Thursday, June 27, 2013


Well, it's a bit of a letdown, but: 1) Alisa did burn the passage cookies; and 2) tomorrow (the day we would leave) is a Friday, and we've never left anywhere on a Friday; and 3) the forecasts are showing some headwinds a few days into the trip.  They're quite light headwinds, but we have a three-year-old who vomits when the wind is forward of the beam, so we're quite happy to use our ability to be picky and have decided to hold off on leaving for Tonga.  The next opportunity looks to be about a week out.

Meanwhile, after all the carryings-on in Australian politics yesterday, non-edgy En Zed is looking pretty fine.

The scene belowdecks.
And the scene abovedecks.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Great Place to Live, But I Wouldn't Want to Visit There

Lately Alisa has been saying things like, "I don't feel the need to come back to New Zealand.  Maybe we should go to Micronesia for the cyclone season."

So stay tuned to see how that turns out.

It's a funny thing how we see En Zed.  I'll be careful here, as some of our very bestest friends began life as Kiwis (that would be you, Enki, and you, Akimbo).  Being American, I know how it is to listen to other people's opinions about your country - they (the opinions) always sound so incompletely informed.  And I am very aware of what a skewed and incomplete experience we've had of this nation.

But, well... this is one very tame place.  Nothing edgy about the whole country, as far as I can see, and aside from the saving grace of it being Polynesian, nothing particularly exotic.  What it does have is the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever met.  Take that, and the aforementioned lack of edginess, and I could see us very happily living here in some later point in our lives.  But as a place to travel to...I think I'd recommend giving Alaska a try first.

The good news for the international Kiwi brand is that when I've tentatively tried explaining to the folks back in America that New Zealand hasn't completely taken our breath away, they've reacted as if I admitted to something a bit disgraceful.  From what I can see, New Zealand is still a shining symbol Americans' eyes.


Meanwhile, we've just checked the weather and agreed that we can't see any reason to hang around, bad mouthing the place.  So we're on the final countdown - Alisa even cleaned up our plastic portlights today, opining that being able to see out of them will make the motion down below easier to take.


Monday, June 24, 2013


Today's our anniversary - we sailed away from Kodiak on June 24, 2007.

It's been one big, stinking adventure ever since.








Sunday, June 23, 2013

Colds, Cold, Countdown

Colds, as in: we're all of us (except Alisa) kind of sick.  The boys are hacking, I've been nodding off at the dinner table, and I fall asleep for good at eight.

Cold, as in: it's not Alaska, but Eric is wearing his fingerless gloves in the cabin.  And thermals under his PJs.

Countdown: as in, based on the current forecast, we could be leaving for Tonga as early as Thursday or (and we've never done this before) Friday.

Alisa had been griping about the lack of a grocery store in Opua ever since we returned from North America - this is one of those odd yacht outposts where there's no town, just stuff for your sailboat.  So this morning she and Elias struck out on the coastal track to Paihia, making the hour and a half trek to investigate rumors of a grocery store in that town.  And, as these things often turn out, they got to chatting with an incredibly friendly fellow on the way there who drove them to the much bigger, and cheaper, grocery store in Kerikeri and came back to collect them two hours (and $900 NZD) later, and drove them all the way back to the dinghy dock.  New Zealand is that friendly a place.  And now, lo and behold, we're pretty well provisioned for a season in the tropics.

We haven't even been back on the boat for a week, but it feels like we never left.  I'm so at home that I even had a go at fixing the old wind generator yesterday.  This is something that I do when I'm feeling nostalgia for the good old days of our life afloat, when everything was simpler and I did all my own boat maintenance.  The best thing about fixing the old wind generator is that it never runs out - you fix it, and then a day (or not even a day) later, it's like you never fixed it at all.  So you can do it again.  If you're feeling nostalgia for the good old days when everything was simpler and you did all your own boat maintenance.  Every boat should have a job like that.  People living in houses I suppose have to content themselves with cutting the grass, which is obviously a poor substitute, as you're not actually fixing anything, just cutting.  The grass.

I feel better now.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Two For School

I haven't written much about home school ("boat school") on the blog, but it has become another major focus of our life afloat.  Alisa is ushering Elias through Grade 1 with a curriculum supplied by the State of Tasmania.

Meanwhile, I find myself in school as well.  I also haven't written about this much, but when we first arrived in Tasmania, more than three years ago, I had two just-funded marine biology projects that together made up a PhD's worth of research.  Having managed to get halfway through a career as a biologist without actually doing a PhD, I figured that I'd never again get such a good chance.  So I found someone at the University of Tasmania to supervise me, added an Australian component to complement the North Pacific focus of my work, and away I went.

I haven't asked around, but I'm pretty sure that I am the only full-time PhD student in the world who has managed to fit in an ocean crossing (and a crossing of the Tasman!) into their program.

So yesterday, we settled into our schedule.  After breakfast, Alisa and Elias retreated to the aft cabin to get after some fractions and spelling.  Alisa used to try to watch Eric while she also schooled Elias so that I could have uninterrupted time to work, but adding a three-year-old to the Grade 1 mix is a sure bet for frustration on everyone's part.  So Eric and I stayed in the main cabin: I worked at the chart table, catching up on the tasks I let slide while we were in North America, and Eric played.

My interior dialogue went something like this:

-The Beverton-Holt model...
-Daddy, where's my knight?
-outperformed the Ricker model based on the small-sample Aikaike's Information Criterion.
-Daddy, where's my knight?
-Model residuals were normally distributed...

Well, you get the picture.

Boy vs. vegemite sandwich.  Boy won, but sandwich put up a fight.

Engineering school:  the light was flickering, Eric gave it a whack, and the flickering stopped.  He was in heaven, having fixed a broken bit of boat gear for the first time ever.  By the end of the day the light was flickering again.  Welcome to my world, kid. 

Engineering school: re-torquing the head nuts 50 hours after the gasket was changed.  After I got everything put back together there was evidence of blow-by: gasses pushing out of the oil-fill cap when it's opened.  That definitely didn't happen before we had the gasket changed - wish I had checked to see if it was happening before I torqued the nuts!  
Today's lesson: checking valve clearance to see if that explains the escaping gasses... 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Tropics Await

There's one thing about having kids - they make it harder to tell lies when you're entering a country.

We arrived at the Auckland airport completely over it - 22 hours from Cleveland, both kids sick when the trip began, and a three and a half hour drive up to Opua still ahead of us.

Before the drive, though, we had to get our fishing gear and dirty boots (and the eagle feathers that Alisa hadn't told me about) through biosecurity and into the country.

When the quarantine officer asked if we had mostly been fishing in saltwater while in Alaska, I answered, "yes".

That is, I, the professional biologist with a strong awareness of the danger posed to island ecosystems by introduced organisms, went along with the quarantine guy's suggestion that we had been fishing in saltwater.  This was because I knew that he would be most concerned about the possibility of introducing freshwater organisms, and that saltwater gear wouldn't get much attention.

At that point in the trip I would have done anything to make the process go a little faster.

And that, of course, is when Elias piped up.  "Most of our time wasn't in saltwater, Dad.  Remember the Dollies?  That was freshwater."

The quarantine guy ended up scrubbing the soles on all of our boots while we tried, in vain, to keep Eric from running all over the place.  When he was done scrubbing our boots, he took the eagle feathers.

And then, when he was done with all that, a light went on in that part of his Kiwi brain that is set aside for friendly Kiwi chats.  After noticing that we had put down Opua Marina as our address in New Zealand, he started telling us about his grandmother's lodge in nearby Russell.

Only in New Zealand would a quarantine guy decide to extend his interaction with a tired family and their cranky kids (at six am local time, no less) just to pass the time of day more pleasantly.

Aunt Noerena did the first leg of the trip with us, to LA. 
The view from deck upon arrival.
We arrived back in Opua, where we had left Galactic more than a month earlier, and found the season well and truly changed.  Nearly all of the traveling boats are gone, and the foreign-flagged boats that are still around have a buttoned-up look that tells the story of owners gone back to their home countries for the season.  The morning session with other yachts on the VHF radio, which was both helpful and also annoyingly identical, in spirit, phrasing and substance, to every other English-language "cruiser's net" from here to La Paz, has gone quiet.  Everyone is gone up to the tropics for the winter.

We're soon behind them.  Though not too soon - there would be a weather window for us to leave this weekend, but we're not even close to ready for that.  The kids both have hacking coughs that put us in mind of the respiratory infection that landed Elias in hospital last year, there are a few days of boat jobs ahead of us, and I spent the first full day back making revisions to a scientific paper, as always putting off boat tasks to do the research work that keeps us going.  Winter is here and there are big systems going past New Zealand.  We've read accounts from friends who have already made the trip north and were caught out by passing fronts.  So although we're ready for the tropics, though we can feel the turquoise water and taste the coconuts, we're back into yachtie-patient mode, content to wait for the proper moment to head north.

Meanwhile we're home again, and getting used to sharing the confined space of the boat with two little ones.  We got a sense, spending time with our siblings and friends back in North America, of just how different our lives have become from the lives of our peers during the five years and 361 days that we've spent living afloat.  Splashing back into the world of steady work and daily/weekly/monthly schedules and smartphones and driving places reminded us, over and over, of just how completely different our everyday concerns and routines are.  Comparisons are odious, and we didn't spend the trip keeping mental checklists of how we were glad we were to avoid this or that everyday annoyance by living on a sailboat.  But once we were back on Galactic and I'd had a good sleep, I kept remarking to Alisa just how generally happy I was just to be living on the boat with the family in this dreary little out-of-season yacht harbor.

In the long view, one obvious difference between our lives and the lives of people our age back ashore is just how much wealth some of our peers seem to be accumulating as they proceed through their forties.  People are paying off mortgages and buying bigger houses and getting more pay and filling up their investment accounts.  I don't even let myself think facile yachtie phrases like "they're spending their time accumulating possessions; we're spending our time living life."  I think that, in the really important things, life afloat and life ashore are the same thing.  We do have the bonus of looking forward to a season in the tropics; in another set of circumstances we would be looking forward to setting ourselves up to retire younger, with a house with a view, in a position to send our kids to a private American university.  This trip back to the US gave me a taste of how much effort it's going to take to plug back into the kind of daily lives that we left behind, and I'm determined, as long as this dream-like (in the sense of not being quite real) life that we're living continues, to not let it get stale, to enjoy these days filled with too much time with my kids and too many ethereal, recurring, always different moments: dawn at sea, making landfall after a week, or finding a friend in an unfamiliar place.

Because when this is all over, it will be well and truly over - we won't take anything away from this part of our lives, except for whatever mark these things that we found worth doing, and seeing, have left on us, and how they've changed, however subtly, who we are.
Today isn't the day to leave - that's the north end of New Zealand at the bottom-center, beneath all the blue and magenta.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Uncle Mike

Though I occasionally stray far off topic, this blog is about sailing and traveling.  In the past few weeks we've been traveling, of course, but traveling back to see our families in Boston and Cleveland, and I haven't felt the need to post to the world about the wonderful, and wonderfully mundane, visits that we've been having.

Soon enough we'll be back in the nautical life.  On Sunday we'll depart Ohio, bound for New Zealand, with an extra piece of luggage crammed full of cheaper-in-America boat parts.  And once we're back, we'll be in the thick of it - a few days of work on the boat, a blast of the science work that I haven't finished up while visiting family, and we'll be looking to catch the first thing smoking, as someone in a different time and different place might have said.  But instead of a train to Chicago, we'll be looking for fair winds to Tonga.

Meanwhile, these pics.  When we were in Boston my Dad and I built a treehouse for my sis and brother-in-law, who have four daughters, and a son soon to arrive.  When my sis asked us to do the job, it seemed like a great way to play the role of visiting Uncle - what better thing to do than leave something semi-permanent and fun behind?  And I was reminded of my Granddad, who always had some big job ready for my Dad and uncles during family visits - he was forever dragging the men out to plant trees around the place.  And there's a certain wisdom to that - banging nails, or planting trees, is a much better way to spend time together, and visit, than just sitting around on the couch, staring at each other.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Our Peeps

The reason we're here in North America, of course, is to see our families.  But in addition to catching up with our Alaskan friends, our visit to the Lower 48 has given us the chance to see some very good friends from different corners of our lives.  

There's a funny geographic pattern at work there - Alisa and I don't have any close friends left in Cleveland, where we both grew up.  But Boston, where my sister and parents have settled, gives us access to a rich little community - being there allowed us to see my best friend from high school and his family, two of Alisa's good friends from grad school in Alaska, and their kids, good friends from Tasmania who are also doing the dual American/Australian approach to citizenship, and finally, good friends from our first crossing of the Pacific.

A special treat, because we hadn't been expecting it, was the chance to see our friends Dave and Julia from Macy (above), whom we hadn't seen since the early days of 2009.  Since we've seen them last they've completed their circumnavigation and settled back into life ashore in Rhode Island.  When I was looking back through old emails to try to find a non-sailmail address for them, I was reminded of how close we were to these guys - we met them in Marquesas, shared an über-memorable pair of anchorages in Makemo, in the fabled Tuamotu Archipelago, crossed paths in Tonga, and then had them aboard for a few days in Iluka, our spiritual home in Australia.

And then, nothing.  They left New Zealand, sailed through Indonesia and the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and the Caribbean and the Gulf Stream, and were home.  We slowly fell out of contact, as you do.

And that's the joy and the regret of the sailing life in a nutshell - we've formed very close friendships with a small group of people from all over the world during our years afloat - people, for instance, from Rhode Island and Holland and England and New South Wales and Tasmania.  These are all people we never would have met if we'd stayed home in Alaska, we've known them, in general, for quite short periods of time, and then the friendships come to an end as we, or they, move on.  So it was a great treat to cross paths with some of those friends on this trip, to be sitting at a barbecue in my sister's back yard, chatting with Macy.

Macy waving good-bye in Makemo.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Always, A List

That's not the list of things you have to order?  my dad said.

Uh, yep, that's it, I answered.  Always a lot to do to keep the boat going.


Moaning about how much trouble it is to buy things for your yacht has never been a sure-fire way to inspire sympathy.  But I will say that one of my least-favorite boat chores is sourcing parts online.  I would much rather dive into the water in my snorkeling gear to unplug a clogged head discharge hose...

 However, everything boat-related in New Zealand is about twice the price in the U.S., so this trip back to North America is a prime chance to stock up the barky before our upcoming trip to the tropics.  Now I just have to psych myself up for some mindless hours of searching for parts on the laptop...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Boy, Meet Alaska

So many things were the same when we returned to Alaska.  Kodiak is still very much the town that we left almost six years ago, and the land itself looks just like it always did.  We slotted effortlessy into old friendships, chatting easily with people we hadn't seen in years.

But one thing about Alaska has changed in a big way for us - for the first time, we were experiencing the place with kids.  

Elias and I settled on fishing as our main father-son activity in Kodiak.  When we first planned our trip we had thought we would be visiting in June, when the sockeye salmon are running, the halibut are inshore and the king salmon might even be on the bite.

Then we changed our visit to May.  And it was a very cold May, to boot, and none of those things were going on - none of our friends with sport fishing boats had even been on the water yet during this year.

So we concentrated on trying to find Dolly Varden - little salmonids that haunt the rivers and lakes and nearshore coastal waters of much of Alaska.

I'm not much into fishing myself - I fish enough to eat fresh fish, and that's it.  So it took us a few tries to find any Dollies.  But then, on our last full day in Kodiak, on the storied Buskin River, we did - check out Elias' expression, below, when we finally caught a fish.

We caught six Dollies, and they made a nice feed for the family.  They're wild fish, not, as far as I know, the product of any stocking program.  I just love the fact that Kodiak is a place where you can walk down to the banks of the local river and catch a wild salmonid with your kid.

Fishing was a great excuse for getting outside with Elias, a way to interest him in a few hours spent together on the river, or casting from a beach at high tide.

But having a six-year-old along changes every outdoor event in Alaska - even simple things, like hanging around a fire on a beautiful day at a friends' place.  Suddenly there's this whole other world - outdoor Alaska - that I know well, and love, and Elias knows not at all, and loves, and I have plenty to show him, and explain, and he's interested in everything I know.

It's a pretty sweet deal.

Eric's big breakthrough on the trip was getting used to dogs.