Hunt Press

Sheltering from the wind

Last night, the unthinkable happened, and some of my boating friends lost their child.

While we were all still gathered, searching for her, the world outside intruded, and some media person decided to run a story saying her body’d been found. This, nearly 11 hours before it actually had been. And that called down the armchair quarterbacks and the tourists and all those who have so little empathy as to believe that it’s their place to judge.

Here’s the thing, though. Our community is fierce. And we are mutually supportive. And we do not, will not, not ever, tolerate good people being torn down when bad things happen.

We rallied. We mobilized. We supported. We reached out. We shared our various expertises in such a way that everything that could be done for our tribe was done. Everything from hot coffee to hacking to SAR tips was shared. People in six different time zones pulled together to pitch in virtually, locally, practically, and philosophically.

So here’s what I want you to understand, you people who dare, who dare, to imply that if-they’d-only-then…. I want you to know that you are not just picking on one bereft and unsupported family. You are calling out a multitude, and none of us, none of us will tolerate it. The internet might be the wild west in some places, but when you imply that you have the right, nay, the obligation, to trample grieving people, we will hold the line, and we will call you on your emotionally-stunted shenanigans. We will shine a light on your cockroach-infested hearts, and we will stand between you and those you seek to harm. We are utterly unified, and completely implacable, in this.

You’ve been warned. Instead of reaching for judgment, reach for your humanity. We sailing women formed our community based on sheltering from the wind of useless, stupid, combative judgment. And we will not budge from there.

From Behan of s/v Totem: Some good must come from this tragedy


Getting Real About Your Contribution

So, a few months ago, one of the largest storms ever seen on Earth crashed into the Philippines, completely devastating them. We’ll never know the body count, because many of those folks aren’t really in a system that counts them, and many of them were already displaced due to earthquakes just prior. If some people washed out to sea, only their families know; not their government.

I follow, and support, Doctors Without Borders. Their ongoing efforts in the Philippines are nothing short of heroic. Check this out:

A nurse told me that as the typhoon hit and the water began rising she put all of the neonatal unit babies into a single cot to try to save them. Other staff stayed to look after patients before walking long distances to get home, wading through water as bodies floated past. All the way home they didn’t know what had happened to their families—they were just hoping that they would find them alive.

We’re out of the emergency stage now but some parts of Tacloban remain devastated. There is a piece of land behind the hospital that looks like a steamroller has driven over it—it used to be full of houses. I’m always really struck by the plots that have no repair work underway; it makes you wonder what happened to the owners.

We’re still seeing strong demand for our services, and that’s why we’re staying for the foreseeable future. So far we’ve treated 6,000 people as outpatients, treated more than 1,000 emergency cases, performed more than 250 surgical procedures, and delivered more than 100 babies. I don’t think that level of demand will change any time soon.

There are always causes to support, disasters in different places, things that we should be paying more attention to, and working harder to fix. I think that now is an excellent time to think about your place in the world, and think about two or three places you personally can steadily contribute to making it, whatever it is, better.


It Never Moves

The weekends are hoppin’ around this place. All the weekenders come down, and there are five, count em, five, boats on our dock preparing to sail to Florida and points beyond in the next few weeks, so everyone is just zooming around. I find the change a little intimidating.

I was down in the galley making a meal, when a dinghy-load of people puttered by. And I overhear their conversation, “…yeah, that boat looks cool, but it hasn’t moved in years…”

I winced, visibly.

We have been in Texas for only nine months, so the charge of “years” is exaggerated. That’s a relief. But the fact is, that yeah, we’re becoming dock limpets. Jason’s out racing, and I can’t handle all 47′ of this boat solo, so I just haven’t gotten out. And I’m beginning to get that itch that says, if I don’t get off the dock soon, I’m gonna lose my mind. I think back, several times a day now, to, “this time last year, we were…”

Well, to be perfectly honest, this time last year we were careening from euphoria to stress-induced terror and back again. Gorgeous moments of sea and sky and wind juxtaposed with towering mountains of paperwork defended by fire-breathing bureaucratic dragons. Sweltering heat, and one of the most glorious ocean swims I’ll ever have in my entire life. Simple meals of rice and beans (“again? Aw man!”) eaten in the cockpit while a brilliant, molten gold-red sun slipped slowly down beneath a glassy-calm Mexican sea. Hours spent on our bellies on the trampoline, letting our arms dangle down in hopes the leaping dolphins would choose to touch us…

Y’know, life.

Living on a boat is freaking inconvenient and at times utterly ridiculous. I do more maintenance and have a more intimate understanding of plumbing and electrical systems than I ever wanted. And if that’s the price to pay, for moments like those, I will take it. I can take these months on the dock, doing projects as grandiose as redoing the interior and as mundane as organizing and purging stuff, and use them as credit towards preparing for the Next Great Adventure. Before we were given the opportunity to do our trip around Central America, we were on the dock, and hopeful, and I think that now that we’ve gone once, the certainty that we will go again is a comfort, and proof against becoming the dock limpets we’re now being labeled as.


The Book of Doom

DreamShipBook2It’s just a notebook.

It’s just a boat, it’s just the sky, it’s just the wind, the stars, the sea, a journey.

Or maybe it’s something bigger than that.

When we found out that our family had five weeks in which to get our boat ready for a 5,000 mile relocation from San Diego, California to Clear Lake Shores, Texas, the first thing I did (after jumping around, hyperventilating, and then jumping around some more) was to revert to my basic type-A nature, and start making lists. But in boats, there’s a lot of chaos, and it’s really easy to lose things, so you need a place for your lists.

I had no time to go shop, or to pick something out with intention. I grabbed my Oberon binder, because it’s what I had to hand that first tremendous, life-changing day.  For the first week or so, the binder had pages of lists in it. Provisioning lists, navigation lists, chart lists, repairs lists, discussion lists, study lists. And of course, the master List of Lists. Because I’m about tying up the loose ends.

I just carried the book around with me at all times, as my brain-on-overdrive would think of one new thing or other that I needed to research/examine/question/purchase/investigate/consider/discuss. And then after the first middle-of-the-night listfest, I also put a flashlight on a lanyard on it.  For pretty much the whole five weeks, I was never out of sight of my binder.

When you stop into a port, or clear into a country, you’re required to check in with the Port Captain, and provide the required paperwork; registration and insurance binders and Zarpes and crew lists and passport copies and engine serial numbers and customs declarations and… all the bits of paper that make a nautical journey happen. Every time. With multiple copies. So as I tried to prepare our documentation, I started to fill the binder with originals and copies and instructions and little translation cheat-sheets.

Dealing with governments can be a little stressful, and as I’d sit in small offices in out of the way places all throughout Central America, I ran my fingers over the tooled waves on the front of the binder… starlit journeys on spiraling waves… it soothed me, so that I wasn’t quite so tightly-wrapped when the Port Captain in Costa Rica was screaming at me because I couldn’t possibly be the Captain of my vessel because I was a girl, or when the Immigration guys in Puerto Vallarta told me, in direct opposition to what the cruising guide said, that my crewlist didn’t matter at all, or a thousand other little discrepancies that I was forced to get through, mostly relying on the beneficence of the officials whose countries we were sailing past.

Our crewmember Angela, upon seeing it for the first time in Puerto Vallarta, laughed and said, “Well isn’t that just the Book of Doom?” And so it became. The Book of Doom.

When I ventured into all the various offices I had to visit in every country and port we saw, I took to taking the binder out and placing it on the desk or countertop first, before I said anything, both because it’s a beautiful binder, and also because its richness, and paper-stuffed thickness, illustrated clearly that I was prepared for pretty much anything. But after the second or third stop, I also realized that the people I was dealing with took it as a sign of respect, that I would keep our documents in this Very Serious Binder. And it became a conversation opener… I always got questions about the binder, more esoteric from those who spoke English, and usually just a simple, “muy lindo!” from those who did not. I encouraged more than one person to run their fingers over the waves, which are oddly soothing in their spiraling nauticalness.

Once we completed our journey, swapping zarpe for zarpe all the way back to the States, where we were given a hearty “Welcome home!”, the book was no longer the focus of my life. It sat on the navigation table, got completely covered by the paperwork for our new life here in Texas, and by legos, and museum brochures, and bills, and all the flotsam any nonmoving horizontal surface disappears under.

I found it again the other day, while cleaning up the mountain. And the papers inside tell a story…


A Year Ago Today We…

While writing my post about insurance, I realized that it’s been a year since we found out that we were moving to Texas.

I had to sit down.

The enormity of it… so much ground (and water) covered, so many lessons learned, so much information processed. It’s huge. And yet it’s just another year. Because of what happened to us in February of 2012, I now am no longer interested in much in the way of long-term planning. I am far more trusting of the Universe, because sometimes, gorgeous, fantastic, amazing things are dropped in your lap. I have an all-new appreciation for the phrase “fortune favors the prepared”.

This is gonna take a few posts while I mull it over. Go ahead, go get a cup of tea or pop some popcorn. Here I go…


Insured Against What?

It is not, currently, hurricane season.

It is however, nearing the anniversary of our departure from California.

Our tried-and-true insurance company, Boat U.S., refused to insure us through the Canal, forcing us to obtain coverage from another company. We went back to Mariner’s, who had insured this boat for her initial passage (with us) from Puerto Rico to California (we should never have left. That’s a whole other story…).

Big-risk insurance isn’t cheap, and Mariner’s bill for this year left me gasping. So I called Boat U.S. again, with the intent of shopping around. We chatted pleasantly while they were going over the details of my boat and desired coverage, and the agent said, “you do understand that there in the Gulf, insurance is more than you’re used to.”

That kind of stopped me.

“While we were bringing the boat south, from Emeryville to San Diego, we stopped off in Santa Cruz, which got demolished by the tsunami”

“Oh, yeah,” the agent laughed, “we paid out a lot of claims for that tsunami.”

“So,” I continued, “we don’t get tsunamis here in the Gulf, so really, why is Gulf insurance any more than Pacific insurance is? In the time we’ve owned this boat, it’s been near no hurricanes, but two tsunamis, so for the planet right now, the tsunami is really the bigger risk, right?”

Silence. Then an abrupt change of topic, and an assurance that they’d get back to me with a quote in the next few days.

Obviously, I’m still pondering this.

Hurricanes are A Big Deal here in the Gulf. And the level of preparedness is super high. One of the things that impressed me thoroughly about Texas in general and about this area in particular is that there are no derelict boats here; you’re either hurricane-ready, or you’re evicted. There’s a hurricane-response team here that preps boats that need help if a storm’s incoming (or even vaguely predicted to possibly be incoming… they are super on top of it here.). The marina we’re in is oriented specifically to be hurricane-resistant, and the pilings are something like 6 feet higher than highest recorded storm surge. Everyone around me, in every way possible, has done everything possible, to protect and prepare against storm conditions.

California was absolutely not that way.

The last marina we were in gave classes, for free, for how not to have your boat sink at the dock (it was a basic maintenance course. I was absolutely appalled. The slip fees there were more than house payments are here, and yet people just let perfectly good boats rot into the sea). The marina before that has boats chained to the dock, sails disintegrating into floppy shreds, and yes, the emergency middle-of-the-night sinking response crew. Maintenance isn’t all that big a deal, because… what? No hurricanes, so it’s all bueno? But the tsunami wreaked havoc at marinas all up and down the coast that happened to be oriented the wrong way.

It’s also becoming common knowledge amongst anyone who is at all meteorologically literate, that hurricanes are no longer following the laws about when and where they show up. So if that’s changing, if the world is changing, if the welfare of your boat depends more on how well you’ve paid attention rather than random chance and location, I think that insurance should stop penalizing people for location based on no longer accurate historical data, and start rewarding people for paying attention.


Boat Refit — The Three Couch

TresChicThe only thing on this whole boat that I hated, was the couch.

It was original to the boat, which means 1991 French chic. Pink, blue, and green, in what I think was intended to be sort of tropical stripey coolness… but really just ended up being ghastly. I have hated this couch literally since we saw the original pics on YachtWorld. I had one upholsterer look at it, pause slowly, roll her words around in her mouth for a moment, and then gently say, “well, yeah, I can see why you wanted to talk to me…”

When we first brought the boat back to Emeryville, I priced getting the couch replaced. And almost died when it was going to be roughly $5K, give or take a little. We decided to put that off. As long as possible.

But but but… it was ugly. I mean, really ugly. I covered it up with blankets and pillows and after a while, I just sort of pretended I didn’t see it. It really didn’t break my heart when three kids ravaged it. At first it was babies and baby splatter, but then it was toddlers, and those messes, and then they got energetic and started running back and forth, and smearing peanut butter on it, and… you know. Kids. Upholstery. Ew.

I took the covers off and washed them a few times. The water was utterly black and grody and disgusting and… three washes later, the gunk was gone, but the fabric was clearly suffering. I was reminded that there were twenty years of salty (literally; sweat and spray) sailors on those cushions before my kids got to them. And the zippers and the careful and ornate construction of the cushions really weren’t meant to be taken apart and cleaned multiple times. Like many boat things, it’s not assumed you’ll make daily use of it, let alone live on it.

The result? This:


And this:


 …because the fabric had disintegrated down to bare foam in those two high-traffic spots, and then I’d patched them, and then the patches wore through. I finally gave up. The rest of the couch looked like this:


It was so awful, I was actually not letting people come over.  Because when you first stepped into the salon, that was what you were facing. Ew ew ew. Vain of me, but there you have it.

This couch, which Rowan named “the three couch” for its shape, stretches the whole width of the salon. It’s curvy, which makes it more complicated to create covers for, and there are a gazillion different cushions, because the table drops to make a sleeping space on passage. It’s an awesome design but, as I said, not cheap. And a bunch of people got all DIY on me… except that this was the kind of job that really, really ought to be done by pros. Did I mention, fiddly? Thoroughly fiddly. This was really not a job for a first time amateur with questionable equipment (keep in  mind, I rebuild the winches on this boat, but that kind of fiddly doesn’t give me the wiggins the way fabric does). I was pretty sure we were looking at all new foam too, and the dollar signs were racking up in my head. We contacted Mike at 5-Star Upholstery here in League City. He came highly recommended by a few people. not the least of whom being our former neighbor, Steve at Alternate Latitude. Mike did his (nicely straight and not curvy, sigh) salon cushions, and did a great job.

Mike was awesome. We took up a ton of his time, he and his assistant Shel came out to the boat, took measurements, poked around. We went back to the shop, and pored over fabric samples, with Mike throwing in his $.02 about durability, stain resistance, and the hideous things kids and salt water could do to simple cushions. We picked out our fabric, and waited for the crew.

Because the project was so huge and, y’know, the center of my living space, they suggested that they do it in stages. First up, paper templates of the seat cushions.


Marco, who did the actual sewing, was amazing. Mike’s son (whose name I never did catch) mostly did the heavy lifting, and was very personable.


Then they left with the paper. A few days later, they were back with the cut foam.


and more


A few days later they came back, so happy, because they’d finished my seat cushions. Mike’s son was so excited, “Here they are! They’re done!”

And they were wrong.

Somehow Mike had written down the wrong fabric ID number, and instead of the gorgeous stuff we picked out, there was this… other… stuff. Same color, but wrong. Mike asked me if I could live with it. I told him I’d think it over. I talked to a few friends. Most of them agreed with Lilia, who said, “You will be looking at the wrong fabric every day for the next twenty years and it will be pissing you off. So, no, go with the stuff you picked.” So we talked to Mike, and he reluctantly, and painfully, agreed to reorder the right stuff, rip the existing cushions apart, and start over. Customer service win.

A week passed, and then another, and then… cushions!!!!! The bottoms, which were awesome, and then the tops, and then, my oh my, it was done.


Tell me that doesn’t look soooo much better. And as a nice gesture, Mike even threw in a few throw pillows.


The half-moon cushion on the floor is going to be the topper to a cabinet that Jason’s making to go in that spot. For now, though, it’s a great sprawling spot for the kids.

Here’s the fabric:


You can see that the pattern is very much like Chinese clouds, or Japanese waves, or quite like the tattoo on my arm… it’s perfect for us, it suits us, and it makes the salon a far more pleasant place to sit in, now that I don’t have to pretend to not see the largest feature in it.

All the cushions are solidly done, comfy, well-built, and in subtle ways improvements on the old ones. I am deliriously happy with them, and I look at it every day and smile.

Now, on to redoing the headliner, and insulating, oh, and the curtains… it’s going to be a busy summer.


Tumbled by Texas Weather

Texas weather is deeply confusing for this Californian.

In California, weather is really, really easy. The currents come down the coast from Alaska, making the water cold. The land heats up, lifting the air up, pulling the sea air in over the land, leaving the coast cold and foggy, with the effect slackening as you move southerly. Mostly, storms come from the west and the south. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you get a Pineapple Express from Hawaii, and things get warm and humid. Sometimes, the wind comes from the east over land, and things get dry and hot and everyone gets irritable. Simple.

Texas is not simple in the least. We’ve been here eight months, and I still can’t figure this place out. Every morning, I check my trusty weather apps on my phone before I even get out of bed. Wunderground first, then NWS, then the Eagle Point Buoy, then Texas Storm Chasers. They never agree, unless we’re looking at incoming hurricanes or tornadoes, then they do. Sometimes, Jason’s phone and my phone say different things on the same site, which is unnerving. I take a mental average of what they say, and then head upstairs.

On the nav table, we have a spiffy graphing barometer. It’s got a graph, to show you what the pressure’s been doing, and it’s got a gale alarm that’s adjustable. If the pressure drops more than a given amount (and you get to set that amount), you can be sure wind is coming, and y0u’ve got about 15 minutes to prepare for it. In California, anyway, that’s how it worked. Here, we get pressure drops with no wind. We get gale alarms that happen at the same time the wind arrives, which is kind of useless. I’ve been playing around with the drop setting, to no avail. And I’m having no luck in finding out barometric thresholds here. Back in CA, a .5 drop was wind, period. Here, that varies. In CA, a pressure reading of 1013 meant rain, no doubt, but there doesn’t seem to be a similar threshold here. (If I’m wrong and you know, please please please school me!!!!!)

I’m trying, I really am. I’m looking for local teachers, and asking people, but I find myself being confronted by yet another fundamental difference between Texans and Californians, and that’s their attitude towards weather. See, in California, the weather is predictable, and starts to feel almost controllable. Big weather in California is treated almost as a personal betrayal, and you can find people talking about catastrophic weather years later, with a tone of devastation. But in Texas, the weather is primal and wildly unpredictable and the people have an unflappable sort of poise and reserve. 40 knot winds? It happens. 50 degree temperature range over the course of a day? Sure. That happens. Blizzards and tornadoes and heat waves and droughts and floods? Shrug. Yeah. Texas, what did you expect? People are prepared for disaster, they’re used to adapting without making a lot of fuss, and they’re just really not all that concerned by whatever this amazing, wild, and dramatic place can throw at them.

One thing’s for sure. I’m learning a lot more about big weather here. Let’s hope I figure it out before we get off the dock and do more sailing.


Eagle Point Buoy

I’d like to introduce you guys to my new best friend; the Eagle Point Buoy.

If you’re not familiar with the NDBC, you totally should be. The best raw weather data to be found is found here. Forget Passage Weather or even the GRIB files… they get their data from here too. And so should you. Learning to read the data is a really key skill for a competent mariner, and is becoming a required skill in our climate-changing world.

Weather buoys are dead sexy. Didn’t you people see “The Day After Tomorrow”? The whole thing starts with weather buoys, and people ignoring them, to their own peril.

I fully admit to being a hopeless weather geek, because I find it fascinating and fun to check the buoy, and then check land weather sites, and guess how bad the land forecasts are going to fail for the day. And honestly, anyone who lives on a coastline needs to be paying more attention to the buoys and less attention to the land forecasts, because you get far better info, from the direction the weather is coming in.

And hey, hurricanes! Check this out: http://youtu.be/FcbDiZxhJO0

And hey, climate change! Check this out: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2009-05/11/robot-buoys-will-sound-climate-change-alarm.aspx

So, figure out your nearest buoy, and make friends…



Lessons from the Bounty — Since It Falls

For a few weeks now, whenever I think about the Bounty (like when I’m out running, or when I’m doing dishes, or when I’m dissecting our bilge pump, or really, whenever something wasn’t demanding my immediate attention), I have gotten this breathless, horrified feeling. And my brain has spun in little “what… why… how… ” circles. So I finish my task, and come back to the computer, and search some more, to see if someone Saltier Than Me has some answers, and can stop the spin of my brain.

In addition to the excellent gCaptain articles by Mario Vittone, I read and/or watched pretty much everything that came up in search. These are the highlights:

This is video of the hearings.

This is the link to the official Coast Guard film of the rescue.

These are the gorgeous people who saved 14 lives. That day. And probably many more on other days. These are heroes. Support them.

This is the Outside article about the Bounty.

This is BAD JUDGEMENT, FAULTY REASONING, THE WILLFULLY RECKLESS APPROACH OF SAILING VESSEL HMS BOUNTY WITH HURRICANE SANDY by Jan Cameron Miles. He clearly was doing the same what… why… how… thing I was doing, but from a position of infinitely more experience and thoughtfulness, and more personal anger and betrayal. This may be the hardest thing to read in the whole body of writings about Bounty.

There’s a lot there; the videos are 8 days long. The writings are dense and thoughtful and questioning. And that may be the most exhausting part of this… there are no answers to any of the questions that come up. Sure, there are people talking, but it’s either speculation, or it’s non-answers. So all we’re left with is our own ability to connect the dots, and do what we can to make some sense of it, to make some good come out of it for our own voyages and vessels.

Jan Miles sums up my feelings best:

You have provided everyone with a great deal of hurt and sadness and consternation as well a firestorm of gossip nearly full of blame and foolishness directed at the whole of our sailing community.

That is an inestimably be-damned legacy my friend.

And that’s part of what’s killing me here. I talk to people about Bounty, or I hear conversations down the dock, and people nod and say, “oh, Bounty, tragedy that, yeah, hurricanes, nothing you can do…” and I want to scream and rage, because what Wallbridge did there, no matter why he did it, what he did was cement in people’s imaginations that if you go out in a hurricane you will sink and that will be the natural order of things. I mean, fercryingoutloud, Bounty was an extra in the Pirates of the Caribbean films! It doesn’t get more archetypical than that. And for people who aren’t weather geeks, there’s this kind of mental shorthand that Sandy was really bad, but one hurricane is like another and terrible and unavoidable destruction is what you’re facing. And there’s that picture of her sinking… So now, we have the fear level way way up, and no overall increase in people’s understanding of the underpinnings of solid seamanship, and a whole lot of really horrifically painful questions about why Robin and Claudene are dead, all  mashed up in people’s minds about sailing in general.

I have always loved tall ships; who doesn’t? I have run  my fingers along their seams, breathed in their scent, learned the chanteys  that drive their workings, reveled in the magical place that tall ships hold in the imagination. It’s easy to love tall ships. And as Vittone says, it’s easy to like tall ship sailors too. There’s a deep nautical mystique that surrounds their every working above that of the plastic classics most of us are familiar with, and sailing ourselves. I feel like I will never again be able to see a tall ship without wondering about the state of the bilge, about the engines, about the maintenance, about the ratio of idealism to skill that the crew possesses. I feel that part of the magic I used to see, part of the faith that I had that those that sailed the mighty tall ships were Saltier Than Me, is now lost behind this new knowledge that actually, that might not be the case, and that even the saltiest may be driven to make decisions that result in “an inestimably be-damned legacy”.

I realized, somewhere along the line, that part of my grief/rage/upset about Wallbridge’s decisions stem from the fact that subconsciously, I’m putting myself in his shoes. It was kind of a shock to realize; I am thinking not like crew, but like a captain. Maybe that’s a result of having to fight my way past every Port Captain in Central America who refused to believe that a woman could be a captain, or maybe it’s because decisions about navigation and about weather fall to me on this boat. But a few days ago, when there was a short in our electrical system that resulted in me having to clip the wires to the flapper for the bilge pump in the starboard side, I realized that I could absolutely understand why someone would choose to go down with their ship rather than have to face their entire Community and explain what… why… how… because there aren’t always answers. Sometimes it’s money or schedules or misunderstandings or maybe it’s just that you’re tired and you need a sandwich before you think any particularly big thoughts. And being able to see death as an option in the face of some colossal failures is sobering, startling, and unsettling.

I clipped the wire. I came back upstairs, and set an alarm on my phone to go check the bilge twice a day. It’s been perfectly dry. And I hugged my children and I poured a little rum over the side for Robin and for Claudene, and I budgeted out my donation to the Coast Guard Foundation, and then with all my gods propitiated, I sang a little:

But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
Good night and joy be with you all


Lessons from the Bounty — An Open Letter to Sailing Crew

300px-Bounty_GreenockDear Potential Sailing Crew —

Sailing is a weird thing. It’s the most surreal combination of hard work and gutwrenching terror and beauty and spirituality and competitiveness and materialism and corrosion you will ever face. No one does this because they have to; I have never met anyone on the sea who was there for any reason other than that they loved it. And if you try to explain to people why you love it, you will find yourself telling disturbing stories of almost getting run over by supertankers in the pitch black, or being surrounded by thundercloud, or being escorted by pods of dolphins for hundreds of miles, or the most gorgeous sunrise you ever saw. People you talk to who aren’t sailors tend to back away and change the subject. People who are, lean closer, with a gleam and ask for more. Or, conversely, shut you up to tell you their story.

The sea, and traveling upon her, generates profound emotion in our species. So it’s not surprising that it also generates profound and determined opinions about things. Mariners are some of the most opinionated people ever. Sometimes, it’s about tradition, and sometimes it’s about superstition, and sometimes it’s about experience. You never really know.

There are some things, though, that should clue you in, as to whether or not you’re on a boat that’s safe, with people who are sane.

  1. There shouldn’t be water actively coming into the boat, no matter what it’s made of, and if there is, the people in charge should be actively engaged in figuring out how to make it stop. The first rule of boating is, keep the water out of the boat.
  2. If unquestioning obedience to the captain is required, your captain is on an Ahab trip, and you need to find another boat to be on, stat.
  3. If you are encouraged to seek out other experts and learn from them, that’s a good sign. If the only people around to learn from are people who’ve been on boats for a year or so, and the only people they’ve learned from are each other, you need to step out of the pool and go learn some stuff.
  4. A corollary to this is, if a boat has a diesel engine, Nigel Calder’s books should be on board, period. If there’s navigating, there should be a Bowditch. If the equipment is all electrical, there should be analog backups for everything. Never ever get on a boat that only has GPS but has no paper charts. Don’t fall so in love with sextants that you forget to check the lead line, too.
  5. Question everything. Not just questioning to question, but questioning to understand the underlying whys of everything you’re asked to do. Especially on wooden boats, but also on plastic ones, there is history dating back thousands of years for why some things are done in a certain way. If the person teaching you a task isn’t happy to burble on about why this thing is done this way, possibly until you want to ask them to stop because you know enough and will come back and get the rest later, thanks, then they don’t actually know what they’re doing.
  6. Ask about the budget. Any ship that’s worth being on is a ship that has no problem discussing funding, whether it’s “rum for everyone!” or “damn the government” or “what do you mean pirates in Panama cleaned out our whole checking account?!?!” If they can’t explain the ship’s operating cash flow to you, there’s a potential for problems.
  7. Ask to be shown, and to participate in, bail out drills. Find the liferafts, check the repack dates, do a headcount and make sure there’s enough raft for the whole crew, know what the deployment routine is. Ask to see the ditch bags, and evaluate their contents yourself. Check the flares, check the EPIRB and its registry, check the radio gear and the backups and the handhelds, and then find out where everyone is supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing in an emergency, and what your role as crew is. If this information is not written down, practiced regularly, and almost unconscious on the part of the crew, find a different boat.

Finally though, there’s this. Please don’t be so in love with the lure of nautical adventure that you ignore any sense that there’s anything shenanigan-like in any of the above points going on on your ship of choice. Don’t let your desire to be out there on the waves interfere with your desire to stay above them. There’s always another boat, another chance, another crew, and there has been for thousands of years of seafaring. It’s so easy to fall in love with boats, and so easy to overlook signs that maybe all is not as it should be, and that the Black Box on any given ship is so empty it’s inside-out. If it takes another few months to find another boat, maybe that’s a few months you can spend learning more, or hanging out at a boat yard, or a chandlery, or a sail loft, or anyplace where you can sponge up more information about the gorgeous and crazy discipline of seamanship.



Lessons from the Bounty — Oversight, and Obligation

I wrestle with the concept of oversight.

I have been meaning to get a Coast Guard Auxiliary inspection and sticker for years. I mean, literally years. I’ve downloaded the checklist form like 15 times. And I go through it, and we’ve got one or two things that aren’t quite right but that I can’t afford to fix immediately, and I think, “I’ll get the inspection right after I deal with this…” and before you know it, it’s never been done.

I’ll be honest, I also had a little bit of an issue with my local Coast Guard at the time. More than once I’d tangled with them over the concept of baby PFDs. Short form is, the rules say to do something that isn’t as safe as the thing I was doing, and I got hassled by Coasties in such a way that I couldn’t actually explain the situation, and just ended up changing things long enough for them to get back on their Sea-Doos and skitter off into the sunset (no that’s not a euphemism; they were patrolling on sea-doos, and zipped over to scream at me about my child not wearing a PFD… in the sling… whatever). I wasn’t happy with their “by the book; don’t bother me with common sense” approach, and didn’t think my boat would fare well under their scrutiny, so I just didn’t open myself up for it.

Besides, the USCG in SF Bay has better things to worry about. Last I heard, they were boarding sailboats looking for drugs and illegal aliens.

The situation in Chula Vista was no better. There, the marina gates were locked on the outside *and* the inside, so as to deter smugglers. I later found out that it was the #1 smuggling marina in the US, due to its proximity to the Mexican border. I will never forget the day I opened the gate for an armed, armored group of Coasties, all carrying large automatic weapons, while a helicopter circled overhead. I skittered over to the RV park with my babies, and didn’t come back until the helicopter left.

Those guys *definitely* had better things to worry about than how closely my boat adhered to regs.

But the subtext here is, I feel that the things on my boat that don’t adhere to regs are that way because I have thought it through, and what I’m doing is somehow superior to what they want. I have good reasons for why I’m doing things the way I’m doing them. And I’m confident in my boat and in my choices. Whether or not I have the most current COLREGs sticker up in my galley has absolutely no bearing on how safe my boat is, or the habits of my family (if you’re the sort of creep who throws non-organic debris overboard, the sticker sure isn’t going to stop you, and since we never would, having the 1991 version isn’t the end of the world, in my opinion. The USCG Auxiliary disagrees. Whatever.)

I also glean a great deal of confidence from the fact that, should it all go pear-shaped and we get hit by a submarine or something, that the USCG would be there to save us. I have an EPIRB, and that’s precisely what that means. I monitor Channel 16, and that’s what that means. I know what a Pan and a Security and a Mayday are about, and should we be in distress, I would not hesitate to use them. In fact, when Admiral Allen wrote his brilliant letter protesting cuts, I stood on my chair and cheered and wrote letters to my congresspeople, which did precisely nothing. Meh.

So considering my own on again, off again relationship with oversight, I can’t really say that I blame the Bounty for dodging in and out of a whole maze of regulatory obligations. I am not a fan of blanket regulation, and I think that we need to have laws that allow for the application of contextual common sense. I have a deep, knee-jerk belief that a captain is in charge of the ship, and I have a lot of trouble believing that a captain could want anything other than what is best for his ship.

So when I read about how egregiously Bounty did not adhere to any set of regs that might have applied, part of me feels that that’s not a problem. But then when I read about the Coastie who dislocated his shoulder, and then had to slam it into the helicopter wall to put it back in place so he could keep saving people… in a hurricane… I think… you don’t get to flaunt all the regs and basic common sense, and then call for help. You’ve made their work harder, you’ve put their lives at risk, and that is not acceptable. You may dodge oversight all you like, but you may not dodge the obligation to keep in mind the risk to those you call for help.


Lessons from the Bounty — Going Around

It’s unclear how much longer Bounty would have lasted had she not sailed straight into Hurricane Sandy.

I’m thinking about our trip from San Diego to Kemah. We left San Diego at the end of March, and arrived in Kemah on July 3, which means we were sailing in hurricane waters, during hurricane season. That’s something your insurance frowns upon, but that’s nothing compared to how badly other sailors frown on you.

The pinnacle of this condemnation came from an Australian couple in Chiapas. They had intended to do the same trip as us, but seeing as how Hurricane Season ™ was upon us, they opted to store their boat in Chiapas, and fly home to Australia to wait it out. They never asked us what we knew about hurricanes, or what preparations we’d made, or anything else. They just assumed that sailing where hurricanes can potentially be is tantamount to suicide. They in fact went so far as to take Angela, our (first time ever sailing) crewmember aside, and suggest that she pack her things, abandon us, and fly home from the Chiapas airport, because we were mad and reckless and we were all going to die.

No, I’m not exaggerating. Their fear of potential hurricanes was that tremendous. Angela, thank goodness, is more intrepid than that, and stuck with us. But if people who have been sailing for years are that afraid, and if Captain Wallbridge was so careless of them that he died in one, surely the lesson to be learned from sailing around hurricanes is somewhere inbetween?

Like Bounty’s captain, I too have made the decision to skirt a storm (although mine was nowhere near a hurricane). When we came down from Emeryville to San Diego, a storm was reported brewing off Point Conception (one of the famous nautical points, even though most Californians don’t realize it; the venturi created by that point generates winds of impressive magnitude). We had the option to either stay in the tsunami-devastated, rolly-as-heck Santa Cruz Harbor until the storm passed, or skitter out as fast as possible, and get to the edge of it. It’d add more miles to our trip, but we really didn’t like the idea of being stuck in Santa Cruz. That storm was bigger than we thought, we didn’t get far enough out, and we spent most of the journey surfing down 20′ waves. That was the storm that generated the wave that we surfed down at 22 knots. (The mariners reading this are going to be thinking about what’s involved with a wave big enough that a catamaran of this size could get going that fast long enough for Jason to grab a camera and photograph the GPS showing that speed… ) We broached on that trip, which is also pretty scary, but is actually more messy than anything. But, other than some broken stuff, our boat is sound and we ended up hale and hearty and healthy and all in one piece down in San Diego. And we learned a lot.

The biggest thing we learned is that we are never, ever going to try to skirt a storm intentionally ever again. Because here’s the thing about storms; they move. They move and grow and change and even people who have been studying weather for their entire lives are taken by surprise, because a storm is a series of variables, any of which could shift the whole thing. And most storms move faster than most boats, so you can’t outrun them. If you choose poorly, or if your luck runs out, you can end up in them instead of outside them. It’s utterly outside your ability to control. The only thing you can control is whether you’re at sea at the time or not. The storm we decided to outflank ended up being twice as big, and lasted twice as long, as anyone had predicted. Our path was fine for what we knew about the storm when we left Santa Cruz, but was wrong by the time we got out by the Channel Islands and the Coast Guard suddenly started calling for mariners to find shelter. At that point, yes, we were safer at sea than we would have been trying to negotiate into the lee of one of the Islands, or into the major shipping channels of coastal California. But really, we’d have been safer in Santa Cruz. Unless, y’know, there was another tsunami…

But here’s the crux of that, from my position here on the other side of my laptop; my boat was never taking on water. Our bilges were dry. We were utterly seaworthy. We had plenty of points in the Black Box, based on a lot of work, and on being utterly clear on the idea that your first responsibility is to keep water out of the boat. Bounty’s crew, apparently, was not clear on that, and they left while taking on water, while unsure of the fuel on board, with a dodgy electrical system. One thing that I haven’t heard about (and I don’t have access to the transcripts, so maybe it’s there?) was how the crew was accessing weather information while underway. But if their electrical system was dodgy enough that they didn’t have communications at all, I’m guessing that meant they didn’t have weather information at all either, and that’s… that’s something I wouldn’t do.

On the Kemah trip, we stopped off in Puerto Aventuras, on the Yucatan, for supplies, and to take a break and rest up before crossing the Gulf. And while we were there, Hurricane Debby materialized. And she moved east….and then west… and then east… she bounced back and forth over our projected course a few times. And we just sat tight and waited, until she’d committed to moving over Florida. We could have pushed it, we could have chanced it, but really, a few days didn’t matter, and none of us felt that, at the end of a long, tired trip, that dodging a hurricane sounded like fun.

Which means that I was in the same position as the Captain; on a deadline, needing to get to my destination as soon as possible, considering whether my tired boat and my tired crew was ready to go play in a hurricane or not. Granted, my boat was nowhere near the hurricane; I wasn’t going to have to endure it at the dock. But it was almost a trivial decision; look at the weather forecast, look at the crew, look at the weather forecast, talk to the harbormaster, look at the boat, picture a hurricane… head back to the bar for another cold one to celebrate not going around.



Lessons from the Bounty — Abandoning Ship

Sandy_Oct_25_2012_0400ZI know that at this stage I am in dire risk of sounding like the Mario Vittone Fan Club. But it’s because of things like this:

I’ve been listening to the crew of Bounty tell these stories for six full days now, and I have tried very hard to hold back my opinion. I’m a former Coast Guard vessel inspector and investigator, but I’m not an expert in wood hull construction and though I love the things, I don’t know much about tall ships. But this part? This part about abandoning ship and sea survival? This is what I know. This is what I’ve spent most of my adult life on. There may be people who know more about this than I do, but I haven’t met them. So here is my opinion:

That? is the bomb. He’s been being beyond restrained in his reporting, and now, fair warning, here it comes.

On Saturday (the 27th),  the weather started to turn and the bilges needed constant pumping.  On any other ship in the world, that’s called flooding. The code of federal regulations calls that a reportable marine casualty; it’s something that should be, you know, reported.

The snark finally escapes containment, and the condemnation is scathing.

According to 46 CFR 4.05-1, “An occurrence materially and adversely affecting the vessel’s seaworthiness or fitness for service or route, including but not limited to fire, flooding, or failure of or damage to fixed fire-extinguishing systems, lifesaving equipment, auxiliary power-generating equipment, or bilge-pumping systems”  shall be reported to the Coast Guard. There is a reason for that.  Who is supposed to remember the pesky details of federal regulations like that?  Well, licensed mariners of the Captain/Mate variety, for one.  These regulations are “designed to increase the likelihood of timely assistance to vessels in distress.”

It’s fairly obvious that here, on Day 6, Vittone has lost the ability to hold it in, and the drubbing is about to begin. What’s horrifying about this particular fact, about reportability, is that anyone who has ever monitored VHF Channel 16 for more than a few hours (which should be anyone who’s ever been on the water) has heard such a call, has heard the Coast Guard station advise the mariners to put life jackets on everyone, to report the number of people on the vessel, and to broadcast to vessels in the area to be prepared to assist if necessary. And it’s something you just do, because to fail to do so is beneath contempt. But if you choose to go out when everyone else on the sea is heading to port, there’s no one out there to hear you, even if you do remember to call.

Too often sailors think of the Coast Guard as a last resort.  Calling “Mayday” means that you can’t handle things and you’re giving up. But “Mayday”  (and again, I’m an expert) is almost never the first call to make. The rarely used but vitally important “Pan-Pan” distress communication is meant to communicate to the Coast Guard that there is a problem aboard a vessel and assistance may be needed.

Not calling in as soon as Bounty experienced trouble denied the Coast Guard the advantage of giving the master critical advice.  Advice like, “You’re about to be in a situation where helicopter rescue is going to be difficult,” and, “If you wait you will be making our crews fly into hurricane-force winds; even we have limits and dropping you life rafts and pumps will be impossible.”  It also denied the Coast Guard valuable planning and preparation time.

It’s hard, reading this, to remember that you’re talking about a terrible, terrifying loss of ship and of lives, because face it, the snark by this time is funny; that necessary cathartic release that renders it funnier than it would otherwise be:

In the early morning on Sunday the 28th, the third mate reported to his captain that they were “not keeping up with the water.”  That’s called progressive flooding, otherwise known as sinking. Notifying the Coast Guard then would have given the crew what they didn’t have by the time Bounty was half full of water and unstable: options.  It would have given them time for an orderly abandon ship, one done on purpose – during daylight hours – and not at the mercy of ten miles of flailing line and tons of mast and debris.

I cannot help but picture that kind of situation on my boat. I don’t have the kind of clearance and time that the Bounty had; my bilge is just not that deep, and my boat would go from taking water on, to sinking, pretty darned fast, absent functioning bilge pumps. While thinking about that, I leaned over and looked up at the mast, and thought about what it would be like if the rigging was bouncing around in 30′ seas.

It’s a lot to think about. And they aren’t pleasant thoughts. I’ve been blessed/cursed with an overactive imagination, and I’ve been having boating nightmares since I started studying the Bounty and writing this series of posts. I’ve been in really large seas and fairly high winds, and just the sounds are pretty unnerving. I commend the crew of the Bounty for sounding as straightforward and calm as they do (and due to the time passed, I’m getting to compare them to how those people on the stranded cruise ship sound, and it’s nearly laughable).

No one ever wants to have to abandon ship. And yet, we all have liferafts and ditch bags and ditch plans and we prepare for such a thing. We generally envision a nice, orderly evacuation, without the added complication of a hurricane, or the ship itself trying to kill us on its way down.

It’d be nice to say that I can’t imagine what the Captain was thinking, and why he delayed attending to the crew’s safety for so long, but I totally can, and it goes back again to something I learned in scuba. When I was working in the shop, people would ask whether to buy the nice, comfy, high-end lead shot belts, or the hard, uncomfortable, low-end lead brick and webbing belts. And I always asked them to choose. Because if you are the sort of person who would hesitate to ditch a very expensive belt, then you must go with the lead bricks, because hesitating could cost you valuable seconds, or your life. You must be able to think of life first, and not even consider the money aspect. I can imagine that with a ship like that, in the condition she was in, with the value she held both monetarily and emotionally, and the calendar of appointments she was supposed to make, that there were too many conflicting priorities, and the Captain, just for a moment, forgot what he was about, and made decisions that ended up being fatal for him, for one crewmember, and for the ship herself, and for a Captain, there is no greater failing. You must keep your priorities straight; you must be able to abandon ship.



Lessons from the Bounty — Pride

Tall_ships,_Belfast_Lough_2009_(10)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1447997As I have mentioned before, I am a new mariner.

I’m not new to the sea, however. I’ve been in and around big water my whole life. I divemastered for a living, for a while, and then taught diving after that for years. I was teaching when PADI’s slogan was that diving was “Safe, fun, and simple”. Which, it was, but on top of that, you had to remember one critical thing; the sea is older and bigger and stronger than you, always, and that “safe, fun, and simple” is predicated on a great giant layer of respect.

Or, simply put, you cannot put pride before the sea. You will lose.

Reading Mario Vittone’s dispatch from the Bounty hearings, day 5, is very, very hard. There’s a tight knot right behind my solar plexus; the spot where surivival instinct lives. Once again, I think that Vittone’s restraint in reporting is deeply admirable. I have a whole new respect for rescue swimmers in specific and the Coast Guard in general (not that I didn’t respect the heck out of them before this). It has got to be incredibly hard to suspend judgment, knowing that some mariner’s bad decisionmaking is putting you and yours in harm they didn’t need to be in. Considering how human it is to judge, the fact that these men and women go ahead and go anyway (was Eddie Aikau’s motto “Semper Paratus” too? I have to wonder) is … powerful.

Day 5 is all about preparations for what was to be Bounty’s final journey. It throws me right back into the chaos and madness of the month between when we learned we were moving to Texas, and the frantic preparations to the boat before taking an unanticipated 5,000 mile journey. I put out calls for help on every platform I have access to, and most of what I got back was a faceful of “you’ve never done this before, and you’re taking crazy risks, and you’re putting your family in danger.” I got almost nothing back in the way of actual practical help (THANK YOU beyond words to s/v Majestic and s/v Totem, who were shining and glorious exceptions to that.) I think that was mostly because I was looking online; we hadn’t been in San Diego long enough to get help there, and the marina we were in was short on actual mariners and long on dock limpets. Eventually, I was reaching out to the writers of blogs and of books, and really, to everyone and anyone, for as many inputs as I possibly could. I needed information, and I was not going to let condescension get in my way. And I got condescended to plenty: “If you have to ask that question, you aren’t ready for this trip.” And I wonder how anyone ever leaves the dock with that kind of attitude? The point of sailing is to sail, isn’t it? To cross oceans?

Jason and I adopted a prioritization that was a joke from our sailing school; the first rule of sailing is, keep the water out of the boat. You check the hull, the throughhulls, the bilge pumps, you check for leaks, you caulk everything… you keep the water out of the boat. You have power bilges (and you check them) and you have manual bilges, and you check those too, and recaulk all the fittings, and make sure everyone knows where the handles are, and where the backup spare handles are, and how to improvise a handle if necessary, plus how to rotate through pumpers should need be. You make sure you have a range of plugs and quick epoxy. We filled the bilges and emptied them a few times, just to make sure it was all working. Then, you check the seals on all the hatches, and you dog them all, and run water over them, to make sure they’re all solid.

Rule 2 is, keep the people in the boat. Lifelines, inspected. Jacklines, inspected, installed, checked, restowed. Harnesses, checked, fitted, CO2 cartridges checked, replaced if necessary, all PFDs outfitted with lights (with fresh batteries) and whistles, EPIRB registry checked, battery checked, tested, MOB plan reviewed, location of all knives and wire cutters (including the huge ones for cutting the wreckage clear from a dismasting) confirmed and checked.

Then, there’s everything else. Check the radios, make sure everyone knows how to use them. Make sure that everyone knows which channels are for what, and how to respond to a hail, and to speak properly. Make sure that everyone knows where the ditch bags are and what’s in them, and how to use them. Make sure everyone knows how to bail from the hatches if the boat flips. Make sure that everyone has a task in an emergency, and knows how to execute. Make sure there’s a solid place to deploy the liferaft from, and oh yeah, get the liferaft opened up, inspected professionally, and repacked. Check all the fire extinguishers. Check that all the tools needed for everything are where they need to be. Check that paper charts are onboard for every mile of the journey, and that everyone can at least read them. Check that everyone knows how to hail the Coast Guard or Navy in both English and Spanish. Make sure the weatherfax is working and that you’re getting signal and know what to do with the information you get. And on. And on. And on.

So if I know that, and I think that I know practically nothing about boats… how is it that none of the crew of the Bounty, a tall ship fercryingoutloud (I am in awe and fear of tall ships, and have always assumed that anyone on them is More Nautical Than Me)… how is it that they sailed into a hurricane without even testing all the bilge pumps? How could that possibly have happened? The whole time I was doing the prep on my vessel, I was picturing my babies having to jump into a heaving black sea… check everything. Then check everything again.

I have to wonder if the crew of the Bounty, faced with the same condescension as I faced, just didn’t know how to check things? Or if people assumed, as I did, that they must know already because, hey, tall ship sailor? I wonder if my overactive imagination paired with my maternal defensiveness shielded me from giving a wet slap what other people thought, to the point that I found enough answers to keep us safe?

The other thing I’m hearing and hearing and hearing again in Vittone’s report is that the crew of the Bounty somehow thought that by not using things, they would not wear out. I’d laugh, if it wasn’t entirely tragic. In six years of living aboard, I’ve learned that there’s a balance between use and overuse and maintenance and “out of sight, out of mind” on a boat. Zippers are a good example. If you don’t use a zipper fairly frequently, it will corrode or stick or get gummed up. So bags of gear, for example, need to be opened, greased, and closed again. Often. So do the zippers on foul weather gear, and boots. The outboard engine needs to be started routinely, and the gasoline changed fairly regularly. Even things you aren’t using, like the winches, need to be cleaned every six months, because the more you clean a thing, the easier the job is, and the more likely you are to catch problems before they’re problems.

You have to wonder how it is that these people were so very nautical, but so very not-salty. And I wish I could sit down with the Captain and ask him what he was thinking. But then I have to remind myself that no one will ever ask him what he was thinking again. And the knot reforms behind my solar plexus… the knot that says, it’s better to ask questions and be thought a fool, than to say nothing and then prove it. I got told I was an idiot for asking more than once. And I just kept asking until I got the answers I needed to keep that horrible picture of my kids in the sea out of my head.

Because there is no place in the sea for pride.