A warm port on Thanksgiving

Sunrise over the Chesapeake

It is cold out on the water of the Chesapeake.  On Monday, Nov. 22, the first day of my 48th year, the sun was shining and the wind and waves were blasting me in the face.  Hiding behind the dodger did nothing, I was soon shivering involuntarily thinking there were better ways to spend my life.  The cold literally sunk into my bones. At the suggestion of both Michelle and my boss, I turned into Deltaville, Virginia, for a rendezvous with shore power at a dock.  My electric blanket was looking pretty good.

I let a strong norther pass — it would have been a sleigh ride south but being a singlehander, it would also have meant going out on deck (and out on the fairly long bowsprit) to raise sails.  With the waves growing, I decided against it.  Falling off the boat would be A Bad Thing.  No one would even know until Shadow Marie crashed into some rocks somewhere.  That’s not a thought I like to conjure up.  Being frozen fish food doesn’t sound so great, either.

The winds calmed and I took off for Norfolk.  Of course what wind blew was on the nose and the cold was back with a flourish.  I was happy to emerge from a gloomy day at sea to see a large American Flag flying at Hampton Roads.  The electric blanket again sounded great so I decided a marina would be best over the anchorage I had planned.  Michelle began calling around but, being Thanksgiving, none were open.  She left messages, though, and one called her back.  David Briggs, owner of Rebel Marina, invited me to tie up at a floating dock in his marina.  When Michelle asked for the rate, he told her that he couldn’t charge me since it was Thanksgiving.


A few minutes after I tied up, he walked down the dock to make sure I got in OK.  He then invited me to Thanksgiving dinner in the boater’s lounge.  I had originally planned on a can of Ravioli at anchor and ended up tucked into a really nice marina being filled up with turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, green beans and pecan pie.  In the process, I met some really nice people.

David Briggs took in a cold and tired stranger, not only provided a free boat slip but also provided a holiday dinner.  It’s really good to know there are still people like him walking around.

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Miles and Miles

Cedar Key, Florida (Mitch Traphagen)

Moonrise over Cedar Key, Florida

I am now more than 1,000 miles away from S/V Shadow Marie.  She is on the hard, sweltering in the uncharacteristically hot weather in the Chesapeake and I am back on the coast in Florida.  Although I’m now a few miles further way, for some reason, being away from her is easier in Florida than it was while living in Iowa (just a few months ago, btw).  There is little in Iowa that lends towards living on a sailboat.  No one there does it, no one knows anyone else who has done it.  Here in Florida, living aboard is no big deal.  Here, a liveaboard is just another dirty person.

The plan is to sail her down from the Chesapeake when hurricane season winds down.  Assuming I’m still alive then Hopefully I can wait that long.  Until then, my life will consist of writing the stray and odd thoughts that pass through my head.  Not the worst way to go.  The most recent was an article on Cedar Key.  I love it there – among the last of Old Florida along the coast.  I’ll probably never sail up to the island in Shadow Marie (1 – it’s in the wrong direction and 2 – it’s a tad shallow) but do enjoy visiting .  I really like the little Mom & Pop motel – the Faraway Inn.  Check it out for yourself:  The Good Old Days just up the road. The story even has naked women in it.

To be honest, I miss Cambridge, the little town I stopped in for several weeks.  It’s a nice place and the people in the marina were great.  If it wasn’t a bazillion degrees up there right now, I’d be more than tempted to say to hell with it and head out for a road trip.  Just to see Shadow Marie.  But then, of course, I’d have to splash her – living aboard on the hard is no fun.  And then, of course, I’d have to sail and while I was at it, I might as well start sailing south and then…

Sigh… I might still be alive in November.

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Independence Day

Fireworks in Cambridge, MD, on July 4, 2009.

I’m a serious romantic at heart and I quickly form personal attachments to the places I visit. It was a surprise, therefore, to be driving on Cape Cod feeling… nothing at all. I spent weeks here getting the boat ready to sail – I’d met people, visited many businesses and repeatedly drove up and down the streets and avenues in a quest for whatever it was I urgently needed at the moment.


I can see why people like to live here, I think. If you look at a map, you’ll see Cape Cod juts way out into the Atlantic Ocean. In reality, it is an island, with the Cape Cod Canal severing the thin wrist – and the land ties to the rest of the nation. All of the madness in the world, happens across the two bridges that span the canal. Cape Cod, I would imagine, is a refuge from that madness.

But this isn’t my home – and never felt like my home and doesn’t feel like it now. Not to mention, my time here pretty much sucked rocks.

That said, Northside Marina in East Dennis does not – it is truly a wonderful place. People shook my hand and welcomed me back. They smiled and asked about my trip. I had only known them a month while in the yard, had been gone for two months, but still they remembered. Driving into the marina was indeed a little like coming home – thanks to the people who work there.

Returning to the voyage, after an extended stay in the Sassafras River due to weather and waiting for parts and recovering from a bump on the noggin, I finally slipped the mooring lines at Georgetown Yacht Basin and continued my trek south.

Having reasonably decent weather (considering the how the weather has been) and a favorable current, I sailed past my planned anchorage for the night just north of Annapolis – it was still early afternoon and I decided to may hay while the sun still shined. Or see the sun while the hay was shining. Or something.

Sailing under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was a milestone for me – first, the bridge is really cool from the water. Second, because it meant that I had achieved the goals I had set out to achieve when I bought the boat. Back in the cold days of early December when I turned over my cold, hard cash I wanted to get the boat into decent enough shape to get to at least Annapolis. I knew it would be a lot of work to achieve that – I had no idea just how much it would be, fortunately. Had I known, would I have done it? I don’t know. Maybe.

Sailing under the twin spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

I mistakenly spent the night on a mooring in the West River south of Annapolis. I say mistakenly because it wasn’t quite how my guidebook described it. My guidebook being from Skipper Bob. I knew Skipper Bob before the “Skipper” part – and a better man you would never meet. Bob, along with his wife Elaine, babysat our old little terrier Alfie when Michelle and I lived aboard in Florida and worked day jobs. We’d leave for work and shortly after, Bob would come by to pick up Alfie. Bob would go to work on boats in the marina and would come back to his boat, Snug, to have lunch with Elaine. Elaine would make a sandwich, cut one half for Bob and one half for Alfie. Certainly the dog was in heaven. He definitely missed them when they sailed out of the marina and into fame as a well-known author of cruising guides. We missed them, too. Bob passed away not all that long ago – the world is not a better place for his absence.

Regardless, whoever is now updating the Skipper Bob cruising guides needs to update the information they have on the West River – the mooring was more than double the price the book, a current edition, mentioned. It also didn’t mention anything about how the moorings are packed in so tightly it is like being in the parking lot of a shopping mall at Christmas. I couldn’t believe how close I was to boats on either side of me. I suspect it isn’t the cruising guides fault as much as it is a marina exploiting their mention in said guide. I have no doubt the nearby town is a cool place to visit – but it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t have the energy or the will to wrestle with the evil dinghy – not to mention, I felt I needed to keep an eye on the boat next to me. Eventually, I tied up the evil dinghy alongside to act as a giant bumper should we drift too close together. Finally, something the dinghy could do well.

I hightailed it early the next morning – fortunately it seems the wind is still sleeping at 6 a.m. so I was able to slip the mooring lines and run back to the helm before drifting into the boat that was literally right next to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the favorable current of the previous day but did manage to get some sail up to cross the bay, heading towards the Choptank River.

In the middle of the day, in the middle of the bay, however, the wind disappeared. I dropped everything but the staysail as that wasn’t too annoying as it flapped around without enough wind – and then motored on. As I closed the eastern shore, however, the wind picked up with a vengeance. I was still fighting a current and now was also fighting the wind. Eventually, the huge span of Choptank River narrowed down to something resembling a river and suddenly I could see the town of Cambridge, my destination. A few miles away, I dropped the staysail and putted into the slip we had reserved for the next three months.

Shortly after arriving, I caught a flight to Boston and a bus to Cape Cod to pick up my truck. I arrived back in Cambridge a few days later, reveling in having a vehicle again for the first time in months. Prior to this, if I needed something from the store, I walked (or occasionally borrowed a bike if one was available). My shopping was always limited to what I could carry.

Cambridge, Maryland is an interesting place. It is a town of roughly 10,000 people (about the same as the town I grew up in back in Minnesota) but there is an incredible amount of traffic for a town this small – I’ve never heard of it before but this is a quietly happening place. It is truly a busy little burg.

A church in Cambridge, MD.

Traffic isn’t the only unique thing about Cambridge. It appears to be, borrowing from car terms, a back-row beauty. I borrowed a bike from the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin and rode through town. Stately old homes line well-shaded streets. In some parts of town, African-American men gather on open front porches to play dominos or simply socialize. Down one street a father – a very big man – gently handed a basketball to his young daughter – a very small girl – as they walked to a park. I raised my camera and then lowered it again without firing a shot. The man looked at me, smiled and waved. His young daughter happily carried the basketball – which appeared to be roughly half her size. I wanted to take pictures – up close and personal using a wide angle lens. It seemed as though on every street were classic images of life and I struggled to remind myself that these people weren’t fodder for viewers, they were simply living their lives. And without a purpose beyond simply capturing it for myself, I had no right to intrude.

Every once in a while – perhaps a few hours or a few days – community sirens sound alerting the all-volunteer fire department and rescue squad members that their assistance is needed. Someone somewhere needs their help. The volunteers respond, not because of a paycheck – there isn’t one – but because of loyalty and commitment to their community and to their neighbors.

The town is a patriotic place – everything from the stately old homes to the boats in the marina were flying the American Flag for Independence Day. This is a community that clearly loves America – a nation they adopted rather than visa-versa. As the country prepared to celebrate 233 years, Cambridge was celebrating 325 years. The newspaper article about the city’s anniversary didn’t mention the actual date of the anniversary but city leaders apparently decided that July 4th was as good a day as any during the year to celebrate.

A small carnival played to families in SailWinds Park as a ragtag collection of boats made up a patriotic boat parade, lead by the community’s 63-foot wood Skipjack, Nathan of Dorchester. The Skipjack occasionally fired off a cannon, briefly shaking those who lined the seawalls forming Cambridge Creek. In the background, the town’s symbol, an artistic rendering of a huge sail, gleamed in the hazy July sunshine.

A boat in the Cambridge Fourth of July boat parade.

In the evening people gathered along the basin near the marina to watch the town’s fireworks display. Television news reported that some area communities cancelled their fireworks due to the economy – but not Cambridge. Here it seems celebrating the Fourth is almost a civic duty and not simply an expense for entertainment. The fireworks were not only beautiful but also a reminder than even today, 233 years later, some of our fellow Americans are staring down a rocket’s red glare, defending our nation from those who wish us harm. The display was impressive and lasted for more than 30 minutes. In the grass, children could be heard laughing as they ran carrying sparklers, whipping them wildly in brightly lit arcs. The wind from earlier in the day had died down, leaving the river calm for the dozens of boats that anchored out for the display. The anchor lights and the revolving blue lights of the police boats were, to me, almost as beautiful as the fireworks.

This is home for the next few months. From here I will return to Iowa while Shadow Marie waits out hurricane season in Cambridge. In the fall I’ll return to continue our way south. To where? I don’t know yet. Somewhere where my winter jacket, now stuffed into the aft quarterberth, will look as out of place in December as it does on this day in July.

Thanks for reading all of this – thank you for sailing along with me. Your emails, thus your presence, made a sometimes “interesting” voyage much more pleasant. I’m grateful. I’ll update this occasionally over the coming months and will resume it again this fall. Until then, fair winds to you.

Downtown Cambridge is quiet on a Sunday afternoon.

An old cemetery in Cambridge, MD.

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Clean Towels

Shadow Marie at the Georgetown Yacht Basin

There is something magical about having a locker full of clean towels on a cruising boat. Not only does it mean that the laundry has probably been done recently – it means something far more important than that: It means that there hasn’t been a crisis recently.

The towels seem to come flying out during many boat crises – both large and small. It could be the refrigeration water filter gets clogged or perhaps there is a problem with the fresh water system. Or worse, there could be diesel or oil to clean up. Or, horrifically, there may have been a problem with the plumbing to the head or holding tank.

But having a locker full of clean towels – as I have right now – means that none of that has happened recently. Of course now whatever force in the universe that causes such problems knows I have a locker full of clean towels – and is plotting a way for me to use them.

The fuel dock at the Georgetown Yacht Harbor is an extremely convenient place – it is sitting out as a pier with the ability to dock for fuel on three sides. Apparently the hiring guidelines dictate that only cute young girls need to apply for the job as fuel dock attendant. Well, perhaps anyone can apply but it seems that only cute young girls are hired.

And that is a good and bad thing. It’s good because I’m a male and like almost all males, cute young girls are a good thing. It’s bad because the pump out station is also at the fuel dock. That means that all of the middle age men that come through, enjoying seeing a cute young girl, have to ask the cute young girl to pump out their holding tank.

I can picture the scene now:

50-something guy (thinking): Hey! A cute girl! Cool!

Cute dock attendant (grinning): Hi there!

50-something guy: Could I get three hundred gallons of diesel and a quick pump out?

Cute dock attendant (grinning): Sure thing! I’ll get it started right now!

The pump out hose gets attached and before you know it there is…. an odor. Nothing anyone can do about it – it’s a holding tank for crying out loud. But it sure is… odiferous.

50-something guy: Uh…yeah… We had guests over…. They weren’t healthy people… That’s it…. Sick guests… Nothing contagious, though!

Cute dock attendant (grinning / thinking): This is revolting!

50-something guy (thinking / covering his wedding ring): I wonder if she’d go out with me?

Cute dock attendant (grinning / thinking): I’m gonna throw up!

I wonder how many times a day that scene plays out?

As for full disclosure: I’m not a 50-something (yet) and, while the cute dock attendants are pretty cute, they aren’t THAT cute.

And finally, questions from readers. Actually, that’s not true – it’s a question from my mom and I don’t think she actually reads this. But she does ask the question frequently.

“What do you do all day?”

Good question, Mom! I can tell you that I’m busy as all get out – there is more to do than hours in the day to do it. As for what it is I actually do all day, the answer is:

“I don’t know.”

Seriously – I don’t know how the days go by. It could have something to do with my recent little concussion but I don’t think so. I honestly don’t know. Yesterday I wired something from the nav station to the cockpit – but that didn’t take all day. Today I dinghied to the fuel dock (the one with the cute but not THAT cute dock attendants) to pay my mooring fee but that only took a few minutes. I moved the holders for a danforth anchor at the bow – but that was quick and easy.

Of all the things mentioned, I’ve accounted for about an hour. I honestly don’t know what the hell happened to the rest of those two days. But I do know that I was busy. Busy as all get out.. Busy, busy, busy.

In fact, I have stuff to do. Make dinner or smelt an anchor or something. I have to go.

Busy, busy, busy. Bye!

The fuel dock at Georgetown Yacht Basin with TWO cute young dock attendants driving the launch across the front of the dock.

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Cracking Skulls

Georgetown Yacht Basin

There must be something black hole-like about boats and places named Georgetown.

In the Bahamas, George Town, on Great Exuma, is the winter refuge for hundreds of cruisers. The harbor is large and reasonably well protected and the town offers pretty much everything a cruiser could need – including flights home, if necessary.

It is also known as “Chicken Harbor.” George Town, Bahamas, is the last stop in the protection of the Exuma Islands chain. To continue on from there, you are in the open Atlantic. Many, many cruisers sail in with dreams of heading south into the Caribbean but find their anchors stuck in the sand. The temptations and relative security of George Town overshadow dreams of new islands and new adventures. Life is easy there, if not occasionally annoying (due, of course, to a bizarro handful of the hundreds of cruisers).

Our anchor got stuck there for two months. In our defense, we were waiting for some friends to sail in. But we, too, found life easy there. Entire days spent enjoying the beautiful tropical scene – a beach bar, new friends, a decent grocery store, and so on. But finally we did leave – and I’m glad we did.

I’m now in another Georgetown – this one in Maryland. I’ve been here for several days now – I would have to look at a calendar to tell you exactly how many. I didn’t expect to be here still but here I am.

A few days ago I was clipped by a tornado or a funnel cloud or a microburst or whatever. In my mind it doesn’t matter – it came from hell. But that’s not the reason I’m still here. Earlier that day, it was hot and muggy and I had found an old Windscoop on board. A Windscoop is a kite like chute that you put over a hatch to capture and funnel the wind down into the boat.

I tried to install it over the large, heavy forward hatch but couldn’t figure out how to attach it properly. Working from inside the boat, I had my head sticking out of the hatch by a few inches trying to secure it. It was then that something on the Windscoop caught the large spring holding up that large, heavy hatch, thus causing it to crash down at a surprisingly rapid pace. Gravity is really something, isn’t it? Before it could slam shut, however, the hatch found my head which was, as mentioned, sticking just few inches out.

It was full bore contact right on the top of my head. Blood immediately began pouring down my face and I screamed like a little girl (although little girls probably don’t use those words). To say the least, it was not a pleasant sensation.

A short while later, I noticed my peripheral vision was a bit askew. I also noticed that I was getting up to do things but, after getting up, would forget what I was going to do. It seems I had managed to give myself a slight concussion.

Shortly after that happy experience, the storm hit. It was not my best day.

So, after that painfully long story, I’m in Georgetown (Maryland) waiting for a cognitive recovery. Almost there, I think – but who would know?

The Georgetown Yacht Basin is a very nice place. Bicycles are provided at no charge – which is a good thing considering the nearest small grocery is nearly two miles away. It is also in a very protected little harbor. Occasionally, I can even pick up a wifi signal.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I used one of the bikes to pedal my way to the grocery store for supplies. Snacks, of course, play a prominent role in my provisioning list and, as such, I picked up a bag of mini Snickers bars. I was shocked, I tell you, shocked at what I found upon ripping that bag open. I was so shocked, I decided to write the CEO of the Snickers people. Below is the text of my letter:

To the Snickers Candy Bar Company:

While I wholeheartedly agree, as you apparently believe, that obesity is an enormous (sorry about the pun) problem in America. It is certainly possible that you yourself are obese and I, too, suffer from a certain unforeseen bulge around my wasteline that I am certain is largely (again, sorry about the pun) gravity related.

And while I could possibly laud you in your apparent attempt at resolving the colossal fat-related ills of our vast nation, I have no choice but to tell you that it is hugely unconscionable that you have reduced the size of your mini Snickers bars to a microscopic level. C’mon – they were already MINI Snickers. At a minimum you should, in all fairness, change the label on your packaging removing the word “Mini” and replacing it with “Microscopic.”

Or better yet – just realize that if someone wants to honk down Snickers bars, you have no control over that. You simply cannot take on that massive responsibility. I am certain your (enlarged) hearts were in the right place, but I think the execution is misplaced. For the love of all that is good and holy people, please make a mini Snickers bar that doesn’t require an electron microscope to see! I can’t afford an electron microscope! I can barely afford the Microscopic Snickers! They are so small I had to honk down half the bag in one sitting!

….Hey! Wait a minute! Nah, couldn’t be…

In addition to the slight cranial trauma, there has been a tad bit of indecision concerning the future. On my best days, making such decisions is an ugly affair but now it is even more so. I am within a day’s sail of my original goal. Less than 200 miles south, however, is a very nice, protected marina that appears as though it would be a better summer home for Shadow Marie. There are, as usual, many tradeoffs. One way or another, I will be soon making my way (sans boat) back to Cape Cod to get my truck. That should be another interesting adventure given that I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish it.

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In through the out door

Crossing under the railroad lift bridge on the C&D Canal.

Greetings from the Sassafras River off Chesapeake Bay. Sunday was a motorsail up Delaware Bay and the Delaware River, Monday was a windless complete motoring day through the C&D Canal and into the Chesapeake.

The Chesapeake and Delaware bays are, in many ways, complimentary. A quick look at a road atlas would suggest they are much the same. But from the water, the differences couldn’t be more stark.

Delaware Bay has a feeling of desolation. For cruising boats, anchorages and safe harbors are few. There is a brown steel appearance to the water – it seems to be all business. As do the ships and even the fishing boats.

Connected via a 13-mile canal, the Chesapeake Bay is immediately different – the different feeling on the water is palpable. Bluffs and highlands frame the picturesque water filled with coves and places to anchor or explore.

Since leaving Cape Cod, I’ve been sailing in through the out door. Virtually all of the cruising boats I’ve encountered have been northbound, returning home for the summer after a winter in Florida or the Caribbean – or sailing in search of cooler summer temperatures. The first few hardy souls were a handful of Canadian boats at Block Island. It was cold there yet they sailed in for a single night and then kept pushing north (presumably to even colder temperatures).

Now into June and hurricane season, I am passing friends and others. I met a huge migration of cruising sailboats and trawlers on my way up Delaware Bay. My friends on IWanda passed within a few hundred yards of me in Cape May on their way to New York. Mary from IWanda said it best – they are searching for 75 degrees. They will head north into comfortable summer temperatures and then head south when the summer wanes.

Somehow in the process I’ve sailed from late winter into mid-summer. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was wearing my winter jacket during the day. Now, it is shorts and t-shirts weather with me wishing I could flip on the non-existent air conditioning.

A passing ship on Delaware Bay.

The passage to the Chesapeake was mostly uneventful. I spent a rolly night at anchor behind a small island just a few miles from the C&D Canal. I checked the tides and currents for the canal – and all of my sources seemed to conflict. Early in the morning, when I saw the tide rushing into my anchorage (towards the canal), I figured that if water is moving in, I’ll get a push. I did, too – right up to the mouth of the canal where I slammed to a near stop in a contrary current. I went from six knots to 2.8 knots in a matter of moments.

Despite having the current against me, I decided to carry on into the canal, struggling to reach three knots. About the time I began to worry about having limited maneuverability due to the current, I saw a large ship coming around a bend.

I’ve seen many ships out on open water but I’ve never passed so close to a ship as this one in the canal. I moved to the far edge to be well clear of it – and so I would have room to take the wake at a better angle. The huge wall of water it pushed up in front of the bow was amazing – it distorted almost the width of the canal. The wake was enormous – when I hit it, it brought the boat to a dead stop and could easy have tossed me up against the rocks lining the canal. I can only attribute it to the hand of God that it didn’t happen. Within a few seconds, I gunned the engine and began moving again towards safety in the middle of the channel. Amazingly, despite hobby horsing to an incredible degree, nothing was horribly tossed about below.

Live (thankfully I did) and learn – next time I’ll know how to handle it better.

About halfway through the current went slack and then, ever so slightly, began turning in my favor. I passed a tempting little anchorage basin at Chesapeake City, instead making towards the protection of the Sassafras River, knowing the weather forecast for the following day was less than wonderful.

I found a wide spot on the river to anchor for the night.

The forecast proved to be correct for the next day. A muggy yet beautiful evening took a dramatic turn, heralded by a line of pitch black clouds on the horizon.

As the wind began picking up I went forward to check on the anchor bridle. All was well. It was then I looked up and saw a wall of white headed towards me. I am absolutely certain that I could see the water from the river being sucked up into that wall – it was a frightening thing to see. I quickly ran back to the cockpit, jumped into the boat and slammed the companionway hatch just moments before it hit.

Looking through the portholes, all I could see was white – the banks of the river were completely gone. The wind hit with an incredible force, instantly heeling the boat over almost to the rail – a huge feat for a stiff boat like this. Despite living through 14 hurricane seasons and growing up in the tornado alley of the Minnesota plains, I have never seen anything so severe or frightening in my life. It was the very first time I contemplated the possibility of losing my boat. I could see nothing at all – I had no idea if the anchor was dragging. Even if I had time and the ability to get the engine started, I would have had no idea where to head towards safety.

By some miracle, and I assume it was the weight of God’s thumb, the anchor held through that wind. It is likely it was pulled through the muddy bottom but it didn’t release enough to allow me to be driven onto the shore. Eventually, after what seem like hours but was probably only minutes, the storm passed.

There was an eerily beautiful, muted sunset that night and then the wind picked up again, gusting into the 20s. A long night ended a long day.

An eerily beautiful sunset after the storm on the Sassafras River.

The next morning dawned beautifully. The storm had destroyed my clear plastic windshield that had been connected to the deck and the bimini. It also tore out my teak flag pole and U.S. Flag – both were gone, with just the screw holes remaining. A full six-gallon water jug had been tossed across the cockpit. Looking through the binoculars, I could see a row of trees had been flattened along the shore from where the storm came. The news reported that people saw funnel clouds and tornados – the storm left 58,000 people without power.

I don’t know if I was hit by some kind of microburst or a brief touchdown of a tornado. Whatever it was, I hope I never see anything like that again.

I am now upriver, near Georgetown, Maryland. I’ll be here for a few days re-provisioning and getting ready for the next and final legs of this journey.

The weather up here has been… interesting. It seems more and more each day I miss Florida. No matter the flaws in that state, the weather (generally the good kind) is there.

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The Ides of March… in June…

A panoramic view of Cape May Harbor

In a recent forecast discussion (notes published online about the weather situation and how the forecast came to be), a National Weather Service meteorologist said, “Someone needs to tell Mother Nature that we are in meteorological summer.”

It sure doesn’t feel like summer. Yesterday morning, June 4, I wore a winter coat. All along the way from Cape Cod people have been saying, “No, this weather is unusual.” More often than not for the past month it has been cold, cloudy, foggy and / or rainy.

At what point does it become “usual”? I’m waiting for someone to come out and admit, “You know, the truth is the weather just generally sucks up here.”

I have spent the week in Cape May. The forecasts have been consistently saying that conditions would be against me for the short 55-mile trip up Delaware Bay. Sometimes they have been right, sometimes not so much. But here I am still. Tomorrow actually does look decent – at least there should be some sunshine. And my navigation system, courtesy of Mother Nature, should be right on target – the wind will be blowing from exactly where I want to go.

It’s not a horrible place to be, although the space for anchoring is limited – there are a ton of marine stores and the grocery store is marginally within walking distance. I now know for certain that having a heart attack is not imminent – if it were I would have had it during the nearly two-mile walk back from the Acme Food Market carrying loads of soda, canned goods, fruits, vegetables and other stuff. Yes, I could have taken a cab but I wanted to find out if I could survive it.

Having been here for the week I’ve had a chance to meet a few people. People invariably ask what others do for a living (in other words, how is it you are on a boat while everyone else your age is working?). When I tell people that I previously owned a small newspaper in Iowa and then worked for a United States Congressman, there has, on at least three separate occasions, been a brief look of horror on their faces followed by: “Did you work for that one guy… the… uh… crazy… er, I mean, that one guy…?”

There is then relief when I tell them that no, I worked for one of the good guys. The very best, actually. So that’s what Iowa is known for – apparently once again copying its northern neighbor, this time in whackjob politics. Maybe it’s time for the state to start selling the idea of “Field of Dreams Part II” to movie companies…

On the plus side of staying put, I’ve managed to get quite a few small things done on Shadow Marie. Sailing a new-to-me boat has been an interesting experience – especially one that has been neglected for so long. But now things are starting to come together. Systems are tightening up and little by little she is returning to what she always was – an excellent and comfortable cruising boat. She draws the eyes of people who pass by – and she causes me to continually turn to look as I leave to go to the store, etc. Simply put, there is something special about her and the shine is just beginning to once again show through.

I’ve gained a new-found appreciation for many things over the course of this adventure. The first is reconnecting with old friends we met while cruising all those years ago. Certainly, some of the finest people I’ve ever encountered are plying the oceans and waterways of the country and the world – making contact with them again has lightened my heart.

I also have gained an incredible amount of respect for the National Weather Service. Wow – talk about tax dollars well spent. Take some time to browse through their offerings on the Web – they easily put private companies to shame. They offer forecasts in every conceivable way for every conceivable format. They even have incredible products tailored to small screens such as Blackberries. Of course their forecasts aren’t perfect – Mother Nature isn’t an easy mark – but they are incredibly good and they knock themselves out giving the public the information that is needed.

My little Kindle (electronic reading device from Amazon) has been seriously cool – it is the ultimate thing for a coastal cruiser. I can get books without having to 1) splash the dinghy; 2) find a dinghy dock; 3) walk to a bookstore. I recently discovered they even have books at no cost – just downloaded Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World” – it was free.

In the 1890s, Slocum was the first person to sail a small boat around the world alone. I read the book years ago but it is even better the second time through it. He was given a 100-year-old fishing boat and converted it to a cruising boat. In fact, he set the standard for all cruisers up to today. He’d sail into port and almost invariably parties and sundowners in the cockpit were sure to follow.

There are no parallels with Joshua Slocum and me with the exception that his dinghy sucked, too. At one point he ran aground along the coast of South America and had to use his dinghy to row out an anchor in hopes of using it to pull the boat off. The anchor was heavy and his dinghy started sinking – finally, it simply rolled over and he ended up in the water. As he was trying to figure out how to right it, he wrote, “It was at that point I suddenly remembered I could not swim.”

He rounded both the Cape of Good Hope (AKA: the Cape of Storms) and Cape Horn in a homemade boat without an engine, electronics or even the rudimentary navigational technology that was available in that time. He had no weather forecasts and he had to guard against pirates and “savages”. Thus far in my cruising, I’ve never had to worry about anchoring outside of the range of a bow and arrow. Yet he did it all with a grace, perspective and humor that few people (are willing to) possess.

In comparison, sitting here in the comfort of Shadow Marie’s cabin, surrounded by an incredible array of technology, I have no right to complain about some rain and a few gusts of contrary wind.

OK, so I’m weak. It’s cold, gray, windy and rainy outside. Slocum spent much of his cruise reading about the hardships of his predecessors on the ships of discovery and feeling good about the fact that advances had made his life at sea incomparably more comfortable. He also spent a good deal of time looking forward to “summer land.”

And so it goes today.

Shadow Marie enjoying a rare moment in a transient slip at Utsch Marina.

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Red sky in the morning

Me, underway from Atlantic Highlands to Cape May.

Greetings from Cape May, NJ!

I’ve spent much of the past several years wandering around the country and writing about it. In all honesty, I never gave New Jersey much thought. In the little I did give, images of refineries, chemical factories and Newark (along their happy little airport I affectionately refer to as Rathole International) would spring to mind.

But there is certainly another side to New Jersey that I hadn’t heard about. You know what? It’s a pretty nice place.

After sailing through New York City we arrived at Atlantic Highlands for a beautiful night at anchor. That didn’t last long as the wind began howling out of the east – the only direction that was exposed in the anchorage. We were told such conditions were unusual but the wind blew like that for the next few days – along with a healthy dose of rain and fog.

Just as I was becoming convinced the weather would last forever, a few days later it cleared and I was able to take a look at the town – it seems to be a great place. Since I’d pretty much stayed on the boat through the nastiness, when it got nice I had to get to work. I needed to do laundry and provision for sailing further south. I loaded up the evil dinghy with a huge laundry bag and headed into town.

Although in my advanced age, even carrying a couple of weeks worth of laundry to the laundromat almost did me in, I decided to try to get everything done in one trip – I didn’t want to make the long dinghy ride back and forth. While the clothes were drying I walked to the grocery store and got a bit carried away – it was almost too much for me to carry and I still had to pick up the now dry laundry.

I made it about half-way back to the dinghy dock before I had to stop and rest. I couldn’t let go of the five grocery bags or stuff would go flying so I just knelt down on the sidewalk to catch my breath. I decided once my heart rate slowed to something within normal human range I would make the push for the dinghy. Oh, it had gotten warm and I was also sweating like a pig.

Just then a BMW whipped by, did a U-turn and the two women inside asked if I could use a ride. Talk about a life saver! They drove me right up to the dinghy dock. In my previous life, I would never have expected something like that in New Jersey – not to mention, they weren’t exactly getting me at my best. I made for a pretty sorry sight.

While loading up the dinghy I saw the marina launch Walter Cronkite’s former 48-foot ketch. It is a beautiful sailboat. The name had been changed to, I assume in honor of Cronkite, Integrity.

Although I was really tempted to enjoy the much improved weather by spending the next day in the cockpit reading a good book, it was time to head south.

Saturday dawned bright and clear – it was time to go. I was dreading this passage for a few reasons. One, it was 115 miles in the Atlantic to Cape May with no great stopping points in between and two, I was alone. Being alone on a cruising sailboat can be a challenge – first and foremost, getting the anchor up and then rushing back to the helm to motor out of the anchorage without hitting anyone in the process.

My concern about dragging over the week had been unfounded – that anchor was stuck something fierce. I had to run back and forth to the bow and the helm to use the engine to power it free. When it finally came up, it was a giant mud blob. Since I was drifting, I didn’t have time to clean it off so pulled it up a few feet above the water and motored into Sandy Hook Bay where I whacked the mud off with a dinghy paddle.

Before Michelle, I singlehanded my smaller sailboat without a thought. But being alone presents a bunch of challenges. In close quarters, such as anchoring or navigating narrow channels, there is no one to help at the helm or to take a second look at the chart or computer navigation. I also wondered if I would feel any fear being alone on the ocean at night. Since this boat had been neglected for so many years, a million things could go wrong – could I handle it?

As I motored along to round Sandy Hook to head out into the Atlantic, I noticed what appeared to be breakers at the tip of the island. There shouldn’t have been breaking waves – it wasn’t that windy. Looking through the binocs I could see that it was, instead, hundreds of fishing boats both large and small.

It’s gotta suck to be a fish. You wake up, it’s a beautiful Saturday morning. You’re hungry for breakfast and wow, what luck – somewhat put out a buffet! There’s food dangling everywhere in the water. You grab your fish newspaper, take your first bite and… OW! OW! OW! Suddenly you’re being dragged by the mouth through the water! Your lip hurts like hell and your newspaper goes flying. STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT! Next thing you know you’re tossed into an ice chest thinking, “This isn’t how I had planned to spend the weekend.”

Going through the fishing boats was bedlam – boats big and small either drifting or on full plane crossing each other’s bow at high speeds (those are the two speeds on a powerboat – off or full blast). The wakes turned into huge, confused waves. Finally, I reached the open water and was somewhat in the clear. I had the forecasted west wind so raised sail and took off at six knots down the coast. I walked up to stand on the bowsprit – what a beautiful thing to ride this boat under sail. It was fantastic – for the first 30 miles. After that, the wind veered to out of the south and on the nose (where else? It seems I don’t even need charts or a GPS – I always know where I am going because that’s where the wind blows from).

I was several miles offshore so I sailed closer to the coast and again found wind that allowed me to keep the small staysail up – that helped to provide a much more comfortable motion and, with the wind stronger than forecast, added a few knots to my speed. By evening, the wind continued the shift to the south so even that sail came down and I was left with motoring into waves and swell for the remainder of the trip.

Red sky at night, sailor's delight.  Sunset over New Jersey.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much delight the next morning.

From what I could see of it, the New Jersey coast is beautiful – one long beach. They really like waterfront amusement parks, too – I saw several of them. I watched an incredibly beautiful sunset as I passed Barnegat Bay (red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Yah!) and then focused on the enormous glow of the Atlantic City casinos as my next navigational waypoint. I passed the city in the dark – it’s a pretty wild looking place from the water. Meanwhile, the VHF radio blared with messages from the U.S. Coast Guard about reports of flares and missing boats. I didn’t see either of them – Atlantic City is probably a continual handful for the Coasties.

After Atlantic City, my course took me further offshore and it turned extremely dark. At first, I could see a line of ships out in the ocean but after a time, even they disappeared. The moon had set and there was nothing but darkness. I was bashing into waves and a light wind but the ancient autopilot more or less kept me on course. It turned out that I wasn’t afraid at all – it was peaceful and really quite enjoyable. Michelle, being the angel she is, ended up staying up all night feeding me weather reports and text messages from Iowa. With the autopilot keeping course, more often than not, I had the ability to go below to check on the computer navigation or to grab a snack.

Speaking of which, the ship’s menu that day and night consisted of:

  • 3 Pop Tarts (served cold)
  • 1 Ham and cheese sandwich
  • A handful of potato chips
  • A couple of cookies
  • One chocolate bar

Shortly after 5 a.m., the darkness began giving way to the morning light. In the east, a beautiful sunrise began, in the west, black, menacing clouds shrouded the coast. In between, the sky was red (red sky in the morning, sailors take warning).

Around 22 hours after I left Atlantic Highlands, I was on course for the ocean inlet to Cape May. Just three miles away, the black clouds moved in and the Coast Guard began broadcasting warnings of extreme weather, telling mariners to quickly find safe harbor. There was no way I was going to make the inlet and didn’t want to get caught there in the storm. I had two options – I could sail towards the beach and ride out the storm with the anchor down or I could run and weather it in more open water. As the storm was moving quickly, I reluctantly opted for the former – not something I would normally do. By that point, however, I had been awake for 26 hours. I also knew that if the anchor dragged, it wouldn’t really be much of a problem because the storm’s wind would simply push me out into the open ocean.

I got the anchor down and was totally exposed, about a mile off the beach. Ocean swells were rolling in and the boat rolled uncomfortably. I hunkered down in the cockpit just as the front hit – it held some of the strongest wind I’ve ever felt on a boat. The wind was so strong that it flattened out the swells and turned the waves around. Fortunately, that only lasted a short time. The anchor held, all was well, and I was soon on my way to the inlet.

My guidebook mentioned the only place to anchor in the harbor was just outside the channel near the Coast Guard station – they described it as “ample.” I didn’t see anything ample about it. I did, however, get to see what I believe is author / circumnavigator Tania Aebi’s former Contessa 26, Varuna. I was living in Minnesota, working for a soulless corporation and just beginning to dream about what was over the horizon when I read her book, Maiden Voyage. It was cool to see the boat she wrote about and circumnavigated in.

Tania Aebi's (formerly) Varuna in Cape May, NJ.

The longest legs of this adventure are now over. Up next is a 55-mile trip up Delaware Bay to the C&D Canal which will take me to the Chesapeake Bay. From there, we’ll find a summer home for Shadow Marie. I wasn’t excited about the offshore leg. The prevailing conditions and a less than perfectly outfitted boat – along with being alone – made me think of it as something to dread. It turned out OK – not great conditions but Shadow Marie handled them impressively. Now that it’s done, I feel a bit of sadness – this trip, for the moment at least, is nearing an end.

It was a beautiful day in Cape May. Believe it or not, it’s beautiful in New Jersey.

Fair winds to y’all.

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A Captain Ron Moment

Like many cruisers, I loved the 80s movie, Captain Ron. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it for the sailing aspect – most of that was non-sensical. Nor for the images of the boat – most of which was impossible (not many sailboats have engine compartments that huge) – but more for the attitude. It was the story of a firmly-rooted suburban family that found themselves on a sailboat in the Caribbean and, ultimately, found happiness in what they had.

Captain Ron was a seemingly too-laid-back island guy who, in reality, knew precisely what he was doing. He was basically the muse through which the family found said happiness. He was hired by the family to help them sail the boat back to Miami in order to sell it.

In one scene Capt. Ron (Kurt Russell) is bringing the boat into a marina. He appears to be going way too fast – the anal-rententive suburban father (Martin Short) panics and runs to prepare his wife and two children for a horrendous crash. People on the dock start to back away as well. Capt. Ron is oblivious to it all. As the boat speeds on and the family is braced for impact, Capt. Ron spins the wheel, hits reverse and the boat gently aligns itself along the dock without so much as a bump. That incident kicked off a test of wills between care-free but supremely competent Captain Ron and the insecure suburban father.

Dean, the guy I bought this boat from, reminds me a bit of Captain Ron. At first glance he appears carefree and laid back. But just a bit beneath the surface is a serious guy who loves his family, has a heart of gold and knows exactly what he is doing.

Dean works for the marina I was in on Cape Cod. Shortly after my boat was splashed, a spigot opened and boats started coming out of the yard en-masse. Most of the time, the owners weren’t present – the marina employees would do the work and get the boats tied up in the slips, ready and waiting.

On one particularly windy day, I saw them launch a 30-some foot sailboat. Dean was at the helm to take it to the slip – just across the dock from me. To get to the dock, the heavy wind would hit the boat broadsides – not the easiest set up for close-quarters maneuvering in a sailboat. I watched as Dean drove the boat out of the haul-out well and make the turn for the slip – he was really powering it up – the boat was moving fast. By the time he was headed into the slip, the boat was screaming – I was certain a crash was imminent. But no, somehow Dean spun the wheel, hit reverse at just the right moment and the boat… simply stopped. Exactly where it needed to be in the slip for the dockhands to tie it off. Despite the heavy wind, Dean parked that boat better than most people could park a car in a parking lot.

It was just like Captain Ron.

In all my years on boats, I have never met anyone who can handle a boat like Dean. He has a magic touch that few people have – whether it is an engine or a boat, he can relate to it in some rare and mysterious way. Over the course of getting ready to take off, he helped me in many, many ways – always easily solving a problem I had assumed was unsolvable. I’m not a newbie to this stuff – I have lived aboard and cruised for years and have dealt with an endless list of problems. But I don’t have Dean’s magic touch.

Back to Captain Ron – at one point in the movie, pirates of the Caribbean are bearing down on the family as they flee in their boat. Captain Ron had fallen down the stairs and feigned a broken leg, leaving the father completely in charge of the welfare of both the boat and the family. Finally, at the last moment, the U.S. Coast Guard arrived to shoot off the pirates. The Coast Guard called the sailboat over the VHF radio asking to speak to the captain. Both Captain Ron and the father stood in front of the radio as the request was repeated.

Finally, Captain Ron said to the suburban father: “You’re the captain now” and handed him the microphone.

When our engine died in the heavy fog, wind-less, dark night as we crossed Long Island Sound, I shot Dean a text message describing the problem and asking if he had any ideas. He replied with some basic things to try and then told me that I had to tame the boat – I had to let her know the Cape wasn’t her home anymore and to show her that I was now the boss.

He was right. It was my Captain Ron moment.

I’m the captain now.

Thanks, Dean, for helping to make that happen.

Shadow Marie and I are at anchor near Sandy Hook, NJ. We are waiting for the fog to dissipate and the wind to turn towards a more favorable direction before making the offshore leg to Cape May. From there it will be a hop up Delaware Bay and then a canal trip into the Chesapeake.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess. In Captain Ron, the family finally sailed the boat themselves to Miami. As they entered the marina, with the boat broker waiting on the dock, they decided to change course – to not sell the boat and instead sail back out over the horizon as the movie ended.

The reality, of course, was they all packed up set and picked up their paychecks for making the movie – but it made for a nice ending. And it made a bunch of cruisers and wannabe-cruisers think “I’m going to do that someday.”


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Alone Again

It was way too sudden. We were sitting on a bench at the marina just talking like we normally do and then the car pulled up. I had almost forgotten that she was leaving – but suddenly it was time for her to go. Her vacation time was at an end.

I waved until the car turned out of sight. Then the abrupt emptiness and loneliness set in. All of the laughter, the energy, the sheer pleasure of looking across the salon and seeing her tucked into a berth for a nap was now just a memory. I was alone again. I slowly walked back to the launch dock and caught a ride back to the boat. On board, it was quiet. There are little reminders – slippers, her foul weather gear, the note she left, but unlike just a few short hours ago there is no one to ask, “Hey, what do you want to do now?” There is no one to lean upon in the millions of subtle ways I lean upon her.

I’m alone again.

Now back on the boat I am looking for something to do – anything to keep my mind from dwelling on the very recent past. The to-do list, of course, is long but my heart really isn’t in it. Like most couples, Michelle and I disagree and fight and snap at each other occasionally – but that is the little stuff that falls off of us like a hull slicing through an ocean of happiness. She is my better half. She is what makes me, me.

The worst part is, I don’t know when I’ll see her again. Somehow, though, I know it will be sooner rather than later. Somehow I believe, despite the odds, it will be under the circumstances we both want.

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A touch of Yang, a pinch of Yin

It seems – in the Northeast, if not everywhere, that once you get a little Yang, Yin is sure to quickly follow.

Our night at anchor seemed perfect. Comfortable temperature, glassy smooth water and we were tucked in behind a substantial breakwater.

Around 5 a.m., however, Yin came for a visit. The boat started moving in a giant rocking horse sort of way. Both Michelle and I instantly woke up and peered outside the portholes to see what was happening. The wind had come up dramatically – shooting down the one exposed direction in this harbor.

OK – we had a lot of chain down along with our anchor. We’ll be OK. Just to be on the safe side, I went to lay down in the salon to be a few steps closer to the deck and helm.

Shortly before 6 a.m. there was a loud crash and the wind was howling. Huge waves were crossing the harbor from the entrance. I looked out the port to see that we had dragged anchor a few hundred feet. I yelled for Michelle to get up, started the engine and ran to the bow to check the situation with the anchor and chain.

For the non-sailors, when using an anchor and chain you can actually feel the vibration of dragging through the chain – just touch it and you’ll know. I didn’t feel any vibration but in this case it was fairly obvious what had happened. The hook on the new bridle we made last night had slipped – in an instant hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of pressure was transferred directly to the anchor chain (and our windlass on deck) – the huge shock likely either caused our anchor to pull or to briefly drag.

Although we were now a few hundred feet closer to the mooring field in the harbor (actually, we were technically in the mooring field), it appeared the anchor had caught again and we were being held in place. The new problem was getting the huge strain off the anchor chain and back onto the nylon line (rope) bridle.

My first attempt at a bridle fix failed – it was then I found out just how long our anchor chain is when I noticed the last links approaching the windlass. Suffice to say losing the anchor chain would have been a really bad thing at that moment. Not to mention that standing out on the bowsprit (far forward end of the boat) in pretty good sized waves is something that Disney works hard to replicate in roller coasters – and it’s not really the place or time in which you want to be working stressed loads and small shackles.

We made another attempt and it worked – we now have two rodes (heavy nylon lines) coming out from either side of the bow taking the shock load of the wind and waves (some of which have been four feet – that’s a lot for being at anchor).

As I type this the gusts have moderated a bit but the wind is still howling. The bridle is holding and the anchor certainly seems to be well set now. Except for the fact that there is no humanly possible way for us to get in the dinghy (let alone get the outboard mounted on it or actually go somewhere without blowing over) things are OK here. It’s a drag watching big waves with crests and whitecaps come at us but things could be worse – a sailboat from Tampa Bay enroute to Newport, RI, was calling the U.S. Coast Guard on the radio saying they had been blown into New York Harbor by the storm and was wondering where they should go. Pretty much anywhere in New York Harbor at this moment would have to be pretty sucky on a small boat.

So far I’ve been able to pass a bit of the blame for our problems to “it’s an old boat” or “the weather up here is really nasty” kind of thing. While the weather is really nasty up here, this situation is entirely my fault. I knew heavy east winds were coming. I knew that we were exposed to the east. In my defense, most of the water to the east of us is one or two feet deep – I never in a million years would have expected huge waves from water so shallow.

A mistake I won’t make again.

After an hour or two of being certain we were no longer dragging, I finally shut off the engine. It seems that now it will be nap time in the salon since the conditions pretty much put anything else out the window.

Hmm. Nap time. Nothing better than taking a nap on a boat at sea.

With a bit of Yin comes a bit of Yang, it seems.

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Life in extremis; life in wonder

Greetings to you from Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey! We are currently at anchor behind the the town’s wonderful breakwater. For one of the first times of this entire adventure, today we actually had the opportunity to show some skin (meaning arms, ears, etc. you perverts). It was a great day for a trip through New York City – and we had a nice sail down New York Harbor towards Sandy Hook. It was fantastic to have a day without moments of terror and images of doom.

But first, of course, we had to get to that point.

We took on water and a few gallons of gas and diesel in jerry jugs before steaming out of Mystic around 4 p.m. on Saturday. We left late because we had decided to run Long Island Sound as an overnight passage – arriving in the NYC area by early the next afternoon.

Initially, the problems were subtle. We had been having issues with bad vibration in the engine at low RPMS. The fuel in the tank was probably a decade or more old so it needed a good cleaning. We did that by running it through a fuel polishing system for six hours. It turns out that wasn’t enough.

As we headed out of the Mystic River, we put up the main and staysail and throttled back a bit. The engine died. We noticed that we were sailing along without it at 6.5 knots – it was a beautiful day and fun to have the sails up so no problem with not using the engine. In the meantime, I changed the fuel filter again. Although being only two weeks old, it was already clogged up.

The sail was perfect – the boat handled beautifully. A bit of time spent tuning the rigging seemed to pay off. She has a gentle motion and handles seas extremely well.

We sailed all evening until finally the wind left us around 9 p.m. Engine on and off we went with mostly flat seas. I went off-watch at 1 a.m. – at 2 a.m. I heard Michelle yelling for me. A heavy fog was settling in and she was concerned about two targets on our radar screen. As we approached them to a half mile, one had the lighting of being a towed vessel. I had seen them on my sail from Block Island – a tow vessel (or tug) with a very, very long line to a barge. it would be ugly to accidently sail in between them.

On our radar, our course was exactly in between them – now down to less than a 1/4 mile away. The fog was too heavy to see them clearly, which made the situation even more uncomfortable.

We made a drastic course change while trying to figure just what it was we were seeing. In the end, I don’t think it was a tug and barge – but I have absolutely no idea what it was.

Shortly after, the engine died again. I ran down and changed the fuel filter yet again, using our last spare. We were 60 miles from our planned stop outside New York, it was dark, cold, extremely foggy and there were apparently water vessels from another planet nearby. Things looked a bit grim at that time (you had to be there).

Eventually, reluctantly, the engine started again – but we had zero throttle control. It ran at 2,000 RPMs – no more, no less – so off we went for the rest of the cold, dark, foggy wind-less night.

Michelle went off watch around 4 a.m. and as I sat at the helm peering into the fog as the autopilot kept us on course, I realized how insane it was. Yes, we had radar and computer charts but I began to wonder if we were going to sail off the edge of the world – or worse, into a small wayward fishing boat. There was no visibility – technology became our eyes.

The radar saved us – and it had performed well until the sudden rain squalls hit – the rain would temporarily blind our electronic eyes and black out the radar screen. The squalls were fairly brief but heavy. The first time it happened, I almost had a heart attack. I saw a blob of something approaching us on radar – suddenly the entire radar screen ahead turned black – maybe we were sailing off the edge of the world.

So now it was cold, dark, foggy and rainy. And, we couldn’t change speed.

Eventually, as it always does, the sun came up. It wasn’t enough to lift the fog but at least we could see a short distance in front of us. Then, as we neared New York, we ran into a parking lot of small fishing boats – it was incredible how many were out there. Of course since we couldn’t adjust the throttle, we just powered on through them. Absolutely no one was killed or injured during that time.

But finally we ran into the problem of how we were going to anchor. To anchor, we would need to slow down and even go into reverse – we couldn’t just fly into the small harbor, throw the hook down and sproing off the anchor chain. The engine died a few times but the CQR anchor sunk into the mud – we were out in the middle of nowhere but we were down – the passage from hell was over.

Our night through Long Island Sound wasn’t life-threatening or probably even all that interesting – but it sure did suck rocks.

We dropped the hook at Manhasset Bay just outside New York City at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. Despite the fog and engine problems, we managed to cover the 88 miles from Mystic in just over 18 hours – not too bad.

Although neither of us managed to get much sleep over the night, we had to get the engine straightened out before attempting to go through New York – a route that would take us under bridges, through a place called Hell Gate, down along the skyscrapers of Manhattan and then out into New York Harbor – a journey filled with sights, ships and maniacal ferries.

Michelle dingied over to a nearby marina for more fuel filters as I plopped myself down on the engine to get started changing not just the easily changed primary filter but also two less convenient filters on the engine. After a few hours laying on the hot engine, I felt like a cooked turkey and it was definitely time to turn me over.

After all of the filters were changed (it had probably been years since the two smaller filters had been changed), the engine fired right up. There was still an occasional hint of vibration but it quickly went away.

It was a beautiful night at anchor in Manhasset Bay. As the sun set, the sky turned purple. Shortly after, Michelle and I passed out.

We had the anchor up at 8:45 this morning – timed to get the best possible current through Hell Gate and along Manhattan. We sailed under the Throg Neck Bridge at 10:30 a.m. and out the Verrazano Bridge into New York Harbor at 1:30 p.m. – the entire transit took just three hours. Only once did the engine give a little hiccup – and nothing serious. No, the only thing to detract from the day was the ferries from hell. Fear the blue ferries! Fear the blue ferries!

One passed extremely close to us just as we were cruising along Lower Manhattan towards the Statue of Liberty. The wake was straight from the depths of hell. I was on deck taking pictures and saw it coming up from behind. I yelled to Michelle at the helm that it was going to be bad – like nothing she had ever seen before bad.

And it was – but Shadow Marie brushed it off perfectly. I have a feeling that we would have been airborne on our previous boat, Hetty Brace. Although it felt like we did a straight vertical climb on a few of the waves, we had no water on deck and all of our fingers and toes afterwards. Below, the only thing out of place was a loaf of bread and a small horn.

Shortly after, we sailed under the Verrazano Bridge, across the harbor and down towards Sandy Hook and Atlantic Highlands. By the time we passed Manhattan we had sail up and had a nice, close-hauled ride to New Jersey.

The hook is down, we just made a new anchoring bridle (Michelle won the beauty portion of the “Let’s each splice an eye into a rope” contest. My splice was ugly but so far functional. Tomorrow we’ll go into town to explore. On Wednesday, Michelle will have the opportunity to terrorize other innocent sailboaters as she takes the ferry from hell back into the city for a flight home. I’ll wait for a nice weather window to do the overnight Atlantic sail to Cape May. She suspects that since they missed out killing us along Manhattan, they may take a detour behind the breakwater to finish the job here.

Not so long ago, I might have been reasonably OK with that. But no longer – the enormous list of needs and problems is gradually getting shorter and the good stuff is just beginning.

It is night and the water is calm. Off in the distance we can see the towers of Manhattan with the Empire State Building dominating skyline. Closer, the Verrazano Bridge is lit beautifully in welcome to those who come to the city by sea.

The engine problems seem to have been left behind in Long Island Sound. Certainly, there will be more challenges ahead but tonight life is good.

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Finding life in 32 feet

There is much to like about the simplicity of life onboard a small boat. 

A few months ago I got out of the shower and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror – I was frightened to see a pregnant guy looking back at me.  Now, after almost two months aboard, that is a thing of the past.  Even at 46, I’m in the best shape I’ve been since… well, the last time we went cruising.  Working on the boat and walking everywhere has certainly had an impact.  Also, few fast food outlets are willing to build on the waterfront so that temptation has been eliminated.

Simple things become important – the junk falls back into what it really is – just junk.  On board, I have what I need.  It turns out that is generally in line with what I want (with the exception of the evil dinghy).  


At Northside Marina on Cape Cod where I was in the boatyard, people I had just met bent over backwards to help me.  Every time I ran into a problem, someone was there to offer a helping hand.  And never once did that hand extend expecting to be paid back.  Bill was always there with advice and, thankfully, a small heater that I could run on the limited power in the boatyard.  George was there with his wonder-forklift to help an old guy load up hundreds of pounds of stuff into the boat.  Dan, the manager was always willing to provide answers to questions – or to let me use a tool or two in the marina’s extensive shop.  Dean literally saved the boat on more than one occasion with his incredible talent for fixing things and making things work again.  

The boat was splashed and for the first time in many years sailed out of the marina and beyond because of them – and, more often than not, despite me.

We sailed into Block Island stressed out from worrying about what could break next.  We needed a short respite and the 360 degree weather protection of the harbor offered that.  It’s not a cheap place so we wondered how long our budget could sustain a mooring near the boat basin.  The professional and hard working harbormaster told us they weren’t collecting fees yet for the season.

Wow.  Just wow.

Also at Block, Rick and Mary, recently returned from a seven-year circumnavigation, gave us a wonderful tour of the island and made themselves available to answer questions and give other rides if needed (they had a car there – and like all boaters, it was filled with miscellaneous boat stuff).

Here in Mystic, there is a great little store right downtown called Marine Consignment.  It’s almost impossible to go there with a list because you may not even know what you need until you see it on a shelf.  I traveled there once by car while still in the boatyard to get a great deal on a Raymarine radar.

Yesterday, I returned by dinghy to pick up a few more things.  The owners are fantastic people.  Ask them a question and if they don’t know the answer one of them will be on the phone to find out before you can say, “don’t go to too much trouble.”

I hesitate to write this because they can’t do it for everyone – but it does show what kind of people exist in the cruising world.  When I told them where I was anchored – and that Michelle was coming in, they offered to let me tie up next to their boat on the huge dock just outside of the store.  Can you believe that?  I don’t even want to think of what kind of enormous price downtown dockage could bring.  They were offering space for free to a person they had only met a few times.

Big wow. 

But they are also not saps.  They asked that I let them know if I’m going to do it because they live aboard and we may need to use their boat to step off onto the dock.

“I keep a loaded speargun,” he said.  “You probably shouldn’t startle me too much.”

Over the years we have received gifts and advice from cruisers we have met along the way.  Years ago, George Salley, a Seven Seas Cruising Association Commodore, gave me the ultimate 12-volt fluorescent shop light that can also double as an anchor light.

“I got one for myself and figured you could use one, too,” he said as he gave it to me.

It quickly became one of my favorite things on the boat.  By sheer accident, the light is gone now and I’ve searched the Web looking for another.  George – if you know where I can find one let me know – I’d like to buy two of them (yours might need to be replaced by now, too).

Mary and Christian, two other Commodores, gave us the gift of bread making but more importantly, attitude.  They have traveled the world and their enthusiasm and outlook can’t help but make things better for everyone they encounter – including us.

Kids often refer to others as “Best Friends for Life”.  Through being on a boat, we have actually made that type of friends.  There are many people who have come into our lives and will never leave.  Steph and Jerry, Tom and Sabrina, Steve and Ann, Brad and Anna, Cindy (sorry, I can’t do Cynthia) the list goes on. Sure, it’s possible that we will go months without getting the chance to talk or email but once we do, it’s always simply picking up where we left off.

This is a good life.  I can’t think of anything better.  I’m healthier and happier now than I have been in years.  I do miss driving my old 911 (parked in the garage back in Iowa) but other than that, there’s not much in the dirt-dwelling life that can top this – for us, at least.  Virtually everything I need or want is contained inside this beautiful 32 foot boat.

There’s something really good about that.  I think our ancestors knew it but somehow, in the rush to buy iPods and flat screen TVs and everything else under the sun, this generation decided to believe that happiness lies in the next cool thing to be bought.   The reality is, happiness is already within – look around.  Look at yourself.  It’s already there.

And now we come to letters from readers.  Or, more accurately, letter from reader:

There is of course, another side to the dinghy story.  A once proud dinghy faithfully served a former owner in his/her travels throughout sunny Florida and the Caribbean and then for any variety of reasons, was stuffed away in the foul locker of a leaky boat for many years.  Its relief of rescue was short-lived when the teen-ager acquired (er…stole?) it and inflicted more injury upon it than it could really sustain.  He and his friends probably took it into a mangrove tunnel where it received several punctures, and then dragged it over an oyster reef.  At this point all it wants to do is to be put out of its misery.  Now you can’t expect to hop in something with a history like that and ride it like a mount at the Kentucky Derby.  


Hugs & Kisses, 

T.P.  (If you print this, please don’t use my real name as I’m in the Witness Protection Program and I don’t want to die).

Wow, Tom… er, T… Thanks for the letter!  Talk about getting hit on upside of the head with a 30 pound CQR anchor!  Here I was thinking that I was on my way back to becoming a “glass is half full” kind of guy and your letter points out that I’m only seeing the negative side of things (I’m serious about that).  I think you could be exactly right – maybe the dinghy isn’t evil after all.  It’s just tired and in a really, really bad mood.

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The Dinghy is Evil

I mentioned previously that I’ve developed a suspicion that my dinghy is evil.  I’m now more convinced than ever.  I also believe it wants to kill me.

It is just three miles to a consignment store in downtown Mystic.  Sure, I could walk but the store is on the water – there’s even a dinghy dock.  Hey!  I know!  I’ll take the dinghy!

Of course that involves pumping it up again.  I have to pump it up multiple times each day.  Just before I go to sleep each night I pump it up and then again I pump it immediately upon waking up.  I’m too old to continually pick up the outboard each night so instead I leave it on the dinghy – but I’ve devised a plan to foil the dinghy’s evil ways.


I attach a line to the outboard before I go to sleep.  That way, if the dinghy completely deflates and sinks itself, I’ll be able to retrieve my outboard from the harmful saltwater so that I can use it as a gigantic paperweight should I ever have three or four thousand reams of loose leaf paper that need to be weighed down.

It seems I believe the dinghy wants to kill the outboard, too.

I’m certain, however, it is being careful.  It certainly can’t just come out and kill the outboard without killing me first because it knows full well that I would immediately take my sharp little Swiss Army Knife it knows I keep in my pocket and fillet it into a thousand little pieces of which I would send to all of my friends and relatives to show them that yes, I am the master of my domain.

It may be evil but it’s not stupid.

I bought it sight-unseen on Craigslist for $200.  Actually, I didn’t buy it, a friend in Tampa bought it for me after I called him to ask if he could pick it up.  When he got there he called and said, “Well, it looks like a $200 dinghy.”

He bought it from a teenager who clearly lives in a fantasy world in which telling the truth is irrelevant.  He’s probably evil, too.  Regardless, based on the news from Craigslist lately, I would have been better off dropping the two bills on hookers.  It seems they have them on the interwebs – and on Craigslist in particular.

But now I’m stuck with it and I faithfully pump it up multiple times each day.  It has home-made wooden floorboards that are just about impossible to place correctly when blowing it up on the deck of the boat.  Correct placement is important, however, because unless the end of the floorboard is placed securely under the lip of the transom (where the outboard is mounted), the outboard will wobble all over the place.

It was an absolutely beautiful morning in Mystic – who’s up for a dinghy ride?  I am!  I am!

I get there with no real issues – except for the tube deflating slightly along the way.  I spend a few hours in town and then hop in the dinghy to make my way back to the boat.

Hmmm… seems the wind has come up while I’ve been gone.  Ooohhh – the wind is starting to crank and it’s blowing right smack up the river that I have to go down – I’ll be heading directly into the wind and waves for the three-mile trip back to Shadow Marie.

Things fell apart pretty quickly.  After hitting the first good sized wave the floorboard slipped out from under the lip at the transom – there is absolutely no way to get that thing back in unless the dinghy is completely empty and mostly deflated (I know because I took a hammer to it yesterday in a vain attempt to get it).

Now the mostly deflated part was gradually becoming less of a problem because the port-side tube was leaking air like it always does.  But now that the floorboard was no longer bracing the transom, the board was free to hop up and down with the waves – made worse by the fact that the tube was deflating itself.  Worse still, I couldn’t re-inflate it because 1) I was getting pummeled by waves and 2) whenever I stopped or slowed down the floor board corner would jam itself into the leaking tube – inflating it would likely have allowed the board to rip open the tube.  Meanwhile, the outboard is wobbling fore and aft like crazy – I was just waiting for it to fall off and zoom down the river without me.

At one point I was fairly certain I would have to abandon ship… er, dinghy.  The waves were battering the dinghy – and it seemed bent on self-destruction (taking me and the outboard with it, of course).  It was kind of like spending an hour riding in a very large, oblong jelly donut.  If you’ve never done that before I can assure you that it is not overly pleasant.

By some miracle the three of us (me, outboard, dinghy) all made it back to Shadow Marie.  Once unloaded, I stomped the board down as best I could and then pumped the thing up again.  In a few hours, I’ll do it again just before going to bed.

Now that I think about it, maybe it really doesn’t want to kill me – maybe it just wants to torture me.  Am I the master of my domain or am I merely a slave to a demonic, oblong jelly donut made of Hypalon?

Hmmm… those Swiss guys sure do know how to make a sharp little knife…

Finally, just to get this back on track from a cruising-educational standpoint – I have a cruising tip:  No one over the age of 7 should ever eat beef-a-roni.  Even if it is easy to make and the pot doubles as the dinnerware.

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Greetings from Mystic

Greetings from Mystic, CT.

It was a beautiful sail from Block Island to Mystic.  Perhaps I’ll live long enough to sail somewhere that isn’t into the wind and will be able to shut off the diesel engine along the way.  Before I met Michelle I was a singlehanded sailor – and thought nothing of it.  But that was a long time ago.  It was a surprising amount of work getting the sails up without the benefit of a helping hand.  But up they went and I left the huge and nearly empty anchorage at Block Island bound for the mainland again.

Unfortunately, the only charts I had were on the computer.  As I approached the reef I would need to cross to make way for the Mystic River, I realized that although computer charting is really amazing, it does not displace the need for having paper charts on hand.  The reef I passed through was pretty easy – but it was unmarked and it was kind of freakish looking for a 50 yard opening in a reef that I couldn’t even see.  The computer charts are great for showing me where I am – but they aren’t so hot at showing what lies ahead.

Shadow Marie at Block Island

Charts are now on the ‘To Buy’ list.  On the ‘To Do’ list is spending some of the little time I have available here to explore this historic seaport city.  It is beautiful and definitely a sailing Mecca.  Sailboats are everywhere and people actually use them to… well, sail.  Imagine that.  Depending on whether or not Michelle will be able to join me this weekend, I could be heading out tomorrow – or (hopefully) waiting another day to pick her up.  There are definitely worse places to be.

Speaking of Michelle, I almost pulled “a Michelle” the other day.

Sometimes it seems as though this boat is like an archeological site.  Digging into nooks and crannies more often than not provides remnants of the past:  Fire extinguishers dated 1978 (now gone);  a book of matches from a time when cool guys smoked and the tagline of what would become Southwest Airlines was a hot looking stewardess (they weren’t “flight attendants” then) in an ultra tiny miniskirt with the words, “Coffee, tea, or me!”  No one, in those days, would have even considered taking their shoes off to get on an airplane (well, except in cases of the “me” part, I guess) and more.  The boat even had a SatNav – an 80s device that pre-dated GPS.  It cost a gazillion dollars and would give you a fix in lat and long… eventually.

Regardless, in the last minute rush to leave Cape Cod, Michelle and I somehow left the two-cycle oil for our outboard in our truck back at the marina.  I’m not big on rowing an inflatable dinghy so that was a problem.  I started rooting around in the lazerette and came up with a can – yes, a can – of two cycle outboard oil. I can’t remember the last time I saw a can of that stuff.  I’m not sure I ever have.

I decided – for reasons I can no longer fathom – to take a picture of it.  Just as I was putting the camera away I hear, in a very meek voice, “Mitchell!  Help!”


That caught my attention because I can assure you there is nothing meek about Michelle.  Had she screamed loudly, I might not have paid attention – she screams loudly about something several times on some days.  The meek-sounding voice, on the other hand, suggested there could really be a problem.  I looked back out past the cockpit in time to see Michelle floating away on the dinghy – she was getting it ready for a trip into town and hadn’t yet put in the oars – or anything else for that matter.  She was on her way out to sea.

I tried tossing an oar to her but it fell short.  Tried another one, that one was landed even further away from her.  I told her she had to paddle with her hands.  Eventually she made it to the oars and rowed back to the boat.

Naturally, that gave me new fodder for the incredibly huge arsenal of things I have to kid her about (yes, she has her own arsenal).

The other day, however, I almost pulled my own Michelle without the benefit of having anyone on board to help.

The evil dinghy lives to leak air out of the port-side tube.  I’ve patched and patched and it leaks and leaks.  The other day I decided to give it another try.  I had just returned from the dinghy dock in town with plans to raise it on board Shadow Marie for a new patch session.  I haphazardly tied it loosely around the station as I emptied everything out of it before raising it up.  Just as I got it empty, I looked over to see the kinda-sorta knot I had made begin to unravel – there was only one single wrap left in the line tying the dinghy to the boat – even the slightest movement would easily undo that.  I reached for the rail of the boat and willed with all my might that my arm would miraculously grow the needed four to six inches in length.  As the line continued to unwind, I was facing the very real possibility of finally making it to Long Island Sound (but without the benefit of the sailboat or a motor or food or drinking water).  Just then, somehow the miracle happened.  My arm must have grown six inches for the moment I needed to desperately grab the rail.  The knot was gone but I was hanging onto Shadow Marie for dear life.

I don’t know how that happened.  But I now have a sneaking suspicion the dinghy is evil and it wants to kill me.

Block Island from the harbor

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I need socks

A few years ago when Michelle and I were still living in Florida, I was driving up I-75 towards Tampa.  Just as I approached the Crosstown Expressway, a car ahead of me spun out and flew into the port side median.  I pulled over, too, to make sure they were OK.  They were fine but the car was stuck in the mud just near the overpass.  I offered to help and told the somewhat-less-than-middle-age woman driver to hold on for a second while I take a look at how bad the wheels were in the mud.  Just as I wedged myself between the driver’s side of the car and a concrete piling for the overpass, she gunned it.  If she had gotten traction, I would have been squished like a grape against the piling.

In the end she managed to get free to terrorize someone else on the freeway.  I was left covered in mud – my brand new Nike sneakers were completely saturated with it.

A few days later I noticed they had become incredibly offensive in an olfactory sense.  Something horrible must have been in that mud along the freeway.  I washed and rinsed them to no avail.  No matter what I did, they were far too offensive to wear in public.

I found those still somewhat new-looking sneakers as I was packing to travel to the boatyard on Cape Cod.  I decided that, if nothing else, they would make good yard footwear.  After spending time in the boatyard, my entire body would be offensive so it really didn’t matter if my shoes were too.

What does this have to do with needing socks?  I’m not sure yet but I do know that it was 42 degrees inside the cabin this morning when I woke up.  Forty-Two stinkin’ degrees.  Excuse me but isn’t it going on June?  Yes, socks are very definitely needed here and I only packed two pair of them.  Sure, there are plenty of shops on Block Island but they all cater to tourists – I really don’t want cheap made-in-the-third-world socks that say something cheesy about the tourist locale – that’s what t-shirts are for.

And couple that with the fact that I when I jumped in the dinghy the other day after a healthy overnight rain, the water inside was ankle deep, thus soaking my boat shoes.  That, of course, left me with but one viable option (sandals aren’t an option when it is this cold) – the almost new but really stinky boatyard Nikes.

So – what to do?  I can’t put my skin against whatever is causing that odor so I break out my only clean pair of socks and prepare to destroy them by inserting my foot inside the unbelievably offensive shoe.  I hesitated.  Surely there was something I could do.  Indeed – I went to get a stick of roll-on antiperspirant and gave the inside of those suckers a liberal coating.  It easily cut the stench by half or more.  In fact, I’m not sure if I can actually smell them now or if it is just the remnant of the stench burned into my nasal passages.

Just another day in the cruising life – finding solutions to problems with the tools at hand is what cruisers do everyday.  Yessireebob.  Just like Joshua Slocum would have done. Today, I found a new use for roll-on antiperspirant.  You may or may not want to try that at home – but if you do, it is at your own risk.

 Michelle at the Block Island Boat Basin dinghy dock.

 It looks like a window is opening up – I am now making plans for a relatively short (around 25 miles) sail to Mystic, CT, just as soon as the wind veers away from the north.  There is a good marine consignment store there that may have a few things I need – it’s also a really cool town.  From Mystic, I plan to hop along the coast of Long Island towards New York City.  With such short sails, I hope to just be able to tow the dinghy (I’ll take up the outboard onto Shadow Marie, though).

Also, the beneficial effect of antiperspirant lasts only so long.  Towing the dinghy will also give me a good place to store the Nikes.

I’d love to hear from you.  Email is mitch(at)lifecaptions.com  (replace the (at) with @).

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Alone and on Fire

Saturday was “Michelle has to leave” day.  She had a 6 a.m. flight out of Washington on Sunday and Northwest, in all of their wonderful glory, absolutely, unequivocally refused to change it to a more convenient airport.  It was either take that flight or throw away the ticket.  As a result, she made a fairly intricate plan for getting from Block Island to Washington.

  1. Take a cab to the island airport
  2. Take a 12 minute island hopper flight to Westerly, RI
  3. Take a cab to the train station in Westerly
  4. Take an Amtrak train to Washington, arriving at midnight
  5. Take a cab to Reagan National Airport for her flight. 

We made arrangements with the cab driver to pick her up at 3:30 p.m. to go to the airport.  We were, of course, putting off the inevitable but we managed to arrive at the dinghy dock just in time.

“Did you call the airline to see if they were flying?” asked the very nice cab driver.

Well, she had a reservation and they are an airline – fly is what they do, right?  Apparently not all of the time.  Vin, the very nice cab driver called the airport to find out that no, they weren’t flying right then.

Whoops – big problem.  Both Michelle and Vin started a round of calls and eventually he took us to the ferry dock in town.  Her schedule changed to:

  1. Take a cab to the ferry dock
  2. Take a ferry to Port Judith, RI
  3. Take a cab to the train station in Kingston, RI
  4. Take an Amtrak train to Washington, arriving at 2 a.m.
  5. Take a cab to Reagan National

Incredibly, that plan worked.


It was hard to watch her board the ferry – knowing that I would be facing a long, lonely walk back to the dinghy dock and an empty boat.  I stood on the pier until I lost the ferry in the fog and then made my way back to the boat basin.

The next day was spent with a flurry of small projects – the first of which was to patch the leaking dinghy.  Then I went on to fixing (I hope) the final electrical gremlin in the navigation lights, installed a 12-volt outlet in the cockpit, re-rigged the mainsheet and then set up a proper flag pole for our U.S. Flag on the stern (the previous pole was made partially with a fishing pole).

As it got dark, the temperature started dropping so I fired up the little generator to plug in the electric blanket and buried myself in electrical heat while losing myself in a book on the Kindle (way cool little thing, by the way – perfect for cruisers – get a book without having to go to a bookstore).

It was really lonely but all was OK until… the lights went out.  It was pitch dark inside the cabin – the generator had run out of fuel.  I hopped up into the cold to get some 12-volt lights on and then buried myself in blankets in the forepeak.

It was 45 degrees in the cabin when I woke up this morning (Monday).  I started the engine to charge the batteries and heat up the water heater (away from the dock, the engine heats up the water for showering, etc.) so I could clean my disgusting self up – managed to do just that and then went to shut off the engine.  After shutting down, I opened up the engine compartment door, saw smoke and saw a small fire in the back.  Whoa Nelly!!!!  

It was the first time I had ever used a fire extinguisher.  Fortunately, the ones we had just purchased (the extinguishers that came with the boat were 30 years old) worked great – just a short blast and all I had left was smoke and a mess of white powder.

It took some searching but eventually I found a gigantic cable that ran to the engine starter had worn through and literally welded itself to a piece of the engine.  The positive cable and the negative-grounded engine had caused the fire and welded themselves together.  Now the problem was – how to get them apart? At the moment, the two sides were at an impasse – it wasn’t shorted. But if I so much as touched it – it would be time for the fire extinguisher again. Disconnecting the batteries is no fun job as Dean, the previous owner and person who had to put them in, could tell you.  They are behind the engine and you somehow need to balance yourself on the alternator to reach back there.  With the cables disconnected I repaired the insulated coating of the wire as best I could and then hooked up supports to ensure that the wire couldn’t rub against the engine and do the same thing down the road.  Soon that wire will have to be replaced – no small feat as it is thicker than my index finger – but that won’t happen on Block Island – hopefully it will wait until somewhere less expensive and warmer. Ironically, before the fire I had made a note to myself to add a big ol’ circuit breaker to the entire ignition system. Guess I need to do that soon.

As nasty as that was, it was a major blessing that it wasn’t worse.  I have no idea how the starter, alternator or battery managed to avoid being fried while the wires were shorted.  I have no idea how we managed to escape having the entire engine compartment start on fire during our trip here.  All of that is a miracle in my eyes.

It is now up to 48 degrees in the cabin; it has been raining on and off and the wind is blowing.  Now I have to blow up the newly patched dinghy, wrestle the 80 pound outboard into it and head into town to get some gas for the generator.

Yes, this is the Yachting Life.

I love it.

(well, except for the cold and rain that is.  but that’s why we are heading south.  and I’m not so big on fires, either).

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It has been an interesting month and a half, to say the least.  I arrived on Cape Cod in early April and drove straight to the boatyard in East Dennis.  With a to-do list longer than I cared to think about, I just started unloading the filled-to-the-brim pickup truck.  George, an employee of Northside Marina, took pity on me.  He drove his big ol’ forklift over had me set everything on a platform and raised it to the level of the deck – about 8 feet above the ground.  That was a life-saver – it would have been a nightmare trying to load everything into the boat on a rickety ladder.

Dean saved the boat numerous times.  On the right is George - another great guy at Northside Marina.

There was too much to do – and probably half got done before Michelle arrived in early May.  In fact, I just made it into the water less than 24 hours before she flew into Providence.  From the beginning it had been one thing after another.  The water pump is an example:  decided to hook up the pressure water system so we flipped the circuit breaker and nothing happened.  Crawled under the sink with a multimeter and found a bad ground.  Cool!  Problem solved, right?  Wrong!  The pump was bad.  Off to the store to buy a new water pump.  OK – all is good now.  Not so much.  Discovered the hoses had been disconnected from the water heater.  Someone in the marina said people sometimes do that during winterizing.  Cool!  Problem solved!  Not so much.  We hooked up the hoses and the thing leaked like crazy.  Off to the store for a new water heater.  That process consumed more than a day getting the thing to fit into its space (it was one inch larger than the old one) and tracking down the leaks.  What started as a simple bad ground sucked down a whole bunch of money and two full days of work.

And so it went – through a leaky seawater pump on the engine, through a weird, inexplicable overheating (turned out to a real bad ground) through more and more stuff.  One problem lead to another, bigger problem which lead to an even bigger, more expensive problem.  Dean, the person we bought the boat from, is a magician with tools and he literally saved the boat more than once (successfully resolving a problem before I got out the gas can and matches).  Not only did he save the boat, he’s a really good guy and we’re both glad we were lucky enough to meet him.

Michelle and I motoring Shadow Marie out of Northside Marina in East Dennis.  Departure kind of caught me off-guard - I was expecting something else to pop up delaying us again.  Some people in the marina told us they had never seen the boat leave the harbor.  Until now, that is... 

But finally, on May 12, 2009, we pulled away from the dock on Cape Cod.  To me, it almost took me by surprise – I really wasn’t expecting to leave because I assumed there would be another problem.  But almost abruptly, we slowly motored out of the marina.  I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye and thank you to all of the people who helped so much over the past month.  If anyone is looking for a great boatyard and marina in New England, you can’t possibly do better than Northside Marina in East Dennis, MA.

We had a still unexplained vibration from the engine when we first entered Cape Cod Bay – but it magically disappeared after a short time.  The wind was light and on the nose so we didn’t get sail up on the way to the Cape Cod Canal.  We hit the current just right in the canal and surfed along through the 10-mile stretch occasionally hitting over 9 knots.  We emerged from the canal into bumpy seas – as the water of Buzzards Bay and the Atlantic to the south piled up around the canal entrance.  We motored another 6 or so miles to a calm harbor and spent a very quiet night on a mooring.  Grabbing a mooring is great – it was the easier end to a somewhat stressful day.  No worries about the anchor setting or dragging and easy to slip on and off.

Michelle at the helm on our way to the Cape Cod Canal.  We blasted through, hitting over nine knots with the current.
Approaching the Bourne Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal.

The next day we were bound for Block Island, Rhode Island.  We had wind but it was very close hauled.  We did get the sails up – two of them, anyway.  We motorsailed the entire 50 or so miles under main and staysail.  We timed a current coming out of Long Island Sound badly and ended up fighting the last mile to the island.  We pulled into the very protected harbor just as the sun was setting.

We are still in Block Island.  Yesterday was a miserable day – cold, gray and very windy with gusts over 30.  We sat it out.  Today (Friday) is a bit warmer but still gray with rain and fog.  Now, unfortunately, we are running into a time problem.  Michelle needs to be in Washington for her 6 am flight on Sunday so we need to be in a place from which she can travel to the airport.  We’ve decided that place will be here.  She’ll take a ferry to the mainland, then a train to D.C.  I’ll be aboard alone waiting for a weather window to continue the trip a bit further south.  We are definitely looking for warmer temperatures.   As I type this, I’m wearing a winter coat.  It’s mid-May.  Something is not right.

We connected to a cruising net via the SSB radio – first time we used it.  It’s nice to know that it works and we can be in touch with our fellow cruisers.

Today we blew up the dinghy (air, not explosives, although it probably deserves the latter) and got the outboard started for the first time since we had last been cruising (a bunch of years).  We met Rick and Mary – they recently returned from a 7-year circumnavigation and are spending the summer on the island.  They have a car here and they gave us a tour of the place – it is beautiful.  There’s a weekly newspaper here – perhaps I’ll stop by and say hi…  Probably not, though.

It has been a hell of a month or so.  I’m old and worn out after being in the boatyard for so long.  We are running late and running out of time.  But there is something about being aboard again.  Despite the weather, despite the problems, despite being absolutely broke after breaking the budget several times over – things are actually pretty good.  Life is good and we have been blessed.  Nothing is on fire and we haven’t sunk.  

I’m happy about that.

Posted in Aboard S/V Shadow Marie Comments Off

I really must be going

I had my iPod plugged into my car stereo during my all too frequent two-hour drive to my office in Des Moines.  Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a track from Joan Armatrading came on.

The midday flight was on time
No time to hesitate
I changed and unchanged my mind
But this one had to stay

Suddenly the thought occurred to me that I could be the only person in Iowa listening to Joan Armatrading right now.


There are many perks to living in Iowa.  In my small town that no one has ever heard of, crime is almost non-existent.  People are friendly and well-educated.  We don’t have to lock things down, we can walk anywhere at any time of the day or night without concern for our safety.

And speaking of that, I could probably spend all night knocking on doors asking, “Have you ever heard of Joan Armatrading?”

Chances are good that the responses I would get would tend to be, “What the hell are you doing?  It’s 3 in the morning!”

But here’s the kicker – people would actually answer their doors and I’m fairly certain that none of them would shoot me.  Good luck with that in Florida.

Posted in Life on Dirt 1 Comment