Night of the speed demon

P1150462During my 11-½ day epic offshore sailing voyage of over 1,700 miles, I began to gauge my performance as crew on whether it woke skipper Matt Rutherford from sleep on his 5-hour off watch. Some days and nights, he did not wake once. Those were the easy watches, when little was happening and the wind conditions were stable. As the passage wore on, I felt greater confidence in my ability to make the right decisions when things did change. Increasingly, I found myself thinking I should change something, and as I was thinking it, Matt directed me to that very thing. This stoked my ego a bit, until the night of the speed demon.

I was enjoying solitude and the splendor of waves lit by the waxing moon, perhaps an hour into the late night start of my 5-hour watch, when the speed demon struck. It was near the end of Day 8 of the Hunter 38 delivery voyage. The skipper woke within minutes.

Before he had gone to bed, Matt told me that the wind was likely to come back, probably off the stern quarter, and if so, I should set the sails. As usual, he had been right. As the breeze came in, I put the Hunter 38 under full sail on a broad reach, a point of sail that seems best for Hunters. There was none of the severe heading up into the wind that we had found with a beam reach.

I was sitting on the starboard bench seat, legs outboard, feet against the lifelines, an expression of glee on my face. “Making the boat sing,” I had just said to myself, clapping quietly. I felt my skipper looking at me, and turned to see him standing on the companionway ladder. “Hello,” I said. “It’s a magical night!”

Matt went to the helm to check our speed. “Eight-point-one,” he said. “We need to slow down. No more than six point five,” he instructed, and then he went back below, knowing that I knew what to do, that he could trust me to do what he said, and leaving the work to me.

Without delay, I moved from the bench seat to the forward part of the cockpit, adjusting lines and line clutches in order to reef the jib and main. Being that the main is mast reefed–rolling inside the mast for storage–it takes a lot of “grinding,” or cranking on a winch handle, to bring it in. This always felt like a workout to me, but by then my muscles had become more used to it. I smiled to myself as I thought “this is one of Matt’s ‘that’ll learn ya’ lessons from the ‘figure it out yourself’ skipper.” After all, it was my watch- and my actions that made the work necessary.

When Matt was back on watch in the morning, I said, “I apologize for that speed demon thing last night. I honestly did not notice the boat speed was so high, but that was partly because I was too absorbed with enjoying it.”

“You just develop a sense for the boat…after about 100 days,” he said, noting that he “would not have been able to go back to sleep” with the boat going that fast. I wanted to know why.

“Part of the reason I didn’t notice the speed was that, unlike at higher speeds before, the boat was not rounding up like it did on a beam reach,” I explained. “Would you please tell me why the speed was a problem, since the boat was under control? Because I have trouble with the concept of ‘too fast.’”

The skipper explained that surpassing hull speed, when not surfing swells, could damage the rig by straining it beyond its capability. “I never push a boat beyond about 80% of its ability, and that’s why I have all these safe deliveries. Others think they are in some kind of race and they push the boat too hard.” I understood. First, a delivery captain does not want to break his or her customer’s boat. Secondly, if even a small part of the rig gave way, it could make for dismasting, which would be a disaster, especially on the high seas.
I learned my lesson, and was sure it would be invaluable at some point in my sailing future. No more speed demons for me. 

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A secret wish come true

"Nothing but a whole lotta' waves."

“Nothing but a whole lotta’ waves.”

On Day 9 of my epic sail from Galesville, MD to Ponce, Puerto Rico, at about 1435, I was sitting on the port bench seat when I heard what I thought was a dolphin blow. I jumped up, looked over the starboard stern quarter, and saw a shiny black back, with a small dorsal fin, as it arced and slid back into the water. “A dolphin!” I called, to alert skipper Matt Rutherford. He was topsides in a flash and went forward to look for it. We had seen “nothin’ but a whole lotta’ waves,” and a few distant flying fish for days, so this was big excitement!

The creature surfaced again, and I thought the body seemed too thick- and the tail too large for a dolphin. I was so not expecting it to be a whale that it took me a while to comprehend that it was one. Matt was at the bow, pointing to the water near the boat’s port midships. “It’s a whale!” he yelled. I saw it swimming toward the boat, down deep, so it could pass under our keel. I could see its streamlined shape through the clear blue water, and most distinctively, two white oarblade-shaped pectoral fins–which appeared azure in that blue water. A humpback! “That was my secret wish for this trip, to see a whale,” I told my skipper when the whale seemed to have gone on its way.

I thought to take pictures of the whale, but immediately realized that my chance was slim for getting a good shot. Also, I was aware that running for my camera and becoming the photographer would take away from my experience of the whale, so I decided to skip the photos and just enjoy.

After some minutes, the humpback returned, seemingly larger than before, because it was swimming near the surface. I watched in amazement as its wedge shaped head lifted out of the water, the huge upturned mouth like an elongated smile. The young animal was yet unblemished with the barnacles typical to its elders. It blew loudly before gracefully arcing back into the water, its back curved, with brown, black, and gray skin so smooth and shiny it almost seemed to be made of liquid itself. In that moment it seemed I had not seen anything so beautiful, magical, and perfect since my children’s newborn eyes.

We watched the whale for about 30 minutes as it swam alongside us, up ahead, away, and back again. It often went to the starboard side and showed us its white belly, azure in the water. Matt stood on the foredeck, balancing lithely as the boat rolled in the swells. I held onto the furled jib, bouncing and jerking out of rhythm with the boat, but I didn’t care. I had seen a whale! A humpback whale! So close, in its natural environment, without any touristy trappings.

“I got my secret wish!” I exclaimed. Matt said that if I had mentioned it to him before he would have said there was little chance, as he’d never seen any whale while on a delivery, except a pilot whale, once. We felt lucky that we had each seen it; it had come when neither of us was catching up on sleep at our off watch. Although highly unlikely, my secret wish came true; in the middle of “nothin’ but a whole lotta’ waves,” a young whale found us, and was curious enough to hang out with us for a while, giving us a grand show. I do appreciate a little lagniappe with my sail. 

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I saw that the world was flat

View through the dodger.I was sitting in the only dry-ish spot topsides of a Hunter 38 sailboat, hundreds of miles from anywhere, surrounded by sapphire and cobalt waves with crests of rolling white foam. Bracing myself next to the main hatch, in the shelter of the dodger–a windshield-like structure of flexible plastic panels sewn into canvas stretched over a stainless steel frame–I was pushing my feet against the other side of the companionway, making a bridge with my legs over the opening.

From my perch, I saw that the world was flat, except for the blue, blue waves–which rolled as high as six feet, looking like advancing walls off our stern. Occasionally, one of the rollers would hit the boat broadside, slamming into it like a bull, and throwing spray up and across the cockpit. Sometimes, a wave would hit so hard and high that it would splat forcefully against the dodger, water running under it and dampening my seat. Everything topsides was flecked with fresh ocean spray or crystals of white salt, including me. My black jeans had been doused by a wave and were swirled gray and white, dotted with salty stars, making a miniature galaxy along each pant leg. This was a few hundred miles through an 11-1/2-day journey of over 1,500-miles, in which I was helping to deliver a private yacht from Annapolis, MD to its new owner in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

We made it down the Chesapeake Bay in under 24 hours, and on our first night in the Atlantic, the continent slipped away, and land already seemed only a concept, a smudge of light that faded in the horizon behind us. The sky was clear and the Milky Way quite visible.This was a treat that I had seen only a few times in recent years. On some nights during the transit, thick cloud cover blocked out the stars and even the moon, making for an uncannily dark night. To save battery power, we sailed in “stealth mode,” with no running lights, so the only light was from the autopilot console at the wheel, and from the bioluminescence in the sea. I watched that aquatic light show for long moments, leaning my head outboard to see, and it seemed as if the boat was casting and recasting nets of foam to catch tiny green twinkling stars.

On one such veiled night, it was 2 AM and skipper Matt Rutherford was asleep while I stood my five-hour watch. Under full sail, we were traveling at around 6.5KT, a respectable speed for such a vessel. I had the sense that the boat was hurtling through darkness, time, and space, and felt connected to all the sailors before me, as I thought about ancient mariners and understood why they believed the world was flat, and that “there be dragons” at the edge.

Weather was the chief determining factor every day, and in most decisions made aboard the boat. It determined our course away from the Dominican Republic, but then also determined our need to divert course toward the Dominican Republic, but that is for another story.

A storm cell in the distance, with rain visible.

A storm cell in the distance, with rain visible.

We seemed to be constantly encircled by clouds on the horizon, even on a clear day. Large puffy white ones with flat bottoms, that roamed the sky above in a semi circle, like a herd of grazing animals. “You don’t see clouds like these anywhere on land, not even in the middle of Kansas,” Matt said, and I believed him. Periods of rain were a near-daily occurrence. I quickly fell into the habit of scanning the horizon, noting the movement of clouds and calculating what action to take. For instance, on day eight of the delivery, an apparent squall was off the port bow. It looked to be dropping heavy rain, which meant we could meet substantial wind if it came near. I anticipated this and prepared the main for reefing in case I needed to furl it.

Things look different in the dark at sea. On moonlit nights the clouds seem to be closer, just out of reach overhead. Toward the end of the transit, the nights were mostly clear, sometimes with falling stars, and with a waxing moon so bright that we did not need to turn on a flashlight.

Our time was regulated not by day and night, but by watches, five hours on, five hours off. After a few days, I was used to sleeping whenever I could, though I still found the wee hour watches a challenge. Being the crew, I had the easier end of the bargain. Yes, sometimes I was helping with refueling or washing dishes in my off watch, but the skipper’s “off” time was much more taken with necessary tasks. Matt was in regular communication with Pat, his weather watcher on land. He also had some conversations with the boat owner, as well as other satellite phone calls pertaining to his non-profit, Ocean Research Project. Matt was often calculating fuel consumption and determining the motoring speed we could afford. In addition, the skipper generally cooked at least one hot meal per day for us to share, most often starting by sauteing garlic and onion. Mmmmm! I gladly took care of the dishes in appreciation for the cooking.

Matt had made numerous prior deliveries, and has spent so much time at sea that I ended up teasing him about being “jaded,” though he was clearly not, just deeply familiar. For me, this was a journey of firsts: twice the longest stretch I have been offshore, the greatest number of miles in a voyage by 50%, the farthest south I had sailed by about 450 miles. It also included the roughest ride and strongest storm I have experienced while sailing.

Though I had sailed offshore twice- even passing the notorious Cape Hatteras once before, that was in a vessel about 90’ longer. The effect of weather is greater on small boats, and during the two days and nights we beat to windward on this journey, I was banged around, and my hands and arms became sore from holding on so much. Also, I had difficulty sleeping due to the motion and sounds of the boat under these conditions. Imagine trying to sleep while clinging to an incline. One that rocks, rolls, yaws, bounces, shakes, and vibrates. Accompanied by sounds of water swirling like a toilet flushing next to your head, thumps like sharks or killer whales attacking, various vibrations, and the hull flexing and bowing. The boat bouncing so hard that you are occasionally airborne in your bunk. But when you’re dog tired, you sleep when and where you can. The bouncing became so familiar to me that I would rouse from consciousness enough to know that I was in the air, then fall back asleep as soon as I was on the mattress again. At one point, I woke up from an off-watch nap in the saloon and Matt was a few feet away in the galley, saying we were no longer beating to windward. I had noticed and said, “Yes, I am just laying here enjoying the not-bouncing feeling.”

Poor sleep made it sometimes difficult for me to stay awake on night watch. I would sing, stretch, and climb around the cockpit–quietly, so not to wake Matt, whose berth was right below. On motoring nights, I would sing to myself to stay awake, often repeating “A Sailor’s Prayer,” which had become one of my anthems through the arduous task of killing off my old life and building My Whole New Life. Even so, it was sometimes hard to keep my eyes open. “Just two-and-a-half more hours,” I would tell myself. “You’re halfway through. You can do this.” Applying such determination sometimes minute-by-minute, I properly kept my watch.

As the passage went on, I gained confidence in my ability to make the right decisions when the wind or weather changed. Increasingly, I found myself thinking I should adjust something, and as I was thinking it, Matt directed me to that very action. This stoked my ego a bit, until the night of the speed demon, but that is for another story.

The most we saw of other human life while offshore.

The most we saw of other human life while offshore.

During the nine days out of sight of land, we saw only about seven ships, all far in the distance, and no other sailboats. We saw few other signs of life while offshore, only a few sea birds, occasional schools of flying fish flashing like little flocks of silver birds, and large mats and ribbons of sargassum. Aside from the visiting whale, but that is for another story.

Many times on this 11-1/2 day journey, I would giggle from the magnificent joy of being there. I marveled at my situation, amazed and delighted that I had ended up being the sole crew for this transit, with such a remarkable skipper. Some of my friends said I was lucky, but I was not the winner of some dollar ticket lottery. Rather, it seems that I was the best qualified candidate for a short-notice adventure. This was not mere happenstance, but due to years of effort, time, focus, networking, expense, and sacrifice.

A sea voyage typically includes many hours of monotony, giving one time to read, write, scrub the boat, and to think, think, think. “How many people get to do this?” I wondered, and guessed that the number is very few. I wondered how many people would truly want to make a voyage this, to put up with the daily discomforts, long hours, tedium, lack of conveniences, and being cut off from the rest of the world. I realized such people must be extremely rare. But I am one of them, and glad to be so. I also rediscovered parts of myself that I had neglected and almost forgotten, such as my youthful interest in being a marine biologist, and my particular love for whales.

As the journey spun and our days left were progressively smaller than the number ahead, again I felt connected to sailors through time, those called back to land by the yearning to see loved ones. I began to start thinking about what I would do ashore, and how I wanted to structure the week immediately following the delivery. I imagined how excited I would be to see land, other human faces, have a real shower, clean laundry, and eat a salad.

We made land two days before originally planned, because we had to take an unscheduled detour to a foreign land. How strange and new and wonderful that place looked after land had been only a concept for days. But that is for another story.

Heading into the storm off Puerto Rico.

Heading into the storm off Puerto Rico.

As our little boat entered Puerto Rican waters, a storm began to build. We had a lovely rainbow and sunset off the stern before the clouds darkened, the wind picked up, and the wave action increased. After darkness fell, the storm hit, with driving rain, and strong wind on the nose. We were beating into the waves, but the slamming motion was not nearly as bad as those earlier two nights and three days. Matt and I both felt this storm was the “grand finale” to a trying voyage. Between the beating for days, the side trip to the foreign land, becoming entangled with a fishing line on the way in, and the ensuing immigration matter in that country, the stealth ship encounter, the number of things that broke on the boat, and this storm, the delivery was challenging in unexpected ways. Matt and I were relieved to find it coming to an end. Once the boat was secure in its new slip at 12:21 A.M., Matt opened a bottle of wine in his own special way, poured some into two ceramic mugs from the boat, and we went onto the dock to clink our cups and drink. We stayed on the pier, talking and feeling excited and happy, for perhaps an hour or 90 minutes before we wound down enough to get some sleep, with great relief that neither of us had to be on watch.

It has been said that sailing is “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” but for me this voyage was one of long periods of reflection in solitude, graced with learning-by-doing, some direct instruction, and periods of joy, peace, delight, pleasure, amazement, and wonder. Despite the bruises and sore muscles it left me, I would do it again on a day’s notice.

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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 lengthy, 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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Embarking on a whole new life

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.

Since I was 10-years-old, I quietly held a dream, which began to speak ever more loudly about a decade ago. In response to a question about which of two political aspirations I might have had, I blurted out, “Neither! I want to jump aboard a wooden ship, sail around the world, ride my bike through every port, and get paid to write about it.” At the time, I laughed at myself and wondered where that came from, but now I know it was my heart’s desire, making itself known. Since then, life pushed me in this direction at increasing speed, and I have finally taken the leap.

I began to make serious changes last September, after something in me snapped. I decided I could no longer spend my days commuting 2-1/2 hours and being chained to a desk in an increasingly toxic environment. I had to leave that position well before I was prepared, with only a few weeks to plan a departure that served my integrity, as well as my personal safety. Having spent nearly five years looking for a good job in this Engineered Austerity Economy and submitting hundreds of applications, I recognized that “doing the same thing and expecting a different result” was futile, a mark of insanity, and determined it was time to make a radical change of course.

Preparations for My New Life included putting a great deal of work into the house to ready it for sale, and getting rid of nearly all of my personal belongings. These I mostly gavev away, for a variety of reasons, including that it allowed me to be generous in ways I could not normally enjoy. I found great satisfaction in giving meaningful gifts to friends, family, and even strangers–a few of whom became new friends.

In the past few years, I have had the pleasure of spending more than five weeks aboard tall ships, traveling nearly 2,000 miles. This included several days out of sight of land, island hopping in the Bahamas, traversing the lumpy water of Cape Hatteras, participating in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, riding a Gulf Stream of sapphire blue, and crewing for schooner VIRGINIA in Norfolk during OpSail. I have seen dolphins riding the bow wave and heard the sound of flying fish gliding, watched the canopy of the Milky Way appear, witnessed a most remarkable docking maneuver, and stood in surprise as an enormous sail shredded to ribbons during a squall. I also climbed an 80-foot main mast off Hatteras, broke bread with a former rum runner, dove from the bowsprit into aqua blue water, downed a drink that had an outrageously explicit name, and woke in the wee hours to feel the ship making record speed of 14.7 KT as she plowed her way past the mouth of the Potomac in 30 KT winds. In addition, I met many interesting people, heard plenty of good stories, and gained new friends from various parts of the world. And I didn’t toss me cookies once.

Tall ship adventures and challenges feel like home to me, and today I head to Lewes, Delaware to report for crew training aboard the tall ship KALMAR NYCKEL, a reproduction of the 17th century armed merchant vessel that brought Swedish settlers to New Sweden, now called Wilmington.

I may stay aboard KALMAR NYCKEL through early September, and perhaps beyond. Other possibilities for fall and winter include crewing for other tall ships, or for a private yacht that will head to the Caribbean for winter. If all else fails, I can always go to Spain, because I hear that Barcelona is wonderful, and that Andalusia is a fine place to spend the winter with friendly people, great food, and…sailing. Right now, all I know for sure is that my house is on the market, I shall report to the ship for three weeks, and whatever comes will not be boring! There are many good stories ahead.

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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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