Backstory, Chapter 4

Chapter Four – Mañana

After eight years and many wonderful coastal miles the beautiful Blue Moon began to feel small. It wasn’t her fault at all, it was that our easily stowable small kids had gotten bigger, and Annie had come along. The main saloon, or living room, felt like a New York City sidewalk at Christmastime with the gang below. Time to move up, so we called Alan. After some search we found a lovely Swan 48 named Feng. She had been nicely outfitted and sailed across the Atlantic by her Japanese owner. We again flaunted superstitious convention and re-named her. We also again had her hull repainted from white to flag blue, Mary’s only condition of ownership.

The name Blue Moon was meant to answer the question, how often do you get your dreamboat? Once in a blue moon. Now we were faced with naming another boat. The year we were doing this was 2003, the same year my father passed away. We wanted to honor his life. My father was the most wholly un-egotistical person I ever knew. This was wonderful but also made for more than a few embarrassing moments. One time he picked me up from high school in a 17-year-old musty-green 1960 Plymouth station wagon with fins and with three tires bailing-wired to its roof rack.

In his years of semi-retirement my father did a fair amount of business in Mexico. He ran an auto business wherein he purchased damaged automobiles from an insurance auction, towed them the 450 miles down I-35 to Nuevo Laredo, had them fixed up like new at one-fifth of the USA repair shop cost, and returned them to Dallas for sale, hopefully at a modest profit. The catch to this business was that the proprietors of the repair shops across the border had an entirely different concept of time. They would give Dad an estimate of cost and time of delivery, some two or three months away. They always, amazingly, delivered the repairs at the agreed cost. The timing was another matter altogether. I have personally witnessed my father drive all the way from Dallas to Nuevo Laredo to pick up a car at the appointed date, only to arrive at the dusty outdoor shop and have the car in a complete state of disassembly, two more months away from completion. My father was uniquely suited for this particular endeavor, because he was never, ever in a hurry. The friendly repair shop owners would always tell my Dad mañana, come back mañana. They would then go off happily together, have a hearty lunch, and agree on a new date for pickup. My father was always relaxed about these encounters, never unsettled. For years we thought mañana meant tomorrow; only after a long while did we discover that the word translates into sometime after today.

So in homage to my father we named the Swan 48 Mañana. The name carried with it the connotation that, once aboard, it was perfectly fine to slow down from the frenetic pace that consumes our lives and just enjoy the journey, like Dad.

Moving up eight feet in length with the same brand turned out to be a good step. The cockpit and controls were similar, just a stretch version. The 48-foot boat was an ideal size; big enough for everybody but uncomplicated enough in systems to be self-maintained. My Newport-Nantucket sails with co-workers continued. I now ran a banking group and I would reward the most junior bankers with the two-day sail. We would depart mid-day from Jamestown on the Friday before Memorial Day and pick up a mooring in Vineyard Haven that evening. We would dinghy in for dinner at the wonderful Black Dog Tavern, followed by beer and pool at Oak Bluffs. We slept on the boat and sailed the next morning to Nantucket, where I would join my family.

These Jamestown-Nantucket trips were fun sails with adequate libations on board. I was the boss so the youngsters usually showed restraint. On one of these trips, however, I noticed a young analyst stumble up from below with an overfull red plastic cup containing mostly Jack Daniels. He was cross-eyed, not three hours out of Jamestown. Whoa there, I said, enough fun for you. I was too late. Acting with an incomprehensible lack of judgment, he proceeded to go below and vomit all over the forward head, or bathroom. Not over the side, an act which had been deftly performed by plenty of respectable people, but inside the boat. It should be noted that I am an absolute stickler for cleanliness on a sailboat. I am a Nazi about crumbs and have taught all of my children that there is no reason whatsoever to bite a chip in half, needlessly spilling crumbs, when you can almost always fit the entire chip into your mouth. So the news of his rude defilement of the insides of our lovely new Mañana came as something of a shock. To top it off, he ripped the built-in forward hatch screen, wonderfully custom built by the finest of Finnish craftsmen, in a deranged attempt to birth his bloated body from the craft.

His served his penance the next morning by re-pristining the forward head despite his head-splitting pain. He effected a repair of the screen using what little tools he had available. Despite my enormous anger, I forgave him and told him I would not use this incident against him when he came up for promotion, so long as he promised to fly straight thereafter. I kept my end, as did the wayward youth. I reasoned that one mistake, no matter how horrendous, should not define his professional life.

Mañana took us on many fine sails. We took a family trip through the delightful and impressive Cape Cod Canal and all the way up to Portland, Maine. The Canal was like a Disney river, winding, green and deep, with hand-laid rocky shores. We traveled with the swift tidal current, wind from behind and water flat as a pond. Flat water brings smiles, every time. We crossed under the Bourne and Saginaw Bridges that connect Cape Cod to the mainland. We passed southbound tankers whose bulk would raise the water level several feet as they passed. After this we sailed to Plymouth and docked not 200 feet from the Mayflower replica. The next day I pushed too long and sailed about 9 hours to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I have since learned an immutable rule of family cruising – that is, to keep the sailing to at most four hours per day, preferably in flat, protected waters, and to make the trip all about the destination. As we approached the lovely dock in Portsmouth I could feel the boating fatigue coursing through the veins of my entire family, so once again we opted to treat them to a hotel room. The announcement of the hotel room decision brought a rousing cheer from my weary crew, and further cemented the importance of short, happy hops. We sailed to Portland, Maine the next day and left the boat there, just as we were about to enter some of the finest cruising grounds in the world. This trip was memorable but very poorly planned on my part. Our next Maine trip, years later on Moondance, was the logistical opposite of the first and remains to this day a favorite family vacation.

Each time a visitor came to Nantucket we took them on a daysail in the Sound. We would often anchor out by Great Point and have lunch. I would free up a spare spinnaker halyard, which went right up to the top of the mast, for the kids to swing on. They would stand on the bow pulpit, tightly gripping the line, then launch away from the boat and towards the stern. Out they would swing, grinning, then the arc would begin to swing them inward, right back towards the looming hull. Inevitably Mary would panic and say “let go!” just as they did exactly that, plunging feet-first into the cold, clear Nantucket waters. We would don swim masks and swim to the bottom, 15 feet down, where we would look up and see the keel of Mañana, magically suspended above the sandy bottom. We had great trips to Edgartown, where we would moor in the harbor and pick up ice cream after dinner before taking the launch back to the boat. We ferried the Nantucket Yacht Club dinghy sailors to a few off-Island regattas, where one of our boys would often compete in Opti’s or 420s.

 

Mañana now allowed for something we had not thought practical on Blue Moon – true blue water, open ocean sailing. Since reading the Buckley books, I had longed to sail on the open ocean. Mañana was a highly capable and comfortable ocean sailor, sleek and fast but with ample creature comforts. We proceeded to sail her to Bermuda on three different occasions.

The first Bermuda trip was memorable for its major failing and lack of wind. I thought to procure the services of an expert for this first open ocean trip, and so hired the affable and accomplished Chris, a delivery skipper whom we had met in Nantucket. Chris brought as a mate Thorfin, another veteran delivery skipper. Sarah (our oldest daughter) and her friend Henry joined, as well as Matt (our oldest son) and Dave, a close friend of mine. The seven of us departed from Nantucket harbor in June of 2006, riding a gentle southwest breeze through a typical Nantucket fog. After the first chilly day in the cool northeastern waters, with delightful dolphin sightings, we entered the glorious Gulf Stream with its crystal deep-blue waters and flying fish.

Halfway across the 60-mile Gulf Stream the wind expired completely. We were becalmed. As we were cruising, not racing, we fired up the 90 horsepower diesel inboard and proceeded along by motor. We were baking in the hot sun with no escape. Going below was to step into a furnace. Compounding the pain was the sunburn we had all gotten on the first foggy day, where the cool damp wind betrayed us into thinking the sun’s rays had been obscured, when in fact they had been magnified. We fashioned a crude bimini, or shady cover, out of one of our blankets. Then our major failure hit.

On of the fan belts on the engine began to screech like a cat in a dishwasher.   To me it sounded like the belt was slipping on its pulley, an innocuous and fixable problem. To Chris and Thorfin, our experts, it sounded like the pulley bearing was failing, which they deemed to create a potential fire hazard. A fire on a boat is truly a disastrous affair, like a tiger loose in a children’s zoo. To avoid any possible chance of an engine fire, against my own less-informed judgment, they cut off the offending fan belt. Although this action stopped the infernal screeching, it had the wholly unfortunate side effect of completely shutting down our ability to make fresh water and our ability to charge the batteries. We now continued on, 400 miles to go, Apollo-13 style. We had to conserve water to use for drinking, ergo no showers. The lack of showers coupled with the 84-degree Gulf Stream waters and the fact that Mañana had no air conditioning made for some very sticky, unpleasant nights. The remainder of the journey had a constant are-we-there-yet feel. We also had to preserve our depleting battery bank for the critical tasks of radio and running lights, so we could call for help if needed and also avoid being run into by other vessels. This restriction meant we shut down the handy-dandy chartplotter, which is like a GPS in a car, and reverted to paper navigation charts and a hand-held GPS, which gave us our latitude and longitude position.

So we continued on, sweaty and sticky, marking on the chart a series of “X”s, the progression of which made clear our slow and steady progress toward Bermuda. Our ship’s batteries finally died altogether, about 8 hours from Bermuda. We limped into St. Georges, lining up the navigation lights to make it through the narrow cut into the harbor, Matthew on the bow with a flashlight, our human bow light. We dropped anchor, raised our quarantine flag and took a swim, glad to have completed the journey.

 

The second Bermuda trip was more, well, interesting.

“Um, we should watch the fries before we hit the ocean, they are supposedly bad for your stomach,” I said to the crew. We had stopped at a Wendy’s on our way to Newport.

“Nah, I have a stomach of steel,” said John, infamously. “I will be the last one to get sick.”

There were five of us, preparing for our second sailing trip to Bermuda, this time from Newport, aboard Mañana. Sarah was with us, trooper that she is. Never let her tell you she is not a real sailor. I have seen her hand-steering in a gale in the Gulf Stream. Matt was with us, just finishing his senior year in high school. He had sailed competitively all through his youth, and would continue to do so for four years in college, including twice at Collegiate Nationals. We made a “May-Term” school project out of the Newport to Bermuda trip, with the proviso that the students would prepare a presentation afterward. We were joined by two of Matt’s buddies, along for the adventure.

I had tried to get Captain Chris to join us, but he was unavailable. So this was to be our adventure.   Matt’s friends John and Tom had no sailing experience.

John was hideously, famously, breathtakingly seasick. We were not 45 minutes off the dock at Jamestown when he heaved over the side, his friends cackling with glee. They took his picture in the act, with the Newport Bridge looming in the background. That is like driving from New York to LA and getting carsick in New Jersey. I hasten to add that he was not in physical danger. We were able to keep him hydrated with Gatorade and sparsely fed with saltines. He did, however, lose eleven pounds in under four days, a diet plan he would surely not recommend.

The trip had only three high points for John. The first night out I was steering and John was in his favored spot, supine on the leeward (comfortably downhill) side of the cockpit. Suddenly we were in the company of two very large glow-in-the-dark dolphins, darting back and forth under the hull. They were entirely covered with phosphorescent jellyfish. It was a fabulous site, one I have never witnessed again.

“John, you have got to see this,” I said.

He stood shakily and took in the spectacle. This movement, as did any movement, caused him to be ill, yet again. Afterward, he looked up from his bag and flashed a minor grin.

“It was worth it,” he croaked.

The second high point for John was sighting Bermuda. It is a maxim of sailing that the time between sighting land and reaching land seems interminably long. Indeed it can easily be four or five hours. Despite our explanations to John and our entreaties begging him to rest, he would neither sit nor take his eyes off of the blessed terra firma until our arrival.

The third high point for John was reaching the hotel. This natural hotel-high is a little-known but much beloved side effect of sailing, or at least of sailing with me.

I had asked John before our trip if he suffered from seasickness. No, he had replied. About halfway to Bermuda, I inquired as to what experience he had based this assertion upon. His uncle had a ski boat, he said, and he never got sick on that.

I then asked, somewhat gingerly, “John, do you get carsick?”

“Oh yes,” he replied.

I recounted this entire conversation to a genial woman from Georgia while waiting in the customs line at St. Gorges.

“Well does he get stupid-sick?” she drawled.

I could only grin.

 

This trip had two other memorable events. We were two days out and exhaustion was beginning to set in. Matt and I were the only two watch captains, so we split the night watches a disagreeable six-on, six off. Six hours on a watch is too long, way too long. We hot-bunked, collapsing into the forward lower bunk in turn after each watch. We normally were both on deck most of each day, but after two days of this I had relented and gone forward midday for a nap. I was deeply asleep when Matt came below to rouse me.

“Dad, dad, sorry to wake you.”

“Huh, what, Matt, is everything okay?”

“Well you might want to come up here, the wind just picked up, a lot.”

His tone put me on edge. He is by nature a non-complainer. I had two strident emotions – the fear of the unknown conditions and an overwhelming need to pee. I knew that once I got on deck I would be busy, probably for a while. I shook the cobwebs and looked up from my bunk.

“Okay, be right there, but I need to use the head first.”

“Oh, okay, see you in a minute, “ said Matt, before scampering off to return to the deck. When he got to the cockpit, the rest of the crew stared at him, then at the empty companionway.

“Where’s dad?” asked Sarah.

“He is using the bathroom,” replied Matt.

“He’s WHAT?” they all said in unison.

A few minutes later I appeared at the top of the stairs, still addled, and begin to look things over, trying to decipher our status.

“Well, what do we do?” asked Sarah.

“I need a minute. Just let me assess the situation,” I said. This phrase has become a family punch line for tense situations where the person in charge is ill tempered.

The wind had suddenly grown to 40 knots. Forty knots is a lot of wind. We had too much sail on for these conditions and the boat was uncontrollable. We were heeling over way too far, scary far. We took a deep breath, eased the sails and headed more downwind. This relaxed everything. We then formulated a plan, tucked a double reef in the main sail, rolled up most of the jib and returned to our course, balanced but shaken.

I had procured the services of a weather forecaster for our trip. I wanted to know how long these conditions were likely to last, and what was coming next. I went below and dialed him up on the satphone. I reached his wife, who said he was out mowing the lawn. Given the howling wind and frothy seas just outside my porthole, I found this dichotomy strangely disturbing. I pictured her waving for his attention and him coming inside, grass-green shoes and sweat-patterned gray shirt.   He checked on his computer.

“Wow,” he said, “that is some squall.”

“Squall?” I queried, “there’s no rain.”

“Yea, it’s a dry squall.”

This sounded more like a name for a scary sailing movie than a real thing. What the heck is a dry squall, and how about a little warning? I squelched this thought and stuck with the business at hand.

“Okay, how long will it last, and what is next?”

He filled us in on the next 24 hours. The wind had peaked and would continue in the 25-30 knot range for the next day. We sailed ahead, now well-balanced for the conditions. The next morning brought with it one of my favorite sailing memories.

The seas had built to giant but gently-shaped swells. I was steering, alone on deck, just after daybreak. The rig was balanced and the boat was sailing beautifully, the stern lifting smoothly as each wave slid past. We were flying along with no fuss, despite the turmoil around us. The wind had not dropped below 25 knots for a full 24 hours, so that wind speed had become routine. Behind us, each swell loomed large before lifting the stern. Looking downwind, the waves were streaming away as far as the eye could see, foam blowing across the wavetops. Sarah came up onto the deck. She looked behind us.

“That’s actually pretty terrifying.” She said this without a glint of fear.

She then turned to look ahead of us, at the trains of endless waves rolling away. She pondered these for a few minutes.

“I love it when the ocean is like this,” she said. She has always been tough and tender, pigtails and teacups and steely resolve.

The journal I kept for this trip has sparse entries, but after this interaction I had written:

I love it when my daughter is like this.

 

Our final Newport to Bermuda trip came in 2010, when we first participated in the storied Newport-Bermuda race. The qualification process to enter the race was, to put it mildly, arduous. The race has a stellar safety record and they maintain this through extensive safety training and inspection. For sailing experience, the race organizers care only about ocean sailing miles. So although I had sailed for thousands of miles over the years, the only experience that counted was that gained during the two Bermuda trips. Our crew consisted of me, Matt, Jackie, Sarah and MH, as well as two other ex-BU sailors, Max and Fiona. The average age of the crew other than me was about 21. Max and Fiona had some good big-boat experience and were excellent sailors, if young.

The Newport-Bermuda race is tough. It takes about three and a half days to sail the 635-mile race, with the Gulf Stream running through the middle of the course and wreaking havoc with the waves and currents. We performed passably for rank beginners. We were in the cruising division, the less-serious end of the spectrum, and ended up about mid-fleet.

We had our share of rough water on this trip.   On the second night out, I was off-watch and trying to get some sleep. MH was in the bunk above me. The boat has fresh air vents known as dorade boxes, a cleverly designed vent that allows fresh air to enter the cabins below decks while keeping ocean water out. The pipe-like scoops on deck face forward during all but the roughest conditions and do their job admirably. The trouble is, in really rough water, where mountainous waves are crashing across the deck, the dorade boxes must be turned around to face aft, lest they spew salt water into the cabins below. We had not turned the tops, so that about every 10 minutes, just as we had fallen into a desperate sleep in the muggy cabin, a huge wave would hit and spit about a pint of warm salt water onto MH and me. The level of physical discomfort created by the intermittent sticky-water dousing is difficult to convey. It was, needless to say, miserable and impossible to sleep, though it was after 2am.

After one of our splashings I explained the dorade function to MH.

“Well why don’t we go out and turn them?” he asked.

“Too dangerous to send anyone out to the foredeck in these pounding waves, “ I replied. “But, well, there might be another way.”

“What other way?” he asked.

“That hatch right above your head opens up not two feet from the dorade vent top. It might be possible to shimmy through the hatch and turn the pipe.”

“Let’s do it,” he said. “We cannot go on like this.”

“There is a catch,” I said. “We must time the opening of the hatch between waves, otherwise we could have a waterfall in here.”

So MH waited until just after a mountainous wave had passed, and deftly opened the small hatch. He squeezed his slender torso through the opening and reached for the dorade top. He got one turned, with some difficulty, then the other.

“Come on come on come on!” I urged.

He slipped his body through and reached up to pull the hatch closed, just as the bow dove into a wave. Water flooded the hatchway and doused him to the core.

“REALLY?” was all he could utter.

 

After we reached Bermuda we did one of our favorite things and checked into a hotel. In this case not just any hotel, but the beautiful and serene Coral Beach Club. I have a vivid memory of first walking into our larger room, feeling the startling refreshment of the air conditioning, and looking in turns at each of the smiling faces of the crew. We showered and scrubbed and met for dinner at the beachside restaurant, where we laughed and took pictures and ate fondue and reveled in our accomplishment.

 

2 thoughts on “Backstory, Chapter 4

  1. I love the part about Daddy and it is all quite accurate, he was one of a kind. I feel that you have enjoyed the journey in these sailing travels, maybe not always at a lesurely pace, but loved every minute all the same. What fabulous family memories to bring smiles for years to come.

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  2. I have enjoyed every word of this Michael. Your writing is so smooth and effortless, it feels like I’m having a wonderful conversation with my amazing brother! Thanks for all the heart warming family memories you’ve shared, I can’t wait for the next chapter!

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