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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Birthday Passage

These are the days of miracle and wonder.

My friend Patrick flew down from Vermont to spend a week with me aboard Phoenix. I had given him clear orders. His mission was twofold:

1) Solve the mysterious fuel starvation issue that has dogged Phoenix’s engine for the last couple of months during her Mediterranean voyage. The engine would start but then die after five minutes. Over the course of weeks and many harbors I replaced hoses, fuel lift pump and gaskets. One yard removed and rebuilt the primary filter.

2) Extract Phoenix and me from Port Salerno and get us going on the trip north to her home waters of Lake Champlain.

I was somewhat relieved that Patrick didn’t just tighten a hose clamp and say, “There ya go.” It took a bit of engine-matic detective work, but I am even more relieved to report he did eventually solve the problem.

It turns out there were two separate issues in the system. One was the brass elbow going into the fuel tank. It had worked its way just ever-so-slightly loose over the years and was sucking micro-sips of air.

The second problem turned out to be the electric fuel pump I had installed two years ago. It wasn’t a problem for the first 400 hours, but then apparently it decided to act up.

The pump with its filter bowl removed.
You can see the o-ring has a slight nick in it. But that wasn’t the problem. We installed a new o-ring and the engine would still die. At this point, even Patrick had to call on one his gurus: an old-timer from Montreal. And this was the news we received:

Once you install an electric fuel pump, it is designed to run when the engine is running. Otherwise it simply presents too much flow resistance.

I was doubtful of this, since Phoenix’s engine ran fine for 400 hours without the fuel pump running, but when we did repeated tests, this theory proved correct.

There were other repairs and projects which required some "negotiations and love songs" with the various departments of the Hinkley Yacht Services yard. (I didn't realize I had a personal photographer documenting all of this.)
On to the second mission:
We woke before dawn on Thursday, April 10. The waters in Florida are shallow and with Phoenix’s six-foot draught, we had to sail with the high tide.

Once clear of Manatee Pocket, I put the rudder over and headed straight into the rising sun.

Dawn smiles on my birthday from across the Atlantic.
The weather forecast predicted ideal conditions for an Atlantic 500-NM passage from Stuart, Florida to Beaufort, NC. On average, during an ocean passage, a Hans Christian 33 can sail about 100 miles in 24 hours. However, with the Gulf Stream, I was hoping we would get a boost and we might make the trip in four days.

Our departure day happened to be my birthday. And once we cleared shore, I was given the most fantastic present one could ever desire from the weather gods. We set full sails and in 15-20 knots of winds, Phoenix flew through the waves. It was unbelievable. She took aim north-northeast and raced out into the ocean like a thoroughbred. I saw her knotmeter climb quickly to 6, then 6.8, then 7, then 7.3, hold steady at 7.6 and a few times hit 7.8.

The Gulf Stream ushered Phoenix along as if she were the hero in a parade with another 2 knots so that we were clocking up to 10 knots over land.

Phoenix aims her bowsprit north-northeast.
My all-time record in a Hans Christian 33 is 160 NM in 24 hours. That was during an Atlantic crossing from Rhode Island to the Azores. But on my birthday, we covered 186 NM of the Atlantic in 24 hours.

Patrick Grant: Diesel Mechanic, Sailor, Story-Teller, Jokster, and (though I'm sure this is real thing) Positivist Extraordinaire. 
As if all of the above weren’t birthday present enough, even more wondrous magic was in store.

The next day, dolphins came to play. Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing them dance in a bow wave knows how special it feels to see these brilliant beings. They will swim sideways so they can look up at you. They take turns enjoying the pressure of the bow wake. While I lay on the bowsprit, I watched one dolphin rise below a floating patch of Sargasso weed, catch it on its snout and flip it up into the air.

I called out the dolphins. I reached my hand down and held it there forever, hoping they would breach and aim for it. I had almost given up when from behind a small dolphin crashed up through the water, brushed my hand and dove deep. For a moment all the dolphins scattered. Perhaps the little guy yelled “Whoa! What was that?!” And the others scrambled for safety. But in a few moments, they were all back again, swimming sideways to look up at the human lying on the bowsprit.

"He makes the sign of a wave."
On the third day out to sea, we experienced something I have never seen before and probably will never see again.

The Atlantic became as flat as a millpond. The waves had been calming down over the two days we had been out, but now even the wavelets were dissipating. Soon, the surface of the Atlantic was a smooth, silky, shining, reflective surface. It became so glassy flat, that at night we could see the stars reflected in the Atlantic.

"The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar."
It looks as if we are not moving, but notice the bow wake from the 6.5 knots we are making through the mirror-flat Atlantic.
Thanks to the phenomenal winds the first day and the help from the Gulf Stream, it took us just a few hours more than three days to fetch Beaufort, NC.

Patrick: Missions accomplished. Thank you. And thanks for all the photographs in this post.

This is such a charming little village. Just the right spot to rest up and catch up on some boat chores I never got to before launching.

Phoenix and her captain in Beaufort, NC.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It's A New Day

Aurora deigns a new dawn.
Phoenix has been on the hard in Port Salerno, Florida since November when she returned from two and a half years of voyaging to the Mediterranean.

Now I am getting her ready to launch again and take her back to my home waters, Lake Champlain.

Phoenix and I will follow the summer northwards, arriving in New York when the waters are still chilly, but the Hudson River is navigable. We will be on of the first boats of the season through the locks of the Champlain Canal, which connects the Hudson to Lake Champlain. And we will enter the lake fresh from shedding her blanket of ice.

I wonder what it will be like to be blogging about America. It was easy to blog about Europe because it was unknown to me and every port was new and exciting.

America is the known. How do I write about the known in ways that are engaging? That is to ask, what can I contribute that is worth reading? What will provide you, dear reader, with fresh insight?

But I suppose that is the question every writer of anything asks themself, whether it be a novel, a poem, a news article, or a even a letter.

I will enjoy this challenge of trying to see the known as unknown; the supposedly familiar as new. Is this what is called “beginner’s mind”?

In the meantime, I am occupied with the rebirth of Phoenix. While she is on the hard, I am doing things that must be done then, like greasing the seacocks. That is such a time-consuming job that requires a “chop wood, carry water” mindset.

If you click on the photo, you can see I couldn't get the ball valve quite shut on this first go-around of greasing Phoenix's seacocks.
First I get on hands and knees and crawl around closing all the seacocks. One I couldn’t budge because it has fouled in its shut position. The ones in the cockpit lazerette require a human pretzelling technique that is only taught at Cirque du Soleil. Then I descend the ladder and walk around to each through-hole with a grease-tube and long, round paint brush, smearing grease in each one.

Then it’s back up the ladder, get down on hands and knees, crawl, work the seacock handles back and forth, making sure they remain in the closed position, and start again.

Often, on this first round, I still can’t get the seacocks fully closed, which is why this process needs to be repeated.

Crawl around, pretzel, descend, walk, smear, climb, work handles.

Three times.

By the way, some of my handles are still hard to work after greasing, either because of the seacock or because they are in hard to reach places. So I have fashioned extension handles by sliding a section of PVC tube over them. Leverage: works great. Thank you, Archimedes.

That’s one of several projects like installing new engine hoses and pursuing a mystery of why one seacock has all kinds of galvanic fuzz around it. (That one that didn't want to close at until I scraped off the ball from the outside of the hull.) It seems to be properly bonded to the others and the engine. So what gives?

Phoenix has been compounded, waxed and buffed. I don’t know when it was last done and she had oxidized to an almost-white. Now she beams with a cream shine making her look absolutely stunning. Her teak was cleaned too. And she has new sail covers. (For the mainsail I had a Mack Pack installed. The virtues of that beauty, I will extoll in a future blog post.)

Phoenix looks so good now that the Mack Pack installers, who work on sailboats every day, thought she was a new boat.


I smiled and said, “Nope, she's 28 years old. Phoenix is just reborn.”