Sunday, June 25, 2017

Gray Flash and Purple Prose

As we bear down on the last 800 nautical miles between ourselves and Kodiak, I find my attention divided between mundane observation and the most outlandish wrap-up thoughts.

To whit.

This day that is just ending we passed at the center of a 1034 mb or so high. Absolute crap for sailing, but top marks as a day of decadence, spent lounging around in the greenhouse heat of the dodger. Something there is about a blue sky day that turns your most industrious kind of Protestant into an instant human lizard, happy to sun on a rock while thinking blank thoughts.

The unhappy truth is that we had been freezing our various small parts off for a few days previous, even though we are still well south of the latitude of Seattle, much less Vancouver. Neoprene boots and goat roper hats have appeared on the crew. We made the "that's sort of cool, sort of" discovery that Elias' deck boots still have dried penguin shit on them from South Georgia. So it was nice for us to shed some layers today and take a break from breaking the news to the boys that no, Kodiak will actually be much colder than this.

Elias noticed that even in the midst of that sunny day, the water kept what he called a "glacial" cast. The miraculous blues of the tropical oceans are now, for the Galactics, regulated to that place where god meant Teutonic Americans and Midwesterners of the Lebanese diaspora to enjoy them: as screen saver photographs.

Oh, fudge. "Screen saver." That's me speaking from my 2007 time warp again. Re-entry is going to be so problematic.

By dinner time (thanks, Alisa!) we had reverted to the gray skies at the edge of the high. Baking on a rock on a sunny day may be fine, but there is something about a gray-on-gray sky and sea combo that does make a mariner sit up to take notice. I found myself scanning the horizon, scanning the sea, glancing quickly back at a particular set of clouds to make sure they weren't trying anything while I was looking away. Maybe these gray seascapes put me on notice of the chance of something Nautical going down. Anyway, I'm apparently the kind of guy who comes alive around mother of pearl seascapes. Maybe it's all for the best that we're going back to Kodiak.

And so, instead of the blaze of a tropical sunset, the day ended with the sun just sort of collapsing into the wet blanket of clouds heaped on the horizon. "No more green flashes for us," observed Alisa. "Gray flashes from here out."

Well-meaning folks have occasionally asked if we have any concerns about returning to land life. There is one that I will easily confess to: that of immediately getting swept up into the chase-your-own-tail swirl of everyday life, so that this decade of full-time sailing just fades away, without us having the time to properly ruminate over everything that came to pass from that one wild-eyed act of selling up and sailing out just after our firstborn joined us.

This is where the purple prose comes in. This afternoon I was sitting in the sunny cockpit, enjoying the Captain's prerogative of an Atlas beer from Panama while coding away in R, the computer language for data analysis that has become the Esperanto of 21st century ecologists. Suddenly I found myself taking a break from my joint problems of noisy data and complex hypotheses in order to fire up a Word document and record How It Feels, this particular moment in my life that has me as close to Ulysses as I hope to ever come.

Unfortunately, my impression of How It Felt at just that moment had me yammering on about a fire that burns hot, about a desire to get out and know this world of ours in the least abstract way imaginable. And while I might not know where that desire might lead me, I do know by god that it's a desire that I would ignore at my own peril.

That kind of stuff. I blame the Atlas beer.

But, for all that this quick scribble was not-ready-for-Cruising World type stuff, I felt the glimmer of insight in there somewhere.

There is a part of me that feels like a wild-eyed, wild-haired lunatic riding back to Alaska on the bow of our little ship, completely transformed by two lifetimes' experience packed into a single decade. Alisa and I have played it very straight on this trip in a lot of ways. For my part, I've stayed gainfully employed for about eight of the ten years, I did my PhD, and I've managed to be a no worse than average sort of dad to our two boys. But for all that, we've been living these ten years on the bleeding edge in important ways. Alisa and I set off to follow our dreams, knowing in advance that we might dream in a vivid, Patagonia-in-winter sort of way. As a result, for days or weeks or months at a time we have been living in the arena where our seamanship and our love for each other and our willingness to meld entirely into a single, single-minded unit are tested in their ability to keep the family safe and prospering and pursuing happiness on the high seas, or in some southern frosty fjord far from anyone else at all. It has been a tremendously fulfilling way to live, and like most long-time sailors who are returning home, we look forward a little nervously to belonging to a milieu where we can't share an unspoken bond over that sort of experience with our peers.

Anyway...my 2000-0000 watch is rapidly drawing to a close, so it's time to wrap up these late-night musings. A prize has been set for the first Galactic to spot an alcid, that guillemot-murre-puffin-murrelet tribe of continental shelf seabirds that will be our first notice that we really Have Arrived, even if land isn't yet in sight.

I'm putting my money on Elias to win the prize.

~~
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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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is This One That We Won't Want To End?

Seven-year-old Eric to me the other day, in conversation: "Dad, when you're sailing, it's like you're smiling and frowning at the same time."

So...that's me saved the trouble of writing the next book!

It is indeed like smiling and frowning at the same time, this business of sailing the world with my family.

On one hand, the highs are Olympian - the sun-drenched, champagne-sailing, endless days with nothing but the clouds and the birds and the horizon and ourselves for company.

And even the everyday, less-than-peak moments make me smile. Like when I realize how many hours a day I manage to spend with my children on average through the year.

And yes, there are the frowns. For anyone who thinks that we take unreasonable risks by taking children on ocean crossings: believe me, you haven't even begun to consider the risks in the depth that Alisa and I have considered them. We've lived those risks, really, for the last decade - evaluating them, and evaluating our ability to evaluate them, and coming to grips with our own set of best practices for managing them. I don't know how Alisa feels about it, but it's enough to keep a furrow on my brow at sea. And also enough to set me into a flurry of parental over-reaction when the boys do something boyish like mucking around on our steep companionway ladder.

Besides those big-picture frowns, there is also that everyday background frown that comes from sharing space with Eric when he just needs to get off the boat and go for a run already, and I just need to catch up on my fractured sleep.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that my own personal sailing frown/smile equation balances out at just this side of rapture. Chucking it all to set out while our oldest son was still too young to walk turned out to be the most worthwhile hare-brained undertaking that I can imagine.

And so now, as we return to the Rock (Kodiak's nickname for itself) from whence we set out, I have found myself wondering if we'll pull a Moitessier. Will we reach one of those blissful end-of-passage states that we sometimes achieve and decide to just keep sailing until we find ourselves anchored once again off the Iluka pub?

Don't bet on it. We are the do what we set out to do crowd, Alisa and I, and in this instance we set our minds on what we might rediscover in the place we used to call home.

Meanwhile, here's some of the more quotidian details of the passage as it stands...

We showered in the sun on the back deck yesterday, and spent today in thermals and rain gear, even though we are still south of the latitude of San Francisco. Just now we're trying to keep a low from running us over, and then we hope to harvest a day or two more of southerly winds from that system, keeping us pumping along in more or less the right direction. It's been a fiddly passage, as befits one mostly outside of the trades. I feel like I'm forever trying to eke a few more degrees out of whatever setup we're using, trying to fall off or come up just a bit more without poling out the jib or taking the pole down or gybing. We have spent barely any time at all aiming right at Kodiak, and are meandering back and forth across the North Pacific in more or less the right direction.

And, our real news: for several days now we've been seeing albatross. Mostly black-footed, and a few Laysan.

We do love the tropics, but those oceans where the albatross roam might be our true home.

~~
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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Thursday, June 15, 2017

With the Flow

From Kona, on the leeward side of the Big Island of Hawai'i, northbound boats are faced with the surprisingly not-straightforward task of reconnecting with the open ocean.

In one sense, we were on the open Pacific as soon as we left Honokohau Harbor. But we were also on the leeward side of the chain, and had to somehow get ourselves back to the windward side, where the tradewinds blow.

We didn't even think of heading south around the Big Island. That would involve miles and miles of travel straight into the trades.

Likewise the 'Alenuihaha Channel, which funnels the trades between the Big Island and Maui. We were content to just get ourselves into the tail end of that one and race downwind along the middle of the main island chain - past Maui, Kaho'olawe, Lana'i and Moloka'i.

The place names are surely one of the delights of this American Polynesia.

On our first night out I pointed the bow up towards the Kaiwi Channel, between Moloka'i and Oahu. On the midnight watch change a calmer head prevailed and we fell off to pass Oahu to starboard.

So we got to see the towers of Waikiki in the night. Where we saw rivers of lava pouring down the hills when we first made landfall on the Big Island at the end of the passage from Panama, on Oahu we saw rivers of street lights pouring down the hills in the night.

During the day I had the very pleasant experience of recognizing the towers in Makaha where my grandparents had a condo for years and years. A picture of my beloved grandfather from that place rides above the chart table on Galactic - him in 1980s leisure wear, feet up, out on the lanai, a tumbler of scotch and ice in his cupped hands, his ever-recognizable smile anchoring the picture. Neat in a closing the circle kind of way to sail by that spot all these years later, with one great-grandson he never knew, and another with whom he shared the briefest spark of mutual regard.

And thence through the very tame Kauai Channel, and to the tradewinds one last time on this voyage. All this mucking around on the leeward side taking us more or less no closer to Kodiak, as Elias was not ashamed to point out to me.

Once we found the trades they were fresh, and blowing dead from the east. So we fell off to the north-northwest, being completely unwilling to take fresh trades forward of the beam. From the beginning we have always seen travel under sail as a process of working with what the ocean presents us, rather than bending wind and wave to our will. I suppose all sailors look at it that way. And only a landlubber would expect that a boat could travel dead north on an easterly while beam reaching. Your apparent wind, which is the sum of the true wind and the boat's motion through the atmosphere, bends ineluctably towards the bow, and demands a falling off away from the wind in the interest of comfort and sanity.

So. That's us still, sailing north-northwest, and not much towards Kodiak, which lies just east of north from us.

With luck, though, we will describe a beautiful sinuous track back to our home port, as the winds begin to bend southerly around the North Pacific high, and we then pick up the westerlies of the mid latitudes.

Alisa began this passage quite sick, with a cold that flared up into fever and sore throat. I began severely sleep deprived by my final push to meet science work obligations. And so poor Elias, who is desperately keen to wet some of his new lures from the Big Island, has had to hold off on the fishing, as neither parent has been up to gaffing and cleaning in these fresh trades. When he did get lines into the water briefly he came within an inch of catching a petrel, and had to hurriedly pull out.

And now, the sun is rising with low clouds heavy with rain all around us. We are completely alone, as alone as you ever are on a small boat on this big big ocean, and completely reliant on ourselves to get where we are going.

Is it a wonder that land life might seem stale?

~~
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, June 13, 2017

Symmetry

So...to bed late and up early. That certainly doesn't change.

One difference from a very big day almost 10 years ago is that now we use our internet connection to get a final hi-def weather download onboard before we go.

But aside from that little detail, and bigger details like having a crew of four instead of three, I am very struck by the symmetry of this moment and its bookend.

The prospect of sailing to Alaska is nearly as exciting as the prospect of sailing to Australia.


Monday, June 12, 2017

A Month in Hawai'i


"We just spent a month in Hawai'i," said Alisa. "I think we'll look back at that and be blown away."

And so it is with this nautical existence of ours.

I tend to cast a gimlet eye on sailors' easy talk about "freedom".

But having discretionary time in such quantities that we can spend a month in a place like Kona, meeting the locals and getting a taste of the life, while we're also working on making little contributions to our understanding of the North Pacific (me), or making very big contributions to the education of the next generation (Alisa)...well. That's the thing right there, isn't it?

But this time in Hawai'i has come to an end. Elias has raised the Blue Peter (below), that age-old signal of a ship about to put to sea.

And...I'm feeling the moment. Tomorrow when we wake, we will set sail for Alaska.


This picture and and the one at the top - our good friend Jamie, a long-time Kona connoisseur, turned us onto this great walk south from Honokohau Harbor. It was good fun to discover something like this just off the boat at the very end of our stay.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Restrained Pessimism

Today, Saturday the 10th of June, was at one time the target that we set as the very latest day we might depart on the Kona-Kodiak rally.

As it turns out, we're now hoping that we'll actually leave at dawn on Monday the 12th.

There is a wonderful bit of symmetry here.

Summer solstice, June the 21st, 2007, was at one time the target date that we set as the very latest day we might leave Kodiak to begin this trip. We actually limped out of town on June the 23rd.

Leaving port always turns out to be a deal for us. In those early days we pointed to a crew member in diapers as our ready-made excuse. These days we point to my science work load.
Who's the old guy fitting deadlights on Galactic?
I'm approaching this passage with what I call restrained pessimism.

I figure there's an even chance that we'll hit a gale up north. So I'm fitting deadlights, those extra-strong polycarbonate outer window that protect our portlights. We'll leave with the trysail bent to the mast and lashed in place, the naval pipe plugged with plumber's putty, etc., etc. We always figure that the best time to prepare for bad weather is when we're still in port.

But I won't go all out and attach the series drogue to the stern cleats and lash it to the deck in its bag, ready to deploy at any moment. That sort of preparation is fine for New Zealand-Chile or South Georgia-South Africa, but it is summer in this hemisphere after all, and I don't foresee things getting so nautical that we actually have to resort to the drogue.

So, you see: restrained pessimism.

And, more than anything, I'm struck by what a different crew it is that is eyeing this last homeward passage. Early on in our trip, the idea of a gale at sea made my knees weak. Now, we just think in terms of trips that fall along a continuum of easy to less so. We'll set out from Hawai'i and see what we get. I'm reminded of an account I read by a 19th century inhabitant of the northwest Alaskan Arctic, writing about his Inupiat companions' attitude towards the hazards of winter. They understood better than anyone the dangers of winter weather, he wrote, but they evinced no concern over them.

I think that we might have earned just ever so small a modicum of that attitude when it comes to long passages outside of the tradewind belt.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

To Poncet

Long-time readers (my favorite people!) will remember the idyllic Christmas that Galactic enjoyed at our friend Leiv Poncet's family island-farm in the Falklands two and a half years ago.

Left to right: Galactic, Leiv's Peregrine, and the family boat, Damien II
Beaver Island is a very beautiful place (above). And it is an even more practical place (below).
Inside the Beaver Island shed
Leiv's family have been keeping Southern Ocean working boats going for decades, and they are the kind of people who can turn their hands to anything. During our visit we gained a tremendous respect for Leiv's practical skills, and it didn't hurt my estimation of him when he expressed his very laissez-faire attitude towards marine engineering ("Regular engine maintenance is a waste of time.").

What a breath of fresh air from the de rigueur anal-retentiveness about maintenance that American yachties so often take as a given. Leiv has a great let's-get-this-boat-ready-for-the-charter-season attitude that has seen him across a lot of oceans. As is ever the case with a sailor, the proof is in the miles he has sailed.

So recently, Alisa and I hit upon the perfect way to distill our appreciation of that wonderful combination of vast ability and relaxed approach.

To whit, we coined a commemorative, eponymous verb: "to Poncet".

Alisa, in the act of Ponceting the main
To Poncet a job is very akin to the "get 'er done" of the American male vernacular, but, well..."get 'er done" somehow doesn't translate to solo Southern Ocean circumnavigations.

With the inaugural, one-boat version of the Kona to Kodiak rally just about to commence, we've had a few jobs to knock off. And...well...the bloom is well off the frantic pre-passage preparation routine. For once we just want to get the damn barky ready and go to sea without any bashed knuckles and late nights.

So, "Poncet it!" has been our rallying cry.

When we got the main down on the deck to attend to its rotten luff, I was at first dour about our chances. I figured the best we could do would be to patch it, nurse it up to Kodiak, and then ship it off to a sailmaker in Seattle over the winter.

But then we got into the job, and got into the spirit of Ponceting it - get it fixed, don't sweat the details, and move on with life.

And...it's a very liberating attitude. After a couple days of working together on the project, we realized that we were doing a fine job. We don't need no stinkin' sailmaker. Give us a floor large enough to lay out the sail this next winter, instead of our cramped foredeck, and we'll be able to finish the job proper.

So here we are...ten years into the life, and just reaching the point where we're really ready to go off and sail the world in our own boat.

Post-Poncet

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sailors' Delight


You know a passage is coming up when I start posting pictures of the weather forecast.
We just got a call from a friend in Kodiak, asking when we might be setting out from Hawai'i on this final leg of our trip, and would we be interested in a party when we arrive. (Thanks, Debra!)

In a way that's the first tangible (is a call tangible?) sign of our fairly imminent arrival.

I'm sure that I'll get excited when the time comes. But right now Kodiak still seems too far away to get worked up over.

What I am excited about - in a very visceral way - is the forecast that I looked at this morning (above). The classic summer North Pacific pattern seems to be setting up, at least for a day. That circle in the isobars at the middle of the basin is the North Pacific High, and the circle around western Alaska is the Aleutian Low. And it's pretty easy to imagine how the winds those two pressure centers are spinning up might waft a boat every so delightfully from Kona to Kodiak.

After what has been, by any reasonable measure, a lot of passagemaking over the last decade, I find that I get this nearly sensual anticipation over the possibility of a good one.

We'll see what transpires.

Alisa had the sewing machine out to work on the sails and whipped out this holder for Elias' trolling lures at the end of the day. The lures were given to Elias by a very kind local fisherman in the sport charter trade. (Thanks, Sean!)

Stainless, or, A Parent's Progress


So this was our sole crew - Elias James Abookire Litzow - exactly three days after we left Kodiak and began this decadal Odyssey of ours.

At that time, Alisa and I were simultaneously learning to be parents and full-time sailors. We were drinking from the fire hose, every day, all day long. We marveled at all the discretionary time that sailors with all-adult crews had to enjoy.

And, when I was feeling expansive, I would ridicule those no-child sailors of our acquaintance.

"All the time in the world," I would say to Alisa. "And what do they do with it? They polish their stainless!" (Pause for horrified look.) "And then they complain about how busy they are!"

Coming from a robust working port like Kodiak (484 million pounds of fish across the dock in 2014), it was easy to pick out the sillier foibles of the yachtie world. And taking the time to polish the stainless steel on a boat that spent its whole life in salt water was very high on my personal list, indeed.


Can you see where this is going?

The picture above is our younger crew, Eric Leo Abookire Litzow, just this Sunday.

School was off. He had the whole day open for himself. Parental opinion was that he was doing a very poor job of filling it.

The kids on yacht Pelagic, who just pulled in from Nuku Hiva, were inconveniently off touring Volcanoes National Park. Eric didn't want to go off the boat and play. He did want to take every chance to pick a fight with his brother and make us all miserable.

It didn't take too long for the light bulb to go on over my head. After Eric pulled one too many outrageous provocations on his older brother, Elias was set loose to go to the beach by himself while Eric was set down in front of our acres of dull stainless with a tube of polish and two rags. (One for applying the polish, the other for buffing it out.)

After all, a boat should look its best, right? And who wouldn't want polished stainless when the labor isn't their own?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Stop and Think

What sailors really think about - the weather. In this case, the weather between Hawai'i and "home".
It doesn't look uncomplicated!
After a visit back to the mainland US to catch up with our families, we are now very happily ensconced once again on the mothership.

One more big ole jump across the blue marble and we expect to be back "home" to Kodiak, that delightfully real commercial fishing town that our boys know not at all and that we know only through ten years of selective memory retention.

(How "delightfully real" is Kodiak as a commercial fishing port? I just looked at the numbers. For 2014, the weight of landings in Kodiak was 35 times the weight of landings for the entire nation of Australia.)

That arrival back at our starting point remains firmly abstract to me. I'll believe it when I see the green hills of Kodiak off our bow.

What's not so abstract is the way that we are engaging with the future that we hope to build for ourselves there.

For me, that means the endless quest for the scientist's Beast Glatisant, or "research funding", and the resulting fascination with the Beast's fewmets, or Requests for Proposals, Proposal Reviews, and Panel Decisions. (Yes, I have recently read The Once and Future King to my boys.)

And for both Alisa and me, that means another attempted act of transference, as we look to work that magic trick of bringing a dream to life. In this case, it is that long-standing dream of ours that goes something like this: "Hey, we're two marine biologists who have a boat of our own. Surely there is a worthwhile research project out there that we are uniquely suited to pursue?"

No mean feat, bringing a dream to life. Especially when that dream requires outside funding. But, given our track record in the living-the-dream department, I wouldn't bet against us. We're focusing the dream idea on the northern Bering and southern Chukchi Seas in the Alaskan Arctic. Stay tuned.

But as our entanglements with land life grow, I can feel the capacity for thought and reflection, one of the treasures of the sailing life, slipping away from us.

Any transition from a ten-year sailing trip back to a more settled existence is bound to entail some pretty big jumps in perspective and moments of cognitive dissonance.

But we have the unique "good fortune" of looking to plug back into our far corner of the US just as that country is going through a time that most politely might be described as "uniquely interesting". On top of the normal personal transition ahead of us, there are larger historical questions at play, some of them existential, that are so difficult to answer in the flash of the moment. (Mad props to you, George Orwell, for so often correctly calling the big historical questions of your time.)

As that transition gets closer, I only hope we keep some of that big-horizon perspective that comes to people who sail the world in their own boats.
School daze - Eric takes a spelling test, Elias yawns.
After 10 years on the Pacific Seafarers' ham net, we finally met longtime net control and former  yachtie Randy, KH6RC. And, incredibly kindly, he gave Elias all of his old pelagic trolling lures and a rod and reel. Very happy kid there.
The latest issue of Cruising World.
The Galactics love national parks! And, like all true westerners, we love public lands in general. It's those people Back East (Wyoming, thinking of you!) who want to lock them up in private ownership.

Kilauea Iki. This was a lake of lava in 1959. We visited on a drizzly cold morning and saw exactly one other party of tourists on the whole four mile walk.