06/05/2010, Green Turtle Cay
After nearly a two year absence, I am back to sailing again. Hallelujah! With my job as a college professor, I get three months off every summer. Last summer, I taught summer school for the first half of the summer, and then just when I was getting ready to head to the Bahamas, I got a phone call that my 84-year-old mother had suffered a stroke while doing volunteer work in China. We had her med-evacted to Bangkok and I flew to Thailand thinking I would only be there for a few days, but it turned into a month. I did finally get mom home, but she died in late October, so I spent the better part of the last year dealing with all that entails.
All of which makes it so much sweeter to be here at sea again. My folks had a lovely little Ericson 27 named the Dulcian when they were in their 60's and there was nothing either of them liked doing more than sailing her up and down the California coast, out to the Catalina and down to Ensenada.
So, Wednesday evening just before 8:00, we finally threw off the dock lines and headed down the New River for Port Everglades inlet and the Atlantic Ocean. We had a lovely night sail across the Gulf Stream and on to the Little Bahama Bank at dawn, then to Great Sale Cay where we anchored at about 3:00 in the afternoon. This morning we are enjoying another gorgeous sail down to Spanish Cay where we intend to clear customs and immigration. As I will be doing for much of this trip, instead of sitting topsides enjoying the sail, I'm down here at the computer working. Grrrr..... I keep flipping back and forth between writing and my nav program (Mac ENC) to check where we are and what kind of speed we're making.
Our departure was only nine days later than I had originally forecast, and it was a little less than a month after I'd finished working the semester in my full time job as a college professor. I may not have quit my job to cruise full-time, but I do have three glorious months off to travel by sail. This summer, I am sailing with Bruce aboard Wild Matilda, a Ron Holland 43, and we plan to spend a month in the Abacos Islands and then sail on up from here to the Chesapeake Bay. Where we will stop between here and Annapolis, I could not tell you.
I could feel upset that I had wasted these last three weeks, but preparation can be the key to a successful voyage. There are those who say that if you are determined to wait until you are absolutely ready, you will never leave the dock, and there is some truth in that. You cannot prepare for every eventuality on a boat, but if you have got things working well and stocked up with food and spares, you can see the unexpected as serendipity rather than calamity.
Could there be a better metaphor for writing? I don't think so. Whenever I speak to groups of writers, I am always asked the process questions. What is your process? Do you outline or not? What software do you use? Do you use a computer or write longhand? I remember when I was going through that angst myself as I was trying to get published, and I read that one of my favorite writers, Rita Mae Brown wrote longhand with Mont Blanc fountain pens. I trundled off to the store to buy myself a Mount Blanc, convinced that it would be the magic that I needed -- that is, until I saw the price of a Mount Blanc fountain pen.
Just like sailing, for me writing takes a good deal of preparation. I am both an outliner and an organic writer. When I tried outlining a whole novel in detail, I found myself feeling constrained by the outline. Like a sailing itinerary that is too detailed, I was afraid to take those serendipitous side trips -- afraid to stray too far off my charted course. Today, I outline the whole book very roughly. I do know my final destination, but I allow myself the freedom to take off with those fanciful ideas that occur to me along the way. There are days when I'm working when these things pop into my head that usually come in the form of what-ifs. They are driving in a car and suddenly you ask yourself, what if they get into a wreck right now? Or you may think you know this character and then all of a sudden you ask what if he has a drinking problem or she is pregnant, and if you allow yourself the freedom to go with those whims off on those side trips, it will make for a better, richer book.
Then, of course, there is the research. You read and learn more than you will ever use -- just like we have more food on this boat than we could possibly eat in the next couple of months, but stocking up with details, like good ingredients, will lead to a spicier stew and a book that transports the reader to a place and time he or she has never visited. Bruce's eyes widened a bit when he saw the size of the duffel bag full of books I brought aboard, but those are my spares, there to jumpstart my idea engine when needed.
But research, like preparing for a voyage, can be so alluring, I have a tendency to keep at it longer than I need to. Like preparing to go sailing, the line between necessary prep and stalling is a fine one. When do we stop getting ready and start making excuses? I've done lots of both. This big thriller novel has taken me three and a half years now to get to the 100,000 word mark and it is time to write that last 20,000 words and finish the damn thing.
So now, at last, I am off the dock and on this voyage to see this book through to the end.
08/22/2008, Cooley’s Landing Marina, Fort Lauderdale
I met a fellow today who told me that Tropical Storm Fay is behaving just like a woman - she just won't leave us alone.
Then I got an email from a dear friend today who wrote, "The world assumes you made it home safely....."
I'm not sure I know what that means, "just like a woman," but I'm afraid I've done a quite proper job of leaving "the world" alone. And this is the second time. It's easy to write about my travels when I'm out there, but it seems that every time I return home and find myself back in the familiar rut, I stop posting to ye old blog. Or maybe it is just like a woman with all that teasing build-up, but no big bang of a finish? Anyway, this time I intend to wrap it up, look back on my weeks of sailing solo in the islands, and deliver some sort of a (albeit late) climax.
I must admit, however, that my voyage back from Bimini, across the Gulf Steam was a bit anti-climactic. I wound up staying at the dock of some friends who own a home on South Bimini, and I went aground entering their canal. My friend Owen (who had come to help me find the channel) and I sat there on the bottom for over an hour waiting for the tide to rise. Once I heard that he was coming along, I stopped worrying about the navigation and I learned a valuable lesson - check the tides even if you have a pilot.
Three days later, I left at daybreak, at near high tide and motor-sailed across the stream in 5-10 knots of wind. I was headed for an anchorage off Key Biscayne where I was to meet friends for the Fourth of July weekend. I made good time and found myself six miles off the Miami entrance buoy when the city disappeared in a pitch-black squall. I shifted the radio over to the Coast Guard weather station and they reported current condition in Miami Harbor as 40 knots of wind, gusting to 55. I cupped my chin in my hand and I thought, "Hmm... I guess I'm not going into Miami." The squall was reportedly moving toward the NE, so I headed south down the coast toward the southern channel south of Key Biscayne, figuring I would spend the night tucked into No Name Harbor just inside Cape Florida. I tried to outrun the squall, but when it was obvious it wasn't going to happen, I dropped all sail, put on my oilies, forced the dog below, put in the drop boards and tied my harness to the helm. And I held on.
It got rather exciting for a bit. I wasn't sure which was worse, the howling wind or the howling dog protesting at the indignity of being left below.
When it finally let up, I made my way into No Name and called the Homeland Security/Customs folks only to get yelled at over the fact that my passport had expired while I was gone and the fellow grew apoplectic when I said that I couldn't imagine it really mattered when a couple of weeks before the thing had been perfectly good. That whole mess ended up with a decree that I had to present myself to officials in the Port of Miami within 24 hours or else. He never was quite clear on what that was, but the next day I motored around to the Miami Yacht Club anchorage and made my way to the officials and was dutifully contrite and I was granted access to the land of my birth after all.
Welcome to Miami.
Looking back now on the six-week trip through the Abacos and back, one remarkable point stands out in my mind. There are lots of male solo sailors and hardly any females. As it turns out, I just about had a guy in every port, so to speak. Well, not in the Biblical sense, mind you, but I enjoyed the pleasure of their company over drinks, dinner, just chatting, snorkeling, hiking, or talking over many a glass of wine under the stars. There was Richard in Green Turtle, Todd in Marsh Harbor, Alan #1 in Hopetown, Alan #2 in Little Harbor, and Wright at Lynyard Cay. I think this is the greatest and best-kept secret about sailing solo. I really do love the company of men and having somebody to hang out with - and I met such fascinating people who had wonderful stories to share. Solo sailing isn't all about solitude, although there certainly was lots of that. For me, it was about meeting new people and making new friends - and okay, I admit it, a free meal now and again.
So now my boat is tied up back at the city marina on the River in Fort Lauderdale, and the rain from the remnants of Fay is pounding on the cabin roof. This week I started back teaching my college classes. I haven't yet finished my novel, but I'm working on it. Most days now when I drive to work, I dream about taking off again next May, sailing solo to some more distant anchorages, and just like a woman, I wonder what new fellas I'll meet when I arrive.
I'm sitting in the main salon of my boat tied up at the Blue Water Marina in Bimini listening to the sound of lapping water, distant music and the thrumming of a boat's generator one dock over. At least tonight, I'm still awake past nine. Last night I was dead to the world at this hour.
I made my first overnight passage alone and nothing went wrong and I wasn't scared out of my wits. Partly it was due to my own ability to dream of the worst. I can be pretty negative when I think about all the things that might go wrong. But in a sailor, that can be an asset. I remember one time when I was sailing with a fella and as we were returning to his boat, I saw that it was heeled over and cross-wise to the wind. I said, "Look, I'll bet we're aground. Did we check the tides?" We jumped aboard and I went below to open the tide program on my computer and he checked the depth finder and found we had plenty of water beneath us. It was just the current holding the boat sideways to the wind, which then was heeling us over. He said to me, "You're so negative! You always think of the worst that can happen."
Guilty. It's true. I do. But much of the time, by thinking about the worst and planning for it, I avoid some of it.
Friday morning, I ran the dog ashore in the dark, and then came out and boarded a boat made ready for departure. But I still had to get the outboard off the dinghy and the dinghy into the davits, so it was 7:00 by the time I was motoring out through the narrow cut in the reef, dead into the wind with the full main up and flapping. The swells were running about four to five feet, and in the cut I was headed straight into them and the boat was rearing up and slamming down with horrendous crashes. I just kept hoping that the next slam wasn't going to be onto something solid. The dog was terrified of all the noise, and there was nowhere he could run. It seemed to last forever because we had to get far enough offshore to clear the next reef, lovingly called The Boilers. Finally, I was able to bear off.
It was a lovely close reach for the thirty miles down to Hole in the Wall, but as the wind kept increasing, I finally had to throw a reef into the main. My boat develops way too much weather helm with more than 15 knots forward of the beam. The Autohelm was making some ugly noises too, so I steered for part of every hour to give it a break. When we rounded the corner and turned downwind, the fun part stopped. Without a spinnaker or a drifter, going downwind is the pitts. The boat slowed from six knots to three and the jib became useless. The swell was too much for wing and wing. I shook out the reef and tried sailing on main alone with a preventer to avoid a gybe, but still, I wanted to get to Bimini before the fourth of July. So back on came the engine and I was able to add the lovely odor of exhaust to the hot, rolly, ship dodging motorsail across the Northwest Providence Channel. The joys of sailing.
Just at dusk, around 8:30, we were off Little Stirrup Cay and I nosed my way in to see if we could find protection there for a few hours sleep, but the wind had too much east in it and the swells were wrapping right into the anchorage. I turned off into the night and told the dog, "Sorry buddy, it's gonna be a long night."
And it was a black night. We were out of the main shipping channel, but I still worried about pleasure boats and fishing boats. It was so dark it was difficult to make out the horizon. At one point I was startled by something that seemed to light up the whole sky to the south, and it was just a shooting star or meteor, but the sky was so dark, it looked brilliant. At midnight, I switched on the radar just to check and I saw two targets nearby, within four and six miles, but there was no sign of any lights. Thinking about the possibility of hitting some unlit boat, I decided to leave the radar on the rest of the night. The moon was supposed to rise around 2:00, but there was so much haze on the horizon, I didn't see the little sliver until nearly 3:00 and it did little to lighten the sky until 4:00. By that time I was wondering why I hadn't brought some Red Bull.
Dawn was sweet. There was no lovely sunrise thanks to the haze, but I could see the horizon and I felt I had a chance of seeing something before hitting it. Yeah, that's thinking negatively, but hey, it's darn creepy motoring along at six knots all alone in what looks like a black void. But it's also exhilarating and awe inspiring to be out there under so many stars completely on your own.
Well, there was the dog. And come dawn, oh what he problem he was. He had finally agreed to go to sleep in the forepeak around 2:00 after driving me crazy in the night, but at dawn, he woke up and decided he wanted to go up to the foredeck to do his business. I had him on a 15-foot tether that allowed him access to the cockpit and the forepeak, but he couldn't get out of the cockpit. I walked him up to the foredeck on his leash, but he looked at me with that dopey dog grin that said, "This is fun." I said, "No play, go pee-pee." He looked at me. See, like a person, he demands his privacy. So, I took him back to the cockpit. He tried to get out and go forward again. I couldn't let him go up there without a tether and I didn't have a tether long enough to send him up there alone. Finally, I crawled into the forepeak berth, opened the hatch, stuffed him out there on his leash, closed the hatch and waited. He looked down through the plexiglass and knew I was there. He wouldn't do anything. I was ready to hand him out a magazine! The things I do for that dog. Finally, he peed and managed to do it all over his leash.
I arrived in Bimini at 11:00 a.m. and tried to anchor on a coral pan bottom and even dove on the anchor to try to set it, but it just couldn't dig in and with 15-knot winds, I finally came into the marina, exhausted, but happy that through imagining all the terrible things that could go wrong, very little had. And boy, after only one beer, did I ever sleep well last night.