Monthly Archives: July 2012

Traveling Traditions

There are several family traditions that have developed over the last couple of years as we’ve begun to travel. They are things that make us feel that tingle of anticipation for getting underway the way that Mom’s famous cinnamon rolls do for Christmas morning, or the smell of turkey and stuffing do for Thanksgiving. Traditions give us mountain-peak vistas—we can look back at happy memories while simultaneously enjoying the moment and looking forward to some future time. Whether it is a special food, kind of music, or a ritual, a tradition can also help us through big or small changes.

At best, making a passage is somewhat boring, and at worst, it can be uncomfortable and even frightening. Traditions have helped us and the children to prepare for the unknown and to look forward to something that might not otherwise be a pleasant part of the journey. And they give family memories a strong foothold.

Food usually plays a big part in tradition. For example, Chex Mix, a snack food I never buy normally, has become a hallmark “underway food.” Typically, I make everything from scratch and never buy anything with an ingredient on my black list (corn syrup, MSG and its ilk, soy, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, etc.) which pretty much means you can’t buy anything in a box or bag. But when we’re sailing, convenience is the name of the game, and I buy things that I know will be easy and make everyone happy.


I also bake a big batch of cookies before we go. My original intent was to make gingersnaps, since ginger settles the stomach, but any cookie will do. Our newest tradition has us each taking two cookies at the beginning of the trip, one to eat and one to toss into the sea, a sort of offering to Poseidon to ensure calm weather, with hopes that these will be the last cookies we toss on the journey.  The other cookies I bake we’ve come to call “Category Four Cookies.” If a big storm is coming, I bake like a fool. (Don’t ask me why—maybe it’s left over from when we lived in a house and a storm meant power outages. On our boat, we make our own power, so running out of bread isn’t a risk.) The recipe gets better with each storm upgrade—the tropical storm oatmeal cookies are rather boring, but by Category Three they’ve got chocolate chips, coconut and almonds!

Usually, we listen to certain music when we’re traveling. It puts us in the mood, so to speak. It’s good to start off with Tom Petty’s “Time to Get Going” and move on to Styx’ “Come Sail Away”  and then play Boston’s “Peace of Mind.” Our “Best of the 70s Super Groups” album, the Beach Boys, and Bob Marley seem to get a lot of play time during a sail, but we usually save Jimmy Buffet for arrival at an anchorage and pour a beverage of choice with which to toast a successful trip.

All-night passages have their own special rituals. We all gather on deck to watch the sun set or the moon rise (or both) and then get ready for watches. Usually, bedtime is at 8:30, no matter what. But on the first night of a long voyage the kids are allowed to stay up as late as they want. They watch a movie and snack and each take a turn at the helm, preparing for a time when they will be ready to take a night watch of their own. For whatever reason, the movie of choice has come to be Swiss Family Robinson—a movie about a family who shipwrecks and encounters pirates! When it is their turn at the helm, we might share a cup of hot tea or cocoa and a cookie, talk about what the instruments read, look at the stars, or use the navigation instruments to figure out how long it will take to get to our destination. Hopefully, we’ll have crewmembers who look forward to, instead of dread, the night watch.

While we’re underway, there’s not much to do. Depending on the sea state, there might not be much we can do. So we eat. While we nibble, we play dominoes in the cockpit (cards blow away), read, or listen to audiobooks. If it’s a very long trip, there’s usually a lot of napping. Unless there’s bad weather, passages can be somewhat boring, so you have to figure out how to entertain yourself. One fun thing we do is sit on the transom and dangle our feet in the swirling water of our wake. It’s a little like a dog hanging his head out the car window and letting his tongue taste the wind. The kids will also spend hours lying face-down on the trampolines staring into the water, watching for dolphins or flying fish or counting jellyfish. Sitting on the boom when the main is up is another favorite past-time in calm weather.

Boom Sitters

Once we anchor safely at the end of a trip, there are the arrival traditions. If the water is nice and the season is right, we all jump in and go for a swim right away.  Actually, the kids don’t care about the water or season—once Eli and Aaron donned wetsuits and jumped in in November!  Usually an explore by dinghy is a must, either to check the anchor set with a glass-bottom bucket or to familiarize ourselves with our new surroundings. As the day ends, we all creep forward with blankets and pillows to lie on the trampolines and star-gaze. We use the green laser pointer, binoculars and star charts to identify constellations. This usually dissolves into story-telling of the “tell us about when you were little” variety.

All of these rituals and traditions have helped us to carve out some consistency within our unpredictable traveling existence. The hard parts of traveling—specifically long passages—become things we look forward to instead of dread, simply because we have tried to make them fun.

Ingress, Egress, and Regress

We had the first kid fall between the boat and the dock this weekend.  

One of the things we’ve had to adjust to recently is having Take Two on a fixed dock instead of a floating one.  With a floating dock, the boat is always in the same position relative to the dock, so it’s easy to create a safe and comfortable way to get on and off.  

But a fixed dock never moves, and the boat, subject to tide, current, and wind, moves all over the place.  At times you can simply step from deck level, over the lifelines, and onto the dock.  But at other times the deck might be below and several feet away.  It can be very difficult if you have short legs, are carrying a baby, or wearing Italian shoes.  Which covers the whole crew at one time or another.

The preferred way to get aboard at low tide is the Tarzan method.  We have a halyard clipped to the toerail and a light painter from the halyard to the dock.  You pull the halyard to yourself by the painter and then swing aboard with your best yodel.  This works great for the kids, and even the adults after a few cocktails.  But it’s not so good at high tide, or for getting back off the boat.

The next effort was a ramp from the toerail to the dock.  I made it out of a 2×10 and put some 1×2 furring strips on it for tread.  It worked great, but it kept falling in the water between the boat and the dock.  We never saw it happen, so I could never discern exactly what the problem was, but eventually accepted that the ramp idea was flawed.

The latest invention is a step, made from some spare 2×10 into an inverted L-shape with triangular supports, and screwed into a piling.  The kids know that when I break out the power tools something interesting is about to happen, so the older ones were loitering around on the dock and casually watching me work.  Sam was last to join.  He saw kids on the dock, he saw a new step between the boat and the dock, and he deduced that the others must have used the step to get to the dock.  Unfortunately he was not correct.  The step was only tacked in place while I was busy cutting the triangles to support it.  

Nobody saw what happened next, but we all heard the big splash and Sam’s shrieks of fear.

Poor Sam.  All the kids had been coached: if you fall in the water, just swim to the transom steps and climb out.  It used to be that they could haul themselves right out onto the dock.  But the swimming part was new, and Sam hasn’t been the best listener lately.  With the surprise of falling six feet and finding himself in the water, he forgot to swim and instead bear hugged the barnacle-crusted piling.

Sam is okay.  A calm reminder was all he needed to detach from his piling and swim to where we could lift him out and hose him off.  He needed some patching up, and calming down, but once that was done it was like it had never happened.

The lesson here is that when you panic, rational thought often goes right out the window, and the results are often not good.  Unfortunately, panic is hard to predict or control.  Sam has jumped off the boat and swum to the transom hundreds of times for fun.  But the difference between jumping and falling triggered a completely different response.

Sometimes we just have to learn things the hard way.  To this day, I have a row of 3-inch scars on the inside of my left knee.  I got them when I was a little older than Sam.  It was the last time I ever tried to climb up a piling.  I’m betting this will be Sam’s last time, too.

Breaking Strength

Toward the end of our recent trip, we remarked to ourselves that the boat had done really well.  We had the sense that nothing had broken, but a review of the log tells a different story.

At the end of the trip, the “broken” list was:

  • The washing machine doesn’t work on inverter power.  It comes on, but then freaks out and generally just doesn’t function.  The inverters are supposed to put out a pure sine wave, but I assume the washer is sensitive to some noise or anomaly in the signal.  To get the washer to work correctly, we have to run the big diesel generator for the whole 90 minute cycle (per load).
  • The generator stopped inexplicably on two consecutive runs early in the trip.  I waved some tools in its general direction and it seems to have taken the hint.  No more trouble.
  • The inner forestay tang broke.  I have no idea how this happened and I’m a little disconcerted by it.  I would not have guessed that this shroud was ever under enough load to break, but maybe three days of wave action generated by TS Debby was enough to fatigue it.  We replaced the staysail halyard with a low-stretch line, cranked it down, and carried on.

Broken Inner Forestay

  • Our anchor loads during the storm were enough that we could watch the bridle legs stretch.  Despite adjusting the wear point several times, the lines chafed enough that I think they warrant replacement.  And spares.
  • We leaked in places that we’ve never leaked before.  If those are the conditions it takes to make those places leak, then they aren’t even worth fixing.  The rain was tremendous and the wind didn’t allow the water to drain properly, so the boat was effectively submerged.
  • A newish cordless drill was dropped overboard by one of my little helpers.  It’s expected that tools will go overboard from time-to-time, and I took this in stride.  I did dive to look for it, but it was nowhere to be found.
  • Our free kayak developed a new crack after we let the kids use it.

Four on a Kayak 1

  • Our radar refused to turn on.  It might be a simple fix, or it might be time for a new 4G broadband unit.
  • The starboard alternator belt began squealing when the alternator load came on.  It was funny because we’d be motoring along just fine, then Tanya would use her Vita-Mix for something and the belt would start squealing as the alternator tried to compensate.  I’d had the belt off recently and probably didn’t put it back with enough tension.  Time to replace it anyway.
  • The port engine got reluctant to start.  It normally starts easily enough, but runs rough until it warms up.  Not wanting to start at all is new.  Probably the injectors need to be rebuilt.  I should carry spares.
  • When docking at our destination marina, I had the brilliant idea of using a dock line to check the boat’s momentum instead of using the engines.  What I didn’t account for is the upward force on the cleat from the fixed dock.  The result was a broken deck cleat, but it didn’t just fall off like the picture implies.  I found that broken piece 90 feet away.  I’m probably lucky it didn’t give me a haircut along the way.

Broken Cleat

  • The dinghy motor’s electric tilt and trim stopped working again.  I think I’ve replaced that switch three times already.
  • Last, but not even close to least, Tanya’s Vita-Mix stopped working temporarily.  Apparently, it was just over-heated, but for an hour it looked like we were all going to starve.  We’re adding a refurbished machine to our complement of spare parts.

New Digs

After an uneventful trip up the East Coast of Florida, we are safely ensconced in a new marina. So far, it seems like a great spot. The Publix (grocery store) and West Marine are around the corner (a quick bike ride), and the downtown area, with museums, a library, restaurants and a weekly Farmer’s Market, is a dinghy ride away, as are parks and beaches. The marina has laundry, showers, air-conditioned lounge, exercise room and even a small swimming pool. There is a great low-key restaurant at the head of our dock, with good burgers and an out-door bar. No pump-out at the dock, so we’ll have to move the boat to the fuel dock on a weekly basis, but that seems to be the only negative. Haven’t met anyone yet, so we can’t really get a feel for the place, but the geography looks good. Jay will have to do some travel for work, but we’re in a better position on this coast to depart when we can go exploring again, either north to the Chesapeake or south to the Caribbean. The Bahamas are hours, not days, away. That trip to or from Tampa Bay always feels like a big hurdle, one which we will not have to jump again for a while.

Store It Up

Night Sail, Tampa Bay to Key West, June 29, 2012

Today is one of those I’d like to put in my pocket. There are precious few such perfect days, and you want to somehow capture them, to take out someday, maybe when you’re feeling sad or nostalgic, and relive. Or watch like a movie. I have been trying to figure out how I can keep these perfect days. I try to memorize some small detail that I can pull up later, like a clue for my memory, so it can play back, filling in the rest. One such day was the day I brought Sarah home from the hospital, another was Sam’s second birthday trip to the zoo. Our day at the little half-moon beach in Red Shanks anchorage near Crab Key (near George Town, Bahamas) qualifies, and so does today.

If you could put together the perfect day, what would it hold? For me, it means spending time with the people I love, doing the things I love to do, and the promise of the fulfillment of all my dreams. It is not, mind you, necessarily an easy day without challenges. Work and frustration have their place in the perfect day, to act as a foil for the smooth and joyful parts.

Today started with my night watch. We were motor-sailing across the Gulf of Mexico on the way to Key West. It has been what we call a “blessedly boring” trip so far. I star-gazed at midnight and stared at the moon in wonder through the awesome binocs that Jay got for my birthday a couple of years ago. Even on a moving boat, you can see craters clearly. I read my book and had a cup of coffee and wrote in the quiet as we glided over the surface of a very still sea. At three in the morning, I watched the glowing orange moon set over inky water while listening to Kat Edmonson’s “Lucky” and I felt lucky indeed. How many people got to see that this morning? I made Jay some coffee and went to bed as he took over in the “hot seat.”

I woke at seven to see the newly-risen sun in a huge blue sky and had cups of steaming tea with the kids, read aloud for a while and held a slightly feverish and very snuggly, teething baby. We did a little laundry, a few dishes, then caught Sargasso weeds in our nets and examined the critters that live in those amazing microcosms. Some dolphins came up to the boat to say hello before returning to their fishing spot. I took Rachel with me to nurse in my cabin and we had a little snooze and I read my book some more. Then there was lunch in the cockpit and more reading aloud. By this time, the day was very hot and people were beginning to feel a little irritable. I suggested a swim, and Jay thought we could give it a try. We turned the engine off and let Take Two drift. Jay checked the oil in the Starboard Colonel while I looked in the water for jellyfish (there weren’t any). We shed all our clothes and had the most wonderfully refreshing skinny dip in ten fathoms of clear, turquoise water, out of sight of land, feeling like we had established our own little watery Garden of Eden and frolicked in it. Then everyone had a nap, with Jay taking a watch on deck in the shade with his book.

After my nap, I took the helm and let Jay sleep for a while. I love boring passages because they reduce life to the barest essentials (eat, breathe, sleep) and then add heaps of time. You can’t possibly fill it all, so you spend it just enjoying life where you are and the people around you, thinking long thoughts and feeling grateful to be alive on planet earth. So I did that for a couple of hours before dinner. Then Jay grilled steaks we had pulled out of the freezer this morning and I made baked potatoes in the pressure cooker (30 minutes!) and sautéed some asparagus and garlic in olive oil and butter. I haven’t been to the store in ten days, and we’re still eating like kings! After dinner, we sipped the last of the wine given to us by friends on s/v Circa Trova (thank you) while watching the red sun melt slowly into a glassy sea while the sky turned the most lovely shade of lavender and the line between sea and sky disappeared into a fine, soft mist. The children watched old cartoons and I made coffee for my watch while listening to the happy giggles of my favorite people in the world. We sent them off to bed and enjoyed a little marital bliss (like two ships colliding in the night) before Jay went to sleep and I took the first watch. I showered on deck (what lovely freedom!) and then took the helm just as the breeze shifted and increased, allowing me to set the jib for a cool and comfortable night sail. As I sat down with my coffee, Kat’s “Lucky” song came on the XM station again and bookended my day.
Lucky, lucky me! I honestly couldn’t invent a better day than that.

We went ashore once in the Exumas and I met a local who asked all sorts of questions (a pregnant woman on a boat with four children always attracts curious locals). I said we were there to enjoy their lovely islands and beautiful weather, to which he responded, “Store it up!” I liked that. Store it up for a rainy day. Store it up for when the kids are grown and you’ve got the empty-nest blues. Store it up for flat tires, head colds, and stubbed toes. That’s what we’re doing. Storing up days like today to take out later and remind ourselves how incredibly fortunate we are to have had them—to be thankful to the Maker for the gift of a perfect day in an imperfect world, in the middle of an imperfect life.