Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Useful Twist

Like everyone else in the sailing game, I'm aware of the concept of twist in a sail. Take the mainsail, for instance. You ease the boom vang, or tighten up on the topping lift, and the end of the boom raises up, which allows the sail to take on a spiral shape, with the top of the sail twisting away from the wind.

I'm aware of the concept, and knew that people used it to their advantage, say when they wanted to power down a bit. But for years I wanted nothing to do with the idea. I strapped everything tight, made the mainsail into a blade, and in that way we went where we would.

But the other day I stumbled into the idea of heaving to with some twist in the main. The twist kept the head of the sail pulling us into the wind, while the backwinded foot kept us off. (Are you non-sailors following this?) The result was that we pointed higher into the wind, which improved the motion of the boat. The whole family spent the day under the dodger, watching the gale go by, instead of being stuck below. The improvement in the motion was that good.

Every so slowly, I learn new tricks...

Better approaches for heaving to are quite interesting to us just now, as we've already hove to for three gales on this passage. None of us will be disappointed to give the fourth a miss.

Those three gales were all northerly or northeasterly, which gave us no hope of making progress against them. Last night we finally had a southwesterly gale, which was at least helpful to us in all of its sturm and fury. It was barely a gale, and we jogged along in front of it under staysail all night long.

The view from under the dodger in the middle of the night, as the waves swept by us one by one, made into monochromatic ghosts by the moonlight, is something that I hope I never forget. It's moments like that that make this a Southern Ocean passage, as much as the icebergs that we have now left behind.

For years we have made much of our Brazilian friend Julia, who was somehow hoodwinked into sailing to Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, and came back from the experience complaining about high-latitude sailing women, the kind who could splice wire or replace a head gasket. Summing up her frustration with that small foreign tribe of the feminine world, Julia declared that "they don't have normal feelings."

Alisa, we (I) have decided, falls into the camp of women whom Julia might declare to be deficient in normal feeling-dom. That talk, three paragraphs above, about something that is "barely" a gale - when she says things like that (and she does!), I know that she is giving herself away.

We have also, amongst these various gales, lately been on occasion dealing with situations of inadequate wind on top of big leftover swells. This is the one situation that just about does me in at this point, two weeks in. The sails slam, and our main in particular has some fancy-pants gear that is vulnerable to breaking in these situations.

The requisite patience for dealing with these moments, when the boat is slamming from side to side and what little wind there is cannot be held by the sails, has been a bit beyond me, to be honest. The boys, too, have been a bit over the confinement and have settled into long spells of mutual antipathy.

There are the consolations of some fantastic pelagic bird life that we have been privy to in recent days. We are far from running out of good reading material, and Alisa continues to turn out enticing meals under difficult circumstances. Things are, really, going quite well.

It's just that we've hit that tired second half of the passage, when things can drag.

In a few more days we'll allow ourselves to start counting down the distance to the end, and this phase, too, will be behind us.
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!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Nice Idea While It Lasted

Somewhat predictably, the sunny forecast for nothing but southerly winds that got us thinking about a visit to Tristan da Cunha lasted only 24 hours, and the next forecast suddenly promised us the third northerly blow of our passage. That blow is meant to reach us tomorrow, and it put an end to our dreams of making the ~400 miles of northing that separate us from Tristan.

There was also a patch of seven and a half meter seas recently forecast for our operating area. Numbers like that tend to focus you on the job at hand, and got me thinking about just getting to Cape Town already rather than noodling around the South Atlantic, trying to reach the most remote inhabited island in the world. Luckily those 7.5 meter seas were also short-lived in the forecast. Once the northerly blow passes us by we are meant to have quite stable weather for days on end. Hopefully this forecast is the one that lasts.


I was working on this theory of how traveling the world in your own boat is a great antidote to the small-world, limited-expectation outlook of our present age. Every hopeless chronic traveler needs a grand self-justifying theory. Bruce Chatwin had his idea that nomadism is the native state of humanity, and what have I got?

I still think there's potential in the idea, but for now its development has been put on hold by one of those supremely mundane matters that sailing is prone to. When we were getting under weigh again after being hove to for northerly blow #2, I was tethered in the cockpit and prevented from quite reaching the primary winch by the length of the tether. So I leaned over at an unnatural angle to grind the winch and hurt my back.

I didn't hurt it terribly badly, but badly enough. When I got out of bed the next morning Alisa had to help me get my boots and raingear on, and I slept in the same boots and raingear last night rather than go through the assisted-dressing routine again.

There's plenty of sail handling on a passage like this. You're always reefing or polling out the jib or jibing in response to a wind shift. And doing all that with a I-can't-get-out-of-bed back sort of took the joy out of things for me. And it put a stop to any idle theorizing on why sailing across oceans is the Right Thing to Do.

The back is well on the road to recovery now. I think I'll take my boots off before I go to bed tonight. Might even treat myself to a clean pair of socks. Plus we seem to be done with the icebergs. Galactic is generally trending positive.


I was commiserating with Elias about what a long time this is to be cooped up, especially for the under-10 set.

"Lions on the other end," was his reply.

That's the thing about youth. Youth sees the concrete, and doesn't need theories for justification.

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!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Animal State; or, Have We Reached Transcendence Yet?

Four icebergs this morning, but the water temperature has screamed up to 10° this afternoon. Alisa and I both appeared in the cockpit in bare feet, and the freezer suits, those full body insulated floatation suits that we have been wearing on watch, haven't been brought out for a couple days now. We are hopeful that we may soon leave the bergs behind.

We find ourselves close - less than 700 miles! - to Tristan da Cunha, the most isolated inhabited island on all the terraqueous globe. We've had lots of northerly winds since leaving South Georgia, and so are still far south of Tristan, and assumed we would pass it by rather than fight to make the northing to get there.

But, deus ex machina, the forecast this afternoon is completely different from the forecast we got this morning, and shows lots of southerly wind over the coming days. If this new forecast sticks, it just might be possible to reach Tristan. The anchorage doesn't look very inspiring, but hey, how often do you find yourself sailing by the most isolated inhabited island in the world? We'll see what happens.

We're now a week into the passage, and as settled into life at sea as we are going to get.

Early on in a passage, when all of us except Elias are fighting seasickness to some extent, it feels like we're being forced to take on a new mode of living, that we have to become slightly different beasts from our shore side selves. Which I guess is literally true.

Alisa refers to it as "the animal state". When things are rough, especially early on in a passage, many of the niceties go by the wayside. Meals become rude and crude affairs, put together by a heroic cook who loses her ability to partake through the act of creating.

Or meals are abandoned completely and replaced by occasional repasts of saltine crackers washed down with juice. Our cabin in the back of the boat becomes the gear locker, strewn with everyone's manky raingear and boots and freezer suits. A slick of salt residue makes surfaces in the boat sticky. Our pillows become forever slightly damp, and anyone not actively engaged in some job critical to boat or crew is racked out in their bunk. (Except for Elias, who is always glad for the chance to be up and about.)

But then you get past that stage. The sea goes from being a wild three-dimensional landscape, with Galactic forever taking the elevator ride between crests and troughs, to a reasonably two-dimensional place that we are placidly sailing across. The sun comes out, and the crew recover themselves enough to gather in the cockpit and take note of the world around us.

Having two cooped-up kids on board keeps us from too much navel-gazing about transcendence and the ineffable peace of the sea. But it is there - that thing that made Joseph Conrad talk about true peace beginning at any spot a thousand miles from land. I glimpse it especially in the mornings, when I am alone at sunrise, listening to the endless splashing of our bow wave and contemplating the world from the decks of our little ship.

And then Elias comes up in his harness and rain gear and goes up to the bow to help me watch for ice, and that particular feeling of peace does not at all go away for the fact that I am now sharing it with him.

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!

Monday, March 21, 2016

When Convergence Isn't Enough

"Passage is a pain in the butt." - Eric Litzow, Ordinary Seaman (age 5)

This is more like it.

Alisa woke me at dawn this morning and I spent a half hour alone on deck, reefing down and adjusting course, as the day declared itself as a fair template of perfection. Blue sky, sunshine on the way, reasonable wind, low swell. We are very gently making 8 knots in more or less the exact direction which we would chose.

And! Water temperature has crept up to 4.5°. Still far behind the 5.5° that we saw a couple days ago, but also a vast improvement over the very Stygian 1.4° that we observed on the second day of the trip.

We are paying attention to the water temperature because it tells us when we have crossed the Polar Front, aka the Antarctic Convergence, and left Antarctic surface waters behind. About a 2° jump in temperature, say from 2° to 4°, tells us that we are in the subantarctic water mass, and that the chance of encountering icebergs is therefore greatly reduced.

At least that's the conventional wisdom. Unconventionally, our friends in Kestrel who are a week or so ahead of us on the trip to South Africa reported banging into a growler at 47°S, far north of the Polar Front. (Take-home lesson: having a steel boat, it's not so bad.)

So while we left South Georgia quite keen to cross the Front, we didn't expect that doing so would put an end to all consideration of floating ice on this, by far the biggest crossing of our eight and a half years of knocking about in sailboats. (Take-home lesson: we should have known better!)

After a day of rough sailing on the outset - williwaws were screaming across Cumberland Bay East as we left Grytviken - we hove to the first night out of respect for the ice and respect for the fact that neither Alisa nor I were much up for keeping a good watch.

Two gentle days of high pressure then let us do the high-latitude thing: make good time under sail when possible, and fire up the diesel when it was convenient in terms of forcing progress northward. Bobbing in place on a nice day and waiting for the next screamer weather to come along isn't in the cards on a trip like this.

We traveled through the night under that high pressure, keeping a sharp eye on the radar screen watch and watch about.

Then we crossed the Convergence. Temperatures shot up to 4°, then 5°. The boys celebrated with bags of chips given them on the dock in Grytviken by a friendly builder from the Falklands.

Soon after dark we saw ice on the radar and decided it was time to stand still. The blow that had been forecast for days, and had motivated us to get north as fast as we could, was expected to catch us the next day. So we hove to under the trysail, that little low triangle of orange sail cloth that lives bent to its track and lashed to the mast on a trip like this. The trysail is for your bigger winds.

Which we soon got. Forty knots dead out of the north. We all spent a day crashed out. Eric, occasionally vomiting, bunked with Alisa on the sole, Elias and I each bunked on a settee behind lee cloths. Every hour I got up to check the radar.

And then, after nightfall, as the gale continued, my consult of the radar screen showed that we had drifted into a field of massive-ish bergs, a half-dozen or so within a 12-mile circle drawn around us by the radar.

A casual statement by our friend Leiv, by far the most accomplished Southern Ocean sailor whom we know, came back to me. "A gale amongst ice. That's not a situation that you want to get yourself into."

I am happy to report that the panicked notion of "why are we here what are we doing?" never visited me. (I didn't ask the others.) We always knew that getting away from South Georgia is harder than getting there, and we knew exactly what we were letting ourselves in for when we elected to cross the Atlantic by this particular route.

Although I was struck at that moment by the idea that we might be taking the idea of world travel a bit far.

But it turned out to be the easiest thing in the world to jibe Galactic under trysail, and every few hours, as we had drifted in the driving wrack and dark too close to one berg or another, I jibed and hove to on the other tack, to send us slowly drifting away from the black blotch on the radar screen.

It was effective, but made for a very sleepless night. The motion was much less comfortable than the typical sailing motion, which can be uncomfortable enough, and this made things more than normally fatiguing. Alisa gave me a two hour spell late in the night and promptly became the second Galactic to spew her cookies on this trip. Now it's just me and Elias left standing. But I know enough not to go head to head against the master of not being seasick.

At dawn the closest black blotch on the radar screen was revealed as an ethereal blue vision, table-flat and the size of Hobart, triply unreasonable: existing at all, existing north of the Convergence in such dense society, and existing so close to us.

I made sail and we picked our way northeast through a miles-long line of bergs. Then, sleep-starved from the night before, I got a long day on deck in light rain and variable to no wind. Elias kept me company in the cockpit, and his company rewarded me with a three-at-once albatross trifecta that I would have missed: sooty, light-mantled sooty, and wanderer, all swooping around Galactic becalmed in the drizzle.

Alisa stayed below with Eric. She gives the poor little chancer lots of one on one on passage. The motion of no wind and lots of swell turned out to be as grave a challenge as lots of wind and more swell, and he vomited again.

But now it's that bluebird morning that I referred to at the outset. Eric is back in the cockpit after being confined below for days. We are still sailing swiftly and easily. It turns out that the berg we passed close to yesterday, while Elias was taking a spell of clinging to the bow, wasn't the last of the trip. There's a massive berg about 12 miles south of us as we sail, clearly visible.

Maybe that's the last one.

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!

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What We're Used To

We're used to seeing king penguins on the beach. Sometimes Elias will make a detour to get close to some for a picture, and once at Husvik a king made a long beeline for us across the beach when we landed in the dinghy and we all stood still to see how close it would come. (Answer: arm's length.) But for the most part we're so used to seeing them that they don't elicit special comment or notice.

Seeing king penguins in the water, from the deck of our boat - that still gets me.

We are so used to fur seals on the beach. Antarctic fur seals have gone through an exponential population growth following their near extirpation from South Georgia. The shoreline of every bay is full of them, from the pups splashing in the waves to the napping crowds of fur seals that extend back in the coastal plains and up the hillsides. Back in the 1980s, there were fur seals in any number only at Bird Island, at the northern tip of South Georgia. Now they are a perfect riot of life everywhere we go. At night they swim next to our anchored boat in crowds so thick that we can hear the water swirling past their flippers while we read in bed. In the middle of the night we are awoken by the noise of fur seals trying to board Galactic - a big thumping thrashing splashing racket every time. We hear their growls and moans on the shore the first thing every morning and the last thing at night, as long as their isn't a gale of wind blowing. Luckily the breeding season is well over, so the males are no longer aggressively defending their harems from all intruders, be they otariids or bipeds. We don't think we'd do very well here in the breeding season, when there is a real threat from those males.

We're very used to fine glaciated peaks poking out of the clouds. This would be quite a place for climbing. My own climbing days far gone, I'm happy enough for that soul-cleansing feeling that comes with the purity of an engrossing alpine landscape. I wonder when we'll next be in a high-latitude landscape - most likely it will be when we return to Alaska.


Our tour of the island has come to an end, and we're back at the dock in Grytviken to water up for our passage to South Africa. The place has an empty, end of the season feel to it, though a motor yacht did pull up to the dock last night, the crew too busy with their communications via headset to thank someone who might have come out to take their lines, and a cruise ship carrying Chinese passengers is at anchor this morning.

Grytviken was the longest-occupied whaling station on the island (I believe), and it is the finest harbor in the island. King Edmund Point, in the same bay, has been the seat of British government since early in the last century. There is an excellent museum here where we were invited to tea with the staff on our first day here, at the start of the tour. That had a great informal friendly South Georgia feel to it - "we're about to have tea in the staff room, would you like to join us?"

That "hail, well met" attitude is something that has largely disappeared from South Georgia. The yachts visiting the place still have it very much among each other, of course. The camaraderie among people who come to places like this in their own boats would be hard to kill off. But where the people who were coming here in their own boats decades ago - the Tilmans and the Poncets - found a secret world, utterly remote and apart, a place where meeting a fellow traveler was always an event, the 21st Century visitor finds something different. The South Georgia experience has been commoditized and commercialized and regulated. Where those only-a-lifetime-ago visitors found the opportunity to explore, to plumb the mysteries of the world and therefore of themselves, we find a "government" with no population, a duchy of bureaucrats promulgating rules and directives. You may walk from waypoint nine to waypoint ten by whatever route you chose, but waypoint 11 and 12 pass near a closed area and must be followed exactly. That sort of thing. It's much the same throughout the Antarctic as well, and all done in the service of the unassailable - biosecurity and conservation, etc., etc. The only thing that is lost is some opportunity of expression for human grit and ingenuity and wildness, and instead of the heady brew of adventure, today's visitor is offered the much less intoxicating drink of minor rule-breaking.

Makes me glad for my younger days in Alaska, when I just buggered off to the hills by myself to see what might be out there, and what might happen if I added myself to the mix.


We're on final countdown to leave. Unless the forecast takes a very strong turn for the worse, we expect to be away tomorrow. Alisa was talking the other day about what sort of galley delights she might be able to produce for the passage, and Eric, poor duffer, spoke up to object. "Don't make cake, mom!" he said. "I don't want to throw up cake." You see, he doesn't want his brother to be enjoying treats that he won't be able to keep down himself.

Hopefully it won't be too rough a passage, and he'll get his sea legs soon. We are beginning to be excited for a southern African interlude, something that will be so very different from here.

Meanwhile, we have one more day to enjoy Grytviken. The whaling station here has been cleaned up so that it's a safe place for the boys to wander around, and there's plenty of wildlife hanging around.
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!

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Other Side of the Coin

Oh, yeah.

Of course it happened.

All of our readers who have memories of their own trips to South Georgia and who have been feeling jealousy over the unreasonably perfect conditions that we lucked into can now relax in the knowledge of our comeuppance.

The Expert Sailor whose writings about Patagonia ("these are Challenging Conditions!") inspired such mirth on board Galactic and who complained in print about being generally boat-bound by weather while in South Georgia ("this is High Latitude and Extreme! I am inspired to beat my chest!") can rest assured that the world is not becoming unreasonably soft.

The wind returned to South Georgia. It came tumbling off the hills and funneling through the valleys. We sat out a day of williwaws in our erstwhile millpond of an anchorage. Wind smote the water. We could watch the fields of smoking sea coming swiftly towards us, and know when they were with us by the way that Galactic heeled over hard and went swirling around, describing big arcs around the anchorage.

Confidence in our 40-kilo Rocna anchor was, as always, complete. Bring it on. We had out 85 meters of chain in 12 meters of water, mud bottom, and felt justified to laugh at the conditions.

And then we dragged a tenth of a mile.

This was only the third time that we've dragged in our sailing lives, and the other two were examples of operator error, times when we got caught with too little scope for the conditions.

The Fortress stern anchor was, as always, ready to go. We motored up, chucked it out, and felt it bite immediately. Calm was restored to our hearts, if not to the anchorage.

The next morning we retrieved the Fortress with the windlass alone, pulling the anchor to us rather than Galactic to the anchor. This revealed that the anchor had pulled free at some point and was simply lying on the seafloor. Which sunk our confidence even lower, as the Fortress has always been our fortress within a fortress, our doubled redoubt, the bolthole in our back pocket, our smug knowledge that if anchoring gets squirrelly we can have effective metal in the water on no notice at all.

We qualified the generally negative reviews of our anchors' showing with the observation that the Rocna had at least reset itself, and hadn't continued to skate forever across the bottom the way that a traditional plow anchor might.

Pulling the Rocna then put us in the next circle of South Georgia anchoring difficulty. We call it the kelp-pocalypse.

A couple tons (no lie) of kelp came up on the chain and anchor. Our kelp knife, a half a machete hose-clamped to the end of a boat hook, proved not to be up to the challenge. That half a machete is still hose-clamped to the end of the boat hook, somewhere on the bottom of the anchorage.

A deck knife quickly clamped to the business end of our second boat hook eventually did the job. But it seemed to, and probably did, take hours to cut ourselves free. The boat was actually immobilized by the stand of kelp that we had sucked the anchor into; even once the anchor was off the bottom we could not motor free. A big part of the problem was the trip line that we had deployed on the anchor against the possibility of fouling whaling station debris. The trip line ended up taking a turn around the stand of kelp and giving it another grip on us; the trip line eventually got the business end of the kelp knife as its knot had gotten pulled too tight to untie.

Another gale was forecast for the night. When we were finally free there was a quick confab concerning the choices open to us. I was relieved that the idea of retreating to soft living at the dock in Grytviken failed to gain traction. We re-anchored right up against the beach, within turning radius of the shore, normally a no-no, but we hoped to land the Rocna in the plume of silt delivered by a little river, inside of the kelp zone. I also rowed out the Fortress, now on its setting for soft mud, and thus double-anchored, we went ashore for the company of fur seals.

The gale was meant to come through in the small hours of the night, when any problems of dragging would be made that much more serious by darkness which would preclude avoiding patches of kelp while motoring or re-anchoring. We have a lot riding on our ability to anchor securely in a blow in a place like this, and I thought for a while about taking the unprecedented step of setting out a third anchor.

Luckily we didn't go that far. We passed the night without drama, and in the calm of the morning found the two anchors in flagrante delicto, their rodes sensuously entwined. Having a third rode involved would have made the resulting knot Gordian.

So a few more hours were passed in untangling and retrieving the Fortress, and much was made of the way that the sailing life sometimes presents you with the opportunity to run in place just so you can stand still. I also reflected on the rare value that the sailing life offers in terms of the chance to employ muscles in useful tasks (kelp chopping, second anchor rowing) rather than pitting them against the energy-consuming fitness devices of some gym. But then I also, and at more leisure, got the chance to reflect on how my sore-back moans and groans afterwards were sounding thoroughly middle-aged.

The anchoring dramas behind us, we continued to watch the weather come in waves. A dusting of snow all the way to the beach in the night was followed by perfectly blue skies in the afternoon. There was still plenty of walking to be done in the very accessible mountain valleys of the anchorage. But we found ourselves boat-bound as often as not. On the boat we're quite safe, but the dinghy ride between boat and shore is a potentially problematic undertaking, and we vigorously applied our informal safety limits for small boat ops.

So, boatbound, Alisa and the boys worked away at the school work that would see the end of the term reached before we set off for South Africa. Conflating the parent-child relationship with the teacher-student relationship continues to strike me as such a spectacularly bad idea that I can see why it is the religious who have so often taken the lead on home-schooling their children in the US. You would need to think that you belonged to a select group of people whom the Creator of Life, the Universe and Everything had chosen to let in on the secret of his divine plan in order to justify such familial self-flagellation.

Anyway, that's the way it seems to me.

Boat-bound, I managed to make some inroads on writing and science projects. The boys and ourselves both needed to burn off steam. We needed to get up in the hills and walk walk walk, to get some movement in the bank before the weeks-long confinement of our passage to South Africa. But the boys, for relief, were reduced to watching penguin documentaries that had been given to us by one of the videographers involved in their production.

So, after a few more short walks and a few more weather-curtailed days, the morning came when we we woke Elias not long after dawn to stack the anchor chain as we picked the hook. Another set of hard blows was coming in the near future, and our chance to set off for Africa was appearing on the far horizon of weather futures. It was time to head back to Grytviken, where a dockside hose would make it a soft proposition indeed to water the ship, as opposed to the hardier expedient of ferrying jerry jugs from some convenient waterfall to the anchored boat.

And if Grytviken offered some soft dockside living thrown in with the easy watering deal, the chance for the boys and ourselves to walk ashore on gale-besot days, that was fine, too.

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!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Outrageous (Good) Fortune

I've been counting.

We've now had ELEVEN days of absolutely fantastic weather IN A ROW. In South Georgia, that would be.

Add that to our better-than-could-be-believed passage here from the Falklands, and we appear to be on something of a roll.

An unrelenting string of mirror-calm seas and bright blue skies has been oppressing our attempt to sail somewhere really Edgy and Out There. It's hard to reconcile this experience with our long reluctance to stick our necks out far enough to actually sail to South Georgia. For years we heard the raves from our friends who had been here, but we were pretty sure that it wasn't a trip for us and our family crew.

Of course, the monster passage to South Africa still awaits. The experience of sailing to South Georgia isn't over until you reach the port that comes after Grytviken. If we can pull off that trip in something approaching comfort than we will have scored the three-for-three hat trick.

And now you can see how completely I have given up the superstitions of the sea, as judged by my willingness to commit that last sentence to the ether while the outcome of the next passage remains unwritten.

Our luck hasn't been limited to weather, either. South Georgia is fairly encumbered by cruise ships, and we have had some close calls in terms of avoiding sharing the wonders of this place with strangers by the Zodiac load. At St. Andrews Bay the National Geographic Explorer came in and dropped the hook just as we were getting our dinghy in the water. Somehow (and we spoke with staff from the ship later and confirmed it) they decided that the conditions were too poor for a beach landing. How anyone in the world could have a lower tolerance for dodgy beach landings than we do beggars the imagination, but there you are. The Explorer steamed off in search of calmer landings, we braved the ten-centimeter rollers breaking on the black sand beach, and had the 100,000 king penguins and the sunshine all to ourselves.

Or consider yesterday, when the family trooped from the abandoned whaling station at Stromness along the tail end of the route that brought Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean across South Georgia after their voyage from Elephant Island in the James Caird. There is no more legendary story in Antarctic exploration, and walking a bit of that route ourselves was a particularly humbling setting for having a very difficult day with our five year old ordinary seaman, and, for reasons that probably included an over-reacting father, splitting our Expedition into two teams of four in order to keep said five year old ordinary seaman from causing havoc with his nine year old able seaman brother.

A family day like that could only have been made worse by the presence of a bunch of fare-paying whoevers in matching rain gear. At least I was able to lose my temper with Eric at full volume rather than hiding the worst parts of me away, like city folk are meant to. So I was particularly gratified that a cruise ship chose the following day for their hordes to tread the same hallowed steps, after we were safely back in Husvik and having a wonderful and more harmonious family walk up an alpine valley that no one has ever heard of, including ourselves.

Our only real run-in with cruise ship folks came with a French ship (just sayin'!) at Cooper Bay, way down at the south end of the island. We had anchored overnight in the mirror-calm, table-flat bay that is wide open to the bleedin' Southern Ocean. Morning saw us in the family inflatable, Smooches, anchored just off the beach, watching the penguins and fur seals going generally hog wild with the joy of being alive while the elephant seals were apparently sleeping off record-setting hangovers. The ship anchored and disgorged the requisite black Zodiacs filled with people in matching rain gear and way-too-cool-for-this-world staff standing up (of course) at the big Yamaha four-strokes, driving. One of the too-cool staffers decided that his people in matching rain gear wouldn't be able to see the animals properly unless he pulled in next to our little anchored dinghy and ever so gently pushed it aside with his black French (just sayin!) hull.

Me, I didn't care. Alisa, she gets pretty exercised about personal space when it comes to boats. It was almost worth it for me to watch her get all ropeable but managing to keep the lid on that fiery Arab (just sayin!) temper.

So that is more or less us. Alisa and I are more used to seeing penguins around us than any other two people from Ohio have ever been. Eric is completely over his early fear of fur seals and now bravely goes running after the biggest bulls, brandishing rocks and screaming "shoo! scram!" in his shrill little ordinary seaman voice. We have to reign him in out of concern for the wildlife.

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, March 4, 2016


Elias and Eric have a black cousin in America who will live his life in much more danger than they will, because he is black. The normal course of things for white people in America is to decide this is ok, either because it is not our kids who run the risk, or because it is their cousin's fault for being black in the first place.

As we're having this peak experience of our sailing lives, as we look out the portlight in the morning and see a diving petrel foraging for its breakfast, as we warm up our electrical hardware with a hot water bottle to make the email link between computer and radio work, Alisa and I are also considering the end game for our life afloat. We hope and plan to return to Alaska in 2017.

This is a sailing blog, of course. And a fundamental aspect of our sailing life has been our expatriate status over the past eight and a half years.

During that time we have mostly followed developments in the US through the lens of journalism, rather than through direct experience. I can tell you that this makes the home country look odder and odder as time goes on. For instance, we are told that the Governor of New Jersey has said publicly that he finds Donald Trump to be the most-qualified candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

Strange days, indeed.

Giving up that expat status can be a big hurdle to cross when giving up the life afloat. We've met a number of French sailors through the years who have told us that while they very much enjoy being French, they couldn't contemplate ever returning to France to live. And our friend Fatty Goodlander ran into public grief when he finished a circumnavigation and commented in print on the rah rah, any towelhead will do, let's invade the wrong country idiocy that greeted his return to the US after September 11th.

For my own part, I'm not excited at the idea of returning to the US and raising our kids on any place along the spectrum of American obsession with race. The town that I grew up near, and where my parents moved after I left home, Chagrin Falls, is wealthy and as I recall it 100% white. It came with its own township, the poor and black Chagrin Falls Park, safely on the other side of the line that demarcates attendance to Chagrin Falls schools. I'm not keen for my kids to learn the false lessons, to lead the fundamentally false life, that comes from a lifetime of assuming that this kind of segregation of opportunity is the natural order of the universe.

Humans being human, all nations are built on some mixture of self-deception and myth making and universally accepted lies. Those lies that you grow up with are the ones that you have to come to grips with in order to lead a valid life, which is perhaps why the allure of expatriate living can be so strong for both French sailors and Americans. Alisa and I agree on a lot of fundamental things, and one of these is that we couldn't ever imagine living in the contiguous US, for a variety of reasons. For years before we left on this trip, Alaska was our expat-light, our home in America that wasn't quite America.

But though it is apart, Alaska is also very much part of the US. My professional world of marine biologists and oceanographers isn't nearly completely white because there is some natural law making it impossible for black people to do the work that I do.

I don't have any answers. Just that unease about taking the kids, and ourselves, back.

While these sorts of thoughts have been burbling in the background for quite a while, the spur for this post was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' National Book Award winner, Between the World And Me: "as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs." Required reading, as my fellow Ohioan Toni Morrison points out in her front-cover blurb.


These text-only posts are transmitted through our high-frequency radio when we have no access to the internet. So we can't post pictures, nor can we respond to comments, though we see them all and really appreciate the comments we've been getting while in South Georgia. (What it is, Guy! I've been thinking of you off and on in recent years, great to hear from you.)