Friday, September 30, 2016

52 Days/I Know the Size of the Sea

I won't die without knowing how big the sea is.

It is exactly the size of the human heart.

We sailed across the breadth and half the length of the Atlantic. Day after day, week after week, wave after wave, green flash after green flash. As fast as the wind cared to carry us.

You take on a challenge that big with your family for company and only your own skills and wherewhithal to rely on and you'll know - the world is all the stage our ambition needs. Impossibly big, but within the reach of our most serious efforts. Those most serious efforts that carry us into joy.

That life our family made for those weeks, in the odd confines of the boat. Where we lived overarched by the endless sky, while able to walk only twenty steps in one direction.

Look at that life now! It was as big as the world.

We left South Africa on August 3. We arrived in Curaçao on September 24. That makes 52 days on passage, counting the three days each that we spent in St. Helena, Ascension, and Grenada.

As always, land life has caught up with us in port, and the dream that was our life at sea fades into disbelief. We know it happened, and I look back at my journal and marvel at the scratchings there. What thoughts were occupying me, and how do I make sense of them now?

Could it really have been that good? That's the question that always stays with Alisa and me.

It used to be that we would have to put to sea again to find out.

But now we've been doing this for enough years to know.

It was.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


I've come up with a new theory of being useful I said to Alisa in Grenada.

Do tell her eyebrows said. The shape of her mouth spoke more about reservation, about declining to commit until the joke revealed itself.

It's this I said. You know how you're useful every day all the day long? Another meal another round of laundry another homeschool lesson plan prepared delivered re-delivered as necessary until the sullen target grudgingly admits understanding?

OK, out with it said the tilt of her chin.

Me, not so much. But! I figure if I'm really really useful every now and then it might balance things out ok. Like once every month or so. Then I'll be worth keeping around.

I considered myself to be speaking from an irreproachable position of usefulness. The gearbox had to be changed. The temperature in the engine room - 50°C if an inch, my boardies soaked like a hippo's undergarments, a puddle of salty Mike sweat appearing on any surface I touched - be damned. The self-inflicted two beers after a long passage migraine - that be damned too. Any doubts about a job I'd not done before which involved pushing the propeller shaft out of the boat far enough to wriggle the old gearbox out and the new gearbox in - banish them! It was time to act. I was the man to do it.

I bravely faced the conundrum of every cotton-headed dreamer who is persistent enough in his dreams to actually buy an actual boat and cast off the lines and travel the oceans far and farther. It was time to banish dreaminess and imitate a practical sort of bloke who never let a dream occupy his skull, awake or if preferable not even asleep. It was certainly time to forget that I had a PhD, or at least take solace in the fact that it's only an Australian PhD. It was time to be Useful.

Into the breach went our Useful dreamer. Fan shifted from forward head to engine room where it might circulate enough air to make mammalian life possible for the duration. A moment taken to reflect on the days when this might count as a boat job completed in itself.

Then a deep breath and in a rush exhaust mixer off coupling between gearbox and shaft uncoupled stuffing boxed slacked propeller shaft levered outwards cable and mount removed from gearbox plate mounting the gearbox to the engine unbolted what's that called? gearbox and plate *just* squeezed out new gearbox and plate slid into the not-so-gaping hole and bolted together in situ plate bolted to engine a long search for bolts just the right length to fit into the coupler and pull the propeller shaft back into place a long moment of doubt when the proper bolts were in place was the new coupler a lightly different size? coupler tightened down stuffing box tightened cable and mount replaced new gasket for the exhaust riser fabricated who knew there was a layer of steel mesh in the middle of that stuff? riser bolted back into place fire it up.

It didn't work.

Our friend Leiv's gearbox which he had kindly given in the Falklands was the veteran of an engine room fire and looked it. Before the fire, he warned us, it had already been worn of bearing and leaky of seal.

This "new" gearbox would go into gear where our old one had not. But the screaming metal-on-metal noise that came from below decks when it was put into gear could not be stood.

A long fault-finding process followed. Luckily the sudden demise of the water pump bearings, simultaneous to the gear box problems, was ruled out before I swapped that too.

Finally after too many false leads to recount, I found the problem. Our shift lever had stopped shifting properly.

There had been nothing wrong with the gearbox at all.

I had carefully ruled out any problems with the cable when we first started having troubles with the gearbox on passage. Obviously my ruling-out skills need work.

I greased and cajoled and adjusted and got the shift lever working again. We went into gear, forward and reverse, with a minimum of squeal. The decision was made to press on for Curaçao.

Considering the fix to the shift lever to be temporary and to have only a finite number of successful shifts left in it, we sailed off the hook in Grenada with the engine running but out of gear.

And that went very well.
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!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Opportunity Cost

One of the upsides of our stop in Grenada was meeting the like-minded crew of "Pelagic", people with whom we share some Alaska connections.

In conversation, Amy of Pelagic commented how an economist friend of theirs is horrified at the way they have gone sailing, and therefore foregone three of their "prime earning years". The opportunity costs! Unfathomable!

Alisa had the ready reply that perhaps that's why, while it seems impossible to get together any collection of traveling sailors that doesn't include an engineer or three, we have yet to knowingly meet an economist afloat.

Finally, it's been discovered! A class of people less romantic than the engineers! (My colleague and a reader of the blog, Alan Haynie, excepted, I am sure.)

Me, I'm more vulnerable to that talk of opportunity costs. I have this memory of the staff at a very good chandlery in San Diego that I cannot shake. The place seemed to be run entirely by people who had buggered off in their prime to go sailing, and were now passing their sixties working retail for none too high a wage, I imagine. I will admit to the occasional middle-of-the-night fear over the past nine years that that not be us.

And there is another sort of opportunity cost involved in a trip long enough to be measured in the lifetimes of our children. That's the what-might-have-been scenario that imagines us putting all the immense time and effort that has gone into the business of sailing across oceans into some other endeavor. While we've been servicing winches and slapping on bottom paint my sister has built a practice as a pediatrician and my brother in law has made himself a successful career in academia. Maybe we could have done something more concrete with our energies.

I think this is a big hurdle for a lot of people who consider the sailing life. We know people who could afford to take it on, and would like to, but I suspect are unwilling to make the commitment to giving up other endeavors in their lives.

You can only sit in one chair at a time, as the saying goes. And the sailing life, more than most, rewards the quality of being all-in.

(I might have some recourse to argument on this point, since I am the only full-time yachtie whom you will ever meet who completed a PhD while crossing oceans. Ironically, I likely wouldn't have done that if we'd stayed ashore.)

Ultimately, though, I think this "lost opportunity of endeavor" that is presented by the decision to go to a-rovin' on the oceans is a weak argument for your better sort of yachtie. There is a class of people, even in this post-post-modern age where screen time stands in for life experience, who believe that human endeavor is best measured at the scale of oceans, and in the experience of self reliance. For these people, going to sea isn't such a choice as a burning desire, to be realised if it at all can be. "The oceans are wide, but my ship is up to the task, and who knows what adventures I'll meet on the far shore?" If that idea doesn't at least occasionally strike you as enough meaning for life, if the rising tide and steady glass don't quicken your breath and make you long for the feeling of decks coming to life beneath your feet, well! Then why in the world are you reading this blog, anyway?

And it's those same people who feel that pull of an active and questing life, who know in their marrow that living for at least a few years in a way that relies on sinew of arm and speed of wits is to know what it was to really live when life's end comes, who have the most irrefutable answer to the economists' "lost opportunity cost".

To whit: what a circumscribed view of life, to see our arc of existence as nothing more than an economic endeavor! The real opportunity is to go sailing now, while you still can. Go while you and your kid are still able to have a civil conversation. Go while you still have enough adventurous spirit of youth that you might consider some daunting itinerary of remote navigation and decide you just might be up to it. Go, above all, while you're still hale and hearty. Regret what you did, and not what you left undone.

(I wonder if that's how the staff at that chandlery in San Diego see things?)

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!