Tuesday, December 31, 2013


A week brings us round trip from Whangarei Heads to Great Barrier Island and back, and back from our serendipitous holiday from internet access.

We compared notes on favorite parts of 2013 at dinner today, and we had quite a list to choose from.  Alisa was keen on Minerva Reef and Tonga, with the passages in and out of Minerva making her "least favorite" list.  The Aucklands were my fave for the year past, with a nod to Port Davey, where we started the year off.

Hauraki Gulf

Last day of 2013
It's all completely hectic, of course - keeping the boat up, and sailing the damn thing all over the place ("Just because we do this all the time, doesn't mean it's easy," I said to Alisa today), and raising the boys and keeping my career in science alive at a level where I can make reasonably useful contributions in my field and pay the bills.  If you're a reader, you know that all this regularly gives us gray hairs.

But looking back on a year like the one we just had is certainly enough to make me glad that we're still going.  As routine as this sort of life as might have become for us, it still adds up to something very rewarding when we take a moment to think about it…

Happy 2014, from Galactic.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


So our week-long stay in the Whangarei marina turned, by the immutable laws of boat time, into nine days. But on that ninth day my last pre-Christmas project (fixing leaky shower plumbing and replacing the bulkhead that had been soaking up water - for years, I think) was close enough to finished that we could leave. And, by the way, for this job Whangarei handily produced a no-nonsense plumbing supply shop and some good-natured chippies who could offered to knock up a new bulkhead by the next morning when they heard we were going out for Christmas, once again proving itself as that most valued place for people living on voyaging boats - somewhere where it's easy to get things done.

So we got down the long estuary that is curiously identified only as the "Whangarei Harbour" on the chart, back to the joyous existence of free agents with no fixed address, this time finding ourselves at the vaguely Middle-Earth Whangarei Heads. Here we had various adventures (a southwesterly blow; a seven-year-old with skin infection on the finger, spreading to the hand, and the implausibility of any sort of GP visit on the weekend before Christmas; parents playing stand-in GP with the ship's antibiotics; a long walk at the Heads the next day). And then we buggered off to Great Barrier Island (as named by James Cook) or Aotea (as named by someone long before).

Here the feared holiday crowds of Auckland yachts have failed to materialize. There are kaka flying through the forest and kereru displaying on the wing, and child-friendly tracks that lead conveniently to waterfalls. And, blessedly, there is no internet access at all. (Everyone is aware that Facebook is a fad, but I am prepared to stick my neck out and call the entire damn internet a fad, and one that we will all be embarrassed to remember.)

Here we have just finished another perfect Christmas, which is quite easy when you're one, prepared to be completely pagan about it; two, have little children to lend their enthusiasm to the holiday; and three, have a few shekels in hand to throw away on their presents. Santa left a bunch of Playmobiles (murderous toy knights) set up on the saloon table and that set the day off with 0600 squeals of boyish delight. Alisa recreated my grandmother's Christmas stollen ("how can you look so Lebanese and bake so German? I asked) and produced four varieties of Christmas cookies; it rained enough through the day to give us the perfect atmosphere for playing with toys and reading and napping, but not enough to keep us from a walk to the waterfall; and we have been discovering the pleasures of Marlborough Sounds pinot noir.

I find that I am falling for life in the Southern Hemisphere, and it may largely because of how much I find Christmas agrees with me as a summer holiday.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Closing the Circles

Most sailors in the South Pacific would rather not spend the cyclone season in the tropics, growing mold on their boats.  Many would rather not put themselves in contact with Australian officialdom.  So that turns New Zealand into a great crossroads for traveling boats.  Many adventures stop or start here.

As a result, one highlight of this season has been catching up with some faces from the past.

There was Pacific Bliss, of course - that's them on board Galactic, above, in the ill-fated marina that we shared with them in Auckland for four days.  It was remarkable really that Colin managed to find us dock space in downtown Auckland in December, and even more remarkable was the price that he organized for us to pay for our stay - one carton of beer.  Colin has the touch, I suppose.

And Colin and Liz, and by extension, their kids, are some of the most remarkable travelers we've met.  They're storytellers, not writers, but check out this tidbit from their stay in northern Vanuatu last season.

In Opua we also caught up with Michelle and Richard on Thélème.  We don't know these folks as well as the Bliss, having met them only briefly in Tahiti five years ago.  But they're the kind of people who you remember - super-adventurous sailors who have been to any number of places (Tahanea for six months at a time! Kodiak!  South Georgia! Five years in Patagonia!) and are super-relaxed about it all.  For a year or two after we first met them, we kept running into other boats who knew Thélème - all that sailing puts them in the way of a lot of other adventurous sailors, and I get the idea they've become well-known to a small cognoscenti.  They were very positive about our plans for Patagonia, and gave us some useful advice.

And, there's one other circle that we've closed here.  The dock that we've been tied to for the last week, in the Town Basin marina in Whangarei, looks back on a dock that I've been to before.  Three years ago, I came here to check out a boat we might buy.  That one turned out not to be "the one", of course, and it's a pleasure to be looking at that spot from the decks of the boat we eventually found, after our year of looking, and to be very happy with what we ended up with...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Time is the Budget

"Time is the ultimate budget - you always run out of time in the end."

That quote, from a project manager-type on one of New Zealand's America's Cup entries, caught my eye at the Auckland Maritime Museum.

The pre-Patagonia list.  It's rare for the to-do list to run more than a page!
With back to back seasons behind us - New Zealand in Feb.-July, the tropics during July-November - we have a plenty long list of regular maintenance items to cross off.  And this time in New Zealand is also our last chance for Anglophone boat services at non-stratospheric prices before getting to Patagonia, as we're planning on spending the next season in French Polynesia.  (I know.  Feel sorry for us!)

So while we had grand plans of sailing down to Marlborough Sounds for Christmas, our realization of how quickly the summer in New Zealand will pass has dictated a new set of plans.

We're in there somewhere
This is the marina at Whangarei, where we arrived yesterday.  In spite of being greeted by some familiar faces and finding mercifully wide aisles after the cramped confines of the Pier 21 Marina in Auckland, I felt the metaphorical wind fall out of my sails as soon as we tied up.

There's something about marinas.  There's the way that the boats are all so useless, tied up in rows like RVs in a parking lot and slowly disintegrating in place.  There's the enforced interaction with neighbors, surely the most foreign concept possible to anyone who lives on a traveling boat.  There's the feeling of dreams on hold, or failing to come to life, that is symbolized by so many boats going nowhere.  There's the rent - another completely foreign concept for voyaging sailors.

But...there's another quote that's stuck with me in relation to our time in New Zealand this summer.  Our good friends on Macy told us that when they look for a place for their annual haul out, they just think in terms of what's good for the boat.  And Whangarei has that in spades.  There are far more marine service companies here than would seem to be justified by the number of boats that are around.  It appears that we can easily organize all that we need to bring ourselves up to Patagonia scratch in this place.

As a (hopefully typical) example, consider that on this, our second day in the joint, a new wind generator pole is already fabricated and lying on deck, waiting to be installed.

Seeing time used that efficiently will go a long way to justifying a stay here...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Makes Me Feel Better

Going to sea is a balm.  I fear the day when going to sea doesn't make me feel better.

Going to sea and catching a fish - while sailing under spinnaker.  That makes me feel better.

Catching a kingfish - that really makes me feel better.

Oh, and time, too, and being in a new place - those things help.

I think I feel better.

(But another coda.

Today in the Whangarei playground three-year-old Eric chased after a sparrow - and called it a "f***ing bird", three times, very loud.

I guess he was listening during those two failed marina exits.  Which didn't make me feel great.

Boat stuff can be hard - but fatherhood might be harder...)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Worst/Longest/Last Goodbye

In the nine years since we bought Pelagic, we have been in and out of a lot of harbors.  And in all the tight maneuvering that has entailed, through all the vagaries of tidal eddies and crosswinds, we have never once so much as grazed another boat.

But this is a story about goodbyes.

We came to Auckland last Friday to catch up with our good mates on Pacific Bliss, with whom we shared a wonderful time in the Tuamotus and Societies two years ago, and hadn't seen since.

We had a wonderful, and timely, catch-up with them.  Pacific Bliss is in the process of changing owners, and after five years of remarkable travels Colin and Liz and Zinnia and Cosmo are about to transition to life ashore in Nelson, on the South Island.

When Monday rolled around, it was time for us to make tracks.  Which meant saying goodbye to this wonderful family after a too-short, but perfect in its way, re-connection, with no idea of when we'd see them again.

Good-byes are part of the sailing life, and we did it like pros.  Warm.  Kisses, hugs, expressions of love.  But quick.  That's the sailors' way.  And, since the family and boat who we collectively refer to as "The Bliss" were about to part ways, this was likely their last goodbye to sailing friends before they began their new life, off a boat.

Alisa and I hopped aboard.  I put Galactic in reverse.  We backed out of the marina pen, just as per normal.  I put her in neutral and let her drift back while we waved at Colin and Liz and shouted out amusing comments.  Waving goodbye from a moving boat gives a natural stage, a great setting for saying goodbye to friends as they slowly recede into your past.

When our distance from the boat behind us was just so - maybe four meters - I shifted into forward.

And we kept moving back.

I immediately knew something was wrong, and my instinct was to warn everyone.  I gave her more throttle.

We moved back.  Everything slowed down.  I was trapped in this moment where I suddenly couldn't influence the course of events.  Galactic was moving without me.

I left the wheel to try to fend off.

The impact was huge.  Violent.  Loud.  I found myself looking right into the faces of the couple who had been relaxing below on their boat and came running into the cockpit at the first impact.  I was shouting "I'm so sorry," like a maniac.

Things were breaking.

Our wind generator - it didn't used to be like that
And then it was over.  I don't know how I figured it out, I don't remember taking the boat out of gear.

But I had looked back at the boat behind me and, turned around as I was, I had confused forward and reverse on our athwartships throttle/shifter.  And when we didn't move forward as expected, I gave it more throttle, which brought us up to a destructive ramming speed.

I will not endeavor to tell you how awful I felt as I walked around to meet the other boat owners while Alisa and Colin and Liz tied up Galactic.

It being Sunday in North America and Europe, where the insurance companies of the two involved boats reside, we decided to spend another day in Auckland, not wanting to leave the scene until affairs were straightened out.

I will not endeavor to tell you how awful I felt all the rest of the day.  I found that taking the kids to a play park that afternoon was something of a palliative.  I got the chance to do some big-city Christmas shopping with Elias the next morning.

And then, with the two insurance companies notified and the wheels set in motion for making things right, it was time to leave.

Once again we said goodbye to Colin and Liz.  Once again we leapt aboard and I put her in gear.

And once again I found myself in a waking nightmare.

In retrospect, I think that I hadn't adequately explained myself to the person helpfully holding our bow line.  I had instructed him to pull our bow in as we left, to help us make the turn.  I didn't think to say that once we were out of the pen, he should let go of the line.

So, Galactic pulled back, and with the bow held firmly against the side of the dock (I think this is what happened...), we missed our one chance to make the turn so that we could pull out of the marina in forward.  And with that one chance gone, I had no Plan B for salvaging this completely routine maneuver.

I was reduced to backing up and trying to turn again.  And backing up, and trying to turn again.  And with every missed turn, the wind was pushing us back down on the line of docked boats we had just left.

People shouted, and came running, and boarded docked boats to try to fend us off.  Luckily the two boats we hit were docked bow-out, so we hit their anchors and caused them no damage.  And, in spite of, or due to, some desperate shoving against the momentum of our 18 metric tons of home afloat, we managed to escape damage, too.

I was inconsolable as we finally motored free from the marina.  I was livid.  Raging.  I screamed until I went hoarse.  I could not believe I had stuffed it up twice, leaving the same marina.  In front of the same audience.

You might say that I was suffering from nothing more than a bruised ego.

I will counter that going to sea in your own boat, with the idea that you can get yourself and your loved ones and all your worldly chattels across the shifting expanse safely - well, that is nothing but an exercise in ego.  To be successful in this game you have to, of course, forever treasure the humility that comes with realizing how small and fallible you are in the face of the sea.  But you also have to keep alive the belief that you are equal to the test you've set yourself, that you can, with total self-reliance, meet the age-old challenge of going down to the sea.  You have to believe that you can do a thousand difficult things, when needed, to make everything right.

So, in addition to a very public humiliation of twice playing the role of idiot who can't operate his boat safely, I also got to confront my inability to do the most basic thing on my boat, twice in a row.  Phew.

Oh, and the coda.  Colin and the kids came roaring out in their dinghy after we'd finally left the marina, and handed up a six pack of very good beer.

Talking between the two moving boats, Colin told me to go anchor up somewhere and have a beer or three while I began the forgetting process.

And then he said goodbye.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Big P

The title for this post comes from our friend Diana, who writes, "You've got us stumped....where the **** are you heading next?  Could it be the big P??"

It could, indeed, be the big P. 

Like many voyaging sailors, we tend to be cagey, with ourselves and others, about our intentions for the future.  We're conscious of how tenuous and contingent is any long-term plan for a traveling boat.

Put another way, it's easy to draw lines on a map of where you're "gonna go", but there are many a slip twixt cup and lip, as someone said in the pre-blog era.  Cruising World columnists have been particularly prone to this effect, with two back-page authors that I can remember starting off their monthly installments on the preparations for the Big Trip...but then never actually getting away.

So, conscious of how lucky we've been to travel for these last six years, Alisa and I tend to undersell our plans for the future, both to ourselves and to others.

But...the demands of effective storytelling are better served when a journey has a goal that is known to all.  And, we find that we are better served ourselves by having a big-picture goal.  Team Galactic, we don't mind wandering, but we like to know that we're going somewhere.

All of which has led us to agree that it is indeed time to head for the Big P - that being Patagonia, of course.  The idea has been in the back of our minds for years and years, and after our last two seasons, with the passage across the Tasman and the trip to the New Zealand subantarctic and the passages from New Zealand to the tropics and back, we're feeling that we're ready.

And while we would love a season split between Fiji and Vanuatu - Melanesia remains almost completely unknown to us - we feel our nautical clocks ticking.  We love what we're doing, and our salty hearts beat faster when sailing friends who find themselves on the beach warn us to wear ship and head for the safety of the open sea before the reefs of mortgage and effortless internet connection have the chance to grasp our keel.  But all the same, we picture ourselves doing this again some time, but we don't picture ourselves doing it forever.  The ten years afloat mark is still over the horizon, but with ourselves past halfway there, it starts to feel like a reasonable point at which to attempt living in one country, one anchorage, for more than a year or a season.

So, that means that if we ever want to see anything outside of the southwest Pacific, we better get going.  And without ever quite agreeing on it explicitly, we are planning to prepare, during this season in New Zealand, for the passage east to the Austral Islands, and French Polynesia generally, then onwards to Patagonia in the following Austral summer.

Watch this space!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Three Thanksgivings

Three Thanksgivings?!
So this is the story of how four expat Americans managed to avail themselves of three observations of that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, even though they found themselves spending November in a country that observes Guy Fawkes Night.

The first Thanksgiving we owe to plain confusion.  It was a wholesome family affair - Alisa read some stories about the first Thanksgiving to Elias as we motored out to the Bay of Islands, and we had a family feast in our beautiful anchorage at Urupukapuka Island.

The only problem was that we were a week early.  Alisa had glanced at the calendar and mistakenly decided that November 21st was Thanksgiving.  Some American yachties eventually warned us of our error, but we decided to go ahead anyway - the large chicken had already been bought (turkey being hard to come by) and was thawing in the fridge.

We had a family dinner that was very low-key and also just perfect, and we figured that was our holiday.

But then the plot twists of the traveling life began falling down all around us...

First, through the offices of a kind reader of this blog and a string of quick emails, we found ourselves invited to an improper Thanksgiving dinner (Pad Thai) on the proper date (November 28th) on board the yacht St. Jude (named after the saint of lost causes).  The sharp-eyed reader will recognize this as the boat of famous American sailing writer Catty Goodlander, author of the best-sellers It's a Lazy Woman Who Can't Find Her Husband Two Jobs and Corporate Men Make Better Sailors.  Here are pics of all of us on Thanksgiving proper, as taken by Elias.  You can see everyone's reaction as we wait...for...Elias...to...take...the...pictures.  That's Catty, of course, and her isn't-he-a-saint First Mate, Gary.

We met up with St. Jude in the neighborhood of Kawau Island, whence they had travelled to attend the annual Thanksgiving blow-out, given the Saturday after the actual holiday by another set of well-known American sailing/writing pair.  The cognescenti among you will know of whom I speak by the name of the cottage-scale boatyard in their front yard, famous around the world to those who honor the ancient tradition of ferro-cement boatbuilding techniques:

This of, course, would be the famous Parteys, who have launched a thousand sailing dreams with their famous motto: "You'll never regret having that extra piece of gear".


Ok, enough of the humor - I'll leave that to the professionals.  The folks in those pictures are Cap'n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander, and Lin and Larry Pardey.

In France, mountain climbers and sailors achieve general fame.  Like, rock star-level fame.  In the States and Canada, though, climbers and sailors become well known only to other climbers and sailors, so they at the most become semi-famous.  Which these four are.

Elias and Eric pose with Taliesin, the Pardey's self-built, engineless, a hair-under-30-feet-on-deck cutter.  There are only a few famous yacht names - Joshua, Wanderer, Spray, Tzu Hang, Gypsy Moth - and I reckon Taliesin can hang with at least a few of that crowd.    

The Pardeys threw down, as we say in the home country, meaning that they were very hospitable.   Lin was kind enough to pass along an invitation to Galactic through the Goodlanders, saying that no Americans should be left out of the party. 

It was raining, so the tables were moved inside, and they achieved their biggest-ever sitdown crowd inside the house - 33 people.  There were two turkeys and all the traditional side dishes, though kumara was of course substituted for sweet potatoes.

And it was a raucous-fun group - Kiwi neighbors and American sailors, for the most part.  Lin remarked that all of the couples at the dinner save two were, or had been, voyaging sailors.  So the conversation was loud and non-stop.  We all had something to say to each other.

Alisa's contribution - pumpkin, pecan, apple
It was a real treat for me to grab a quiet chat with Larry in the pre-dessert lull.  The seamanship that he and Lin brought to bear on their own voyages...well, it's enough to say that they played the game at a different level from most of us.  If you've spent a year traveling on your own boat, close your eyes and imagine sailing on and off the anchor every single time.  And then imagine doing that since 1968, when they launched their first boat, Serrafyn.

When NewSouth asked me for ideas for people to blurb South From Alaska I came up with Fatty's name, and he graciously agreed.  It was a hoot to finally meet him and Carolyn on their new boat, Ganesh (that's the god of lost causes, a mere saint not being up to the task in this case).  The Goodlanders are great fun - plus, Fatty has a real sword on board, which our boys found irresistible.

Alisa and I have always enjoyed the company of sailors who have been going for decades, and still have a gleam in their eye to show how much fun they're having.  But you can also go a long time without running into those folks - most of our crowd are lucky to get away for a few years before heading back to what's reputed to be the "real world".  Meeting these four was a great validation of how well the sailing life can work out, how rich and fun it can be, even as the years turn into decades.

I'll say "thanks" for that, three times at least...