Thursday, July 24, 2014

When Does A Voyage End?

When does a voyage end?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately since Phoenix arrived back in her homeport in Charlotte, Vermont on Lake Champlain.

Arrival was June 11, 2014 around 4 p.m. making the time between departure and return three years and 12 days since May 31, 2011. Or: 1108 days.

It presented poignant bookends that the trip started with our friend Beth at the dock to see Jennifer and I off three years ago and that upon arrival, Patrick greeted me alone. Divorce’s entropy had dissolved both our marriages in the meantime.

So, as you can see, I’ve been asking myself all kinds of questions about ends. When does a marriage end? Is there a point to which I could dial back like in a film? “Ah, there’s the fight.” Or: There’s the silence when there should have been a fight.

In my sometimes-too-romantic mind, Le Grand Voyage was supposed to start with a bon voyage party and end with a fleet of friends’ boats greeting us out on the lake, blowing horns and shooting Nerf balls at us. Neither happened.

My mother was great at making those kinds of things happen. When I was ten, she had packed up our entire lives and we were about to embark on a steamship to Germany. The divorce had sliced open our family two years earlier and she was no longer emotionally strong enough to live in the same city as my father, pining away for his visits every weekend, only to have those end in more fights and crying when he dropped us off after a day in Central Park.

So she packed up everything and bought tickets on the S.S. France for a seven-day ocean crossing back to her native Germany. The day of our departure she had organized a huge bon voyage party. It was a brilliant way to distract us from what was happening. I remember us four kids were so busy serving crudités we didn’t focus on what was actually happening. At one point, some silly adult asked me how I felt about moving to Germany and I started crying. That’s when the whole party ended instantly, like the movie set being torn down after shooting. “Time to go,” my mother declared and within ten minutes we were all ushered out of the house and into a new life.

Tangent there. But like I said, these days I've been musing about so many about ends in my life. Comparing them, trying to discern patterns, sifting out what I can learn about them.

I should write about the last legs of the voyage. I should be telling you about visiting Jamestown, VA, while I was docked in Norfolk. Or about Corey, the crew member who helped me get Phoenix from Norfolk to Charlotte. We did a two-and-a-half-day passage from Norfolk to New York city, and then put-putted up the Hudson and through the canals for six days.

I had those blogs composed in my mind; or the bones of them anyway. I just never got around to fleshing them out. During those last legs back, I was working harder to suppress the feelings of “ends” than wanting to write about the end of a journey. It would have made me cry into a plate of crudités.

That’s a bit melodramatic (as would be pointed out by a friend who doesn’t let me get away with melodrama in my writing.) But just as there is a kernel of truth in every joke, every melodrama is comprised of something perhaps simple yet sad.

I’ve been back for 43 days now and still absorbing that Le Grand Voyage is over. (Let’s just focus on that end for now.) Or rather, I am noticing that it is not over yet. I feel like I am still voyaging because all the characteristics of voyaging are continuing. It’s like the wavering sound of bells still ringing long after the last toll.

I have no specific place I can call home. I am staying at my father’s abandoned house. (He has been living in Florida fulltime for two years now.) I have no career path ahead of me. Nor am I sure I want one. And I have no relationship. I am going to spend this next period of my life finishing my book about this voyage. I don’t necessarily need to live in Vermont or even the US. My daughter Zoe just graduated from high school and is off to live in Germany. Would I live over there for a year or two, close to my two brothers and sister and their kids? Who knows.

Though my ship is docked, I am still en voyage in life.

And truthfully, it feels good. In fact, I feel guilty admitting it. When one is voyaging one is granted the permission to be “doing nothing” and have no further goals than figuring out the next port. But once we are land-based, the expectation is to re-join the rat race: get a job, pay bills and fret about too much to do. There is resentment against those who don’t. I have had pointed questions asked of me lately.

My days are full and busy. Just as they were when living on the boat. I have the luxury to be creative. And keep the house as tidy as I like it to be. Do my exercises daily. Work outside in the yard. Catch up on boat maintenance. Write letters. Work on my book. Meet up with friends whenever I please. Go for motorcycle rides. Enjoy sunsets down by the waterfront. I like that I am figuring out what to do day by day, one week at a time.

I know my next consuming commitment is one turn-of-the-corner away. I might be offered a job. I might find a business to buy. I might find love again which would entail courageous planning of merging lives. Heaven forbid someone dear falls sick and I would go live with them, like I did much of the winter-before-last with my father.

So, now, while this voyage still reverberates with freedom and exploration, I am enjoying that it is not yet the end. It has simply morphed into a continuation of it. There has been a lot of loss and rebirth during this voyage. It seems only natural that it is continuing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ICW - Intense Concentration Waterway

The Intracoastal Waterway has always awaited with an air of intrigue for me.

It has had the appeal of a secret staircase in an old mansion. It was fun to think there was a way to avoid an offshore passage by finding a hidden door to a corridor that wound its way under bridges, through canals, curved through rivers, squeezed into locks, and crossed sounds.

Its threats were as plentiful as its seductions: There’re snakes in them-there waters, alligators, and all matter of saltwater sea life that sends shivers down my spine ever since I was forced to take swimming lessons as a nine-year-old while standing in a bay full of crabs that would pinch, jellyfish that would sting, and little snappers that would nibble at our toes unless we dug them into the sand for the scallops to nip.

Besides the nightmarish sea life, I had heard of the danger of grounding. Or let me rephrase that: the certainty of grounding. Though, of course, I knew that *I* wouldn’t ground. I, the navigator. I, the attentive sailor. I, Mathias.

By some, I was warned of the boredom. The endless miles that for some strange reason are marked statutorily along the ICW rather than nautically, making it even longer. Though I supposed it added to the allure that this was not some nautical passage, but a secret, almost-land path.

Finally, the navigation is tricky. The ICW follows a rule that is neither the standard IALB system of “red, right, returning” or even the European's reverse. Rather, the ICW system of buoyage is that red is right when heading clockwise around the United States mainland. Of course, anytime, the ICW crosses an inlet, or when there is a river intersecting with the ICW, it changes back to red, right, returning. Confusing? Why should it be when we have chartplotters these days, right?

More than once, I was warned, “Don’t follow the ICW route marked on your plotter; follow the buoys because of all the shifting groundswell.” Why, of course, was my mental response. Who do you think you’re talking to? Tis I, the navigator. I, the attentive. I, etc.

I had avoided most of the ICW by sailing with Patrick from Stuart, FL “on the outside” in the Atlantic on a four-day passage to Beaufort, NC. My ICW trip north started from there. I spent five days traveling “the ditch” and now have arrived here in Norfolk, VA.

The experience was all of the above. Though in unexpected ways.

First: the boredom. Particularly when you are singlehanding, the ICW is an exercise of a uniquely sadistic boredom. The stretches of water are not long enough or empty enough to set the autopilot and go down below to make lunch or even to sit and read. You have to constantly pay attention to the waterway with the occasional speedboat suddenly coming from the opposite direction, or the rare log that’s floating mid-channel, and – most frustratingly of all – finding the actual channel. In some areas, it runs along the markers and buoys, in others you need to keep some distance from them. So you meander along, watching the depth sounder as you do your speedometer while driving, always adjusting course to find the “good” water. In other words: its enforced boredom.

Navigation warning about the ICW. Shiver me timbers!
My station for five days. Chartplotter, binocs, depthsounder, crossword puzzle.
This boredom, however, stretches against a background of beauty. I went through days of swampland so remote, I had no cellphone signal. The low-lying area was the way it has ever been. Raw and unforgiving to all but those animals who live there.

One fork of the ICW is called The Dismal Swamp. Given that this was my view for much of North Carolina, I took the standard route.
I had the pleasure to spy some of those living there. To my greatest surprise was seeing dolphins. Who would have thought you would find those seafaring mammals so far inland? Dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals we know, and far better navigators than I, so we can only conclude it is their choice to be here. Are they here just temporarily? Seasonally? Permanently? There is still so much we have to learn about the wild kingdom.

Dolphins in the ICW. Who woulda thunk it?
As if dolphins weren’t surprise enough, once in the middle of nowhere, I came across a man swimming across the canal. No wait, can’t be. Looks more like a dog. But THAT can’t be either. The ears are too round. It’s, wow, it’s a bear!

One can't help but ask even if we know the answer: Why did the bear cross the canal?
I grounded twice. Once, when I left at dawn and followed the ICW line on my plotter through some pretty tricky turns around an inlet. I could see all the daymarkers marking the channel. In addition, there was one more, uncharted buoy. I compared my position on the plotter and looked at the buoy again that was directly between me and the sun. It apparently marked a shoal. I kept it to starboard, staying on the plotter’s route and in short order Phoenix stuttered into mud.

Reverse, forward, reverse. Nothing helped. I was grounded. I had been the first one up and out on the ICW, but soon I saw the parade of boats coming up behind me. They all recognized the additional buoy as a red nun. And now I could see that too. (Why hadn’t I used binoculars to confirm what I was seeing?) I should have left it to port. The sandbars always shift around inlets. “Follow the buoys, not the chart,” reverberated recriminatingly through my head.

It took me about 15 minutes, and with a mixture of slow and hard throttle on the engine, I was able to eventually jiggle out of the mud. (Too much throttle and the boat “squats” deeper into the water. So sometimes, it’s good to try to push hard and then give light throttle to see if you can ease over the sandbar.)

Dawn over Dowry Creek, NC. Within an hour the clear air congealed to fog.
The other time I grounded, I couldn’t get off on my own. It was six o’clock in the morning, and no one was up yet. I turned off the motor and sat in the quiet, staring at the water. Soon I saw a flat fish wing by. Slowly, calmly. And sometime after that, I jellyfish pulsed close, dove a bit, then turned and pushed toward the surface, lingering just beneath it, then inverting again to dive, following some mysterious behavior pattern that was either beneficial or perhaps simply pleasing.

Eventually a motorboat passed, acquaintances I had made the evening before, and they pulled me off.

The owners of that motorboat were “loopers.” The Great Loop is another secret passage in America’s mansion. It is a waterway circumnavigating the eastern half of the country. From the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi, along the Mexican Gulf’s intracoastal segments and up the East Coast ICW to the Erie Canal. I had heard of this route, but thought it was a feat accomplished by the rare folks seeking some bizarre challenge akin to crossing the continent on a lawnmower. Au contraire: It is so popular that they have their own flag, get-togethers at various ports and a culture all onto themselves. The couple that pulled me off was on their second consecutive lap of the loop.

I’m glad to have gotten to know the ICW. Though it is a bit like fish and friends. After three days, 

Aligator River Swing Bridge closing after the bridge master kept it open for an extended period just so I could catch it while it was open. 
I was excited to see chicken and okra on the menu. Silly me; this is the south where everything is deep fried and served with catsup.
Full moon rising as seen through a portlight on Phoenix.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Beaufort NC, Coolest Town in America

Beaufort, NC is one of those sticky ports. I felt that as soon as I arrived here. I knew I would have a hard time leaving.

Phoenix has been here for almost a month now. But some of that is because I left her here on her own while I took a trip north to take care of family, business and explored some personal choices for my future.

Now it’s time to leave. My plan is to put-put up the Intracoastal Waterway to Norfolk, VA. That should take me about four days. From there, it is about a three-day coastal Atlantic passage to New York city.

I’m looking for crew for that three-day coastal passage from Norfolk to NYC. So if you want to get some experience with overnight passage-making, let me know. And if you already have experience, great, then we can go right to swapping sea tales between watches.

For now, let’s take a final stroll around Beaufort.

Arriving by sea in Beaufort, one is greeted with flags spelling out the town's name. The distant mast in this photo belongs to Phoenix. You can see her blue earth flag flying from the port spreader.
Across from the harbor boardwalk are small, locally-owned shops. Reminds me of a small Vermont village right by the sea.
I love a good dive-bar with a greasy hamburger grill. Order your burger "all the way" here at Royal James and you'll get their homemade sauce on it.
Keeping heading east on the waterfront street (Front Street) and it becomes residential with grand homes graced with grand porches.
Those grand homes look out, across Front Street to the waterway between the mainland and one of the barrier islands.  From those porches the genteel folk are entertained by grand-ette boats like this sprit-rigged beauty.
Across the waterway, those genteel eyes can spy wild horses on the barrier island, now a nature reserve. Even I, with my not-so-genteel eyes, saw some.
A ways east on Front Street, we come across this memorial to the local fishermen.
I love local memorials, especially for seamen. I don't think we appreciate enough the dangers and labors suffered by those who bring that shrimp scampi to our plate. We take it for granted. Or we assume it's their choice to go to sea. In fact, it often isn't. Often, it is the only employment around. The job is romantic only from a distance. Not on the boat, in the cold salt spray, with puckered fingers, aching bones, stinking catch, heaving seas, churning stomach, and no rest for the weary.

This memorial had four poems; one on each side. I enjoyed all of them. Here's the one I liked best:

In Loving Memory and Recognition
Menhaden Fishermen
Past – Present – Future
This is their livelihood. This is their life

They know the sea
Can read God’s weather chart
Sun, moon, and stars from memory
The compass points are there within each heart
Crews of brave men, all ages, crafts and stands
Together, one strong back – and calloused hands
They toil in icy cold, in heat or rain
Following the fish, searching for school’s dark stain,
Reading the ocean, finally there they are
Poagies off the port bow, lower the purse boats, pull on the oars
The catch landed, foam reaches high, gunnels down
Returning to safe harbor, families and Beaufort-town
Fueling an industry, they are constant as beacons of light
Unaware of the pages of maritime history they write

I like that last line about being unaware of the history they write. It reminds me of the victims of Costa Concordia or the poor Korean students of the recent ferry sinking. Their names are largely unknown to the world and will be soon forgotten like countless souls lost at sea before them. But we hope their loss will not be in vain. The Titanic sinking led to international agreements regarding safety at sea. These latest tragedies will hopefully lead to improvements as well.

On with the tour:

At the western end of Front Street, we see the very fishing boats honored by the memorial.
Coming back to the harbor, you see that I didn't make up the title to this post.
Beaufort, NC harbor at night. So romantic. How lucky am I to enjoy this view at sunset?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Who Art Thou, Florida?

During my recent month-long stay in Florida, I got to know Floridians more intimately than I have ever had the chance before. But oddly, I am now even less certain of who you are, Florida.

My first visit to Florida was in the early 90s to visit Dad who had bought a condo in Boca Raton. And ever since then, my visits have been structured around visiting him along with other family members. There were a few forays down to Key West, which is not really Florida, but a New England town on a permanent vacation to the Caribbean.

I struggled with Florida in the beginning. Particularly that part of Florida, from the Jupiter down to Miami. It’s all high-rise condos on the beach, drained swamps to make artificial landscapes for golf courses, bleak strip malls, and a place where everything is bought or fake: from the tits to the insta-landscapes.

I was shocked to watch mansions develop from sandy lots and cinderblocks. Within weeks, stucco was smeared on exterior walls and tinted to look as if they had been weathered by the ages, lawns were laid, hedges installed and palm trees plugged into the ground. Presto: another “vintage” villa.

The money and flaunting of it is grotesque. Ocean front mansions are bought for $30- to $50-million dollars just to be razed so more individually suited ones can be built for millions more. Cars start at Mercedes and Ferraris and increase to Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Rolls Royce, and Bentleys.

Living in wastelands of concrete cubes among square, six-laned streets, are the servants. The poor, the uneducated, the ignored, the disdained.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when Phoenix pulled into the harbor near Stuart, Florida. Here is a small village, with streets emanating star-like from a square with a fountain. Restaurant tables line the sidewalks and small stores sell hand-made goods. A revitalized theatre boasts a lively program of musical and theatrical performances. A classic 1920s hotel offers traditional lodging upstairs and contemporary drinks in the tiki-bar downstairs. A river-front walk way leads past a farmer’s market on weekends, enriched by live music and a walkway down to the dock where a schooner will sail you into the sunset on the Intra-Coastal Waterway.

This is a town. This is a community. I spent over a month in and around Stuart (off and on between visits to my Dad.) Phoenix was actually in the adjacent town of Port Salerno. And during that time, I began interacting with local Floridians in a way I never had before. I was negotiating with contractors performing various jobs on Phoenix. I formed relationships with a number of employees at the boat yard. And I became a recognized face at some of the eateries.

Here’s what I learned: Everyone in Florida (ok, maybe only 99.999%) is from somewhere else. Everyone comes because of the perceived ease of life compared to where they lived before.

For the employers, this presents a unique challenge. I was told by several employers that it is difficult to find loyal and hard-working employees because everyone is transient and everyone is looking for Margaritaville.

The deeper I became steeped in this culture, the more I began to understand the two sides of this coin. One the one, this lack of roots leads to less trust, more “sizing up” of the other during first meetings, and more crime. According to various websites, Florida ranks among the states with the greatest (and most violent) amount of crime.

But on the other side of this coin, is a laid-back atmosphere, a slower pace in which I see similarities to Europe’s Mediterranean countries. Chatting with strangers is easier, people open up a bit quicker with their stories, and if the work doesn’t get done today, a sincere promise is made for the morrow.

On one of my last days in Stuart, the first place so far for me that I have found roots in Florida, I wandered around trying to dig deeper into the town and found myself transported back a hundred years inside the old Stuart Feed Store. Built in 1901 as a grocery and general merchandise store, the building now houses the town historical museum. With well-organized, chronological displays of the area’s history dating as far back as humans have tread its trails.

A diorama of Stuart's port in the early 1900s. I love dioramas. Every museum should have at least one.
In the back, I came upon this room and found myself sharply inhaling, taken by surprise by the person sitting in the rocking chair.
Turns out, the room was its own life-size diorama, complete with a creepy Norma of the Bates Motel.
Here are three things I learned about Florida’s southeast coast. (Not all in this museum.)

1) Palm Trees: They are not native to Florida. Instead, some coconuts fell off shipwrecks, washed ashore and thus palm trees were introduced to West Palm Beach.

2) Treasure Coast: The name refers to the area roughly starting with Cape Canaveral and extending down to West Palm Beach. The name is similar to Gold Coast, which is the coastal area from West Palm Beach to Miami, but the name’s origin is slightly different. The Gold Coast name stems from all the richy-rich who settled there. The Treasure Coast wanted to distinguish themselves from that crowd and so adopted Treasure Coast after a Spanish treasure fleet which became shipwrecked there in a 1715 hurricane. One wonders if this name distinction is really just splitting hairs.

3) Pineapples: Stuart used to be the pineapple supplier of distinction reaching 1.2 million crates annually by shipped out on schooners in the early 1900s. Then a certain Mr. Flagler built the railroad down to Florida and by 1925, the pineapple business in Stuart was all washed up.

A flyer on pineapples I photographed in the museum.
The museum had some history on the Seminoles who were the Native Americans who lived in Florida.

And, lo, another diorama. I love this museum!
A photograph from the museum of Seminoles along with some white guy in high-waisted pants.
Turns out, the Seminoles were originally Creek Indians from Georgia. They moved south for the perceived ease of life compared to where they lived before.

Interesting, right? Even the first Floridians were from somewhere else.