Thursday, May 31, 2007

Turning in My Credentials

I like to think of myself as a post-modern feminist. Or a post-feminine modernist. Or just someone for whom busting gender roles is not really a calling so much as an inadvertent Truth. I am an unabashed computer geek in a sea of gamers for whom the phrase “Frost Shock!!” actually means something. My best friends discuss the relative merits of GTD applications over IRC, and purchasing my first Mac in ten years was close to a sexual experience. I don't own a lacy bra, I selected a birthing center based on the speed of their WiFi, and I get new clothes only when my mother buys them for me. It's fair to say, I've earned my butch chops.

The move to boat life, as a result, has been fraught with opportunities to fail in my endless non-effort to be a model of all that is 21st century woman. For one thing, I like to cook. I like messing with our gimpy oven and experimenting with two-burner cooking. I also like to navigate, communicate with our land-based friends, and provision the linens. In the sailing world, these are the Girl Jobs. Dr C in turn loves to mess with the engines, tear apart and rebuild the electrical system, and build a water maker from scratch. These are Boy Jobs. I teach school and take care of the children; he works at the office and brings home the cruising kitty. It's like we threw away twenty years of marital equality and stepped into an episode of Leave it Beaver.

So when it came time to purchase an outfit for my eldest daughter's Irish dancing competition, I dug in my heels. Just because I'm the girl doesn't mean I should have to do the shopping. I hate shopping. I hate clothes. I especially hate clothes shopping. He's the one that gave me three girls and no little boy sperm. It's his fault they want to wear something frilly and hop up and down like flower fairies with backbones made of pogo sticks. He could just take them off to Target and take care of this little matter while I read through the manual on our new SSB.

Unfortunately about a half glass of wine after they left, the heater kicked on and a strong smell of diesel began to waft up from the starboard cabin. Boats often smell like fuel, but whenever you append the word “strong,” you've got a problem. I flipped off the heater, grabbed a flashlight, and headed into the starboard hull to figure out what was going on.

And it wasn't good. The bilge was bright pink.

Now here's the thing about the bilge. Bilge water comes in an array of colors that would do a paint store proud, and each color tells you something about what you're going to spend your next thousand dollars to fix. For example, let's say the water is green. Green means you've had standing water in that bilge for long enough to grow algae. Look to your bilge pump as the culprit since either the pump, the relay, the electrical attached to the relay, or the sensor is busted, loose, or missing in action. How about clear and getting higher at a visible rate? Well that would be a hole. Holes in a boat are Bad. Brown? Let's just remember what always slides down hill.

But pink. Pink is probably the worst. Pink equals diesel. The brighter the pink, the greater the spill. This is not something you can just pump out unless you don't mind being held by your fellow mariners in the same esteem as the captain of the Exxon Valdez. Pink means pulling out hazardous waste buckets, oil-soaked clothes, and a pair of gloves that go up to your elbows.

It took some crawling around to figure it out. A fitting on the top of the diesel fuel tank for the starboard engine had worked its way partially lose. Fuel had splashed out and down. Lots of fuel. Enough fuel to coat the hull beneath the tank and overflow into the bilge. As long as we didn't move the boat, no more would come out. Unfortunately, boats move. It needed to be fixed, the fuel mopped up and disposed of in the proper receptacles and with complete compliance to all the relevant statutes, laws, and ritual sacrifices to the gods of marina purity. Finally, the fitting needed to re-affixed in a way that would prevent a reenactment.

And it couldn't wait. The repairs took two hours of slogging work soaking up fuel, scrubbing everything with Simple Green and salt water, power sucking out the water, and disposing of all the waste. Dr C and the girls showed up just as I finished, all in great spirits with a really cute outfit, ice cream cones, and babbling about their pleasant evening with their father.

To hell with feminism. I should have gone shopping.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Head Full of Details

I hate the heads on our boat. Both of them. They may be the thing I hate most about boat life.

Big Mouth
Big Mouth
Uploaded by toastfloats
Digression for those of you non-nautical folks who read this series because you either (1) share my last name and feel obligated to do so, or (2) are former employees of mine and read it lest I give you a bad reference in the future. The head is the bathroom on a boat. But it’s not really a bathroom. A bathroom implies shiny appliances which take your output, a lot of fresh water, and whisk the resulting mixture into magical oblivion never to be seen or heard from again.

Let’s contrast this to a boat head in which the appliances are all pitted from salt water, the water itself you must pump out of the ocean and into the toilet bowl, and the resulting concoction is shoved into a large noxious tank which you must service regularly. Again, with the euphemisms! By “service” we mean sticking in a nozzle and holding on for dear life as a high pressure hose pumps out the tank while thoughtfully displaying the by-products in a clear window as they swoosh by under your finger tips.

Actually, on further reflection, I hate the port side head a bit more than the starboard side for the single reason of smell. You might think it smells of the organic goop that comes out the back side of five people, but you’d think wrong. The real stench is caused by a deodorizer that the former owner put in two years ago, which I have as yet been unable to find and eliminate. The only smell worse than farts, in my opinion, is the smell of farts liberally laced with the smell of chemical, mountain-fresh deodorant. But for the sake of this article, let’s pretend the port head doesn’t exist since I haven’t actually entered that part of the boat in over six months.

The starboard head is the one I am responsible for at present. It must work. Frankly, you can forego a lot of luxuries in your quest for thrills and adventure, but you can’t avoid going number one. Or number two, for that matter. And the unfortunate reality is that it is illegal to throw your crap overboard into the Puget Sound. By the way, ardent environmentalist that I am, I actually do have a problem with this policy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Puget Sound regularly flushes itself twice a day. Moreover, Victoria and Vancouver to the north pump the entire output of TWO major metropolitan areas into this enormous waterway to no apparent negative environmental effect.

But even if the DNR were willing to let you poop overboard while sailing from here to Gig Harbor, the bottom line is that you couldn’t do that while tied up to a marina anyway. At some point, the potty must work. And because the sewage system on our boat is technically an “interior task”, it is my responsibility to ensure its continued functioning.

This totally sucks, because the head is a really nasty business, and it breaks frequently. There is a rule on boats, “If you haven’t eaten it, it doesn’t go into the head.” And that works pretty well to prevent a majority of your head stoppages. However, everyone in my family makes large turds. I swear to god. I’ve tried everything, up to and including a really, REALLY high fiber diet. Nevertheless they manage to break the head at least once every five days.

And when they break the head, the only solution is to tear the damn thing apart. I’ve learned how to do this now with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of speed. However, the early days were rough going. On one memorable occasion, I was treated to a graphic demonstration of the old axiom, “Shit flows downhill.” Now I know better and pump gallons of salt water through the system before I tear apart the pumps.

I’ve also learned not to always assume that the problem is in the outflow. Often, the reason your head doesn’t work is that something is blocking the raw water intake. Ceterus parabis, I’d rather tear apart the sea water intake and not touch family excrement to resolve the issue. However, as with any problem in which Murphy has a vested interest, the trouble with the head is inevitably in the last part of the system you examine.

I believe I’ve also stumbled on a satisfactory, and largely organic, method to keep the smell down. We use a natural tank treatment called Bactain. My girls tell me that the brown liquid smells like compost pile as it goes in, but it does wonders to prevent worse smells from coming out. We also swish the bowl with two squirts of Simple Green every night before we go to bed. This fights the buildup of toilet bowl bacteria. Just before we pump out, we fill the bowl with vinegar and let it sit for an hour. Then we pump it into the pipes and let it sit again. Then into the tank for the final pump out and rinse. Finally, we always run at least a full tank worth of water through the system at pump out.

I know that at least my children checked out of this fact filled article many paragraphs ago with a heart felt, “TMI.” I can’t really say I blame you if you’ve abandoned me, this time. Let’s face it. This subject stinks.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Failure of Saltiness

Just in case prior articles have somehow left the impression that I am an Experienced, Salty Sailor, let me just state for the record that I am not. Experienced, that is. Technically, I’m not even sure it’s appropriate to call me a Sailor unless you can loosely define the term as “someone who pulls the jib line on a sailboat when forced to do so at the point of a gun.”

Real Sailors (trademark pending) are also known as Salty Sailors, and these fine men and women are full of pithy advice. (I did NOT say “pissy.”) They drip these pearls of wisdom liberally over your ego like corrosive splats of bird guano on the shining deck of your vessel. These unlooke- for gems of information have the power to simultaneously save your life and ensure your utter lack of confidence to put it at risk. Their collective wisdom is priceless but daunting, both in its scope and its power to terrify.

I, on the other hand, lack a certain depth of knowledge on this subject. Prior to purchasing s/v Don Quixote, my entire sailing resume consisted of an overnight on the Chesapeake, the chief memorable moment being running aground on a sand bar. There was also a week in the San Juan Islands on a Cal 28’ for our honeymoon during which I believe I threatened to divorce my new husband no less than four times. So it’s pretty much impossible to say that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to all things nautical. Certainly, salty sailors will inform you that I don’t know my aft quarters from a whirlpool in the water.

Thus, to those lured to this web site with notions of learning how to sail, live aboard, or cruise in a catamaran, so sorry. I’m not really capable of telling you the safe, sane, and proper way to do it. I can only offer my own creative commomns protected, honed in the fine crucible of the real world, and orthogonal to anything officially supported by Real Sailors (trademark still pending) techniques. My admittedly na├»ve approach to the subject is – as with so many things in life – stubbornness uber alles.

You can.
You will.
You just need to want it badly enough.

A question I often hear when people learn that in my salad days I rode my bike across the United States is, “How do you prepare for a trip like that?” And I reply, “You can’t.” Or more accurately, the way to prepare to ride your bike across the United States is to buy some equipment, get a map, read a book, and get on the bike. Ride 70 miles. Camp for the night in a field or park. Get up the next morning and get on the bike. Ride another 70 miles. Rinse, repeat for roughly a month. Two things happen: First, you will have ridden from Yorktown to the Mississippi River; and second, you will know how to get across the next two thirds of the country.

So when I tell you that the way to learn how to be a cruising sailor is to buy some equipment, get a map, read a book, and get in a boat, I speak with some experience, although none particularly useful to the endeavor. It’s pretty safe to assume that you can move the boat to the next inlet, drop anchor and spend the night. Get up, put up the sails, pull up the anchor (maybe even in that order), and move down the coast another few nautical miles. Rinse, repeat for a season. Two things will happen: First, you’ll probably make it from Seattle to someplace south of Mexico; and second, you’ll know how to cruise.

And while you may not be Salty, I can assure you that you will be a Sailor.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Moving Day

“Get the gate. Get the gate! GET THE GATE!” bellows my husband at my youngest daughter. He’s hauling the boat box from the van and down the ramp towards our catamaran on the near end of L2. So much for a quiet sneak aboard transition to our summer living quarters.

Our marina doesn’t allow live aboards. Frankly, most marinas in the Pacific Northwest prohibit them. It’s a combination of insane insurance rates, Dept of Natural Resource restrictions, and economic self-preseveration that drives this. The problem started a few years ago and grows worse each year as more live aboard boats chase fewer and fewer slips.

So just after the holidays, I approached our harbor master and explained the Great Escape Plan. We lucked out. First, our harbor master at Elliott Bay is a very nice man. Second, our harbor master spent a few years himself kicking around the Sea of Cortez. He’s sympathetic to our plight, and we can basically live aboard this summer. As long as we don’t let the children run wild, he and his staff will support our efforts to prepare ourselves and the boat for the cruising life. We make token forays to our land based basement apartment to make it legitimate.

But that means the last barrier to moving aboard has been removed.

My god, that boat is small. It looked a lot bigger in June of last year when we set the moving date to April 2007. It looked a lot bigger when it was empty. Filled with two van loads of stuff – one entire load consisting of the bedding and stuffed animals the three girls insisted were essential to their very survival – my entire perception of the boat has narrowed to a pin point. I feel like we’re an episode of a serial called Honey, I Think I Shrunk the Boat. It is now just as easy to lose the kids as ever. However, now we lose them in a sea of gadgets, goods, and groceries. Actually, I think I did lose Mera. I haven’t heard from her in hours.

As the van disgorges bags and boxes and books, Jaime and I frantically wrestle them into crevices in the boat in a rapid fire, real-life game of three dimensional Tetris. With one wary eye, I watch Don Quixote’s water line. Interestingly, most of what we’re moving aboard now to change our boat from weekend cabin to primary home is more bulky than it is heavy. I thought the boat boxes would ground us in the slip, but our boat seems made for this sort of clutter and sits in the water just fine.

I can’t say the same for the family temper. Dr C is frazzled and overworked bearing the brunt of the physical labor since I broke my back falling off the boat. Mera keeps escaping the leash to read fantasy novels, and Jaime and Aeron would rather be collecting dead, smelly things on the shore. My former concerns about the lack of convenient galley storage space pale to the reality of trying to find room for even the most essential items in places that do not require reaching under and around someone’s butt in the salon. I caught Dr C stashing the olive oil under Jaime’s bed in the port bow, and I don’t have the heart to ask where the kids have hidden the dish soap.

At the end of the day, we’re aboard. We will spend the next six months in this slip or nearby anchorages trying to figure out how to be boat people. A glance into the kids’ hull yields the horrifying conclusion it will take at least that long to find a place for all their toys. And we ended up getting teriyaki from a place down the street as I couldn’t face the daunting task of filling five plates with wholesome, home cooked food… let alone find the plates.

On the other hand, I did find the salsa, a bag of tortilla chips, and a leftover six pack of cervesa. There is a light breeze filled with the smell of the ocean and the sounds of a guitar played by a cruiser on M dock while the snow on the Olympics turns pink and purple as the sun blazes down to our west through a forest of masts.

I could get used to this.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

If Not You, Then Who?

Naturally, a question posed and answered in the memoirs of every author about the cruising life is: "Why did you do it?" Since I’ve consumed a good fraction of that literature, it strikes me that the motivation can be categorized into three nouns: escape, dream, or challenge.

#1 – Run Away! Run Away!
In this category we have those who take a deep breath, look around at the wonders of modern civilization, and ask themselves why the hell they are here. What does it all mean? Is there a better life? On balance, what happens if I trade my wide screen TV and daily shower for poverty, quiet, and ports unknown?

These are the people who work 60 hours a week to pay for their “things,” only to realize that the one with the most toys doesn't actually win. In fact, the game has rules no one explained when we were young and ambitious and on our way up the corporate ladder. These are people who watched their parents work hard their entire lives only to die within months of retirement. They pull up the profit and loss statement on their lives to realize that they spend four months working for the IRS, one month for the state, three months for the bank, and one month for their health insurer. They see their children growing up without them, maturing more rapidly than a parent would have thought possible during those early sleepless nights.

Squeezed in with these folks, I will also lump those folks who have more money than God and decide to run away just because they can. I suppose technically they could have their own category, but let's face it. I'm not one of them. You're not one of them. All we know about those folks is that they made money somehow, some way, and it would be very nice if we knew they did it illegally so we could feel morally superior. Instead, we're just going to drink rum in their cockpit because it's the most spacious and has the ice cubes and pretend they are like us. Running away from it all.

#2 – A Star to Sail Her By
The seas are awash with boats owned by dreamers. Actually, the marinas are afloat with them. I'm not clear that there are a large number of these owners actually living the dream. For many, the mere fact of the boat is enough. However, for every boat full of people running away from the busy life (see #1 above), you have at least two with a sailor on board who always longed to go to sea and live the cruising life.

It is an unfortunate statistic that the majority of sailor dreamers are men. A depressing number of these men are accompanied by women who have been dragged aboard against all their objections to the contrary. In fact, an entire sub-genre of cruising literature is devoted to the reluctant female spouse: How to get her on the boat, how to keep her there, how to make her feel empowered. To date, the small cadre of intrepid female sailor dreamers is lost in the cacophony of put-upon spouses.

Never mind.

A sailor dreamer buys a boat and, if all the stars are in alignment, eventually lives the dream. By far the majority of these dreams are a retirement plan. “When I get my pension and fund the IRA and we sell the house for a tremendous profit, we'll leave!” Cutting the lines on a sailor dreamer's boat can be a difficult process. Dreamers have rather high standards which makes sense when you think about it. Your dreams should be bigger and better than life. It is unfortunate when your boat cannot be.

#3 -- Because It's There
Of course, there are still heroes and madmen in the world. These are the ones who like to throw on a backpack and hike the Appalachian Trail for fun. They take a year off to live in Nepal or volunteer to help victims of natural disasters in mosquito-infested places with unpronounceable names. We admire these bold adventurers while simultaneously thinking to ourselves, "Holy bananas, that guy is a fruitcake!"

And there are a lot of adventurers dinking around in boats out there. They are often young with no roots and a taste for danger. I think the more fascinating ones are the folks trying something different -- a single-handed trip never before attempted, a voyage in a boat patterned after something from 2000 years ago, a cruise entirely funded on the proceeds of an unproven educational Web site. To me, their stories hold a horrible fascination much like that of a multi-car wreck on the autobahn.

#4 – Other
I take it back. It's four not three. No categorical list is actually complete without the elastic clause of “other.” In the boating world, it is hard to describe these others. They are the genetic anomalies for whom Darwinian principles were established. Either they make it in this world and reproduce more oddities like themselves who eventually build AI robots to take over the world, or they don't. Simplicity itself. So far I've met only one, and even after roughly half a bottle of rum and a bag full of limes, I'm still not clear how this individual ticks. You just have to take it as an article of blind faith that these folks know what they are doing.

* * *

Ultimately, why you do something is less important than the established fact that you have. Why did you go to college? Daddy made me. Does that diminish the value of the lessons you learned there? Does it diminish your accomplishments -- mastering the separation of laundry, frying of eggs, or drinking a beer bong without vomiting on your shoes? Of course not. If delusional fantasies were a deterrent to garnering respect, we would never have dot com CEOs, toaster strudel, or shoes that tell you whether you’ve had a good workout.

So don't ask me why I do it! Simply marvel that it can be done by people less capable, less grounded, and less stable than you.