Monday, April 28, 2014


Just a quick note to say that, yes, Alisa did (does) have shingles, centered around her eye.  She has been a total trouper - BUT! it has been a bit of a slog.

We had just left the fleshpots of Whangarei behind when the disease declared itself, and so were inconveniently far from medical care.  As we tried to figure out the logistics on the Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend when it first became apparent that she would need to see a doc, I got the feeling that I've had before when we've had medical issues on board - your cozy little anchorage in a country where you don't know the system and don't know many people can suddenly seem a bit lonely.

Luckily, Alvah and Diana Simon, whom we knew hardly at all, came through like the lifelong travelers that they are.  Their house is just over the hill from the spot where we were anchored, and they lent us a car four times for doctor and pharmacy runs.  "We're in this with you," Alvah said to me.

It turns out that shingles around the eye can be tricky, so we got in family visits to the after-hours clinic in Whangarei, the community clinic at Parua Bay, and the emergency department at Whangarei Hospital.  Yesterday we got finally moved back up the river, and Alisa dinghied into Whangarei for one final GP visit, which gave her and the eye the all-clear.

 Today is the last day that we'll ever have a three-year-old in the family.

Needless to say, everything else on board Galactic has come to a halt - all of our frantic prep for the two big-as passages that will, inshallah, get us from New Zealand to Chile, dropped in the face of a more urgent need.

We'll move back down to Urquharts Bay, at the mouth of the river and near the Simons' house, for Eric's birthday tomorrow.  And after that, we'll see if Alisa is ready to catch the next southerly wind up to Opua, where we plan to check out of the country.

Urquharts Bay might be far from the doctor, but it was a very easy 
place to entertain the boys ashore while Alisa was ill...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fair Wind / Spanner In The Works

The lifting bridge at Whangarei closing behind us for the last time. 
Now that we're out of the great vortex of Whangarei, the game is all about building momentum.  We must attain that elevated state when motion is as unconscious as breathing, when another hundred miles under the keel, or another thousand, is all the same to us.

We aim to head north.  So my attention was caught by the forecast for a southerly wind today and tomorrow, to be followed by a week of light or contrary winds.

Clearly the thing to do was to kick the boat into sailing shape today, and to sail north tomorrow, when the winds were favorable.

But, then, a twist - Alisa went down.

I'll spare you the list of symptoms.  But the Iron Lady of Brecksville, the Indomitable Will that All Our Hopes and Dreams Rest On, spent the day in bed.

I spent the day walking ashore with the boys (very pleasurable) or being short-tempered with them while they were fishing and I was trying to get the deck organized (less so).

The boat remained un-kicked.

Late today we borrowed a car from Alvah and Di Simon (Alvah wrote North to the Night, which you really owe it to yourself to read) and drove A. into the clinic in Whangarei.

The doctor she saw conceded that she might be having a reaction to the cleaning agent she spilled on her face while scrubbing the overhead the other day - and this possibility was enough to get her complaint categorized as an accident, which in this country means the treatment is 100% on the house.  Love it.

But he also suggested the possibility of shingles.  (Will Alisa, now sleeping soundly beside me, mind that I am being crass enough to "blog" about her possible diagnosis?  Morning will tell.)

So we'll stay non-mobile until she is feeling better.  The poor thing had a pretty rotten day of it.

More soon.


Dyeing easter eggs.  Now that's childish enthusiasm.
Alvah helping Eric throw a dart.
A family "mountain climb" before Alisa went down.  Eric rode up the mountain on my back.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Oldest Lesson

Within my climbing circle in Alaska, it was an accepted thing that you could only get in shape for mountain climbing by going mountain climbing.  No amount of training in town could get you ready for the physical ordeal of a mountain climb - you just had to go out and do a small climb in the winter if you wanted to be ready for something ambitious in the spring.

Long-distance sailing is the same way.  No matter how much time you put into "maintenance" and "upgrades" in town, a still boat will never be ready to sail.  You have to go sailing, you have to let the boat become just that little bit animate, to bring all the disparate parts into order.

So now, although Galactic is clearly not ready to go anywhere (I refer you to the scene in the engine room above), we are nonetheless leaving.  You'll never be ready, you just have to go - that's the oldest lesson we know about the life afloat.

We take the preparations for this big trip in front of us very seriously, so we set ourselves a long list of goals for improving the boat this season.  But our efficiency is limited both by the demands of child rearing and by my lack of native engineering skill.  So, inevitably, it's been a frantic five weeks since we launched from the boatyard.

Our plan is to motor down to the mouth of the river and sit at anchor there for as long as it takes to get this boat organized and ready to sail.  Away from the distractions of town, that should only take three or four days.  Then we'll be ready for a little coastal sailing and then, before we know it, we'll be ready to put to sea.

I'm so ready for the release of motion.  That moment of freedom that comes when we pick the hook and go is one of the things that keeps Alisa and me coming back for more, year after year.

Olives.  We won't run out for a while.  But we will run out.

Sixteen kilos of coffee.

A year's worth of filters.

After the kids go to bed - that's when we get things done.  I'm drilling a half-inch hole, all the way up through the steel deck.
Pasta sauce.  In cans.  There is no more traditional food for sailboats on long passages.

Ex-tropical cyclone Ita crossed New Zealand the other day.  The cyclone season is just ending...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Very Big Passages and Very Little Kids

They're f---ing heros.  They were trying to give their kids the very best life possible.

--A writer acquaintance,
 in conversation about
Eric and Charlotte Kaufman

Elias crossing the equator en route to the Marquesas, age 1.
This photo and below - Eric en route to the Marquesas, age 1.

The Rebel Heart story is very close to home for us, since we have twice sailed the passage that they were on - once on Pelagic and once on Galactic.  Both times we had one-year-olds aboard.

Our hearts go out to the Kaufmans - we don't know them at all, but we have every reason to expect that they prepared very hard for the trip, and take their responsibility as parents very seriously.

As for all those people who have queued up to criticize them, either by being interviewed in the media or as online trolls - well, you would think that self-respect would stop people from flapping their gums when they don't know what they're talking about.  A tradewind passage like the one that Rebel Heart was making is an eminently safe affair for a well-found boat.  Anyone who describes such a trip as too "extreme" for little kids is likely ignorant - and also more than likely jealous that someone else had the courage to try something they'll never do.

The risks that come from the remoteness of the route, and the resulting distance from medical care, are faced by families in other situations.  As a friend of mine pointed out, no one would criticize an Alaskan family that lived in the Bush if their one-year-old required a medevac.

(As an aside, I found the only humor in the whole saga in the fact that Eric's brother-in-law decided to get up on his hind legs and give an interview saying he thought the whole trip was a bad idea.  Chuck, Dave, Chris - if I ever do anything that you think is really stupid, please have the courtesy not to tell me through the local CBS affiliate!)

[But note this addendum - after seeing this post from Charlotte, I guess that the family comments aren't so funny.  Mike]

Sailing big passages with very little kids can be very difficult on the parents - see this example and this one, too.  But we haven't regretted either of our Pacific crossings with toddlers, or the bigger-picture decision to raise the kids on a boat.  The upsides of this life, for us and for them, are enormous.

And, six years in, we continue to very actively assess the line of what we think is reasonable to take on with the kids.  That's perhaps the heart of going long-distance sailing with kids - it's entirely up to the parents to decide what's reasonable, and to decide what level of preparation is sufficient.  No one licenses us, no one inspects our boat or examines our competence.  We internalize all of the safety decisions that parents back on land are able to offload to the larger society.

For us, the line of reasonability precludes Antarctica or South Georgia - though other families have safely sailed to those places with young children.  And for anything that we'd like to do on the boat, we try to prepare with incremental steps.  Thus 3-day and 7-day passages with Elias before we set off across the Marquesas, and trips across the Tasman, and down to the New Zealand sub-Antarctic, and between New Zealand and the tropics and back, before we set off for Patagonia.

No one can take the question of safety for the boys more seriously than we do, and the responsibility of taking them to sea is a weight that we live with, day to day.

But, conversely, the joy of this life, all together and together all the time, seeing the world as we will, is a pleasure that we live with, day to day.  It is, I trust, a pleasure that will turn over time into memories to inform all four of our lives for decades to come.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Making a Sensation

Doubtless you've heard about the couple with young kids who got into trouble on their sailboat.

No, not Rebel Heart - Anasazi Girl.

The particulars are so similar.  Anasazi Girl is also American-flagged, they also had very young kids aboard (ages 1, 3 and 5, according to a story online), and they also had to be rescued from their disabled boat - they were dismasted west of Cape Horn last month.

But where Rebel Heart went viral, Anasazi Girl has received not a speck of attention.  I only heard about them through the sailing grapevine here in Whangarei (turns out we know a couple of their friends) and the link above has received two comments since it was posted nearly a month ago.

So, what's the diff - why does one event get no notice, and the other become the latest distraction for millions of people?


Mojo - Found

"Walk away with victory" - that's Al Green talking.  Love and Happiness - do you know the song?
Well, mojo update.  (True American points if you know what a mojo actually is.)

It was just the jars.  Alisa returned a bunch of the duds, and found a new model that will actually seal.  Several batches of canned New Zealand beef are now tucked away in the bilge, awaiting the hour of need when fresh tuna no longer satisfies.

Alisa can retain her Alaska Woman status.  (Not to generalize, but Alaska women know how to can meat.)

And me - imagine my relief.  My whole worldview is built around being married to an Alaska Woman. Glad that doesn't have to change.

Dreaming of Alaska

We're not looking to hang it up any time soon.  But the day will come, we know.  We suspect that we're closer to the end our time of being full-time sailors than we are to the beginning.

There's this whole other part of our lives, and our hearts, that has nothing to do with sailing - that's the life that we left behind in Alaska.  Alisa and I both moved there in our early twenties, and we both fell hard for the place, and the lifestyle and the people.  We worked long summers on the water, doing field biology.  I mountain climbed, and together we made long (like, up to two weeks long) cross-country skiing/camping trips in remote corners of the state.  In the winter we enjoyed the company of like-minded people in an endless-seeming round of saunas/banyas and potluck dinners.

Life there was rich.

We don't think about Alaska much, day-to-day.  But we know it's the place we'll return to when all these nautical wanderings are done.

The thing is, that it's hard to imagine just what our lives there will look like.  This time of living on a traveling boat has changed our outlook immensely, and we know that we want to do something different when we go back.  Our old lives of being biologists working in a government office were great in many ways, and it may be that we end up going back to doing something similar.  But, given everything that we've seen and done in the last six years, it's natural that we might want to try our hands at something else when we go back.

The question, though, is what that might be.  We have lots of notions, but no firm plans.  So a few days ago I taped a piece of paper up on the bulkhead in our cabin for us to start writing down ideas for our Alaska life.  Getting to the point where we could untie from the dock and set out on this life took years of dreaming, planning and preparing.  So we figure that a successful re-entry into land life may take a similar amount of effort, and this list-on-the-bulkhead is our first concrete step in this direction.

No details to share, yet, except that under the heading "In Alaska, we want to…", the first thing I wrote was "have time".  As busy as we are right now, getting ready for the next season, and as busy as I have perpetually been, working as a freelance scientist to keep this project going, I recognize that the amount of time that we have together as a family is the greatest luxury of this life afloat.

For Eric and Elias, meanwhile, Alaska is an even more abstract proposition, a dreamy place that mom and dad always speak of in glowing terms.  Eric is very concerned about having a knife when we go to Alaska so that he can protect himself from bears.  And Elias has more detailed notions - how he'll stay fit in Alaska, how he'll hunt ptarmigan with a slingshot or a bow and arrow or a falcon.  That sort of thing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Has She Lost Her Mojo?

With an eye towards the months that we hope to be away from grocery stores during the next season, Alisa has been busy at the canning game.

She sourced 12 kilos of beef from the local farmer's market.  She also bought some new jars, having given most of our mason jars away to a friend in Oz.

And then she had at it, staying up late to can batch after batch in our little 4-jar pressure cooker.

But…it didn't work.  The jars didn't seal.  Instead of saving the meat for the Tuamotus, we're going to be feasting on it right now.

The jars she bought evidently were no good, so no discredit to Alisa and the enormous effort she put into the whole project.

But still, I'm so used to projects like this just working when Alisa takes them on.  I wonder if something larger is afoot - has this woman truly been away from Alaska for so long that she can't can meat any more?

Has she lost her Great Land street cred?

I only recognize her as my wife because, after getting exactly no good cans out of the last two batches, she's found some new jars in town and is going to try again tomorrow.

That's the Alisa I know.
They don't have oatmeal where we're going - so Alisa bought 18 kilos of the stuff...