Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Believe it or not, this blog started as a romance novel. No, really.

About a year ago, my very good friends Hbunny and K1rk told me about the National Write a Novel in a Month organization and talked me into participating. This group urges participants to “write 50,000 words in 30 days.” The whole premise is founded on the notion that you should write your first novel and then promptly throw it into the trash.

I spent the waning days of October 2006 preparing to finally knuckle down and write my first romance novel. In retrospect, my arrogance was stunning. I like reading romance novels. They seem formulaic enough. I am an experienced technical writer, so I know how to write. I am an experienced documentation manager so I can edit just about anything. I have lots of ideas. I'm smart. I'm literate. I have a computer. I have a word processor. What the hell else could I need?

One week into November, it was clear that what I needed was a completely different personal history, a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and possibly a brain transplant with Jayne Krentz. By day nine, I admitted defeat. I was two pages into my romance novel and nearly 10,000 words into a series of increasingly acerbic vignettes about the horrors of homeschooling, boat life, and sailing. I fired a few of these off to my mother and a few friends, who promptly told me that this – THIS – was what I was meant to do.

I made it to only 23,000 words last year. Instead of a novel, I produced the raw materials for roughly two thirds of the articles you've seen on this blog since January. Some of my best ideas – including the two articles recently published in northwest boating magazines – originated during that fateful month. I also came to grips with the fact that my inner muse is not really so much a Julia Quinn or Jude Devereux but rather more like a David Barry and Erma Bombeck.

This year, Hbunny is not forgiving. He says I can sign up for NaNoWriMo, but it's not right for me to put the logo on my site. So this is the only time you'll see it. Starting November 1, I will disgorge roughly 2,000 words per day in a raw uncensored flow of boat life crap. Lucky for the faithful readers of this blog, I have no intention of posting any of it until December. I'm afraid you'll have to make do for the next month with back links to my older, more favored articles and outlinks to those of fellow cruisers whose blogs I follow semi-religiously.

Editor's Note: Bethany's comment made me realize I wasn't completely clear... I've prepared roughly a dozen small "look at this" posts that I'll dribble out during November. These will point you to my favorite cruising sites, general purpose blogs, and my own favorite articles from the first six months for my new readers. It won't go dark.

Use your time wisely, my friends. When I get back from NaNoWriMo, the holding tank contents are likely to hit the heater vent.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oh Yes You Can

Learning to Ice Skate
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It is not true that all people think you are insane when you tell them you are planning to homeschool. In fact, if you live as we do in a state with just about the lowest per student expenditure on education in an urban district which consistently characterizes itself by embarrassing us with its imcompentance, you would find the folks around you quite supportive. There are considerably less responses along the lines of “Why the hell are you doing it?” and more in the vein of “Wow, I so admire you. I wish I could do that.”

Well, of course, you can. Let's be clear, here. Most of the people with whom my husband and I come into contact are upper middle class folk with at least two incomes, one of them in the medical or computer software industries. These are not people who lack for ready credit. To homeschool their children, they merely need to give up a few cherished notions.

Money is More Important Than Happiness
Theoretically, we all know this. If you asked point blank any man on the street, “Is it more important to be happy or to be wealthy?” the little lemmings will immediately reply, “Happy of course!” Of course! It's so obvious. However, our entire culture of consumerism tells us in overt, covert and down right insidious ways that money IS happiness, stuff is important, things are the path to righteousness, and prosperity is measured in the number of your toys.

So if you want to homeschool – and for many of you that means giving up half your annual income – you are going to have to trade a substantial amount of money, things and stuff for an intangible gain in family harmony and experiential wealth. Sometimes I feel as if this tradeoff is literally one to one. One toy foregone for one amazing moment with my children, an expansion slot on my Mac for an afternoon with the girls studying sun fish in the tidal zone. If you're going to homeschool, you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and give up things for unthings.

Schools are a Fact of Life
Well, not so much. Historically, the modern industrialization of education in which we put all the children in one spot, divide them by age, and crank them all out of the system like widgits is relatively new. While there were “boarding schools” for the past several hundred years, prior to that there were monks and private tutors for rich people, a master-journeyman-apprenticeship for the middle classes, and nothing for the masses. Even in the US, “schools” as we know them didn't open till the 1900's. Rural schools for many decades longer were one-room classrooms with multi-age education.

So just stop believing that school, like death, taxes, and tides, is a fact of life. Public education has done absolute wonders for the United States, democracy, and the middle class way of life. It is not, however, inevitable. Nor is it necessarily preferable. I'm not even clear that it falls into the same status as democracy, which basically sucks but is clearly better than all the alternatives. You don't have to go to school. You definitely don't have to send your kids there.

You Will Kill Your Kids
I know it seems odd to describe this as a cherished notion, but I can't tell you how many times I've heard this stated in a rueful but somewhat relieved voice. “Oh I can't homeschool my kids, I'd kill them.” It's a very easy out. Look, I'm not a poster child for harmonious relationships between parent and child; My children and I alternate in a bipolar rhythm between a Burning Man style love fest and absolute, mutual loathing. However, I can affirm that you won't kill them.

In very important ways, your relationship with your children in the Real World is distorted by the mechanization of the patterns of your life. The clock, in particular, dictates so much of your lives, and the clock is unforgiving. It causes tension, increases frustration, and makes you miserable. Another warp comes in the form of the very divergent interests between parent and child when the child spends all his day with other children and you spend all your day with adults. The moat between your lives is so wide as to be nearly uncrossable.

When you spend the day, all day, every day with your kids, these twists in your relationship are removed, leaving you to build something completely different. I can't describe it. In fact, I suspect that these changes are unique for every homeschool family. I also sense that the further you drift into the homeschool world, the less able you are to explain to the Real World just how your lives differ.

* * *

Oh Yes You Can
Oh Yes You Can
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It is so hard to give up a long held belief. To this day, I refuse to believe that my mother had sex with my father. The prospect is so unlikely. Yet if you really plan to change your life in any dramatic way, you need to run roughshod over your own assumptions. It is not enough to just say, “I want to...” “I wish I could...” “I envy you...”

You are going to go around on this planet only once. After that, you're likely to reincarnate as either a rat in Bangladesh or a three-eyed, five-legged sentient octopus in Betelgeuse. The probability that you'll get to be a human being – with these people, these children, this spouse – again is astronomically unlikely. Stop telling me that you wish you could spend more time on the things that are important to you and start proving that those things are more important.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why is It Always the Impeller?

Warm Hands
Originally uploaded by brainswax.
We broke the boat again. Specifically, we broke another diesel engine. Yet more specifically, we broke the impeller on the diesel engine that drives hot water through pipes in the boat to heat us all to a toasty warm, happy state.

As breakages go, this one is only to cost us roughly 1/3 of a boat buck. We also do not need to have the mechanic install the part. I am rather proud of Us. Us as in We. We as in Dr C and I both diagnosed the problem and then he figured out what part we need to fix it. We as in hopefully he'll let me do some of the replacing of said part when it finally arrives from its home in the Black Woods of Prussia.

It is unfortunate that this break could not have taken place some other time. Say six months from now when a heater on Don Quixote will be a fundamentally obsolete piece of technology. However, October in the Pacific Northwest is not the time to play footsies with hypothermia. You will lose, and it will be an unpleasant, humiliating loss.

It's also clear to me now that we are not truly boat worthy. Had we been truly boat worthy, we would be on the boat still... heating our hands on the kerosene lantern, drying our clothes and bedding in the shore laundry, and attempting to sleep through the sound of our snot condensing on the cieling and dripping down the walls. But we are not boat worthy at all and completely wimped out. We packed up the kids, the perishable food items, and the gold fish and decamped to the basement of our former home.

Where upon the pipe to the bathtub above us promptly burst and filled our basement head with a steady drizzle of foul smelling liquid and splats of dissolved dry wall.

Someone is trying to tell me something. Translators welcome.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Where's the Shovel?

Originally uploaded by brainswax.
A scream of pain rose from the starboard hull. Children have many screams. The smart Darwinian money is on those parents capable of quickly distinguishing between the “cry wolf” style screams and the Real Thing. This was the Real Thing, no question. Based on volume, pitch, and sincerity, this one involved physical injury to my youngest.

Mama Bear sprung into action. I levitated out of the bunk and up the companionway. Then I dashed across the salon, grabbing a blue cloth en route. I never go anywhere without a clean blue cloth. I threw myself into the children's hull and rammed my way into the girls' cabin, from experience simply leaping over the pile of detritus that litters their cabin floor.

Aeron, still mid-scream, was holding up a rather bloody paw. The story revealed much later is that a lose, metal catch on her art box had finally given way, and she had gashed out a good chunk of her left palm. Unfortunately, I couldn't get to her. She was huddled on the back wall and twitx me and thee were a veritable herd of stuff animals, pillows and blankies.

In full Mega Mom Mode, I started brutaly tossing precious dolls on to the cabin floor. A confetti of beanie babies, throw pillows, and Build a Bear sweater and pants sets flew into the air as I forced my way towards my baby. Getting close, I reached out, grabbing Aeron by her uninjured arm, and lifted her out of cacoon of bedding and into my lap. I slapped the blue cloth onto the wound, put pressure on it, and then held up her hand to slow the bleeding. Aeron is a trooper. Things were definitely in hand now, literally, so her screaming subsided to a choked, indignant snuffling as I craddled her and explained to her that everything would be okay. We would put some stingy stuff on, wrap it all up carefully, and she'd be back in business in no time. We just needed to get the first aid kit and Daddy.

I shifted her to start making our way back to the salon when I recognized my serious mistake. The cabin floor was literally hip deep in bedding and toys pressed firmly against the door. Jaime was pushing against the outside, asking if we needed help, but she could barely move it. Like a landslide on a major interstate, it would take a crew of hundreds and some heavy equipment to shift the load out of the way of traffic.

Aeron in a Good Mood
Aeron in a Good Mood
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Aeron and I simultaneously came to the same conclusion and looked up. The only way out of there was through the ceiling hatch. Still gripping Aeron's hand to staunch the blood, we each reached our free arms up to undog the hatch. I went up first, then helped her out just as Dr C boarded the boat. There are times when he earns his sobriquet as Dr and this was one of them. He immediately grasped the situtation, scooped up a now giggling Aeron, and whisked her off to do his professional medicine man dance to heal her hand. Ever the diligent sailor, I redogged the hatch and went to wash my hands and pour a glass of wine.

At some point, I'm going to have to face the challenge of getting back into that cabin. I might write it off as a dead loss of space, given over to a herd of rampaging giraffalopes and cackling furbies, but I can't. I think we left Mera in there.

Monday, October 15, 2007

TechTip: What's In a Label?

Short Story
It's stormy, the boat is bouncing, and you just need to know which handle to turn to empty the toilet. There is nothing more helpful to you, your crew, and guests at that point than a handy dandy label. I recommend that every boat carry a simple low tech piece of gear called a label maker.

Long Version
It seems obvious to my husband, “Tighten the main sheet!” he belts out as the choppy seas and off side winds bob us around like a ping pong in a bathtub full of toddlers. And to him, it's obvious. The main sheet is the white line with the little red specks. To anyone less familiar with the boat, however, the main sheet is any one of four lines which inexplicably all disappear into the mast only to emerge somewhere north of the bimini and completely out of sight. The blank look on the face of our guest as he stares in bewilderment at the lines is a very sad testament to our failure to state the obvious.

The best boats, in my opinion, come with instructions. You get on board, and you immediately know which locker holds the propane tanks and which one holds the dock lines and fenders. You glance over at the row of blocks on the starboard side and make note of the main halyard, reefing lines, and jib sheet. You do not spend five minutes trying to find the place to put your toilet paper after you've done your business. And never mind guests, there are things you only touch on your boat during a haulout, overhaul, or maintenance emergency. I don't want to fumble round trying to figure out which of three thru hulls is the holding tank outlet, shower outlet, or raw water inlet when there is a leak. I absolutely don't want to ever wonder which direction to set the holding tank Y value. Then there is the electrical panel with its airplane like array of buttons, knobs and unnamed LEDs.

To render your boat self-explanatory, get yourself to the nearest office supply store and buy a label maker. The model I recommend is the Brother PT-1280. This little device runs on two AA batteries and produces a steady stream of verbal idiot lights. You should be able to find one for about 20 USD, so this is not a major investment. Do not, however, let your children play with this thing as the tape is rather pricey.

Once you get the labeler on your boat, you will be surprised how many rolls of tape you go through. The captain and I routinely leave pithy notes to our future selves to remind us not to make the same mistake twice:

Behind the head.....................If you haven't eat it, don't put it in this bowl.
Over the second water spigot in the galley......Do not make coffee with this. It's salt water.
Next to the ignition switch............Check the dinghy painter.
Under the previous one.................Count the children. You should have at least three.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

War of the Roses

There are some choices in life for which there is no correct answer: paper vs. plastic, cloth vs. disposable, tastes great vs. less filling. Then there are others which you simply must avoid in the interest of self-preservation since registering your opinion will bring down the wrath of fundamentalists on both sides of the debate: to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, pro-life or pro-choice, Starbuck’s or Tully’s.

I try to avoid these debates. It’s not that I don’t have strong opinions. In fact, it is probably fair to say that I have strong opinions about virtually any topic you should care to mention. But as I grow older I have begun to recognize my limits, and there are hills I just do not care to die on. Unfortunately, along with my new cruising life my husband accidentally thrust us into one of the most vigorous verbal battles of our generation: mono-hull versus multi-hull.

Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The two camps break down roughly as follows. In the right corner, we have rich and fascinating 500 year history of western European mono-hull sailing. There are literally berzillions of words written on the topic and entire regions of the world devoted to the successful production and maintenance of these vessels. The modern cruising community as we know it started with mono-hulls, and these single-keeled craft still dominate the cruising landscape. Certainly, most of the major authors writing in the trade magazines, publishing their work and delivering seminars at boat shows, began in a mono-hull and remain convinced of their superiority. This camp is championed by a handsome white man, about 50, distinguished, knowledgeable, stylishly dressed for dinner at a seaside restaurant.

Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
In the left corner, we have an eclectic, pan-Pacific 3,000 year history of multi-hull crafts reaching from tiny Polynesian trading trimarans to the stunning, blade sharp 180 foot long hulls of modern racing catamarans. Catamarans enjoy increasing popularity in the charter trade as folks discover how many more relatives you can fit on a 50’ boat with six bedrooms and four heads. As a result production manufacturers appeared on the scene about a decade ago pumping out two-hulled, house boats with a profligacy resembling a rabbit breeding program. This camp is represented by a guy in his early 30’s of indeterminate Heinz-57 varieties ethnicity who casually tossed on a pair of Crocs, Bermuda shorts, and a loose tropical shirt.

Ding ding ding! Round 1 – Safety

Monohull Man: Catamarans break anchor and run aground.

Catamaran Guy: Snort. Everything breaks anchor some day. But when your boat does it, the thing hits shore and flops over like a dead fish. With my boat, we call it beaching and do it on purpose.

Monohull Man: Yes, but your two hulled wonder flips over and stays that way.

Catamaran Guy: Yeah, but your leaner sinks when you put a hole in the hull.

Monohull Man: Ha! Your boat can’t handle the stress of heavy winds!

Catamaran Guy: Fine! But your boat is so deep keeled you can’t get into half as many protected anchorages.

Judgement – I’m going to call this one a draw. Any boat is dangerous in the wrong hands. Any decently well-founded boat is safe if not taken into conditions it can’t handle. Know your boat, watch the weather, and make your decisions based on the conditions rather than the calendar.

Ding Ding Ding! Round 2 – Cost

Monohull Man: Cost per square foot on a catamaran is higher.

Catamaran Guy: What do you want? Two hulls for the price of one? Yeah, sure, it’s a bit pricier, but you can bring the entire gang, invite all your friends, share the cost.

Monohull Man: Two engines, two electrical systems, two hulls to paint. Need I say more?

Catamaran Guy: Yeah, how about you sing the Safety Dance? Re-dun-dan-cy, babe. You keep harping about safety… how about the safety of having two engines?

Monohull Man: Dock space for those enormous floating turtles is hard to find and more expensive.

Catamaran Guy: Dude, there you are flat out smoking crack. You pay by the foot at most guest docks, and my boat’s a good fifteen feet shorter than yours. You want to park that long tube in a marina for months, your problem. You want to anchor out, ride the non-existent waves of my boat.

Judgement – Round 2 to Monohull Man. No question cats are more expensive in dozens of different ways. It takes a well-heeled dreamer to afford the space and comfort. It’s also true, though, that there ways to reduce the cost of cat ownership including anchoring out more and in greater comfort even in choppy weather.

Ding Ding Ding! Round 3 – Comfort

Catamaran Guy: We aren’t really going to have this conversation, are we?

Monohull Man: Well…um… no.

Judgement – Round 3 to Catamaran Guy. Only the most hardened and fanatic monohull manic will tell you the single hull life life is more comfortable. They’ll try to spin a yarn about rocking horse motion and booming against the bridge deck. It’s sour grapes.

Ding Ding Ding! Final Round – Performance

Monohull Man: Can we skip this one too?

Catamaran Guy: Yeah.

Judgement – Final round goes to neither actually. While sailors agree in principle that cats should be faster than monohulls, the truth is neither category takes the prize here. Our lovely Lagoon is a complete lazy bag and couldn’t win a race if her very existence depended on it. She truly is a floating house. On the other hand, catamarans are handily winning major races around the world with their longer water lines and lean lines. Performance is about a specific design not about whether there is one hull or two. You’d be hard pressed, however, to find a trimaran that doesn’t blow past all the competition at faster than wind speed.

* * *

So who wins this War of the Roses? Those who buy a boat and go.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Temperature Control - 48 North

This month 48° North featured an article by yours truly. For those folks who don't live in the northwest and can't pick up a hard copy, you can find the article online. I LOVE the illustration. I want to thank Amanda Swan-Neale of Mahina Expeditions. She has been very supportive and very insistent that I keep working to get published. With friends like these, who needs an agent?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Voices Carry

Aeron Blowing in a Shell
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I can hear the girls approaching the boat from the parking lot. Their dulcet tones raised in delightful cries of, “Did not!” “Did too!” “Did not, you snot!” “Did so, you bigger snot!” beat a pleasant counterpoint to the staccato beat of their Crocs smacking down the boat ramp at full speed.

In a vain attempt to reduce the volume, I call out through the salon windows, “Kitty cat feet, girls! Kitty cat feet!” Kitty cats are light. Kitty cats are small, delicate, delightful, and cute. Kitty cats do not sound like a stampede of elephants. Kitty cats do not thump, bang, and flop. They do not bellow, rage, or pull hair.

Okay, maybe they pull hair.

Water is a fabulous transmitter of energy and sound. You can whisper something discreet to your husband at the end of Dock N such as, “You still have the cutest ass west of the Rockies,” for example, and your friends at the fuel dock half a mile away will start laughing. A bickering couple battened down in the Catalina 28' project their negative energy out into the evening with THX volume and clarity.

So when you live on a boat, you learn to tread more lightly, speak more quietly, fight less ardently. Your music goes down at dusk, and you use salon cushions to bury your screams of frustration when the propane tank runs out about half-way through barbequing the chicken.

But the kids fail to grasp this concept. A child who is humiliated when you mention in front of another parent at school the need to purchase new underthings thinks nothing of broadcasting to the entire anchorage the fact that mommy needs to stop running around naked between her cabin and the head in the middle of the night. “It's disgusting. I can see your panties and your BOOBS.” Or how about, “DADDY, stop PEEING OVER THE SIDE OF THE BOAT. Someone might SEE YOU.” Well, I bet we're the local peep show now, thank you very much.

At times, this auditory property of the waterfront is a parent's friend. For example, when you lose a child – easy enough to do when you have three of them – all you need do is stand on the bow, still and quiet, and within moments you can hear their cries like those of gulls on the evening breeze. It takes practice to learn how to adjust for refractive error, wind speed and direction, and the pitch distortion due to elevation to triangulate precisely where the voices originate. Once you perfect your skills, though, your children rarely remain lost for long.

Butter Wouldn't Melt
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
However, most of the time I long for the sound deadening influence of dirt, trees, and SUVs. In the suburbs, my neighbors never knew precisely how frustrating it is to get the kids fed and dressed in the morning, Dr C's love of Led Zepplin at high volume was our own dirty secret, and sex was an uninhibited, noisy affair.

In fact, this may be the answer to that favorite land lubber question, “What do you miss the most now that you live on a boat?” An acoustical buffer zone.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Questions from the Class - Interviewing Aeron

Dollar Bill
Originally uploaded by brainswax.
This series ends with my interview of Aeron. She wasn't a heck of a lot more responsive than Jaime. I think Keet is right... this would work better if I just interviewed them for an audio podcast.

* * *

Q: What do you think about our plans to cruise?
Really really really cool. I feel really happy.

Q: What was your favorite trip on the boat?
I gotta say it's probably going up into Canada. 'Cause I was with my grandparents and I'd never been up to Canada before.

Q: What was your worst time on the boat?
Being stuck in my cabin seasick. I was stuck there because it was too roly poly outside.

Q: What is your favorite thing to do as a boat kid?
Go everywhere. I'm always on my boat and my boat makes me happy.

Q: What is the thing you hate most as a boat kid?
Doing dishes.

Q: Are there any places you want to go? or see?
I'm looking forward to seeing dolphins, going down south, and swimming in warm water.

Q: What do you think about homeschooling?
It's cool cause I get to spend more time with my mom and my family. I like sailing.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
No. Not really. I itch and I can't think about this.*

* Note to boating families: Sea air is good for your health but bad for your skin. LOTS of sun screen and LOTS MORE moisturizing lotion are in order.