Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Open Boat

So, we're settling into Hobart for the season.

We know some people from the last time we were here, but as these things go we still haven't seen a few of them since we've been back.  And we've met some new people, largely through Elias' school.  Some of them seem like people who might turn into friends, but they're all still acquaintances at this point.

But, we can kind of feel the clock ticking here - once Albuera Street primary goes on holiday in December, I predict that we're going to be looking for the first decent weather window to get to New Zealand.  If we're going to be getting in some QT with Hobartians, we'd like to get the social interactions moving.

What to do?  What else - we had an open boat last Sunday, and invited a whole passel of people.

We got perfect weather for the day.  About 25 adults came, and a dozen kids.  Many of them we didn't know well, and many didn't know each other, which gave us some early-party nerves as we worried about how well the social mix would come off.

But Alisa and I had a great time, and I think our friends had a great time, too.  It's all a part of the travelling game - you have to put yourself out there, again and again, and see what happens.


My favorite snippet of conversation from the party was reported to me by Alisa.

Alisa (to man who raised his five boys aboard a travelling sailboat): "It's great that all of your boys have grown up to do so much sailing on their own, that they're all so confident on the water."

One of the man's adult sons, a completely mad sailor, overhearing and interrupting: "Yep, we're all useless on shore."

That got me to thinking...  We all like the stereotype of the happy sailor who ran away to sea, the person who escaped the disquietudes of life on shore and is busy chasing their own destiny, twinkle in eye.

But what were those happy sailors escaping from in the first place?  And is there a flip side to our ever-growing comfort in a life afloat?  What the heck will it be like when we go back to sleeping night after night in a house that forever goes nowhere at all?

I guess that we'll worry about that when the time comes.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Save the Date

If you're in Hobart, pencil the book launch for South From Alaska onto your calendar - May 10, 5:30, at Fullers Bookshop.  There'll be stories from the Pacific, a reading or two from the book, and free grog (while supplies last!).  Reservations at

Friday, March 23, 2012

Winter, Such As It Is

So this was the view from the decks of Galactic today, after the weather had cleared.  That white tint on the top of Mt. Wellington isn't really snow, but it's something cold - a bit of residual sleet, perhaps.  In Alaska people call that 'termination dust', as it means that summer seasonal employment is coming to an end.  Winter is on its way here in the South.

One of the things that we're looking for from this upcoming winter is the chance to figure out how to live aboard Galactic comfortably in the cold.  The southern hemisphere is just awash with splendid high-latitude sailing destinations, and one of the main projects that we've set ourselves for the coming years is figuring out how many of those places we feel comfortable visiting with the little fellas on board.  And we figure that getting good at living on board in the cold will be good preparation for whatever high-latitude sailing we eventually take on.

Now, winter in Hobart is nothing to impress an Alaskan.  The average low temps are around 4° or 5° C (low 40s F), and the record lows are -1° or -2° C / high 20s F.  But still, it'll be raw, and rainy, and we'll need to put in some effort to making sure that the boat is comfortable.  We know a lot of tricks from other people who have lived aboard in the cold.  So far Alisa has covered the sole with carpet scraps that she scavenged (below), which makes the boat much cosier ("co-key!", Eric says), and will really insulate us when the water temperatures start to drop.  And I've done a little modifying so that we can plug the boat into Australian 240 volt shore power, but still run our 110 volt US heaters down below.

Right now a heater is humming along at the medium setting between my knees as I'm writing this at the chart table, and the cabin thermometer is reading 20° C / 70° F.  Things are off to a good start.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Charting Our Future

A few weeks back, we had the great treat of a visit from our Sydneysider friends Alex and Diana.  They let slip at one point that they had a complete set of charts for New Zealand, including the New Zealand subantarctic, that they had no use for.  And could we use them?

So, a few days after they had returned home, a very large box arrived at the marina.  With the madness of our annual haulout behind us, we just got around to organizing them yesterday.  And oh, the joy.  The expense of charts means that sailors are in the habit of photocopying each others' charts, and we more often than not find ourselves navigating with black and white copies on unsubstantial photocopy paper.  These charts of New Zealand are the real thing - original, government-produced charts in color, on heavy paper that is a tactile delight to work with.  In the coming months, as our plans for New Zealand and the subantarctic come together, we'll be referencing these charts, bringing our next dream to life on their traceries of shoreline and soundings.

Alisa and I have always navigated with paper charts exclusively, but we find that as the digital revolution plays out in navigation it's getting harder and harder to find other people to trade charts with.  On our first Pacific crossing, in 2008, we found that even if people didn't actually have any charts to trade, they would insist that they had a complete set of paper charts to back up their electronic navigation.  It was considered a taboo of proper seamanship to admit to not having paper backups on board.  But in this last crossing, in 2011, we found that people were much more willing to admit to carrying only a few small-scale paper charts, or none at all.  Not only is the revolution here, but it appears to be nearly complete.

We'll be using electronic navigation ourselves when we set out from Tasmania.  It's just so easy to set up a chart plotter on your laptop, and the benefits are many.  But we remain committed, for the foreseeable future, to having the paper chart for every place we go.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Long Travel

My Australian Dad will no doubt treasure this picture.

Elias is taking cricket lessons every Tuesday after school.  I've been thinking about how nice it is that we're spending enough time in Hobart for Elias to really experience life as an Australian schoolboy.

And that made me think of my long-standing favorite part of extended travel:

It makes you wealthy.  In the currency of time.

I remember, years ago while I was working at my first "real" biology job in Alaska, listening to two friends tell me about their improbably long trip to Patagonia.  It was the kind of trip to Patagonia that began with them riding their bikes from Fairbanks, Alaska to Panama.  With a detour to Cuba.

They were telling me about some of their experiences in the Peruvian Andes.  At one point they met a muleteer, and took a three-week detour, via mule, around some isolated Andean massif or another.

I remember being so impressed by that - a three-week trip?  That you hadn't even been planning on?

So one of the things that I was really looking for when we first left Kodiak on board Pelagic was the chance to regain that endless feeling that time had when I was in my twenties, that feeling of unstructured-ness that cannot survive exposure to the world of mortgages and nine-to-five.

And it worked - being time-rich is one of the most concrete benefits of the sailing life.

Of course, I'm still making a living as we travel.  And maintaining the boat.  And co-parenting a couple of young kids.  And writing.  So there are times when the I feel anything but time-rich as I rush through a too-short day.

But on this last crossing of the Pacific (which was itself a bit rushed), we were able to spend 46 days in the Marquesas Islands.  That's no time at all for sailors who are travelling at a slower clip than us.  But it felt pretty luxurious to me.

So now, we're embarked on a different type of travel than the constant here-to-there that saw us across the Pacific in six months.  We're spending the Austral winter in Hobart, and that, too implies a wealth of time - the time to take a whole season in one place.  Enough time for our kid to really experience this other country of his (both boys are dual citizens).  Enough time for him to do things like learn to play cricket.

Ah, but.  That brings up the another aspect of extended travel - it's unpredictability.

So yes, we can sign Elias up for cricket class.  But we couldn't have predicted that he would team up with his little friend Victor in class.  Victor is French.  Elias (when it comes to cricket, at least) is American.  They're both natural cut-ups.  So they spend most of their time ignoring the cricket entirely, and just chucking the ball in random directions.  And being sternly talked to by the very patient instructors.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Back In

Galactic finally went back in the water today.  We're settling into life aboard and I'm remembering how much I love the motion of the boat at the dock, the creak of the docklines, the wind gusting in the rig.  Even tied up in the marina, with the winter approaching, living on board infuses everyday life with the promise of something new, distant horizons that might be yours.  The two weeks in the yard already a memory.

We went to a good friend's house for dinner last night.  Afterwards I dropped the family at the rental house and returned to the yard, where I worked at getting the steering reconnected and the stuffing box repacked.

I wasn't finished until 4:30 am.  And I was back at the yard at 8:15 to launch.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Police in Hobart - Found

I didn't get around to posting it yesterday, but I did see a police car as I was driving out to Moonah to buy some tools.  So my traveler's experiment ended at 12 days - that's how long I went in Hobart without seeing any police.  I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who lives in a state capitol in America about how many days they go without seeing any police while going about their daily routine.

So, this topic has been a bit tangential to the blog.  My point is just that an American really notices how lightly-policed Australian society is - I reckon it's one of the salient differences between the two countries.

And, thinking about all this, and looking up incarceration rates on wikipedia, has given me a new rejoinder for when an Australian is causing me grief.  (They're particularly awful at customer service here.)  It used to be that I would get my satisfaction by thinking to myself, "Hey, don't mess with me, I'm American.  We've been to the moon."

But from now on when those situations arise, I reckon I'll say, out loud, "Careful - based on the incarceration rates of our two countries, I am, empirically speaking, five and a half times more likely to be badass than you."

Social Life of the Boat Yard

There's a great social side to the boatyard.  You talk with the other people working on their boats, commiserate about how long it all takes, ask for some advice if you're stumped by something.

And there is a steady trickle of people just walking through the yard to have a look at the boats.  Some of them stop for a minute to chat.  I've met interesting people that way, including a couple who introduced themselves by saying, "We've read your book!"

There is nothing kinder that you can say to a writer stuck in the boatyard.

But (pet peeve coming up), there are other people who don't have the best sense of timing for striking up a conversation.  Look at me in the picture above - sander buzzing away at eye level, respirator and safety glasses on.  If I were grinding instead of sanding, I'd also be wearing hearing protection and heavy gloves.  Hearing what someone is saying, and answering them, requires stopping what I'm doing and taking half that stuff off.

If you saw someone working like that, would you interrupt them if all you had to say was, "Nice boat.  What design is she?"

You'd be surprised how many people do.

Something to Brace Against

Well, the week that we planned to spend in the yard has swollen into two.

Being grizzled veterans of all things boat, Alisa and I are not surprised.  (That's our keel above, in mid-process.)

We talked about leaving the expensive short-term rental we've been staying on and moving back on board Galactic for the rest of the haulout.  But the decks are filthy with boatyard grime and I don't fancy getting Eric up and down the ladder every day.  So we're staying in the rental for the duration.

I occasionally get the suspicion that I'm making things harder than they need to be with the boat, that I'm being too fussy and doing work that really doesn't need to be done.  I start to wonder if other yachties go through this sort of boat yard epic.  I've been working all day every day, I don't get back to the rental in time to eat with the family or tuck the kids into bed, I wake up in the morning and spend the first hour of the day walking all hunched over and crooked while my body slowly warms up for another day of work.  Surely, I think to myself, people would never spend so much money on boats if this were the experience they were buying themselves?

But then Alisa and I talk it over and we decide that I'm not getting carried away.  If I see something going wrong with the boat I try to set it right.  That's all.

And there's always something going wrong with a boat.  

This passage from Two Years Before the Mast sums up the maintenance side of the sailing life as well as anything I've seen:

When I first left port, and found that we were kept regularly employed for a week or two, I supposed that we were getting the vessel into sea trim, and that it would soon be over, and we should have nothing to do but sail the ship; but I found that it continued so for two years, and at the end of the two years there was as much to be done as ever.

Anyone who dreams of a carefree life as a "cruiser" on a sailboat should be required to memorize that passage.


As much as I say I don't like boat maintenance (believe me, some people do like it), I don't really mind these epic bouts of yard work every year.  Sometimes I find myself wondering how long we'll want to keep doing them, but for now I just take it for granted as a part of the game.  

It's hard to articulate, but the sort of work and dedication that is required for long-distance sailing give our life a certain structure.  I was thinking today of the scene early in The Shipping News where Quoyle thinking thinks that moving to Newfoundland, and all the hardship that suggests, will "give him something to brace against".

So I guess that I see the yard work as something like that.  I do need a challenge to be satisfied in my mind.

There is also the idea from The Shipping News of the value in a lifestyle where living and working are not things that are separated.  

Sailing full-time unifies living and working in spades.

So, all to say that this yard stint hasn't been too bad.  Though I will be very relieved, as always, to get back in the water.

And, for anyone who is thinking of traveling the world in their own boat, helping someone with their annual haulout is about the best preparation that you could get.
Alisa organized a sitter a couple times this week so that she could lend a hand in the yard.  The hardest thing about sailing with little kids is how they complicate maintenance, and it was really nice that we could work together on the boat for a while.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cow's Milk

Eric is growing into a little boy. His vocabulary is exploding and he has begun to have a sense of himself. He wants to see his own photo on our digital camera and makes silly faces when we take his picture. He doesn't know it but his second birthday is in 6 weeks.
Eric smiling for himself
Sailing with infants and young children is unique on many levels. Initially, we were nearly overwhelmed by the concerns we had about sailing to Australia with baby Elias. Although it was five years ago, I still remember our family doctor in Kodiak, Alaska, saying to us with a huge smile: "Don't worry, all you need is breastmilk". He then proceeded to help us with our extensive medical kit.

But the first reaction he had was true - breastmilk solved most of our child-related problems.  With Eric aboard, breastfeeding gained more glory as it helped with his seasickness.  We knew Eric was being hydrated and nourished with the liquid gold and he also took great comfort through the process.
Taking good care of Eric while sailing across Bass Straits in February.
When we arrived in Hobart last month, I introduced cow's milk to Eric and slowly began to wean him. And now he only asks for [and gets] cow's milk. Eric seems to be doing fine with the transition and the timing is perfect with Galactic in the boatyard and us living elsewhere for a few more days.

We have 9 to 10 months before our next ocean crossing to New Zealand. While there's every expectation that Eric will struggle to find his sea legs again, he will be closer to age 3 and by that time we should have some new tricks up our sleeve.
Eric's pleased to sail despite the occasional nausea.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Looking for the Police in Hobart

While I hold both Australian and American citizenship, culturally I'm very much an American.  So the time that we've spent here in Oz has been a chance for me to get to know my other country.  And getting to know the Lucky Country a bit better has in turn informed my perspective on the US.

That's one of the really great things about travel - it lets you see home with new eyes.  And one of the first things I noticed when we came to Oz was how few police there seemed to be.  For all the jokes you can make about Australians' convict ancestors, the contemporary nation appears very lightly policed to American eyes.

When you're spending time in a new place, things that are different appear odd.  Home is your reference for what is normal.  So it seemed odd to see so few coppers out and about in Australian towns.

But we've been in Australia long enough (four months on this visit, and nearly two years on our last) that a lightly-policed society is starting to feel pretty normal.  And that got me thinking about why you see so many police in America.

And the answer, of course, is simple - American society locks up an abnormally high proportion of its citizens.  A higher proportion than any other nation, in fact, and five and a half times the rate of incarceration in Oz.  So, to get all those people in prison, I suppose you have to hire a lot of police to do the arresting.

How few police are around in a more "normal" Western city like Hobart?  Well, I actually remember the last cop car I saw out on the street, because it startled me a bit.  And that was ten days ago.  I'm going to run a traveller's experiment and see how many more days it takes me until I see the next.

Hobart from on high.  (Although we weren't actually up there to look for the police.)

The Marquesas In All Their Glory

Well, Google tells us that we've got readers in Mexico.  Just a hunch, but I'm guessing that a lot of those readers are North American yachties, and some of them are probably getting ready to jump off for the Marquesas this month.

Here's something to stoke your sense of anticipation while you're sailing the 3,000 miles to get there: very very good Marquesas pictures - both of Marquesan culture and general Marquesan life.

The pictures were taken by Doris of the yacht Cercamon.  A whole bunch more of her outstanding photos are on the blog that she and Régis write...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Boatyard as Existential Trap (Part II)

Hauling out can, counterintuitively, be a very indulgent experience.  It's a good time to treat yourself a bit.   I like to have a beer while I'm putting the tools away at the end of the day, and then another one (or two) with my late dinner.  Ice cream every night, too.  And if there happens to be one around, I love watching TV at night after my day in the yard.

In a way, I'm channeling a different sort of existence - I work at manual labor for twelve hours, then come home to treat myself a bit, then get up the next day and do it all over again.  For as long as we're in the yard, I have no ambitions beyond doing that every day.  For me, it's the only way to approach a haul-out.

For Alisa, though, the experience is a little more hectic.  I've been getting to the boatyard at eight in the morning, and leaving by eight or eight thirty at night.  That means she's been herding the boys through the nightly circus of dinner-bath-bedtime all by herself.  And we're in this strange house instead of being on our home turf aboard Galactic, so domestic life is that much harder to keep organized.

Now, long-time readers of the blog know that Alisa is not a complainer.  Actually, she is more not-a-complainer than anyone else I know.  But the other morning, as she was dropping me off, she looked up at Galactic, sitting on a cradle and surrounded by scaffolding and said - Jeez, it makes you wonder if it's worth it.

She paused for just a second and then added - Oh right, but when we're sailing we're queasy and half-miserable and then we wonder if it's worth it.

It was, I'm sure, just a tiny moment of clear-headed thinking about this life of constant-here-to-there that we're embarked upon, and I don't think it will last.

But, all the same, it will be good to get back into the water.

A Review

I didn't know this one was coming - this morning a friend in Sydney sent us a text to let us know that South From Alaska had been written up in today's Sydney Morning Herald.  

So of course we got a copy.  I still don't like reading things like this, but Alisa read it to me, and I found that was pretty easy to take.  And I was struck by one detail - the byline.  Reviewed by Bruce Elder, it says.  So even though it ran in the travel section, I reckon it's an honest-to-god review.

Book reviews, of course, have largely gone the way of the papers that used to run them, so getting this one was a treat to brighten a boatyard day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The People We Are

Well, there are a lot of people on the information superhighway who are writing about their sailing lives.  And from what I can tell, a lot of them write about...maintaining their boats.

Different strokes for different folks, of course.  But nothing could bore me more than writing about, or talking about, boat maintenance.  There are some things that genteel folks just don't discuss, and that's one of them.

I don't even like to think about boat maintenance.  So today, when I was doing nothing but maintaining the boat in the boat yard all day, I thought about...the existentialism, the ontology, if you will, of being a full-time sailor.

What else could a reasonable person possibly think about in the boat yard?  If you live and travel on your boat full-time, you are forever putting effort and money into the boat.  Then haul-out time comes along, and you redouble both the effort and money that you are putting into the boat.  And this isn't an investment, since the boat will inevitably go downhill, no matter what you do about it.  The money and effort that you are expending is simply blowing out into the ether, from whence it will never return.

What other questions could you possibly ask at a time like that besides, "Is this worth it?  Should I continue to wake up every day and decide to keep living this way?"

As I was chipping away dodgy paint today, I was thinking about an interview I heard on the ABC the other day.  A family was talking about their experience running a dairy farm for decades, and they kept saying, "It made us the people we are."   As in, it was hard work, and we didn't get to go on holiday like other families, but we're glad we did it, it made us the people we are.

And I thought that was a great way to think of the sailing life.  Or any life that is spent in pursuit of a dream or a passion.  The joy is perhaps not so much in the oceans crossed, but in the form your life takes on, and the person you become, as you act on the demands of a dreamed-of life.

And that got me to thinking about the qualities that I find attractive in some of our friends who have been sailing the world for years and years.  These are people who are incredibly self-reliant.  They are comfortable in the world, they know the score, and how things are organized, and how to make their way in a hundred disparate situations.  They're not complainers; they don't waste their breath moaning about things that can't be changed, like the weather or bureaucracy.  But they can also tell great stories about ridiculous situations that the weather and bureaucracy have put them in.  They have a twinkle in their eye.  And the very best of them have minds that wander much further, and more freely, than their corporeal selves, even with their endless physical voyaging.

So, it's a short list, and little enough in the end.  But if that's what we're buying ourselves with this constant business of getting from one place to another, it just might be a deal that justifies itself in the end.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Hard

For a sailor, being in a boat yard is being "on the hard".

We're on the hard right now - today was the second day of a one- or two-week haul-out for Galactic.

We're renting a house in South Hobart so that we don't have to live on the boat in the yard.  The boys seem to be startled by all the indoor space that is suddenly open to them - they spend most of their time in the house running around like larrikins.

Eric sleeps in a closet because we were afraid he would tip over his crib anywhere else.  The little fella continues to not find himself short of energy.

Our favorite phrase to describe boatyard work comes from a Google translation of a French sailor's blog - "humping it like a convict".  This is what I look like after a full day of humping it like a convict.  

Only one or two weeks minus two days to go!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Art of Leaving

Over the last few weeks, a trickle of sailboats have been leaving Hobart for the trip across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

Some of these departing boats have been traveling for years, and for them the Tasman is one more in a series of crossings.

But for a couple boats we know, the trip to New Zealand has been the very first leg of a long-planned voyage.

One of these boats that was just starting out was Midnight Sun.  That's our friend Paul on board in the picture above, only 48 hours from departure.  Things in the cabin are looking a little...unsettled.

Another boat just setting out was Avenger.  That's Derrick on the left, who was one of the very first people we met when we first came to Hobart two years ago.  I took this picture a few days ago, just as he and his daughter and son-in-law-to-be and dog were leaving the dock and heading for New Zealand.  They look expectant and organized.

But if you saw the same boat two weeks earlier, when they welcomed us back to Tassie with a raft-up in Barnes Bay, you would have noticed that things were still not quite ready.  Like, for instance, the fact that the boom wasn't on the boat.

Getting a boat ready to leave home on a long trip is a nearly impossible task.  There are just too many things to prepare.  And when your shakedown trip is a passage as intimidating as a Tasman crosssing, leaving is even harder.

You can take a real flogging in the Tasman.  Which means that any short-cut in boat prep could have some bad-news repercussions.  And having that in the back of your mind makes it even more impossible to convince yourself that you're adequately prepared for the trip.

The answer, of course, is that you have to leave before you're ready.  You have to start your big trip at a point when any well-informed observer would estimate that you have somewhere between a week and a year of prep work still to go before you'll be ready.

That's more or less what these two boats did.  Midnight Sun is now safely in New Zealand, and on the way in their long-dreamed-of trip to Alaska.  And Avenger is, if not yet in New Zealand, then getting pretty close, as they left Hobart six days ago.

The marinas of the world are full of people who are fated to never get beyond the preparation stage for acting on their dreams of traveling under sail.  Good on these guys for making the jump when they did.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Plan?

I love having a motivating idea when I'm traveling.  Wandering aimlessly bores me quickly; I need a target, the excitement of some goal that grows out of a moment of thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if..."

We're feeling a new goal coming into relief - the Auckland Islands, in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic - the archipelago is circled above.

It would be an ambitious plan to try to get there next summer - maybe too ambitious.  But we've heard some very cool things about the place - calving right whales, for one thing!  And the Aucklands might be a good way for us to get our feet wet with higher-latitude sailing on this new boat.

Alisa says she's game to give it a try.  We haven't made a final final decision, but we're starting to think we might apply for a permit to visit next summer.  Stay tuned...