Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Playing in Champagne

"So here's what you do," explains Aeron, her voice dripping sea water, snot, and enthusiasm. "You swim above daddy and you catch his bubbles."

This is one of those games that children invent that make us wonder whether we were ever children. It is so far outside our ken, that on the face of it we feel we might be a different species. Here I am snorkeling off a coral reef in paradise, and instead of toodling along looking at fish, anemones, and the incredibly abundant and diverse coral, I'm supposed to chase my husband around and pop his exhalations.

I am, however, a really good mother. In theory.

"Are there rules?" I ask my effervescent youngest.

She snorts, miraculously avoiding inhaling ocean, and waves her hand at me, "Nah! Just have fun!!"

I can do that. I line myself with the trajectory of the divers and start kicking to catch up. The reef here is astonishing. Somehow all those statistics of coral death left me with the notion that there is none left. Salty sailors who did this jump years ago bemoan the current sad state of affairs. But today -- here on anchorage #32 in the Vava'u group of the Kingdom of Tonga -- it's easy to forget the global numbers. The coral comes in every color, shape and size. There are leather corals, brain, and fans, soft and hard, small crystalline species and enormous bushes of stag. Everywhere I look there are bright, quickly moving fish. There are iridescent micro jellies and royal blue star fish, spiky purple anemones and the occasional shy octopus.

It is all very distracting as I learn moments later when I feel a sharp tug on my flipper. Surfacing, I am scolded, "Not that way. They dive deeper. Come this way."

Aeron drags me towards deeper water where the coral reef drops from the pleasant snorkeling depths of 5 to 15 first to aqua blue 20s and then darker and darker into the 30s and 40s, then the 50s and 60s. Just to our right, the floor of the ocean drops into oblivion, disappearing in a blue familiar to sailors and divers but otherwise completely indescribable. Little flippers lead the way along the reef and towards the dimly visible, slowly moving yellow rectangles far below, the only visible sign of our three divers is their fluorescent dive tanks. She is in a hurry, and I have to stroke hard, kicking strongly to keep up.

As a result, I am abruptly introduced to the dive bubble spot when I slam into the back of my child. We flounder for a few minutes in a tangle of neoprene clad limbs, plastic snorkels, and bubbles. The bubbles make it hard to sort long Conger limbs into two distinct swimmers. There are little bright balls of air everywhere, far more bubbles than could possibly be generated by our collision. I can clearly hear Aeron's giggle through the water as I try to figure out which direction is up. We bounce up, mask-to-mask, while Aeron clarifies the way to play dive bubbles.

"So you chase the bubbles and then you catch them before they touch the top," is her explanation. I look around at the froth of air fizzing around us, Aeron giggling at me, "No no... not these. The bigger ones."

Resigned to the idea of floating above an indistinguishable blue ocean chasing my daughter, I set off after her again, more slowly this time. A lens of pure bright crystal appears beneath us. It is roughly a foot across, shimmering and moving rapidly upwards. My daughter heads downwards and whaps it sharply on the top. The ocean resounds with a deep >bong< as the bubble shatters into a cascade of tiny spheres which surround Aeron like a cloud of seed pearls. Again, I hear her laughter, clear and crystal as the bubbles themselves.

I want one. I spot a likely candidate and head downwards. When my hand hits the top of the shimmering lens, its shattering resounds through my hand, up my arm, in my ears. The sound is different than Aeron's bubble, higher pitched. Mine was smaller. I speed off to the next stream of large bubbles, a series of distinct glowing lenses, each roughly six inches across. Pop, Pop! POP! It's like playing drums underwater. I have to come up for air. I'm laughing too hard to breathe through my snorkel.

Aeron greets me at the surface, her peels of laughter ringing across the sound of surf on the reef. She nods knowingly. That'll show her no play no fun mommy. "This is -awesome-, right?"

My answer is to speed off to find the divers. We pop big bubbles with deep resounding booms and little bubbles which make sharp sounds which do not carry far. We pass through frothy clouds of bubbles which feel like swimming in a glass of champagne. We swoop down on monster bubbles and stick our faces in them, briefly feeling a waft of air while 10 feet down under. We shoot up on jets of mid-sized bubbles which pop all over our bottoms and make us laugh shamelessly at the tickly sensation, like someone running feathers all over our legs.

We chase bubbles until our tummies hurt from laughing and our fingers turn stiff from the chill water. Then we turn back towards the dinghy, kicking gently over the coral aquarium spread out below in the slower, warmer, brighter reef edge. Aeron rests awhile floating like a whale baby, half draped over mommy back and hugging me tight. Her last tired laugh as we near the boat reminds me that we are the same species, a strange animal which laughs and loves and has opposable thumbs perfect for sticking in large bright dive-tank-generated bubbles.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Party's Over...

I woke up this morning with the startling realization that we only have two weeks left, maybe three, before we leave Tonga. While there is more travel ahead and many weeks before we are settled and working in New Zealand, there is really on a very short window of time before the cruising part of our South Pacific voyage is complete.

Two weeks is not very much time.

I often have the sinking feeling that I am missing something. Time passes and I wake up with a start struck nearly breathless with the recognition that everything is passing far too fast, and I am failing to make the most of it. Do not, however, for one minute feel sorry for me, or consider that these deeply unhappy moments serve no purpose. It is this precise sensation that drove DrC and I out of our middle class, type A lives in Seattle, on to the boat, and out to sea in the first place. While unpleasant in the moment, the impetus to look more closely at our lives and periodic carpe diem adjustments is a healthy one for the long term.

Recently, I have failed to take advantage of our cruising lives primarily out of sheer exhaustion. I am tired... profoundly, bone deep tired. I am tired of how hard it is to provision and feed the family. I am tired of dirty clothes and the incredibly taxing process of trying to make those clothes marginally less dirty. I am tired of cat hair and human hair and toe clippings. I am tired of sticky sheets and constantly worrying about the batteries. I am super tired of salt water, and I want to pitch my oven overboard. I am tired of long passages during which I sleep poorly, eat little, and worry constantly about the rigging, other boats, and the basic stupidity of my cat. I think probably I am most tired of yelling at my children whose notions of cleanliness, safety, and diligence are vague, slippery and loose adaptations with very little of the precision I would apply to them myself. I am tired of my husband wanting to have sex even when we haven't bathed in days, and I am tired of listening to the refrigerator cycle endlessly in a vain attempt to make ice for my evening cocktail.

This is trip is so long. It is long physically... stretching over 5,000 nautical miles and 8 months. It is also long mentally. If you are considering this voyage, it is perhaps one of the hardest aspects to prepare for in advance. The puddle jump is a marathon not a sprint. Small irritations which are endurable while cruising the U.S. coastline and Mexico where marinas and docks are widely available and reasonably priced, become long term challenges as you go month after month on the hook. The last time we had access to a water hose was mid-April. The last time we connected to shore power was late March.

In addition to practical considerations of convenience to shore services, endless supplies of high pressure fresh water, and easy connectivity to the Internet, many sailors sleep sounder while docked. It's not a matter of comfort but rather one of vigilence. When you are on the hook -- and even when you are on a mooring line -- you must always be at least peripherally aware of your surroundings. Even were you presumptuous enough to believe that your ground tackle is perfectly adequate and perfectly set, you can never say the same for all your neighbors. A cruiser who sleeps deeply, soundly, and oblivious to the weather, her vessel, and neighboring craft is in the long run a boat that is going to come to harm. We have seen boats come to grief out here repeatedly; we have seen others saved from disaster only due to the light sleeping habits of her crew.

So I am tired and ready to be done while simultaneously regretting every failed opportunity, every missed moment. I already feel a thread of desperate nostalgia for the time spent with girls and for the many times I could have been with them but chose instead to read or to watch a movie or to simply nap. DrC and I have brainstormed ways to change our land-based lives to avoid the helpless rat race of our former suburban existence. And living on Don Quixote will no doubt force a different mind-set just as it forces many changes in life style and consumption patterns.

Yet it will never be the same. We knew coming out here that this was the last trip -- the last trip with all three girls on Don Quixote, probably the last extended trip as a family. Soon, we stop homeschooling the girls, a shifting of the educational burden to the public sector which I dread deeply but also welcome as a huge relief as the work is endless and often thankless. We will stop traveling, a change which today I look forward to eagerly but which I know I will wistfully regret in a mere five months as winter sets in and all our friends sail north for warmer waters. And after nearly six years, I will stop being a housewife, a job I have embraced fully and accomplished with some degree of grace and efficiency but which I also secretly loathe. Jaime will leave us soon, Mera and Aeron not long thereafter. Even if and when DrC and I come out here again, there will be a different boat, a different call sign, and all our patterns will change without the combined burden and pleasure which are the children.

So the Don Quixote party is nearly over. We very much enjoyed the festivities, the wonderful company, the conversation and the snacks. We're sleepy and we have to go to work tomorrow. It's time to put the kids to bed, kick the pets outside, turn out the lights and lock the doors. It's time to be responsible adults again. Is it any wonder we're sitting here lingering over the last of our drinks pretending the morning will never come?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Take a Position

Gravity works. It even works when you live on a boat over water. The invisible hand of wind moving you over the otherwise non-solid water might delude you into thinking that cruisers are a bit immune to physics. However, I can assure you that there are physical laws which apply to boats which your high school Physics tried to drum into you. One of them is clearly that gravity still works even on boats. Which means that if you drop something over the side of a boat and it weighs more than water and it doesn't have a convenient cup shape and it doesn't land with that cup shape pointing down and the opening towards the top, it sinks.

We have dropped a lot of things overboard this year. Every cruiser drops things overboard. The sea bottoms are an absolute cornucopia of dropped cruiser crap. It is a good rule of thumb that if you drop it anyplace at but at anchor, you must say good bye. A little ceremony of farewell is appropriate if the item is: 1) irreplaceable until you get to NZ or Australia; and/or 2) critical to the functioning of the boat. If the dropped thing is merely really nice, your only clean thing, or totally worthless, then it is customary to just sigh. We do a lot of sighing.

It is, however, theoretically possible to retrieve items dropped at anchor. How, you might ask, do you drop something at anchor? It seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? As boat dwellers, you would think we would all become saavy to the ways of boats moving, wind blowing, and gravity causing things to drop. However, we are not. We drop stuff all the time. Sometimes the things we drop are self-retrieving -- the cat, for example. When the cat drops herself overboard (and I can assure you that we only dropped her deliberately overboard ourselves once ... after which we never attempted it again), she levitates back out again. In fact, it is possible that cats have the capacity to briefly defy physics in the presence of water. On the other hand, Dulci's method for getting the water out of her fur returns to basic physics when she uses centrifugal force to spin it off her body by running around the salon in insanely fast circles. And gravity is also present in the salty, fur laden sea water drips down the windows, off the table and on to the floor.

If something is really important, we send a sacrificial diver in after it. We have actually had rather astonishing lucky retrieving our dropped items. The trick for cruisers taking notes on Don Quixote methodology is to immediately Take A Position. Instantly. Take your GPS coordinates out to the finest level of detail you can. If you have more than one GPS device, take the position on both. I can not overstate the importance of this. You don't drop things during the sunniest part of the day when everyone is sober. You do it at night, generally while you are intoxicated. Crazy facts about boats at anchor -- they move. No way are you going to conveniently be positioned right over the drop zone the next morning.

So a quick inventory of the items Don Quixote has lost and found since leaving La Paz:

* Oar lock - Lost while the dinghy was on someone else's boat in 40 feet.

* Dinghy block - Lost while putting the dinghy system back together in 15 feet of the muckiest gunk ever at the marina in La Paz.

* Dinghy anchor - Lost during a dinghy race and retrieved in a 20 knot norther in the Magote from 25 feet of mud.

* 15 HP outboard motor - Lost in Tahiti when the good doctor forgot to bolt it down in 45 feet with the entire anchorage watching and snickering. In all fairness, this one was probably the easiest to find, albeit the most insanely stupid to drop.

* Keys - Lost at the dock when trying to lock the dinghy.

* Padlock - Lost at Venus Point while unlocking the dinghy in 35 feet.

* Stern anchor chain - Also lost at Venus Point while attempting to lock the dinghy, but retrieved through a bizarre bit of acrobatics from actually going all the way to the bottom.

* Coffee filter - Finally something that has nothing to do with the dinghy. Lost in Tonga when a cruising kid from another boat simply dumped it overboard with the coffee grounds in 65 feet. Found by Loose Pointer in 5 minutes of circling our GPS location.

It appears there is a second lesson to be gleaned from our experience: gravity is stronger for items relating to your dinghy. It is also amazingly potent on laundry, particularly laundry clips. While provisioning, make sure you purchase a large package of wooden laundry clips for each 4 week period you plan to be out here. Do not buy the plastic ones or you will spend the entire trip agonizing about how horrible a person you are for littering the ocean floor with yellow, green, blue, and pink plastic clips.

And don't forget, children float. You can retrieve them as well, but the GPS position you take when they disappear off the back of the boat is only moderately useful. As a rule, they are going to hide under the bridge deck until the dishes are done or hell freezes over. Whichever comes first.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How to Have a Birthday

Six years ago, my birthday would have been pretty straightforward. Since the birthday was on a Saturday, we would have enough time for a special breakfast of waffles. On the other hand, there would be no party with co-workers, since I seem to remember we celebrated birthdays at work only if they fell on a week day. The girls would have gone shopping with DrC sometime in the prior week and bought something with his/my money, wrapped it up, and put it on the table. While the family did house chores, I would have had the luxury of lazing about, perhaps even walking through the neighborhood to the local Starbucks for me-time. Then a nice dinner at home or more likely at a restaurant during which I would only tell the girls to quiet down 10 or 15 times. I know my mom and mother-in-law would have called, but otherwise, I don't think anyone else in the world would have even known.

A birthday while cruising the South Pacific is a far different event. First, my youngest made sure the salon was neat as a pin to clear the way for DrC to make my favorite Deansome Omelettes. These were especially tasty since we splurged and added bacon. Bacon is hard to find and incredibly expensive, so we haven't eaten much these past six months. Oh, and we found fresh tomatoes and GREEN PEPPERS so breakfast was just a hair short of astonishing. The girls made me cards... all the girls... even our guest Olivia. The cards were all very personal with messages and poetry and funky little stick drawings. We made TWO batches of coffee, and DrC used the last of the caramel sauce to make mine a caramel machiatto. The entire morning felt extravagant and self-indulgent.

A friend from another boat announced my birthday on the morning net. So all day long as we passed other boats there were calls of "Happy Birthday Toast!" "Hoy Don Quixote! Happy BDay!" People hailed us on the radio, waved at us in our dinghy, came up to me at dinner. Discovery made me a monohull cake (totally lopsided due to heeling as they changed anchorages). Rhythm put together the perfect cruiser birthday gift: a bottle of wine wrapped in brand new, unstained, incredibly clean dish towels! Folks made a point to swing by for a chat and a greeting. I felt completely surrounded in people who actually cared that it was my birthday and wanted to help make it a special day.

After spending the day being pampered by the family, we all piled into the dinghy to go to dinner on shore. Dinner was a Tongan feast on the beach. It included probably 15 clever ways to cook and season potatoes and/or taro as well as sweet and sour veg, cabbage salad, and a whole roast pig. The girls splurged and bought me a hair flower decoration, while DrC made a point of getting me the best little bits of pig skin and flank. Everywhere I turned were people I knew smiling, sharing food, and offering best birthday wishes. Even our Tongan hosts shared the inside information and said something with a berzillion vowels which was either directions to the loo or happy birthday. Several folks joined us after dinner on our boat for tea and monohull cake while I opened my gifts. My mom made me a skirt nearly 8 months ago and tucked it into our provisions so that I could open it and dance around in Tonga. DrC found me a lovely pink pearl necklace, Aeron had purchased a t-shirt dress in La Paz, while Mera had found a lovely dolphin necklace and carved wooden owl from my lovely wise owl-child. All the advance planning and thoughtfulness added to the gifts enormously.

Birthdays are different when you live in a community rather than a suburb. It's not about growing a year older or even just surviving another year. A birthday is a day that gives everyone permission to be a bit silly, a bit extravagant, and more than a bit generous with the limited 'things' we have on these tiny floating homes. Birthdays are a day for everyone to say in small ways and large, "You are a part of our lives, and we're pretty damn happy about that."

Well I am pretty damn happy about it, too. Thank you everyone. Best birthday EVER.

Friday, September 16, 2011

One Day and a Banana

My mom calculated in her emailed birthday greeting today that were I living in California, I would be 23 hours 23 minutes short of 45. As we are in Tonga, however, today is the big day. She then helpfully pointed out that "one day is only important to a banana".

Speaking of bananas, here is a fact of South Pacific cruising life that no one bothers to mention in the cruising guides: all 100 bananas in a stem inevitably ripens simultaneously. You buy a stem on some island between here and there for a small number of strangely shaped coins with tikis and phalluses on one side and a monarch on the other. A stem consists of maybe a dozen hands, each hand representing between 5 to 15 bananas. On the day of purchase, they are all a deep, vivid green. You hang the stem in the cockpit being sure to cross tie it so that the stem doesn't gain too much momentum in a heavy sea. A stem of bananas is incredibly heavy and while green it is incredibly hard with nasty little sharp ends. Do not underestimate the power of a swinging stem to clonk you on the head and knock you out. The theory is the stem should ripen from the bottom to the top over the course of a few days. Instead what happens is that it doesn't ripen at all for a week, sometimes two. Then one day, a member of the crew spots a slightly yellow banana. At this point, brace yourself. Pull out the butter, flour, cinnamon and sugar. Make yogurt. Hide all other forms of fruit so that the crew has no choice whatsoever. This is all in preparation for the following day when at a pace so rapid that you can literally stand in the cockpit and watch it happen, the entire stem ripens. Within 10 hours, you go from fruitless to the proud owner of a metric buttload of sticky sweet, smelly, overripe bananas.

My children have a lot in common with bananas. For years, they were little, green, tart, and hard as rocks. I would hang them in the cockpit to keep them out of the way where they would swing like monkeys until someone got clonked on the head. Suddenly -- at a pace so rapid that we could literally stand in the cockpit and watch it happen -- they grew into ripe, sweet, beautiful women. There are boobs all over everywhere and shapely hips and bottoms. Long legs, flowing hair, big eyes, graceful gestures. In short, the girls are everything their mother never achieved: gorgeous young ladies. Either the Conger genes are kicking in or my mother is getting her karmic vengeance on her tomboy of a daughter. Even Aeron is starting to show signs of the woman she will become. Her face is changing, her body lengthening, her voice dropping just a bit.

The progesterone is starting to get to my husband. He actually disappears in the evenings sometimes to spend time on boy boats. One night he got drunk with other men at a bar while watching a game of rugby! So masculine! So Kiwi!! He has no idea how bad it is going to get, however, when we make landfall. Right now the girls are isolated on a boat in the middle of the ocean. In Auckland, they will be attending high school. With lots of high school boys. After all these years, it might be time for DrC to rethink his position on the right to bear arms. Alternatively, we may spend a lot of time anchored out in the middle of the harbor. There is nothing like a half mile of 40 degree sea water to cool the ardor of prospective suitors.

After 45 years, it is too late for me to be a slim pretty banana, of course. I'm just going to be slim. I am healthier right now than I have been since my 40th having dropped nearly 30 pounds in the past 6 months. Jaime is starting to worry about me, says I don't eat enough. The schools and media are so preachy (and rightfully so!) to teenage girls about the hazards of anorexia that my eldest is convinced I am a candidate for psychological counseling. I'm less worried about how skinny I am then about how I'm going to stay this way in the Land of Cheese, Pie, and Bakehouses. The bread is a problem, too. On the whole, though, it's not so bad being a slim, ripe banana. DrC still thinks I'm tasty despite all the brown spots.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Sure They Eat

Years ago when I was still a diligent n00bie wannabe cruiser, I used to go to boat shows and attend seminar after seminar, eagerly listening to the gems shared by experienced sailors. There were many useful tips of diesel maintenance, keeping boats warm and dry in the winter, weather, and navigation. One of my favorites was delivered by a cruising author of cookbooks on the topic of provisioning. She was light, humorous, generous with her time and experience. She good-naturedly related arriving on her new husband's boat to find a bilge full of mysterious canned goods whose labels had long since dissolved and bags and bags of rice and beans. This author was delighted to let us know we didn't have to eat that way as cruisers. No need to stock up with all those staples, because she quipped, "People in other countries... they eat!" We all laughed. This was wonderful news, and it made perfect sense. We could travel the world with our favorite spices and sauces, purchasing local produce and meats en route. We'd shop at local markets, purchase locally grown veg and fruit, eat a lot of fresh fish caught by ourselves or by the friendly fishermen in the islands and villages of our travels. Provisioning would be cheaper, fresher, and incidentally we'd be learning more about the places we visit.

In retrospect, I am absolutely positive this woman did not cruise the South Pacific. If so, she would have amended her blithe comment with the sobering realization that while people always eat "duh!", in many places what they eat is either: (1) limited in variety; (2) extremely expensive; and/or (3) dominated by starchy white carbohydrates. Since leaving Mexico, we have seen one (ONE) 1 -one- super market worthy of the name... in Tahiti. We have seen thousands of small magazin/tiendas which carry an extremely limited supply of exorbitantly priced canned and dry goods, potatoes and onions, and a truly eye bogglingly priced freezer of frozen meat which looks like it has been there since WWII (both the freezer and the meat it contains).

One aspect of our Palmerston experience that was very educating was the meals. Each day, our host family served us a delicious and incredibly generous mid-afternoon supper. While I can say without reservation that the food was copious and yummy, a dietician would be quick to point out that it consisted of two food groups: protein and white carbos. Mostly, we were served fish either in sauces or grilled. For variety, there was an occasional chicken or sausage dish. To accompany this every day was an enormous pan of white rice and a stack of white bread buns. We also tasted of pastas and bread fruit, potatoes, and kumara in a varied presentation of baked, stewed, grilled, and fried. In our week there, we never saw a fruit -- fresh or canned. We never ate anything green or crunchy - fresh, frozen or canned. Everything we ate could be made with onions and root vegetables, seasoned with minimum of tomato sauce. And this, quite frankly, is how a good fraction of the South Pacific eats.

Compound the limited diet with even more limited availability. There are no large farms here producing tomatoes, fresh greens, and fruit. Families who do supplement their fish and rice diets with produce, do so by growing it themselves. Throughout the islands, we see homes whose edible landscapes make our mouths water. Everyone has a few banana, papaya, mango, or pamplemousse (only in the Marquesas) trees. They carefully pot garden some tomatoes or squash, beans, bokchoy, or chives. But these efforts are for the family, with only surplus being carried to a local stand or truck market for sale to neighbors and the desperately vitamin deficient passing yachties. You can send the children to particularly prosperous homes, let them stand outside with their mouths watering, and sometimes the owners will generously hand the kids a citrus or banana. You can not as provisioning guru of your boat, however, assume that these cottage gardens are going to become a regular source for your larder.

I am particularly bitter this lovely morning in Niue. In the pre-dawn hours, DrC drove me ashore so I could attend the weekly market. After spending the day driving around the island yesterday, I had high hopes for a successful haul of papayas, watermelon, and tuna. However, all we found were shucked coconuts, bead jewelry, and fried donut balls. So instead, I am going to have to wire my mother and ask her to sell the family silver so that I can visit the market this afternoon to purchase a bag of potatoes, one of onions, and a few bags of frozen mixed stir fry veg. I do not regret a single can of tomatoes, peaches or pears we loaded in Mexico. I applaud my foresight in simply sinking the boat with pimentos, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and fresh frozen basil. Were I to do it again, the only thing I would change is to load more peanut butter, maple syrup, and probably about a thousand pounds of dried fruit.

Alternatively, we need to convert Don Quixote into a cottage garden. We'll kick the girls off, turn one of the cabins into a green house, and grow beans and lettuce and alfalfa sprouts from hanging baskets in the cockpit. Sailing the farm is looking better and better. But we really are going to have to catch fish instead of just dragging a line behind the boat across half the planet.