Backstory, Chapter 2

Chapter Two – Bigger Boats

As of this writing, Dallas is not a coastal city. I grew up in Dallas, so people are surprised when they discover it was there that I took up sailing. The terrain around Dallas is flat and dull, but it is pockmarked with man-made lakes containing water with varying degrees of muddiness. I spent my early big-boat sailing days in the coffee-colored waters of Lake Dallas.

One of my best high-school friends, Jim, was a sailor. Jim’s father owned a Catalina 28 named Matchless. They raced this boat each weekend. I was brought on as crew with three specific jobs. I was to crank the winch to bring in the jib when they yelled “Winch!”, I was to stop turning when they yelled “Stop!” and I was never, ever to drop the winch handle overboard. Though I was successful in all of these tasks, I still have nightmares about dropping the winch handle, watching hopelessly as it disappeared into the mocha-hued depths. The races involved tension and yelling and endless opportunities to make colossal mistakes. When the racing was done everybody seemed extremely happy and complimentary and we felt, in our matching tee shirts, like a well-bonded crew.

After the racing Jim and I and a few friends would load up the Matchless with libations and sandwiches and just go sailing, often overnight. We learned the pleasure of just cruising around. Since we had no charts, we ran aground with alarming frequency. With no tides to worry about we would drop the sails and climb out to the end of the boom and rock the boat until we backed the keel off of the muddy bottom, engine reversing.   My early keelboat experience was largely comprised of these outings, and gradually I came to consider myself a sailor.

I did not sail much at all through college, just a few trips on friends’ boats. Mary and I got married directly out of college, at the ripe age of 23. Our first couple’s sailing trip was on a chartered Pearson 33 on lake Travis, near Austin. This is a beautiful clear lake bounded by high limestone cliffs in the Texas Hill Country. I remember first spotting the Pearson as I was looking down the steep hill through the live oak branches into the clear, steep-sided cove, thinking it was just too beautiful, too big, too much.

“They are never going to let us take that boat.”

Mary, my most ardent supporter, looked at the boat, then at me, and said “You are right, there’s no way.”

Somehow, they let us charter the boat, despite my lack of any real experience as a captain, except on the Scamper, which hardly counted. We had a lovely weekend, with our dear friends Doug and Susan as well as Willie and Lisa. Willie was a colleague of mine and Lisa was his wife of only a few months. I remember thinking the lake was small for the boat, as we were forever tacking. I also remember, rather vividly, that Willie and Lisa made happy noises all night long in the aft cabin. Mary and I were in the v-berth, at the very opposite end of the boat, and still we heard the commotion.

Several years later, again with Doug and Sue, we chartered a Morgan Out-Island 41 for one day in the Virgin Islands. This was to be my inauspicious beginning as a salt-water captain. There is a fairly serious guideline among charter companies that you should not be allowed to charter a boat bigger than one you have sailed before. I found this rule a practical impossibility and was in St Thomas, walking down the dock, about to break the rule yet again. I spotted the Morgan, looking long and intimidating in its slip.

“They are never going to let us take that boat,” I said, for the second time in my life.

“Oh, sure they will,” said Mary, striking a different chord. There is a delicate point to be made here. While she did in fact have confidence in my abilities, she had simply reasoned this out and knew their commercial tendencies would overcome any doubt. She is extremely smart and seldom wrong.

As it turns out, the swarthy charter-company gentleman who was to check us out on the vessel and show us the ropes was most miserably hung over. I am pretty certain I could identify the brand of alcohol he had over-imbibed just from the leakage through his suffering pores. He pointed and grunted and suffered through our abbreviated check-in, looking near-death. The blazing mid-morning sun and stultifying boatyard humidity did him no favors. He had neither the energy nor the inclination to inquire after my credentials. He was most delighted when we left and I am quite certain he was fast asleep within moments of our departure. I recall only two instructions. The first was a rather vague warning about not “cutting the corner” leaving St. Thomas except near high tide. The second warning was very explicit. We were to be especially leery of the coral reef if we planned to enter the harbor at Jost Van Dyke. This was a sinuous pathway to be navigated with the utmost in nautical care.

We had a splendid sail across Sir Francis Drake Channel, with strong steady breezes pushing the Morgan along with aplomb. We dropped the sails and began motoring very carefully through the aforementioned passageway into the harbor at Jost Van Dyke. It actually seemed pretty simple. We had a lookout stationed on the bow, eyeballing the reef and pointing out directions. Right smack in the middle of this passage, far enough in to be committed, the engine died. Dead died. My heart leapt into my throat and I stopped breathing. I asked someone, I do not recall whom, to help unfurl the jib, as we had no time or room to raise the mainsail. We got half of the jib rolled out, picked up a bit of breeze, sailed into the harbor, gybed (that is, turned around with the wind passing behind us), and headed back, reversing our course. There was no way on earth I was going to attempt to anchor under sail in that small and unfamiliar cove. I suspect the patrons at Foxy’s, the famous beach bar that had been our destination, wondered over their margaritas what madness could have possessed the rubes in the charter boat to perform a sloppy U-turn and head back to sea.

We were proud of our clear-headed action in avoiding the reef. We had performed deftly and were back under sail. These pleasant feelings were soon to be dashed. We could not get the engine restarted despite repeated attempts. With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect a simple fuel filter issue was the culprit. At the time I knew too little to even begin to troubleshoot. So now the problem, where to go? With no ability to drop the sails and motor, I had no intent whatsoever of attempting to navigate us back to port. To this day I possess a dreadful fear of docking, even with a perfectly functioning engine and extra hands on deck. We had neither of these. So we needed a safe place to stop. This was, incredibly, before the ubiquity of cellphones had asserted itself, so we couldn’t simply call for rescue.

We decided to anchor at Caneel Bay in St. John. This bay was chock full of all manner of lovely boats on moorings and at anchor. While we would have preferred to keep our distance from the other boats, the seas and water depth forced us into the midst of the other craft in the anchorage. It was an awful dilemma – closer to shore provided a better chance of anchoring securely but also a markedly higher number of expensive vessels into which to careen. We sailed up into Caneel Bay, dropped our sails, drifted to a stop, and let the anchor go. I made sure we let out enough scope, or anchor rope relative to the depth, so that the anchor would have a chance to dig into the sandy bottom from a sideways angle, as it was designed to do. We secured the anchor line to the bow and held our breath, no longer in control, counting the excruciating seconds as the anchor line tightened. The wind seemed to strengthen and strain the tackle. Within one minute the painful truth became clear – the anchor was dragging.

The next 10 minutes remain to this day my most humiliating moments as a skipper. We were drifting inexorably toward a giant motor yacht, not four boat lengths away. We had no way to stop. I compounded the shame by trying to tow the 27,000 pound Morgan with our tiny dinghy and its 8 horsepower outboard motor. This was akin to towing a Suburban up a sloping driveway with a tricycle. We were helpless and hopeless.

Not for the last time in my sailing career I was rescued by the selfless bravery and kindly pity of a beefy motor yacht crew. The sleek 100-foot power yacht that we were about to smash into, backwards and with alarming momentum, dispensed several of its crew in their “dinghy” with its 150 horsepower outboard. These tanned and brawny youth with their manly, hairy legs, tossed us a line and calmly towed us well up into the anchorage, safely in the lee of the shore and out of the biting breeze, and waited patiently until they were sure our anchor held. I was deeply grateful but severely diminished. They were gallant and would accept no recompense.

We took the dinghy to the dock and walked to the hotel bar. We ordered something with extra rum and licked our wounds. We found a phone and called Mr. swarthy hangover and told him our tale of woe. We also said we were catching a nice safe ferry back to St. Thomas and they could do whatever they pleased with their sailboat, as long as we never again set foot upon it.

It was the last time I captained a sailboat of any size for five full years.

 

St Martin to Newport, Day 3

Yesterday was cloudy all day and night, cool but dark.  Stars came out in the wee hours of the morning, on Bill’s watch.  Awoke to sunny skies, calmer seas and winds blowing gently but with firm conviction. Below felt like we were barely moving, turns our we are making great time. We had lasagne for dinner, pretty beefy stuff.  We miss Jackie’s cooking, and company.

We just had a squall, Tom at the helm.  We all remembered Bill’s TED talk on clouds from the Crossing.  Tom and Dana read the situation like pros, reefed ahead of the gusts and then went back to regular plan as the rain settled in. Scooting along beautifully now.  No ships in sight, water depth 18,000 feet.  We are but a speck and yet, on our beloved Moondance,  our own sustained universe. Reminds me of the marbles on Men In Black.

Dana got hit in the head last night by a wayward flying fish.  Never one to complain, he only mentioned this after I found another flying fish dead on the foredeck and showed it to him.The solo watches give this journey a very different feel.  Wonderful companionship during the day, equally wonderful solitude at night.  And before you ask, we are always clipped in on night watches.

Dana and I laughed out loud this morning at the NYT recap of Obama’s remarks at the correspondent’s dinner.  He said Trump should have a good shot at finally closing Guantanamo Bay, because “he really knows how to run waterfront properties into the ground.”  Tragically funny.

Our love to all, happy Sunday.  MJ

 

Backstory, Chapter 1

[below I have copied the prologue and first chapter of the backstory that led up to the Atlantic Crossing.  I am 4 chapters in, planning to work a bit on this St. Martin-Newport trip.]

 

Moondancing Across the Ocean

 

Prologue

 

“I have a hypothetical question for you.”

“Shoot.”

“Would you ever be interested in crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat?”

“No chance.”

“Okay. You mind if I ask why not?’

“Because I’m afraid I would die.”

 

This conversation happened with Jonathan, one of my closest friends. We were on a business trip together, in a rental car, with me driving. I wasn’t surprised that he had no interest in the Atlantic Crossing, what surprised me was his rationale. I could think of many more plausible reasons. Not enough time; who can take off three weeks? Fear of seasickness. No desire to be away from family. Fear of being bored. Fear of being terrified. But not fear of death. I pointed out, without trying to be argumentative, that he was more likely to die in an auto accident than on a sailing trip across the Atlantic. I might have even said during this auto trip. This was exaggerating, of course. Sailing across an ocean obviously carries risks. But these risks are quite manageable. Nonetheless, it was after this conversation that I realized that finding a crew, and especially finding just the right crew, was not going to be easy.

 

Chapter One – Early Sailing

When I was eleven my Great Grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, passed away and, in a stirring stroke of generosity, left some of her estate to her great grandchildren. My share was a lofty $250. I used this generous bequest to buy a small sailboat.

The craft that met the confluence of my desire and my budget was the Super Scamper, an eleven-foot dinghy constructed of styrafoam and covered with a skin of plastic, like the fancier coolers of the day. It was the sister craft to the Sea Snark and Sunflower, which were hugely popular in the early 1970’s. These boats were prominently featured in my two favorite publications of the era, Popular Science and the Sears Roebuck Catalog. This catalog was the internet of the 1970s, with youngsters pouring over its enticing pages for countless hours. They also had a styrafoam version unclad with plastic, but it seemed so temporary and anyway thanks to Mammo Baker I had the wherewithal to spring for the better version.

The Scamper had a simple lateen-rigged mainsail, just like the much coveted but wholly unaffordable Sunfish. It was wonderfully simple to rig up and sail.  Its hull was shaped like a large paddleboard with a four-inch deep cockpit extending from just behind the mast all the way back to the transom. You sat just barely in it as opposed to on it, the slight difference being mysteriously comforting. It was a superb explorer. It weighed in at an astonishingly svelte 50 pounds and could easily be lifted on the roof racks (also from Sears Roebuck) attached to the top of our 1967 blue Ford Custom.

Our Ford Custom, which we later named the Blue Goose, enriched our lives with countless memories. It was the basic family sedan of the times, the cheaper version of the Ford Galaxie. It had a simple 289 cubic inchV-8 and a three-on-the-tree manual gearshift. You could open up the hood and figure out what did what. It had factory air-conditioning, a gluttonous splurge. Its blue vinyl bench seats would scald the underneath of your thigh like a griddle if you were so careless as to sit down in shorts, unprotected, on a Texas summer day. It also had, secured to the floor of the back seat, the anchor bolts for the front seat belts. The exposed heads of these anchor bolts would somehow pick up heat from the undercarriage and reach an unholy temperature. I know this because on long trips where sleeping was in order it was my lot in life, being the youngest, to be relegated to this floor space. I recall on more than one occasion yelping like a startled pup when my tender flesh encountered these searing bolt-heads, only to be shushed by my sister and scolded for waking her. The Blue Goose was also the cause for my Iowa-farm-raised father, pragmatic to a fault, to embrace my decidedly non-practical pursuit of sailing.

The cause of his embrace of the Scamper was an early lesson in experimental aerodynamics. We had for all of my childhood enjoyed an incredibly compact travel trailer called a Mobil Scout. This fifteen-and-a-half-foot marvel of efficiency included a kitchen, bathroom, dining table and queen sized master bed. It had a large fold-down bunk with about eighteen inches of headroom, where I slept. The lightweight construction was wonderfully pliable, so that sitting bolt-upright in the bunk and banging your head was a surprisingly benign miscue. The dining table folded down to a single bed with a cushy mattress, perfect for my sister Marianne, three years my senior. The three older siblings, David, Dorris and Carolyn, were older and off to college by this point. The summer after I bought the Scamper we set off on an extended business-camping trip. My father’s business, Independent Newspaper Markets, took him to small towns across the U.S., and this summer my mother, Marianne and I accompanied him, along with the Mobil Scout.

The problem with the Mobil Scout was that it was shaped like a modestly elongated box. The large square front of the Scout acted like an air break, dramatically slowing the process of crossing our great nation. It was well-established doctrine that the Blue Goose, with the accelerator mashed to the floorboards, could not keep up the requisite 70 miles per hour speed limit, which my father viewed as more of a floor, through any kind of a sustained incline. Then along came the Scamper. When secured to the rooftop racks atop the Blue Goose, the Scamper split the wind like Moses parting the Red Sea. Magically, wondrously, the Blue Goose could now top even the longest hills at 75 mph. My father, not prone to shows of exuberance, grinned like a kid and declared the Scamper an entirely welcome addition to our traveling entourage.

My Father grew up during the Depression and was always happy with what we had. The only hint of envy I ever detected in him was his winsome glance at the Airstream travel trailers. They were fancy and lightweight and glorious, built of polished gleaming aluminum and sporting beautifully rounded, slickly aerodynamic ends. They lived up to their name, towing with ease. You can imagine, then, how my heart swelled with pride as I spotted my dad’s beaming sidelong glance as we passed a car towing an Airstream, on a hill no less. The Scamper had already earned it stripes.

 

The Scamper was always ready for action. It was amazing, really, that for $200 you could get out on the water and just explore. On our summer trip we parked the Mobil Scout at a state park campsite, somewhere in upstate New York. We chocked the trailer up and hooked up the water and electricity lines. Our chores done, Marianne and I lifted the Scamper down from the roof rack and trundled off to the nearby lake. We ghosted in and out of pristine, tree-lined coves all afternoon. When the wind died, we dropped the sail and paddled using the wooden dagger board, the ripples drawing slow lazy circles to the banks. On a later trip to Rockport, Texas, we found ourselves in the bay, in short swells, with two frisky dolphins skimming along beside us, only feet away. We were thrilled with the company. The waves washed across the bow and into the cockpit, depositing myriad small shrimp and other creatures. The freeloaders danced and squirmed and happily rode the next wave out.

St. Martin to Newport

Day 2

Well I am cheating to post on our Transatlantic blog but here we are on Moondance again.  This time it is just Bill, Dana, Tom and me – the elders of the transatlantic crossing.  We are delivering Moondance from St. Thomas to Newport.  We are skipping the Bermuda stop and expect this 1500 nautical mile trip to take around 9 days.

We left yesterday, April 29th, at 3:30 pm.  It is 1:30 pm now and we are about 150 miles north of St. Thomas.  Blessedly cloudy skies and nice breezes.  We saw a whale yesterday just off of Anguilla, the biggest I have seen sailing.  He was bigger than Moondance.  He (or she) was moving along at quite a clip, giving us a thar-she-blows show.  Saw lots of flying fish today, and a graceful tern that swooped around us for 2 hours, plucking up the little fishes that were spooked by the passage of a vessel.We are settling into a routine.  I devised yet another watch system: solo watches of 2 hours and 40 minutes.  This makes nine watches per day which rotates the night watches automatically, moving each person one watch earlier each day.  It also has the benefit of every watch for an individual starting exactly eight hours after his last watch ended.  The downside is that we have odd times to get used to, like the 8:40am-11:20am watch.  We have printouts posted in three places to keep us straight.

I prepared dinner last night, beef tips in cream sauce.  I couldn’t read the French instructions so I sent a copy to an unnamed child, who translated for me, and I quote, “Leave the bag in somethings something something a casserole something during 15-20 minutes.” Oh, that, got it now.  It also said to cook rice.  The directions were also in French but it seemed to say 2 parts water to one part rice and 13 minutes.  I did this and out came some of the best-tasting rice I have ever eaten.  Sure miss Jackie though!

Love to all, MJ

 

Sotogrande, Spain!

We arrived at Sotogrande at 8 am local time.  Bill won the arrival time bet.  Motorsailed past the Rock of Gibralter at 3:30 am. All are safe and sound.  Thanks to all of you for your well wishes, thoughts and prayers.  We love you and cannot wait to see you.

Sotogrande beach
Sotogrande beach
Happy on land, Sotogrande, Spain
Happy on land, Sotogrande, Spain
Si, Just back her in there (most stressful part of journey)
Si, Just back her in there (most stressful part of journey)
Sunrise over the Med!
Sunrise over the Med!
Gibraltar!
Gibraltar!
Last day at sea
Last day at sea
Farewell Atlantic Ocean
Farewell Atlantic Ocean
1 Day to go!
1 Day to go!
Last Sunset of Crossing
Last Sunset of Crossing

Only 15 hours to go, but we aren’t in any rush.

Only 80 miles from Sotogrande! Today the crew is enjoying catching up on some much needed rest after several nights of rocking and rolling in wind and waves made for less than favorable sleeping conditions. Through the past few nights I’ve grown to appreciate my berth in the aft cabin(nicknamed “the coffin” for its claustrophobia inducing size and shape); if I wedge my legs and back just right between the two walls of the berth I can manage to be stationary through almost any sea state and get some sleep, which has certainly been a struggle for other members of the crew.

Fortunately we are now into flat water. No one is complaining about light wind and slow boatspeed today; instead we are relaxing on the deck and soaking in the sun (with plenty of sunscreen of course!). We will need the sleep in the bank for our late night passage through the Strait of Gibraltar followed by our arrival in Sotogrande, all within the next 15 hours. While we are excited to be so near our destination, there’s no rush to be through with beautiful, blue water days like today.

Love to all. See you soon,

Liz

Cam testing the beanbags
Cam testing the beanbags
Jackie and Matt cuddling off the coast of Southern Spain
Jackie and Matt cuddling off the coast of Southern Spain

Monday, 2:30 pm, 90 miles from Sotogrande

If this otherwise sublime experience had a nadir, it was yesterday.  The waves and wind from the north were relentless.  Winds topped at 30 knots, waves kept washing over us.  Everything got wet.  We shipped waves into the cockpit measuring in tens of gallons on several occasions. The new cushions were completely drenched. The hull kept falling off of waves and crashing, shuddering the entire 56 feet of Moondance to her core.  Dana noted that he now understood the meaning of “shiver me timbers.”  The motion below was equally disturbing.  It actually made you angry.  The exception, notably, was Jackie, who baked bread below in these conditions.  She is cut from very tough stock. Everyone else was seasicky and grumpy.  It is amazing how much time you can spend simply being petulant.  At 10 pm I ignored Jackie’s warning (“that operation takes three hands”) and attempted to open the small fridge and extract a simple yogurt.  Bad idea.  We hit a rogue wave and I tumbled across the saloon, along with all the contents of the fridge, landing, fortunately, on the setee, albeit totally upside-down.  The eggs catapulted directly into the setee across the boat, without hitting the floor, and shattered.  This anti-gravity feat requires some genuine angle of heel. I cursed eggs, which I love, cleaned up, and sulked off to bed.  The crew was angelic and helpful through my blundering ways, helping with clean up.  Nice people.

Later in the night the wind abated, and we spent midnight until 6 am weaving our way across the Gibraltar lanes of tanker traffic.  Bill, our hero, stayed up all night at the NAV station and gave us courses to steer to avoid the traffic.  Closest we got was about .6 miles. Good visibility too. The wind totally died so we motored for a few hours.  We spotted Bill his 8-noon solo watch and were rewarded with gently filling southerly breezes and flat seas.  Spirits soared as the motion smoothed and we had a dry-out morning.  We conducted a long-planned fuel transfer operation, using Bill’s ingenuity, a 25-foot clear hose, and Cam’s lungs to blow into the feeder tube to get the siphon going.  Yay gravity.

So now it is music in the saloon and cockpit, dry out of everything on deck, easy sailing and grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. Mother mother ocean, I hear you calling me.  Happy Monday to all.

MJ

Sunset Sunday
Sunset Sunday
High seas
High seas
Water everywhere, Jackie down below baking bread
Water everywhere, Jackie down below baking bread
Ahh, smooth waters
Ahh, smooth waters
Drying out, note quality of billow
Drying out, note quality of billow
Avoiding tanker traffic
Avoiding tanker traffic
Music man, loading up some Buffett
Music man, loading up some Buffett
Grilled Cheese and tomato soup for lunch!
Grilled Cheese and tomato soup for lunch!
Fueling operation, upstream
Fueling operation, upstream
Fueling operation, downstream
Fueling operation, downstream

Sunday, 11:00 am, 310 miles from Sotogrande

Well, Dana jinxed us with his comment about sailing to weather.  We are close-hauled with a double reefed main, heeled over and banging through waves.  The bow is playing “over, under” with the bigger waves.  This is not dangerous, it’s not really very windy (22 knots), but it is more than a tad unpleasant. You just want to find a spot on the low side and sit.  Yesterday I took to calling Liz “low side Liz”.  Not really fair, as her intrepid spirit would put most of us to shame, but she had one of those days where lethargy attacks. Our beautiful Moondance has even started dripping saltwater from the main hatch when the more persistent waves wash across her.  The winds are from the NE, and we are going East.  We are hoping for them to clock to the North. The seas built overnight and the waves are running 8-12 feet. Jackie wants us to bear off, which would be fine if we wanted to go to Morocco.  Oh well, every good port is earned.

You may notice on the chart that Portugal juts out Westward from Spain and creates an overhang for those traveling to her south.  We are 130 miles away from being in the lee of that overhang and hope to see calmer seas at that point. Otherwise, we are pressing on.

If you are not a sailor and go for a ride on someone’s sailboat, the worst part is the lingo.  As all of my kids know, there are no ropes on a boat; only  “lines” with various names.  “Sheets” make sails go in and out and “halyards” are used to raise and lower them.  This vernacular is not designed for trickery or to make sailors feel superior, but to avoid, in a pinch, having to yell “not THAT rope, the OTHER rope.”  Anyway, one of the many things I learned from my patient and wonderful wife is that you should endeavor to determine, as soon as you get on the boat, the direction from whence the wind is blowing.  This is because sailors will direct you to steer relative to the wind direction, as in “head up” or “bear off”.  One time Mary flatly refused to change direction, despite a growing urgency for her to do so, until I abandoned the lingo and simply said “go left a little bit”. It turns out she did not know where the wind was coming from, a point that still befuddles me, as to me that is as natural as breathing.  On a related note, I needed to quickly learn not to “bark” orders at my family crew, or any crew for that matter.  They are on the boat because I want them there, with me, so I should at least be polite.  This rule has led to some comic relief, as in “Sweetheart, dearest, if it is not too much trouble, and only if it is utterly convenient, could you kindly unravel and ease that pretty red and white line from the winch right there, so that I may bear off, or turn to the right a wee bit, so as to avoid us being run over by the Steamship Ferry in about 15 seconds? Thank you so much.”

Time for my noon watch.  Love to all.

MJ