in Coastal Georgia that we want to explore deeper, also an ideal and affordable place to give Tranquility the necessary upgrades for extended bluewater cruising.

Coastal Georgia

Georgia has a short but beautiful coastline, with lots of inlets, islands and rivers. The tide here has a big impact, with ranges up to 7 ft. (2,13 m) or more during spring tides, with consequent strong currents. It changes the shape of the coast every six hours. We can only move around at certain times and the tide stream is often stronger than the wind so we have to keep it in mind when anchoring and docking. People here are warm and welcoming and we had the best shrimps so far enjoying what they called “Lowcountry boil” in Jekyll Island. Cumberland Island is what made us come here. Kate wanted to encounter the wild ponies that live free on the island so badly and she made it the liet-motiv of our sail down the East Coast : “I want to see wild ponies! I want to see the wild ponies! When are we stopping to see the wild ponies?

Departing South Carolina

We had a wonderful beginning of 2014, and thanks to the vicinity of Kate’s family we could explore the surrounding of Beaufort and St.Helena Island, and also enjoy some family time. We left Dataw Island, our previous stop in South Carolina, on 8th January with sustained winds and 6-10 foot waves. Some of them crashed into the cockpit, Kate and I had a couple each during our watches. It was a downwind gybin’ night zigzagging our route past the busy Savannah entrance and the following Sounds. Tranquility surfed downwind the steep waves, but keeping her on course was a hard job with the tiller, even with just the the jib and a deep reefed mainsail.

We approached Doboy Sound with favorable tide and ended up dropping the hook in Duplin River along Sapelo’s Island. It was a relief after the rough surfing and bird and dolphins soon showed up to welcome us in the calm waters. Our idea was to meet friends of ours who were doing some volunteering work on the island but we found out they had just left. After a sound nap we checked the forecast and noticed bad weather approaching from South. Duplin River is exposed to south so we moved the very next day during a thick fog, finding our way into North River, about three miles from Darien, GA.

Bad weather on our way

There we decided it was safe. We kept checking the forecast as something bad was expected for Saturday in the afternoon. We enjoyed being at anchor in the middle of nowhere, with the only company of wildlife, and the sounds of nature with the wind howling and the rain falling. We cooked wonderful meals and collected rainwater for surplus bathing (always a treat), worked on the boat projects. I had wonderful reading sessions. In the meanwhile the thunderstorms alert became a tornado watch. We dressed up in foul weather gear, ready for action.

The blow lasted less than ten minutes, very violent though. Our anchor didn’t drag a single inch but I am glad it was a just very short blast. We had two casualties: one of Kate’s babbucce (italian for slippers) and one of the planks of the companionway door (!!). We are still trying to recover from such losses, especially the beloved babbuccia. In less than 1 hour a double arch rainbow and a breathtaking sunset showed up and everything was calm and cheerful. Later other cruisers in the area told us that their wind instruments went over 60 kts during one of the gusts. It could be the case that sailors are worse liars than fishermen, but even if these top speeds never occurred we had severe winds and we were happy to be in a sheltered anchorage.

Sailing South

There was a break from Southerlies after the thunderstorms so the very next day we had an early start and went back to sea to keep sailing south. Light westerlies were forecasted and we were able to sail as far as St. Simons Sound, that is hands down the busiest inlet we encountered on the East Coast, with cargo ships everywhere. Our destination was Cumberland Island and feral ponies (of course!) but we had to stop in Jekyll Island because the wind dropped and the current was switching direction. After the plantation era Jekyll Island was developed to be the resort island of the very wealthy before yellow fever outbreaks and the Great Depression put the exclusive resort in financial difficulties. It’s also here that in 1910 the Federal Reserve was created, and in 2010 Bernanke stayed on the island to commemorate the 100 years anniversary. Today the island is partly a resort (much less exclusive) but by legislative mandate sixty-five percent of the island is and will remain in a mostly natural state.

Tranquility meets Atom

In Jekyll Island we had a very nice surprise. We received a message from James Baldwin of Atom Voyages who wanted to meet us and show us around Brunswick. I corresponded with him during last summer’s refit asking for information  and he started to follow our blog noticing our tracker getting close to the Brunswick area.

After several circumnavigations and ocean passages with Atom (a Pearson Triton) James moved there to dedicate in yacht refits. He showed up with some gifts from his garden (lemons and grapefruits, home made oats biscuits!) and with much curiosity for Tranquility. He was particularly interested in our electric engine set up. I very happily showed him the work we did on Tranquility, and I tried to get any possible advice on all the issues and repairs we still have to do to improve our boat. He very kindly drove us on a tour to the groceries store and to his house where we met his wife Mei and Buddy the dog… and of course Atom, who was resting on boat stands for her third comprehensive refit.

Cumberland!

Rested and well stocked we moved forward to visit Cumberland Island. Approaching the island from North was amazing sailing in flat water, we moved fast all the way down to the end of Brickhill River where we anchored close to the dock in Plum’s Orchard.

Cumberland Island is a National Park, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island. Several trails and service roads depart from Plum Orchard. We chose the path going East, to see the beach side and the Ocean but soon we found ourselves trapped in the wilderness, the trails meandered through sand dunes and swamps making impossible to continue. We started to worry about alligators. We had closed encounters with wild ponies, armadillos, wild pigs and many birds, luckily no alligators.

After visiting the central part of the island from the Plum Orchard’s dock access we moved south, where the Carnegie Mansion of Dungeness lies. This is a more developed part of the island, where the ferries land to take visitors. The sea was a bit rough and we had some thrilling moments trying to dock Tranquility to the visitor’s pontoon. The pontoon is a public free dock but its use is consented only from sunrise to sunset, so we had to depart after the visit.
This time we made it to the Ocean. The beach on Cumberland Island is very beautiful and wide, full of shells and birds and wild ponies. It was lovely to walk around the ruins of Carnegie’s mansion, see swamps, sand dunes, thick forest. I am glad Kate pushed so hard for coming here, I really enjoyed our stay.

St. Mary’s, GA

Before deciding not to continue further South we thought about visiting St.Mary’s, a little river town that has a mysterious attraction over cruisers. The anchorage is excellent and very protected but the facilities in the town are nothing special. The marina is very cheap, but you get what you pay for: very run down and damaged docks, terrible showers, no wi-fi in a close range, groceries and shopping are several miles out of town. Despite this fact a lot of boats come here and stay around for very long time. The city per se is very pretty, and it’s one of the oldest settlements in the country, the waterfront is very scenic. It is also the gateway access to Cumberland Island. Our feelings were mixed at the beginning, and we still don’t understand what is the main attraction of this place. But here we have been now for a whole week, participating in the social life of the town, so it looks like we are falling for this mysterious place nonetheless.

Next phase

Our Plan is to get back to Brunswick by the beginning of February, and stop there for few months. The third part of our project is about to begin and will concern how to transform Tranquility into an ocean cruiser while we forge relationships in the area. Our trip down the East Coast resulted in an extended shakedown. The boat is in very great conditions but she needs few enhancements before we can project longer ocean cruising. We feel that a quiet place like coastal Georgia would be a safe environment, reasonably warm and it can help us making the good decisions while moving along the project.