Saturday, August 30, 2008

Goodbye Greg

Greg Jennings
Today I learned about the loss of a friend. Greg Jennings was a tall, slender, quiet man with a mystic smile that made you wonder what he was thinking. It was college, and Greg was a phase in my life where I experimented with the concept of Great Romance. I was young, stupid, overly emotive, and quite frankly the world's most psychotic girl friend. It's lucky we both survived the experience.

Fortunately, Greg stayed his mellow self. He became a forest ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management, married Lisa, and lived his life by his own terms. A motorist killed him Monday as he commuted home from work on his bike. All accounts suggest that he was doing the commute right, with all the correct gear, behavior, and location on the road. Some complete idiot hit him anyway.

The news came to me through a mutual friend with a long list of CC email addresses, each name of which triggered a series of flashbacks. These were the people of my young adulthood with whom I spent hours drinking, dancing, philosophizing over coffee in East Bay diners, and contemplating the infinite possibilities of the navel. Some were at my wedding, others were lovers, most were people I haven't seen in two decades. Our musings on Greg's death remind me why Dean and I are cruising.

There is no assurance. We assume we will all just keep going. Hoffman and Mulloy, Kalin and Dyer, Jost, Hickman, Makler... Jennings. And then we find out they stop. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that we all stop. So obvious. Live today for tomorrow some asshole will change the music on his iPod and strike us down.

I don't miss Greg; I haven't seen him since the 80's so it would be complete drama queen to say I miss him or that this is extraordinarily painful news. I miss the idea of Greg being somewhere living his life, doing his thing, smiling his enigmatic smile, and smelling good to his wife. I miss the total fallacy of a certain future. I want him back so that I can once again ignore mortality.

I want to sail away this afternoon with my husband and children and never come back.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sail Gale Whale Ale Day

Dingy Fleet
Dingy Fleet
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The trip was roughly 35 nautical miles if you followed the coast line from Winter Harbor, across to Cape Cook, around Brooks Peninsula, and over to the tuck into beautiful little Columbia Cove. Other than rounding Cape Scott, this trip around Brooks Peninsula is considered by many to be the hairiest part of any passage up or down the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Brooks is a thumb of land pushing into the Pacific like a hitch hiker grabbing the nearest earthly plate to drift northwards. Apparently, this nearly square jut of land is the only part of Vancouver not covered by glaciers during the last ice age. It stands several thousand feet tall and funnels the prevailing summer northeasterly in a vicious hook around Cape Cook and Solander Island where winds are routinely 30 to 40 and at least 10 to 15 higher than everywhere else.

As a result, we all timed the weather window carefully, hanging on hooks in or near Winter Harbor for a few days until satisfied with the reports off Solander and South Brooks. The sail boats were, of course, the first to leave the harbors. We swarmed out of Quatsino Sound, little pickup sticks bouncing vertically on the waves as we coalesced from north and west towards our course at the first waypoint off Kwakiutl Point. The wind freshened inexplicably from the east to 15 and the horizon sparkled with the handkerchief dots of main sails and jibs happily taking advantage of the beam reach for the first leg.

Just as all our sails went up, the power boaters steamed by thumping out cross wakes which were immediately lost in the developing chop created by an easterly wind and a northwesterly swell. Their objectives were no doubt considerably more ambitious than our own, bypassing the hidden coves of South Brooks entirely and heading deep into the friendly harbors and calm waters of Kyuquot Channel. There was also the practical consideration of the weather report. Winds nasty in the morning, dying off mid day, returning with a vengeance in late afternoon. Our p/v compatriots were simply getting while the getting was good.

We, however, were sailing into a fog bank as the winds shifted finally to their usual northwest and picked up to 20. The seas were only 2 meters. Only. The girls and I are complete noobs in the world of oceanic voyaging so six feet of steep wave with white caps was both intimidating and sickening. One by one, the girls went down with gimpy tummy. No one tossed anything smelly, but I settled them all down with blankies, stuffed animals, and motherly love, and they promptly followed the body’s most useful defense against seasickness -- they passed out. This left Dr C and I on the deck with no company. All the other boats, the shore, and the horizon were lost in a dense blanket of mist.

I said 35 miles, right? But that was, of course, assuming we followed the coast line. We never follow the coast line. We never follow a straight line. We are a sail boat, so of course the wind never permits us to travel the shortest distance. Instead, we headed off into the deep blue in a course somewhat orthogonal to our destination. The winds were cold and wet, the skies grey, the water slate and dusted with spray. Tracking via the chart plotter, backed up by our handheld GPS and chart, was the only indicator we were making progress. It all looked the same. Seas high and choppy, steep waves with short periods, wind steady 23 gusting occasionally to 30. Dr C kept reassuring me that it could be so much worse. We headed out out out into the ocean, then finally tacked and headed back back back to the unseen coastline.

One mile before the chart insisted we’d duck behind Brooks on the last leg of our journey, the sun suddenly made an appearance, the headland loomed above us, and the water began to sparkle. A half mile later, the winds dipped to 14, and the chop disappeared. Another mile and we were well into the shelter of Brooks, the winds died to 5, and the swell disappeared. Even shaking out reefs didn’t help, and the motor went on. We were so hot we started shedding clothing, stripping the covers off the bimini, and turning on the fans.

We Saw Whales!
We Saw Whales!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Another mile behind the peninsula and the blow holes started spouting in every direction. The girls, fully recovered from nap and mal de mer, swarmed over the deck shouting and pointing. Dr C throttled back as a large pod of orcas herded fish past us and towards the shore. At one point a trio headed straight for the boat, blowing not 10 yards from our starboard bow. The girls bounced on the tramp as the beasts passed under them before emerging for air again 20 yards off the port. Fins were visible in every direction, tails occasionally flapped the water, and one broached and jumped partially out of the water. Dr C idled forward after their passage only to be brought up short again, this time by a pair of humpbacks. These were much much larger and much slower. They seemed to enjoy looking at our boat, and spent a good five minutes showing their humps as they circled us before moving on to something more interesting.

I took the helm threading our way into the microscopic dip in the shoreline that constitutes the Columbia Cove anchorage as Dr C and the girls continued their Discovery Channel moment on the bow. There, tucked between rock and headland, were our buddy boats s/v Indigo and s/v Mercedes. Like the orcas, dinghies flowed out from our friends towards our boat, greetings and invitations extended, and guidance on where to anchor proffered. Forty to fifty miles later through sail, gale and whale, it was time to settle in for sea stories and ale. Welcome home!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cooking Idea - Stormy Sunset

Pacific Northwest is Paradise
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Somewhere I read that cruising sailors like to have a signature “boat drink.” There is also a signature “boat potluck offering”, a signature “boat campfire offering,” and a signature “form of entertainment.” We’ll work on those others later. Right now, we’ve been concentrating on the signature drink.

Our good friends on s/v Reverie introduced us to the “Dark and Stormy” our first summer out. Rum, ginger ale, and fresh squeezed lime on ice combine to create a really tasty and refreshing cocktail which works well on a sunny evening anchorage. Dr C, however, felt: (1) it would be déclassé to crib someone else’s signature drink; and (2) Don Quixote deserved a more fruity, elaborate offering to suit her quixotic nature. So, he started experimenting with fruit nectars, coconut milk, and god only knows what else.

Ironically, after many thick, sweet, and increasingly demented variations on your basic piña colada, we circled around almost back to where we started. As an acknowledgment of our inspiration, I dubbed this a Stormy Sunset.

Stormy Sunset
4 oz apricot nectar
4 oz ginger ale
1 oz fresh lime juice (or a drizzle of the bottled stuff)
2 oz rum

Serve in a big tumbler on ice in the cockpit when the sun is still warm but just touching the tops of the trees. Best served when you’ve got friends aboard. Note, you can make this with any “orange” juice or nectar. Variations we’ve tried include mango, orange, and passion fruit. We like it best with the apricot, though.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oh Yeah, We're Having Great Weather

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer circumnavigating Vancouver Island.” Continuing our theme of discomfort, bad weather, and demonstrated consistency in converting the adventure of a lifetime into a miserable slog, the Congers spent the summer of 2008 banging our way down the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Novices, dreamers or non-sailors may say, “Okay... we care why?” but anyone familiar with the patterns of weather, wind, and tide which predominant the entire Pacific Coast are probably saying, “Huh?” You do not bang down the Pacific Coast; You bang up it. Banging, for those not familiar with the term, is when you turn your boat into the wind, quarter to the waves, and bang up and over every swell into the teeth of an incipient gale. It is hard on the boat, it is hard on the crew. It is difficult, nauseating, and physically exhausting. It is also slow. And it is not fun.

Typically, the winds and tide during the summer months off Vancouver Island are from the northwest. This is why cruisers circumnavigate counter clockwise. You get to the top of the island, put up your spinnaker, and drift down like fluff on on the prevailing northwesterly, surfing the waves, and enjoying the afternoon sun. Granted, mornings are full of mist and fog, cloaking the island in mystery. Yet, by midday the sun has burned through, the waters sparkle, the fish practically leap into the frying pan, and the ocean spreads out before you like a buffet of gentle rolling hills.

Unless you are Don Quixote.

In which case, you wake up to fog so thick you can’t see your buddy boat on the hook 20 yards away. Then you listen to the forecast which is just plain dismal as far into the foreseeable future as it is possible for Canadian meteorologists to speculate. After a cup of coffee, an hour or two beating the children with math and science books, and a plate of hot homemade scones, you muster the energy to weigh anchor and head out of your protected inlet into the latest southeasterly. An hour later, the sails are up, the children are down with a bad case of mal de mer, and yours truly is sitting at the helm grimly trying to take pleasure in the Daily Giz Wiz while scanning the non-existent horizon.

The wind inevitably is precisely on the nose. Being a catamaran, this means we can turn the bow towards Vladivostok and make great speed into the middle of the ocean, or we can try to point up as high as possible and bang the bows into every swell.For eight hours. More or less. Then it’s time to duck into another sound and pray desperately to the wind and sea gods that after a few days recovery, the weather will return to the regularly scheduled program of northwesterlies.

Which it didn’t, of course, and that’s the point. We, Don Quixote, cursed the entire 2008 cruising class. My sincere apologies to every other boat out here. Had we not arrived, I’m sure cosmic karma would have offered up a better plate of fronts. You’ll be happy to know, however, that if you are still out on the coast, there is hope on the horizon. Don Quixote is heading south. We’ll duck into Seattle for a few weeks bringing rain, low temperatures, and sour laundry to the Emerald City. Then we’ll head south. This absolutely ensures that the Puget Sound should experience a lovely September.

San Francisco, however, is in trouble.
Solar Wind
Solar Wind
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rule of Three

DrC's Big Catch
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Editor’s Note: Written in early July while we were still on the inside passage.

Laureen says, “If three things go wrong, don’t do it. The karma is bad.” This is Laureen’s Rule of Three. Laureen is a wise woman in many ways. Yet, at the core I think this may be a very important part of the secret sauce which makes her such a successful woman.

We here on Don Quixote would probably have never made it out of the house, let alone on to the boat, off the dock, and up the Strait, had we paid even the slightest attention to the Rule of Three. Now, however, that we are veterans of several months of breaking things, we are starting to selectively implement threeness.

For example, last night we abandoned Lagoon Cove in favor of Cutter Cove:
* We potentially anchored too close to a rock which might show up on low tide. Sure we could move, but...
* The marina harbormaster was decidedly unfriendly when we thought to come visit other boaters at the Happy Hour. It’s not like we asked to eat their munchies or drink their drinks, just sit on the dock with other boaters, but...
* A friendly couple on a powerboat put out some god awful amount of rope rode so as soon as the tide turned they floated as neat as you please into our laps. Fortunately, Dr C spotted them about 3 feet before their stern slid between our bows and under the tramp. We could mess with our anchor and ask them to take in their rode, but...

Then there was our plan to stern tie in Blind Bay:
* The wind
* The tide
* The verticality of the cliff on which Dr C wanted me to tie it.

We could also look at my ambition to engage in amateur theatrics:
* Mera does all parts with an English accent, even the Russian ones
* I can’t find my drama book... I think Aeron absconded with it
* Dr C runs and hides when people come to visit the boat.

If three things go wrong -- even if you could either fix all three or the three are entirely unrelated -- the gods are trying to tell you something. They are smacking you on the forehead with a loud karmic, “NO.” It behooves the smart cruiser to listen closely to these otherworldly voices. They are infinitely more intelligent then the girls’ flower fairies who tell advise us on clothing accessories, moderately more accurate than the Canadian Marine weather forecasts, and at least as consistent as the advice tendered by fellow travelers on where to get cheap beer.

Bread? Out of bread flour, forgot the sour dough starter the night before, can’t find the salt. No bread.

Swimming? Jellies surrounding the boat, can’t find Jaime’s suit top, Aeron slips on the deck and scraps her knee. No swimming.

Cruising? Can’t get the commercial loan, economy tanking, alternator died, food costs soaring, Jaime’s turning into a teenager 3 years early, ... ... ... ...

Toast’s Rule of Three: *cover ears* I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening!

Removing Intense Debate

Well that didn't work all that well. I like the functionality and I like the idea, but the implementation slows down blogger to a crawl. Sorry about that. Thanks everyone who gave it a try. I'll probably give or Intense Debate another whirl in a few months and see if they've made progress. It's probably just the blogger implementation, but that's where we are so... That's where we are.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

TechTip - It’s All In Your Hands

Short Answer
Get walkie talkies.

Long Version
Let me tell you two True Stories, both which recently took place on Don Quixote on the same memorable night in Squirrel Cove, Desolation Sound. We’ll change the names of the fellow boat as a courtesy.

Story One - Hank of s/v Beautiful Sloop brought his friend Steve on a three week tour of Desolation. Both are very experienced sailors, familiar with these waters. The night was stunningly clear with a light warm breeze. So at twilight Steve got in the tender and went for an evening row. Unbeknownst to the captain, Steve strayed a little too close to a reversing rapid at the head of the cove and was swept inexorably into a salt water lagoon. With no way to get out of the lagoon, Steve settled in to take a brief nap until the tide turned and sent the water rushing back out.

Meanwhile, three hours pass and Hank started to get seriously concerned about his friend. While Steve is in his late 40’s, experienced and in good health, it was pitch dark, a slight breeze was coming up, the temperature was dropping. Steve wasn’t responding to Hank’s increasingly concerned yells. At about midnight, Hank pulled anchor and started around the anchorage seeking assistance from fellow boaters in finding his friend.

Story Two - This is where Don Quixote entered the picture. Hank swung by our boat to ask for help. We rafted up s/v Beautiful Sloop to ready our tender and take Hank on a search into the shallower areas of the cove. In the meantime, a third tender arrived to help Hank. We loaded Hank into the third tender and handed him a walkie talkie. They headed towards the lagoon on the whim of yours truly who guessed that a tender wandering around towards the end of a flood in Squirrel Cove is going to get swept into the lagoon. “Didn’t you read the cruising guide? This happens to people all the time.” Off they went. A second walkie talkie was loaded into our tender along with a medicine kit and a doctor on the chance these would be required. The third handheld stayed on the boat with me where I could use the VHF if necessary to call for additional help.

A few minutes later, Steve hailed Don Quixote. The changing tide had released Steve from the lagoon. He then rowed back to his anchorage only to find his mothership gone. Now he was wandering around looking for s/v Beautiful Sloop. Fortunately, I had her tied to our port and could let Steve know he’d found home. I then got on the walkie talkie to recall our search teams before one of them strayed into a low hanging branch.

Moral of the Story - Buy handhelds. We have a trio of Motorola Talkabout T5000s we picked up at Costco for about $50 a year ago. Until this incident, I had thought of these devices as essentially an electronic leash for children and spouses. The girls take them everywhere. This enables them to go ashore without us, shop in different stores in harbor, head off on errands or to a playground when docked. For this purpose alone, I would recommend them for cruisers. Inevitably, someone will be in the liquor store and another in the laundry mat or grocery store when the question of “What do you want for dinner?” comes up.

However, our experience in Squirrel Cove demonstrates their use as a safety device. Steve and Hank’s inability to communicate did more than cause an uproar in an otherwise quiet anchorage. It resulted in multiple boats wandering around in the dark of night dark looking for someone. Any time a bunch of boats are moving in a small area full of shallow inlets, big rocks, and steep shores in the inky black, you dramatically increase overall negative nautical karma.

Contrariwise, our ability to communicate with our search parties enabled us to prevent a steady, Laurel and Hardy style parade of dinghies going into the lagoon to get the last lost souls who went in there to look for the previous set. Instead, we could call them up and tell them to get their bottom hulls back to us since all was well. Also if Bad Juju had taken place, we could have easily communicated the need for additional gear or a call to the Coast Guard for more troops.

Handhelds are not a substitute for any other form of nautically sanctioned communication device. You still need a VHF, an SSB, and a handheld VHF for your ditch bag. The walkie talkies, however, give you an easy, cheap, and painless way to keep track of all your errant crew in the best of times and the worst of times.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Cruising World July 2008 Photo Contest

I won I won I won!! Woot! Thank you Jody for encouraging me to submit my laundry photo for the monthly photo contest on the Cruising World web site. I'm at Walter's Cove with basically no services so I'll add the photo to this blog entry later. In the meantime, please go check out the article and picture at Cruising World.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Small Stuff

I'm Just Happy to Be Here
I'm Just Happy to Be Here
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I’ve read many cruising books, magazine articles, blogs, and personal accounts. The authors talk about the challenges of provisioning, maintenance and navigation, weather and port authorities. They discuss overcoming your fear, learning how to do more with less, engaging your reluctant spouse in the endeavor, and adapting to strong personalities in tight quarters. What I don’t see anyone talking about is all the little things that happen as you travel.

Now, we all know the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” which may explain the general silence on the subject. Alternatively, small stuff is just plain boring. My personal theory is that these small trials do not fit neatly into a chapter format. Even if you do shoehorn them into a single section, it would probably result in a chapter entitled “Miscellaneous Shit Happens.” As a technical writing exercise, let me outline this unit:

I. Things That Go Overboard
  A. Equipment
    1. Critical Equipment
      a) Kill the evil doer or recognize your time will come?
      b) How to recover using shock cord and carabiners
      c) Quick removal of a self-inflating life jacket before going overboard to recover stuff
    2. Things You Don’t Really Care About
      a) Is it pollution if the crabs will eat it?
      b) Consoling children regarding the loss of artwork you were planning on recycling anyway
    3. During Man Overboard Drills
  B. Clothing
    1. During a Wind Storm
    2. Randomly
    3. Shoe Recovery

II. Rotten Stuff
  A. Galley, Pantry, and Fridge
    1. Eating It Anyway
      a) Removing mold from bread and cheese
      b) Disguising the taste of boat
    2. Twenty Ways to Clean Your Refrigerator Without Water
    3. Cooking with Food Found in Unexpected Places
      a) Found at the back of the refrigerator
      b) Found in the forward lockers
      c) Found in Daddy’s backpack
  B. Head
    1. Used Toilet Paper
      a) Trying to coral it into a single bag
      b) Retrieving pieces lost between the wall and the bulkhead
      c) Unclogging the bilge pump without getting dysentery
      d) Transferring from head to a garbage bag destined for shore
    2. Spills and Drops
      a) Recovering from catastrophic spills of shampoo, conditioner, and hand lotion
      b) When medicines get mixed up in a pile of every flavor bean goodness
      c) Convincing someone else to get jiggy with the Simple Green on brown drops
  3. Toilet Bowl Scrub Brush

III. It Breaks
  A. When You’re Using It
    1. In the Dark of the Night
    2. In Winds Over 25
    3. When You’re Wet and Cold
  B. When Your Spouse is Using It

IV. Fights
  A. With Children
    1. Getting Dressed
    2. Cleaning Day
    3. Dead Things and Smelly Hands
    4. Where to Find the Prime Meridian
  B. With Spouse
    1. Anchoring
    2. Anchoring in Tight Spaces
    3. Anchoring in Windy Conditions
    4. While Tying a Stern Tie or Anchor

V. Laundry
  A. Doing It Ashore
    1. Taking Out a Second Mortgage
    2. Shlepping It Up the Dock Ramp
    3. Overturning the Dinghy
  B. Doing It Afloat
    1. Ways to String Socks
    2. Fun with Carabiners
    3. How to Hide Poop Stains from the Casual Observer

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Don Quixote Academy Progress Report - Summer 2008

Hard at Work
Hard at Work
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
During a visit to our boat in Campbell River, a fellow boater and Toast Floats reader Patricia asked the girls if they had the summer off. She’s lucky I didn’t pitch her overboard. It is a lot easier on Dr C and I if we let the girls forget that in the Real World children were let out of school two months ago. On our boat, the girls are still very much in attendance at the Don Quixote Academy. While regular children while away the heady days of summer swimming at the park, singing camps songs at the YMCA, and participating in an endless round of nonsensical games, my girls are stuck on our boat...

Swimming in lakes, singing camp songs on the deck, and making up an endless round of nonsensical games. Oh yes, the Conger Clan has a hard life, they do indeed. We make them “do school” all the time, year round, non-stop, without remorse, endlessly. We are vicious, boat schooling brutes.

The school week is actually eight days long: three days on, one day off. On the fourth day, we clean the boat. On the eighth day, we rest. Even the Christian God got a day off occasionally. On school days, the girls generally roust out of bed when they hear us start to grind the coffee. Experience teaches them that if they do not get upstairs by the end of my first cup, they get cold cereal with reconstituted powdered milk for breakfast. Timely arrival at the breakfast table, however, yields rewards in the form of muffins, pancakes, hot cereal, or eggs and toast.

After we break our fast and clear the debris, the girls start work on their “checks.” We have a table of checks appropriate for each girl designed to balance out their workload. Despite all my exposure to unschooling, I’m still a big fan of eating your vegetables before you get dessert. With our girls, each has subjects she loathes and others she craves. We balance our conventional twisted need to control with their passionate need for freedom. Take thirty checks, divide by six days, and each girl gets to pick her five for the day as long as all thirty get done by the end of the week. School is over for the day when they finish their checks, generally by lunch.

A check can be a lesson in one of their work books, progress on a project, or a class with one of the adults. We have “Health” class once a week -- generally a time for family to learn health and safety relating to their boat lives. Last week, for example, we worked on fire prevention. Now the girls know how to shut off fuel to the Yanmar’s and put out a fire in the engine compartment without opening the hatch. At Dr C’s request, I teach a “Computer Class”, he teaches Spanish four times a week, and the girls are doing a large scale project on an imaginary country.
Aeron's Check Sheet
Aeron's Check Sheet
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
In our land homeschooling life, we also had checks at the homeschool resource center for art, drama, music, pottery, and Irish Dance. Those are off the table. The girls do whatever they want with their own time. Progress is spotty in music and drama, but art and craft are galloping along as the girls’ interests diverge. Reading is never a problem since the girls are all voracious readers. I’ve strewn the hard drives of our computers with movies, music and software that fill in many of those cultural gaps. Our most recent success in strewing was Longitude, a fabulous movie about the invention of a clock that would work at sea. The girls watched that so many times they now pronounce longitude like the Brits with a soft g. Mera and Aeron are learning how to embroider. Jaime is still practicing her guitar as well as pumping out increasingly elaborate hemp and bead jewelry which is now of a quality and volume to render her a commercially viable business.

My own progress on weather fax interpretation, emergency medicine, and algebra is -- I’m afraid -- considerably spottier. I keep getting distracted by sail and canvass repair books, sewing projects, and new bread recipes. It’s probably time to set myself up on a check system, too.