Sunday, June 25, 2017

Gray Flash and Purple Prose

As we bear down on the last 800 nautical miles between ourselves and Kodiak, I find my attention divided between mundane observation and the most outlandish wrap-up thoughts.

To whit.

This day that is just ending we passed at the center of a 1034 mb or so high. Absolute crap for sailing, but top marks as a day of decadence, spent lounging around in the greenhouse heat of the dodger. Something there is about a blue sky day that turns your most industrious kind of Protestant into an instant human lizard, happy to sun on a rock while thinking blank thoughts.

The unhappy truth is that we had been freezing our various small parts off for a few days previous, even though we are still well south of the latitude of Seattle, much less Vancouver. Neoprene boots and goat roper hats have appeared on the crew. We made the "that's sort of cool, sort of" discovery that Elias' deck boots still have dried penguin shit on them from South Georgia. So it was nice for us to shed some layers today and take a break from breaking the news to the boys that no, Kodiak will actually be much colder than this.

Elias noticed that even in the midst of that sunny day, the water kept what he called a "glacial" cast. The miraculous blues of the tropical oceans are now, for the Galactics, regulated to that place where god meant Teutonic Americans and Midwesterners of the Lebanese diaspora to enjoy them: as screen saver photographs.

Oh, fudge. "Screen saver." That's me speaking from my 2007 time warp again. Re-entry is going to be so problematic.

By dinner time (thanks, Alisa!) we had reverted to the gray skies at the edge of the high. Baking on a rock on a sunny day may be fine, but there is something about a gray-on-gray sky and sea combo that does make a mariner sit up to take notice. I found myself scanning the horizon, scanning the sea, glancing quickly back at a particular set of clouds to make sure they weren't trying anything while I was looking away. Maybe these gray seascapes put me on notice of the chance of something Nautical going down. Anyway, I'm apparently the kind of guy who comes alive around mother of pearl seascapes. Maybe it's all for the best that we're going back to Kodiak.

And so, instead of the blaze of a tropical sunset, the day ended with the sun just sort of collapsing into the wet blanket of clouds heaped on the horizon. "No more green flashes for us," observed Alisa. "Gray flashes from here out."

Well-meaning folks have occasionally asked if we have any concerns about returning to land life. There is one that I will easily confess to: that of immediately getting swept up into the chase-your-own-tail swirl of everyday life, so that this decade of full-time sailing just fades away, without us having the time to properly ruminate over everything that came to pass from that one wild-eyed act of selling up and sailing out just after our firstborn joined us.

This is where the purple prose comes in. This afternoon I was sitting in the sunny cockpit, enjoying the Captain's prerogative of an Atlas beer from Panama while coding away in R, the computer language for data analysis that has become the Esperanto of 21st century ecologists. Suddenly I found myself taking a break from my joint problems of noisy data and complex hypotheses in order to fire up a Word document and record How It Feels, this particular moment in my life that has me as close to Ulysses as I hope to ever come.

Unfortunately, my impression of How It Felt at just that moment had me yammering on about a fire that burns hot, about a desire to get out and know this world of ours in the least abstract way imaginable. And while I might not know where that desire might lead me, I do know by god that it's a desire that I would ignore at my own peril.

That kind of stuff. I blame the Atlas beer.

But, for all that this quick scribble was not-ready-for-Cruising World type stuff, I felt the glimmer of insight in there somewhere.

There is a part of me that feels like a wild-eyed, wild-haired lunatic riding back to Alaska on the bow of our little ship, completely transformed by two lifetimes' experience packed into a single decade. Alisa and I have played it very straight on this trip in a lot of ways. For my part, I've stayed gainfully employed for about eight of the ten years, I did my PhD, and I've managed to be a no worse than average sort of dad to our two boys. But for all that, we've been living these ten years on the bleeding edge in important ways. Alisa and I set off to follow our dreams, knowing in advance that we might dream in a vivid, Patagonia-in-winter sort of way. As a result, for days or weeks or months at a time we have been living in the arena where our seamanship and our love for each other and our willingness to meld entirely into a single, single-minded unit are tested in their ability to keep the family safe and prospering and pursuing happiness on the high seas, or in some southern frosty fjord far from anyone else at all. It has been a tremendously fulfilling way to live, and like most long-time sailors who are returning home, we look forward a little nervously to belonging to a milieu where we can't share an unspoken bond over that sort of experience with our peers. 2000-0000 watch is rapidly drawing to a close, so it's time to wrap up these late-night musings. A prize has been set for the first Galactic to spot an alcid, that guillemot-murre-puffin-murrelet tribe of continental shelf seabirds that will be our first notice that we really Have Arrived, even if land isn't yet in sight.

I'm putting my money on Elias to win the prize.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is This One That We Won't Want To End?

Seven-year-old Eric to me the other day, in conversation: "Dad, when you're sailing, it's like you're smiling and frowning at the same time."

So...that's me saved the trouble of writing the next book!

It is indeed like smiling and frowning at the same time, this business of sailing the world with my family.

On one hand, the highs are Olympian - the sun-drenched, champagne-sailing, endless days with nothing but the clouds and the birds and the horizon and ourselves for company.

And even the everyday, less-than-peak moments make me smile. Like when I realize how many hours a day I manage to spend with my children on average through the year.

And yes, there are the frowns. For anyone who thinks that we take unreasonable risks by taking children on ocean crossings: believe me, you haven't even begun to consider the risks in the depth that Alisa and I have considered them. We've lived those risks, really, for the last decade - evaluating them, and evaluating our ability to evaluate them, and coming to grips with our own set of best practices for managing them. I don't know how Alisa feels about it, but it's enough to keep a furrow on my brow at sea. And also enough to set me into a flurry of parental over-reaction when the boys do something boyish like mucking around on our steep companionway ladder.

Besides those big-picture frowns, there is also that everyday background frown that comes from sharing space with Eric when he just needs to get off the boat and go for a run already, and I just need to catch up on my fractured sleep.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that my own personal sailing frown/smile equation balances out at just this side of rapture. Chucking it all to set out while our oldest son was still too young to walk turned out to be the most worthwhile hare-brained undertaking that I can imagine.

And so now, as we return to the Rock (Kodiak's nickname for itself) from whence we set out, I have found myself wondering if we'll pull a Moitessier. Will we reach one of those blissful end-of-passage states that we sometimes achieve and decide to just keep sailing until we find ourselves anchored once again off the Iluka pub?

Don't bet on it. We are the do what we set out to do crowd, Alisa and I, and in this instance we set our minds on what we might rediscover in the place we used to call home.

Meanwhile, here's some of the more quotidian details of the passage as it stands...

We showered in the sun on the back deck yesterday, and spent today in thermals and rain gear, even though we are still south of the latitude of San Francisco. Just now we're trying to keep a low from running us over, and then we hope to harvest a day or two more of southerly winds from that system, keeping us pumping along in more or less the right direction. It's been a fiddly passage, as befits one mostly outside of the trades. I feel like I'm forever trying to eke a few more degrees out of whatever setup we're using, trying to fall off or come up just a bit more without poling out the jib or taking the pole down or gybing. We have spent barely any time at all aiming right at Kodiak, and are meandering back and forth across the North Pacific in more or less the right direction.

And, our real news: for several days now we've been seeing albatross. Mostly black-footed, and a few Laysan.

We do love the tropics, but those oceans where the albatross roam might be our true home.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

With the Flow

From Kona, on the leeward side of the Big Island of Hawai'i, northbound boats are faced with the surprisingly not-straightforward task of reconnecting with the open ocean.

In one sense, we were on the open Pacific as soon as we left Honokohau Harbor. But we were also on the leeward side of the chain, and had to somehow get ourselves back to the windward side, where the tradewinds blow.

We didn't even think of heading south around the Big Island. That would involve miles and miles of travel straight into the trades.

Likewise the 'Alenuihaha Channel, which funnels the trades between the Big Island and Maui. We were content to just get ourselves into the tail end of that one and race downwind along the middle of the main island chain - past Maui, Kaho'olawe, Lana'i and Moloka'i.

The place names are surely one of the delights of this American Polynesia.

On our first night out I pointed the bow up towards the Kaiwi Channel, between Moloka'i and Oahu. On the midnight watch change a calmer head prevailed and we fell off to pass Oahu to starboard.

So we got to see the towers of Waikiki in the night. Where we saw rivers of lava pouring down the hills when we first made landfall on the Big Island at the end of the passage from Panama, on Oahu we saw rivers of street lights pouring down the hills in the night.

During the day I had the very pleasant experience of recognizing the towers in Makaha where my grandparents had a condo for years and years. A picture of my beloved grandfather from that place rides above the chart table on Galactic - him in 1980s leisure wear, feet up, out on the lanai, a tumbler of scotch and ice in his cupped hands, his ever-recognizable smile anchoring the picture. Neat in a closing the circle kind of way to sail by that spot all these years later, with one great-grandson he never knew, and another with whom he shared the briefest spark of mutual regard.

And thence through the very tame Kauai Channel, and to the tradewinds one last time on this voyage. All this mucking around on the leeward side taking us more or less no closer to Kodiak, as Elias was not ashamed to point out to me.

Once we found the trades they were fresh, and blowing dead from the east. So we fell off to the north-northwest, being completely unwilling to take fresh trades forward of the beam. From the beginning we have always seen travel under sail as a process of working with what the ocean presents us, rather than bending wind and wave to our will. I suppose all sailors look at it that way. And only a landlubber would expect that a boat could travel dead north on an easterly while beam reaching. Your apparent wind, which is the sum of the true wind and the boat's motion through the atmosphere, bends ineluctably towards the bow, and demands a falling off away from the wind in the interest of comfort and sanity.

So. That's us still, sailing north-northwest, and not much towards Kodiak, which lies just east of north from us.

With luck, though, we will describe a beautiful sinuous track back to our home port, as the winds begin to bend southerly around the North Pacific high, and we then pick up the westerlies of the mid latitudes.

Alisa began this passage quite sick, with a cold that flared up into fever and sore throat. I began severely sleep deprived by my final push to meet science work obligations. And so poor Elias, who is desperately keen to wet some of his new lures from the Big Island, has had to hold off on the fishing, as neither parent has been up to gaffing and cleaning in these fresh trades. When he did get lines into the water briefly he came within an inch of catching a petrel, and had to hurriedly pull out.

And now, the sun is rising with low clouds heavy with rain all around us. We are completely alone, as alone as you ever are on a small boat on this big big ocean, and completely reliant on ourselves to get where we are going.

Is it a wonder that land life might seem stale?

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!

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