Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Albatross

Two remarkable records - in the nearly seven years since we left Kodiak on board Pelagic, we had never been at sea in a gale, AND, despite my years pursuing a career as an preternaturally mediocre ice climber, I've never broken a bone.


Leaving New Zealand for French Polynesia in late May, as we did, means that you have to expect a gale along the way. We were almost famous at the start of the trip, cranking along for days at eight knots, until we decided to stop and let a subtropical depression pass in front of us.

This turned out to be a poor choice. The wrong choice, really. As things turned out, carrying on would have seen us safely across the path of the low. Stopping, as we did, put us directly in the path of the highest winds in the system. You make your best decision based on the forecast, and then live with how things turn out.

So we were hove to for one day of great traveling conditions, and then hove to for three days when the winds were in our face (southeast), with average wind speeds anywhere from 30 to 40 knots.

Conditions were sloppy on deck, and sodden below, with the odd leak, dripping rain gear coming downstairs, and thick condensation on every hatch and portlight in the shut-tight boat.

Eric got seasick and didn't get over it, to the point where we considered detouring to the trades once the low left us. Only Elias was completely unfazed by the conditions. Alisa and I passed the days in half hibernation.

Finally the winds came southwest, which allowed us to get moving in a useful direction, even though they remained gale strength. Staysail only, biggish seas from two directions, the cockpit drains regularly gurgling. All that.

That night, after the family was in bed, I was digging around in one of the galley lockers, hoping to score a can of pears.

Boom! said the wave that hit us on the side, as they did now and again.

I lost my grip, and, with only stocking feet to give me no traction on the sole, went skidding downhill, to be greeted by the chart table. I had no chance to cushion the landing, and the table caught all my weight square across the circle of my ribs.

And oh, did it hurt. hurt hurt hurt. In sloppy weather we all sleep in the saloon, so the whole family got to watch the spectacle of dad flopping around on the sole and saying over and over "I'm allright, I'm allllright" in the least convincing voice imaginable.

Wearing socks below is now frowned upon aboard Galactic.

So, situation review: 1000 miles from anywhere (in round numbers) and only one functional adult to work the boat.

"I'm so sorry I let that happen," I said to Alisa.

"I'm scared," she said.

In spite of high-grade analgesia, I spent a very, very uncomfortable night. Right then, I would have bet our new radar that some ribs were broken.

I awoke near-helpless. Alisa had to help me use the pee bowl that had previously been the sole domain of Eric. But I knew that I needed to immediately do whatever tasks I could to help work the boat. And once I was ensconced in the nav station chair to download fresh weather info, I began to improve.

While I was staring at the screen that tracked the weather model's progress through our HF radio, Alisa came down to whisper to me, since Elias was stirring in his bunk. She had a look on her face from the silent movie era, a look that said, "horror".

"There's a dead albatross on deck," she whispered to me.

Whether it was attracted by our masthead tricolor lights or happened upon us by chance, a wandering albatross had flown into the rig during the night and broken its neck.

Alisa was overcome by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge implications, and horrified at the taking of a life of such awesome wingspan and scope.

I was struck by the metaphor - no matter how clean our intent, it's hard to travel through the world without doing unintentional evil.

Giving up the chance to examine a wanderer in the hand out of concern over bringing the boys' innocence into the story, Alisa quickly slid the bird overboard, sending it in with two hairs from her head as a symbolic consort of regret.

That was yesterday. I continue to improve today, and we are motorsailing under jib alone, since neither of us is up to climbing on the granny bars to attach the halyard to the main. Our hope has grown to include the idea that we will not have to detour to an alternate port, where 24 hours ago we were only thinking about the closest port available to us.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

And Revelation Visited Me

Eric got out of his bunk this morning and then lay motionless on the sole, showing every sign of spending the morning there. Alisa asked if he wanted to rack out with her in her bunk.

"No, mommy."

"Why not? You'll be more comfortable."


"Why not?"

"When I sleep with you I smell something bad."

The candor of a seasick four-year-old.


This is the fifth day of our passage. We nearly turned back on the second. We had as much as made the decision. Really I had come to the decision an hour earlier and was trying to talk it out with Alisa, to articulate it and thus accept it.

What else could we reasonably do? Water was accumulating in the starboard bilge. We were looking at a potentially rough passage, weeks long, with few or no boatyards at the other end. The problem had announced itself in port in the days before we left, and I had thought I had fixed it, but now it was back and I had no idea where the water was coming from. It wasn't much water, no dangerous amount, but its appearance from a source unknown signaled an uncertainty about the state of the boat that I was not willing to accept with our family crew, and the nature of the trip before us.

"I just feel like I should be able to figure it out," I said.

The whole season would change if we turned back. I might be willing to set out for the Australs/Tuamotus in late May, but I didn't think I'd be willing to try a second time in June. Where would we go this year, if we were not starting on the path to Patagonia?

"Is there any hose in there that might be leaking?" asked Alisa.

And revelation visited me. The genset. I stuffed plugs in my ears and fired up the generator and watched water spurting out of the water pump.

"Can you fix it?" asked Alisa.

"I think so. Think I've got a rebuild kit on board. But not out here."

"So we'll go back to fix it?"

"No way, we're not going back to fix that." I felt so relieved.


We've been through the shakedown period. (Except for Eric, who is chipper but still vomiting. I look at him and wonder when he'll be old enough to wish he had been born into a family that was enthusiastic about golf.) We've been through the first few days when you feel drugged and sleepy and nauseous. Over-tired and over-stressed on day two, I had a mighty session of vomiting over the side. But - victory - I've had no migraine.

And now we're in the groove. Elias has been in the groove the entire time and has been disappointed that we haven't been fishing in 25 knot winds and three meter seas. Today is almost like tradewind sailing, it's that placid and steady, except that this habitually gray ocean turns only a reluctant gun-metal blue in the sunshine, instead of the triumphant blue of the tropical Pacific.

We've been dignified by repeated close fly-bys by albatross - mostly juvenile wanderings. Eric may eventually wish he was born into a less salty family, but he is a four year old with strong opinions on the diagnostic features of royal and wandering albatross.

The weather has been kind, with just-strong-enough westerlies for most of the trip, keeping us booming along.

We expect the first front of the passage to catch us on Tuesday.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Status Check

Bring it.
The rig - it checks out

The times come when I'm swept away by the excitement of what we're up to.

All the mundane concerns of boat and life drop away and I think of the names.  Rapa Iti!  Rapa Nui!  Pitcairn!  Puerto Natales!

All of it is legendary to me.  All of it.  Places I never thought I'd see, as much as I might dream.

I consider what we're about and I upgrade the Galactic status meter -  from "Viva!" to "F*ck Aye!"

The only higher level on the meter is "Getting Jiggy With It".

We've been there before. And it's a wonderful place to be.

Stars in my eyes…And the family home at anchor

Alisa is back to nearly 100% of her considerable pre-shingles strength.

No matter how many little jobs I find to worry away at, the boat is about as ready for sea as we could want.

We are thoroughly provisioned.  One vast locker has been reserved for six months' worth of duty-free beer.  And the weather forecast promises a spell of settled westerlies.  Our departure cannot be far away.

We cannot prepare to sail without going sailing.  A two-reef day in the Bay of Islands served nicely

There are a lot of other things that I think about when I'm not feeling expansive and making jokes to Alisa about the Galactic status meter.

But the internet is not the place for too much honesty.  The Rebel Heart blog taught us that, if we didn't already know.

A seven-year-old can fit in my beer locker

The real stuff, the deep stuff, the stuff that can't be splashed on a Facebook "status update" with a trio of exclamation points - that stuff needs to be digested, to be worked through for a time, and then written in a book, meticulous draft after meticulous draft, until you're sure that you've got it as near to right…as you can.

Enough to say that I have the concerns of a father, and when I get tired of thinking of those I can always contemplate the divine mystery of how in the hell we might some day end this long long long sailing vacation and come to rest somewhere ashore, in some semblance of a stable life for the second half of the boys' childhood.

There have been sleepless nights.

My consolation, aside from the endless hours that I get to spend with my boys, and my wife, day after day, is that my motives are the purest imaginable  - I operate out of an enduring, and unshakeable, confusion about what life is, and what we're meant to do with it.  So I just operate on instinct, and Alisa and I decide that being sedentary is not what we want to do with this gift of being human...

The cognoscenti will recognize this as a starter motor.  The truly "switched on" will see that two of the three bolts holding it in place have given up their posts and gone home to the oily pan beneath the engine, where they seem to believe that they belong, and left their old friend the starter motor hanging by a few threads of the third, and last, bolt.  This is demonstably not a blog about boat maintenance, but really, you have to wonder.  Why do gremlins like this make their appearance just prior to a big passage?  And what does it mean?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Boat Life, Just Life

Science experiment
Elias is seven.  From this sample of one, I have deduced that seven year old boys are old enough not to want to cry when they're upset, but young enough that they can't always help it.

For the last week we've been in a forgotten little estuary next to the first capitol of New Zealand where visiting sailboats congregate to make their final preparations before leaving for the tropics.

The kids whom Elias and Eric played with in Whangarei are of course not here, and the boys are keen to interact with some peers.  Knowing that we also need to recycle some books and toys, Alisa took matters in hand and announced over the daily radio get-together that she was organizing a kids' book and toy swap on shore.

Our boys arrived at the appointed time brimming with excitement at the prospect of new possessions, and with two bigs sacks of their own stuff to trade away.

A few other sailing kids showed up.  But none brought anything to trade.  Eric, who we have realized really should have been in preschool during our three months in Whangarei, screamed and hit.  Alisa, who was recovering from shingles and doing laundry, had to call me on the radio for child-minding backup.

That's never happened before.

Undaunted, Alisa drove the boys around the anchorage in the dinghy the next day, asking boats if they had children aboard.  They need some mates, she said to me.  They look at other kids with longing.

And - success!  A Swedish boat, in the throes of their last 48 hours of preparation for going on passage, did have kids on board.  And yes, they would like to trade some books.

Elias ended up staying on board their boat for a play while Alisa went to do some chores ashore.

When she came back she could tell that something was wrong.  And when Elias got back on board Galactic he sprinted for his cabin, trying to stifle his sobs.

It turns out that he gave away some of his very best books, and somehow got nothing in return.  And he didn't know how to speak up and explain that he wanted to trade, and not just give the books away.

Kids' books on Galactic get used.  We read them so many times that the boys learn entire books by heart, word for word, before they can read themselves.  Individual books become associated with a hundred different bedtimes, and rainy days at anchor, and long afternoons on passage when the boys curl up with Alisa in the cockpit to read book after book after book.

So poor Elias, who is learning his way with possession and acquisition (central actions in our culture, after all), was heartbroken to see these old friends going away without anything to take their place.

It was one of those moments of paternal empathy, when you watch your kid learning his way in the world and getting bruised in the process.

And, Elias was running into the exact kind of situation that bothers adults all the time.  Buying and selling, trying to carry yourself in a way that keeps you from being taken advantage of, trying to be savvy without hurting others - this is so much of the business of life.

I guess that's why I don't think of what we're doing as "cruising" - that solipsistic concern with amp-hours and crevice corrosion and osmotic blisters and so on.  All that stuff is really very secondary.  Living on a boat is, at this point, just living to us - living with a constant family togetherness, so that there are few moments in each other's lives that go unobserved.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Housekeeping is...

…a funny thing to do for someone who lives on a boat.  But there are three housekeeping issues that I wanted to address:

First, the recent layout change was in part motivated by the desire to fix the problem of the blog crashing on iPads.  It seems to have done the trick on Alisa's device, but if anyone continues to have trouble, please let me know in a comment.

Second, the radio show This American Life has an upcoming story on the Rebel Heart rescue.  If you live in America you can listen on public radio this weekend, and they'll also post the show on the web soon after it's been broadcast for anyone to hear.  This American Life can do very good long-form journalism, and it looks like the Kaufmans found a great platform for telling their story.

And last: our first-ever business plug on Twice In A Lifetime!  (Totally unsolicited, I assure you!)  If you find yourself in need of sailboat blocks in New Zealand (if it hasn't happened to you yet, it will, believe me), get in touch with the New Zealand Garhauer shop.  Well, not a shop - it's run out of a very nice couple's garage in Paihia. Their prices are the only good deal in New Zealand.  They'll pick you up from your boat if you don't have a car, will drop parts off, and will let you exchange if you lose your mind around all the shiny yacht jewelry and choose the wrong block.  Five-star Galactic rating.


Shower time for a four-year-old
who can't bear to get water on his face
Meanwhile, back in our daily narrative…  Well, what to say - parenting in our ultra-nuclear family mode (nearest grandparents/aunts/uncles - five thousand miles away!) can be tough.  Motivated by the desire to fit in a "science experiment" from the curriculum that required internet access, Alisa did a big school day for Elias yesterday.  Education ran into the afternoon, which it rarely does on Galactic.  All this time she was watching Eric, too, as I had gotten up at 0530 to fit in some writing, then made breakfast and launched into my boat day (buy a shiny Garhauer block!  set up the new boom vang!  free up the corroded petcock on the muffler!, etc., etc.).

In her still-fragile state, it was too much of an effort for Alisa.  The pain of the shingles on her face came back in a big-and-bold, enough-to-make-the-toughest-woman-I-know-cry kind of way.

We assume that she'll be well enough to go on passage next week, and so have been keeping the pressure on to get the remaining boat tasks and life-before-we-lose-internet-for-a-month tasks completed.

But pushing to get everything done is obviously not what Alisa needs right now, and we'll have to counsel ourselves with patience, even as the month of May, precious for Southern Hemisphere voyaging, passes away, day by day.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What We Do

Leaving Whangarei Heads...
…after another birthday.
We're regaining our mobility on Galactic.  Alisa came through the shingles without any involvement of her eye, though she is still not recovered to the point of being ready to go on passage.

Being in no mood to wait for helpful winds to get north, we availed ourselves of the motor to transport our hopes and dreams forty miles up the coast to Whangaruru.

There we spent a weather day at anchor and rediscovered the dynamics of family life on a traveling boat.

Days at anchor are days of obligation for us.  I need to write, and I need to do the science work that is paying our way.  Elias needs to do his school work, he needs to wrap his head around the intellectual foundation that our culture can provide him.  Alisa needs to teach him (since I am writing and doin' science) and she needs to provide meals.  And Eric needs to be four - to play and discover and be joyful and cranky and utilize his super-abundant energy.

So - imagine partitioning those obligations between the saloon and our aft cabin.
100 Newtons of automatic fun
Convalescence, and a four-year-old's nap
If my work requires less-than-perfect attention, I can do it at the chart table while Eric plays in the saloon and Alisa and Elias pursue education on our double bunk in back.  But there's no way I can write or do the harder tasks involved in research while being interrupted to adjust a Playmobile knight everyt three minutes.  ("Daddy, can you put his hair on?")

That leaves me in back, in the splendid isolation offered by one thin door, while Alisa, Elias and Eric have Group Interaction up forward.

Let me tell you, there is a reason why four-year-olds are not invited into classrooms full of of seven-year-olds.  It doesn't work too well.

I mean this as no accusation against anyone ashore who choses differently, but there's no way we would homeschool if we were ashore - we'd send our oldest child out the door every day, to discover the world and his place in it.  But as long as we're living on a traveling boat, homeschooling is the only option.

The sailing part of sailing with children isn't nearly as attention-grabbing for us as the more mundane aspects of living our four lives so much together, in this strictly limited space.
On the left, mixed authority (parent/teacher).  In the center, a scholar.  On the right, distraction.  
Brother lashes out against brother.
For the sheer joy of it.
Being four
Meanwhile, the Biggest Passage We've Ever Tried (New Zealand to the legendary Austral Islands, southernmost French Polynesia) is drawing ineluctably near.  After all these years, doing big trips with the kids still makes me nervous.  I guess there would be a problem somewhere if it didn't make me nervous.  After the Kaufman rescue, and conversations with some cautionary friends in Whangarei, the nerves were perhaps reinforced this year.

But the boat is in quite good nick, and I reflect on all of the successful passages that we've made so far. The weather for the trip has been looking quite good recently, and I find myself thinking of the upcoming trip with quiet optimism.

Friday, May 2, 2014

You Can't Buy Reviews Like This

I know.  I've tried.
(That's a joke.)
My book about our first year and a half of life afloat, South From Alaska, was published in Australia, in 2011, by NewSouth Books.  I was very happy with the experience (a contract! an advance! on the shelf in the Sydney airport book store!), and extremely gratified by the reviews that edition garnered.  More about those in a minute.

The downside of publishing in Australia, though, is that ordering the book from outside the Lucky Country can take a very long time, and it carries the exceptionally high Australian price wherever it goes.

In the bad old days of publishing, the book would have been remaindered by now, the publisher would have offered me the plates if I'd thought to negotiate that item in the contract, and that would be that.

In the brave new world of the written word that we find ourselves in, there is another option.  Since the rights have reverted to me (I did think to negotiate that in the contract), I can publish a second edition myself.  Which is what I've just done.
First edition

The Kindle edition is out now, for $5.99 US.  The print edition is coming, just as soon as a proof copy can reach me in New Zealand.

I'm very happy that this new edition will make the book more easily available to readers - as John Cheever put it, you can't write without readers - the relationship is precisely like a kiss, something you can't do alone.

In this second edition I'm also able to address NewSouth's decision not to include photos, which was my only disappointment with the first edition.

Second edition

And now for those reviews (and a couple blurbs):

"A book that speaks to both sides of the brain simultaneously and without contradiction…prose so beautiful, and with such a dose of self-deprecating comic relief, that you yearn to be there with them." - Cruising World

"Litzow is a talented writer…evocative and powerfully visual." - The Age (Melbourne)

"Eminently readable." - The Sydney Sun-Herald

"As a sailor who raised his daughter aboard, I was touched by this book.  Litzow writes from the heart." - Cap'n Fatty Goodlander, sailor and writer

"Mike writes well and with utter honesty about the sometimes overwhelming sense of responsibility he feels when he and his partner Alisa take a toddler to sea. He clearly shows the stress this places on their marriage and how it is balanced by the rewards they and their slowly maturing son reap. Essential reading for anyone contemplating voyaging with very young children." – Lin Pardey, author of Storm Tactics Handbook, Self Sufficient Sailor and Bull Canyon

If you've already enjoyed South From Alaska, consider taking a quick detour to Amazon or goodreads to leave a review and help other readers find the book.

Many thanks, Mike

The Years

April 29, 2010.  Royal Hobart Hospital. 
April 29, 2011. Half Moon Bay, California.
April 29, 2012.  Hobart, Tasmania.
April 29, 2013.  Hicks Bay, New Zealand.

April 29, 2014. Urquharts Bay, New Zealand.
 Yes, that is a sword cake above, and below.  Alisa solicits requests for birthday cake themes.  And swords are very much on the collective boyhood mind of Galactic.