Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pancake Creek, Mostly

We left Mooloolaba just before sunset and we felt sick. There wasn't enough wind to steady the boat's motion, and the piddling little swell kept us jerking back and forth in an unpredictable way. Alisa and I both felt miserable, immediately.

"I can't believe we were just talking about sailing to Patagonia," she said.

The night before we had been inspired by the video that our friends on Six Pack had shot in southern Chile, our imaginations stoked by the idea of heading there ourselves.

"I mean, we're getting sick outside Mooloolaba," she added.

The only person on board who wasn't sick was Elias. He sat in the cockpit, completely unruffled, and asked us why.

"Why does a motor boat float?"

"Because that's what boats are designed for, honey."


"Just because."

"Oh. Why do sailboats float?"

"No more questions, honey."


Alisa and I were gruff with each other, and short with him. Seasickness is death on tolerance for other people, no matter if those other people are your spouse and adorable child. Alisa even came up from the cabin when she was getting Elias ready for bed and hugged the rail for a moment, just on the verge of throwing up.

But we had that useless kind of seasickness that makes you unable to do anything properly - you can't even throw up when you need to.

"Right now," I said after choking down my dinner of one steamed sweet potato, "living in a house and going to a soul-destroying job every day sounds pretty good."

Eventually we got over it. We sailed into the night and left the seasickness behind. But the bug that has been stalking Alisa off and on for the last few months flared up again, and she had to return to her bunk only two hours after she relieved me on watch. Taking into account the state of the crew, we ditched our plan of sailing straight through for 36 or 48 hours and pulled into Great Sandy Strait, the first haven to the north. Here's me and Elias, in the cockpit at anchor the next day. See if you can tell which person slept the night through and which slept two hours:

We made it to Bundaberg the next day, taking advantage of our knowledge of the very well-lit entrance to arrive after dark. In Bundie Elias helped his great-uncle Ken collect eggs from the chooks:

We left Bundaberg after only a day. We're on a mission to meet up with our Iluka friends Miles and Melissa in the Whitsundays on August 24th, so no dallying for us. A long day took us to Pancake Creek, farther north than we have yet been in Oz. That night we celebrated my 41st birthday:

When it came time to make a wish, I thought to myself, "There's nothing else I want." And then I blew out the candles.

The next morning, since we were in Pancake Creek, we breakfasted on pancakes in the cockpit:

Later Elias helped me fix the compass light:

Northerly winds set in, so we stayed put in Pancake Creek. Luckily there were great tidal flats to walk:

And some birding to do:

And we went on a great "bushwalk" up the hill to the Bustard Head light, and over the hill for this view of what I am told is the second spot that James Cook went ashore in Oz:

We met some very nice people among the 15 or so boats that were anchored in Pancake Creek, mostly waiting for the northerlies to pass. We did notice, however, how overwhelmingly retirement-age the demographic was on other boats.

"Why are there no other kids on these boats?" Elias asked.

Pancake Creek was beautiful, though it's also an inscrutable beauty. We're learning the birds, but everything else is completely mysterious to us: the flora, the geology, the indigenous culture and history. So different from being in Alaska, where we lived long enough, and arrived early enough in our lives, to make ourselves feel so much at home. And at the same time that Australian natural history is so foreign, the human side of the country has this very non-exotic, proto-North American feel. Very strange combination...

So, our march north continues. We left Pancake Creek, and have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and so are back in the tropics that we have begun to love so much. Every yacht anchorage and every town that we stop in is a place where we've never been before, but also somewhere fairly familiar just because it is Australian, and so repeats what we've experienced elsewhere in Oz.
We're in a marina today, in to run some quick errands in town and to get a mechanic to take a look at the diesel. The winds are forecast to come up strong from the south tomorrow, so we're looking forward to some good traveling. Meanwhile, Alisa and I have both had a funny feeling of loneliness as we toodle up the Queensland coast. There are no other foreign-flagged yachts about, as they have mostly left Oz for the cyclone-free season in the tropics. So we're without the company of fellow voyaging sailors, a group of people who are always capable of surprising us with sudden good friendship. Aside from the close interaction among the family on board, our social life mostly consists of waves to other boats and brief conversations with strangers. We miss the state of belonging to some sort of community, even if it is the ever-so-loose community of vagabonding sailors.
So it's good to have the visit with our Iluka friends before us, and the goal of meeting them in the Whitsundays to spur us along.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

We Tried. We Really Tried.

We did. We really tried to make a life ashore.

We started looking for an apartment to rent. (In Mooloolaba you say that you're going to "rent a unit", but that sounded too ambiguous to us.)

We bought an HD TV and got pre-approved for a loan to buy a new sofa set so we'd be all ready to move in when the right "unit" came along.

But there weren't many smiles to be seen among the crew. We were going through the motions.

Today at lunch we were reading through the classifieds of the local tabloid (headline, and I am NOT making this up: "School Girls in Mobile Phone Porn Snaps Strife, Mum Alleges"), considering our qualifications for the local job market.

It was another perfect winter day. Blue sky, fluffy trade wind-looking clouds, lovely southern breeze.

Alisa looked up from the classifieds.

"What are we doing?" she asked.

I stared at her for a minute, willing my soggy synapses to fire.

"Yeah," I said. "What are we doing?"

So we went through the old routine. We got the cover off the mainsail, and the dingher on deck. The oil has been checked, the decks cleared. We're going sailing!

By the time you read this, we'll once again be happy at sea.

The Atlantic may have the Bermuda Triangle.

But we on Pelagic know that Mooloolaba is really the place for sailors to fear, the place where you might anchor up for the night, and spend a month.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Third Try - Were We Charmed?

The pressure was on for our third and final try to leave Mooloolaba. If we yet again failed at the straightforward task of finding our way to the sea, we would take it as a clear sign that we should give land life a try. We were breathless with the suspense - would the third time be charmed? We were eager to give ourselves every chance to succeed.

We decided that since Alisa and I hadn't had much luck in our previous attempts, we would let Elias steer Pelagic this time around.

Since we live in the era when information is ascendant over thought, we went online to plot our route on Google Earth. And, for a little context on our recent troubles, we also looked up the situation in the Aral Sea region. Because its source rivers have been diverted for irrigation, the Aral has evaporated to the point where it no longer exists. As a result, the fishing fleet has found itself high and dry:
We figured that if anyone has dealt with the problem of not being able to find their way to the sea, it's the Uzbek fishermen from the shores of the Aral. So we read about some of their colorful folk traditions for finding the sea.

The Uzbeks believe that a captain who cannot find his way to the sea should stand on his head and read about the ocean that he loves.

I gave it a try with our copy of World Cruising Routes.

Uzbek fishermen further believe that a sea cook who cannot find her way to the sea should wear a fur hat and hold the ship's fire extinguishers to her bosom.

It took some convincing, but Alisa gave it a try.

After using these colorful folk remedies (which incidentally are completely scoffed at by pediatricians and the drug companies they serve), we felt our spirits reviving. We allowed ourselves to begin to hope that this time we might leave Mooloolaba.

But then, an unforseen twist.

As part of our campaign to blend in with the land-dwelling community, we had each gotten iPhones and used them to overschedule our lives. Just as Alisa was walking up to the bow to pull the anchor, the fur hat still on her head and the extinguishers still cradled to her bosom, I pulled out my iPhone and checked the Little Einstein app that we have started using to keep track of Elias' play dates and cultural enrichment activities. I scrolled through his calendar for the day, past the origami lesson and trigonometry flashcard session, and found this entry in the afternoon: "Party".

"Oh, no," I called out to Alisa, just as she was about to pull the hook. "We can't go today - we've got the party this afternoon!"

It was an important party: our little boy was turning three!

He started the day talking to his grandmother - our phone is nestled in his hands there.

In the afternoon, during the scheduled time, we went to the playground.

We celebrated over a barbie with the crew from Six Pack.

Alisa made this great cake. Remember when you were so young that you could fit a candle for each year on top of your cake and have room left over?

Back on the boat, we marked his height on the compression post.

And he opened presents.

It was a great day, and I think we gave him a good celebration in spite of not knowing any little kids here to invite to the party.

That night, after Elias went to sleep, with the wreckage of decorations and wrapping paper still strewn around the cabin, Alisa and I had a chance to reflect.

"That was it, our third try," Alisa said.

"We didn't make it," I said. "I guess that means we give land life a try."

"I guess so."


So that's what we're going to do.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Starting Over

Well, after our two unsuccessful tries at getting away from Mooloolaba, we're taking the time to reassess things. Maybe it's time to start over, to postpone, at least for a while, all our vague plans of sailing, all the possible destinations that we've mentioned to each other: Tasmania, New Zealand, the Cooks (again), Tonga (again), Vanuatu, the Australs, the Tuamotus and Marquesas (both again), Patagonia, Scotland, the Northwest Passage. Maybe too much ambition on our part is a bad thing, maybe a lifetime forever spent chasing the shangri-la just over the horizon would add up to a life of frustration, a life where we can never take our ease and just enjoy the place we find ourselves in at the moment.

Maybe you can go on too long while you're trying to make up your mind about the best time to give up the sailing life. Maybe it's better to take the counsel of apparent signs. Signs like being unable to leave Mooloolaba, in spite of trying twice.

Maybe it's time to start over, to find something else to do with our lives?


That's a Big Question, and that's the question that we've been mulling over for the last week. Like any other Big Question, it spawns all sorts of ancillary questions. If we don't cruise, will we stay here in Australia? Will we get jobs? Would we still live on Pelagic? Would we stay in Mooloolaba, and get Elias into a day care program here?

We have begun a concerted effort to work our way into the Mooloolaba community, since it appears that we may be here for quite a while. No more for us the attitude of the Sea Gypsy, surveying with condescension the confusion of life ashore from our castle afloat. Time for us to make the best of what may be a bad job and see how well we might fit in with the community here.

Our first step was to enter the Sunday Fun Sail hosted by the Sunshine Coast Yacht Club.

Before we arrived here, I figured that being around yachties would naturally give us entree into Australian society, would give us contacts for jobs and that sort of thing. So far, in practice, being around Australian yachties has largely introduced us to single guys in their 60s who drink every day. But we were ready to renew the effort. And going out on the fun sail meant that we would use Pelagic, well, just to have fun, and not to get anywhere. We could see what that was like - maybe a future of marina living and weekend daysails would be ours.

Plus, we'd be able to follow the other boats out of the harbor, so no more embarrassing episodes of failing to find the exit.

It turned out to be a great day - overcast, with light winds, but still a fine day for a sail. But then, we couldn't find the starting line, or the motor boat that was supposed to be hoisting flags counting down to the start. A worrying sign, considering our recent difficulties with getting lost. Eventually we realized that the noon start must have come and gone. Two obvious groups of sailboats were heading out, away from town. We chose to follow the less flash group. We overtook the slowest of them, asked for directions to the mark we would all turn at, then proceeded to catch up with the rest of the group. We were able to fly the spinnaker the whole way:

At the mark, we pulled the sock over the spinnaker and gybed. Poor Elias then took the opportunity to demonstrate the perils of being under three on board a sailboat, and banged his lip into one of the extremely hard primary winches. Everything halted while we tended to him. The spinnaker stayed in its sock and we putted along under main alone while the rest of the fleet latered back towards the finish:

We eventually got the spinnaker going again, and more or less caught up with everyone by the finish, salvaging a fourth place out of a fleet of five or six. The barbecue afterwards was excellent - fun locals, having fun on boats, and not taking the whole thing too seriously.
That night, after Elias went to sleep, we talked about buying a slip at the marina, and joining the Sunshine Coast Yacht Club, and giving Mooloolaba a try for a year or two.
"Maybe they're hiring marine biologists at Underwater World," I suggested.
But the next day we caught up with the crew of Six Pack, a 31-footer from Lord Howe Island that recently completed a southern hemisphere circumnavigation. Rex and Louise have been sailing the world for decades aboard a series of small boats, with regular trips back to Lord Howe for work. We met them in Tonga, at the end of their circumnavigation, and meeting up with them in Mooloolaba was the sort of serendipitous event that brings cruising yachts together. It was also good timing, as we had been missing the unassuming company of people who enjoy seeing the world from the deck of their own boat.
We had them over to Pelagic for dinner, and afterwards, excited by their talk of sailing Patagonia, we reassessed the wisdom of staying put.
Talking it over, long into the night, we just couldn't decide what to do.
"Well," Alisa finally said. "Why don't we just try to make it away from Mooloolaba one more time. If we make it, we keep cruising. If we don't, that's three strikes, and we accept our fate and stay here."
And so that's the plan. Tomorrow we try to escape Mooloolaba one more time, and the course of our lives over the next few years hangs in the balance.