Hermine meditations

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Beautiful yawl in Newport Harbor

There is a still atmosphere in Tranquility’s cabin. Kate tastes her latest culinary feat and approves it. <<It’s very good!>> I can hear her saying. Tonight we are going to have polenta and chickpeas and sardines fused in a tomato sauce, a revisitation of an old recipe from a camping trip in the woods of Maine.

Food is ready, deck is secured for what Hermine will decide to throw at us during the night and Labor Day’s morning, as we rest a little while the other boats around us hurry out for the last hours of nice sailing, before it gets too windy. Rest, after all this is what I am supposed to do. I have a cold.

Tranquility sits in Newport Harbor, holding tight to a mooring ball that a kind friend, Clarissa, is letting us use. It sits right in the center of the carnivalesque parade of Labor Day tourists, super yachts, and classic racing. There are better days to visit Newport, but our un-planable voyage doesn’t take into account what’s better or desirable. Things just happen. And so this is going to be the place where we will weather this weird Tropical Storm that just brought destruction to what used to be our home port, Frederica Yacht Club.

We held our breath when we got the first reports from Georgia, while our brave friends were doing all they could to save the salvageable. The impact was severe and a lot got lost or damaged, but luckily our closest friends weathered it fine. Hermine shouldn’t have the same impact up here, but we hold tight as this one already showed its capricious character.

I did not retrace the steps that took us here in Newport yet. The story of our cruise North is stuck in Ocean City MD, and a chapter or two are still due. I haven’t yet found the time and energy to bring you up to date. I will comply with my intentions, but this time it may take me longer than expected.

I am not in a creative drought, nor I am too busy sailing. My mind is focused on a new writing project, and so this blog is affected. I am trying to develop a new blog, and this time I am want to re-start from scratch. The best gift that long term cruising has given me so far is some time and tranquility to grow a seed that was probably inside me for a very long time.

Time doesn’t erase older parts of you and so I have to eventually deal with whom I used to be, or to be more precise, with what I used to do. I used to study and experiment with human behavior. From a selfish point of view, I tinkered trying to change myself. For my paycheck, I helped others face change. In either case I discovered that change is inevitable, sometimes sudden, and when I was exposed to sailing for the first time, some unexpected reactions transformed me.

The aim of my new project is to see how well Psychology and Sailing mix. Not very much is out there on the topic. My research found that most of this hybridization consists in Sport Psychology applied to competitive sailing. After all, even racing is a discipline that rests on mental pillars, like strategy, decision making, coping with stress and team building. But I suspect there is more.

Ok, I spilled the beans, would you follow me on my new course?

Cockpit locker drainage channels and existential concerns

Lately the tone of my blog posts have assumed an unprecedent technical twist. I have always found hard to describe the refit of Tranquility in great detail, and most of the countless jobs proceeded unaccounted. What’s exciting about writing posts like “laminating fiberglass backing plate for deck hardware (and achieving physical flexibility during installation)“, “sealing umpteenth hole in the deck with thickened epoxy” or “screws and bolts inventory: am I missing any“?

Moreover I am a former psychologist and my education and training concernes things like “emotional defense mechanisms“, “coping strategies” and “cognitive fallacies“, and I used to handle tools like “active listening” “participant observation” and “network analysis“. The language of the master shipwright is still an uncharted territory and the rules of technical writing a mystery.

I also assume that the reader (you) is not very concerned about a bunch of technical digressions on boat construction and repair. It may be a wrong assumption in the end, as the whole point of taking an old boat and sail it through the horizon on a budget requires being able to perform a thorough analysis of the weak points of “the old lady”, and perform satisfactory upgrades with little or none adult supervision. Funny enough “How-to-Do-It-Yourself” articles are the ones I seek with a certain continuity online, to find inspirations about designs and building techniques, so I may fall out of the group of representative readers of this blog according to my idealistic audience.

These are some of the reasons why I find very difficult to write about boat projects and improvements  but despite of that not much else is happening in my life and so I would either shut up (possible) or keep telling the story of the countless jobs that are going on inside and on Tranquility.

Selecting few specific jobs and turning them into a narration is becoming an usual activiy, so hopefull it will be less and less hard.  It turns out it’s also a good way to keep track of how long these project are taking, which is very long. As soon as one is finished it has a slingshot effect to the next one and helps bringing enthusiasm to my work and to the overall goal, so I would be happy to see more and more of these posts appearing on the blog.

Lately the speed of work increased and people at the dock are noticing Tranquility changing face and stops for few words about what’s next and where are we going to take the boat (well where she is going to take us…). Kate also had some time to dedicate to Tranquility and this was another huge help to the overall project. She has a great ability for planning and in just one hour spent in the garden with a calendar in her hand we enlighted the next three weeks projects and tasks down to plankton size. With this new clarity it seems we have a possible deck painting date on mid November, and few days when we will be actually both working on Tranquility.

Drainage channels for watertight cockpit locker

During our Atlantic Ocean offshore passage and in other legs of Tranquility’s voyage from New Bedford to Brunswick rain and occasional crashing waves found their way into the cockpit locker and sloshed into the bilge. After coming to a rest on the Georgia Coast and contemplating the idea of more offshore sailing in the near future we wanted to make sure that we are not taking in water from this or other openings on the boat.

Tranquility has a cockpit locker on port side accessible through the cockpit seat via a very heavy door. The starboard side has no opening as a sleeping quarter bunk lies underneath it. None of these setups were original from the builder: the whole port quarter side was modified by one of the previous owners to fit the locker, which is divided from the interior by a bulkhead that would host the chart table on the cabin side. On starboard side, somebody did the opposite, fitting a bunk where it used to be a cockpit locker. These and other amenities are some of the surprises you could find when you buy a fifty years old sailboat.

Unfortunately for us the cockpit locker/chart table modification was very poorly done and gave us a lot of headache when it was time to improve and eventually redesign the area. The separating bulkhead wasn’t even tabbed (permanently fiberglassed) to the hull and allowed the locker to drain straight into the bilge soaking everything was lying in its path. The chart table would make claustrophobic a 5 years old kid with the resuslt of being perfectly unuseful on board. Finally the cockpit locker door was resting on a very sketchy support that was conceived with the idea of draining extra water sipping through the door sides, but that in fact was a simply terrible half-finished solution that failed completely in its purpose.

Earlier on the projects timeline I adressed the bulkhead problem tabbing it to the hull and making the entire locker a watertight section of our ship. Not communicating anymore with other parts of the boat, the locker will contribute to the buoyancy of the vessel in case water finds its way into the boat. Last spring I also rebuilt the chart table / nav station with the idea of increasing storage and housing the battery bank for our electric motor.

The Lousy cockpit locker drainage system
The lousy cockpit locker drainage system and a pathetic attempt to fix it
A detail of the draining channel as found on Tranquility.
A detail of the draining channel as found on Tranquility.

The drainage channel we found on Tranquility  was one of our least favorite part of the boat but it was also something we couldn’t handle during our first refit in New England, so we just tried timidly to improve it along the way when the real only possible way to fix it was to tear it apart and redo it from scratch. Finally after spending a lot of time designing ideas and procrastinating any concrete action in favor of other projects, I finally started to stare at the problem directly. At the beginning I was in favor of epoxy coated plywood construction, but then my friend Fernando talked me more and more into trying with fiberglass construction. Ultimately fiberglass is for life! After a lot of time spent in woodworking projects for the companionway I figured it was healthy to switch paradigm and tackle a messy fiberglass project. I think I am a messy enough person for such a task.

Mold construction for Fiberglass channels
Mold construction for Fiberglass channels

After looking at examples of drainage channel systems on other boats I finally came out with a design and I decided for angled lateral channel that will allow drainage even when the boat is heeled. Building the  molds for the fiberglass construction wasn’t hard at all as I had some rounded corner molding in my woodpile that happened to be just perfect for the job. Two pieces side by side would form a round shaped channel about one inch and a half wide. I successfully mounted them on two pieces of 3/4 of a inch thick PVC or Plywood screwed together and taped with adhesive packaging tape (cheap and easy to use). Epoxy won’t stick to plastic so if you cover anything with packaging tape or any other plastic wrap it will released the impregnated fiberglass once cured.

Fiberglas molds ready for laminate
Fiberglass molds ready for laminate
Fiberglass channel
Out of the mold fiberglass channel

I then laminated fiberglass cloth and mat onto the molds forming a slightly bigger shape than the desired part. Once the epoxy cured I popped them out of the mold and shaped them to the final measurements using an angle grinder with a cutting disk, before final sanding and cleaning. Some of the channels reminded me of delicious tacos but I restrained myself from eating them.

Fiberglass components of the drainage channel
Components of the drainage channel sanded and cleaned

Together with the three channels I laminated some 90 degrees shaped pieces that helped to fit the parts to the deck for final assembly. Screws held the structure in place while thickened epoxy cured overnight. The following day I removed the screws and engaged a grinding match in the confined space of the locker, making sure to wear all the possible protective clothing and gear for this miserable job. After clean up of both my persona and the locker I proceeded challenging the law of gravity with the messy job of fiberglassing the structure to the deck alternating several layers of fiberglass mat (for waterproofing) and cloth (for structure), and trying my best to avoid the epoxy resin dripping from the overhead.

Screws hold the channels in place while epoxy cures
Screws hold the channels in place while epoxy cures
All the parts are dry-fit before being fiberglassed in place
All the parts are dry-fit before being fiberglassed

With this last upside down job accomplished it was time to fit a lip that will give enough surface for a gasket to make a watertight seal. I had some long and thin pieces of teak lying around on Tranquility (what’s not on Tranquility?) and so I decided to epoxy and fiberglass them around the internal perimeter of the locker. To have a perfect seal with the overlying door I used again thickened epoxy placed on top of the lip. This time I let the law of gravity work for me placing the original lid on top and protecting it with with packaging tape (my new best friend). In this way the still soft thicked epoxy adheres to the door contour forming an even surface of contact after the extra material squeezes out.

The lip for the channel is made with teak strips glassed in place
The lip for the channel is made with teak strips glassed in
Lip is epoxy fitted and then laminated with fiberglass
Lip is epoxy fitted and then laminated with fiberglass

Two half inch sized holes at the lower end of the inboard channels drain the water into the cockpit and then in the ocean through the cockpit scuppers. Next, in this multi-stage multi-level project a whole operation of fairing and sanding will culminate with the paintjob soon to happen on the entire deck. For now I am glad enough I can leave the boat under the rain without having to empty a swamped locker and in perspective I feel confident that less water will find its way in the boat during blue water sailing and foul weather.

Burnout at sea

Last night a new guy walked in the crew house. The first impression was of a fit young man with an enthusiastic smile, like many in the Superyacht industry. The prototype of the fun seeker young white male. I immediately assumed he was looking for place to stay and for a job on a yacht. But after a little, I started noticing that he had some difficulty walking and standing. He was wandering around the house purposeless, unable to speak coherently. It was clearly intoxicated, so we helped him to find his way to a vacant bed and have a deep rest.

From the few information collected, we understood that he was regularly employed on a yacht and that at a certain moment, he suddenly left his position without telling anybody, went to a bar to get drunk. The next morning although a little hangover, he was back  on his feet and even chatty, before a colleague came to pick him up.

It was evident that the guy had lived through an episode of severe burnout . We could not get much of his story during the next morning conversation, we recorded incoherent background data about mean comments received from a stewardess. Apparently he suffered from not being recognized and respected in the crew mass. What was evident is that that personal relationships had become intolerable to the point of leaving the boat quickly to go hide somewhere.

Crew members that abandon their duties without notice are an extreme response to situations that can be fairly common on yachts with a busy program: the lack of time off and personal space; tasks that are too narrowly restricted; high competition for jobs; absence of personal boundaries; small group dynamics that can recreate family-related dynamics; need for personal growth. Tracy’s study of workers aboard cruise ships describes burnout as “a general wearing out or alienation from the pressures of work” and “[..] burnout is largely an organizational issue caused by long hours, little down time, and continual peer, customer, and superior surveillance” (Tracy, 2000 p. 6). 

This is especially true for young people approaching this world. The assumption is that working on a superyacht is a dream job, an exclusive high class club, but they soon realize that the work can become very repetitive, and the fun part is for the exclusive use of owners and guests. Captains and officers sometimes set up a military-style organization to keep crew engaged and prevent insubordination. The time off for traveling is very restricted and concentrated in one single trip per year that makes it difficult to cultivate relationships with family and friends. Even if they are engaged in an off the beaten track program like sailing around the world, they see those countries through the portholes, quick walks around Marinas and joining shore-based parties where the level of friendship is correlated with the frequency of meetings at the bar.

These harsh and extreme images often adorn the descriptions of real situations lived by yacht crew during difficult moments in their careers. It’s a tough life, exacerbated by a materialistic world and very high expectations on the job. You feel like you are living a jet-set style life but you pass your days crawling in the bilge to get rid of oily waters or polishing stainless steel and silverware, or cleaning tight corners with cotton swabs. All this alone is enough to generate dangerous levels of stress as I described in this post. When stress coming from an oppressive organizational climate chime in, problems can escalate quickly.

Even if I have no better first hand elements to analyze the situation of the one-night crew house guest, it wouldn’t be surprising that the desire to escape was brought up by faulty relationships onboard. A basic primordial decision making response can be triggered by reiterated exposure to stressful day to day relationships. The subcortical region of the brain, our ancient  “Reptilian brain” (MacLean, 1990), is the seat of our instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, fear and rage.

When such a tipping point is reached, a “fight-or-flight” response (Cannon ,1915) takes over. A hormonal cascade drives to a full body activation, with increased heart rate, variation in skin conductivity, dilation of pupil, as some of the most evident changes that prepare  the body to action. All the strategies to lower the level of anxiety are not working anymore so the control goes on”autopilot”. The survival situation requires to shut off the slow and complex control functions of the brain cortex, the control pas to the primitive ready to action “reptilian brain” that commands to attack or retreat.

He has to be a minority onboard, he knows he’s in a too weak position to start a fight against the rest of the crew, probably he perceives that nobody is an ally. He can feel how isolated he became. Even if based on instinctual patterns, his “reptilian brain” is highly intelligent and adaptive and drives him towards the right choice. Fighting would be a poor decision in his case, flight is the correct one. His only solution is to escape, find a place to decompress his anxiety, far enough from its source, eventually find some relief gulping down high doses of alcohol to keep recent emotional memories off the stage.

A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

The case is not isolated, and of course does not only concern the yacht industry. An external observer in this situation would normally blame the lack of self control of the young boy, his immaturity and inexperience, his underestimation of the responsibility of the job. Not infrequently, the subject is described as “normal kid” or “a nice person”, who didn’t ever show any alarm signals before the dramatic event.

What is not self evident is the responsibility of the yacht as an organization. The crew and their leaders form a symbiotic environment where breaking point situations are not asymptomatic. There is a general lack of knowledge and preparation for this important psychological issues among crew members, but most of the time it’s a lack of care, or too much focus on the job and not on personal relationship. A hard working, optimistic person is not perceived as fragile or prone to depression and the desire to prove oneself on the job can play a dangerous role in estimating one’s own ability to cope with stress and handle social situations onboard.

HOW TO ASSESS BURNOUT 

Assessing a potential burnout situation require paying attention to explicit and implicit signs. When the atmosphere onboard is set in a way that feelings and emotions are accepted and shared, this task is pretty easy and self evident. At any time, the crew will be aware on what’s the temperature of the relationship among the crew, and if there are warning signs help can be found. It’s important to pay attention to all those that report feelings of being trapped, isolated or emotionally exhausted. Crew that raise their voice unnecessarily may be experience frustration.  Listening and being open is the first step, but it may be also necessary to have periodic crew meetings and individual interviews where captains and leaders can monitor crew’s well being and happiness as well as professional objectives. Common implicit signs of burnout are substance abuse behaviors, social isolation, inability to concentrate, forgetfullness, and change in sleep and appetite habits.

The closest crew members are the ideal candidates to detect those signs and to help the person to become aware of the potentially dangerous situation. They can offer they experience as counselor or mentors or look themselves for help in the leadership of senior crew members. A general education to recognize and to be willing to share one’s internal world is the key in this process, unfortunately it’s not one of the skills taught during professional training. It is not trivial to recognize that emotional responses vary according to cultural factors, personality and social environment. Promoting and supporting the recognition of emotions on board, Stress Management Training, a honest but caring system of feedback and the ability to develop recreational activities are important aids to help maintain a good psychological balance in a very busy season spent onboard.

Surfing the unconscious

For the first time a couple of days ago I tried to surf. I mean surfing on waves (in Hawaiian he’e nalu, “gliding on water”), what you see in many American movies from 50 years onwards, with the Beach Boys as the soundtrack and Baywatch’s  towers in the distance.
I took some lessons and I found myself very capable, with great personal satisfaction. For this discipline are necessary strength in upper limbs (you row a lot to catch the wave at the right time) and of course balance.
The technique involves several steps to surf a wave. We must reach an area where you stand for “get” the wave (line up). It coincides with the point at which a wave begins to break, making a steep surfable wall. In order to begin to ride the wave the surfer swim with their bellies lying on the table, perpendicular to the wave towards the beach and when the board starts to slide independently the surfer stands up by pressing the table with both hands and pulling with a single movement (take off).
In the case of particularly large wave that is the most dangerous moment, and if dropped the surfer can incur serious consequences, especially in the presence of rocky or coral bottoms. The instructor who followed me warned me about the disruptive force of the wave and its dangers. In the event of a fall in the belly of the wave she told me to let go and not fight with the wave and curl up in fetal position, protecting the head. The wave is stronger than any swimmer, and the falling water strikes you with a chaotic incontestable force. But the wave will pass, ending its effect and in that time you can re-emerge. Even paddling into the wave, when you went to place the new line-up requires care. The maneuvers to overcome the power of waves are two: Duck Dive going under the waves by dipping the tip of the board (only with short boards);  Turtle roll is made grabbing the board on side, turning upside down 180 degrees and let the wave pass.
This long digression on techniques is to highlight that it is highly inadvisable to contend with such a powerful event. But if you take off and you can begin to ride the wave then you can be transported, make flips, surf away from breaks.
After this first experience I began to think about waves in terms of unconscious. Maybe its because of the aquatic metaphor, the power and uncontrollability, the dynamics of wave generation so tied to the sea movements in general, cyclical but unpredictable, governed by complex patterns and outside of human control: a wave, think of a tsunami, you certainly can not divert, control, manipulate. A wave breaks and modifies landscapes over time, erodes the coastline, dig her groove. Then switch back and retires leaving a calm sea. But since James Cook discovered the Hawaiian natives and saw them surfing on primitive wooden tables, humans love to confront these powerful natural phenomena, having fun and trying immense joy to slip on the water. When I managed to ride the first wave I felt a euphoric sense of control and I fell in love with surfing.
But if the metaphor holds I wonder which is the surfboard that allows us to ride without having to undergo the unconscious, which techniques allow us to get up at the right time and remain on the wall, in a precarious state of balance, but without being overwhelmed by the turmoil that follows us. What can keep us directed to a safe place and which the moves? I always thought that the unconscious is a phenomenon to be exploited, which consists of uncontrollable energy but that can be surfed managing to remain afloat and upright, without hitting obstacles on the road.

Time to switch

I’ve thought for a long time to switch the language of this blog from Italian to English. After 2 years of life I  feel that me and this blog are ready for this kind of  change. I hope my English is ready too!

I  feel lonely and more concerned in what’s happening inside me than in what’s outside. Carl Gustav Jung would say that I’m an introverted type of person, thing that I always thought about me. But thats’ only a trend, we all have different moments of introversion and extroversion, like the weather changing. I’ve always felt guilty when I was in this kind of mood, I think the so called society doesn’t accept it completely. But who cares the society during an introverted period!?

I read a lot of Jung’s books. Rather than being a useful map for my  career in psychology he has always been a sort of wise uncle with whom compare my feelings. I have to say I always had good insights reading his works. Unfortunately I don’t have my Jung’s books with me, that’s why I’m reading on the internet.

Here I put some quotes from the swiss psychiatrist.

“The growth of the mind is the widening of the range of consciousness, and … each step forward has been a most painful and laborious achievement.” in  Contributions to Analytical Psychology (1928)

“The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases. Each of us carries his own life-form—an indeterminable form which cannot be superseded by any other.” in Modern Man in search of a Soul  (1933)

Not sourced:

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.”

“It is on the whole probably that we continually dream, but that consciousness makes such a noise that we do not hear it”

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely” (how true!!!)

“Consciousness succumbs all too easily to unconscious influences, and these are often truer and wiser than our conscious thinking”

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens”

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”