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.