Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It Tastes Like Boat

“I can't eat this oatmeal,” Aeron informs the table with a grimace one clear, autumnal morning.

I haven't finished my first cup of coffee. “Eat your breakfast.”

“I can't!” she avers firmly.

It's cold. We're running late. “You can.”

“Can't!” declares Aeron.

It's not wise to engage in verbal fisticuffs with a technical writer. Inevitably, we'll trump you.“MUST.”

“It tastes like boat!” she wails.

Mera Samples Carefully
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
However, even a technical writer succumbs in the face of hard, cold facts. The instant oatmeal does taste like boat, which means it tastes roughly the same as sweetened fuel rags dipped in day old dishwater and used to wipe mold off the back of a refrigerator.

Oatmeal, crackers, cereal, flour, cookies... all serve the combined function of deodorizer and dehumidifier on our boat. They suck the manky boat smell and humid exhalations of five human beings and bind them in a carbohydrate matrix that would do proud an environmental engineer working on reducing total global carbon load. Forget Dry-Z-Air, Stickups and aromatherapy candles. All it takes to get rid of the smell on the boat is to buy a package of Mother's Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Of course, our food sacrifices its most important property – edibility – on the altar of rendering the boat more livable. If your crackers taste like boat, it seriously detracts from the wine and cheese experience. And instant oatmeal is just nasty anyway. I shouldn't buy the stuff. I wouldn't buy the stuff if the kids didn't insist and my mother hadn't spent most of my younger years imprinting me on Quaker Instant Oatmeal with Apples and Cinnamon. But Quaker Instant Oatmeal with Maple, Brown Sugar, and Diesel is simply gawdawful. I broke down and whisked us all off to Starbucks.

Unfortunately, there is no Starbucks in the middle of the Pacific. Or maybe there is. What do you bet there is a Starbuck's on Easter Island? But I digress. Living on a boat requires some ingenuity to seal your fresh dry goods away from the odoriferous bouquet that is your home. I think you need to divide your hermetically sealed solutions into three broad categories: Short Term, Long Term, and Very Long Term.

Short Term – Start with the basic question of how long is the short term? I define short term as the duration it takes to turn a box of Ritz Crackers from crispy goodness to soggy sea gull food. So let's say 15 minutes. In the short term, your solutions need to meet the following criteria: cheap, capable of taking an entire package of Oreo's, and easily stowable in accessible lockers. It must be cheap because you need a bazillion of these things for every dry good you bring on to the boat: rice, pasta, flour, cereal, crackers, sugar, spices. If it doesn't hold the entire package of cookies, you will eat what you don't stow – right there on the dock in front of God and everybody. Finally, if you can't get your hands on it without rearranging the deck chairs, you won't eat it in the short term. Actually, you will probably forget you even bought it.

For the short term, our boat uses Ikea plastic sealable boxes. We would use Tupperware or Rubbermaid, but those companies have decided to price their products somewhere north of Caphelon but not quite as high as Waterford crystal. Ikea prides itself on producing goods in every conceivable size and shape which works well for the storage issue. The seal isn't perfect, but it's good enough to last a week or so, and we find the Swedish look goes well with our curvy French boat.

Long Term
– In the long term, we're all dead. Unfortunately, most of our human byproducts such as plastic bags, toxic waste sites, and Twinkies are not. On the boat, I stuff into long term storage under the salon cushions things that either: (1) I can't find them easily in the grocery stores near the shoreline (e.g. wasabi powder, sea salt, and buckwheat flower); or (2) I need to buy in large, bulky quantities to make myself feel like a Real Woman. Frankly, all our long term storage needs are a direct result of an impulse buy at Costco: a metric butt load of graham crackers, 20 pounds of unbleached wheat flour, or a year’s supply of Frosted Mini-Wheats. I find it ironic that while these products often ship in plastic bags, the bags are permeable to boat stench.

For these items, I bought a FoodSaver vacuum sealer. There's something weird about the FoodSaver plastic with the bumps which enables the vacuum process to work. The cost renders it roughly the equivalent of applying gold leaf to your food. However, we've discovered that you can buy 4mm painting tarp at Home Depot, cut it into the appropriate sizes and shapes, and then just use a 1” x 4” strip of the FoodSaver bumpy stuff at the opening to seal the package. That small strip renders the whole vacuum process possible.

The FoodSaver is also a pretty good way to seal spare parts against the marine environment, compress yarn into microscopic flat packages, and package extra meat and fish for longer freshness in the refrigerator and freezer.

Very Long Term – For the extremely long term, let me remind you of something a salty chef said to a group of us at the Seattle Boat Show last year. “People in other countries? They eat.” You don't need the 50-pound bag of rice, 100 cans of Vegie-Mix, and 30 pounds of dried navy beans. Buy what you can eat in a week, two at the outside, and save all the space for things you can't easily find while you are traveling in other countries.

In our case, we've got every spare inch not already full of box red wine crammed full of Jiffy Peanut Butter. It's a life style choice.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Questions from the Class - Interviewing Jaime

Jaime Skirt
Originally uploaded by brainswax.
I strongly recommend never interviewing a teenie bopper. We started off okay. Her answers were a bit canned, mind you, but there was a wee tiny itty bit of thought. Then she lost interest in the exercise. It would be slightly improved if you could hear the insouciant, hip Facebookian coolness with which she manages every word and gesture. However, I don't think we're going to learn much from this one.

Q: What do you think about our plans to cruise?
It's hecka fun! I think it would be fun to go new places and see new things and meet new people and stuff.

Q: What was your favorite trip on the boat?
I don't know. I think I like all of them. I don't think I have a favorite. I just like being out on the boat.

Q: What was your worst time on the boat?
When we were on really rolling seas and we couldn't go outside because it was too hard and we had to stay inside and we got sea sick.

Q: What is your favorite thing to do as a boat kid?

Q: What is the thing you hate most as a boat kid?
I don't hate anything about being a boat kid. I don't like high seas.

Q: When you look forward to the time when we sail away, what you do want from this trip?
I really want to see new animals and new sea life and stuff. New marine activity.

Q: Any places you want to go? or see?
I want to go everywhere and I want to see everything.

Q: What do you think about homeschooling?

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
Ask me another time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Questions from the Class - Interview Mera

Looking up from reading
Originally uploaded by brainswax.
Question: Ask your kids what their hopes/expectations are for cruising life -- what are they excited about? What are they dreading?

I started this project with Mera. Now before you accuse me of putting words in my child's mouth, I want you to understand that Mera is a very literate, bookish nine year old with an incredible vocabulary and an imagination like nothing I've ever seen again. She is enrolled this fall with a teacher at the resource center to start middle and high school literature studies. These replies are direct quotes.

Q: What do you think about our plans to cruise?
I think it might be dangerous, but it's going to be very fun. It's a change; we're going to get to spend more time with each other. The new experiences will help us when we grow up.

Q: What was your favorite trip on the boat?
My favorite trip is when we went over to one of the islands and saw fireworks. And later that day, the Mushens -- our friends that live upstairs -- came over and we all sat on the tramp covered in blankets. I think the fireworks were better than the ones you see from Seattle.

Q: What was your worst time on the boat?
This might not really be the worst time but I can't think of anything worse. Well, we were anchored of Blake Island and we went for the longest walk I've ever been on. I couldn't see Jaime and we barely even talked. And we just walked and walked and walked. My feet ached.

Q: What is your favorite thing to do as a boat kid?
Hanging on to the metal bars that keep up the big clothy thing that shields us from the rain. Looking at the open sea and getting rocked back and forth and back and forth. It's real pleasant and fun.

Q: What is the thing you hate most as a boat kid?
Being shut up in my cabin when it's too windy outside.

Q: If you look forward to when we sail away, what
do you want from this trip?

I want great experiences, more time with my family, more time to learn about my dad and my mom, more time with the wildlife, more time to swim and more time to just do stuff.

Q: Are there any places you want to go? or see?
I'd love to go to this good hotel that one of my mom's friends described to me. It sounds like a really lovely place. I'd like to see a dolphin burst out of the water and see it's whole body before it goes below the water.

Q: What do you think about homeschooling?
I love it. It's great! It's really really fun.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
Boating life is hard but fun. And the hardness is what you pay for having fun.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me

In the Palm of Your Hand
Originally uploaded by ktoast.
At 6:30 a.m. my cell phone shrilly woke me up to the dulcet tones of my mother laughing at me. When I saw my mother's phone number in the small screen of my disposal cell phone, I panicked. The only reason to call me at that ungodly hour was an emergency along the lines of the Sacramento Valley dikes breaking and threatening to swamp her home. While there is nothing I could do about it, at least she would have the opportunity to let me know. This would be my mother.

However, her purpose was merely to greet me with a cheery happy birthday song and the imprecation to turn over a new leaf and start a life of early rising and bright chipper mornings. She was absolutely delighted that she'd wakened me. So at least my mother had a good start to the day, and honestly it's hard not to be in a good mood with your mommy laughing happily in your ear in the predawn light.

Dr C then slipped me out of the house to the local coffee shop for a grande generra (mocha with an orange twist and I recommend it highly) and a mango-passion fruit scone. While we were gone, my girls spent the morning making me a happy birthday sign. It is complete with personal drawings, little messages, signatures, and secret penned kisses.

The day is cloudy and drippy and damp and drizzly and all those things that should make me miserable. But the bimini covers went up yesterday, rendering the boat snug and comfortable. Dr C signs the papers this week to sell the pratice, and I think we might be able to find a tenant for our building in the form of the girls pediatrician.
My inbox is full of happy thoughts from friends, the IRC channel is buzzing with talk about where to take me for drinks, and there are two cards to open on the dining room table.

All in all it's not a bad thing being 39 (for the third time) if you have this many people who really want to make your day a happy one.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It Smells Like Dead Cow

If you own a boat, then there is no doubt that you have run into the marine tax. The marine tax is a very exclusive, limited tax on any product that professes to be appropriate for the boating and marine community.

I believe that the marine tax uses a principle very similar to the doctor tax. The doctor tax is the premium charged doctors for any product that is remotely medically related. While it makes some small amount of sense for purchases such as finely produced medical instruments or access to medical databases or sophisticated billing and electronic medical record software, it is utterly baffling when applied to recall post cards. A post card is a post card. Why does a post card that says, “Come see your doctor!” cost more than a post card that says say, “Your plumber loves you! Get your pipes cleaned!!” And so it goes in the marine community where anything presented is priced at roughly 300% markup.

Let's take for example the lowly barbecue. To celebrate the purchase of our new boat two years ago, I decided to purchase a big, burly, boat barbecue for my handsome husband. Being relatively new to the B.O.A.T. (bring over another thousand) world, I gathered the troops and headed off to the local West Marine. There I was presented with a fine display of grilling devices, all of which were half the size of my toaster oven and priced roughly the same as my wedding ring. If this were not sufficiently appalling, the mounting brackets came in a bewildering variety of over-$40 styles, customized to suit the requirements of any captain-cook-connoisseur.

I couldn't do it. I couldn't spend $250 on a device to burn meat. For one thing, I'm not a man. I suppose if I had balls, I could have done it. That still doesn't mean I would have, but at least I would have been genetically capable. But in the X chromosome is a little known gene sequence patterned to avoid spending needlessly on things not actually required for the reproduction of the species or looking good while walking down the street. I couldn't see that BBQ bringing me either. I just don't put out for grilled chops.

In despair, the girls and I headed out to complete our other errands. When looking for a present for my husband, I confess that we are hopelessly stereotypical. It is always possible to find what we are looking for at Home Depot. Always. This time we were particularly fortunate in that Home Depot was having a sale.

A really big sale on... now wait for it people...


Yes, I could purchase roughly the same unit as available at the marine store for $25. No mount, of course, and no shiny chrome bright work that would only give the illusion of protection from sea spray while simultaneously looking like absolute crap unless polished frequently. But it was a propane driven BBQ with lots of grill space. Proudly I presented it to Dr C that year for his birthday along with a punch card for nine more of them. I figured he could cash that in every year for the next ten years, and I'd still come out ahead.

You do the math.

This barbecue, however, is not without its downsides. Since I never did purchase a mount for the thing, Dr C is forever experimenting with where to put it. At various times, he's stowed it in just about every locker on the boat and – on one memorable occasion – in our bedroom.

I say “memorable” because a BBQ suffers from a unique form of halitosis due to its repeated exposure to meat and bone. It happily yields that smell to anything with which it comes in contact. Do not under any circumstances grill meat with your barbecue resting on the cockpit table in an enclosed bimini during the winter unless you really enjoy the smell of charred bone and dead cow. The odor permeates every fiber of your enclosure and seeps into the plastic of your boat. Nothing removes it. Ever.

My recommendation to fellow boaters if that if you choose the “disposable grill sans mount” strategy, identify a location to stow it, get a nice plastic box with a lid, and stash it where you don't care what things smell like. Cheap is good, but sweet smelling boat is better.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Out of Town Guests This Week

We hosted some fabulous people this weekend, friends from London. Of course, we thought we would treat them to a few days sailing the Puget Sound on our lovely cruising catamaran. There were a few problems with this plan:
  1. Our cruising catamaran is a live aboard cruising sailing boat full of children. Dirty, loud, (often overly) friendly children. I'm not sure how relaxing it was to spend time with us.
  2. The wind decided this weekend to be utterly windy. Magnificently windy sailing weather is fantastic for sailors, but again it lacks a certain restful relaxing vacationy quality for the uninitiated.
  3. We encountered a rather vicious chop while bobbing on our mooring ball off Blake Island rendering it impossible to sleep unless you are one of those little microdogs that routinely nap in old lady purses and are accustomed to the movement.
On that last point, my good friend Behan has already delightfully poked at me with the "oh but you said that wasn't a problem for catamarans" line. My first impulse is to stick my tongue at her. Frankly, my second and third impulses were unprintable without adding an explicit tag to my blog. But the point is unfortunately quite valid. We cat owners do pratt on and on about how much more comfortable our boats can be, even on a choppy anchorage. And as a rule, this is the case. We pitch, yaw, swoop and dip considerably less than a monohull.

However, less is not a blanket statement of "not at all" which we discovered to our dismay on Saturday night. It was without question our most uncomfortable night on record. If the waves are frequent, strong, and steep enough, we all bounce around like ping pong balls in a bathtub full of toddlers. In the future, I'll stick all the dirty clothes in a large bucket of sudsy water in the cockpit and at least get my clothes agitated for my troubles.

The upside is that Dr C and I were able to pull of the mooring ball at 3am and move the boat to the leeward side of the island without sustaining any damage to our boat or to our relationship. The move was cooperative and went without a hitch. Amazing. Couldn't see a damn thing, but we caught that mooring ball first pass around and settled in for a second night's sleep.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Questions from the Class - Eating Afloat

Question: If you're preparing a meal on the boat for your family, what do you make and how does prep on a boat differ from prep in a full kitchen? How is the meal served? Do you all sit at a table together?

The really important thing about boat cooking is that you work assiduously to make it less like camp cooking and more like house cooking. No one... and I do mean NO ONE... wants to spend several years camping. Camping is fun. It's like a city you want to visit, but you'd never live there. So long term living on a boat necessitates you figure out ways to make you feel like you're living in the Real World and not in some state park in Montana.

The cramped quarters, limited surface space, restricted equipment, and the propane stove and oven shove your head space into car camping mode. To exacerbate this situation, Dr C and my mom keep getting us gear from R.E.I and the Amish catalogs. This makes complete sense, mind you. When you live on a boat you need equipment that doesn't weigh much, doesn't take up much space, and best of all, doesn't require electricity. Boat life makes you really paranoid about using electricity. The Sierra Club sustainable greens could take lessons from cruising folks about how to use less electricity.

So here we are: No place to cut stuff. Two sinks, both of which are smaller than our smallest pot. A utensil drawer roughly the size of a Payless shoebox for toddlers. Two propane burners that require matches to start, a refrigerator the size of a breadbox, and all our food supplies stored under the girls’ butts in the salon table seats. The way prep differs is that you learn how to bring your elbows close to your body so you don't knock someone out, and you cook one item at a time. We do a lot of “one-pot” and grilled meals. The pressure cooker is an absolute lifesaver.

Limited storage space has, however, forced a very positive change in our diet. I now shop roughly every other day and purchase a lot more fresh, local produce. As part of our “people in other countries eat” project, we seek out the seasonal, local, organic, and unfamiliar, and we look increasingly to whole foods since our closest grocery store is very much into the funky, Berkeley-style, sticks-and-twigs, granola-crowd customer base.

Dr C has also done several customizations to make our galley much more Real World, with a whole array of To-Do enhancements in the queue to keep him busy on quiet anchorages in the future. The most important and useful addition was a large board which covers our companionway and literally quadruples the functional counter space. He also created an extension to the sink area which gives us a place to put dishes as we wash them. Another nifty trick was the hangers behind the stove for all those pesky cooking utensils that won't fit in a drawer that's only 12” deep. On the agenda will be more shelves, spice and wine racks, a drawer under the stove for pots, and hanging baskets for produce. In other words, more holes in the boat.

Serving is another adaptation. The table is easily big enough for all five of us to sit comfortably. In fact, when we have my in-laws on board, all seven of us can gather round. The problem is that it's only big enough to hold plates. So we always serve buffet style... except the cook does all the serving from the buffet while folks shout out what they want. Remember that the table is round, so basically all folks except the cook are trapped in their seats for the duration of the meal.

Then we have cleanup. After nearly two years we've finally figured out how to do the dishes. The restrictions here are space (well that was obvious) and water (we don't have very much despite the fact that we are floating in it) AND soap (we are reluctant to kill the fish). The solution is to put two inches of hot water in each of the mini-sink basins. We put microscopic amounts of soap on the sponge and wash the dish. Then we rinse it in the left “soapy” sink then in the right “fresh” basinlette. Then it gets dried by an army of minions using those ubiquitous blue cloths.

Still, I often feel like we're camping, particularly when we pull out the stove-top waffle iron, the hand crank blender, or the classic Don Quixote solution to BBQing on the cheap off the back transom using our $15 special. On the other hand, we have proven that you can get used to almost anything. And some aspects of boat cooking actually improve our lives. Trading in our $500 Gaggia espresso machine for a small, stove-top coffee maker and milk foamer upgraded our coffee experience by orders of magnitude. I swear I will never go back to the Real World for lattes.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Morning Ruminations

Holiday weekends are an opportunity for s/v Don Quixote to attempt to head in precisely the opposite direction as the rest of Seattle. I have become exceedingly risk averse when it comes to occassional sailors with limited experience of their own ground tackle.

This year we popped around the south end of Bainbridge Island and up to a little state marine park called Illahee. I recommend this park to fellow northwest boaters, particularly those with children. Good mud achorage, five mooring balls, beautiful park, great beach, dock to fish off, playground, and everything seeded with clams and oysters. It's not a place to go with strong southerlies, northerlies, easterlies, or any other damn wind. It's just not. It's a place to go when the weather is lovely, the kids want to play, and you want to take a nice walk in the woods. And this weekend it was. Lovely, that is. Perfect wind during the days, perfect calm during the night.

Dr C's parents joined us for the overnight. We've sailed with them enough that this addition to the boat is increasingly comfortable. They fit into the erector set of our lives almost seamlessly. This is good because they are a very active couple, veteran travelers and long term live aboard cruisers themselves for nearly three years. I anticipate we will see a great deal of them on our journeys. The fact that we were able to plug them into the boat life this weekend with nary a pause nor a fuss makes the prospect of routinely picking them up in exotic ports of call an easy one to contemplate.

The girls finally broke out The Island. The Island probably merits an entire article unto itself. Suffice it to say that this blow up structure is nearly as big as our boat and the girls absolutely love it. I have no clue how they can swim in this water which even in late summer is roughly the temparature of a well prepared martini. They emerge from their abulations with blue lips and splochy skin and grins so wide their ears disappear.

And last, but not least, we started school again this weekend. Officially, that is. We spent the summer successfully strewing crap all over house, van and boat. It is with glee I can refer to this strewing as unschooling rather than simply the actions of a lazy mother failing to pick up after herself. Yet while I am willing to concede that this approach does engage children and they learn oodles, I'm a stickler for a bit of the more formal approach to education. This weekend we dove back into our traditional workbooks, tackling a bit of this and a bit of that... mostly grammar and math. Of course, it was a delight to see that after finishing our “required school work”, Jaime and Aeron pulled out the magnets science lab during “free choice” and went to town making a leaning tower of magnetism and a homemade compass.

At present, my father in law and I are sitting in the cockpit, reading, typing, enjoying the still early morning with the best lattes ever. All I need to feel complete is for an open, unmanaged, wifi signal to drift over my boat entwined in the light morning haze.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

TechTip: One Man's Trash

Short Story
Transitioning from land life to boat life involves getting rid of most of your stuff. What you can't or don't sell on eBay or at a yard sale, freecycle. Like taking things to the dump, only better.

Long Version
Land life is full of stuff. You have memorabilia stuff, furniture stuff, clothing stuff, and just stuff stuff that defies categorization. You can try selling it on eBay. That sort of works, but is an insane amount of work. People who pay you for your stuff expect your stuff to arrive in perfect condition roughly two hours from the time the auction closes, even if you are shipping it to somewhere approximately in the middle of bumdump nowhere.

You can haul your stuff to the dump, but there are two problems with this. First, most dumps now charge you more than a storage facility to 'warehouse' your stuff. Second, sometimes your stuff is cool. It still works, and it could make someone a happy someone. It hurts to throw away things you've collected if they still operate and might yield more functionality to the greater goodness of fighting scarcity.

You can give some of your stuff to Good People. The blind folks, the Salvation Army folks, the local high school yard sale. This feels good, it really does. I recommend this approach for another purely selfish and Machiavellian reason: Stuff you give to Good People is tax deductible. I like tax deductible. Unfortunately, there is a lot of your stuff that is not good enough for the Good People but not bad enough to pay the garbage men to take it.

And this residual stuff is what you freecycle. Freecycle is a fantastic idea. The way it works is that people in the same part of the country sign up for a regional freecycle email list on Yahoo! All you need is a Yahoo! email address and the willingness to slog through hundreds of messages a day. When you have something to freecycle, you post a message to this list identifying the item being offered. Then brace yourself as the replies come in. You do not have to give it to the first person that replies, but rather give your stuff to the person who describes the best need.

So let's try an example.

Subject: OFFERED: Box of Half Used Booze (West Seattle)
Message: In over ten years of living in the same house, we accumulated a lot of bottles of miscellaneous flavors of alcohol used in recipes for interesting party concoctions. Anyone want them? I will check ID on pickup.

We received nearly 70 replies to this one. Not surprising, really. Everyone wants free booze. The winning candidate was a young student of bartending who said she would both give away the booze, rather than drink it, and that she would be able to further her education by having so much raw material to practice with. She may have been lying, but I liked the story.

Most items I leave on the front porch with a sticky note. It disappears within two days. After you've given away all your stuff, you get off the mailing list so as to avoid the spam.

To sign up for freecycle, browse to Create an account, pick your region, and prepare to unload your stuff.