Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: The Year of Stupid

Everybody who voted for him thought that when President Obama took office in January, the country would get busy fixing all the problems left over from the Bush administration, like ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, improving the depressed economy, reforming health care, and doing something to slow global warming. We optimistically thought that Congress would want to cooperate to achieve these goals. We were wrong. Apparently, the Republicans were pretty satisfied with the status quo and willing to do everything in their power to obstruct progress. To people like me, this was the equivalent of asking your dinner mate to pass the mustard while the runaway train you're on is hurtling toward destruction. Stupid.

And as the year wore on, it just got stupider: "birthers," "deathers," "tea baggers," Sarah Palin and her book tour. It was bad enough that the Republicans in Congress had become the party of "No!", but it was intolerable to see fellow citizens latching on to every stupid idea that came out of the mouths of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their ilk. Former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on political talk shows to cement his image as Darth Vader, and Karl Rove refused to shut up despite his persistent irrelevance. At least former President Bush was largely absent from the public sphere, the one thing we could have hoped for that came true.

Stupidity wasn't limited only to politics. Every day the news brought us more: the hoopla over Michael Jackson's death, Carrie Prejean's ignorant sensitivity, Jon and Kate's ugly divorce, the Balloon Boy hoax, the clueless White House party crashers, and Tiger Woods's excessive horndogging. The many celebrities who died this year were lucky they weren't around to see how stupid it could get.

There was an expression in the '70s: "The IQ of the universe is a constant. The population is increasing." Let's hope it's not true.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

Nan with Holland America's Eurodam in Grand Turk, Turks and CaicosDear Family and Friends,

This has been another busy year for us, full of activity and travel. Nan and I have just returned from a Caribbean cruise with a group from The Nation, a progressive magazine we started subscribing to during the contentious 2008 Presidential Election. Days at sea were spent in panel discussions on health care, the economy and what to make of Sarah Palin. Guest speakers included 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, author E.L. Doctorow, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s publisher. It was encouraging to meet and talk with people who believe in the same principles we do: personal freedom, fairness, peace and social justice. Despite President Obama’s policy compromises and the loss of the public option, there was optimism on every front but global warming, which many believe is hastening human extinction.

Back in April, we were sailing again with our friend John Kretschmer on his 47-foot sailboat, this time in the Spanish Virgin Islands between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. Joining us were author Dallas Murphy and his partner and editor Genie Leftwich. John is also an author, so we spent many hours discussing book ideas and the writing profession. All were enthusiastic about the prospects for the book I was writing about Charlie, our beloved golden retriever who died of cancer the previous April.

The manuscript of Raising Charlie: The Lessons of a Perfect Dog was completed in time for our road trip home to Wisconsin at the end of June with our new golden retriever Scout. Nan stayed in Wauwatosa long enough to wish my father a happy 76th birthday and then continued on to Manitowoc to spend time with her family. Between museum trips, Brewers games and bad golf, I worked with my sister Jane, who is a freelance editor, to put Raising Charlie into final form.

The book was published at the end of August, just before Nan, Scout and I flew to Isla Mujeres, Mexico for a month. The trip was partly a vacation and partly an experiment to see if we could live in a foreign country with our dog. I worked part time using our rented apartment’s Internet connection, and Nan volunteered at an English school run by expatriates. We both spent three days a week with a tutor to improve our Spanish. And we started on book number two, in conjunction with our friend Juan and his family: a combination island photo guide and cookbook of authentic Yucatan recipes in both English and Spanish. Except for the unseasonably hot and humid conditions, which limited mid-day activity with Scout, it all worked out better than expected.

Thanksgiving this year was the first one we have spent apart since we were married twenty years ago. Nan wanted to be with her family in Wisconsin, so I traveled to my parents’ vacation home in Savannah to be with them. As my mother pointed out, it was the first time she and my father had had me all to themselves since my brother Stuart was born a year after I was. We toured the town, ate great seafood, played golf, and visited my friends Paul and Honey Caouette down the coast in St. Marys, where they were preparing their sailboat for an island-hopping trip to Trinidad.

This year’s Christmas card features a photo from the first Raising Charlie book signing, at our local Borders bookstore, in mid-November. They allowed Scout inside the store, and we tried to get him to pose with us, but only the back of his head is visible in the lower left corner. If you’re interested in the book, an information card with details is enclosed.

During the holidays, Nan and I remind one another to be thankful for our good jobs, good health and good friends. And we pause to remember the loved ones who are no longer with us. We hope the holidays provide you with your own occasions for reflection. Wishing you and yours all the best in the coming year.

John, Nan and Scout

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wild Iris in St. Marys, Georgia

Paul Caouette and Jim Lichty watch Honey Caouette coming down the ladder from Wild IrisWhile I was in Savannah for Thanksgiving with my parents, we made a side trip to St. Marys, about 120 miles down the coast, to see Paul and Honey Caouette. You may recall that I spent a few days with the Caouettes in Miami this past January, helping them prepare their 1977 Valiant 40, Wild Iris, for a transatlantic crossing (Back from Miami). That trip was scuttled when Paul suffered a bad bout of sciatica that required medical attention (Update on the Wild Iris Transatlantic Passage). They have since sailed the boat up to St. Marys, where they have her hauled out as they prepare for an island-hopping trip down to Trinidad, starting next spring.

When we showed up at the boatyard, Paul had the boat's refrigerator condenser in a cooler full of water, trying to locate a leak, and Honey was on board cleaning. It was weird to introduce my parents to the Caouettes, like two very different worlds coming into contact. My parents were intrigued enough by the boat to climb the ladder up to the cockpit and then descend into the cabin for a look around. Paul showed off some of the improvements he had made since I had last been onboard, including a new voltage regulator and a new solar panel. My father later commented that the boat seemed cramped considering that it was forty feet long. I explained that its primary design consideration was performance and that comfortable accommodations were secondary. He also commented about the considerable clutter, which has been an ongoing problem but one that Paul and Honey somehow manage to overlook.

We drove around to the St. Marys waterfront, where many boats were still moored from the Thanksgiving Day festivities the day before, including a beautiful three-masted schooner tied up to a large channel marker. The Riverside Café seemed to be the happening place, so we took a table on the porch for lunch. Paul and Honey have led interesting lives, and my parents were interested to hear all about them as we waited for our sandwiches and salads. Paul talked about learning to sail in college at Boston University, and then building a plywood sailing skiff when he and Honey were living in Bangladesh, and how it had all led up to Wild Iris and their current sailing plans. After lunch, as we were parting company, Paul and Honey invited me to join them for a leg of their upcoming island-hopping adventure. I may try to take them up on it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving in Savannah

Delegal Creek Marina on Skidaway Island in Savannah, GeorgiaNan made plans a few months ago to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Wisconsin, something she had not done in several years. That would leave Scout and me alone, so I made plans to spend the holiday with my parents at their vacation home in Savannah, and Scout got to go to camp for a week.

I had not been to Savannah since 1997, when my parents first bought the house, which is located in The Landings on Skidaway Island. The city looked prosperous, like all the recent tourism dollars had made a positive difference. The new Truman Parkway, which connects the north and south sides of Savannah, is the most noticeable improvement, cutting many minutes off the time it used to take to get to the downtown Historic District from Skidaway Island.

One of my objectives was to check out the local marinas, with the idea that I would like to have my future "boat quest" boat moored at one of them someday. During the first two rainy days, we checked out ten different marinas, located at Skidaway Island, the Isle of Hope, Thunderbolt and Wilmington Island. The going rate for a wet slip at each marina was in the $12-15 per foot per month range, which seemed expensive until you factored in the included amenities. The best one was the Delegal Creek Marina, located at the south end of Skidaway Island. It offers wet slip accommodations for 75 boats up to 100 feet in length. The crane in the photo shows that the marina is undergoing some redevelopment to correct a problem with the eastern end of the dock sinking into the mud. When that work is complete, the original pavilion and observation tower will also be rebuilt.

The only drawback to the Delegal Creek Marina is the shallow draft. At low tide, the channel to open water is only three feet deep, but at high tide, it's more than ten feet deep. So the timing of exits and entrances is essential. I would consider this a small inconvenience for such a serene and protected mooring.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Raising Charlie book signing at Borders

Nan and Scout with me at the Borders book signing for Raising CharlieYesterday afternoon I had my first book signing for Raising Charlie at our local Borders bookstore. It was a surprising success. The ads I had been running in the local paper must have worked because there were people waiting for me before my scheduled time. Most of them were dog lovers, or they wanted to buy the book as a gift for friends or family who are dog lovers. Many had a story to tell about a cherished dog, either living or dead, and some became tearful while telling their stories. It was heartwarming to know that other dog lovers share the same bond of love and affection with their dogs that I shared with Charlie.

The folks at Borders were nice enough to let me bring Scout into the store, and he was well behaved thanks to Nan, accepting all the attention with good grace. People asked if he was Charlie, and I needed to explain that he was the dog that Nan gave me to fill the emotional void that was left when Charlie died. You can barely see Scout in the photo. He's in the lower left corner, wearing a dog-bone bandana.

There are three more book signings scheduled between now and Christmas. On Wednesday, I will be at Aspen Valley Hospital's Annual Holiday Bazaar from 2 to 6 PM. On Saturday, I will be at the Aspen Animal Shelter from 1 to 3 PM. And on Saturday, December 5, I will be at the local Barnes & Noble for their Colorado Authors Celebration from 2 to 4 PM. Stop by and say hi!

Before I forget, I want to express my gratitude to the friends and neighbors who took the time to come out and support me. Thank you!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Linking to files without read-only restrictions

Here's another interesting programming trick I discovered at work recently that I was unable to find a solution to anywhere on the Internet:

Everyone knows that what makes the Internet the Internet is that everything is interconnected through links. Typically, these links connect to webpages with Internet-friendly file extensions, like ".htm" or ".html". One of these links would look like this: But it is also possible to link to files that are not typically found on the Internet, like Microsoft Word (.doc) and Microsoft Excel (.xls) documents. This is done in the same way: The difference is that this link will bring up a dialog box asking if the user wants to Open or Save the document. Choosing to open the document will open a read-only version of the document. Choosing to save the document will open a Save As dialog, with the usual options for filename and location.

But what if the document in question is a collaborative one that the programmer wishes users to be able to update directly? How does he get around the read-only restriction of a standard link? The answer is to use a Universal Naming Convention (UNC) path instead of a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) path in the link. In HTML, a link of this type would look something like this:

Link to file using UNC path instead of URL path
Note the backslashes and the use of the entire path to the file, starting with the server name or IP address. The only other trick to making this link work is that the "docs" directory must be set up with public "write" rights, so the programmer would want to be careful about what files were shared in this way.

If you share my line of work, give this a try and see for yourself how well it works. Good luck!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pinback in Denver

Ogden Theatre marquee with gibbous moonNan and I were in Denver for the Pinback concert at the Ogden Theatre on Friday night. If you're not familiar, Pinback is a San Diego based band fronted by Rob Crow and Zach Smith. Their music is unlike anything else I've heard, a catchy multi-layered mix of guitar, bass and keyboard melodies that are constantly trading leads. The tempo is usually extremely fast, driven by Zach's amazing bass playing, which reminds me of Peter Hook from New Order. Zach and guitarist Rob both sing, sometimes exchanging leads and sometimes harmonizing.

Pinback is another band that was introduced to me by my friend, Dave Beckwith. He included "Boo", a track off their 2001 album, "Blue Screen Life", in a mix CD he gave me in 2004. The song was so compelling, to use Dave's expression, that I soon bought the CD and then every other CD I could find by the band. If you're looking for a new sound, try "Blue Screen Life". You'll be glad you did.

Back to our concert evening. Nan and I took a taxi from our downtown hotel to the City Grille on Colfax for dinner. They have great cheap food and they're only a few blocks from both the Ogden and the Fillmore. We ate there a couple of years ago before the Snow Patrol concert at the Fillmore and were eager to go back. All the booths were taken, so we ate at the bar while being entertained by Suzy, one of the sassiest bartenders we've ever met. At one point, a big guy walked past us with long hair, a huge beard and a black t-shirt showing the human skeleton from neck to pelvis on the front and back. I thought he looked like the version of Rob Crow I had seen in Pinback's video of "From Nothing to Nowhere", off their new album, "Autumn of the Seraphs". But I didn't say anything to Nan until we got to the Ogden and the same guy came out before the show and invited audience members up on stage to sing karaoke with him. So it was indeed Rob Crow. Now I wish I had said something to him at the restaurant.

After the karaoke ended, the opening act, Joe Jack Talcum, took the stage. It was just Joe and his acoustic guitar singing folksy songs with off-the-wall lyrics, like a raunchier version of Loudon Wainwright. Two young girls had done a karaoke version of the Dead Milkmen song, "Punk Rock Girl", so Joe apologized for the repeat before he launched into his own energetic rendition. As he was winding down his set, the theatre started filling up, and we were happy to see that we were not the only Pinback fans in Colorado. By the time the band came on stage, it was wall to wall.

Pinback at the Ogden Theatre in Denver playing 'Penelope'One of the things about Pinback's sound is that it all tends to blend together, so I couldn't tell you for sure what the first song was, but I think it was "Loro", off their 1999 self-titled first album. There wasn't much of a light show, but each of their songs was accompanied by images on a large screen. I smiled to see clips from the 1974 John Carpenter film, "Dark Star", featuring a character named Sgt. Pinback, from whom the band took its name. Other images featured snippets of lyrics, like the ones in the photo: "Don't want to see you floating upside down", from the song, "Penelope", which as near as I can guess is a song about a goldfish named Penelope. But that's one of the intriguing things about Pinback: the lyrics are difficult to understand if you think about them too hard. It's more enjoyable to relax and let the songs wash over you, creating more of a mood than a mental image. My only regret is that they didn't play "Concrete Seconds", off "Blue Screen Life". That song has been a favorite of mine for years. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Happy Halloween?

Halloween jack-o-lanternsWith Halloween falling on a Saturday this year and both of us being in town, Nan and I decided to see what Grand Junction had to offer adult revelers.

After volunteering all day with my neighbors to build some badly needed retaining walls between two of the units, I limped home, drank a quart of Gatorade to loosen up my cramping muscles, and then carved a couple of jack-o-lanterns from some last-minute grocery store pumpkins. As I was cleaning up, the doorbell rang. We had some actual trick-or-treaters, a first for us in five years here. Good thing Nan picked up some M&Ms when she bought the pumpkins.

We donned our costumes, Nan as a little old man and me as Dr. Frankenstein, and headed downtown for dinner at Bistro Italiano. Some of the staff were in costume but we were the only customers who dressed up. We took off our rubber masks so we could enjoy our meals and not have to drink our wine through straws. As we were finishing, our neighbors Rich and Diane came in dressed in their mountain man rendez-vous gear and looking very authentic. We had agreed to meet across the street at the Rockslide Brew Pub, but we were running late. We went back with them to the brew pub, and it was full of people in costumes having a good time. We ordered drinks at the bar, but there was nowhere to sit so we soon left to see what else was happening on Main Street.

We wandered up the nearly deserted street to Quincy's, where a bouncer was standing out front. He wanted us to take off our masks, show him IDs and pay a cover charge. I looked through the open door and didn't see any live music or anything else that would warrant a cover, so I told him to forget it. We crossed the street to see what was happening at the Mesa Theater. There was live music blasting through the doors and it looked pretty lively inside, but we didn't want to pay the ten-dollar cover charge so we moved on to Boomer's. They also had live music and a cover charge so we didn't go in, opting instead to stand out front and watch a funeral re-enactment by people dressed in Victorian clothing and looking like they had just stepped out of an old black-and-white photograph. Then it was back to the Rockslide for a nightcap. Rich, Diane and I were fading from the day's heavy labor, so we decided to head home. It was only 10:30.

Maybe I'm getting old, but I remember Halloween being more fun than this one was. When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in the late 1970s, Halloweens were full-blown riots, with thousands of costumed crazies on State Street, lighting bonfires and climbing streetlights. It felt dangerous to be there. By comparison, Halloween on Main Street in Grand Junction felt like we were just going through the motions, looking for some fun that didn't feel like a rip-off.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Scout gets his sea legs

Scout onboard a boat!On one of our last afternoons on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, we did a boat trip with our friend Ariel and his wife Rosa. I had done one with them and their son Edric earlier in our stay, but this time I was taking Nan, our friend Juan's son Manolo, and our dog Scout. The main reason for the trip was so that I could get some more photos for the cookbook I am working on with Juan and his wife Paula. It was also an opportunity for Nan to see the island from a different vantage point, for Manolo to get out on the water in a boat other than a ferry, which he had never done before, and for us to see how Scout would handle being on a boat.

I'm happy to report that Scout did very well. Ariel beached the boat so that I could hoist Scout aboard without getting him wet, and he settled down right away in a shady spot next to the helm, where he could look over the gunwale at pelicans and passing boats. Scout had been swimming every day, so he must have wondered how it was possible to be out in the water without swimming or getting wet. More likely, he was probably thinking, "What's up with this weird car?" The motion didn't seem to bother him but the heat sure did. He was fine as we motored south down the west coast of the island into the cool prevailing wind. But when we turned around at Punta Sur and headed back north, we lost our breeze, and he started panting, seeking shade, and drinking cold water out of a plastic cup.

Nan and Manolo enjoying the boat tripIf our lives go as planned, we hope to travel extensively in the future, most likely in a sailboat, and we want to take Scout with us whenever possible. So taking Scout with us to Mexico was something of an experiment. We wanted to see how he would do with travel, including flying, being in a different climate, swimming in saltwater, riding in a golf cart, eating foreign-made dog food, being around semi-feral dogs, and riding in a boat. We chose Isla Mujeres because it is a place Nan and I have been to six times in the last eleven years, so getting there and living there are very familiar to us.

We did our homework on transporting animals internationally and thought we had it all worked out, but in addition to the five vaccinations on his official US health certificate, the Mexican authorities wanted proof of preventive treatment for internal and external parasites. Fortunately, we had a receipt from the veterinarian for Frontline (for fleas and ticks) and Heartgard (for heartworms), or we would have needed to pay a vet to come to the airport and examine Scout before he could enter the country. We also made the mistake of taking a small quantity of Mexican-made dry dog food back into the US with us to tide Scout over until we reached home. The customs officer let us through with it but told us it was normally prohibited. Next time, we'll leave a small bag of dog food in the car for the trip home.

In my opinion, the experiment was a success. We did not encounter any obstacles, either in our travel to and from Mexico or in the four weeks we spent there, that had us thinking that we were recklessly endangering Scout's safety or that it had not been worth it to bring him along. That's not to say that Scout wasn't completely thrilled to be home again, because he most definitely was.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

ColdFusion Cascading Dropdown Menus

So far in this blog, I have not shared much about what I do for a living, which is to develop Web-based applications for a small hospital. I don't think posts about my work would be very interesting to most readers, but today I experienced a small programming triumph that I feel compelled to share because I don't think anybody else has figured it out, or if they have, they haven't posted it on the Internet anywhere that I could find it.

The programming issue I was working on involved two dropdown menus: one for a category and another for a subcategory. Ideally, the choices in the subcategory list would be contingent upon what was chosen in the category list instead of displaying every possible subcategory. For example, if you chose "Fruits" as the category in a list of food types that also included "Vegetables", the subcategory choices would be "Apple", "Peach", "Pear", "Plum", etc., without "Broccoli" and "Brussels Sprouts" also showing in the list.

Most of what I do involves ColdFusion programming. ColdFusion is a server-side programming environment that will manipulate variables only when programmed webpages are first loaded. There is no provision for "dynamic" variable manipulation as the user makes changes on a webpage, like filling out a form. For that, I normally use JavaScript, a client-side programming language. The big hurdle is that ColdFusion and JavaScript do not talk to each other very well. It is possible to pass a variable to JavaScript from ColdFusion using a "ToScript" routine, but what I needed was to pass a variable from JavaScript to ColdFusion, which is not possible.

After searching the Web extensively, I came upon a JavaScript script written by Ioannis Cherouvim that presented an HTML version of the solution I was looking for. I copied it and got it working, then customized it with ColdFusion-generated content. It worked!

Here is the complete code:

Section 1 code for ColdFusion cascading dropdown menus
Section 2 code for ColdFusion cascading dropdown menus
Section 3 code for ColdFusion cascading dropdown menus
I apologize that the code is in screenshot images but Blogger tried to parse the code when I pasted it in directly. I also apologize for all the white space, but that was necessary to keep Blogger from resizing the images. Click the images for full-size versions. Email me if you would like the text file.

A couple of notes:

  1. Obviously, in order to be useful, the table would need to be enclosed within a form that would post the category and subcategory choices.
  2. The queries are pulling from two different tables, one with just the categories and another with both the categories and the subcategories, with the appropriate category repeated for every associated subcategory. It might be simpler to use just the second table and to have the first query point to it with a "distinct" condition.

To see a live example, please click here: ColdFusion Cascading Dropdown Menus

UPDATE: I apologize that the link is no longer valid.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Home from Isla Mujeres

Scout is happy to be home even if it's for rent!Nan, Scout and I arrived home safely from Isla Mujeres over the weekend. On Saturday, we flew from Cancun, where it was in the high 90s with almost 100% humidity, to Denver, where it was in the mid-20s and dry--more than a 70-degree temperature difference! The delayed flight was smoother and Scout did better, with no apparent air sickness. We needed to keep him in his crate until we passed through customs, and he was a good boy--no whining, barking or fidgeting. There were no problems except one: we had brought a small amount of Mexican-made dog food with us to tide Scout over until we got home. The customs officer told us this was a no-no but he let us through with it.

We made it to an airport hotel by 11:00 PM, stayed the night, and then drove the five hours back to Grand Junction on Sunday, arriving in the mid-afternoon. As we pulled up to our home, we saw balloons and a sign announcing that our house was for rent! Our neighbors, Rich and Diane, who had been watering our outside flowers, love a good practical joke. The stinkers! When I checked my cell phone messages later, there was one from someone inquiring about the rental. I recognized Rich's voice and had a good second laugh.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Expatriates on Isla Mujeres

Sunset from our deck in Isla MujeresIn the first few days we were here on Isla Mujeres, we met a few different sets of expatriates, mostly from the United States and Canada. Each expressed to us that they love it here so much that they were willing to leave behind their homes, families, friends and possessions to live here full time. None expressed any regrets, except maybe not having done it sooner.

We met Malcolm our first Sunday night when we went to Sancocho's to eat dinner and watch the Packers play the Bears in their home opener. It is off-season here and Sancocho's was the only bar showing the game. Malcolm is from Canada and has been on the island since they improved Internet access to a level that allows him to work remotely as a Web developer. Shortly after we were seated at a table adjoining Malcolm's, his friend Greg came in and sat down. We think Greg is from California because he mentioned that he had an engineering degree from Stanford. He is also doing remote development. Neither seemed to speak much Spanish, and they didn't show much patience with the waitresses. They struck me as single guys who were merely living in the island community rather than being a part of it, more like long-term tourists than new citizens. I doubted if they had many local friends other than expats like themselves.

Roger and Garnette retired here from government careers in Denver. They had vacationed in Cancun twelve years ago and taken a day trip to the island. They fell in love with it and relocated two years ago. They live frugally, renting a place in the La Gloria colonia (neighborhood), about two blocks from the English school where Nan is volunteering, and taking public transportation to get around. They speak adequate Spanish and are active in the community, helping with projects that aid chidren and the poor.

Greg and Natalie are the directors of the La Gloria school. Like Roger and Garnette, they are in their mid- to late fifties. They came here on a vacation two years ago and loved it so much that they closed on a furnished condo before they went back home to Bend, Oregon. They sold almost all of their possessions and moved here with just suitcases, though Greg confesses that he left nine boxes of stuff in storage that he has visiting friends bring one box at a time as checked luggage when they fly here. Of the three different sets of expats we have met, Greg and Natalie seem the most engaged. Through the school, they have come into contact with many local people and assisted them not only with learning English but also with handling personal issues. One evening we saw them on Av. Hidalgo with many bags of Crocs shoes hanging off the handlebars of their motos. They had purchased them in bulk to distribute to needy children. They are greeted warmly everywhere they go.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Busy Day on Isla Mujeres

Punta Sur, Temple to Ixchel and El Arco on Isla MujeresSunday was a busy day for us here on Isla Mujeres. In the morning, I took a boat ride with my old friend Ariel and his family. Ariel runs a fishing, snorkeling, whale shark watching and Isla Contoy tour operation with his 27-foot panga: or 011-521-998-165-6332. Ariel and his family in their panga on Isla MujeresWe motored all the way around the island while I took photos of familiar landmarks for the book I am working on. Nan didn't want to go so she stayed behind with Scout. It was a calm day, which made for easy photography. Ariel says that rounding Punta Sur can be terrible on days when the wind runs counter to the current. The first photo shows the Mayan ruins of the temple to Ixchel and El Arco, the arch under it, at the southernmost tip of the island.

Manolo playing with Scout while Juan and Paula get the mixer readyIn the afternoon, we took the golf cart down to our friend Juan's new house in Colonia Salina Grande. The house is much further along than when we saw it last October (Isla Mujeres, Mexico), but it is still not finished and may never be. There are no loans to be had, so construction is a pay-as-you-go proposition, and it has been tremendously slowed by the poor economy and lack of tourism.

Paula starting to frost her tres leches cakeThe book I am working on now is a collaboration with Juan's wife, Paula. We are writing a Mexican cookbook, Los Sabores de Isla Mujeres / Tastes of Isla Mujeres, based on Paula's traditional recipes. It will be in both Spanish and English, and there will be photos of her wonderful dishes and also of the island. The main purpose of our Sunday visit was to photograph Paula baking a tres leches (three milks) cake. Paula's tres leches cake is almost finishedIt was a three-hour affair, with time for a take-out lunch of chicken tacos and cervezas from the local tienda while the cake was in the oven. The finished cake was almost too beautiful to eat, but we all took a slice or two, and neighborhood kids came out of nowhere to help share it. There were big frosted smiles all around!

We have invited Juan and his family to our apartment at Color de Verano on Friday evening for a dinner of chicken enchiladas Nan-style. We hope to keep a back-and-forth dinner exchange going for as long as we are here. Of course, we also expect to enjoy as much of Paula's fabulous cooking as we can. We'll consider it research!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Greetings from Isla Mujeres!

Scout on the beach at Isla MujeresNan, Scout and I arrived here safely on Saturday afternoon. The flight from Denver was bumpy and the landing a bit rough, so we were not surprised to see that Scout had puked a little when he came around on the baggage carousel at the Cancun airport. He seemed fine otherwise and was happy to get out of his crate. Clearing him in through customs and immigration was more difficult than we expected. In addition to the four different vaccinations Scout was given before we left, they were expecting to see proof of inoculation for internal and external parasites on his official Health Certificate. None of the information we had read as we prepared for our trip indicated that this was necessary. Fortunately, Nan had a copy of the receipt from our visit to the veterinarian, which showed that we had purchased flea and tick medication and heartworm pills, and they accepted that as adequate proof, but it still took more than an hour to process his entry permit. On the plus side, the officials were kind and did not charge us the normal $15 USD fee for the permit.

On Sunday morning, we took a walk around the north end of the island. Scout was timid about the breaking waves, but he eventually waded in and out of the water. We have been keeping him on a retractable leash for safety, and this helped greatly in our encounters with the feral dog "gangs" that cruise the beaches. In the afternoon, we set up beach chairs in the shade of some palm trees on the beach across the street from our apartment. Scout quickly lost his fear of the waves as he dove over them to fetch a tennis ball I threw for him. He even swam confidently when the water was too deep for wading. Sunday is a big family day on Isla Mujeres, so there were lots of kids playing in the water. They were afraid of Scout at first since he is much larger than the native dogs, but they warmed up to him when they saw how friendly he is and how much fun it is to throw the ball for him.

Scout retrieving a tennis ball from the water at Isla MujeresScout has been a big hit everywhere we go with him. People seem pleasantly surprised to see American tourists with their dog, and they greet him warmly. Kids point and say "Perrito!" because with his short haircut, he does look like a puppy. Late in the afternoon, we rented a golf cart, one of the primary means of transportation on the island, and went to find the La Gloria school where Nan will be volunteering. Scout sat on the floorboard and watched the sights whiz by, at one point sitting on the gas pedal when I had my foot on the brake. No harm was done but we did burn a little rubber.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Raising Charlie is on!

Charlie and me on Whidbey Island in August 2008There is no actual book yet that you could hold in your hands, but Raising Charlie is now available for purchase at A representative from the publisher called me this morning to confirm a few details and within an hour, the book was available online.

The thrill of seeing the book in an listing will not match the thrill of seeing the actual book, but after more than a year of work, it feels like a pretty big deal. I have already sold a few advance copies through my website, so the first books I receive will go to fill those orders.

Now it's time to undertake some creative marketing to get the word out and get the sales rolling. Away we go!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A change in plans

Our sailing plans for next spring have changed. Instead of sailing exclusively in the waters off Panama, we're going to be sailing from Panama to Key West, Florida. When John Kretschmer contacted me last week with updates for his website (, the number of berths available for the "Caribbean Circumnavigation Leg 3" had increased from one to three. This was the trip I had been hoping to go on originally, so I asked if he would consider a "two-fer" as part of our trade arrangement. He agreed. So next year, from May 1 to 15, we will join John and the rest of his crew on Quetzal, his Kaufman 47, to sail from Bocas del Toro, Panama to Key West by way of Nicaragua, the Bay Islands of Honduras, the reef and offshore atolls of Belize, and one of our favorite places, Isla Mujeres, a small island off the Yucatan peninsula across from Cancun.

In fact, Nan and I are getting ready to spend a month on Isla Mujeres starting September 12. We'll be staying in the same penthouse apartment we stayed in last October, and the owners are letting our dog, Scout, stay there with us. It will be Scout's first flight, and we're hoping it goes well because there could be many similar trips in his future. We have already gotten him a "puppy cut" to keep him cool and paid a visit to the veterinarian to get his rabies and bordetella boosters. In addition, he'll need vaccinations for hepatitis, pip and leptospirosis, which we will get on the Thursday before we leave since we will also need to get a health certificate signed by the veterinarian not more than 72 hours before we enter Mexico. There is a permit to purchase when we get there but no required quarantine period. When he gets off the plane, Scout will be just another happy tourist.

While we're on Isla Mujeres, we'll be volunteering at an English school, tutoring children four days a week. This should help us with our Spanish, but we'll also be getting tutored ourselves three days a week. Nan came up with the idea to help our friends on the island, Juan and Paula, to write a cookbook, something like Tastes of Isla Mujeres, so we'll be working on that as well. By the end of our four weeks there, we will have a good idea of what it's like to live in a foreign country, which should be useful to us in our future adventures.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Obama's Town Hall Meeting in Grand Junction

Protesters square off at President Obama's town hall meeting in Grand Junction, ColoradoPresident Obama came to Grand Junction yesterday, his first visit here since his campaign stop last September (Obama in Grand Junction). Last time, he was trying to win a close election. This time, he was trying to secure healthcare for all Americans.

Nan and I entered our names in the raffle for tickets to the event, but we didn't win any. Apparently, whoever makes those choices does not cross-reference the donors database or we would have been in the stands at Central High School, "Home of the Warriors," with all the other Obama supporters.

Instead, Nan convinced me that we should go and participate in the protests outside the event. When we took a left onto Warrior Way, it was immediately apparent that the pro-Obama faction was on the left side of the street and the anti-Obama faction was on the right. How could it be otherwise? We followed the cars in front of us and turned left. A young man in a reflective vest had me roll down the window to inform me that parking on that side was for pro-healthcare reform people. I guess he thought we looked like an old conservative couple. Nan and I replied in unison, "We are for healthcare reform!" He waved us in.

View from 'the left' of the tea baggers at President Obama's town hall meeting in Grand Junction, ColoradoI have to hand it to the pro-Obama people: they are well organized. They had a flatbed trailer for people to stand on, a sound system playing happy rock-and-roll songs, plenty of pre-made protest signs, and a contingent of young people handing out water and reminding people to "Stay Positive!"

The other side of the street was not so well organized, but they did have "Don't Tread on Me" flags and a bull horn. One of their chants was, "We want our country back!" Like a smartass, I yelled back, "Where did it go?"

It is obvious to anyone paying attention these days that the root of the controversy over healthcare is more about our African-American president than it is about the healthcare issue. The "birther" and "deather" conspiracies clearly demonstrate that there are people who are unwilling to accept that things have changed. We saw a sign that was a parody of the Obama campaign "Change" signs. It said, "Rewind Change." I thought, "Sure, let's replay the previous administration's disastrous eight years. Is that what you want?" Me, I'm overjoyed that we now have an administration that cares about all of the people, not just the wealthy and the white.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sailing in Panama, Spring 2010

My gig maintaining John Kretschmer's website ( is easily the best trade arrangement I have ever made. So far, it has allowed Nan and me to sail in the Spanish Virgin Islands this past April (see this blog's six-part series, "Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands"). Next spring, it might allow us to sail in Panama.

When John and I first started emailing back and forth with sailing ideas for next year, I suggested that if he had extra berths available for his May 1-15 trip, "Caribbean Circumnavigation Leg 3 - Bocas del Toro, Panama to Key West, via Nicaragua, Bay Islands of Honduras, inside the Belize reef and offshore atolls, Isla Mujeres", maybe that would work to satisfy the trade. He came back with the suggestion of a "two-fer," one berth in trade and one paid. That sounded good to me since we would be taking berths away from paying customers, but it would be dependent on availability. He would try to fill all the berths before offering them to us.

Nan and I like to plan our trips well in advance, so the uncertainty of this deal was a concern. A few weeks later, John suggested that we sail in Panama instead. His sailboat, Quetzal, would already be there, in Bocas del Toro, the stopping point for "Caribbean Circumnavigation Leg 2". My immediate thought was that it would be fun to sail through the San Blas Islands and visit with the indigenous Kuni people, but then I looked at Google Maps and noticed that Bocas del Toro is more than 250 miles from the San Blas Islands. Under perfect conditions, that's at least two full days of sailing each way. Another look at Google Maps showed that Costa Rica, a country I've wanted to visit, is just 30 miles in the other direction. Maybe we could sail up the coast to Puerto Limón and Parismina, which is close to Parque Nacional Tortuguero.

If for some reason a trip with John does not pan out, I would be ready to do another charter in the British Virgin Islands. I read recently that the charter companies are allowing travel to Anegada these days, which would add a whole new perspective to the experience. We'll see...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rafting the Colorado River

Charlie MacArthur and his students at the 'Little D' rapids in Westwater CanyonYesterday I joined my friend Kurt Beereboom and the staff and students of the Aspen Kayak Academy ( for a trip down the Colorado River from Westwater to Cisco in eastern Utah, northeast of Moab. Kurt and I manned his sixteen-foot inflatable raft while everybody else paddled high-performance kayaks, except Andy, who paddled the entire distance standing upright on a paddle board.

Kurt Beereboom and his whitewater raft in the eddy at 'Little D' rapids in Westwater CanyonThis was my first-ever rafting experience so I didn't know what to expect. I had done canoe trips in the Boy Scouts, but the rapids we negotiated then were ripples compared to what I imagined we would be encountering. I wasn't wrong. There were about twelve sections of rapids, and each was at least a Class III on the whitewater rapid classification scale, which goes from Class I to Class VI. The names say it all: "Staircase," "Funnel," "The Wall," "Sock-It-To-Me," "Last Chance."

Aspen Kayak Academy student in the standing wave at 'Little D' rapids in Westwater CanyonOne of the principles I live by is to not participate in activities where a single mistake could kill you. So I don't paraglide, rock climb or kayak. I have known people who died doing each of those activities. Whitewater rafting is borderline. At a certain level, it's just a complicated way to drown. I would never sign up for a commercial rafting trip, but Kurt invited me to join him on his raft, with which he has several years of experience, on a stretch of river that he has done a few times before, with just the two of us on board. It sounded almost safe.

Charlie MacArthur doing 'Skull' rapids the hard wayThe first photo shows Charlie MacArthur, owner of the Aspen Kayak Academy, taking a turn on Andy's paddle board, along with three of his teenage kayaking students, at the first of the Westwater Canyon rapids, "Little Delores." There is a standing wave there that Charlie and his students took turns "surfing" in their kayaks. On his first pass, Charlie did a jaw-dropping kayak move: at the point where the water dropped into the hole in front of the standing wave, he flipped the kayak over its bow in a cartwheel that landed him in the hole facing back upriver. He followed this with moves where he balanced on the crest and spun the kayak around in circles. When he tired of that, he flipped backward off the crest and came up facing downriver. Unbelievable. The third photo shows one of the students using excellent form to hold himself in the trough of the standing wave, which is flowing left to right. Click the photos for full-size views.

Charlie MacArthur at the entrance to the 'Room of Doom' after negotiating 'Skull' rapidsThe highlight of the day was the "Skull" rapids, an insane Class IV stretch that requires perfect maneuvering to avoid disaster. After passing the large rock on the left that marks the entrance, a boater must row strongly to the left to avoid a dangerously deep hole and then stay left to avoid being sucked into the "Room of Doom," a small natural cove with a perpetual whirlpool that makes it almost impossible to escape in a raft. The fourth photo shows Charlie going the hard way, to the right of the deep hole and perilously close to the sheer rock wall. The final photo shows Charlie at the entrance to the Room of Doom, from which he successfully escaped. Of course.

So how did I fare? I laughed like a soaking wet idiot through every rapid. It was a hoot!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Circumnavigation Routes, Part 6

While Nan and I were sailing with John Kretschmer in the Spanish Virgin Islands this past April, the subject of circumnavigation routes came up frequently. John and his wife, Tadji, are planning a circumnavigation that would begin after their kids are out of high school, seven or eight years from now. Nan and I are hoping to set sail much sooner, but there are still some major hurdles for us to overcome, like buying an appropriate boat. In the meantime, it's fun and educational to share ideas about where to go and what to see.

John and I agreed that a west-about route would be easiest, but then he threw out the idea of crossing the Atlantic to Europe early in the trip rather than waiting until after a transit of the Suez Canal. Since many of the places we hope to visit are in Europe, this made perfect sense.

What about the Caribbean, though? John had an idea for that as well: circumnavigate the Caribbean first in a counter-clockwise direction to take advantage of the easterly Trade Winds, which is much easier than trying to catch occasional northeasterly winds to go the other way around. The Caribbean loop could also serve as a shakedown cruise before the big leap across the Atlantic.

What about the return leg from Europe? John knew that I wanted to see the islands off the west coast of Chile--Robinson Crusoe Island, Easter Island, and Pitcairn Island--so he suggested skipping the Panama Canal in favor of sailing south along the east coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan and then up the west coast to Valparaiso. At this point, the route would closely follow the one I laid out several years ago (Circumnavigation Route 2001) until we reached the Seychelles. With all the piracy off the coast of Somalia, it would be safer to go south instead of north at this point, round the Cape of Good Hope and then sail on to South America by way of St. Helena. A second tour of the Windward and Leeward Islands, the Bahamas and the Florida coast would put us back at our starting point in Savannah, Georgia.

The only dream places missing from this route are Cuba and the Galapagos Islands. The future possibility of legal travel to Cuba by sailboat from the United States is still uncertain. And who knows, if the "boat quest" boat is finally found on the west coast, then it might be possible to take a detour to the Galapagos Islands before transitting the Panama Canal and sailing north to Savannah.

I figured the 2001 route to be a little over 50,000 miles. This more ambitious 2009 route would be almost 65,000 miles. If you would like to see a Google Maps version of it, click here: Circumnavigation Route 2009.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bryan Savage at Two Rivers Winery

Bryan Savage playing saxophone at the Two Rivers Winery's Jazz among the Grapevines eventIt is not well known outside of our immediate area, but western Colorado produces good wine. There are numerous vineyards and wineries in the Grand Junction area, and Colorado's annual Winefest ( is held every September just east of Grand Junction in Palisade.

Right up Broadway, about four miles west of us, is the Two Rivers Winery. Nan and I have attended their Winemakers Tasting Dinners, as part of the Colorado Winefest, the past two years. On Tuesday evening, we were there for a Jazz among the Grapevines outdoor event featuring Bryan Savage, the jazz flute and saxophone player. We were Bryan's guests, compliments of my friend Phil Linville, who runs the Ambiance smooth jazz station on iTunes radio as "Aaron Phillips" and had interviewed Bryan to promote his upcoming performance.

Bryan Savage with Aaron Phillips at the Two Rivers Winery's Jazz among the Grapevines eventNan and I knew Bryan and his wife Michele from our many years living in Aspen. We used to see Bryan perform around town with Bobby Mason's band, and I used to help Michele with Bryan's Macintosh problems when I owned my computer business.

Posing with Bryan and Michele Savage at the Two Rivers Winery's Jazz among the Grapevines eventIt was a beautiful evening to sit outside on the lawn, sipping Two Rivers Chardonnay and listening to Bryan's fantastic playing on selections from his long history of recordings, as well as jazz interpretations of popular songs like "Georgia on my Mind", "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow". His one-man act was offset by a MacBook running a customized version of iTunes that tied into his sound system to provide musical accompaniment. At the set break, we went up to chat with Bryan and Michele, take some photos and buy a copy of Bryan's CD, Soul Temptation. It was good to see Bryan and Michele again and to know that they are doing well. Jazz lives!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands, Part 6

Rain clouds and sun beams over Playita, Puerto RicoAs we set out on the last sailing day of our Spanish Virgin Islands trip, we expected rain but it never materialized. There wasn't much wind either. We motored out past the small islands that hemmed our overnight anchorage at Playita and then motor sailed west-southwest toward Isla Caja de Muerto in a lazy broad reach.

With the wind picking up slightly, we decided to turn off the engine. A little while later, John's keen ear picked up a noise. There was a light thumping on the hull that only he could distinguish from the gurgling sound of our wake. We rounded up into the wind and John went overboard with his mask and snorkel to see where the noise was coming from. He came back up sputtering and asking for a knife. There was a crab trap float and its line tangled around the propeller shaft. It wasn't tightly wrapped so he guessed that we had run over it after turning off the engine. He cut it loose and then came back onboard.

As he was toweling off, John told us that this situation provided a valuable lesson: "Never wait to investigate or fix a problem. It will only get worse." I could see his point. If we had ignored the thumping and tried to start the engine, we could have damaged the propeller or shaft. Or if the engine stalled because of the tangle when we needed it to get into port, we could have had a serious problem on our hands. I had been at the helm when we ran over the crab trap float so I felt most to blame. I pledged to pay better attention to obstacles in the water.

The southern coast of Puerto Rico between Playita and PonceAfter lunch, we noticed two catamarans heading in the same direction we were, and they were gaining on us. Someone muttered, "Damn catamarans," and there was immediate assent. We decided to conduct an unofficial race. John kept his expert eye on the wind and sails and called out commands to Dallas at the sails and me at the helm. We turned the boat into a downwind run and put out Quetzal's nifty Forespar carbon-fiber whisker pole so we could sail wing-and-wing. We kept our heading just off the north point of Isla Caja de Muerto, far enough from the southern shore of Puerto Rico to get clean wind from the east. The other boats jibed toward shore too soon, and we pulled away. We made a smart jibe ourselves just past the island and aimed for the port at Ponce, arriving ahead of our competition and claiming the last temporary dock spot at the Ponce Yacht Club.

After moving Quetzal to a more permanent slip, we went searching for the yacht club's bar for a victory drink. We had won our race against the catamarans, and we had arrived safely at our final destination.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands, Part 5

Our lumpy mooring at the mouth of Bahia Mosquito on ViequesOur previous evening's weird experience with the phosphorescent phytoplankton in Bahia Mosquito more than compensated for our "lumpy" mooring, but we were happy to leave it behind early the next morning. Our next destination, the small port of Esperanza, was a mere six miles to the west along Vieques' southern shore.

The embarcadero in Esperanza on Vieques, with Quetzal anchored in the distanceWe anchored behind small, protective islands and dinghied in to the sandy beach. Things were very quiet in Esperanza but we couldn't tell if this was because it was still early in the day, it was off-season, or maybe it was always like this. The profusion of bars and restaurants lining the embarcadero led us to think that we were just a little too early, either in the day or in the season.

Closed bars and restaurants line the embarcadero in Esperanza on ViequesWe followed our noses down the road to what smelled like breakfast and found Belly Button's, the only open restaurant in the area. As we experienced at Mamacita's on Culebra, the restaurant was staffed by American expatriates. We each ordered the breakfast special--two eggs any style, home fries, toast and fruit--and were pleasantly surprised at how good it all was. Homemade bread, ripe fruit, fresh-squeezed juice and excellent coffee with real cream put us all in a festive mood. John commented, "This sure beats my galley breakfasts." Yes, I thought, this is even better than turkey bacon.

Breakfast at Belly Button's in Esperanza on Vieques: Nan, John, Genie and DallasWe settled up with our kind waitress, who gave us directions to the local supermercado, and we took off again down the road and then inland a few blocks. The refrigeration aboard Quetzal was not working, so we needed to buy bags of ice as well as beer, wine and other supplies. We lugged it all back to the dinghy and took a low, wet ride back to the boat.

Our anchorage near Playita on the southern coast of Puerto RicoWe pulled up the anchor and headed west in a smooth broad reach, leaving behind the Spanish Virgin Islands for Puerto Rico. I manned the helm while John and Dallas pored over the charts, trying to figure out where we should anchor that night. They also consulted A Cruising Guide to Puerto Rico, including the Spanish Virgin Islands by Stephen J. Pavlidis, which didn't have much of anything positive to say about any of the ports we would encounter before we reached Ponce, our trip's final destination. In the end, we sailed close enough to shore to see where there might be a cluster of "sticks," as Dallas called masts, and settled for Playita just before sunset.

Sun setting behind Quetzal at our anchorage near Playita on the southern coast of Puerto RicoNan and I would have opted for a dinghy ride to shore to check out the town and maybe find some fresh seafood, but that was not in the plans. It was "Mayan spaghetti" night, an opportunity to finally taste the dish that John is famous for. I am not at liberty to reveal the secret ingredients except to say that it was a little salty but not too bad. I ate two big helpings, but Nan fed half of hers to the fish.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raising Charlie: The Lessons of a Perfect Dog

Last week, I finished writing a memoir about Charlie, my golden retriever who died of cancer last year. It was emotionally difficult to write about his life, especially the last three months, after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, but it was also therapeutic. It helped me get over my grief, and it made me appreciate what a perfect dog he was.

I hope Charlie's story is one that dog lovers and others who have experienced the loss of a beloved pet will take to heart. He taught me many valuable lessons during his life, and I owe it to him to share them as a tribute to his memory. I know I am a better person for having had him in my life.

If you are interested in reading Raising Charlie: The Lessons of a Perfect Dog, please click Charlie's image near the top of this page to go to the website. The book will be published later this year, but you can reserve an inscribed copy now. Thank you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Update on the Wild Iris Transatlantic Passage

When I saw an email message from Paul Caouette pop up in my inbox yesterday, I expected he was letting me know that he had successfully sailed his Valiant 40, Wild Iris, across the Atlantic and arrived safely in Lisbon, Portugal with his wife Honey and their crew of three. Instead I received a lengthy description of the bad luck and misadventures that have plagued him and his boat since before I went to Miami to help get the boat ready back in January ("Back from Miami").

They haven't made it to Lisbon. They haven't gotten beyond a shakedown sail to Key West and back. And now the crewmembers have returned home. Part of me felt badly for Paul, Honey and the crew, and part of me was relieved that I had not been able to join them as was originally planned.

Here is what happened in Paul's own words:
If you want to learn about the early (mis)adventures of Wild Iris go to

Here's my latest....with a caveat

I think each of the crew members has his/her own version of what follows:

Limping Back to Miami after Paul Loses round one in a fight with sciatica.

After we had determined that a run along the Cuban coastline might be misinterpreted by our own government we had some hard decisions to make. First was how to deal with the sciatica that had debilitated the captain, me. Second was whether or not a run up to Bermuda or any place north of the Chessapeake was at all possible. Roger had lost much of his enthusiasm with Kim’s departure. It didn’t take long for him to make the decision any young man in love would make when faced with the choice of either being with his beautiful new love or a bunch of cranky and smelly old folks. He informed us that he was shipping out. That essentially buried any possibility of a northern cruise and we all decided to run back to Miami. So the next day we shove off.

We ran up from Key West without incident. Actually got some sailing in light breezes. So by the time we reached Marathon the count was 10 hours of sailing and ...about 1600 hours of preparation. (this is based on three people working for 60 days ten hours per day, a conservative estimate. Our reason for choosing Marathon as the first port on our run back to Miami was so I could get a second opinion and perhaps an MRI. The very kind clerk at the gas dock even gave me a lift to Fisherman’s Hospital while the crew continued on to the mooring field when they tied up and got the dinghy down to come into the municipal marina to pick me up.

The visit was not very enlightening. No MRI and the emergency room doctor simply and efficiently confirmed what the Key West doctor had told me. "Next." Wow, was I frustrated. I was looking for succor and she was looking for an injury. Conversations with my Denver physician were somewhat more productive and she told me to definitely get to an MRI if I had any further deterioration. We spent two nights. The crew took in a visit to a sea turtle hospital while I convalesced.

On day two we let go of the mooring ball and headed back offshore to catch the Gulfstream..There was no wind whatsoever. Trusty ol Westy, our 17 year old diesel, was rattling away as all good diesels do. Its an old engine but it has never failed to start and runs without complaint for hours and hours. Wish this were true of the other elements of our propulsion system, namely the transmission and V-Drive, the auto pilot, the refer, the charging system, the manually operated flush toilet, the lp stove, the leaking sink, (don't ask me to describe a V-drive I know too much.)

Our plan was to snuggle up behind Rodriguez Key as we often do, an uninhabited key just offshore from Key Largo. There really wasn’t any need of shelter as the seas were glassy and all forecasts pointed to more of the same. By the time we were six miles out we were in a dead calm. Since we had about 2.5 knots of Gulf Stream current moving north to Labrador our 4 knots gave us some good “over ground velocity.” We figured the motor would be running until we the set down about 9 PM. But the gremlin that has taken up residence in this Ol boat had other plans. No sooner had we altered course for a northeasterly run that the engine took on a very noticeable change in pitch. Upward! It sounded like it wasn't working at all, just humming away. The light bulb lit. I knew that sound. A look astern was all I needed to confirm that Iwe had lost forward thrust. That is, a) there was no prop wash, therefore the propeller wasn’t turning. Which could only mean Argh! The infamous coupling problem. Argh! A quick inspection of the prop shaft under the engine confirmed it. Three bald bolt heads were rolling around in a thin soup of oil and transmission fluid. Once again, Wild Iris had chosen to guillotine those three modest bolts that connected the engine to the propeller shaft. Perhaps I make too much of it but all these things breaking smack of a conspiracy.

This was especially exasperating, as we had just dropped one and a half boat units on a new coupling and a complete alignment. Since I was ruined physically I had to take on the role of coach as Roger and Jeff wrestled with the "V" drive and the engine mounts. Prior to beginining the work we set the parachute sea anchor on deck in case a gale came up unexpectedly (fat chance). We then hung out all the canvas to catch the occasional puff of wind and Honey took the helm. trying to. The breeze we did have was more of a rumor. Luckily the Gulf Stream kept pushing us north and east rather than the scant few miles east to the reefs that protect the keys.

It took us (them) five hours of wrestling before we were able to get the problem sorted. Jeff played the pretzel in the engine room prying up the diesel with a timber I had salvaged (never know when you need an occasional timber) while Roger played strong man and arm wrestled a fifty pound chunk of steel on to a delicate transmission spline. Ah youth! We did a seat of the pants alignment of the propeller shaft and the V-drive coupling and fired up Westy. Everything seemed fine when we put the tranmission in "forward." Prop turrned, nothing shook....but I was not willing to trust the repair to be our major source of propulsion. We were still hours away from the only cut in the reef that would have taken us safely to Rodriguez and I was not about to thread through the reefs in the early hours of the morning with an exhausted and somewhat nervous crew....and a sketchy propulsion system.. So we stayed out in the deep water and sailed with what little wind we could find hoping to hit Miami around daybreak.

The wind finally came up around 1 AM along with a beautiful orange moon. We all took turns at the helm since we had no auto pilot and it really was a beautiful sail. We arrived at the Stiltville entrance to Biscayne Bay at 8:30 AM.... still greasy from the transmission work.

The next day we moved to boat across Biscayne Bay to an anchorage off of Dinner Key! And set anchor in about 7 feet of water. Since we anticipate being on the hook for a few days I decided to dive down and confirm that that our 60 pound CQR was set deep into the bay mud. I thought it would be a great idea to dive in with the shorts I had been wearing for the past few days since a bit of salty water might help rinse away some of the grease and oil. So, I lowered myself slowly into the warm waters and dog paddled to the anchor about sixty feet away. Just as I got there I realized I still had my "water resistant" Timex on my wrist. "Oh well." I thought, "One more item broken." Then the light bulb lit.

"If I still had the wrist watch on I must also still have other items that might not fare so well in salt water like...MY WALLET!"

Too late. The pocket was empty. My wallet and quite a few Jacksons were now in Neptune’s court.

Day three dawned with a resolve to not do anything on the boat.... if we weren’t working on it or in close proximity to it nothing would break, right? So we mounted the Honda outboard on the transom of our new dinghy and motored the 1/2 mile into Dinner Key and had a wonderful day and evening.....

At 9:30 we came back to a very crowded dinghy dock and started to look for ours.....nothing familiar was in sight except for a single pontoon that was visible between two Boston Whalers. I made some comment about how the threesome looked like a soggy Coney Island special.....then the light bulb lit (again?) That ain't no hot dog! That's my dinghy!" Or should I say half of my dinghy. The rest of it along with
the Honda outboard motor was underwater...

We spent two hours fishing out the Honda and hosing it off. Then we strapped it to the remaining pontoon and towed it out to Wild Iris. I swear I could hear some chuckling from the rudder when we tied off at the barding ladder. It took me four more hours of flushing and hosing to burp all the foul water out of the Honda. I hit the sack at 2 AM........ so much for recuperation.

The following day we returned the borrowed dinghy (INTACT) to our friend Betty and went off on our next errand; getting tires for the Audi that we had abandoned in Miami. The original plan had been to sell it prior to our European departure but there were no takers. yet. So we were quite pleased to have it waiting for us. ...But it was in serious need of some new rubber.

We're two miles from our destination driving south on US 1. Suddenly a big truck goes blasting by us. Almost simultaneously we get doused with antifreeze. I wisecrack about the fool who is rushing to get to the garage before he loses all his precious bodily fluids. We come to the next stoplight and someone pulls up next to me rolling down his window....not something that normally happens in Macho Miami. I obliged him by rolling mine down. "Excusa." He says and points to my hood. Little geysers of steam were puffing up around the edges.

"Not to worry" I said. I recalled that I had packed extra hoses when Skip and I drove down. I even have a gallon of antifreeze.

I pull up the hood...looking for a split hose...and found....a split radiator!

No wonder Jeff chose to spend his last night in Miami at a hotel close to the airport, and as far away from us as possible.

All this is true...and I have witnesses to confirm it.......although they might not really want to talk about it for a while. Who wants replay a nightmare?

The rest of the week was pretty much uneventful. I saw yet another doctor, this time an orthopedist, who said “sciatica.” (there's a song lurking in that name) We got the outboard running, only to have it quit again yesterday. The diagnosis from our mechanic friend is the little black box that connects all the electrical systems. It doesn’t like to swim. Last night the refrigerator compressor started making funny noises and it stopped sending cold to the refrigerator. …..which lead to some long discussions about the sailing future for Honey and me.

Stay tuned

-- Paul Caouette

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grand Canyon Slideshow

View of the Grand Canyon from the North RimThere has been some interest in seeing additional photos from the Grand Canyon trip, so I have put together a 111-photo self-running slideshow: Grand Canyon Slideshow. Depending on your Internet access, it may take a second to start. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rim to Rim

Rich, Jake, Rich, Wes and me at the South Kaibab TrailheadOut of the blue a few weeks ago, my neighbor Rich asked if I would be interested in joining him and some other guys on a three-day hike in the Grand Canyon. I thought about it for a few days, talked it over with Nan, and decided to go. Hiking the Grand Canyon is one of those big items on the list of things you want to do in your life, and I didn't know if I would get another opportunity.

Rich, his stepson Wes, and Wes's buddies Rich and Jake met me at the North Rim this past Tuesday morning, then we took a shuttle around to the South Rim and started down the South Kaibab Trail. Nan and I had been to the Grand Canyon back in 1994 during a spring road trip and we had hiked a little ways down both the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, but the experience this time was even more spectacular than I remembered it, probably because we were going to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim.

One vertical mile and seven actual miles later, we arrived at the Colorado River and crossed the footbridge to the Bright Angel Campground, next to Phantom Ranch, our home for the night. Rich had called ahead to get us on the dinner list, so instead of eating freeze-dried meals, we enjoyed steaks, baked potatoes and beer at the Canteen. We were living large!

Spectacular Ribbon Falls in the Grand CanyonThe next morning, we hiked seven miles up the North Kaibab Trail to the Cottonwood Campground. After unloading our packs, we backtracked to Ribbon Falls, one of the prime attractions in the Canyon, to cool down. Then it was back to camp for freeze-dried dinners and an early bedtime. We wanted to get a cool, early start for the almost vertical final day.

The hike up the endless switchbacks to the North Rim was beautiful until we passed through the Supai Tunnel. From there to the top, organized mule trips go and up and down the trail, making it a dusty, stinky, fly-ridden experience. We felt bad for the tourists who only go that far. They miss out on the great hiking and clean trails that we experienced for the previous nineteen miles.

Wes, Jake and Rich crossing one of the bridges on the North Kaibab TrailBack at the North Rim Visitor Center, we bought the obligatory "I Hiked Rim to Rim" T-shirts and talked about what to do next year. I suggested the Chicago Basin in southwestern Colorado, which can only be reached by taking the Durango-Silverton train and then backpacking in on a steep old C.C.C. trail. But it's the only place in Colorado where you can see mountain goats in the wild and it's home to three of Colorado's 14ers, so it would be well worth it. We'll see...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands, Part 4

Nan checking out Bahia Mosquito from the dinghy prior to our night excursionIt was cool and threatening rain the next morning, a good excuse to sit in Quetzal's covered cockpit and drink endless cups of coffee. Our plans for the day were modest so there was no hurry. We were simply going to sail about six miles down the coast of Vieques, from our current location at the eastern end of Ensenada Honda to the mouth of Bahia Mosquito.

When we were all sufficiently caffeinated, curiosity overcame inertia and we decided to explore our little end of the bay. We maneuvered the inflatable dinghy into the water from its storage location on the foredeck and attached John's new outboard motor, a huge improvement from his oars-only propulsion of trips past. As soon as everyone was aboard the dinghy, it started to rain lightly. Nobody seemed to mind. Getting wet is to be expected when traveling by dinghy. John steered us toward a break in the mangroves, which turned out to be a narrow channel to a tiny circular inlet about thirty yards across. There wasn't much to see except raindrops falling on the water, more mangroves and numerous basketball-sized moon jellyfish floating in the shallow water. John turned the dinghy around and asked what we wanted to see next. Dallas suggested checking out the shoal we had skirted to get into the bay to see if it offered any good snorkeling.

We stopped back at Quetzal to put on swimsuits and grab snorkeling gear, and then motored the dinghy the mile or so over to the shoal. The tide was low, exposing stinky weeds and crunchy growth that John didn't want to risk puncturing the dinghy on, so we anchored in about four feet of water instead of trying to beach it. Dallas, Genie and I went over the side frogman-style and paddled around looking for signs of life. There weren't many, just small bits of living coral growing here and there in the cracks of dead, sand-scoured coral remnants, and the occasional small fish. In the deeper water, the bottom was covered in sea grass. Dallas stuck up his head to voice his disappointment to John and Nan in the dinghy and swam back to climb aboard. Genie suggested swimming the mile back to Quetzal for the exercise and I agreed provided I could keep on my mask and fins. I was glad I did because there were dozens of the moon jellyfish to swim around that I wouldn't have been able to see otherwise. The dinghy paced Genie, which was fortunate because she eventually pooped out.

After regrouping at the boat, we pulled up the anchor and headed out of Ensenada Honda. We put up the sails when we reached open water and aimed southwest away from land to catch the trade winds in a smooth broad reach. John's simple plan was to go out until we were halfway to our destination and then jibe to head back in. In no time, we were at Bahia Mosquito, tied to one of two very exposed mooring balls. It would be an uncomfortable night, but it would be worth it because we were going to see the single greatest instance of phosphorescent phytoplankton in the world.

Everybody except Genie jumped into the dinghy for a daylight excursion to see where we would be going after dark. The water in the channel leading to Bahia Mosquito was very shallow, no more than four feet deep and then no more than six feet deep well out into the bay. As with Ensenada Honda, there was not much to see except mangroves lining the shores. It was difficult to imagine one of nature's greatest light shows happening in this location. The photo above shows Nan scouting the bay from the bow of the dinghy.

We tolerated Quetzal's rocking and rolling as best we could, carefully juggling our plates and cups through dinner and waiting for nightfall. There was still no moon, so it would be very dark again that night. John suggested we get going while there was still a little light. We grabbed some towels and our best flashlight and piled into the dinghy again. Dallas stayed back this time but Genie went along. She was intrigued by the idea of skinny dipping in phosphorescence.

At first, we couldn't figure out what we should be looking for. Would the phosphorescence be similar to the little glowing sparkles you see in a boat's wake at night? As we entered the channel, I looked at the outboard's wake and noticed that it was glowing. I thought it was maybe the whiteness of the bubbles catching the remaining daylight, but it was much more than that. The whole wake was glowing a weird consistent pale green. Just then, Nan and Genie "oohed" and pointed from the bow. The fish we were scaring with the outboard were shooting away in flashes of pale green like underwater meteors. It was spectacular! The trails they left were about six feet long and faded quickly, just like real meteors. I trailed my hand in the water. It glowed like it was bathed in radioactivity.

We pointed the flashlight around until we found a bird poop-covered buoy we had spotted earlier and tossed a loop over it. Everyone suddenly had cold feet about going into the water--it was just too creepy and weird--everyone, that is, except John, who pulled off his T-shirt and did a kind of spinning cannonball into the water. The splash was psychedelic! When the water settled, there was John treading water surrounded by the glow, like some radioactive sea monster out of an old science fiction movie.