'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch


‘Tis the season

Things are a bit different aboard the good ship Sionna than they were last year, what with her crew heading back to winter-time Maine and all, but there are a couple things that haven’t changed:

 First, Nicki and I are still mighty blessed in our lives, with enough food, warmth and space to live our dreams, and enough loving friends (and a partner), to make it worth living. 

 Second, we fervently hope that you and yours have similar, and that you take those chances and opportunities that are offered – scary as they might be – to move your lives away from the fear and anger that media and politics thrive on, and toward the light and love that is our human birthright.

 The very best of life and love to you in this season of celebration, no matter how you choose to welcome it. It’s the message that matters, after all – the rest is dross.


Our visit with Officer Obie

In a recent post, I promised to tell the whole story of how we were ticketed for violation of a non-existent rule.  So here, as promised, is the story. (With apologies to Arlo Guthrie, who I’m possibly going to be loosely quoting from time to time).

Dark, early morning. Motor sounds. Spot lights. Armed men. 

Why isn’t your anchor light on top of your mast?”

Mind you, I’ve just woken up and pulled on some clothes. My brain is not fully engaged, my wit not the sharpest.

“Because it’s more visible where it is.”

That’s not true.”

Ok, well actually it is true, for several very good reasons which I could – under other circumstances – happily explain. But my brain isn’t fully engaged yet, as I mentioned, and the officer of the Manatee County Sheriff’s department is very clearly enjoying his job just a little too much this morning. He’s got that “I’m a cop, so shut up” tone of voice perfectly tuned, and he’s clearly decided that we are the boat that needs to have the “twenty-seven 8″ by 10″ color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one, to be used as evidence against us…”

Police officers are taught to intimidate – that’s part of the psychology that allows them to remain in control of difficult situations, and I understand that. The problem is that they are also human, and they make mistakes – and this officer has made one. But his ego isn’t going to let him admit it.

When it comes to anchor lights, the actual regulations are precisely vague. But if you just read them through without actually stopping to analyze their intent, you’re quite likely to misunderstand and misapply them, and that’s what’s happened here.

USCG Rule 30:

Anchored Vessels and Vessels Aground                                                                                                                                                                           (a) A vessel at anchor shall exhibit where it can best be seen:  (i) in the fore part, an all-round white light or one ball;

(b) A vessel of less than 50 meters in length may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen instead of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule

On a quick reading, you might think that “Where it can best be seen” would – logically – be the top of a sailboat’s mast. That’s what Officer Obie’s done. But you and he would be wrong.  You might also conclude that that light has to be visible at any and every point around the boat, but you’d be wrong there too – just like Obie.

You see, the regulations are very specific in their vagueness. They actually go into defining exactly what is meant by “All-Around light’, and then – in a separate section, tell you how much of that light can be obscured by the structure of the boat, and how hard you actually need to work to get that light up there…

So back to our story. Officer Obie “found our name on an envelope” at the top of our mast, and in spite of the fact that there are 4 other boats anchored nearby which have no lights of any sort on them, he’s decided to ticket the one boat that’s not local –  Sionna.

As it turns out, we’re an unusual transient boat, in that we really don’t have anywhere to be. Most out-of-town vessels probably decide that their schedule is more important than the $90 for a bogus ticket, so they just pay it. We on the other hand, decide that we’d like to have a chat with the judge. This may or may not be “…a case of typical American blind justice” – but we’d like to find out.

The actual citation we receive from Obie is pretty interesting, too. He’s written us up for “Mast light not at highest fixed pt.”  , and has checked off statute (Florida law, not local) 327. Well ok, statute 327 simply says that the rules for lights and symbols on vessels shall follow US Coast Guard regulations – which is Rule 30, above.

Trouble is, nowhere in those regulations does the phrase “…highest fixed point…”  appear. Nor do the regulations define or name a “Mast Light.” Strike two, Obie.

And finally, there’s the conversation. I figured out pretty early on that we weren’t getting anywhere with an intelligent discussion with Officer Obie – his ego already outweighed 14000-pound Sionna by a factor of two.  I let him write his ticket, had a chat with his partner (the “Good Cop” part of the team for this stop), and went below as they motored off. Which is when the interesting conversation happened. Nicki, just poking her head up out of the aft cabin as they pulled away, overheard the partner questioning the stop, the rule, the ticket…  And at each question, the response was a loud denial, a little more defensive each time. Partner thought they were wrong, lead was on the defensive.

Strike three for officer Obie.

Of course we can’t submit the conversation part to the judge, but we can use the citation and the actual regulations to show that we were, in fact, properly lighted and marked at the time of the stop. Whether the judge accepts that from a couple of northerners is a good question, but I hope for the best. We’ve submitted our defense by mail, because Florida only offers you one court date for such things. If you can’t make that date, you have to plead guilty UNLESS you can prove an unreasonable hardship. And being scheduled for eye surgery 1400 miles away on that court date was deemed sufficient hardship, allowing me to submit my defense in writing.

Nope, it’s not all Tiki bars and Umbrella drinks. We got out of Western Florida as fast as we could – and honestly, I don’t feel any great need to go back. Things in the Keys are more laid back, looser, and even with the ongoing hurricane recovery (or maybe because of it) people are a little sweeter, a little softer. 

It’s a nice vibe.



We’re going back to Maine.

Not because we particularly want to, mind you. It’s cold back there, and they have this stuff called “snow” and “ice”, and we’d really just rather skip the whole winter thing, thank you very much.

But my eye (you remember my eye? It’s been featured in more posts than any other topic except boat projects, I think!) has other ideas.

A couple weeks ago that eye got to itching a bit, a little uncomfortable. Then it got a little red. Then it got a little more. So a visit to a clinic for some antibiotic was tried, but didn’t help. Then a visit to a real retina specialist, which showed widespread inflammation and increased pressure and just generally weird goings on that the expert couldn’t explain.  Eye drops for the pressure, eye drops for the swelling, and we’ll see you in three days.

Well three days later things were looking and feeling a lot better, and the expert agreed I was much improved. Still ok to put off the final two procedures this old eye needs until May,  as long as we monitor the pressure regularly…

There’s no way to monitor regularly and still cruise in the Bahamas. If we’re to stay within monitoring range, we’ll need to be here, in west-central Florida, where nobody speaks “Cruiser” but us.
Many phone calls and conversations later, two facts became abundantly clear: One; we are sick to death of constantly thinking about this eye, and two; we’re really, really ready to cruise somewhere that doesn’t equate a cruising boat with “there goes the neighborhood” thinking. Florida has an Abandoned and derelict boat problem, as I’ve written about before, but in some areas, they don’t know the difference between that, and a tourist on a boat. 

We’re tired of being treated like social pariahs. (I’ll write sometime about the citation we received while at anchor last week, but suffice for now to say that the charge of “improper lighting” mentioned a rule that the officer made up, and we – the properly lighted boat from “away” – were ticketed while the 4 UN-lighted “local” (but abandoned) boats next to us were not.) 

So we have a flight out to Maine on Christmas Day ($84 each! Yay Allegiant Airlines!), dear generous friends have offered us a dock for Sionna in Marathon, Florida, and a tiny apartment in Rockland for two months, and my surgery consultation is scheduled for January 3rd. 

It’s time to close that chapter and move on.


Of sea cows and other wonders

(NOTE: The photos in this post (except the one of our dinghy) are not ours. We were too busy communing to take any silly pictures.)

When we first entered southern waters last fall, I at least was figuring we’d be seeing manatees on a regular basis. I mean, they’re everywhere, right? And all those signs for “Manatee Zone – minimum wake” can’t be there for no reason.

But we didn’t see them. At least, we saw traces a couple of times, but never enough of a view to even be certain that was what it was.

Until today!

This morning, Nicki and I dinghied up the canal on Longboat Key to the Longbeach Cafe – a place that’s become a favorite stop for us. Basically it’s a diner, with a more interesting menu than your average inland diner, and a patio on the canal with a sea wall that you can tie your dinghy to when you come for breakfast. Or brunch, if early mornings aren’t your thing. So of course we were there for brunch.

Anyway, after brunch, and chatting with another couple who were very interested in this crazy, off-the-beaten-track life we live, we got into the car… er… dinghy, and headed back out the canal. And a quarter-mile later shut the motor off to drift slowly through a herd of manatees! We think there were five, maybe six. They’d stick their noses (some big, some quite small) up to breathe, which is how we spotted them, and then a couple minutes later they’d do it again…

Now mind you, the water in the canal wasn’t as clear as in this photo, but we could still see them clearly when they were nearby. Pretty cool!

And then – on a whim – I stuck my fingers in the water next to the dinghy and wiggled them gently…

And one came to see me! Very curious, bumped my hand with her nose, sniffed my hand, then very slowly moved forward, inviting me to scratch the top of her snout and the back of her head… Leathery, soft, covered with sea moss, and warm…

Hey, I may be easy to amuse, but damn that was cool!

I don’t care who you are: Sea. Cows. Rock!