Jul 30 2009

A Little Faith…

Tag: marina lifejonny5waldman @ 5:33 am

[Reposted from my Outside blog]

A mile out of the channel, John lost control of his rudder. One of the shivs holding the steering cable taut between the wheel and the sector had ripped out of a piece of oak one-and-a-half inches thick. These things happen.

John is the captain of Faith, a 40-foot wooden ketch built in 1946, that sits across from Syzygy.  John’s also the pilot of an IAR 823, a 1979 Romanian four-seater that he keeps up in Napa, and he tends to keep his cool under duress. His steering had failed. It’s not like he was a mile high and leaking fuel or something.

He rigged up the emergency tiller. It was made of old wood, and it snapped in two like a baseball bat. John has since fabricated a new one out of a steel bar.

With the engine still on, John raised the mizzen. The sail steadied the boat, kept her elegant bowsprit nosed into the wind. Everyone, including his eight-year old daughter Elizabeth, was fine. It was a Sunday in July. Everyone had a PFD, and dry clothes. It was windy, gusting to 30, but sunny and clear, at least on this side of the bay. Classic fogger weather.

John radioed the Coast Guard, and asked for assistance. The Coast Guard, by then, was busy; so busy that Jim and Jeannie, who were out that same afternoon aboard Kanga, picked up a sailor in the water before the Coast Guard was able to get to him. He’d been in the water for half an hour, and was blue. He was shivering uncontrollably. His 15-foot dinghy had capsized, and he’d been unable to right it. To the Coast Guard, this was typical: vessels without steering, vessels upside down. (A couple days later, I heard someone declare “Mayday,” and heard the Coast Guard respond casually to the call.) Over the radio, they instructed John to drop an anchor, so that he’d stay put. He did.

A little while later his engine died. He’d run out of fuel. This is when John started to get irritated, at least in recounting the story. “There are so many things Ian” — the previous owner — “didn’t tell me,” he said.  Welcome to the complexities of a new (technically old) boat. “These things” included the locations of the manifolds to the reserve fuel tanks. John is now much more familiar with the fuel system onboard Faith.

The Coast Guard arrived, saw that Faith’s engine was dead, and instructed John to pull the anchor. I can’t, he said. He couldn’t sail up over it without steering, and he couldn’t motor up over it without his engine. A conundrum. Faith alone wouldn’t suffice. Cut it, the Coast Guard said. So he did. John’s anchor, and 200 feet of 5/16-inch galvanized chain, ended up in shallow water about a mile west of the marina. He marked the spot on his GPS.

At last, the Coast Guard agreed to tow Faith — but with the steering all funny, the rudder shoved to starboard, they wouldn’t risk bring him through the tight turns at the entrance to the marina. Instead, they brought him to the nearest safe harbor, on the east side of Treasure Island. The next morning, John paid Vessel Assist $250 for a tow back into the marina.

I bumped into John a couple of hours after he returned. I told him I’d seen him go out on Sunday afternoon, and had wondered if he had intended to spend the night elsewhere. He laughed. The height of his spirits seemed unwarranted, but I’m not complaining. Cheerful sailors are welcome around here.

He recounted the details of the story, then zoomed out and assessed the big picture. “Stuff broke, but nobody got hurt,” John said. “It was a grand adventure, and a steep learning curve.” He paused, and smiled, and allowed a smidgeon of resentment to invade his sunny demeanor. “OK, it was brutal.”

A week later, John and I tried to retrieve his tackle from the bottom of the bay. We took his inflatable dinghy, five-horsepower Nissan and all, as well as a grappling hook and 50 feet of line. We headed out before noon, before the tide and chop picked up. We both had on PFDs, and I brought a handheld VHF radio, inspired mostly by the leak John had just discovered in his dinghy. We brought a bailer, too, and a pair of oars. Perhaps we lacked faith.

While John tended the throttle, I watched the GPS, and called out our coordinates. As we neared the spot on John’s map (which was more of a doodle), I tossed the grappling hook over, and waited for the line to draw taut. I pulled it in, dribbling water all over my legs. Nothing. John threw it out with more vigor, and I pulled it back in. Nothing. We spent the next hour motoring around, bobbing up and down in the building chop, tossing the grappling hook into the deep, and dragging it back and forth over the the silty bay floor. Nothing. All we got was water. But it was a faithful effort. I’m pretty sure John’s gonna call his insurance company, and see if they’ll spring for a new anchor.

Jul 22 2009

Two years on a boat

Tag: musingsjonny5waldman @ 6:28 am

[From my Outside blog]

In 1834, Richard Henry Dana, a classmate of Henry David Thoreau, dropped out of Harvard because his eyesight was failing. He couldn’t study — couldn’t read — like he used to. So he joined merchant marine, to sail from Boston to California and collect hides. The voyage, which began with 14 other men on the 86-foot Pilgrim and took him around Cape Horn twice, lasted more than two years. When he returned, he went back to school, got a law degree, and got married. Then he wrote a book about it, called “Two years before the mast.” It, like he, made waves.

Edward Tyrell Channing, a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard, reviewed the book in the North American Review. He wrote that it was “a successful attempt to describe a class of men, and a course of life, which, though familiarly spoken of by most people, and considered as within the limits of civilization, will appear to them now almost as just discovered.”

Indeed, it still reads that way. There are discoveries on every page.

Continue reading “Two years on a boat”

Jul 17 2009

A glorious holiday

Tag: boat work,musingsjonny5waldman @ 8:37 pm

In honor of Independence Day, and brave adventurers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, I dug up an American flag from the wet locker and hung the stars and bars from backstay. I hate to get all jingoistic, but there’s something fantastic about a boat, a flag, and the water, something almost timeless, something that people 233 years ago and long before that must also have recognized. I’d call the combination a triumvirate of awesomeness, were not that label already taken.

The flag, five feet off the deck, bestowed upon Syzygy some glory. That afternoon, the wind picked up from the west, and the flag began flapping loudly, wrapping around itself, fluttering and flicking about. I was working on the lazarette — aka stern locker — and kept ducking to keep from getting smacked in the face by the flag. There’s a metaphor for a boat: sacrificing practicality for beauty, functionality for symbolism. These are sacrifices worth making, sometimes.

So I kept my head low, determined to crank some productivity out of the holiday. Unfortunately, I kept my nose so close to the deck that the wisdom in the air almost blew by unnoticed. Almost, but not quite.

Jim, from Kanga, stopped by, and we chatted about ideal gasket-making techniques, the better to keep the ocean out of the new stern locker. “Water’s gonna come in the hatch,” Jim said. “You can’t force it, just direct it.” He paused. “Actually, you can’t direct it, just coax it.” He recognized the poetry he’d spoken, and laughed. It applied to so many hurdles before us. I told him I wouldn’t forget it.

An hour later, two of Jim’s friends stopped by. I was upside down and backwards in the new propane locker, fiberglassing away, and when they — a couple — yelled hello, I waved with my foot before extracting myself. They laughed because they’d spent three years fixing up (“nerding out” they called it) a 1988 Passport 42 before sailing it to New Zealand, and recognized what I was up to. Their work had paid off; their voyage wasn’t compromised by mechanical failures or catastrophes, and that bolstered my spirits. They recalled having to explain to friends that, contrary to popular opinion, sailing wasn’t all fancy drinks and white shoes; that nautical-themed pashmina afghans never entered into the equation. “You’ve probably heard this before,” he said, “but remember: It’s a lifestyle, not a vacation.” Here’s to the eloquence therei

Two days later, still nose-down, Matt and I stopped by Svendsen’s, to empty out our bank accounts and acquire some information and goods in the process. I’d been having a bitch of a time polishing the metal of our new radar arch, so I stopped by Svendsen’s metal shop, and asked Chris for advice. He led me around the workshop, revealing industrial-grade tools I could only fantasize about. No, I could not borrow them, and no, I could not afford to pay $80/hour to have them polish the metal for me. Chris told me where to pick up jeweler’s rouge (aka grinding paste) and then, all Yoda-like, sans-pronouns, offered the best advice I’ve heard all year: “When faced with daunting task, lower expectations.” I may take him up on that.

Jul 10 2009

Getting Over the Hump

Tag: preparationjonny5waldman @ 2:29 am

[ reposted from my Outside blog ]

A month ago, on a flight to DC, I started up a conversation with my neighbor because he was flipping through a catalog of farm equipment — $150,000 tractors and combines and such. I asked what he was up to. He said he was a South Dakotan, and had picked up the catalog for fun, since his dad used to be involved in farming. We talked for a bit about machinery and engines, maintenance and reliability, lifespans and longevity. Such was our common ground. Was he still involved in farming? No, he worked for the South Dakota Department of Education, and was en route to DC for meetings with South Dakota’s elected representatives. In particular, he was eager to talk to Senator Thune about getting funding for a program to deter bullying. I asked what he meant by deter, since it seemed bullying would always be around. He said I was right, and that the program would help teachers to better deal with bullying. This reminded me of John Guzzwell’s definition of sailing: “prepare and deal.”

I’ve been thinking of Guzzwell’s definition of sailing a lot lately. At first, it suggests a 50-50 cut: half preparing, and half dealing. That’s not the split on Syzygy these days. Lately, it seems like 99% preparing, and 1% dealing. It’s frustrating, because the adventure is in the dealing, and here the preparing part is languishing interminably. We tear stuff out. We fix stuff. We make a mess. We clean it up. We buy things. We install them. We imagine that we are improving our boat — that we are making it more suitable for long passages and burly weather and rugged conditions — and we are. It just all seems so theoretical, so abstract. We want some hard evidence, damn it.

Our current preparations —  a new (way more efficient) fridge, a new (better located) propane locker, and a new (far stronger and more adaptable) radar/solar/wind-generator arch — are, of course, bigger and badder than those behind us, and for some ridiculous reason we’ve chosen to tackle them simultaneously. Matt and I have convinced ourselves that, as such, they comprise “the hump.” Getting over the hump is what we dream about. Getting over it will mean we’re about 75% through our refit agenda, an achievement so staggering I’m somewhat scared to mention it. We imagine that the pressure, the frustration, and the difficulty will wane once we get over the hump. But John Guzzwell didn’t mention anything about a hump. He just said prepare and deal. Believe me, we are preparing. If anything, we’re preparing so much that we have to deal with it.

Mid-hump, there’s only one consolation, and it’s not pretty. Schadenfreude bolsters our spirits, gives us perspective. Things don’t seem so bad when I think about Robert, whose boom snapped in two while sailing on a not-particularly-windy day. Things seem OK on Syzygy when I think about Jim’s mainsail ripping clear across. The pace at which we’re proceeding seems more tolerable when I think of Marcus, who spent almost $4,000, and six months, building a new fridge.

And then there’s Stuart, who returned two weeks ago, with a new engine and $17,000 less in his bank account. Not knowing quite how to ask if he was satisfied with the result, I asked him, “Does it sound good?” “It sounds like an opera,” he said. “Wanna see?” I was glad he asked. It was beautiful, bright red and shiny as a fire truck.

A few days later, Stuart invited me over for a beer. We sat in the cockpit, listening to seagulls squawk over fish guts on a nearby trawler.  The sun was low, the wind calm. Without prefacing it, he said, “Wanna hear it?” I said yeah. Stuart turned a switch, the oil-pressure alarm rang briefly, and then the engine started up. It purred, smooth and confident. Stuart said he might not even install sound-proof insulation in his engine compartment, given how quiet it ran. I was impressed.

The schadenfreude faded to envy. I can’t wait to feel that way about my boat.

Jul 02 2009

Take it from a sailor: It’s All Lumber; Throw it Overboard!

Tag: humorous,musingsjonny5waldman @ 3:28 am

[Reposted from my Outside blog]

A couple of days ago, I helped my friend Liz move out of her fancy apartment. She’s lived in San Francisco for five years, and, as landlubbers tend to do, acquired nice furniture, a bunch of art, and a few acres of books, as well as all those little gewgaws that sit atop shelves and coffee tables. I was enlisted to help move the “heavy things” and “very heavy things” down three flights of stairs, so that she could transport them and store them elsewhere, until further notice. My help, unsolicited as it was, began immediately, over the phone. “Sell it all!” I said. “Put it on Craigslist. Put it on the street. Just get rid of it!” I tend to treat unwanted objects like jank.

Liz, who fancies her possessions, likes her lot of things, was not amused. And her initial experience with Craigslist — some scam artist claiming he was hearing-impaired, hence the unusual shipping and payment arrangement — was not encouraging. She rationalized her situation. If she couldn’t sell her unwanted furniture right away, she’d put it in storage, and sell it in a few weeks. This was even worse: this was like being a slave to your possessions. “Just get rid of it!” I said again. “It’s not worth the trouble!” Liz’s uncle, a sailor, who was also there to help, agreed with me. While Liz crammed things into cardboard boxes, I offered to throw some stuff out her 3rd floor window. He said he’s already suggested that. We laughed: a laugh, perhaps, that only sailors can share. Liz didn’t laugh. She ran around packaging things up, making her life difficult, chained, apparently, to her stuff.

I’ve always been a minimalist, but living on a boat makes you an austere minimalist. You don’t fret over things, or lament their loss. When deciding whether or not jettison possessions, the default becomes Get Rid of It. I’m sure the habit will come back to bite me in the ass later in life, but for now, I’m proud of it. I am the Jank Remover, and when the question is “To take or not to take,” I have my answer in 3 milliseconds. Beat that processing speed, Google.

So after I carried Liz’s sofa bed, bookshelf, carpet, coffee table, and huge TV down the stairs, and had a couple of beers, I recalled a certain relevant literary anecdote. It’s a tongue-in-cheek story of three overworked, partied-out, permanently-hungover English lads — George, Harris, and Jerome (and their dog) —  who decide to rejuvenate themselves by taking a week-long boat trip up the Thames River. It’s called, fittingly enough, “Three Men in a Boat,” and it’s hilarious. The story is classic — it’s #33 on the Guardian‘s list of “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” and #2 on Esquire‘s list of “50 Funniest Books Ever.” It was written in 1889, and has never been out of print, and is freely available online, courtesy of the Gutenburg Project.

The part that I thought of, and later sent to Liz, is from the planning stage of their voyage. Here’s an extended excerpt:

George said: “You know we are on a wrong track altogether.  We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can’t do without.”

George comes out really quite sensible at times.  You’d be surprised.  I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally.  How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with – oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! – the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man – all lumber!  Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness – no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchis, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man!  Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water.  You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life’s sunshine – time to listen to the Aeolian music that the wind of God draws from the human heart-strings around us – time to… Well, we left the list to George, and he began it.