In 2011 I sailed aboard the bark Europa from Horta, Faial in the Azores to Waterford Ireland. It was an exciting adventure that was the first time I’d had a real ocean sail since my stint aboard the US Coast Guard bark Eagle, which sailed from San Francisco to New London Connecticut in 1965. A few days out from Horta I recall our passing a small sloop (single-masted yacht) tossing about in the North Atlantic and looking very lonely, but I thought ‘that’s the kind of thing I’d like to do next – to be out in the middle of the ocean in a really small boat, feeling the sea, even touching the water.’
Since 2011 I have been back to sea on such a boat (or a bit larger) skirting the Pacific coast of Baja California aboard Seaward, which was probably the best sailing trip I’ve had so far; as well as aboard the container ship Cap Jervis which took me south of the equator. But in order to get access to a number of small-boat sailing opportunities I joined Offshore Passages Opportunities in 2015 and soon received a number of brief notices inviting sailors to join trips up or down the US East Coast either to deliver boats for their owners, or to supplement the owner’s crew on an ocean passage. In late March 2016 I had responded to two offers, one from a professional delivery captain needing a couple of people to deliver a boat from Ft Lauderdale FL to Norfolk VA, and another from a migratory woman who makes a yearly round trip: Spring from Florida to Maine, and Fall back south again.
The first opportunity was interesting because it would be a nearly straight trip from Florida to Cape Hatteras in the Gulf Stream, and the captain sounded like a good-natured professional who sounded interested in taking a chance on a sailor with broad but shallow experience, who claimed to have good judgment (“I need you to wake me up if anything unusual happens!” he said) and would probably make a good companion. But on the same day that he and I discussed this offshore passage opportunity, I got an email from Dr Fran Yates inviting me to join her, her son, Russel and their cat aboard Phoenix for a trip from Annapolis MD to Camden. This trip sounded more interesting: lots of stops, a more leisurely timetable, and perhaps a few chances to go ashore.
This choice certainly seemed preferable, but I really should have thought more carefully about the time of year and the direction we’d be headed – and the really negative things I simply didn’t foresee. If given a choice between given positive, fun memories (Seaward) and learning a lot about what not to do, I’d go for the former, but sometimes you have to make mistakes to increase your chances of having fun in the future!
I’m supposed to report aboard Phoenix today so that we can get underway early tomorrow morning in order to make the tide through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, so I email Fran that I’ll try to get to the boat around noon. I learn that the other OPO crew member Rob will be flying into BWI and will have to make a laborious trip to the boat using trains, buses, and taxis, plus a few treks carrying his gear, which sounds like an unpleasant start to his voyage. I suggest to my wife that we pick him up at the airport, which isn’t terribly far out of the way. This will make his life easier and ensure that everyone’s aboard early for a scheduled departure. Being a gracious and sanguine fellow, Rob is delighted to accept the offer, although my daughter (who’s currently reeling from a job downsizing crisis) opts out of the chance to visit the boat and the boat’s resident cat. Rob is at the airport waiting for us, hops in with what seems like a very small amount of carryon kit and we head for the boat in Annapolis.
Fran texts us with various updates as to Phoenix’s current location and when we get to the marina Rob scampers out of the car and bounds away in search of the boat, and when we follow him I mutter a comment that he’s ‘like a puppy’ in his eagerness to get underway. My wife briefly inspects the boat, shrugs that it appears to be a rather small vessel for such a large expedition, but she knows better than to express more than perfunctory misgivings. After all, I’ll be out of her hair for a couple of weeks doing what I expect to enjoy and leaving her and our cat to enjoy relative peace and tranquility, especially following the typical tumultuousness of my typical preparations for an adventure.
The boat is neither small nor large for the project; Fran has what she calls ‘the V-berth’ forward, son Russell (along with his computer, phones, and gear) is sprawled out on a port-side bed abutting the cabin folding table, and Rob is given a narrow starboard bench that will be his berth for the next two weeks. I am (willingly) relegated to a dark little cave at the aft end of the cabin above the engine: quite cozy although a bitch to get into and difficult to find gear in given that everything tends to get tossed around with the motion of the boat and my tendency to dig among things to find all my many clothes and equipment, etc. Like a bear I make myself as much of a den as I can for two weeks.
We set out early in the morning underway with the engine. It’s cold and damp (and will get colder and damper), but for the moment I’m looking forward to an interesting expedition with what feels like pleasant company. I had made the trip up the northern reaches of the Chesapeake and through the Delaware Bay canal several months before with a professional sailor, and in 2012 Cap Jervis navigated the Delaware to and from Philadelphia. As with the previous sail trip the winds were usually against us, but as the passage is generally close, motoring seems the best means of safely proceeding. The boat is heavy, apparently quite seaworthy, and generally comfortable, however, I am feeling cold.
When I planned for this trip I discussed clothing with several experts including Fran and decided to dress as though I was going to be kayaking in cold weather. I only bought a heavy Gage rain jacket but also packed wool and waterproof socks, rain pants, 3 pairs of gloves, and so forth. I could have spent thousands of dollars on all the best gear but decided that layers of waterproof and/or warm clothes would be sufficient.
I also bought a GoPro camera a week earlier and tried it out for several days; it seems pretty rugged, though I don’t really like the fisheye lens effect. It should be a great way to record this adventure in sight and sound. When we anchor at Middle Marsh Creek night I try to inspect the GoPro’s videos and find that the damned thing isn’t working. Son Russ (currently second in command) claims to have some electronic expertise and even searches online for a few troubleshooting tips, but has no more luck than I do reviving the device. Setting out on a two-week ocean voyage far from a BestBuy is not the time to have an equipment failure.
In the early morning we sail for only about an hour at the southern reaches of Delaware Bay but when we head north around Cape May the seas are high and the wind is screaming as we laboriously motor toward Atlantic City. I’m having a hell of a good time studying what appear to be towering seas and even using my iPad to record the action. I’m reminded of a similar adventure years ago in a kayak on the Chesapeake when I feel distinctly schizophrenic: on my left (sinister) shoulder is a bad little boy yelling ‘ Wow, this is great fun!’ while on my right shoulder a good little boy screams ‘What the fuck are we doing out here?’ I have complete confidence in the rest of the crew and in the boat, and no one seems to need my help, so I enjoy the ride. The boat’s anemometer registers winds of up to 25 knots, which I call a gale but Beaufort merely denotes less dramatically ‘a strong breeze.’
Naively I’m prepared to continue on this course up the New Jersey coast, but Fran decides we’ll make for Cape May harbor and not try to negotiate heavy seas, unfavorable winds, and what would have been a very uncomfortable night at sea. We tuck into a shallow wetland pond just southwest of Route 621, and not far from the US Coast Guard training center, from which I hear the recruits lustily yelling cadences, reminding me of my own days as a grunt in 1965.
In addition to unfavorable winds, the weather is cold and clammy, and the cabin is likewise. I sleep with many of my clothes on, including gloves, so I have to turn the pages on my iPad with my nose. And I’m reading Steven Callahan’s Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, which no doubt adds to my discomfort.
Fran is using an app called ActiveCaptain which is a nautical TripAdvisor full of all kinds of advice about where to anchor, what hazards to avoid, and what services are to be found. I call the thing ‘busy skipper’ and joke that someday she’ll be able to run Phoenix from his wheelchair ashore. This kind of flippancy appears not to endear me to Fran, although neither she nor I are quite aware of how much trouble my sarcasm will make for us.
NOTE TO SELF: whatever you may think of their behavior or ideas, treat those in command with deference – especially if you’re trapped in a small vessel with them for two weeks! They probably got where they are by being serious about themselves and the mission; they ascended because of their gravity, although you risk descending because of your levity (this is not an original comment). No one but oneself will care much for your snide comments. Alas, this flash of emotional intelligence will come too late to be of much good on this trip: I get angry at my treatment, therefore become flip, hence am treated with less respect, und so weiter…)
The mother and son seem to drink an amazing amount of tea, heavily laced with half-and-half, whereas I continue to forget to drink anything save for my evening tot. At one point I remind myself to drink water, which I really don’t like much. Russ queries ‘What do you mean you don’t like water?” and I reply “for the same reason that W.C. Fields claimed not to like it – you know his answer?” “No.” “Fish fuck in it,” which usually gets a laugh, but not this time.
As we leave Cape May Harbor the wind has died down but it’s still cold…of course; what was I thinking making a sailboat trip north in April rather than south in June! Here’s what I’m wearing right now:
HEAD: baseball cap, fleece watch cap, jacket hood (as well as headlamp),
HANDS: N2S gloves under heavy gloves,
TORSO: silk long sleeve shirt, polyester T-shirt, Felicity’s fleece pullover, Columbia winter jacket, Gill rain jacket (as well as binoculars and at night a self-inflating life vest),
LEGS: briefs, long underwear, fleece pants, 5.11 cotton pants, rain pants,
FEET: wool sox, waterproof kayak sox, Keen sandals.
Counting pairs of items (gloves, sox, shoes) singly, this is eighteen items of clothing worn – and needed – certainly a record for this thin-blooded Californian!
I’m thinking I’ll probably survive this passage and not jump ship, and the lessons learned about cold, clothing, and humoring the hierarchy should serve me well.
I also have time to reflect on the personality of the junior crewmember Russ, who’s in his mid-30s and married to a woman twice his age (never found out what that was about). Russ is a reasonably willing crew member who’d rather sprawl across his bed tweeting, playing video games, or shopping on Amazon, so he’s only in the cockpit while watch-standing or steering, and even then prefers the autopilot so he can continue to hunch over his smartphone. I on the other hand am almost always on deck in the weather, which is typical for me as I just don’t want to miss anything. I can stare at the ocean for hours looking for life, examining the clouds, or just pondering the infinite patterns of the little waves and massive swells. This, at least, is ‘all good’ for me.
Russ has many other quirks (which I sometimes malign) and claims to be a forensic psychic whose dreams provide clues to unsolved crimes (at least I think this is his specialty). He recounts his dreams for us, but I don’t recall their being particularly surreal or useful in crime-solving. He says he’s actually provided the police with assistance, but I’m not sure any compensation was received for these insights. I do know that the law is the recipient of many unsolicited tips. In addition to being a self-published mystic, Russ suffers from various psychiatric disorders that are no doubt related to his psychical skills. When I share with anyone my own doubts about life, he tells me ‘to let go of your fears’ but I cannot take seriously the prescriptions of this medicated young man – who is he to tell me how to live (of course it’s said that Caruso’s voice teacher couldn’t sing a note…). It can’t be easy for the lad to take orders from his mother all the time – and I can sympathize with that.
The voyage into Absecon Inlet at Atlantic City is slightly dicey as the cove we seek isn’t easy to see and quite shallow (I feel the boat shudder slightly as we graze the bottom), but when we finally anchor in Atlantic City the sun appears I laboriously remove some of the above clothes, gradually relax, smoke a cigar and sip Jim Beam out of the wind. For all her prickliness (which her son can also arouse) I must congratulate Fran’s skill in navigating us to peaceful little havens where we can warm our chilly bodies in the sunset while enjoying the benefits of alcohol, nicotine, and the protein diet that Fran insists will cure all ailments (again, I foolishly poke fun at her all-to-earnest mega-protein prescriptions).
Atlantic City is a bizarre no-place (that I’ve never visited except in movies) dominated by Revel, a titanic blue elephant that cost $2.4 billion but is empty of life as we pass it heading in and later out. I like the idea of ‘sailing’ into and out of but never setting foot on a place, giving me a strange sensation of being a kind of restless ghost… I see very little life ashore, though I’m sure there are gamblers within the bowels of some of those hotels. Tantalized by the sight, I wonder “Do you suppose we could get a water taxi to deliver pizza to the boat…or hookers?”
Although I sleep fairly well after the first night’s restlessness, Russ’s snoring often jolts me awake, and tonight something is knocking above, both of which call for earplugs.
When I wake up and survey the boat abovedecks I see that what has been rattling around is a broken radar reflector attached to the port main stay; I report this to Russ, suggesting the device be removed when the boat is next in port, but he suggests it be fixed right now. “But how would we get it off?” I ask. “Using a boatswain’s chair,” he replies. “OK, who’s going up?” He says it should be the smallest and least acrophobic crewmember, which is me (other than the cat), so Russ and Rob haul me up the mast and I remove the offending reflector. I don’t always act my age.
After this job, we again make an early start, and Fran continues to navigate and give orders from her iPads, cautioning us about rocks and shoals that I neither see nor find on the boat’s Garmin GPS screen. She may confuse actual obstructions with reports on the nature of the sea bottom, and she can’t fully trust the Garmin data, which came with the 10-year old system and apparently hasn’t been updates. I cannot understand the wisdom of using decade-old charts even if they’re supplemented with whatever data he gets from the iPad. She’s a very experienced sailor, but doesn’t seem to know much more than I do about navigation. And her steering skills seem decidedly erratic as well. Who am I to judge? In fact, I’ve had lots of experience at helms and reading maps and charts, but Fran (with the son and the cat) does this trip every year, yet I cannot repress my expertise when it comes to navigation and steering – so much for discretion as the better part of valor.
I therefore ponder what a casual crewmember like me offers. First of all is some experience with the sea, boats, and in particular sailing. Fran justly points out that my resume is ‘padded’ with cruises in which I was a paying passenger who occasionally hauled on a line or steered; but I do know my way around vessels and the ocean, and I’ve some solid sailing experience and training.
A second requisite is what the professional delivery captain I earlier spoke with is judgment: the ability not only to make wise choices but more importantly to call for assistance when the situation is unfamiliar or urgent, and in this respect I’m not proud to ask questions or ask for help. In fact, I think I have what seems to be the surprisingly scarce skill of being aware of my own limitations. This comes of age and experience and an ever-growing understanding of how complicated the world really is.
It is on the third qualification, that of companionability, that I seem to be wanting, at least on this cruise; I simply can’t seem to crawl out of the hole I’ve dug with Fran, which is partly of her making (but fully my responsibility), and of course my silly bouts of anger only make things worse. Shit – I hadn’t expected that people would be the hardest thing about this adventure!
We sailed about half of the day between Cape May and Atlantic City, and when I was at the wheel fellow crewmember Rob gave me pointers about steering by
1. the compass,
2. our intended course (which Fran would mark on the Garmin electronic chart),
3. objects on the horizon, and
4. the wind.
I enjoy steering; there’s something satisfying about keeping us oriented in space while the boat rolls, pitches, and yaws, and I quickly get a feel for how to do this. But Rob likes to tweak things and repeatedly asks me to sit on the cockpit coaming in order to keep an eye on the potentially luffing genoa sail. I tell him that I’ve enough on my mind with the above four items and that moving around to watch the wheel and the sail, etc. is just too much. We get into an argument about this, in which he also brings up my earlier snide comment about his puppy-like behavior at the Annapolis marina. Earlier in the day he had tried to haul in on a line and Fran told him to “leave it alone,” so this may have made him a bit resentful and I (who was clearly the junior member of the crew) was easy to pick on and not completely agreeable to boot. I make a few glances at the sail in order to satisfy him, but go back to as much multitasking as I’m capable of for the moment. To me he seems a bit of a nervous sailor who tries to wring out every newton of force from the wind, while I’m content to drift along so long as the sails aren’t making too much noise. I don’t care about most of the details, and never will.
In spite of the joys of sailing, I’m also excoriated by Russ. This afternoon he takes me aside and informs me that his mother is offended by my language (presumably the W.C. Fields quote) and my sexism (the reference to hookers, but which can be male, I explain). I’m speechless that his mom can’t defend herself and wonder if it’s just Russ who’s the prude, but no, his language is pretty colorful as well. I just have a knack for rubbing folks the wrong way, and Fran and I simply do not get along: as Jenkins (2001) quotes someone saying of Churchill, I often find talking to her like trying to have a conversation with a brass band: she has a script to recite and doesn't want much feedback (which is why she seems to enjoy lecturing Rob). Moreover, I’m alternately amused and appalled by Russ; sometimes I think he’s so full of shit that I might get an ear infection just listening to him (which I try not to do)! He has brewed from bits of half-digested knowledge something he calls ‘mind over matter’ (I think ‘wings over your wits’). So why can’t his mind rustle us up some matter in the form of stiff warm southerly winds instead of the merely undirected hot air that seems to be his specialty?
He’s a bright young fellow whose candid about his various disabilities (as am I) but seems to have convinced himself that his minor madnesses are somehow divine, connecting him to a mystical world of insights, wisdom, powers…kind of a Rasputin but without the Romanovs. So now I’ve gotten on the wrong side of everyone on the boat – and even the dog has tried to bite me!
Fran had read my containership account and said she was interested in me as ‘chief alarm monitor.’ So whenever I hear any alarm (including a cell phone) I announce it loudly. This afternoon I notice steam coming out of the cabin and ask Russ if he’s making tea, but he says no. I then announce “Well, there’s steam coming out of the cabin, and it smells like something burning.” All agree that something is overheating and the engine is shut down. Over the next few hours Rob troubleshoots the machinery, including disassembling a water pump, but it’s decided that running the engine while heeled to part might have prevented the cooling system from operating properly. Naively I’d have thought that some kind of alarm would notify us of this malfunction before coolant started boiling away, but apparently not. We henceforth keep an eye on the engine temperature but the situation doesn’t recur.
But I do get into another argument with Russ about technology. I can clearly see that the engine temperature gauge has a lower stop value of 120 (presumably °F), but Russ insists it’s 100 degrees. We go back and forth on this until I remember never to argue about facts: whatever the actual engine temperature, the gauge appears incapable of registering anything below 120, and it’s futile to argue about it. These are among the heuristics that can help keep the emotionally immature out of trouble.
We sail out of Atlantic City in the morning and sail, motor/sail all the day and night to New York. I tend to fill out my personal journal with an extra day when this happens because the overnight passage feels like a second day. Travel at night is chilly, but it’s fun to watch the moon pass across the sky (near to Jupiter) and to identify various lights on the Jersey Shore. Anyway, I am having some fun: enjoying the roll of the sea, studying the sights and sounds of the water, and acquiring new knowledge and honing old skills. Thankgod for the sea…
Anchoring in Gravesend Bay within sight of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge is a real treat: for most of the morning we’re the only boat in the bay, although an Australian sloop anchors briefly before proceeding under sail through the Narrows (and presumably up the Hudson as it’s unlikely they’re up the much narrower East River, with its treacherous tidal currents). It’s a calm sunny morning and though I’ve been up most of the night I spend the morning studying various cargo ships (towing tugs, tankers, bulk carriers, container ships) passing into and out of New York/New Jersey harbor; always something to see!
Yes, sailing certainly does have its ADVANTAGES:
it’s fun to study how boats, sails, and the wind interact,
it’s quieter than motoring,
it has a low carbon footprint,
it’s ‘natural’ and ‘in tune’ with nature,
you get something for nothing,
the boats are pretty, and
sailing has a long, fascinating history.
But consider increasingly more specific definitions of SAILING:
1. Travelling on any water-borne vessel, usually on salt water (‘the QE2 sails at 1400’),
2. Travelling on any true sailing vessel, even as a passenger (how everyone travelled on water until a century ago) – including the trips I padded my ‘sailing’ resume with,
3. Being an active and knowledgeable crewmember on such a vessel,
4. Strategically using the wind to get from point A to point B, usually as a captain.
So using the wind to get from A to B has certain DISADVANTAGES:
it requires lots of attention,
there’s the risk of luffing, not to mention jibing,
the wealthy big-boat culture is often snooty, not very friendly, and largely white,
the boats are complicated (lines, spars, winches, etc.), and
one is largely at the mercy of the wind, tides, currents, and other hazards.
Hence I’ve come to the conclusion, that I’m perhaps not a ‘true’ sailor. I’m quite content to do #2 and 3, and even #1 is OK because I love the ocean, but frankly #4 seems like a lot of work, responsibility, and often a distraction from just zoning out on the water. I certainly don’t share Rob’s fascination with tweaking the sails and helm to get us moving in the fastest, smoothest way; I just don’t care if a few molecules of air escape without impelling us forward.
And don’t get me started on racing, which I don’t like at all. Here’s what Chappelle (1935) says: ‘...yachting history has shown that the racer sets the fashion for cruising yachts, and when the racer is of a vicious type, so is the cruiser.’ I’m not sure whether he’s referring to boats or people, but the yacht racing culture does seem a bit vicious to me.
Anyway, this afternoon Fran decides to issue a pronouncement about the current chain of command, which I had assumed was her, followed by son Russ, then Rob and me – perhaps with the cat in overall command! In light of Rob’s exemplary skills and generally compliant personality, Fran has decided to ‘demote’ Russ (his word) in a manner that seems somewhat demeaning and contributes to a certain tension. I think this is hurtful to him and could have been handled more diplomatically, e.g. by saying “I’m really impressed with Rob’s seamanship and would like us all to consider his judgment, although check with Russ if you have any questions.”
It’s probably rigid of me (ex-Coastie that I am) to seek a clear chain of command (yet the ASA literature stresses it), but I find Fran an inconsistent leader who swings between friendliness, businesslike command, and surly bluster in an almost random way. I also note that she has at least two voices, a slightly high-pitched girlish tone for normal conversation (especially when he is telling a story that she thinks will be funny) and a low-pitched voice of command for giving orders, but I can’t always predict which mode she’s likely to shift to at any time; we can be chatting amicably about something or other, and then she’ll give me a low-pitched order to “keep quiet and just watch for buoys on the port side!” A housemate of mine from the 1970s once accused me of being ‘stochastic’ in my moods, now I know what the guy meant; once I indeed was unpredictably moody (and still am to a lesser extent) but my present and typical behavior seems to set Fran off on an unpleasant course that calls up silent anger on my part. At least I’m consciously incompetent, but suspect, however, that I might be no better a commander than she...
I’ve noticed that aboard small boats the junior crew often are almost too eager to do things, but I’m perfectly content to take orders from all and sundry, and in fact have announced that in general I’ll not think up new things to do but will willingly carry out any order within reason.
At midmorning we motor up through the Narrows and up the East River. This is the second time I’m making this trip in a year, and it’s still impressive, but now I want to putz around NYC in a kayak, enjoying the sights and crazy currents…when it gets warmer! In general at this point things are going OK: in spite of the noise and the odd hours, I’m sleeping fairly well, beyond a nagging shoulder pain no particular physical disabilities. If I don’t get tossed into the East River, I can probably continue to Camden Maine.
We finally get ashore in Port Washington NY and the crew (minus the captain and cat) visit a local convenience store for essentials (cigarettes, beer, and yet more half-and-half). The other two rush back to the boat but I’m ready for some walking and head ‘downtown.’ Before I leave I chat with the store owner who’s a very friendly Korean and is fascinated to hear that we’ve come so far by boat. A few miles into town I shop at a WestMarine (strangely I need for nothing) and then have coffee and a pastry at a Mediterranean restaurant whose Egyptian owner chats about cuisine and coffee. He’s a very friendly guy and I really enjoy the easy camaraderie after my stressful week aboard Phoenix. I buy baklava for the crew and he dashes me a piece as well. In contrast to Fran’s grudging economy I’m fairly generous with treats: I’ll buy fudge in Newport RI and champagne in Sandwich MA to celebrate the successful completion of our expedition. I’m just a good person who occasionally acts bad to keep people away – no excuse, but there you have it.
Somehow I’ve lost three days in this journal, which happens because too much is happening – or not enough. Although this is a relatively brief trip, the time can easily pass unnoticed; instead of the wearying routine of work, sleep, home, we experience a similar routine in which not much will happen for hours as the landscape and seascape slowly pass by. Fran frequently revises our plan, surveying possible anchorages and docks with an eye to their cost, accessibility, distance from our intended course, and general scenic attractiveness, and so far she’s not done too badly. She’s clearly the captain, mother, and all-round center of attention and obviously loves basking in our regard, which I often grudgingly give.
I had looked forward to this trip with anticipation as well as concern about the weather, but I’m surprised that I’m so preoccupied with the people aboard. I really do enjoy my own lonesome company more than anything else, yet I simply cannot ignore those around me: I interact with and occasionally provoke them in ways that force me to ruminate about their personalities, ideas, behaviors, appearances, etc. Of course it’s impossible not to pay attention to people with strong personalities when you’re jammed together in a little room floating in the middle of the ocean. This is why I love solo kayaking. I should just accept the fact that I am a misanthrope who is fascinated by people and obsesses about what to me are their faults – and will diligently search for such faults even in those who are relatively good people, like Rob. So you can’t really win with me; I think I’ve gotten easier on myself with age – but not on others.
In a pre-cruise email I had asked Fran whether there would be much sailing, and it turns out my question was a fair one, as we continue to motor a lot, sometimes with a sail or two gently filled or just flapping in the wind. Motoring means that in addition to the constant noise, the cockpit is usually exposed to the faint whiff of diesel fumes. On those fairly rare occasions when we are only sailing, Fran mocks my earlier question, but these moments are the exception. I remark to Russ and Rob that “Phoenix seems like a motorboat with sails,” which elicits a discussion of how one might design a craft with the best of both propulsion systems: perhaps a quiet electric motor that could get its charge from 1) the wind while we’re at anchor, 2) its propeller while under sail, and 3) solar cells when it was sunny (and could one make sails out of flexible photovoltaic material?) No doubt more experienced minds than mine are giving these challenges their attention. I’d also like the boat to have a more enclosed pilot house that could easily be opened when it was calm or warm; my boat should be efficient, comfortable, seaworthy and safe.
When I’m not preoccupied with people, I spend lots of time studying the water in all its complexity. For example, I frequently notice a winding meter-wide train of bubbles and foam on the surface and try to detect changes in our course and speed when we pass through these things. I think they are boundaries between tidal currents, which makes sense if you think about two masses of water pushing against one another: they don’t mix smoothly but entangle in a complex 3-dimensional fractal boundary that extends from the bottom of say Long Island Sound to the surface, where we see it. A diver would be well situated to explore this phenomenon. (It turns out these are called ‘tidal fronts.’)
This speculation leads me to ponder the scientific mind, which isn’t content merely to observe things but to explore other phenomena, causes, effects and even matters of deeper significance. Millions of people have glanced at these tracks, thousands may have thought about them, but perhaps only hundreds puzzle at what they might represent. Consider this from Marcus Aurelius:
Anyone “with a feeling and deeper thought for the workings of the Whole will find some pleasure in almost every aspect of their disposition, including the incidental consequences... Not all can share this conviction - only one who has developed a genuing affinity for Nature and her works.”
I’m reminded of early morning another sail in which I noticed a very bright light in the eastern sky, remarking to the captain “I think that’s Venus,” to which he replied said “It’s a plane,” so I watched it for a few minutes and said “but it hasn’t moved, so I think it’s probably Venus.” He was uninterested, simply didn’t have the imagination to appreciate what a special thing it was to see and recognize another celestial wanderer and to take solace in the dependable machinery of the solar system. A pity to miss such a spectacle
As at Port Washington, I’m the first off the boat at Newport Shipyard, a sprawling complex that caters to the big boats of the rich. Fran seems unhappy to be paying even ‘shoulder’ dockage rates, and declines shore power when she learns of its cost. In fact, the woman seems rather stingy for an apparently well-to-do heir to a small manufacturing fortune (Russ complains of this as well). We’re docked next to a mega-catamaran out of the Marshall Islands (a well-known tax haven) that’s being serviced and washed down although I personally see no signs of dirt. The docks are strewn with masts the size of huge trees and the place reeks of aromatic hydrocarbons being sprayed on hulls. I’m fascinated by the place and wish we could spend a couple of days there. One of the upsides of rampant inequality is that a few people are able to splurge on truly extravagant toys like these for the envious amusement of the rest of ‘us.’ After all, if everyone on Earth had the same income (about $16,000/year) no one could afford these monsters and the world might be a happier but less interesting place. And I of course am among the global 1% so really shouldn’t complain: think left, live right.
Newport is a delight: the weather is warm (for mid-April!) and the tourists haven’t yet flooded the town. I find a self-guided walking map (that seems to ignore almost all of the historical buildings) and take off to explore. The highlights are two libraries: the 250 year old Redwood library (private, admission charged, and about to close for the day) and the newer public library, which is quite attractive and it turns out was built in two sections, the older wing in the 1968 and the newer in the 2001, and because the first was so well-designed (Wright-esque, with broad eaves and clerestory windows that admit light without the distractions of the city street) the whole building has a unity that belies the third of a century that divide its two halves. Thankgod for public libraries: warm, well-lit, usually helpful people, clean bathrooms, comfy chairs for napping – oh, and books!
The sail from Newport is pretty good: strong winds from a favorable direction; other than the cold, just the sort of thing I sought when I signed up for this trip. Actually there was no ‘signing up’ at all; things are very informal, no paperwork, no payments changing hands either way, just the assurance of a berth and board. No recourse if anything goes seriously awry.
So what do I like about this adventure? First, I like watching the infinite complexity of the water. For example, in looking at my video I notice that the faster larger waves move under the smaller slower ones, almost as if the surface of the water is a semi-tight skin over a living system of writhing, pulsing activity [video 70]. I can study the surface of the water near the boat for 15 minutes and then look out to the horizon and remind myself that the same patterns – only different – extend for thousands of kilometers in all directions. I remind people that this is what most of the planet looks like, and that relatively few people have (or want?) the chance to fully contemplate the vastness of the Earth’s Panthalassia.
Second, I enjoy the constant movement of the boat: the challenge of trying to remain vertical and getting better at it every day, with the attendant exercise that comes with the challenge, the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) rocking of my bed at night, the shifting horizon. I remark that it’s nice to be in a world where instability is outside of oneself. (Although the constant disequilibration can sometimes be wearing if I’ve not slept well or am in a low disposition.)
Third, I enjoy steering the boat and engaging in the cybernetic (Greek for ‘steering’) game of anticipating movement as the vessel makes its way in the interface between atmosphere and hydrosphere. For an hour at a time I can lose myself in this multidimensional game. Russ seems to prefer the autopilot (so that he can stare at his phone!), which creepily jerks the wheel right and left according to some invisible algorithm and also temperamentally veers wildly off course because it was installed improperly or has come loose. Better to keep an eye on things: the compass, the wind, the sails, the horizon, and a simple sense of direction.
But as I’ve said, I’m not particularly interested in the mechanics of the boat’s sailing system, although I do endeavor to diagram the layout of lines on deck and in the cockpit, which is a fairly simple system of 8 ropes and attendant clutches, winches, and cleats. But again, there’s a kerfuffle: I start sketching the boat and its lines and Rob tries to help by showing me and then Fran starts talking and before long a simple one-person project has become another tense scene. Of course I could just quietly nod and let these folks wind up and then down with their lectures, but I insist on carrying on with my own diagrammatic approach, which entails exploring the deck. I’m insecure, impatient, and convinced of the wisdom of my own approach – at least for my own self-education, so there’s friction. If the situation were reversed I think I’d be content to look over the drawer’s shoulder and say “That looks like a good idea – let me know if you’ve any questions.” But few people understand how really hard it is to learn something, and how important it is to let a learner spend time trying to figure out things for themselves.
Of course it doesn’t help that what I usually call the jib is here called the genoa, and that while the genoa’s sheet is attached to the trailing edge of the sail, that of the main sail is attached to the boom! But it appears that my abrasive personality sews impatience among even the most equanimous sailors.
And I really don’t understand Fran’s sailing technique. Her steering is often erratic and she seems content to let the sails flail around in the wind when we’re motoring – is this to give us the right-of-way? I’m certainly no tweaker like Rob, but really poorly set sails are noisy and make me think things are being abused if not damaged. I say set it and forget it until things get noisy; just steer and watch.
I fancy that people can read my mind and actually intuit all the negative things I’m thinking (like the previous comments), but she and I really don’t get along: we’re too much alike – smart, opinionated, mercurial, judgmental, etc. I know at least as much as she about navigation and chart reading, but I feel she resents this in a way that Rob’s solid knowledge doesn’t elicit; the key is temperament: choleric versus sanguine. This is probably one reason I’m not a very good teacher of most people (though the Science Camp kids seemed to enjoy me). One cannot deny her superior experience, which at the moment Rob is soaking up as she jabbers while I’m steering – no wonder Russ wears earbuds most of the time! (As another act of generosity I give him mine as he seems to have worn out his own.) I suppose I’m a bit jealous that Fran and Rob are so gemütlich, but I’m quite content to let them carry on and leave me in peace. I can enjoy his company but find being around her almost always unnerving (and the feeling is no doubt mutual). If I do this kind of thing it will not be in the New England spring and certainly not with her (yeah, some other captain I’ll not get along with!).
Probably the best sailing day so far ends at Hadley Harbor MA, which I study on the chart and appears to be the location of some pretty hairy currents, which is understandable because it’s the channel between Buzzard’s Bay and Vineyard Sound where the currents can be up to ±4 knots, comparable to our speed while maneuvering in close waters. My life is full of mental perils or the occasional pulled muscle, but here we face real dangers: running on the rocks, drowning, falling overboard into hypothermic waters. Part of the reason we undertake these ventures is to be reminded that we live in a world of tangible physical peril that can be even more challenging than emotional discomfort.
While at anchor I wonder if we have a chance to see Mercury so I check online and find that the planet is near its maximum eastern elongation. I wait for the evening twilight to diminish sufficiently and there it is, about where my iPad predicts. I call all aboard up to look, and Rob and Russ join me in the chilly cockpit. Being, like Fran, subject to emotional tides, it’s so reassuring to check the celestial clockwork: dependable and completely uncaring about all human affairs.
There are no other boats in little, peaceful Hadley Harbor, and I’m sorry to leave. One advantage of being in charge would be to be able to linger somewhere beautiful and quiet - and wouldn't it be great to have a kayak aboard! From the perspective of pure loveliness it’s certainly a high point and excellent reason for coastal cruising at one’s leisure (though we’re on a spatio/temporal schedule in that we need to make progress to Camden).
And yet again, Fran and I spar. As we depart she announces “This will be a tricky passage and I don’t want any joking: no silly comments, focus on what you see and following orders.” I must have done something to arouse her ire, as these instructions can be directed at no one but me. Was it my refusal the night before to lustily consume a whole hamburger, or my eating it with chopsticks, or remaining above while others ate below? Or some casual comment made this morning that I quickly forgot but that stuck in her craw. Well, I do prepare to be completely businesslike – after all, I’ve spent many hours on the bridge of a Coast Guard cutter ruled by stern captains! But at some point she decides she wants complete control of my person and orders me to read off the apparent wind speeds as we careen up Buzzard’s Bay motoring bucking over the waves with both sails set. Every two seconds I call out the apparent wind speed, occasionally met with a grunt or a gruff “Yeah” though I cannot figure out how these reports help us in any way: the motor is straining, the sails luffing, and the boat lurches across the seas in an almost chaotic way. Phoenix - dare I say Pequod? - seems an extension of her bizarre, quixotic personality and I’m trapped for an hour in the gears until Rob relieves me and calls out the wind in ranges rather than single readings.
In addition to the insult, the morning is more noisy, smelly lurching motor-sailing, and there just isn’t enough sailing for me: I’d say while underway (10 hours/day) we’ve sailed maybe 20% of the time; this is the cost of trying to travel 1) mostly during the day, 2) to a fixed destination that 3) is usually where the wind is coming from. All the more reason to savor those scarce moments of pure sailing.
On the other hand, Fran clearly enjoys herself, often explaining about the weather or an anchorage or the time we’re making under sail. Her girlish enthusiasm is, while not infectious to me, testimony to her love of sail and her boat. Frankly I don’t see where she gets the energy for this yearly migration: planning and provisioning is a lot of work, and her evident arthritis makes getting about the boat (and into and out of foul-weather gear) painfully laborious. Even I am sometimes weary of the struggle to get comfortable or to negotiate all my items of clothing. It’s certainly convenient to have a boat you know and love at your disposal in Florida and Maine, but it’s a hell of a lot of work to make it happen! Of course she could have a delivery skipper move it back and forth, but what’s the fun in that? She’ll almost certainly have Rob with her again someday soon, but not me.
The weather is cool and wet, and I’m sure I’ve never worn so many clothes. The clothes keep me warm, but– like the girl whose fat makes her look fat – the cold makes me cold: I feel it on my face and through the spaces between the items and in the fact that I’m wearing about ten times more clothes than what I prefer (shorts and a T-shirt).
Meanwhile, Fran can be warm and then cool. I show up for my 0000-0200 watch to find her lying on a bench with the autopilot engaged, which is not the way I'd stand a watch). She is clearly glad to see me and in her Dr Jekyll voice speaks to me softly about conditions. But later that morning Rob is at the wheel and I am zooming/panning to inspect the various navigational aids north of Monhegan Island. I pointed out a red/green buoy that was confusing: I think Fran said it was a mid-channel or hazard marker but I soon figured out that it was a channel junction marker that we’d need to pass to port (keeping it on the left). At this point she muttered about how she didn’t like people “to mess with her charts” although I routinely had asked Rob if he minded if I changed a setting. Then, to get me to shut (the fuck) up she said “Lee, I need you to sit over to port and watch for green buoys – that’s your job for now!” I try to confine all my comments to strictly businesslike observations about the buoys, but I’m seething with anger, and she must know it. How someone can be so petty and domineering simply amazes me, until I realize how stupid I too can act, though I rarely have the power to impose my pettiness on anyone so directly.
Well, we arrive in Camden and I start to unwind. I break out the champagne I picked up at our last port, and we toast a successful passage in which no one has fallen – or been tossed – overboard. We relax drinking in the cockpit and I recite the lines I wrote a few days ago: “Well, Fran, this trip has been rejuvenating. The adventure has been exciting, the exercise has been invigorating, and it’s been years – nay decades – since I’ve felt this much impotent anger!” But I don’t think she hears me, or if she does, lets the remark pass. She and son Russell quickly disappear into a friend’s car with the poor yowling cat stuffed into a carrier that’s not big enough for the poor animal to turn around in, further testimony (to me) of Fran’s often thoughtless (borderline sadistic?) nature. After the Yates leave Rob and I finish our champagne and listen to some of my music as we share observations about the past two weeks. He’s obviously weathered the social tension far better than I, partly because of his temperament and partly because he had an agenda: learn more about offshore cruising and further his reputation as a knowledgeable and companionable crew member.
Meanwhile I mull over my personal complaints about our ‘hosts’ including their casual tossing of trash overboard, even well within a few dozen yards of shore. The chain of command was confusing: Fran would bark an order to Russell but Rob would immediately rush to the task, leaving Russell to skulk below decks at his phone and computer for almost all of the time, probably due to Fran’s infantilizing behavior toward him. Better to be like Rob and be - at least appear to be - oblivious to such emotional shenanigans.
Meanwhile, I did simple generous things like sharing my cigars and booze; providing fudge and baklava and champagne; finding a toy for the cat. I also picked Rob up at the airport – and didn’t get angry for him when he twice had to be roused for his watch. Do these acts make up for being sarcastic and occasionally disagreeable? Probably not, but they do help lubricate social gears.
The high point for me was the heavy seas and ‘fresh breeze’ off Cape May, which was probably not as unusual as I thought at the time, but was quite an adventure. I also enjoyed the brief exploration of the Newport Shipyard, and the warm sun and calm waters at Hadley Harbor MA. Each of Fran’s choices for our stops at anchor or dock were very pleasant interludes.
My wardrobe was adequate but as usual I may have schlepped too many items with me (SW radio, recorder, books, etc.). And aside from a nagging sore shoulder I seem to have weathered the voyage well, got enough sleep, didn’t break any bones or even bruise or wound any flesh.
I certainly would have wanted to sail more than we did, and would have been OK with the trip being maybe 25% longer if this would have been possible (tacking, going more slowly), but perhaps everyone wanted the trip to be over sooner, at least to the extent that they shared my social discomfort. But it’s possible only I really felt this awkwardness, or would be willing to admit it. Maybe many people who feel anger and show it, don’t acknowledge it to others, something I cannot do, and maybe don’t want to do. I certainly could have been more politic in my behavior and held my tongue at some of the nonsense I heard – at least until I’d established a more congenial relationship with my fellow travelers. This I must remind myself of – and not only on a cruise!
Being confined with three other strong personalities in a tiny vessel for two weeks is certainly stressful! I’m not sure how I can guard against this kind of thing happening again; at least I know whom not to sail with again, but how can I find out beforehand who might suit me more? Or maybe the only answer is to revert to my usual seagoing options of being a paying passenger to whom the crew must offer a modicum of respect. I think I’m usually a gracious passenger under these circumstances.
It is pleasant to get off the boat, to be away from the Yates’s, and to on solid ground and by myself. The first night I take in an environmental movie and the next day hike up Mt Battie, which offers a magnificent view of Penobscot Bay, on which I spy a cargo ship and a single yacht. I swagger around town letting bar mates and waitresses know I’ve sailed a 40-foot yacht up from Annapolis and while some folks seem impressed, no one buys me a drink.
We interview my brother-in-law Robert Blackmore and I ask him one of my favorite questions: “If you had your life to live over again, what would you change?” Predictably he waffles, saying “everything was perfect; I wouldn’t change a thing.” I ponder the question and observe that a re-run life featuring any big changes (another wife, more children, a finished degree, even the more careful use of a food processor) would almost certainly have meant a very different life, with all the attendant problems thereof. However, I say “Well, if I could change anything, I certainly should have been more respectful of Captain Fran and not antagonized her from the get-go with my silly sarcasm – she just didn’t get my quirky sense of humor!” One lives and learns, but oh so slowly...
In reading this account I’m struck by all the sheer bitchiness of my interpersonal interactions and the whining of my observations. But this is the stuff I found myself writing about, and though it was intense, it falls away amidst memories of hours of calm sailing, staring at the water, basking in the sun at day’s end.
Weeks later I'm still obsessing about what went wrong on Phoenix. The root of my problems was my taking seriously neither Fran's authority (not necessarily respectful of her, but to be careful of the formal nature of the relationships aboard), nor her (or Rob's) attitudes and opinions. For example, I was aboard Fran's boat, was her guest and part of her crew; she was not someone I'd met at a party and could joke with then leave never to see again; so I did myself a disservice by treating her as an equal. For another example, Russell was convinced that he had some kind of supernatural powers, which I refused to recognize; and I should have (at least at first) to hid my skepticism. It's not only nice to be nice, but self-protective; my provocative sarcasm is more a reflection of my own nervousness and self-centeredness than a need to demonstrate an alternative to what I feel is pervasive silliness.