Thursday, January 31, 2008

Daddy? What Are You Doing?

Daddy? What Are You Doing?
Daddy? What Are You Doing?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“Daddy, what are you doing?” the girls chime, then laugh hysterically.

This has become a mantra on Don Quixote. Actually, it predates the boat, the midlife crisis, and even possibly my third child. You see, Dr C is a handy man.

Oh yes, he spent nearly 30 years and an amount approximately the the sizeof the annual GDP of a small South American nation on his education to become that oh so exalted member of the medical community: an ophthalmologist. But really, it probably would have served society better – and certainly his wife – had he simply bowed to the dictates of his inner nature from the beginning and become a general contractor.

Dr C is not particularly brilliant at any specific type of repair. He's not a plumber, for example, or an electrician or a drywall expert. You might want to hire a tile guy or a window glazer for some very persnickity jobs. But on the whole, he pretty much knows how to do anything and everything around the house, office or boat. What he doesn't know, he knows he doesn't know. Then he hires an expert, watches the poor guy, asks a metric buttload of questions, and then tips the professional munificently in the unstated but mutually obvious knowledge that Dr C will never require the services of said expert again.

Dr C knows how, for example, to install a new light fixture in your ceiling. He can take apart the hot tub pump and put it back together. He can tape, spackle and sand, build a new wall, or fix a leaky faucet. There are jobs which consume too much of his time. For these, he hires folks that Republicans insist we don't need and should ship back to their home countries in a convoy of Greyhound buses, and then he pays them a good living wage to do things like pour concrete, strip paint, and sand siding down to bare wood. In this effort, his fluency in Spanish serves us in good stead.

Moreover, Dr C does not know how to sit still. He positively avoids fiction, finding it a complete and utter waste of time. His idea of a good time on vacation is to install a water tank on the roof or build a new outhouse. I had to strong arm him into a vacation on a cruise ship a few years ago... actually, I bribed him with the promise of multiple scuba dives, an historical tour, and an eight hour hike to a remote water fall on some island mountain.

This can make him a very uncomfortable companion when what you seek is a vacation whose most mental and physical challenge is putting up one finger for cerveza or two for pina colada. The worst days of that cruise ship trip were those spent traveling between the islands. God forbid we should just relax on the deck of the boat even a single day. Even on a boat roughly the size of a Holiday Inn in downtown Vegas, Dr C couldn't find enough to do. I think he would have been happier if they'd put him to work in the engine room replacing all the gaskets on the secondary.

Hence, the girls and their delighted laughter as their build daddy buries himself in yet another major project.

Now those who are already out there, living their cruising dreams, wipe the drool off your chin. You can't have him. For the rest of you, let me explain.

Boats break. Boats break frequently. Boats break in ways that defy statistical probability and push the boundaries of even toddler creativity for sheer destructive, monetarily bankrupting power.

And what every boat – EVERY boat – on the water needs is a compulsive handyman. Every boat needs a full time repairman. Every boat needs a plumber, electrician, and carpenter. It needs a diesel mechanic, HAM radio enthusiast, amateur astronomer. It needs someone who enjoys reading electronics user guides and anything ever published by Nigel Caulder.

In other words, every boat needs a Dr C.

What is daddy doing, girls? He's keeping us afloat and enjoying absolutely every slogging minute of it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Trail Magic

Ice Cream Boat
The Ice Cream Boat
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The summer of '92 saw me riding my bike across the United States. That's 'bike' with a cycle at the end, not 'bike' with a motor at the beginning. We carried all our gear without a supporting van or car, and it took months. I learned a great deal on that trip. To date, I think it is the single best thing I have ever done for myself that was not specifically geared toward making me financially success. I learned many things on that trip about myself, our country, our limits as a people and as individuals. I also learned about trail magic.

Trail magic is the confluence of human kindness and opportunity which repeats itself with stunning regularity when you dedicate yourself to any type of oddessy. It happens when you stop living in the ”burbs,” ignorant of your neighbors and scared to walk the streets of your incredibly safe city and instead throw yourself on the mercy of complete strangers. It arrives when you knock on doors, show up in small towns with no place to stay, and start believing that the world is not really out to get you.

Trail magic is coming into a small town in the middle of nowhere on July 4th and being invited to pitch your tent in the mayor's backyard. Encouraged to spend the afternoon at the community center/library gorging at the town potluck on BBQ, homemade potato salad, and thickly frosted chocolate cake. Obligated to spend the evening sipping cold ones while the police and fire chiefs argue at your back on the order to set off the fireworks.

Trail magic is homemade lemonade on the front lawn in Virginia when the temperature is nearing a 100 and the humidity is close to the same.

Trail magic is Pepsi and fresh baked cookies on a porch in Illinois one afternoon while you wait out a nasty summer thunderstorm.

You see trail magic when you spend the day toiling down a hot, dusty blue highway watching vintage cars drive by, then arrive at your destination to find it the rally point for cars from all over the state . As you walk down the streets full of Mustangs and Fords, hot rods and Model Ts, you listen to the music, munch on elephant ears and roasted corn, and thank the trail magic gods.

The magic radiates from the 78–year-old man and his daughter traveling east bound in three-week increments, not allowed to do the entire trip in one summer because the man's wife just couldn't spare her husband for any longer. It glows in the eyes of a couple who run a cafe in eastern Colorado and beats quickly in the tempo of the stunningly gorgeous young man with hard thighs and a ready smile who is doing the trip in 4 weeks at 200 miles a day.

Musical Magic
Musical Magic
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It happens when you connect up with another rider, an older black gentleman with a trumpet strapped to his bags and a gentle, generous soul that sets the bar for all future relationships. It continues when he and the strapping young Floridian captain of fishing boats let you draft the ten miles to the Yellowstone clinic where you are hospitalized for dehydration, persists through Montana and the rugged canyons of northern Idaho, and rejoices in stripping blackberry bushes on the Oregon coast.

The trail is the journey. The journey is the destination. The magic is opening yourself to the possibilities.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Questions from the Class - Heater

Al Thompson asks in response to It Just Gets Worse: OK, fess up: What brand of heater are you being tortured by? Guess: Espar, or perhaps Webasto.

He's not the first to ask the really important question: What is that heater that's causing so much trouble and how can I avoid ever purchasing one by the same company?

We have a Eberspächer Hydronic 10* installed by the previous owner. It's a specialty heater mostly used by buses, RV, boats, and trucks -- basically any 12 Volt system. It's a diesel burner with a circulating pump which circulates anti-freeze into each cabin. At the cabin, there is a little radiator with a fan which goes off when it hits a certain temperature.

Now for the first year and half or so, it worked like a charm. The only problem we had was the first time we ran out of fuel and didn't realize it. Very embarrassing to call a mechanic to explain to us that we were complete idiots. Turns out the heater has it's own, dedicated 12 gallon tank of diesel. In the future, we're going to use this as a spare jerry can.

This recent series of breakage is due to air in the water pump. The original highly engineered Germanic beauty of a pump -- also sold to BMW for gorgeous finely tuned and ridiculously expensive cars -- decided that it didn't know how to function without water in the system and promptly self-destructed. The impeller simply melted.

Of course, even enterprising do-it-yourself cruisers can't fix this problem because you can't buy the impeller by itself. No, you can only buy the entire water pump. So we bought a new water pump.

The second pump lasted 48 hours. Not having another $360 to throw at the problem and clearly recognizing now that the impeller was a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself, we decided to find a less perfectly designed, robust and cheap Ahmayreekcan pump. The new pump has the advantage of being poorly designed, clunky and not pretty at all, costs a mere $170, and is designed to stop gracefully in the absence of water in the system. It also has the stellar advantage that you can purchase each and every part separately from each and every other part.

Let this be a cardinal lesson to cost conscious cruisers. If you can't order the component parts, do not buy the assembled device.

I can also vouch for the fact that it does fail as gracefully as designed. In fact, it has done so repeatedly. What it does now is blow warm lovely air for about 5 minutes and then with a sign and a clank, it stops annoyed with our inability to consistently feed it water.

So then we started doing clever things we should have started with like completely pumping out all the existing coolant and replacing it with fresh. We also installed air bleeders at every bump and turn. Air bubbles in the system are bad news. Air bubbles result in locks of the pump. We also defensively installed resisters because apparently this good ole boy USA pump sucks amps like a vacuum and can potentially burn out the fine, sensitive and delicate brain of the Hydronic.

DrC and the mechanic still think it's air in the system - even though DrC purged the system so it ran nothing but pure water. We would purge it again, but the marina turned off the water this afternoon due to the sub zero temperatures plaguing the city.

Which brings us to tonight wherein we are officially in a Catch 22. We can't get heat until the marina turns on the water to the dock enabling us to flush the bubbles out of the system again. And we can't get water on the dock until the temperature reaches a point where we don't care if the heater works.

And before you ask, we have also discovered to our dismay that despite all math to the contrary, you can not run two 15 amp radiant space heaters on a 30 amp plug. I suppose that's another story.

* Points to Al, BTW, as Espar is the American branch of German Eberspächer.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Doing More With Less - Water

The boat teaches many lessons in conservation. This is the first in a series of posts about how we boaters do more with considerably less. The tips are valid for land based life as well, though, so hopefully folks can use some of these ideas.

* * *

Water, water everywhere but none of it fit to drink. Did you know that the American household consumes roughly 70 gallons of potable water a day? Did you know that our water tank only holds 80 gallons? This is a mathematical conundrum we must solve before we can credibly live aboard for any length of time.

We debated adding a second water tank. On the plus side, it would be nice to have more water. On the down side, water is heavy and catamarans do not do so well with extra weight. Water weighs a lot more than you think. In fact, our full water tank weighs considerably more than a Yanmar engine and slightly less than the family's laundry pile at the end of a particularly busy week. When you stand ashore on a windy day watching the surf flip your dinghy around like plastic toys in a bathtub, the thought of shlepping hundreds of pounds of water from shore to ship is a daunting one.

So while another tank is probably inevitable, we also committed to investing in a water maker. Typically, Dr C doesn't want to just outright buy a water maker. That's way, way too simple. Instead, he's been accumulating the parts for a water maker in the space beneath our bunk like outsized, electronic lint. Sometime over the next year, he and the girls will undertake “Build a Water Maker” as a class project. This is, more or less, an outstanding idea. If you can build it, the water maker costs roughly half as much as store-bought. And when it breaks – as it will inevitably – there will be at least four persons on the boat who know how to fix it.

The problem with water makers is that you are essentially converting fossil fuel (diesel) into water at a 1 to 3 ratio. Some are more efficient, some less. This is probably not the best way to get water on to the boat. It's also not particularly environmentally friendly, and it costs a fortune. Never mind. This alternative is moot for at least a year until Dr C and the students of Don Quixote Academy actually build the thing.

In the meantime, we work diligently on reducing our water consumption. The following are my water conservation tips:

Enjoy Dirt – Why do we feel compelled to be so clean? I'm not sure I ever truly bought into the OCD-like insistence on sanitizing and disinfecting everything so prevalent in our country, but now I find it utterly baffling. “God made dirt and dirt don't hurt,” is a phrase to live by on a boat. If you can't get clean by swimming in the ocean or stealing time quarter by quarter in a marine shower, then stay dirty. Swipe a damp blue cloth over the really smelly parts every day or so, and get used to smelling bad. Incense and fragrant candles help.

Use Salt Water First – Just about everything you need to clean, you can clean first with ocean water and reserve fresh water for a last bit of rinse. The notable exception is your teeth.

Use Less Soap – This is actually a post for this series all by itself. There are literally dozens of ways to use less soap. The important issue in water conservation, however, is that the less soap you use, the less water you need to get rid of it.

Catch Rain – We haven't started doing this yet, so I'll hold off relating how successful the technique will prove to be. Our research tells us that it should work pretty well as long as you are someplace that rains. So the strategy will probably work well next spring in the Desolation Wilderness but fail miserably down in Mexico. Also, you need to let it rain long enough to wash the salt off your rain catcher before you start capturing it for rinse and drink water. Otherwise, you might as well be pulling a bucket up from the side.

Okay, we need less of this...
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Drink Beer – We could generalize to wine or rum as well, but calorie for calorie, I think beer is includes more H2O. We've also learned that beer is cheaper than water in many Mexican coastal towns.

* * *

Water is not free. In truth, it never actually was. It always came from somewhere, and taking it out of the water cycle to use on our clothes, cars, and faces on a grand scale didn't do anyone any favors. Our record thus far is ten days on eighty gallons plus one trip to a shore bound laundry mat. Take the Don Quixote challenge and see if you can do the same in your house.

Monday, January 14, 2008

It Just Gets Worse

Get a Clue
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Omigodwhatthef*barbecue, my life is like a scene from a bad cross between a black and white, Hitchcock interpretation of a Kafka short story and the second version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heater broke – again. For those who are keeping count, this would be the fourth time.

As we asymptotically approach the point at which we will not need a heater for roughly a decade, the heater increases its daily cost of operation through a clever series of sequential breakdowns. It's like the Tin Woodman cutting off parts of his body and replacing them with their metallic counterpart. By spring, we will have replaced the entire heater organ system and have nothing left of the original device.

And of course the weather, to celebrate the collapse of temperature inside the boat, has once again chosen to plummet. My daughter moaned this afternoon, “Why does it always snow when the heater breaks?” Why ask why? my darling child. Because it can. Because it must.

Because apparently the gods have decreed that things absolutely must get worse before they can possibly get better.

What I can not for the life of me figure out is why the refrigerator keeps turning on. All I can assume is that the heat released by the decay of 2 month old vegetables in the corner at the back that I can not see, smell or reach is great enough that it elevates the temperature inside the unit to above 45. I suggested to Dr C last night that we just leave the damn door open from now on so we wouldn't have to listen to the pump grind away. The salon had to be colder than the inside of the refrigerator, saving us both money and ensuring a better night sleep.

You think I might be jesting? I am prone to exaggeration, no question. However, this morning the salon thermometer read 38 degrees. Perhaps, Dr C is right. If we open the refrigerator door at night, it's possible all our vegies would freeze. Shutting the refrigerator door is a last ditch attempt to keep the contents warm.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Like Pie

I look good...
Originally uploaded by ktoast
“I like pie,” informs Jaime, sitting with a thump at the salon table.

This is in response to the question, “Would you like to do your math first or would you prefer to start with the history?” and is absolutely appropo of nothing. It is, however, her standard response to questions she doesn't care to answer.

“Jaime, would you like to do the laundry or help with scrubbing the deck?” “I like pie.”

“Jaime, have you grasped the concept that the companionway is not a laundry basket yet?” “I like pie.”

I don't like pie. In fact, while I used to have a moderate fondness for berry pies and even the occasional apple or peach, I now positively loathe pie. Every time I hear the word pie, I want to pick something up and throw it against the nearest wall with roughly the force of a tactical nuclear device.

In fact, the word pie has for me now all the meaning of any word which you say over and over and over and over again until the word loses all sense and goes to some void in your brain where you start to question the very nature of personhood, your existence as a thinking being, and the place of your consciousness in a big, cold universe.

Conceptually, I have to admit that Jaime's strategy for avoiding unpleasant topics is better than many. It has the singular property of providing a completely neutral response. Surely, you can't object to the assertion of a fondness for baked pastry with sweetened filling. Short and pleasant, calm and rational. You could even say that she is taking a more peaceful, reductionist position, lowering the possibility for conflict by introducing a new, more positive topic into the conversation.

However, it took very little time before the phrase “I like pie” came to represent for me all that is dysfunctional in our family. Our family is dysfunctional, by the way. I am convinced that all families are inherently screwed up by the very nature of their implausibility. Ours is not really any worse than the average complete cluster . This is not a naïve assumption. I am surrounded every day with families that are equally torked like pretzels around the axles of their inherited relationships. They all seem to be somehow distorted by the fact that you can't pick the members of your family.

And therein likes the rub. Jaime and I are, quite unfortunately, very much alike. This ensures that nothing on earth can ever produce a calm, happy relationship between us as long as she is in my boat, under my authority, and bigger than me. When I say she is stubborn, holier than thou, and doesn't know when to stop, I say that in clear recognition that these words damn me as a stubborn, holier than thou witch myself. Our sameness makes for an uneasy, often loud and unpleasant, family life.

I can not see that homeschooling has helped. The day she surpassed five feet was probably more important. As soon as I was unable to physically intimate her by towering, glaring, and looking really menacing was probably a more significant milestone. Ever since, we've had to learn new strategies.

Hence, the pie. The endless, repetitive pie. Like Mo in a bad mood, pie hits me in the face whenever Jaime does not want to say what she knows I do not want to hear. So kudos to her, really, because if she said that thing I do not want to hear I would have to get loud and mean and unpleasant. Whereas in the face of pie, I have to lick my lips, consider my options, and offer coffee and donuts instead.

We're growing up.
Little Imps and Posters
Little Imps and Posters
Originally uploaded by ktoast

Monday, January 07, 2008

Business as Usual

Originally uploaded by brainswax.
We are settling into a routine now, living on the boat in winter. After much angst and gnashing of teeth, DrC finally managed to repair the heater. So the good news is that the Conger family is no longer freezing to death -- literally or figuratively. The bad news is that it is still winter in Seattle on a boat poorly sheltered from the elements on the edge of Elliott Bay.

This transition state -- not the Real World, not the Cruising World -- is a no man's land of compromises and frustrations. Ironically, both the good doctor and I are working harder than ever. Dr C is holding down two jobs working for the practice he's leaving behind and for the surgical clients he hopes to have in the future. I, too, am working for The Man, building a portfolio of clients who willingly hire me even when I refuse to show up for work. There is prepping the house and business for tenants, selling cars and stuff, and throwing away everything else.

But probably our most challenging problem is that the boat is sinking. Literally. In combining the house, practice, and boat lives into one, we dock carted crates of this, boxes of that, bags of the other thing. Then we stuffed them into every crevice and hole. Day after day, week after week, soap bottle after soap bottle, we played a live action game of Tetris with our stuff.

And Don Quixote was so patient with us, so accepting, so BIG. She took it all. Every box and carton, every stuffed animal and Sponge Bob pillow, disappeared into that great maw which is our catamaran. Until the project was finished and we woke up one morning, walked back from the shore head, and we noticed that Don Quixote was sinking.

Catamarans are notorious for this. All the space in the world, but every 1000 pounds you put on a Lagoon equates to one inch on the water line. When we bought her empty, she was floating 4 or 5 inches “into the blue” as we like to say. In other words, at least 4 inches of her hull paint was out of the water. I used to find this offensive. Everything on Don Quixote is either white or aqua except the hull paint which is a nasty bright sky blue. Bah.

Now I would give just about anything to see that lovely bright blue again. We are sunk down to the water line, and when we take her out, it's about as exciting as driving a garbage skow. She's heavy and slow and sleepy. It takes a minimum of 15 knots just to wake her up.

So our New Year's resolution is to put our boat on a diet. Like Congress in a fiscally responsible mood, we must offset everything. If you put it on the boat, you have to take an equal weight item off. Moreover, sometime in the next 4 months, we need to shed at least 2000 pounds. That's a lot of pasta sauce, let me tell you.

I'd be more concerned, but yesterday I calculated that we had roughly 30 pounds of box red aboard. There's only one good way to get that off the boat. It should be a pleasant few months.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Questions from the Class - Material Things

Making a List
Making a List
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Keet asks, “What are the material things you'll miss? I am thinking I would miss holiday decorations... the Christmas tree... the really big TV.”

Hard to say. I think it will be interesting to compare, though, what I think we will miss to what I'm actually Jonesing for in, say... August of next year after we've cruised British Columbia. And probably we can check in again after a year or so in Mexico.

It's easier to start with what I won't miss -- the TV. I won't miss the big TV. Hard to miss something you've never had. We did have an enormous projection system for DVDs at one point. That was lovely. It was like watching a movie screen in your house. We haven't had cable, however, in nearly five years, and I can't say our quality of life is diminished in any respect.

I won't miss the car. My clothes already suck, so squishing them into the a closet the size of a toolbox, washing them in salt water weekly, and bleaching them on a line in the sun isn't going to cause me any great worry. I won't miss furniture, decorative knick knacks, or glassware. My children already destroyed what I valued pre-birth and a parsimonious nature kept me from replacing them. I don't use hair or skin products – no wise acre comments from the peanut gallery – nor do I use makeup, wear jewelry, or indulge in fine shoes.

Basically, I'm a perfect candidate for a penitentiary.

Books, my friends. Books are the material things I am going to miss.

A few years ago I tried to participate in a support group for The Artist's Way. This is basically a self-help program for people who are trying to connect with their inner artist. I was doing well for the first four weeks till we got to the Week Without Reading. The objective of the week was to go on a complete media diet for one week, foregoing reading utterly. No books, magazines, or newspapers. No browsing the web or diddling around with friends on Facebook. Without the cacophonous din created by the clamoring voices of the Information Age, we could free our minds and allow our creative souls to flower.

I made it 46 hours, 12 minutes, and 15 seconds. It was the worst two weeks of my entire life. I gave up when I found myself reading for the third time a theater ticket stub found stuck on the bottom of my shoe.

I will miss my broadband connection to the Internet.

I work, sleep, eat and play on the net. I play role playing games and read the news. I download roughly 20 hours of podcasts a week and pull down free books, magazine articles, and video content. Taking away my broadband connection is like cutting my hands off at the wrist and poking my eyes out with a stick while playing Barry Manilo at 11 in a bus that never gets to my stop. While up here in the States, I've invested in a Pacific Northwest-wide network of wifi hotspots which stretches from Olympia to Juneau. Once we head south, however, I feel as though I will be entering a form of computer geek hell.

Balsamic vinegar and pine nuts may prove another great loss.

I'm not a fantastic chief by any stretch of the imagination. I make up for it by the creative and liberal use of the four staples of mediocre cooking: olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and pine nuts. I can get my family to eat absolutely anything that combines those four ingredients in a long, caramelizing sauté. While olive oil and garlic are most likely readily available in just about any major port of call, pine nuts in affordable quantities are available in only one place: Costco.

Maybe I'm just going to miss Costco. Is that technically a material thing? Or is it all material things rolled into one convenient warehouse. In addition to pine nuts, I'm going to miss cheap panties (the dryer eats mine), cheap athletic socks (my girls steal mine), and Ling Ling Potstickers. Oh... and I'm going to miss the $1.50 Polish sausage and medium drink special at the kiosk in front of every Costco like a shrine to the Goddess of Thrift and Obesity.

Just call me a Material Girl!
Christmas Congers
Christmas Congers
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.