'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch



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.


Learning to live on land

Since we’ve lived on land our entire lives until recently, one would think that we’d make the transition back to Maine seamlessly. Sadly, no, as I began to describe in the last post.

Certainly part of it is the simple sensory overload of living in a techno-focused consumer society. But an equal measure must be laid at the feet of finance.  It is incredibly expensive to live ashore, and we are, at the moment, at the ebb point of our income season.  Carpenters work outside, and the weather in Maine the last four weeks has been cold and wet in a way that’s unprecedented in living memory.  If we can’t work, we don’t get paid, and in this cold, we can’t work.

But of course the expenses don’t stop. Insurance, medical bills still outstanding, repairs to both cars when we got back, a dental emergency…  They just keep coming.

It’s my desire to guard against this blog becoming a whining lament of all that goes wrong in life, but it occurred to me that many sailing blogs – probably far too many – concentrate on the good times at the expense of an accurate portrayal of “Cruising” as a lifestyle.

Perhaps that’s human nature: We feel a need to justify our choices in life, and the better cruising sounds, the easier it is to answer those for whom the very concept is anathema.  When others think we’re crazy, we get defensive.

But it seems to me that painting a too-rosy picture is a disservice to all those cruisers who successfully forge a life on the water. There ARE challenges. There ARE bad days. There ARE days when you look in the mirror (if your boat has a mirror) and think “Why am I doing this?’

But that’s life, too. Right now we’re in Maine, back “home”, back in the “real world” of running water, automobiles and cheap plastic crap. It’s been miserable and cold for most of the three weeks we’ve been here, propane (for heat) is breaking the budget, and neither of us is working reliably yet.  This morning I looked at the space in my mouth where there was – until yesterday – a molar, and thought: “Why am I doing this?”

Living on the boat was so much easier. Living on the boat, most things make sense. Living on the boat, most of the challenges can be successfully managed by the two of us and some ingenuity.

At least, that’s how it seems when I’m freezing my tush off in New England.  Happy Spring!


Real? Really?

Since we left the boat and returned to Maine, many, many people have said something similar to “Welcome back to the real world”. I realize now that I can’t agree…. 

Real world? I don’t think so.
I think what most people call the “real world” is in fact a cultural construct designed to strangle the spirit and drown the soul in despair, all while distracting the ego with the meaningless candy of consumerism.
The REAL real world is sunrise and moonset, rain and wind, sand bars and sunshine and light so pure it brings tears to your eyes and a song to your lips and you can hardly breathe for the beauty of it.
That’s what I learned from 9 months on a boat.


On meeting heros…

Perhaps “hero” isn’t the perfect word here, but it’s pretty close.  

We all have one or two people in our lives who inspire us and motivate us, who help us keep striving for more during those dark moments when it seems the universe is only offering less…

Well Behan and Jamie are two of mine.

We’ve been following the adventures of this sailing family  for several years now – I believe they were just leaving the Western Pacific when I first learned of their blog. Since that time, we have watched them gradually working their way around the world, raising their three children as they explored the depths of each stop along the way.

A word about those “depths”. There are many ways to cruise aboard a boat, but it seems to me that it can all be reduced to something I’d call “depth of experience” – that is, the degree to which a cruiser dives into the locale in which they find themselves each day.

Many cruisers seem to skim. They arrive, stay a day or two, walk the beach or the Main Street of town, and then declare that they have “done” that stop.  Be it St. Augustine or Brisbane, they arrive, refuel and re-provision, check out the t-shirt shops and a restaurant, and they’re off to the next.

Conversely, there are folks who immerse. Cruisers who arrive, take a breath, and then dive – head-first and (figuratively) naked – into the unknowns and opportunities before them, ready to be overtaken and re-made by this new and alien culture and landscape in which they’ve landed.

And that last perfectly describes the Gifford family and their eight-year (and continuing!) journey.

Nicki and I had the great good fortune to finally meet this family last week. As the s/v Totem family is working their way down the East coast toward the Bahamas and – ultimately – the completion of their circumnavigation in Washington 

state, they’ve made several stops to give seminars and visit with cruisers and wanna-be’s from Connecticut to Miami. We had hoped last year that we might entice them to the Seven Seas Cruising Association Penobscot Bay Gam, which Nicki and I organize in Rockland each July, but they weren’t able to make it that far north.  We kept track of them, though, and when new friends Dan & Jaye from s/v Cinderella here in Marathon invited us to take a road trip to Miami to hear them speak, well… I couldn’t say “Yes!” fast enough!

Now the truth is that Nicki and I are very unlikely to ever attempt a circumnavigation of the world.  We both find the idea of landing in a foreign country – whose language we don’t know and whose customs are strange – to be rather intimidating. (Honestly, South Carolina was challenging enough!)

But we’ve learned so much from the writings of Behan and Jamie that it hardly matters. There is a cruising attitude that makes all the difference between being a tourist versus becoming a participant, and the Totem crew has perfected it.  I can’t claim that we on Sionna have consistently managed the latter, but I do know that their example has helped. They have made us better cruisers, better citizens of the water, better emissaries of the cruising world, and – undoubtably – better people.

So here’s a doff of the hat and a blast of the conch horn to Behan, Jamie, Niall, Mairen and Siobhan. We may not follow directly in your wake, but we do try to follow in your footsteps. Your love, care and generosity are an inspiration to many, many people, and for that, you may be proud.

 Thank you!


Staying put? Or stuck?

Sionna has arrived. Apparently.

After 2200 miles of moving, we’ve now been anchored in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon FL for over a week, with no particular plans to leave.  That’s a new thing for us.

Always before it’s been a given that we had somewhere else to be, somewhere farther south and warmer, but having arrived in the Florida Keys, we seem to have suddenly grown roots.

And it’s true that Boot Key Harbor is a cruisers Mecca, combining all the facilities that cruisers need, a very pleasant town to wander, and even a cruiser community that provides – among other things – yoga classes, botche ball, a softball league, volunteer opportunities and advice on everything from maintaining your boat to raising your children. It’s a busy place.


But it’s also expensive.  Everything in the Keys – including fresh water – has to come from the mainland, so prices on all goods are 25%-50% higher than we’re used to.  When you’re a couple of semi-retired people with outstanding medical issues trying to see the Universe on less than 30 Altairien dollars a day, that’s a problem.  Living on the boat was cheaper than living ashore through a Maine winter right up until we got here.

One of two dinghy dock areas.

But it gets worse.  We CAN’T LEAVE.  We’d lose our spot.

Moorings in the harbor cost the same as anchoring, and the moorings are generally closer to everything significant than the anchorage.  Since we figured to be here for a bit, we put our names on the waiting list for a mooring – and that wait is 2-3 weeks right now.  But the catch is we have to be HERE – in the harbor – to stay on the list.  If we go off exploring for a couple days, we risk missing a mooring and getting bumped back to the bottom of the list.

And then there’s the anchorage. We found a good spot to anchor when we first arrived, but those spots are now scarce as hen’s teeth.  If we pull up our anchors (we have two down to keep us from bumping the closer boats – it’s that crowded) to go for a sail, we won’t have a spot when we get back.  That’s another reason to want a mooring. Once we have it rented, we can leave it and come back with no risk of loosing our spot.

So we’re kinda trapped, a bird in a gilded cage.  Yes, we’re safe and have all we need – including way too many opportunities to spend what money we have left. But we can’t use our boat for what it’s intended (sailing), and we’re not able to explore the rest of the Key’s unless we want to loose our foothold in Boot Key.  It’s a quandary.

Do I sound like I’m whining?  I don’t mean to.  But I guess it never occurred to me we might get stuck in the quicksand of Velcro Harbor.

At least it’s warm!

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The Long Stretch Between

(Sorry, no pictures. I have them, but one of the realities of cruising is that the internet service you find is wat you have – and this one in Vero Beach FL won’t allow me to upload photos!)

When we began this trip, I had envisioned that the blog would become something of a travelogue. A day-by-day (or at least a week-by-week) description of what we saw, thought, felt and wondered about.  Instead, it’s become more a record of my irregular inspiration. I’ve written when the mood struck and a topic presented itself – often as a result of a semi-dream state in the wee hours of the morning.

The problem with relying on the sleep fairy for blog ideas is one of memory. I’ll wake – or nearly wake, or dream I’m waking – but I’ll be in no condition to write down the idea the sleep fairy left me, nor will I have anything to write with and on, and anyway it’ll be dark so I can’t see to scribble…. And that’s a shame, because I know there have been some wonderful blog post ideas that are forever lost to the vagaries of my middle-aged memory.

But such is life. Rest assured that there have been some incredibly scintillating posts, real corkers, and you’d have absolutely loved reading them, sharing them, quoting them at office parties and swank soirée of every description.  

Really – that good.

What I’ve been left with instead is the bare highlights. When something really significant happens, like detached retina or near-death in an inlet, you hear about it, but the three days we spent wending our way slowly through the beauty of the Georgia marshes gets barely a nod, and I haven’t even mentioned most of South Carolina. 

Now in fairness to Georgia, the beauty of the ICW in that stretch doesn’t translate well to the written word. I’ve heard many people lament that that stretch of the ditch is deadly dull. “There’s NOTHING THERE!!” (emphasis mine) they lament.
And I suppose that’s true, if your definition of “something” is humans and the mess they make. But the marshes are quiet and soft and the air is sweet. The Great Egrets and Brown (and White!) Pelicans are abundant and a joy to watch in their feeding antics, the Dolphins are frequent visitors in their hunt for food and playmates, and there’s an energy to the marsh that lowers the blood pressure more effectively than Prozac ever dreamed. 

Cumberland Island, too, is lovely, and if the weather had cooperated, we’d have spent a couple days there, but we were forced out by a Norther that made the only anchorage untenable after only a couple hours ashore, and we have not one picture of ruins, horses, armadillos and deer who hardly know or care what humans do around them. Magical, it was, and we plan to return some day.

South Carolina was – well – a strain. The waterway is clogged with McMansions right down to the water, each more pretentious than the last, yet in the next mile decay and poverty are more prominent than the pelicans.  

Charleston has gorgeous architecture, it’s true, and it’s one of those places that many find delightful. “So much to DO!”, they cry, yet we found grid-lock, urban sprawl and overdevelopment at its worst, and the subtext of racial tension and a distrust of strangers (eye contact while walking down the street? Certainly not!) had us longing for open water long before we were able to seek it. We won’t be back there if we can avoid it.

But then there was St. Augustine, FL – the perfect antidote to Charleston. An old city, steeped in history, with lovely architecture, illogical streets and wonderful pedestrian ways. Yes, the downtown is horribly touristy – carefully designed to separate the visitor from their money – but there is a color and a vibrancy to the town and a welcoming energy in the people that lets you forgive that aspect. 

And let me tell you, they know how to light up the town for Christmas!

Add to that a lovely cruiser community, with many snowbirds like us choosing to make the harbor their winter home, and three days wasn’t long enough by half. We’ll be back on one of our migrations, I’m sure.

And one other thing that Florida has? Water.

Ever since leaving Norfolk, VA, we’ve had our eyes and ears glued to the depth sounder. Sionna needs 4 ½ feet of water to operate, and for comfort we’d prefer more. Below 10’, we become nervous, as the bottom can come up quickly. It makes for a tense and tiring day, and it was that way from Norfolk (mile 0 on the ICW) all the way to St. Mary’s, Georgia around mile 885.  

But now we’re south of all that. The canal here is deep, approaching 20’ most of the time, and if it’s sometimes narrow (50’ or so), it’s often straight, and it slopes at the edges enough that watching the navigational markers with an occasional glance at the depth is enough, and we can relax a bit. Vero Beach, where the boat is tonight, is sheltered, cozy and safe, and so welcoming to cruisers that it’s nick-named “Velcro Beach” in honor of all the sailors who came for a night and stayed for a lifetime. And it’s warm.

Did I mention that it’s warm? As I write this it’s 85 degrees on Christmas Day, and Nicki went for a swim in the pool this evening to cool off. On Christmas. That still seems like a miracle to this northern boy.

Such are the thoughts of a cruiser on this lazy, 80 degree winter evening. We’ll get you some pictures next time.


Around Town

If you’ve listened to any country music in the last 20 years, you’ve probably heard a song that goes “If you wanna hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Yeah, that.

We planned to spend just a couple days – maximum – in Hampton Roads before continuing south on the ICW.  Buy some provisions, some fuel, a little propane and fill the water tanks, and we’d be on our way.

But then I (Keith) suddenly had a need for medical care – emergency surgery for a detached retina – and a little storm called “Matthew” seemed to have the mid-Atlantic coast in mind as a good place to visit.  Suddenly Hampton. VA became our temporary home while we sorted things out, and we’ve been here since October the 4th.   We’re calling it our personal velcro harbor – we just can’t get free.

So let’s look at the good side.  We accidentally landed where the City Piers are new, strong, and sheltered from storm winds and surge. One of the country’s leading retinal surgeons practices right here, and took me in instantly.  And the fourth annual Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous was happening right there on the docks where we were tied up. Snowbirds. You know, folks that can’t handle the cold in the north, so they run away from it. Folks like us!

And to top it all off, downtown Hampton is just lovely.  Particularly a street – just a block from the City Piers – called Queen’s Way.  Restaurants, bars, shops, etc.  No crowds that we saw, but friendly people who say hello to strangers and just a general feeling of relaxed, gentle fall living.

We hven’t done half the things we’d thought we would by now. There’s the Virginia Air & Space Museum (which we may make it to yet), and a neat restored 1913 carousel that we plan to ride (only $1).  Forts to tour, nearby historical sites like Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg…  The list goes on.

We’re ready to move on, it’s true.  Our boat is starting to feel more like a small apartment than a vessel, and I fear we may have a garden growing on the bottom due to lack of movement. Over the last couple of days boats have been leaving in droves, and it’s hard to stand on the docks, watching new friends and old depart while we wait here.

We’ve got itchy feet, that’s certain.  We’re hoping my next eye check-up will say there’s no reason we must stay close, and if so, we’ll begin a slow migration again, following in the wake of the hundreds of boats that have already departed in the last couple days.  The ICW is crowded right now, and our preferred route to North Carolina – the Dismal Swamp Canal – is closed for the rest of the fall due to damage from Matthew.  Waiting for the crowd to thin isn’t a bad thing either.

But we want to move south again.

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