Thursday, January 25, 2007

Riding the Waves

A yell sounded from the cockpit that sounded like a cross between a battle charge and the yee-haw of a southwest cowboy 20 seconds into the ride of his life. Dean was at the helm as we rounded Admirality Inlet. Port Townsend was off the starboard bow, the weather was lovely, the evening air bright and snappy, and a nice 12-knot had pushed us rapidly across the straights from the San Juan Islands. Our day had started with otters playing on the transom, improved when we sailed quietly through a herd of sea lions, and absolutely shined as we crossed over waters well known for their cranky roughness and cantankerous weather-tide-wind combination.

Now we were entering one of the nastiest tidal rips in the Pacific Northwest – a place renown for its tidal vagaries. We had timed our arrival very carefully. Anyone who spends any time whatsoever in PNW waters knows better than to ignore the tide and current tables. The horrible happens to all of us at least once. You’ll gauge the tidal swing wrong and ground the boat off Blake Island in the middle of the night. You’ll attempt to go through Deception Pass a half hour too late and then have to sit just east of the pass for five hours until the next slack. But you do it only once, and we had already benefited from just that sort of lesson.

So here we were heading inbound on the flood and Dr C was whooping it up on the helm because he’d managed to steer us right into the current. We were like a raft running the rapids on a Force 4 river. The boat bucked and bounced and the chortle of the ripples all around us nearly drowned out my delighted husband who kept crowing at the GPS. Speed over ground had leapt from a dawdling five knots to thirteen.

I mused as the point went by, “I guess we’re not going to swing into Port Townsend for beers tonight?”

Dr C looked at me as if I had completely lost my mind. His point was well taken. With this much current, we could shoot down to Port Ludlow before night fall, making our last day to home slip that much easier and relaxing. There was also a good chance we’d have friends there.

And frankly, at this point, there wasn’t much chance we could actually get to Port Townsend even if our very lives depended on it. Keep that in mind, fellow sailors. You cannot run against the tide around Marrowstone Point. Even if your motor is strong and your family is willing to buck the waves, the current will drive you backward and the rips will spin your boat around like a top. There are seasoned ferry captains who routinely delay ferry crossings to avoid this nasty current. Running with it, however, is another story and the ride of your life if you can just keep the boat pointed in the right direction.

He looked so happy up there. I handed up a cup of soup and a handful of Trisquits and let him and the boat have their head. For twenty years we’ve ridden waves, currents, and tides. We haven’t always gone at the right time or in the right direction. Sometimes we’ve spun like a top until one or the other found a rudder, stuck it out, and brought us back to a stable course. It’s only in the last year that I can watch this drama play out so graphically on the water. We’ve swept along together for so many years, it is simply habit to put my trust in my man as the current drags us home.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

There is No Door Knob Cover for a Boat

A common reaction of parents on learning that my husband and I live on a boat with our three kids is a look of unabashed horror. “Is that safe?” My instinct is to scoff, “Of course not, you moron.” What idiot would think you could child-proof a boat? Clearly you face insurmountable obstacles. For example, the boat is surrounded by a many–bazillion-gallon swimming pool for which there is no cover. And even if you could find a cover large enough, you'd get in a lot of trouble if you carefully locked it down with a padlock when not in use.

A boat is full of sharp corners, accessible electrical connections, and poisonous liquids. It combines all the dangers of gallons of flammable fluids and megawatt deep cycle batteries with combustion engines, open flames, and cupboards that absolutely cannot be locked. Boats are no place for the faint of heart, children under the age of 60, or small pets. There is no question that any Child Protective Service agent worth her weight in salt would declare your boat hopelessly unsafe for children.

The good news is that there are no CPS agents on the open seas. You can simply float away and snicker, because the solution to child-proofing your boat is actually boat-proofing your child. You see, it is my opinion that a boat is in a lot more danger from your children than your children are from the boat. Boats are expensive, finicky, high performance machines on which every single object costs five times more than a reasonable person would expect.

Your boat is afraid of your children, and your pocketbook is afraid of your boat's frequent encounters with their creativity. Having said that, I do have a few practical tips to achieve a mutually assured destruction detentes between your children and your boat.

Throw Them Overboard – It's not a matter of if your child falls overboard, but when. All children who spend any time living on a boat fall overboard. Sometimes they do this on purpose. Sometimes it just happens. We know a child who fell overboard twice in one day. You might think this happens only to very young children. He was seven. Some children just can't grasp the basic concept that a boat moves, and it is not possible to travel in a straight line for any serious length of time without running out of boat.

It turns out that children fall off of docks, too. Maybe it's just easier to assume that children fall. Out of trees, off ramps, over the end of the pier, through hatches, down shore side cliffs, out of the rigging, and over the side of the dinghy. Gravity is stronger for children.

The solution is to teach them how to land. This is similar to the drop techniques taught special force troops in boot camp. If you know how to fall and spring back up again, falling becomes a strategy, rather than a mistake. We routinely throw our children off the side of the boat. When they go swimming, we encourage them to jump off the bow, slide down the transom, and slip off the side. It's a long way down from the deck of our catamaran. In a pinch, you don't want to be surprised by how long it takes you to hit the water.

Try to Drown Them – A corollary to throwing them off the boat is to make sure they can swim. Now most reasonable writers attempting to get published in the sailing trades will talk about life jackets. Whenever we visit with our Seattle Yacht Club friends, we spend a lot of time getting the kids in and out of life jackets to simply enable them to walk from the slip to the shore head.

But realistically, life jackets are horribly uncomfortable. They are worse for children, I think, because you can't buy them in the conveniently thin, self-inflatable tubes available for adults. Instead, you encase your children in a yellow and red straight jackets complete with hoodie. This makes them drift around the dock looking like brightly colored beach balls. As a result, you can scream, preach, bitch and yell all you want, but some day your child is going to slip outside the cockpit without her jacket. Like a cold war spy, she'll wait until you are distracted -- changing oil in the engine room or buried elbow deep in the head fixing the crapper -- and then she'll pop out on to the deck “for just a minute.”

Combine lesson one above (gravity is stronger for children) with Murphy's Law (anything that can go wrong, will...) and add MacGillicuddy's Corollary ( the most inopportune time), and it is inevitable that your darling baby will end up in the drink. Without a life jacket. By herself.

Your best bet in this situation is a child who assumes that you as a parent are a strong proponent of Darwin. It helps, by the way, if you have an heir, a spare, and a total extra as we do because it becomes clear that any single child really isn't necessary for the continuance of the species. What you want to go through your child's head at the moment of hitting the water is not, “Oh my god I'm drowning Help help help!!!” No no. You want that child to be thinking, “Oh shit. Mom's going to kill me if she finds out. I better get the hell back on that boat and get dried off before anyone sees me.”

Lest you think I'm cruel, remember that it's not likely you will even know your child is in the water. They don't slip out without their life jackets when you are watching them from the helm. They do this only when they know you are preoccupied. So it's best if they know precisely how to fend for themselves.

Some guidelines for children and swimming:

  • Your children can swim without touching bottom -- preferably with clothes on and for as a long as possible. By ten years of age, test them for a half hour with shorts and t-shirt on, no life jacket. Remember, if darling is somehow magically ejected from the boat without a life jacket while youre underway, it's going to take you time to get back to him. If you don't have the patience or talent to teach your children yourself, enroll in classes at your local YMCA. Those folks are brilliant, and they never give up.
  • Your children must be able to swim all the way around the boat. Don't assume a child will fall off conveniently near the swim ladder. No, if they are going to fall like Real Children, they will do so as far from easy egress from the water as possible.
  • Whenever possible, drop your swim ladder. Keep it in the water at anchor and in the marina. Then put a very large sign next to the ignition switch that reads, “Raise the swim ladder!”
  • Consider investing in marine dog ramps. If you haven't already visited PupGear at, now is the time. Let's be honest. The difference between children and dogs is a subtle one.

Give a Whistle – Okay, this goes against most of my parenting instincts, but I'm going to recommend that you make your children noisier. Horrifying thought though it might be, I recommend giving your children a dinghy whistle on a lanyard to wear on their wrists at all times. Let them pick out the color and even make or purchase the bracelet it goes on. When in doubt, they can always blow on this thing. Then read “The Little Boy that Cried Wolf” every night until they know the story by heart, including the author, copyright date and margin notes.

Then just pray to your own special entity.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Know It's There

I know there is another box of red wine on this boat, but I can't find it. I know because we had a boat party and everyone, knowing our predilection for Chateau Le Box, brought us a vintage in a rather lame but much appreciated attempt to be funny. This was amusing with the first box, delightful with the second, but by the fourth box of Cabernet I was beginning to think the whole thing was getting out of hand. For one thing, I had clients who planned to swing by the boat during the Open Boat Party (similar to an Open House Party without the plants), and it just wouldn't do for them to see a lineup of wine boxes at the back of the salon like soldiers on parade.

So I stashed them. I slid them into a cubby. A stowage area. A cupboard under the seat. And while I have frequently bragged about the delightful fact that our Lagoon catamaran can play host to a game of hide-and-seek during which the children can actually lose one another, not finding a glass of wine when one needs it is skating perilously close to disaster.

Yet it is true that one of the single biggest advantages to catamaran living is also its bĂȘte noire. A catamaran offers two to two-point-five times the living space of a comparable length monohull. This makes a catamaran the ideal cruising platform for a family. I recognize and admire the many couples sharing their 40-foot seaworthy cruisers, using one cabin for sleeping and another for guests. But when you travel with your own army, you must find places to put the foot soldiers. A second hull is an outstanding place to stash the children. On our boat, there is Our Hull and Their Hull. This breeds a form of harmony in our family unit that is hard to overstate.

Yet the problem with all that lovely space is that catamarans are notoriously inefficient when overloaded. For every 1,000 pounds you add to your catamaran in the way of water, food, offspring and assorted beach equipment, your boat drops into the water another inch. If speed is safety, weight on a catamaran is risk and waste.

The temptation to stow all that and a bag of chips, however, is amazing. Everywhere you look, the boat offers up a new and more enticing opportunity to take it with you. In our boat, we have all that lovely space under the bunks, seats and floor boards. Not to mention the cabinets, the custom shelves Dr C installed, and all the spacious room in the lazarettes. But the place we really start to get lost, both figuratively and literally, is in the bow lockers. The starboard locker is seven feet deep, about eight feet long and split level. I could hide a dead body in there for a month and no one would notice... though I'll grant you that in part this is because we still use the holding tank. One dead smell is a lot like another.

I remember the first few weeks of my trans-America bike tour vividly. We carried all our own gear so the bikes were quite heavy. By the time we got to our first post office five days into the trip, I was ready to concede that most of what I carried was completely unnecessary for my survival. In fact, the opposite was quite literally the case. If I was going to make it across country, I needed to shed 15 to 20 pounds which I promptly mailed to my husband-to-be. Two months later, a five-pound pack of trail mix arrived from my mother. In a hurry, I dropped it into a forward pannier. I found it three weeks later. Whoops! By that time, you could have bounced quarters on my calves and I really didn't care what was on the bike.

The boat is like that. You can drop something into a locker, and it'll disappear. It is only when you are faced with a truly significant obstacle – for example, dinner without a glass of vino – that you start to prowl around and discover all the things that you have tossed into lockers over the months and you can’t remember when or why.

Tonight's exploration has thus far yielded the following: 40 feet of net which I feel someday would appropriately be hung from the life lines to prevent our children from going overboard; a spare parts kit for the head; a new Whale Gusher foot pump I plan to someday install in the galley; eight pencils, including their little nubby-end erasers; and a partridge in a pear tree. And while I have yet to find the wine, I did find the spare bottle of rum and a bunch of tired but still serviceable limes. Good things come to she who searches.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns

The word to describe a marina on a sunny day is “blinding.” The water is blinding. The sky is blinding. The boats are blinding. Everything is bright and shiny. In fact, boat owners refer to the trim on their boats which facilitate this property of blinding as “brightwork.” Brightwork is defined as any piece of wood trim or polished metal on a vessel.

Brightwork sucks for the very simple reason that bright is work. If you want to make it bright, you have to polish it. Or you have to sand and varnish it. In either case, every little turnbuckle, fiddle, or chrome plated navigational aide that makes your boat a showroom stunner increases your aesthetic maintenance time by a factor of one hour per square inch per month.

Nobody wants to talk about this when you are buying the boat. In fact, the opposite is true. The broker walks you around discussing the stunning teak deck, the shining handrails, the gleaming toe rails, wooden helm panel, and beautifully chromed dodger. Brightwork makes the boat feel richer, more powerful, more sleek... as if the polish and varnish and gleam will slide you more swiftly through the water. The boat speaks to you with its simple elegance and old world touches. And behind this beautiful candidate boat is an army of teenagers, most likely children of the owner or broker, who are paying off their first car by enslaving themselves to sand paper and brushes every weekend and all summer until the boat sells. After which, they'll be handed WD40, sandpaper, and chrome polish to start work on the next boat.

Maintaining brightwork is a Sisyphean effort comparable to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. A labor of love that starts every spring, proceeds all summer and isn't done until fall. You'll have two weeks of gorgeous Indian summer weather during which you attempt to invite every human being you know to visit the boat for cocktails or whatever. It's a brief window of singular beauty as your boat slices through the autumn chill, gleaming in the afternoon light like the sun kissed waves themselves.

Then the winter weather sets in. You winterize the boat and walk away, proud of a season well spent in improving the beauty and appeal of your floating investment. Six months later you uncover the boat to discover that all the varnish is peeled, all the chrome is pitted, and the fine teak decks are faded to a dull, dreary gray. Rather than spend the summer realizing those winter dreams of sailing around on a high performance work of art, you instead start planning, purchasing, and scheduling the annual maintenance ritual.

Or you don't.

An alternative is to buy a boat with no brightwork. We did. There are precisely three pieces of wood on the outside of our boat -- two toe rails and a very small teak fiddle on the helm. There is no getting around the cleaning, polishing, and sealing required of your exposed metal, but even there you can take the philosophy that “less is more.” We ignore our wood. It turns out that if you simply ignore it long enough, all the varnish peels off, the entire thing dulls to an even gray, and then there is no bright to work.

The fly in the ointment of this otherwise (un)brilliant solution to brightwork is that our boat is white. By not purchasing a boat with teak decks, we instead took possession of a white boat. A friend once told me that we have a French – production – plastic -- catamaran. It was my distinct impression that as a long term, old-school monohull sailor, he found it difficult to prioritize which of those four words was the most offensive. For the purpose of today's subject, let's take a look just at the plastic part. The white plastic part. Or actually, the entire white plastic boat.

White gleams and glows in the dark. It also looks great on the dock when you see boat after boat lined up. The truly blinding part of a marina is the glare off the hundreds of white hulls. I tried to search Google for the answer to the question: Why are boat hulls white? And came up with nothing. Nadda. There must be a reason. I'm sure it has something to do with making the fiberglass last longer. Also, I really can't imagine how hot the deck would get if it were a lovely chocolate brown or navy blue.

In any case, white is the most goddamn unforgiving color. You can see everything on it. I swear my girls just look at that big white hull and the thing starts to look like hell. Spots of mustard and spots of mud. Spots of pink diesel and tan engine oil. There are whorls and swirls of little girl hair and large chunky male foot prints. A fine slough of sand dusts the cockpit and peanut butter fingerprints rim the port hatch. Air pollution wafts down from the Seattle skyline, drifts on to our boat, and then runs in gray stains down the sides, while a more natural form of pollution in the form of large green and red (yes RED!) bird doo lands in great splats like an avian Pollack at work on the canvas of our deck.

Grime and dirt collect in pockets at the door which cannot be reached with sponge, brush or cloth. Fruit punch in a bewildering variety of artificial flavors and colors speckles the cockpit seats, combined with the richer reds of Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz.

You can't clean it. Or you can try, but it doesn't stay clean. All the water in the world can't wash off all the grime. Hours of effort on hands and knees can reduce the sheer volume of dots, spots, and blemishes, but no one but the aforementioned army of indigent teenagers can actually get all of it. And this is one case where two hulls is actually a distinct disadvantage. I find that no sooner have I managed to whiten, brighten, and seal one hull, then I turn around to find the other side covered in lunch, Popsicle drips, engine rags, and crab guts.

The solution is, like the brightwork, simple. Give up. Take a pump and blast sea water over the deck and throughout the cockpit every other day to remove the basically unsanitary dead things and let the devil take the rest of it. What's wrong with floating around looking like the poor white trash of the cruising community? And unlike your home, it’s unlikely your mother is going to show up armed with a disappointed look and 40 some odd years of making you feel like a four- year old. You’ve already tipped her over just buying it. Who cares about the brightwork?