Sunday, October 22, 2017

Odd Days

When you first think about going cruising, your focus is intense.  You have a goal, a plan, and a list of things to make it all happen. If you're fortunate, like us, you're rewarded with a couple years of intensely beautiful experiences - sunsets, new friends, dolphins, manatees, and an occasional moonlit passage.

After a few years, you might find yourself stuck on a dock working to replenish the cruising kitty like we are, and things are suddenly different. You're not cruising, but you're not really landlubbers either. You're stuck in this odd, fuzzy time of endlessly hot days, feeling a bit like the floating experience when coming out of general anesthesia - one foot in each world but not fully in either one.

The past six months on the dock have been odd days like this - floating - but not focused. Days meander by, but no thought is given to where we go next. No boat projects are being done because the need to have them completed is just too far away to think about.

The last week or so, though, the weather has made a decided shift toward Fall. For the first time in months we dipped below the 90° mark for a high. The breezes have picked up, announcing the approaching cold fronts. Something smells different in the air, a hint of dry leaves (although there aren't many trees that shed them here), and an occasional sniff of a wood fire somewhere takes me back to my days in Pennsylvania where the first fire in the fireplace signaled the change of seasons. It was just enough to break me out of the fog and start me thinking about what needed to be done to Kintala before we could leave the dock.

As I sat at the nav station working on a list, I could no longer ignore the weather station that resides just under the switch panel that has been inop since Spring. A new set of batteries, a spray of contact cleaner and a few wipes with emery cloth, and the weather station sprang to life once again. It took about 30 minutes, including the removal and reinstallation, a piece of our normal cruising life reinstated. While it might seem like a ridiculously small thing, that one little thing did much to lift my mood and put a smile on my face.

If you find yourself having to stop cruising for a while to replenish the cruising kitty (and most cruisers do at some point unless they are independently wealthy), there are a few things that I've learned these past two summers and I thought I'd pass them along.

  • Nurture your dream while you're dock bound. Remember why you wanted to go cruising in the first place and find fellow cruisers to spend time with who can encourage you.
  • Enjoy the little things. For me this past summer, it's been time spent getting to know three of our nine grandchildren. In the past few years we've only visited occasionally and there is no substitute for the day-in, day-out contact we've experienced the last few months.
  • Find something to be thankful for every day. Your health, your friends, your supportive spouse, your home.
  • Take care of yourself. Walk, ride a bike, eat well, read a good book.
  • Connect with old friends and distant family members.
  • Get lots of sleep.
Although I'm working part time now at a sail loft in town, I'm finding a few hours here and there to start on our project list which is mercifully short this year. All of our exterior teak needs refinished, our wind instrument needs repaired or replaced, our head plumbing needs the addition of a system to empty the holding tank at sea, and an errant leak needs chased down that dared to mar my new headliner from last summer's project list. These projects will be tackled while we await grandchild #10, due in mid-December, after which we'll start creating the possible routes to wherever we end up going this cruising season, a lot of which will be dependent on the condition of marinas along the way.

For now, here's a hodge podge of photos from the last few weeks, glimpses of sunlight through the fog.

A sail I'm restitching at my part time job with Sunrise Sails Plus. It's off a 65 foot ketch rig.


There's always time to climb a tree around here.

He was pretty happy with this coconut which he rescued from the water just outside the marina.
















About half of the toe rail is now sanded. Next boat has metal toe rails...


The Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife have been raising these sunken boats to be hauled out and trucked away in a combined effort to clean up the local waterways. Some of them have been sunken for years, others fell prey to Irma

This was somebody's awesome power boat at some point



Cockpit time

One of the real joys of living on a boat, at least for me, is time spent sitting in the cockpit. The best cockpit time is evening and night while riding to the hook in a quiet anchorage. Mornings are good too, though I am not normally much of a morning person. The boat moves gently, pitching and rolling easy, swinging slow to light winds and changing currents. With a bit of luck dolphins or manatees will wander near while pelicans wheel by in close formation, wingtips just off the surface. If the water is clear enough to see the bottom, one has the feeling of floating above the earth and resting off the shore at the same time. After a few minutes the boat itself gets absorbed into and becomes part of the scene, then the cockpit, then its occupant. My guess is that land dwellers spend a lot of money on pharmaceuticals and counseling, or a lot of time sitting in bars or cathedrals, or all of the above, seeking just a hint of what one can find sitting in a cockpit of a sailboat, resting easily in the world.

In these parts though, there hasn’t been much cockpit time the last few months.

Except for the occasional passing hurricane / tropical storm / tornado, this summer has passed as still, hot, and humid. There was a day or two where it was just barely comfortable enough to sit in the cockpit at the end of the work day and down a cold beer. But even on those days a cool shower called and, soon enough, the insects would go looking for their evening meal. Florida can be a tough place to live in the summer when one is living this close to nature and filling the cruising kitty by working outside. Except for the time spent riding out Irma on the hard, Kintala has spent the last many months hemmed in, surrounded by pilings, with a boat tied close to her starboard side and a dull gray metal shed inches from her port side. There isn’t much to see, looking out of her ports.

This morning dawned just a bit cooler, with a breeze blowing hard enough to keep the insects grounded. Our neighbor to starboard left for a sail down to Key West, where they plan to spend a couple of days. No one has moved the shed, but it does help block the afternoon sun. If I hold my head just right, looking aft and slightly to starboard, the binnacle blocks the view of the nearest piling, it is a good several hundred feet across the basin, and the occasional pelican soars past. The local family of manatees poke their noses out of the water, blow and snort, and drift back down to the bottom to do whatever it is that manatees do to pass the time. There is no seeing the bottom and the boat moves gently right up until one of the mooring lines checks her up but, hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Though future plans are still vague, next week we will be heading out for a couple of weeks of visiting in St. Louis. The hope is that, once we return, the Florida summer will have broken enough that the air conditioning can be removed from our deck. It will be November after all. Friends north are already talking about freezing temperatures at night and daytime highs in the 50s. With the last of the hurricane season fading away (hopefully), we can bend on the sails as well. Kintala will be a sailboat once again, and Tampa Bay is just a around the corner. There is no reason we can’t spend a few weekends out there. Maybe more than a few, depending on how long we end up staying on this side of the state.

Find a little quality cockpit time.

And rest a little easier in the world.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Imps

I have an Imp in my life. She is the right size, though the bleached blonde hair and dancing blue eyes, instead of bat wings and tiny horns, tend to mask her Impish nature. However, when it comes to mischief and the determination to being the center of attention, no Imp is her better. Which makes perfect sense. Why shouldn’t a near endless flurry of pure joy, boundless curiosity, and fearless adventurism be the center of attention? A touch of the mischief just comes with the territory.

A couple of weeks ago, a small lump appeared in the middle of my Imp’s little tummy. It was coy, sometimes noticeable and sometimes not. Every adult in her life immediately moved right up to the edge of panic and hovered there. Her Doctor insisted there was no real reason to worry. Our Imp was eating and sleeping well, never complaining of feeling bad, or showing any sign of being in pain. Still, he couldn’t say what the lump was was, only what is wasn’t. And what it wasn’t was a (rather common place) hernia. He scheduled an ultrasound for several days later, allowing that it could be canceled depending on what he learned from further research and conferring with other doctors.

Ultrasounds are moderately expensive tests on toddlers, and the Imp is among the many in our country whose family can only afford health insurance that comes with a crippling high deductible. Which puts one in a weird state of mind, hoping that any looming medical bills remain as “out of pocket” expenses. Such could easily drive us into a financial hole so deep that climbing out would take several years, as happened with a cancer scare a few years ago. (One of the contributing factors to us being in Bradenton these last two summers.) But chewing through the deductible to actually get insurance support would mean entering that place from where the panic wells. Perhaps the Doctor would come up with something, and the ultrasound could be canceled.

The several days passed and the Doctor could not find any explanation for the lump that would negate the need for an ultrasound. So the Imp, accompanied by Mom, headed off to the hospital. Apparently ultrasounds are common procedures for those who ended up having reason to fear the worst. My little Imp was the healthiest one in the room. It was a thought that brought a deep ache to the heart and allowed the panic to edge in a bit closer. Why should fate smile upon those I love when so many, so deeply loved by others, dwell in the valley of the Shadow?

At the end of the test, the technician was nothing but encouraging. According to him, had the test shown anything of real concern, the radiologist overseeing the procedure would have admitted the Imp to the hospital forthwith. That she was sent home to await the diagnosis was a a positive omen. But, once again, though they got a bunch of “good” pictures no one would say for sure what this thing was, or even what it wasn’t. The panic edged away a bit, but it didn’t disappear.

Two days later came word, and the panic died. The Imp has a hernia after all, it just isn’t a very common one. Surprisingly, while spreading the good news to family, we found out my Sister was born with the exact same kind of hernia and has had it all of her life. Surgery was never required nor has the condition done her any harm. Good news made even better, but it seems there is still some room for debate. Word has it general anesthesia and invasive surgery have already been broached by the professionals.

When one climbs aboard an airplane the professionalism of those flying is assumed. There is good reason for the assumption since the crew, as the saying goes “will be the first ones in the hole.” They have skin in the game, and those in the back of the plane ride along on the crews determination to end the day in one piece. But it is difficult to make that assumption of the medical profession in the US.

Our medical industry is a profit center, not a health center. It would be far more lucrative for that industry if the Imp undergoes surgery rather than just going about her life. A stay in the hospital, specialists and drugs, doctors and nurses…what do you guess - $10,000 - $20,000? And the thing is, if something goes terribly wrong, no one in the operating room “will be the first one in the hole”. In fact, they will get paid anyway. Will they “feel bad?" Sure. They are human beings after all. But they have likely “felt bad” before, and will “feel bad” again. In the mean time they have student loans to pay off, mortgages to meet, and dinner to put on the table. American’s ratio of health care returned for dollars spent is the worst in the first world. Ours is also the only one based on making a profit rather than making people well. Are the two connected? Many insist not. Indeed, some insist that "market forces" will make for the best health care. I suspect (if you will forgive the pun) they are whistling past the grave yard.

It would be nice to think that we, as a people, have earned better than that. Maybe, much like a chain can be no stronger than its weakest link, a nation can’t rise above the level of its average collective wisdom. It is starting to look like this is the best we can do, the wisest we will ever be. This generation of America is never going to fix its health care system. We have reached the limit of our collective wisdom.

My hope is that such is a generational thing. There is a whole new generation of Imps out there. One of them owns a big part of my heart. She is fine. And my belief is she, and they, are going to be much wiser than we.

Assuming we let them live that long.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Magic dust

Sometimes boats and tools feels a bit like Santa and the Magic Dust. First some tools for the project are carried onto the boat. Then a few more tools get carried onto the boat, then a few more tools… (and if you get that reference you are giving away your age.) A spark chaser’s tool bag has strippers, crimpers, and cutters, with a couple of screw drivers and nut drivers. (Listed that way, it sounds a lot more interesting than it really is.) Other things in the bag, slip joint pliers, vice grips, measuring stick (rule to the lay person) and some other odds and ends get toted along but not often used.

A magic dust of a morning at Snead Island Boat Works

Then the job gets going and, what’s this - a hot wire wrapped a time or two around a fuel line? What fool did that?  Though one must admit, finding a wiring harness zip tied to fuel lines is pretty standard fare. So it's back to the golf cart for a flare nut wrench, maybe two; it being easier to undo the fuel line than splitting open a slimy harness (slime being what is left of electrical tape after a few decades deep in the damp parts of a boat). Later some holes need poked and some screws need set, so the boat gets a little more in the tool department, sniffing up drills, bits, and countersinks. Eventually, of course, the wiring harness needs split open anyway, so the valve cover bolts holding the clamps that hold the harness have to come out. This takes a ratchet, a short extension, and a socket. Hard to tell which socket though, since my calibrated eyeballs aren’t as accurate as they used to be, particularly in the dim recesses of an engine box. The bolts look to have 7/16 heads, so grab the 3/8 and 1/2 inch sockets as well and tote them to the boat. Later, the bracket holding some electrical gizmos that make timed sparks for the spark plugs needs to come off. It has bigger bolts. Maybe 9/16. The 1/2 is already laying around somewhere, but better grab the 5/8 as well. Oh, and a longer extension might save a bruised knuckle.

This goes on for a couple of days, tools rarely making it back off the boat since whatever was needed to get something off will clearly be needed to put it back on. Come the time when the job is finished or the powers-that-be need efforts focused on some other project, it will be amazing just how much magic dust the boat needed to sniff up to get all the goodies working as they should. Usually, right about this time, my old life making a living in airplane hangers launches a bit of paranoia my way. If there is one thing that chills the bones of an aircraft tech, it is the thought of some accident investigator pulling one of his or her tools out of the smoking wreckage of an airplane that just left the hanger. It is the main reason aircraft hangars are filled with orderly, carefully maintained rolling tool boxes filled with racks and slots.

Boat yards don’t have any such things. A wooden box on the back of the golf cart is considered rather plush. Mine has attracted comments because it has a couple of racks for sockets. Wrench sets are sequestered in custom made holders. Zippered bags hold punches, chisels and picks. It isn’t as professional as my old Snap-On roll-around, a style known as the “Taco Stand". Still, when it comes time to move on, making sure everything that got toted up on the boat is toted off is easier than just hoping that the pile of tools on the cart looks tall enough.

Truth to tell though, I’m not really sure it matters that much, except for the cost of replacing tools. In a boat, all kinds of things are left lying around in all kinds of scary places. Engine compartments are stuffed with loose jugs of oil and coolant, spare parts and loose junk stashed on pretty much any flat surface. Want to look at the batteries or generator? Move stuff out of the way first. When the flat surfaces are full up, plastic milk cartons, open-topped and unsecured, are a popular option for additional storage. I have found deck chairs lying on top of engines and boxes of parts sliding around on top of fuel tanks. And batteries…apparently battery boxes have some kind of attracting power for pressurized cans of things that can go “boom” in the dark.

Cockpit lockers are often even more scary. Life jackets, coils of line, boat hooks, and fishing nets get jammed into the same holes that provide access to rudder posts, steering cables, and autopilot rams. How it is that things keep working while being tossed around in a rambunctious sea is beyond me, but a forgotten wrench or screw drivers isn’t much of an additional threat.

Then again, maybe a touch of the magic dust helps?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Still in one piece

Image from NASA.gov
So, for what is apparently no reason whatsoever, the baddest hurricane in Atlantic recorded history rampaged its way past Tampa without leaving so much as a scratch on my family. When we hurried back from PA last week to help prep boats and get the kids out of harm’s way, the prospects for such an outcome seemed slim. For a while, sitting in the hotel room in Atlanta and watching Irma track further and further to the west, there seemed little chance that we could come away unscathed. In the last few hours before reaching the Tampa area the storm wobbled north instead of north by north west. That sixty miles, in a storm that measured hundreds of miles across, was the difference between us spending the rest of this week getting things back to normal, and spending it trying to figure out how to rebuild our lives. A strange week, provoking some odd thoughts.



I have, after more than 5 decades of miscellaneous adventuring doing this or that, had my fair share of close calls. This one was different. My normal brushes with disaster normally have nothing to do with losing stuff and everything to do with me not being around to enjoy the stuff any longer. They also tended to last just minutes, sometimes seconds; not days. The profound sense of relief after this close call is balanced with being a bit embarrassed at being so relieved. It was, after all, only stuff that was at risk.

We ran north in a compact rental car filled mostly with clothes, electronics, and a few odds and ends. Next time I think I’ll take some tools along…just in case. Had things gone the other way it would be difficult to replenish the cruising kitty and get our feet back under us based on just my good looks and sunny disposition. A few screw drivers, a handful of wrenches, and a hammer or two wouldn’t take up much room. They could also have ended up being the most useful things still in my possession.

We may be hanging around the Tampa Bay area longer than we thought. Key West, Marathon, Biscayne Bay, and the Dinner Key marina took a real beating. There are stories of sunken and lost boats with navigation markers missing in pretty much all the water that surrounds Florida. We often think of Biscayne Bay as our “US home”, and Dinner Key is one of our favorite places. But those are all places that will be a long time recovering, and really don’t need us in the way until they do. So it may be a while before leaving the Tampa area via a small sail boat makes a lot of sense. And it may be a while before leaving a job fixing boats in the Florida area makes a lot of sense either.

A photo by Douglas Hanks as seen in a miamiherald.com article

I am not a fan of Florida’s Governor Rick Scott who, among his other policy failures, walks in lock step with the science-rejecting Republican party. Yet he relied on that very same science to track the hurricane’s progress, to anticipate storm surges and flooding potentials, and to estimate potential wind damage. He issued evacuation orders base on what the scientists were telling him without hesitation, and likely saved many lives in the process. He was relentless in his warnings about the dangers of this storm and was tireless in addressing issues like fuel shortages in order to get people the resources they needed to flee. He must have been instrumental in getting the hundreds upon hundreds of utility company trucks and crews flowing into the sate to restore power and repair infrastructure. It is too early to tell how he will fair now that the storm has passed and the long, and expensive, clean-up commences. But there is reason to hope he will look past his ideology and see the needs of people instead. A rare and wonderful thing for any American politician to do these days, Republican or Democrat.

Survivor’s guilt is a real thing. We know so many people whose boats were lost, who are still in shock just trying to grasp the enormity of the blow they have taken. Good people, the kind you hope your kids and grand kids grow up to be. Seasoned too, many of them; well aware of the challenges of living this close to nature, not easily caught off-guard and unprepared. But no one can stand up to a storm like this one. Luck, good and bad, makes the call. And yet, somehow, that isn’t enough to explain why some lives have been irrevocably split between "before Irma" and "after" while, for others, Irma will fade quickly from everyday thoughts.

The spike in fuel costs from Harvey and the fuel shortages in Florida in the face of an impending Irma have me rethinking the thought of buying a trawler. No gas, no go, no matter what. I know they shouldn’t…but they do.

The paint booth we fixed after the Monday morning tropical storm of a few weeks ago wasn’t up to this challenge. It caved in, part of it landing on the stern rail of a boat strapped down near by. That appears to be the only damage done. Maybe we should have left that rope tied to the tree?

We spent nearly 70 hours driving since leaving for PA, 70 hours in 12 days. I don’t like driving that much any more. If I ever do buy another car, it will certainly not be a Chevy Sonic. What a horrible little thing. I’m glad it belongs to Enterprise and not to me.

Weather in Pittsburgh was in the mid to upper 60s, low 70s during the day. Weather in Atlanta was upper 60s to low 70s. Here in Florida the forecast is for upper-upper 80s, some 90s…all the way to the end of the forecast period. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, (it turns out the boat parked next to us took a lightning hit which wiped out all of its - very expensive - electronics) floods, heat. The weather in Florida is getting old.

Backing Kintala out of the haul out pit to put her back in her slip reminded me that she still doesn’t reverse worth a damn.

But I am sure glad she is still in one piece.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Pain Killer and Caffeine Crisis

We loaded up the compact rental car and left last Friday after work, taking advantage of the holiday weekend to visit family in PA. It was supposed to be a week-long visit with us arriving back at the boat on Sunday a week. By Tuesday morning it was clear that we needed to be back in Florida as quickly as possible. It was a 15 hour run back to Kintala, with an arrival of around 0200 Wednesday morning. Pain killers kept the rental car kinks at bay, and caffeine made it possible to keep on going.

Image courtesy of NOAA/CIRA

While we were on the road Daughter Eldest and family had prepped and packed. Deb and I boarded Kintala as quietly as we could so as not to wake sleeping grand kids (3) and an exhausted Mom and Dad. A few hours later dawn arrived. We helped them load the last stuff in the van, shared teary hugs all around, and sent them northward. We didn’t know then, and we don’t know yet, if there will be anything left of the life we had made together this summer at Snead Island.

One of a long long line of red lights averaging 35mph
With the kids on the move out of harm’s way I joined the crew working to get boats hauled, blocked, strapped down and stripped while Deb started getting Kintala ready to be pulled from the water. The initial plan was for me to work the day, spend a last night on the boat, haul it Thursday morning, and head out to catch up with Daughter Eldest at the hotel in Atlanta that we had booked before leaving PA. But she called a few hours later with news of traffic already slowing to a crawl, and suggested we get while the getting was good. Boss-not-so-new understood, encouraging me to punch out to help Deb and, a few hours later, moving Kintala to the head of the line for getting hauled. We stripped off canvas and solar panels, lines were secured, the anchor got dropped and tied to a nearby post, hurricane straps were ready to tie her to stakes driven deep into the ground, and all ports, hatches and holes were taped shut. By 1900 there was nothing left to do but give her hull a last pat, wish her good luck, and get on the road ourselves. That last 36 hours had seen just 4 hours of sleep, and there were miles and miles yet to go.

Traffic traffic everywhere and this was 2 days early
Pain killers and caffeine.

Daughter Eldest and family couldn’t make it to Atlanta. They bailed in Valdosta to a hotel they had booked from the car. As it turned out we couldn’t make it to Atlanta either, and so crashed at their hotel room around 0100 Thursday. After a few hours of sleep Deb and I headed for Atlanta while Daughter Eldest and family spent one more day in Valdosta. Rt. 75 was an on-and-off parking lot with a couple of wrecks strewn here and there just for ambiance. The day ended earlier than the last few, but sleep came hard. Not enough pain killer, too much caffeine.

This morning we moved to a second hotel, the one we had originally made the 5 day reservations at when we thought we were leaving Florida a day later. Plans change when one is a refugee. And there are tens of thousands of us at the moment. Though the original thought was that we could leave here to return to Florida, that may not be possible. At the moment all predictions are pretty grim. Sunday or Monday we will find out if there is anything to return to and, if so, when returning would make sense. One tries not to hope too much, but giving up hope is hard as well. The future is, right now, up to the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

And it doesn’t care.

In spite of it all we have been extraordinarily fortunate. We were working at a boat yard when this thing blew up, and our boat has as good a chance of surviving as any. We are refugees. But we run in an air-conditioned car with music and internet access. When it rains we are dry. There are funds in the bank for gas, food, and hotel rooms. Should the worst happen, we have a support network of friends and family who will help as we work to rebuild what has been lost. There are many, many people not nearly as fortunate as we, and our hearts go out to those who have taken a much harder hit.

Everything stripped and taped over

We are just one family of the thousands and thousands who have fled but, for others, running to safety really wasn’t an option. Cruisers are, at heart, wanderers. Moving because of weather is part and parcel of how we live, as is just picking up and heading off  because we feel like it. But we don’t live like most. Picking up and leaving is not a part of most people’s hearts, even in the face of Category 4 hurricane. So we have friends and co-workers who are in the strike zone. They will board up, hunker down, and hope for the best. I hope their luck holds, but I fear they are in for a ride they may boast about later, but never voluntarily take again.

In any case I suspect there are more pain killers and caffeine to go before this is all over.