Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Typical Day Afloat

Toast and Aeron Do Math
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Editor's Note: Written Fall 2006

We are out here in the San Juan Islands, bobbing around with little wind in lovely anchorages. The trip is the last long cruise of the year, a 10-day extravaganza of floating around and breaking the boat.

Par for the course. We’ve broken several things already. Probably the most critical item was the windlass, which abruptly decided this morning not to work. Nearly two hours of troubleshooting later, Dr C determined that the relay is at fault. He now has the windlass hotwired, god help us, so that it can run even if we don’t have the batteries on. This is probably not the best long-term solution, but it means that we can comfortably anchor in more than 2 fathoms without worrying how the hell we’re going to pull up nearly 200 feet of thick chain and anchor.

The way it operates – and I use that word in the loosest meaning possible -- is that Dr C stands on the tramp watching the anchor. He yells, “Go!” to Aeron standing at the mast who in turn shouts in the window to Jaime kneeling in the salon. She passes this down the line to me crouching in the port aft cabin next to the switch. When this verbal bucket brigade gets to me, I toggle the breaker. God help us if we have to anchor off a Seattle Yacht Club outstation. I'll never live down the shame.

The girls broke the head. Twice. I fixed it without getting covered in shit up to my knees, which I consider an enormous accomplishment. In fact, thus far I have not had to actually unscrew and dump crap even once. A fantastic step forward in head mastery, if I do say so myself.

In addition to breaking things, Dr C engaged in a laundry list of repairs to the boat. He got out a gel coat kit and patched the starboard hull. He just about fully installed the inverter, and for dessert he replaced the broken hinges on the two port hatches. The man is proving endlessly useful on the boat. All he asks in return is good food and frequent sex.

On the first item, I’m making progress. I didn’t overstock the boat this time, which feels good. We had three days of food for three days of travel and then went shore shopping. More significant perhaps, Jaime saw an unfamiliar vegetable on sale in the market today at Friday Harbor. Rather than avoiding it, I agreed to purchase the thing and bring it back to the boat. Sautéed in a bit of shallot, olive oil and garlic, the rainbow chard proved to be a savory and nutritious addition to dinner. This proves that ages old maxim that even shoe leather tastes good with enough fat and garlic.

We’ve enjoyed the San Juans Islands. Had two marvelous days of sailing before the blue hole for which this area is renowned settled into a complete calm. Since then, we’ve been playing the tidal currents to move from place to place. We bucked a serious rapid this morning around the west side of San Juan Island from Garrison Bay to Friday Harbor. At one point, we were getting swept along a 4 knot current. It pays to watch your tide tables around here, let me tell you. It pays to keep your eyes open for rocks, too. Rocks are not your friend.

The kids are playing a wrestling game in the cabin while Dr C and I relax in the cockpit sipping wine and contemplating our navels. The boat resonates with the harmony of children's screams and two seagulls squabbling over a Ritz cracker on the starboard bow. It's not perfect, but it might just be as good as heaven gets.

What are you doing girls?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Editor's Note: Written Fall 2005

The Marine Tax

It's Only Money
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
B.O.A.T. We've all heard the jokes. Bring Over Another Thousand. A hole in the water into which you throw money. My personal favorite is: “Owning a boat in the Pacific Northwest is like standing in a cold shower ripping up $100 bills.” And pretty much every boat owner knows that B.O.A.T currency is $1,000 per unit since everything seems to sell in increments of a thousand. But the underlying truth stems from the little known but widely applied Marine Tax. What? Never heard of that one? You know about income tax, sales tax, property tax, and estate tax, but you've never heard of the marine tax? Oh you poor fool.

You see, I am familiar with the Marine Tax because it is so similar to the Doctor Tax. The Doctor Tax is the premium charged for any item which is destined for a medical office simply because the purchaser is assumed to be both (1) richer than God and (2) stupid.

I will grant that assumption two is a gross oversimplification. The marketing gurus from the medical manufacturing companies do not sit in their board rooms musing, “Those doctors are such bone brain dead simpletons we can mark this up 400% and they will never know the difference.” No, I imagine it goes something more like this, “Those doctors are so busy and they make so much money, they will never pay any attention to the price, and it'll just disappear like piss in the Pacific Ocean into the insane amount they spend to keep their offices open.”

In the boating community, it is our very sense of humor that prevents us from rising up in a Yachting Tea Party to throw the bastards overboard. In the offices of the marine manufacturers, they are no doubt chortling, “Those boat owners are so busy making money to pay for their boats and telling jokes about how much all the equipment costs, they'll just suck it up and pay whatever we charge assuming that it's both fair and just and even noble to pay through the nose for our products.”

The Marine Tax can range from 10% to 500%. Need an example? You can purchase a WiFi amplifying antenna from a good marine broadband service provider for $300. You can purchase the identical unit from a Web site for gray hat, war driving, computer hackers for $70. And anything sold at an official boating store is going to cost twice as much as the exact same item available at a hardware store, WalMart, or online book store.

So in the long standing tradition of good Americans everywhere, I strongly advocate tax evasion whenever and where ever possible. Fortunately, for the clever, penny-pinching, tight-wad cruiser, there are many loopholes in the Marine Tax. And you won't need your tax accountant to find them. Just ask yourself a few questions every time you consider a purchase related to your boat:

Do I really need it?
I think Americans in particular have forgotten how to ask this most basic of questions, but it is perhaps the first and most important. Now that I've started asking, I'm routinely surprised how frequently the answer is, “Nope.” Just as you do not need matching his and her underwear, you also do not need perfectly fitted sheets, custom curtains, or hand crafted rugs. Your fenders do NOT need to all be the same size. They don't even need to be the same color. Don Quixote supplements our fender inventory nearly every time we go out with what the girls now refer to as “driftfenders”. Note: It is not necessary to color coordinate your lines, either.

Does the item look anything like something I can get at Home Depot?
One of the more environmentally friendly and cost effective ways to clean your fiberglass boat is with a bucket, a scrub brush and a box of baking soda. I did some price shopping online and you can buy all three items at your local marine store for $28.97 or from the local hardware store for $17.15. Do I really need to explain further?

Can I make the item from things I can get at Target?
A corollary to the Home Depot recommendation is that sometimes you can make small changes to an item and suddenly it goes from being land based stuff to Marine Grade Product. My favorite example of this is, believe it or not, plates. Turns out that a Marine Grade Plate is a plastic plate decorated with blue anchors and includes a gasket glued to the bottom. That's a pretty clever idea – the gasket, not the anchors which I find insipid – because it keeps the plates from slipping while in use and reduces their rattling while stowed. You can purchase one of these nifty plates from your marine store for $7.99 per plate. Of course, you could instead purchase a $1.99 plastic plate, a $.99 gasket, and a bottle of rubber cement. In addition to the obvious price advantage, you also get a wider choice than blue anchors or nautical flags.

Can I buy a lesser quality item multiple times instead of the marine grade item?
A boat combines electrical power plant, water treatment facility, transportation system, and hotel all in one small package that floats on the most corrosive substance on earth and shakes like maracas on a Saturday night in Cabo San Lucas. Everything in the marine marketing world is about convincing you to buy the ruggidized, indestructible, undissolvable, marine-tested, reinforced, sun-resistant, highly expensive widget. For example, let's take the 8-quart Super Bucket Fortex available for only $23.99. Looking like Darth Vader on the deck, this black beauty is “Reinforced for ruggedness. For extended use in demanding conditions. Constructed of fiber-reinforced natural rubber that won't crack, chip, dent or rust. The heavy gauge, double-galvanized handle lays neatly along the rim, where it's easy to grab.”

In sweeps our Ewok flower fairies at Backyard Style, this Plastic Utility Pail costs $4.99. It's “lightweight” and “ideal for calf feeding.” Better yet, it comes in eleven bright happy colors! Just call me Calf Feeder Girl!!

So with some cleverness, a bit of research, and a willingness to think outside of the boat, you too can shave dollars off sundry items essential for boating life. This month my efforts probably saved us close to $200!!

Which means in ten short months I will pay off the two B.O.A.T. dinghy Dr C bought last week at Strictly Sail.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

So You Think You Want to Homeschool

Oddly, when I tell people that my husband and I are preparing to move on to a sailboat and sail south for a few years with our children, the most common and immediate question is, “But what are you going to do with your children?” As if, somehow, Dean and I have found a magical answer to this ages-old problem. What do any of us do with our children? We love them, we tolerate them, and we lock them in the closet when they are really horrid.

But what they are really asking is some variation of “Don’t they have to go to school?” Actually, the answer to that question is “No. They don’t.” There is this persistent urban myth in the United States that our choices for educating our children are: Bad (e.g. Expensive Private Schools) or Worse (e.g. Lousy Public Schools). And for many, this is true. Economically, you may not be able to afford any other possibility, and you may have no ability to influence the quality of the public school choice available. (Though as an aside, I have an unfair share of public school principles in my immediate family who would argue that public schools are not as bad as most folks think.)

Having said all that, a bit of research and a willingness to completely overturn the natural order of things reveals that there is a third choice which is neither bad nor worse, though it may be insane. You can homeschool your children.

In fact, the homeschool movement is growing rapidly as parents increasingly choose to opt out of this system and take their children with them. It depends on whom you read whether this trend originated in the 1960’s with a bunch of granola-eating commune hippies or has been around much longer under the banner of Christian fundamentalism liberally dashed with a peculiarly American brand of libertarianism. In any case, homeschool families have gained a reputation for complete lunacy, their offspring shunned as the spawn of whackos raised in an atmosphere of insulated mono-ideology. Public school couldn’t possibly be worse than homeschoolers.

Of course it can. While Columbine and the like might be the exception, they prove the rule. Public schools are not precisely the bastion of moral rectitude, quality education, and the relentless pursuit of social norms that everyone supposes. And if your children are not getting a really good education at your local school, if you can’t be sure that someone won’t go postal and shoot a classroom full of adolescents on Tuesday, and you want to opt out of the regular rat race for yourself anyway, you could do worse than using education as your excuse.

For there really is no more righteous excuse for staying home and kicking it than educating the next generation of America’s leaders, scientists and citizens. Go to the zoo in the name of our country’s great future. Bake manicotti, watch Discovery Channel, and spend hours at the aquarium to nurture the promise of tomorrow.

In the end, it just doesn’t matter what you do with your kids. Steve D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, demonstrate that the amount of time you spend with your kids and the amount of money you spend on their education is considerably less important than choices you made twenty years ago. Your level of education, economic accomplishments to date, and the quality of your genetic contribution are all considerably more determinant. In other words, you can’t screw up by teaching them yourself.

Another myth is that you are legally obligated to send your children to school. Not true! Very few states require even the most rudimentary proof that you are actually engaged in teaching when you pull your kids out of the public school system. In our “tough” state of Washington, you must have a Master’s degree or be under the supervision of someone with a Master’s degree. I suspect this requirement came as a result of some legislative aid in Olympia reading Steve and Steve and musing to himself, “Well as long as they’ve got a Master’s, it just doesn’t matter. So what the hell, let them homeschool the kids!” As a result, a cottage industry sprung up in this state of women with a Master of Arts in basket weaving or neuroscience who supervise the rest of us great unwashed homeschool parents through the divine powers of reading monthly e-mail reports.

A final myth I would like to bust here is that you’ll kill your children. I am reminded of a great phrase from What to Expect the First Year in which the author absolved all incipient parents for their fleeting desire to drown their offspring by wrapping them in a burlap sack and throwing them off the Thames like a litter of alley kittens. She noted that every parent is allowed to possess this feeling. What you are not allowed to do is act on it. Homeschooling is a lot like that.

“What are you going to do with your children?”

“I’m going to take my girls on the trip of their lives during which we will also cover the basics: reading, writing, and the proper preparation of fresh caught ahi with wasabi and pickled ginger,” I reply. Only I recognize that the last skill is clearly the one most likely to ensure their success in the 21st century.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rounding Up This Round of Safety Talks

Pulling the Children Along
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“The most dangerous thing aboard this boat is your mother,” Dr C informs our children after one particularly trying evening. We had been cruising in the South Puget Sound for nearly ten days without stop. This was early in our cruising life so ten days was an interminable amount of time filled with disastrous mishaps, poor hygiene and uncomfortable beds.

However, in spite of a great deal more sailing experience, I am not sure anything has really changed. For all the dangers presented on your average sailing vessel in the form of things that go boom, endless volumes of water to drown in, and exotic tropical diseases, it still strikes me that parents are the most dangerous part of the cruising experience.

First, remember that a parent on a cruiser is forced to take on so many more roles than the parent of a land-based household. Parents are also teacher, principal and gym coach. We are lifeguard, librarian, and fireman. Cop, mechanic, bus driver, and troop leader. We collaborate on projects, participate in drama, music, and art activities, and go on all the field trips. We are the 4th in Monopoly and the opposition in chess. We are the friend you go to when all your other friends won’t play with you, and we are the enemy you try to avoid when all your friends are firmly in your camp.

And the closeness is wonderful, the one thing I absolutely cannot conceive is how I will relinquish this with our return to land-based lives. Yet there is no question that all that closeness can be too much of a good thing. We all need a little privacy, a little variety in our relationships, and more physical SPACE to simply move around in.

Many years ago, my mother-in-law gave me permission that I desperately needed. It was during potty training for my eldest daughter. We were on vacation in Bend, Oregon, staying at a cabin in a large family group. My eldest daughter, Jaime, was at the stage of using a mini-potty, but she did not want to use it in this strange vacation place. I, on the other hand, was not about to spend my vacation wiping shit off her ass and insisted that she use it. In retaliation for my obduracy, my daughter braced her hands on the back of the seat and -- lifting and rotating her pelvis -- proceeded to spray urine over every square inch of the bathroom floor. I completely lost it. I slapped her, yelled something to this day I cannot -- nor do I wish to -- remember, and stomped down the stairs.

At which point, I broke into hysterical tears. I’d never hit my child before and to do so now, in front of family, seemed like a catastrophic failure. Yet my mother-in-law just looked at me mildly and informed me that, “Your children need to know there is a point beyond which you are dangerous.”

And we are, we parents of boat kids. We are bigger and we control everything. We have so much more power than parents on land. We control the means of transportation, production, and communication. At times we are the only other living souls around. Even our stupidity is more dangerous to their health, welfare, and mental wellbeing. The responsibility is enormous.

Multitasking on Don Quixote
Multitasking on Don Quixote
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
On the other hand, we give our children so much more power than we do on land. Our older children literally hold our lives in their hands, taking watch on long passages, managing communications with other boats, and helping maintain boat systems. The kids gather food and set up social events with other families on boats or on land. The companionship cuts both ways, so if we want to play bridge, the kids are the 3rd and 4th hands. If we want to play a piece of chamber music, the girls take half the parts.

Jaime and I survived potty training. We also survived learning how to read, her first attempt to cut her own hair, and our early discussions about the birds and the bees. She tells me that the most important quote on this subject is from the uncle of good old Spider Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” To be a boating family, we must learn to moderate our anger, our passion, and our temper. We must walk away even when there is nowhere to walk and take many deep breaths before taking precipitous action.

You get only this one family and this one chance to do it right. Dying in battles on hills that don’t matter can cause you to lose the entire campaign.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Things That Go Boom in the Night

tea candle
Originally uploaded by KNMwt15000.
There are three major categories of boom on a boat: combustible fluids, electricity, and large swinging objects. All three things are destructive. All three things can and do kill people. All three things horrify any right-thinking adult who contemplates a child on board a boat.

While I can largely dismiss the hazards of surrounding children in billions of gallons of water, it is far more difficult for me to dismiss the dangers inherent in surrounding children in things that go boom at the slightest provocation. It strikes me as particularly insane to put 900 amps of battery power, 100 gallons of diesel fuel, and a fire extinguisher in the same room as an 8-year-old and her 6-year-old sister.

You are a boat owner with children or grand children aboard. What do you do? What DO you do?

I cannot tell you what to do. I can only tell you what we are doing which is essentially nothing. All right, it is closer to absolutely nothing than to essentially nothing but saying “essentially” gives me sufficient wiggle room in any legal action. The good news is that children are essentially indestructible. The bad news is that all protestations to the contrary, essentially is a really lousy word.

Now one thing I have long since learned about children – or at least my children – is that seeing is believing. Another way to state this, danger is only dangerous if it has actually bitten you on the ass. Okay, even simpler: your children won’t believe you. You can repeat, “Matches BURN!” until you are blue in the face and unless a child manages to set her cabin on fire, she will not believe you.

My suggestion is that the way you protect your children from the things that go boom on your boat is to let them hurt themselves -- in a controlled, structured, and well monitored environment replete with soothing words and a suitcase of medical supplies. Fortunately, live aboard cruising offers abundant opportunities to teach your children about the dangers of live aboard cruising. It is hard to imagine a life style more replete with wondrous moments for applied lessons in self-preservation.

Take for example the category of things that go boom that involves combustible fluids. Most boats carry at least three – and sometimes four – separate flavors of fuel: diesel, propane, gasoline, and kerosene. Each boat beverage is packaged with its own unique combination of disastrous potentialities. What you need to do is identify those that are most likely to entice junior into blowing up your home.

On our boat, we quickly learned that the girls couldn’t care less about diesel. Diesel was daddy’s problem. They weren’t much more impressed by gasoline. That was mommy’s problem. Kerosene, however, meant heat and light in the salon. Candles and matches meant warmth, light and coziness in the cabins. And propane! Wow. Propane is the source of all heated edibles.

The priority became clear. The girls received a crash course in how to use matches in combination with the propane stove. At every possible opportunity, we used them to open the valves, turn on the solenoid, and start the stove burners or oven. Matches matches matches! Tea candles are the ideal testing ground for good match manners. Scatter them around the salon and you not only learn how to avoid burning bitty fingers, but you also create a charming atmosphere for yourselves and all distant observers watching your boat bob at anchor lit up like an old fashioned Christmas tree.

Electricity follows the same pattern. Though, frankly, the real problem with electricity and children is not the high voltage lines running everywhere, the exposed plugs in every room, or the enormous batteries in the foot of their bed. The real problem is that they never turn out the damn lights. I’m far more concerned with teaching the little twits to conserve energy then I am about them electrocuting themselves.

Nevertheless, I advise getting the children involved in electrical production and maintenance as soon as feasible. They can quickly learn how to handle the electrical panel, hook up to shore power, and manage the battery switches. Teach them how to monitor the battery capacity, and you’ll never need to worry about forgetting to check again.

The real bummer boomer, though, is momentum. I find that where children are particularly prone to disaster is when they take on the basic laws of physics. In other words, chemistry and electricity are too complicated to hurt boat kids. It’s the physical physics that get them every time. Leverage, inertia, mass times acceleration, and good old gravity work wonders for moving your boat through the water and anchoring it to the ground, but against the soft tender skin of young human beings these forces are swift and evil.

I caution parents to spend far less time worrying about drowning and blowing up your offspring and concentrate more on toes crushed in an anchor rode, heads bashed by a swinging boom, or fingers stripped of skin by a line on a bucket dropped into the water at seven knots. Teach your kids basic physics, people, or your boat will do it for you.