Friday, November 17, 2017


Here, and below: there appear to be quite a lot more bears on the Kodiak road system than there were ten years ago.

So. After ten years of wandering, this is what we've chosen; home.

As I've noted before, from a work perspective it would have made more sense for us to settle down in Juneau, where a strong community of academic and agency biologists would have given us access to the personal interactions and collaborations that make for a successful scientific life.

Alisa and I are prime examples of the willingness of Americans to be rootless. We both moved to Alaska as young adults, and made our lives here, separately and then together, thousands of miles from our families.

But we took the opportunity of our return to take a stand, not quite consciously, against being forever on the move. In the US, home for us could only be Alaska. And in Alaska, the place we are at home is Kodiak.

Eric, moving off of Galactic
Living in a town of about 10,000 people without road access to other towns implies a very different social life than the one we might lead in a more cosmopolitan place. 

In most of the US, we would interact with a much more homogenous group of people. Our friends would tend to have similar levels of education as us, would work at similar jobs and have the same narrow interests and outlooks of our particular slot in the US socio-economic world.

In Kodiak, that is not the case. We have friends from many walks of life. Fifty years ago, when America was more rural, I think this would be pretty unremarkable. But now I think it's fairly unique.

By coming back to this town where we have already lived for seven years, the place where we got married and had our first child, we also avail ourselves of a much deeper social life than we would have in a new place like Juneau. In either Kodiak or Juneau we would have a group of close friends. But in Kodiak we also have a large group of acquaintances, people we know well enough to say hello to at the grocery store. That I think is a powerful antidote to the estrangement that marks so much of modern life.

The boys in our new house, after our household goods arrived from storage in the Lower 48. Most of these boxes were packed when Elias was 9 months old, and before Eric was born.
Ptarmigan hunting.
So that is the upside, as far as I can see it.

On the other side, we are coming back to a world that we do not quite understand at all.

The complete saturation of everyday life into the internet, and the products of the net state, happened in these ten years that we were away. Of course there was internet in Australia and Chile and South Africa, and of course I kept this blog going for the ten years that we were away. So it's not like we were unaware of the existence of the internet.

But the degree to which people actually lead their lives through small interactive screens just completely beggars the imagination of someone who has been more or less on the periphery for the last decade. It all looks quite dystopian to me. Consider the state of right-wing politics, if nothing else, and what computers have done with that. I feel myself settling into something of a self-defined museum of a life, apart from what I see as the mass hysteria of our times, and knowing that I also bypass whatever good might come from participating in this new sort of life.

And then there is the historical moment that we chose for our return.

My boys will come of age, politically, in this world. Where we can see how precious these trappings of democracy might turn out to be that we so blithely cast away.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


I love this island so much.

It would have made much more sense for our work if we had settled in Juneau when we came back to Alaska. The University and NOAA both have large labs there.

But we never considered it seriously. We were focused on this place. I like to think that in prioritizing a place that we love over other considerations were are acting against the grain of post-war American history in a way that will in retrospect appear wise. Stay tuned on that one.

The funny thing is that I don't really feel all that at home here. Part of that probably has to do with us being away for a decade. But it's also true that Kodiak is neither an easy place nor an obvious one. It feels like the project of a better part of a lifetime to come to terms with this place, on its terms.

The Mothership at rest
Elias casting. There's always hope for one more salmon.
The boys just had a four-day weekend, and the gods of weather malice were off doing their evil deeds somewhere else for a change. So we pointed the barky to the other side of Ouzinkie Narrows - to Sharatin and Kizhuyak Bays, to be precise.

It was great to get away. And great to be reminded all over again how tremendously like nowhere else Kodiak is.

Autumn is well set in up here, just shy of the 58th parallel. Fresh snow fell on the higher summits while we were away.

And it's very deep into metaphorical autumn for this great chapter in our sailing lives. We're still faithfully living on the boat. But we have a house purchase lined out, and the celestial bodies of house finance are moving in their predetermined orbits. Before we know it we'll be living ashore.

The new neighborhood.

At dinner today Alisa and I quickly ran the numbers on how much we could make if we rented the house out and continued to live aboard. Pretty good money from a sailor's perspective, as it turns out.

But we won't make that grand gesture, of course. We are willfully jumping into this new phase of our lives, and really, considering how radically different was everything that's gone on for the last ten years, this new life.

But. Not just yet.

Monday, October 16, 2017


New observation for the Galactics.

We've now seen both the aurora australis and the aurora borealis from the decks of our little ship.

We saw the southern lights in 2013 from the Auckland Islands, in sub-antarctic New Zealand. And, for the last two nights running, we've seen the northern lights from our anchorage in Kizhuyak Bay, Kodiak. It's normally too cloudy to see the lights in Kodiak, but we got lucky.

And, after all these years afloat, a new error.

I've only backed down on the anchor - set it with the engine in reverse - about a thousand times. On our first day out on this trip, I finally made the mistake of backing down on the dinghy painter and sucking it into the prop.

The result: stalled engine, a propeller hopelessly wrapped in the painter, and a captain who got the unexpected joy of snorkeling in Alaska in October.

I suppose it's good to break out of the routine and try something new instead of just making the same mistakes over and over again.

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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Saturday, October 14, 2017


Life can be confusing and I suppose that's why a lot of us go sailing in the first place.

You go sailing and while it is really just normal life that has been taken to a new venue there is also a release from some of the more inflated trivial concerns of everyday life. In the sailing life you are presented with the very concrete challenges of getting your little boat across an ocean, as well as the opportunity to contemplate the deep peace that comes from being a thousand miles from land. On a well-found boat, in the company of your family, making your way slowly though determinedly to your chosen goal.

This is all very nice.

Then you come back to land life, say after being away for ten years.

Among your fellow sailors, "swallowing the anchor" is legendarily the hardest thing there is about the entire sailing life.

But you scoff at this a bit.

First, you are at least for now keeping the boat and dreaming of new things to do with her.

And second, it's just land life. Don't be precious, you think to yourself. Get on with it.

But while you've been away all of your land friends have been building their lives around those confusing bits and have presumably achieved a certain equanimity. But you're all new to it again, and things do have a way of stacking up.


Eric and Elias' schools had a "lock-down" last week.

If you're in the US, you know what this means, and if you're not, you can probably guess. Schools in the US have adopted a code of best practices for minimizing fatalities during massacres. A kid at the Kodiak high school was overhead making an actionable threat against the school, and the system was triggered. Kids sheltered in place - locked into their classrooms, curtains drawn, on the floor and silent. The Kodiak police department geared up for an active shooter and secured the buildings.

Nothing came of it.

On earlier visits back to the US I remember asking family and friends with young kids what they thought of mass shooting drills and the impact on their kids.

"Oh, they just call them lock downs," was the typical response. "The kids call them that, and they don't really know what they're for."

Well, I can assure you that our kids know what they're for.

Eric came home with a second grader's incomplete understanding about some sort of bad guy who might do something bad. Elias quickly disabused him of any comforting lack of specificity and said no, we were locked down because there might be someone coming to the school to shoot kids.

Eric is now afraid to go outside for recess, and before he uses the head he asks his mom to check the big locker where we store toilet paper to make sure there's nothing bad in there.

I have plenty of responses to this state of affairs in the US as a social and political issue, but not so many as it plays out in my kids' everyday life. I found myself being able to say nothing at all when it was discussed at the dinner table that night. I suppose I'll try to explain to the kids about the soothing role of probability in assessing how worried we should be about things like school shootings. And I'll also adopt a certain troubled equanimity about the nature of the world, and how coming to grips with it is an inescapable part of growing up.

More immediately, Elias and Eric have a four-day weekend, and we have untied the dock lines and headed out for a little jaunt to visit a couple Kodiak anchorages that we've never visited before. There are lots of those.

And, for these few days, we'll revisit that solace of the sailing life. Town life will be waiting for us when it's time to go back.

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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Monday, October 9, 2017

This Peripatetic Life

We were at a party last night in Kodiak, and someone asked me about the friends we'd made during our grand tour.

"Yep," I answered. "The way we look at it is, we got to know some of the most fantastic people that you could ever imagine. And most of them we'll likely never see again."

Elias and Eric had certainly picked up on the transitory nature of sailing friendships. As we were counting down our last year before returning to our home port, I once asked them what they were looking forward to about being ashore. "We can have friends!" was their immediate, and enthusiastic, answer.

Most of the time in the life afloat, you meet people, hit it off, and then sail away from each other, never again to cross paths. If you're on the same route, say sailing across the Pacific, you're likely to run into people over and over during the season. But then the season ends, and you inevitably go your separate ways. 

A very few times, though, we've been lucky enough to run into simpatico yachties during more than one season.

A couple memorable examples are illustrated below. There was Six Pack, with Rex and Louise aboard, whom we met in Tonga, saw again a year later in Queensland, and then saw again a couple years after that in Tasmania.

And there was Thélème, the long-term floating home of wonder couple Richard and Michele, delightful holdovers from the good old days when sailing wasn't so darn serious, and sailors were a lot more fun. That's Thélème tied next to Galactic in Whangarei, New Zealand.

The very champion example of ships we meet more than once, though, is our friend Leiv on Peregrine. We met in Tasmania, saw him again in the Falklands, and just now had a great summer with him in Kodiak.

Leiv and Elias, high above Kodiak
But these things of course come to an end. Leiv buggered off a few weeks ago, chasing rumors of cheap sandblasting in Mexico, and ultimately headed back home to the Falklands.

I've gotten very used to quick goodbyes. In fact, the practiced way that sailors make quick work of goodbyes is one of the many things find attractive about that wonderful tribe of hybrid dreamer-doers.

So it was Alisa who really marked the moment for us when Leiv dropped by Galactic to say farewell. When the hell would we ever see each other again, she wondered aloud.

When indeed.

Farewell, mate.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hot Link

I haven't written about it much on the blog, but one of the delights of our sailing life ever since our second visit to New Zealand, in 2014, has been my occasional bout of on-spec writing for Cruising World magazine. The sailing world has quite a history of good writing, and an even more notable history of sailors rubbing their incomplete educations against their dubious finances and coming up with the answer of freelance writing as a way to stretch the cruising years out against the inevitable return to work.

That, by the way, was far too much of a conglomerate of a sentence to ever make it past the editors and CW.

Anyway, our most recent story is featured on their web site just now. It's about one of our greatest sailing experiences ever...

Saturday, September 9, 2017

You're Not A High Latitude Sailor Until...

You know the saying from the old days - "you're not a cruiser until you've towed the Pardeys into port!"

(That's just a delightful bon mot from an earlier and much more innocent era in the sailing game, and not at all a dig at the Pardeys, who, when we met them in New Zealand, were more than kind and hospitable.)

But, having heard that joke from the past recently, I was inspired to coin my own variation: "You're not a real high latitude sailor until you've had Jérôme Poncet on board for dinner!"

We Galactics were recently privileged enough to do just that.

Our mate Leiv Poncet has been operating his sailboat Peregrine out of the Kodiak this summer, and his dad, Jérôme, came to Kodiak from the Falklands for a bit of a sailing holiday with his son. Having been hanging out with Leiv every chance we got this summer, we naturally also got to hang out with his dad while he was here.

In the world of high-latitude sailing, Jérôme is just about as big a deal as there is.

Consider this: his first boat Damien, which he co-owned with Gérard Janichon, sits right next to Bernard Moitessier's Joshua in the Musée Maritime de la Rochelle. Damien was a 10-meter, cold-molded sailboat that more than once went as far or farther than any small sailboat had before. After the Damien days there were the even more groundbreaking days in Damien II with Sally and their kids, and after that the professional years in the Golden Fleece.

It's all quite a record of achievement and derring-do, more wonderful and detailed than what I can do justice to here.

The great part, though, is that all of that means nothing when you're talking with him. Jérôme comes across as a normal guy who happens to be extremely authoritative about high-latitude sailing. He was tremendously kind and interested about our boat and our infinitely more modest sailing ventures. He reminded me of a truism that we first recognized from observing commercial fishing boat captains in Alaska: the very best and most skilled mariners have no need to show off or brag about what they have done.

There was this one difference between Jérôme and commercial fishermen of our acquaintance, though - the commercial fishermen don't have anything like the irrepressible gleam that Jérôme carries around in his eye.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Gales of...August

The winds of August. Those big islands are the Kodiak archipelago, just off the Alaska Peninsula.
So...Alaska weather is a funny thing, at least as it pertains to sailing.

For much of the summer, when the days are long and the temperatures are high, the Gulf of Alaska is a complete millpond. No wind at all for weeks and weeks, a veritable ashes and sackcloth land of the damned when it comes to getting anywhere under sail.

Then there's a transition period, towards the end of summer, when the winds start to pick up, but aren't yet gales. Experience says that this period lasts for about...two days.

Then, some time in September, the bounds of polite restraint are cast off, and Kodiakers start dreaming about time shares in Arizona.

This year, the first really good blow arrived at the tail end of August - that's the forecast for today (above).

Tonight, as we listen to the rigging hum, we are reminded...while the Falklands and such places might beat us for year around winds, there are few places that can compete with Kodiak when it comes to plain old crap weather.

But the diesel heater is warm, and we're snug at the dock, and as happy to be on Galactic as we could be anywhere.

Monday, August 28, 2017

In the Tradition

Last week the Galactics went beach seining.
Pulling the seine

A beach seine is about the simplest net there is to use. You set it from the dinghy, then pull it in to the beach by hand.

Sorting the catch. Alisa still has her deep knowledge of the juvenile groundfishes of Alaska
Age-0 saffron cod
A little help from the team

The Baxter Guide to the fishes of Alaska
Back in the 90s, Alisa and I did a lot of beach seining as a part of a large study seeking to understand how climate variability limited the ability of seabird populations to recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

We have great memories of those summers spent doing field work in coastal Alaska. Being outside all day every day, work that was both physically demanding and intellectually engaging, the camaraderie of fantastic people...who wouldn't remember that fondly?

It was great to be doing that kind of work again. The names of the fishes came back so easily. Kelp clingfish! Penpoint gunnel! We talked about the people we worked with, 20 years ago, and how some of them have found a lifetime's pursuit in the study of Alaskan fishes. And we remembered some of the people from prior generations whom we encountered in one way or another. It's a great tradition to be a part of, the tradition established by those rugged men and women who have pursued knowledge for knowledge's sake in the wilds of Alaska.

Writing it down
There's also a larger tradition that we were invoking - the tradition of understanding the world with repeatable measurement, careful observation, and falsifiable ideas. In this era where the wonderful intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment is held in such low esteem, and the scientific enterprise is under such specific political attacks, it was great to be back in that tradition....doing the simple things of observing the world, and writing down what we saw.

More specifically, we were working to support a study that has been running for more than a decade, using beach seines to measure the abundance of juvenile Pacific cod, and to sample their body condition and energetics, in order to better understand the factors that regulate this population that supports an important fishery around Kodiak.

Mama said there'd be days like this

Tufted puffins

We've always thought that wrapping family life into field work would be a wonderful thing to do. And it was, mostly. Elias in particular is right there with being able to help out. He measured fish, he took notes, he pulled the net.

Eric is still a few years away from being real help, as is his right as a seven year old. Both boys did a great job with some very early mornings to catch the tides we were working, but during these four days of seining Alisa and I were also reminded of the limits of what we can ask the kids to do.

We'll keep those in mind as we cook up plans for more extensive field work in summers to come.

But for this first run, I was very satisfied to see how happy the family ended each day, and how glowing the boys' overall reviews were for the experience.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Abyss of Time

Tufted puffin - the baddest seabird of the North Pacific
Idyll underway. If the kids are safely tucked away in a book, all is well with our world.
The miraculous Pacific halibut - they're nearly all meat.
The pics above are from our recent biological sampling trip around Kodiak.

It was...great. A detailed report soon, as soon as I get enough free time from science to tell the story.

But for now, I want to consider two other pictures.

The first image is from Long Island - our very first-ever anchorage after we left Kodiak. That's our Pelagic in the background, and of course cabin boy #1 Elias on my back.

And we were just back in Long Island on this last jaunt of ours, ten years and two months after the picture above was taken.

That's Galactic in the background below. Elias has been promoted to AB, but he's still on my back. And cabin boy #2 is very much in the picture, both actually and metaphorically.

As any parent of young children will tell you - the days are endless, and the years go so fast. As I view the progression that is captured by these pics, I am reminded to drink up every minute of time that I have with these two pre-adolescent sons of ours. Nothing could be sweeter than what we have, right now, as a family.'s reassuring to see that Long Island has gotten sunnier over the last 10 years!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

From this first step...

...we hope that great things might come!

So, now that we have sailed back to Alaska, what's the status of our sailing life?

Well, we're back to the dreaming stage.

As a part of our move back to Alaska, I've taken a research faculty job at the University of Alaska, based in Kodiak.

One of the things that I hope to do in this new job is field research from the decks of Galactic. For years and years, Alisa and I have shared a daydream that goes something like, "We're two marine biologists who operate their own boat. Surely there's some niche of useful research that we would be poised to fill?"

Well, I'm happy to note that we have taken our first tentative step in that direction. We have four days of sampling scheduled from Galactic over this week and next, supporting a study of the dynamics affecting juvenile cod survival.

It's a funny place to be back in, dreaming about our next sailing step, rather than living it. So I'm very happy that we have a little biology work from the boat so soon after we returned.

Details to follow!

A beach seine, used for sampling the rich nearshore piscifauna. It should fit nicely on Galactic!

You Know - Alaska!

Well, you may have noticed that our country is going through Interesting Times. (Open question: will an American president who is proud of the fact that he cannot make the moral distinction between Nazis and anti-Nazis be abandoned by his party? Stay tuned and find out!)

But while this painful transition to whatever comes next is underway, our family has been enjoying a completely idyllic summer in Alaska.

Long-time readers may remember that one of the reasons we decided to forgo the Northwest Passage is that that route would have gotten us to Kodiak in September, after the summer was officially a memory. Following our couple of glorious seasons in the global South, we had reached a point in our sailing lives where, rather than another high-latitude adventure, we would prefer to just spend a summer getting in touch with the island that is our once and future home.
Dreaming the beautiful dream
And that's what we've been doing. We're rediscovering Kodiak through the eyes of our boys, which is so much fun I could literally cry at times.

We're in this great timeless-feeling period between our arrival from Hawai'i and the Start of School, which will mark a big transition to Structured Time for the whole family.

And even though the signs of autumn are beginning to announce themselves, we remain in that timeless state. Day after day, we
The Kodiak waterfront

Alpine joy

Fishing. In Alaska, Team Galactic spends a lot of time fishing. This can have consequences...

...both bad (that's Alisa de-hooking Elias)...

...and good (Eric with a dolly varden at Mayflower Beach).

More soon.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Best Help That Money Can't Buy

Now, I know that plenty of people raise well-adjusted children ashore.

And we only have the two examples of Galactic's own AB and Cabin Boy to go on, so our inference will suffer from some pretty severe sample size problems.

But with those caveats in mind, I have to say that if you want to raise kids who, if nothing else, are generally game to lend a hand when there is work to be done, raising them on a traveling boat is the way to go.

For example, consider these shots from our recent haulout.

We have been through every stage of out of the water maintenance with a young family. In the early days this entailed Alisa looking after the kids while I humped it like a convict in the boatyard.

Occasionally in more recent years it has involved Alisa getting a babysitter to look after the kids while she helped me paint, and then feeling afterwards like it made no sense to pay someone twenty dollars, or whatever, just so she could sprint over to the yard to slap on paint for a couple hours.

But now, our kids are suddenly old enough that not only do they not need constant minding, they are actually clamoring to get in the yard and help, too.

Elias begged insistently enough that we let him suit up and paint a bit on this last haulout. And these pictures show just how proud he was to be lending a hand.

And the wattage of those smiles also reminds me of how much joy kids can make out of tasks that adults see as drudgery, and just how easy it can be to salvage a moment or two of fun when the right kid is around.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Speck 'dat

Did you read Barbarian Days? You really should. "Speck 'dat" is my memory of William Finnegan's rendering of Hawai'i slang of the sixties for "check that out!"

Admission: I read very very few sailing blogs. I suppose that if I'm doing it myself full time, I don't feel the need to go online to read about someone else's experience afloat.

But though I don't read them in quantity, I have tremendously enjoyed a few blogs over the years, mostly written by erudite friends of ours. (Shout-out to you, Enki!)

So check this out: the sailing blog of Pandion. This is the real-time memoir of some great friends of ours, from our own barbarian days in Iluka. These people are switched on, in the Australian parlance, and though they are only just getting going, I reckon they'll be well worth following over time. So get in on the ground floor!

Alisa and part of team Pandion on board Galactic, back in the day.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

57,000 Miles

We just bought a used car, sight unseen, from Anchorage. That's what people do in Kodiak.

As a part of our due diligence, I had an independent mechanic take a look at the car. 

"No problem," he reported. "That car has tons of life in it - only 57,000 miles."

And how's that for a difference from the sailing world. As I've reported before on this blog, when we bought Galactic we installed a new GPS in the cockpit and left the meter running. As of just now, we have about 51,600 sea miles on the clock.

That feels like a lot. On a traveling sailboat, fifty-odd thousand miles will carry you through several lifetimes worth of memories. And for all the questions we get in port, from general landlubber and dock queen alike, about any "really bad storms" that we might have encountered at sea, our experience is that fifty thousand miles of sailing will bring you moments transcendent and terrible in a ratio of about 100:1.

I'm sure that I'm not embellishing my memories here.

News flash: fifty thousand plus miles is nothing for a car, even though it's well more than twice the circumference of the earth. And you don't look for too many moments of transcendence along the way.

Anyway! Great to get a car, as a step towards setting ourselves up in this new life. I won't quite say "land life". Perhaps what we hope to be doing is setting ourselves up with a home port.

There's just one more difference that I'll note. Sailors tend to count miles as they apply to people, rather than to boats. When someone wants to demonstrate how totally salty they are, they drop numbers like "a hundred thousand sea miles". I've often thought that these self-reported numbers tend to be bollocks and as dependable as sailors' reports of wind speed ("it was blowing sixty!"). But it's another interesting difference between the lives of sea and dirt. Hard to imagine someone bragging that they've driven a half million miles.

Alisa had the great insight that it would actually be cheaper for her and the boys to fly to Anchorage and bring the new car back to Kodiak on the ferry than it would be to ship the car over on the barge. So they got a visit to Anchorage out of the deal. Here they are, with the car safely strapped down and about to leave port.
Leaving Whittier on the ferry. Whittier is the town where I had my first job in Alaska, working on a cannery dock. 
Here and below - driving the new beastie off the ferry in Kodiak.