The world becomes more glorious

KALMAR NYCKEL's appearance is unique. She is the only Dutch pinnace to ply American waters.

KALMAR NYCKEL’s appearance is unique. She is the only Dutch pinnace to ply American waters.

Little about conventional sailing prepares one to sail a 300-ton replica of a 17th century armed merchant vessel. For starters, rather than having one or two masts and a handful of sheets and halyards, such a ship has four masts, eight sails, and 184 belay points. She also requires a minimum crew of 12, and double that for watches on transits. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to learn the ancient art of sailing a square rigger.

Last month, I spent three weeks training and crewing aboard KALMAR NYCKEL, sleeping in a bunk barely longer than my height, and sweating next to other trainees, experienced crew, and officers. The Crew Training course was intense, demanding, and exhilarating. It was a rigorous schedule of class time, practical lessons, muster, cleaning, maintenance, public sails, charter sails, deck tours, studying, “de-modernizing” the ship, filming, drills, downrigging, uprigging, standing night watch, costume maintenance, a transit to Wilmington, and a transit back to Lewes with 3 AM departure. All of this was without benefit of air conditioning and scant privacy.

View of the quarterdeck from the main deck.

View of the quarterdeck from the main deck.

The course curriculum was intense, covering knots, sails, points of sail, tacking and wareing, belay points, commands and responses, safety, emergency response, boat check procedures, steering, docking procedures, heaving line protocol and practice, belaying and safe line handling, history, handling passengers, staffing tour stations, safety aloft, and going aloft, where I found myself leaning over the main yard, clipped in, belly on the spar, with hands free to tie gasket coils.

On the second day of training, my 13 classmates and I participated in our first public sail. This entails efficiently and warmly welcoming up to 49 passengers of varying ages and ability, handling sails and rotating through the positions for bow watch, helm, and the half-hourly boat checks. We also began to learn about giving the passengers a great experience–something we do whether or not we have wind.

The replica KALMAR NYCKEL was built in 1997, with design based on original documents, as well as knowledge of other ships of the period–but also with modern features like marine heads (toilets), a shower, a full galley, bunks for the crew, and a full compliment of safety equipment. Daily life aboard this replica is patterned by the ship’s needs, including plenty of chores like dishwashing, sweeping and swabbing, deck washes, and cleaning the heads. “Field days” are blocks of time working heavier maintenance, like deep cleaning, repairs, systems maintenance, and scraping and refinishing wood.

One of KALMAR NYCKEL's numerous fanciful carvings.

One of KALMAR NYCKEL’s numerous fanciful carvings.

Despite the fabulous sailing, tall ship life is not all glory and fun. Living aboard a ship with 25 or so other people has its challenges. Imagine that your personal space is just about as long as you are, just about as wide as from one cocked elbow to the other, and not tall enough for you to sit up. All of your personal belongings must be stowed here, including your foul weather gear and shoes. This is not in a cabin, but along the sides of either the saloon (mess deck) or the galley (kitchen). Privacy? There is virtually none.

Also, aboard a tall ship, you share the heads (bathrooms) with everyone else. Sometimes you have to wait, and you must also be quick, to keep from making others have to wait. Showers? You get one every other day–though you can also wash down with seawater on deck in your bathing suit, or drive into town to use the shower at the marina. Some may think these are harsh conditions, but our officers and volunteer crew understand the reality of life aboard, and are actually thankful, because we have it many times better than those who sailed the original KALMAR NYCKEL, which was built in 1625.

The ship was in service of the Swedish navy, but also made four transatlantic journeys, bringing settlers and trade goods to New Sweden, which we now call Wilmington, Delaware. The first voyage ended in 1638 at a place called “the rocks,” which is near the headquarters and shipyard of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, an educational nonprofit that owns and funds the replica ship.

The 3/4 model of KALMAR NYCKEL lets visitors try setting and dousing sails.

The 3/4 model of KALMAR NYCKEL lets visitors try setting and dousing sails.

The foundation has a lovely new Maritime Center, which includes a museum, a ¾ model of the ship with working rigging, a perhaps unparalleled collection of handmade ships from around the world, and a custom designed workshop area with sail loft, and bays for sanding and finishing spars, blocks, and other parts of the vessel.

Sailing a square rigger is quite different than the fore-and-aft rigs I have previously sailed, and I had to learn- and will still need to learn a great deal. Sailing KALMAR NYCKEL is also a special kind of magic, this blend of old and new, and each time the sails are set, the world becomes more glorious. The ship’s culture, set by the officers, is positive, encouraging, and cooperative, with the operative word being “alacritous,” meaning “cheerful readiness,” an infectious demeanor shared by all. 

You can learn more about the history of this remarkable ship, book a sail, make a donation, or sign up for crew training. I highly recommend all four.


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The flow of kindness

The church door, open for business on Sunday, after sheltering a homeless man on a rainy night on Friday.

The church door, open for business on Sunday, after sheltering a homeless man on a rainy night on Friday.

June 26th was a night of people helping people. After enjoying delicious food, drink, and the company of tall ship sailors at the gala event for Tall Ships Philadelphia-Camden, I headed back to my hosts’ apartment. I asked a young man for help finding the bus stop for the ride back to Spring Garden Street, and he kindly walked me almost all the way to the stop. In the rain. At first I thought he was being nice in hopes I would give him some money, but, no, he was just being helpful.

The bus stop was in front of a church, so I went up into the doorway to get out of the rain, but then an elderly homeless man with a cane slipped on the wet granite steps as he tried to make his way up them. I went back into the rain and down the stairs to help him, but another passer-by reached him first, helping him stand, putting the cane back in his hand, and wishing us both a good night.

Realizing that the church doorway, with a piece of cardboard on the threshold–was the homeless man’s sleeping space, I moved on, but could not find another dry place. So there I was, standing in the rain at a Philly bus stop near midnight. Soon, a man came to wait for the bus. He had almost no teeth, and only one eye. He asked me if I could give him some money, and I told him I was sorry, but could not. Even so, the old man was friendly, and we chatted a while. He told me he had been treated meanly by the city, and was thinking about moving to Florida this summer. I told him this was my first visit to the City of Brotherly Love, and that I had come to be there, by winning tickets to the tall ships festival and a party. The man opened the plastic grocery bag under his arm and offered to share a small box of Cheez-It crackers. I declined, but thanked him, saying that I had eaten enough at the fancy party. The man rubbed the white bristles that lined his dark chin, and asked what was to eat and drink, and who was there. I told him that the catered food was delicious, the bar was open, the tall ship sailors had made it fun, and that I had reconnected with two friends. All of this pleased him very much, and I could see him imagining what it must be like to go to such a fine event.

Once on the bus, the old man asked me to sit with him so we could talk until my stop. I agreed, and we did. I was worried about missing my stop while chatting, but two other people on the bus had overheard me saying that my stop was Spring Garden Street, and they called out the street name to me as the bus stopped there. I thanked them and hopped off the bus quickly, stopping on the rain drenched sidewalk to wave at the one-eyed man as the bus continued on.

As I approached the door to my hosts’ apartment building, a woman, who was going in ahead of me, stopped and held the door–while balancing a pizza box and her bicycle. She was trying to get both up the steep, long staircase. I offered to hold the box, which made it a lot easier for her to get the bike up the stairs. At the top landing, she thanked me kindly for my small gesture. I went on to my temporary quarters and sat for a moment to reflect on the flow of small-but-meaningful kindnesses  shared among strangers on a rainy night in the city.

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Adventure has a name

Eight years ago I wrote the following, a portent of today.

4-E2E205E7-807482-800Something big struck me as I pedaled my bicycle along in the steady wind beneath the glorious sky this morning. Several streams of recent thought and discussion flowed together into one point, starting with the recollection that, about a year ago, a friend called me “a female Indiana Jones.” Next, I considered that I was always the first child in my family to try something new or different, the one who traveled well, even when stricken by Montezuma’s Revenge, or facing a night in a $3 flophouse in Mexico City. I was the kid that my parents could hardly coax out of the water, especially at the ocean. I was the one of four children who had interest—a keen and instant interest—in sailing, and at 10 years of age, I picked up the sport almost as if by instinct. I was also the child who was completely unafraid of the horses when my mother took my siblings and me for our first little riding lesson, and I was uninhibited in following instructions to make the horse walk, stop, turn, and even back up.

My earliest dream was to be like Jacques Cousteau, to travel the world aboard my own research ship, diving among reefs and wrecks, swimming with whales, dolphins, rays, groupers, octopi and sharks. When I was a teen and other girls were swooning over popular boy singers, I had a crush on Jack London, the author-adventurer who was paid to write stories based on his experiences. At age 16 I booked and took a vacation on my own, making the airline reservation, paying for the ticket, traveling to the airport, finding ground transportation, hitchhiking around New England, and driving a borrowed car with my brand new license. (Without a credit card and long before the Internet made such arrangements a snap.)

As an adult, I frequently stick my neck out, speak up, and make things happen, with little hesitation or fear of consequences. The times I have felt the most alive were during peak experiences, many of them involving adventure and even danger. My automatic reply to the recent question, “which would you rather do, run a campaign or run for office?” was “Neither! I want to jump aboard a wooden sailing ship, sail around the world, ride my bike through every port, and get paid to write about it.”

Arriving home from my bicycle ride with these thoughts converging in my head, I checked my email and found an e-newsletter bearing a startling quote from a musician named Alan Cohen, “It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.” I find layers of meaning in Cohen’s potent words and keep coming back to them to ponder further.

The confluence of these thoughts brought the realization that I am an adventurer and always have been. For the next few years, I will be focused on continuing to raise my kids, but eventually I need to live more accordingly to my adventurous spirit—and get paid to write about it.

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Sea Scouts Team Up for River Fest

Members of Sea Scout Ship 212 and Ship 7916 pose with The Adventurous Nanner thee Sea Duck after the flag ceremony.

Members of Sea Scout Ship 212 and Ship 7916 pose with The Adventurous Nanner thee Sea Duck after the flag ceremony.

Scouts from Sea Scout Ship 212 and Ship 7916 teamed up to post the color guard and perform the flag raising at the opening ceremony of Quantico Yacht Club‘s first annual Potomac River Festival on May 2nd.

Ship 212, RUNNER, based in Aquia, was represented by Samantha Falk, Breanna Gilson, Reuben Levin, Anna Thompson, Timothy Dodson, and Nicholas Cook.  Olivia Holly-Johnson and Nicholas Guernsey represented Ship 7916, BLUE HERON, out of Occoquan.

As coordinator for the scouts, I determined it best to assign one scout as the leader of the conjoined units and let him or her decide the best practice for the day. My choice was made easily, when I saw a tall young man looking sharp in dress whites, while the rest of the scouts had either not yet arrived, were wearing less formal uniforms, or were still in the process of pulling themselves together. As I approached the group, Reuben Levin made eye contact, greeted me, and shook my hand. Reubin, who plans to enter the United States Coast Guard, was not the ranking leader in his ship, his behavior made a strong impression, because, sadly, it is too rare.

I told Reuben that he was in charge, an overview of the event and showed him the staging area. From there he took over,  determining where the color guard would stand, how they would proceed, and who would handle the flag raising itself. With the two Sea Scout ships assembled, the young leader had the group practice to make their performance  smooth. The two units worked together so well that onlookers would surely not have guessed that this was the first joint maneuver for these Sea Scout ships.

After the ceremony, the scouts even agreed to humor me by participating in a photo shoot with The Adventurous Nanner the Sea Duck. One of them asked what I wanted them to do with the little rubber sailor duck, and I told them “whatever you want,” because I found that puts more creativity and fun in the shoot. “Put him on your head,” one of the scouts suggested to Reuben, and he did so, standing tall and looking serious, crowned by a rubber duck. After a few formal shots, the scouts loosened up and had fun with Nanner.

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Four of the youth were able to stay and race with club boats in QYC’s second annual Ocean Research Project Regatta, so I rushed about to assure they were able to board one or more boats, including the Beneteau 49, LIQUIDITY. Since the scouts had a time constraint that prevented them from staying for more than one race, I also arranged that Annabel Lang, of Quantico Marina, would be able to use a launch between races to bring the scouts ashore.

Bill Johnson, skipper of Ship 7916, wrote afterward, that his scouts, “had a good time, and would love to participate…in future club activities.” My work is done!



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Soul like an inner activist

Image used with permission from David Bedrick.

Image used with permission from David Bedrick.

“What if the soul is like an inner activist, disrupting your status quo, creating imbalance, finding nourishment in illness, moving you not only into light but also the dark, and leaving you unsure of your most cherished beliefs?”

These are the questions asked of me in my first session with David Bedrick, a practitioner of process-oriented psychology.  In his compassionate way, David challenged me to fully open my eyes to where I was, to what my soul was telling me about that place, and to what my soul was telling me that I needed to do, in order that it might stop being killed a little more each day, and start to live again.

It has been a little more than a year since then, since the day I deeply committed to bringing my soul back alive. During that time, I had two more sessions with David. Since he is in New Mexico and I am in Virginia, these appointments have been by phone and Skype. This, combined with the powerful impact that David’s help has made on my life, led me to call him my “Wi-Chiatrist.”

David’s perspective is refreshingly different from that of mainstream psychology. Instead of focusing on labeling us with things we supposedly lack, he “encourages a love-based psychology rooted in the belief that there is profound meaning in our struggles, which can be healed when compassionately reframed.”

During that first session, David also helped me recognize not only what my soul was aching for me to hear, the commitment and sacrifice necessary for me to conduct this vitally important re-enlivening. Yes, the tasks have been monumental, the changes dramatic and often surprising, but the gifts are worthwhile and indescribably delicious!

What if your soul is an inner activist, and what is your soul aching for you to hear?

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The Best of Safety-At-Sea

A Navy 44 sailboat heads upwind on the Severn River just before a crew member jumped into the frigid water.

A Navy 44 sailboat heads upwind on the Severn River just before a crew member jumped into the frigid water.

It was unnerving to see three people jump from Navy 44 sailboats into the frigid water of the Severn River in 20 KT winds on a bitter cold day in March. Witnesses were also struck by how long the rescues seemed to take, despite the superbly executed maneuvers both upwind (video)- and downwind (video). These were the strongest reactions to the live COB demonstrations performed by the United States Naval Academy (USNA) Sailing Squadron during the recent Safety-At-Sea seminar held at the USNA in Annapolis, MD.

Those drills impressed upon students that a throwable cushion- or even a special rubber duck gone overboard cannot replicate the impact of a person in the water. That was heavily reinforced the following day, during the interactive portion of the
seminar. When floating with about 20 other “victims” dressed in full foul weather gear and deployed PFDs, one finds a new perspective on- and appreciation for safety devices, along with some good and bad surprises.

Presented by Marine Trades Association of Maryland and Naval Academy Sailing for more than 35 years, the highly recommended Safety-At-Sea seminar offered tracks for cruisers and racers. I went for the latter, for a five-year International Sailing Federation (ISAF) Racing Personal Safety certificate that greatly increases opportunities to crew for international offshore racing. Sessions topics on Safety Equipment, MOB Prevention and Recovery, Damage Control, USCG Communications and Search and Rescue, Weather, Heavy Weather, Hypothermia and Medical Emergencies, and much more.

The in-pool interactive made the most powerful impact, even though we were in a heated indoor swimming pool. Water at 78F is not considered cold, but we soon understood how quickly one’s body heat is drawn off at that temperature. Foulies affected buoyancy to varying degrees, but were fairly neutral. This seemed good, until the instructor asked what we would do if trapped under the boat. After a brief discussion of potential obstacles to swimming out, the instructor had us try to swim under water in our foulies, and few could.

Next, the session leader had us put on our PFDs so we could experience them in working conditions. I had owned my Type V for about four years, and wear it almost always when on deck underway, but quickly learned that I was not sufficiently familiar with it and was fumbling for the oral inflation tube, whistle, and light. Also, I discovered that I need thigh or crotch straps to hold it down. My PFD rode so high it was hard to move or see. Straps also keep the wearer’s buoyancy lower, making her more visible and reducing spray in the face, which is so heavily taxing that some countries require a spray hood for offshore racing.

If you have never been in the water with your PFD, you might want to try this, as it drives home the importance of knowing your gear–especially if you are wearing foulies, too. Putting on your foulie hood for warmth while your PDF is inflated is a lot harder than you would think, especially when the hood is stowed. Know your PFD; how it works, and locations of the oral inflation tube, light, and whistle. You want this to be second nature when you need it.

We learned that a crew’s emotional status is more important than their physical condition. Keep them busy, and “convince them they will survive or they will give up.” I saw evidence of the latter in our life raft interactive, during which teams climbed from the pool into inflatable life rafts of varying designs and sizes. My team included two upbeat men, and a slightly older one who had a bad mindset. The negative one argued his limitations and refused helpful suggestions and physical assistance. That man’s demeanor cost his team crucial time and energy as the three of us struggled to push and pull him in, seemingly against his will.

Once aboard, our team inspected the raft, finding and operating the bilge pump, and identifying the rainwater catchment system. We soon realized that three square feet per person was highly uncomfortable. The crabby man’s attitude continued to poison the atmosphere, and I understood that he would be our greatest liability in a real situation.

One of the presenters had called life rafts something like “bucking puke vaults,” because movement, tight quarters, stale air, stress, lack of view and other factors combine to make vomiting a serious threat—not just to delicate sensitivities, but to survival itself. For that reason, presenters stressed that life rafts should only be used when the boat is sinking. After 15-minutes of life raft experience, I know it is best to carefully follow all other safety measures first, aiming to avoid the nightmare of being a human sardine in a bucking puke vault.

The Safety-At-Sea seminar covered far more than one can relay in a single article, but here is the most crucial.

Check and Maintain your PFD, the most vital lifesaving equipment on any vessel

  • Check the bobbin and CO2 cartridge. Manually inflate the unit and leave it overnight.  According to Henry E. Marx, president of Landfall Navigation, “If it’s not hard in the morning, it’s time to replace it.” Yes, it seemed he intended a sailor’s joke in there somewhere.
  • Make sure your PFD includes a whistle and light at a minimum. You are nearly invisible without a light. Consider adding a knife, and a personal flare, mirror, chem light, reflective tape, and/or rescue streamer to increase your visibility, and thigh- or crotch straps for better PFD performance. Add a small fanny pack to your PFD if necessary.
  • Add a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), a VHF radio that is Digital Selective Calling (DSC) enabled, or an MOB AIS (Automatic Identification System).

Safety Meeting First!

  • Hold a safety meeting before every cruise or race. You cannot keep your crew- or yourself safe without it.
  • Cover location/use of safety equipment, wind speed, navigation, and potential hazards. Complacency is your enemy.
  • Establish a clear chain of command. Making a decision is the job of one person. Designate a second in charge, someone who knows how to radio, can command a COB response.
  • Encourage newbies to speak up if they notice anything that seems wrong.
  • Implement “forehandedness,” to recognize what trouble or obstacles may lie ahead. It’s easier to prevent trouble than to get out of it. Know the boat: strength, stability, seaworthiness.
  • Train crew how to talk on the VHF, to push the red button on the Digital Selective Calling (DSC). Hold the red button, find out how long, and post a sticker with this detail at the radio.

COB Prevention and Readiness

  • Inspect lifelines
  • Make “pre-flight” inspection of clip-on places
  • Assure that you have a competent crew
  • Proper use of PFDs; inflatables are not USCG approved unless they are being worn
  • Keep recovery equipment aboard and make sure your crew knows its location and proper use
  • Review and practice COB procedures (USNA Sailing Squadron practices 30-50 times before ocean races)
  • Assign roles for each crew member; in the event of a COB, who is responsible for what?
  • Appropriate clipping on, including rigging jacklines at night and in heavy weather, and clipping on before exiting companionway
  • Know the handling characteristics of the boat in various sea states
  • Know your crew: their skills, how well they know each other, their equipment and their familiarity with it, how practiced they are with radio operations and on board COB equipment
  • Practice COB at the start of each season, rotating crew through helm. Don’t let your crew become specialists; at the minimum, have them rotate stations during return from race, to make a crew of generalists.
  • When you have new crew aboard, tell them, “I just fell overboard. What are you going to do?”
  • Teach your crew that, in case of COB, the helmsman should make an immediate tack and back the jib. This is quick, easy, requires only one person to move, and gives time to execute other actions.

Future Safety-At-Sea Seminars

To receive notice of future seminars, email Susan Zellers at or visit
2015 Safety At Sea Seminar

PDF files of most of the course presentations, some more valuable than others.

“The Helmsman” Spring 2015 Edition
USNA Sailing Squadron’s safety magazine, which presents “lessons learned” articles and welcomes submissions of first person narratives.
Boating Magazine Lab Tests Auto-Inflatable PFDs

Although a bit dated, this gives a good overview of features like deployment speed, and some food for thought.

First published in “The Azimuth,” newsletter of the Quantico Yacht Club

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Bye-bye big table

The big table, stripped of its usual antique linen tablecloth.

The big table, stripped of its usual antique linen tablecloth.

The big table is gone. A gift from my friend, Jane, when I bought the townhouse I call “My Palace of Peace,” this 5′ x 32″ table served my girls and me well. We gathered around it for dinner and celebrations many times over the past 7-1/2 years, including for our first holiday, Thanksgiving 2007. Numerous cups of coffee, tea, and cocoa- and glasses of wine and beer (and, occasionally, rrrrummmm) were shared with friends gathered here. Also, the sturdy table held many delicious dishes brought to full house pot-lucks.

Jane’s children had used the table for crafts and homework, and now it is gone on to its third home after a vivacious woman named Melanie picked it up, having seen my offer posted on Freecycle. She has plans to distress it further, and make it into a piece of art furniture for her own post-divorce townhouse. Then Melanie’s friends will gather around the table and make their own memories there.

As we loaded the table into her SUV, Melanie and I talked about the fun, surprises, and value of Freecycle. She noticed the empty, being-painted condition of my house and asked about my plans. After we shook hands, wished each other luck, and parted, Melanie sent me a text that said, “Feel free to keep my number and share your adventure! Good luck!” I assured her that I will, and I shall.

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The magic of the MagicJack

Juventino Villeda plays his accordion. Photo by Barbara Corbellini Duarte.

Juventino Villeda plays his accordion. Photo by Barbara Corbellini Duarte.

The magic of the MagicJack was not in how much money it saved me, but in how it connected me to another human being.  I put the phone equipment for sale on Craigslist,  with an asking price a fraction of the original cost, just to be rid of this unused thing, to get something for it. After a few days, I received an inquiry from a man named Juventino. We emailed back and forth, and finally met at a local thrift store on a bitterly cold morning.

Juventino was more than an hour later than he had initially indicated he would be. I had gone grocery shopping, looked around the thrift store, and had begun to feel some annoyance at his lateness, but decided I would rather cultivate patience, because I could not know what was the delay, and because it is more important to stay calm than to carry on.

With the aid of our cell phones, my customer and I met at the front of the thrift store. Juven asked me if I speak Spanish. “Un poquito,” I said, “a little,” and he smiled. “E muy mal,” I added, “and very badly,” which gave the man a laugh. He explained that he reads English well, but hearing and speaking it are more difficult. I told him that I understand, as it is the same for me with Spanish.

We braved the wind and cold, hurrying to my car, making our exchange in the parking lot. Juven handed me $1 bills, explaining that, “I pay with singles because I play the accordion.” As the sharp wind cut into our faces and hands, the man went on to tell how he had started playing the accordion at age five, and began as a street musician at about 5-1/2 years-old. He confessed to having told his mother that he needed to take the instrument to school, in order to practice for a Mother’s Day concert. However, that day he skipped school and went instead to a festival at the Catholic church, playing his accordion and accepting donations from passers-by.

Juventino informed me that he used that money to buy his second accordion, though he gave the coins to his young friends, as well as purchasing ice cream for “too many” other children, he said.  The 65-year-old’s enthusiasm for his music was clear, as was his kindness. He asked me why I had not used the MagicJack, I said that I had not figured out how to use it with my computer, and he offered to come over and help me. I told him that the computer was on its way out, but that I appreciated his offer.

The extreme cold and wind bit us repeatedly as we stood in the parking lot after making our exchange. Juven told me to email him and then he would send some MP3 files of his music. I thanked him for his kindness, told him I would email him, and went home. I wished him well and hoped that his new MagicJack would serve him well. I found that through the day, I kept smiling in gratitude for having met such a nice, unusual, and interesting person. It was a morning well spent.

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Spinning in the Gulf of Mexico

Flying the spinnaker on a port tack.

Flying the spinnaker on a port tack.

When you have wanted to learn how to fly a spinnaker since you were a kid, and you finally have the chance in mid-life, you do whatever is necessary to take that opportunity. That is how I ended up sailing a Colgate 26 in the Gulf of Mexico in early December.  This happened thanks in large part to my friend, Deb, who offered me a class at Offshore Sailing School. Deb had won the course gift certificate at a Leukemia Cup Regatta silent auction, but her busy schedule had prevented her from using it. Given my lack of income, financing the trip was a challenge, but I could not let this chance pass me by, so I made it happen, $37 motel room and all, and am very pleased that I did.

Offshore Sailing School has a facility at the South Seas Island Resort, which is at the northern tip of Captiva Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, just south of Fort Myers. The resort is a great place to spend a few days in December. The Colgate 26 sailboats are of an ideal design for students, and for racing. Among other features, the boats point amazingly high, and crew can handle just about everything from inside the exceptionally roomy cockpit. That is, everything but setting and jibing the spinnaker (a large, usually colorful sail, which flies something like a kite, and is often seen floating like a balloon in front of a sailboat).

Three other students attended the three-day Performance Sailing course: a retired woman from Tidewater, a woman who works for a Boston area manufacturing company, and a businessman who came all the way from Bogota, Columbia. Rosemary, Susan, and Tony are also experienced sailors, making us a well matched crew, including that we were highly interested in learning the spinnaker.

Instructor Bart Lowden demonstrates the correct stance for safely setting the spinnaker pole: feet wide, leaning against the mast.

Instructor Bart Lowden demonstrates the correct stance for safely setting the spinnaker pole: feet wide, leaning against the mast.

The first morning, we spent three-and-a-half hours in the classroom, with instructor Bart Lowden leading discussions, showing us Powerpoint presentations, and reviewing knots with us—including the difference between a bowline and a “dirty” bowline. It turned out that I was the only one who had read any of the highly technical textbook, having made it only about a third of the way through. My classmates and I were anxious to put all this theory to work in real life, so we were pleased when we headed to the dock at noon, to rig the Colgate 26 and then motor out to Pine Island Sound. As we exited the harbor, we were greeted by a curious dolphin, while a flock of pelicans and cormorants looked on from their row of perches. Once through the channel and into a deeper part of the sound, we raised sails and cut the outboard.

The wind had fallen, so we went out to the Gulf of Mexico, but stayed close to Captiva, practicing smooth tacking and jibing, as well as experimenting with the sail trim we learned about in class. After coming in for an hour lunch break, the five of us went back aboard, and rigged the boat with the spinnaker, using the seven steps we learned in the classroom. Out in the gulf breeze, my classmates and I rotated through crew positions and flew the spinney, grinning widely.

Saturday’s morning sail was cut short due to lack of wind, excessive heat, a swarm of hungry flying ants attacked our boat, and we learned that the Cutter insect repellent wipes in my kit did not ward off ant bites. After a long lunch break, we went back out for a nice sea breeze sail with lots of kite flying and a lovely run back to the harbor.

Sunshine, warm temperatures, and a reliable afternoon sea breeze make Captiva a great place to sail.

Sunshine, warm temperatures, and a reliable afternoon sea breeze make Captiva a great place to sail.

Sunday morning brought our final classroom work, another couple hours of instruction on the water, and, finally, our “free sail,” in which our team of three students went out without the instructor.  Our fourth student, Tony, had to forego the free sail due to time constraints with his travel.

The main lesson for me in the free sail was this: if the crew informally nominates you as skipper of the sail, accept the honor formally, and take full charge of the boat. Meaning, primarily, check your crew’s work on rigging the spinnaker before leaving the dock. Otherwise, you may find that most of your spin time is used up with resolving the twists in the rig, by a crew member bouncing on the foredeck in a choppy sea.

Once the issue was resolved, we raised the spinney, flew it, and doused it well. Unfortunately, in order to beat our way back to the dock on time, we had to limit our kite flying to about 15 minutes. On the way back, Rose, Susan and I agreed that what happened on the boat stays on the boat, and we would tell Bart that “everything was fine.” I joked that our instructor may have had a hidden camera or recorder on the boat.

As we came from the gulf into Pine Island Sound via Redfish Pass, Susan spotted our instructor on the seawall. I knew then that he had been watching us the whole time, and that our shame was his to enjoy. Sure enough, when we reached the dock, Bart asked how it went. Sticking to our plan, we all said it was fiiiine! Then he asked, “And how was the spinnaker?” We told him there was a small issue, but we resolved it, and Bart noted that he had “a hidden camera on the boat.” I turned to my mates, asking “See? What did I tell you about that guy?” and all had a laugh.

Although Tony left early, all four of us had passed the written and practical exams, received certificates on the spot, and agreed that we had learned a great deal that we looked forward to putting to use in the next sailing season.


Offshore Sailing School produced these helpful YouTube videos that explain and demonstrate spinnaker set and use. They happen to be filmed at the South Seas Island Resort facility.

How to Set Your Spinnaker

How to Jibe a Symmetric Spinnaker

Spinnaker Leeward Douse

Spinnaker Windward Douse

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A simple bowl of soup for Thanksgiving

Soup fit for a friendship.

Soup fit for a friendship.

The intention, rather than the food, can make a meal enjoyable and memorable. So it was this Thanksgiving, when the one course was leftover split pea soup, without even bread as an accompaniment.

I had received two warm invitations to dine with friends and their families. As grateful as I was for those, something told me to hold off, because another friend, who is going through a tough time, had earlier in the week made mention in passing of wanting to come to my house for soup.

Not hearing more from Marina*,  I had not prepared in advance, and being budget minded, had not gone shopping. However, I had been craving Turkish delight, so I made a reasonable substitute, using ingredients I had on hand: plain gelatin, rose water, agave nectar, and stevia.

Marina let me know she was on her way, she asked if I thought the state run liquor stores would be open and I assured her they would not be, but not to worry, because I had a bottle of Sailor Jerry rum, a recent gift from a friend. She said she could bring orange juice, and I told her not to worry, because I had enough fresh oranges to squeeze.

Then concerned about what to serve, I cast about my kitchen and what is left in my pantry, sure I could come up with something decent enough. I determined that the pineapple on the counter was perfectly ripe, and had cut away the skin and began slicing it when Marina arrived. Before long, I poured us each a frothy drink of rum mixed with fresh squeezed orange juice and chunks of pineapple whipped together in the Vitamix. It was delicious!

As Marina and I sipped our drinks and talked, I coarsely chopped an onion and caramelized it in the big soup pot, adding a scattering of cumin seed for the delightful aroma and flavor. With the onion nicely browned, I added to it the split pea soup left over from the previous day. It had congealed, so I also added some water, stirring long, to mix the ingredients well and make the soup smooth. Finally, I added a long dash of Sriracha chili sauce, and a few pinches of the black truffle sea salt I had purchased in Charleston earlier this year.

The soup turned out better than I had expected. Marina and I enjoyed it while sipping our delightfully clashing drink, as we caught each other up on where things were in our lives and what we hoped and dreamed. As the soup warmed our tummies and the rum loosened our tongues, we began to joke and laugh about our silly Thanksgiving feast.

“Oh, and I even have dessert!” I exclaimed, bringing out the substitute Turkish delight as I described how I made it. “It is kind of like rose water Jell-O Jigglers,” I told my guest, which made her laugh.

Wanting to share the best of what I had, I offered coffee to Marina, with a splash of rum. And, finally, I suggested that I make some hot cocoa from scratch, which brought an enthusiastic agreement from my friend.  “We shall drink like queens,” I said, as I served the warm chocolatey drink, flavored with a touch of cinnamon and yet another splash of rum.

My friend and I marveled at our peculiar and strangely good meal, and spoke of what each of us meant to the other, about how she had inspired me, and vice versa. We shared much more laughter, and then Marina decided to post a status update to Facebook, “Rum and rose water jello jigglers with Shay Seaborne!! Happy Thanksgiving bitchezze!!” That made me laugh, and wish that I had put rum in the Turkish delight. “Ah, a better idea for next time!” I noted.

Too soon the evening grew late and my friend had to depart. Marina thanked me for my hospitality, and we agreed to see each other again soon. After she left, I turned to my kitchen, to clean up and wash dishes. I was glad that I had been able to share the evening with a good friend, especially since she had needed cheering. Also, I felt pleased that my meager pantry had offered up enough to make a strange but tasty and memorable “feast.” Finally, I felt gratitude that Marina knew where she was always welcome to share the comfort of friendship and homemade soup.

 *Name changed for her privacy.
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