Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Aspen

Christmas in Aspen: Nan and John at Aspen Highlands, with Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells in the backgroundFor the holidays this year, Nan and I are house and dog sitting for our friends, the Vaughns, in Aspen. They are in Costa Rica with family and we are looking after things back home. Their dog Hannah and our dog Scout get along well, romping in the snow together and competing for our affection, so the Vaughns are happy to have us stay here instead of having to board her.

Normally, one would expect to pay top dollar to spend the holidays in Aspen, so it was an unexpected surprise to receive this generous invitation. We have made the most of it, dining at a favorite restaurant on Christmas Eve and skiing on Christmas Day. It has been surprisingly quiet wherever we go. The restaurant had several open tables and there were no significant lift lines at the ski areas. During the years when we lived here, the holidays were always extremely busy, with "a head on every pillow in town," as we used to say. The poor national economy and the local emphasis on real estate profits over quality tourist experiences seem to have taken their toll.

The four of us spent Christmas Day with our friends, the Andersons, who live at the base of Aspen Highlands. The guys skied most of the day over at Buttermilk so the kids could play around in the terrain park on the Red's Rover trail. The photo of Jon is from the West Buttermilk chairlift's halfway point loading area, where we waited in the only lift line of the day.

Christmas in Aspen: Jon Anderson in the lift line at West ButtermilkLater, Jon and I caught the shuttle bus back to Aspen Highlands and met Nan, who had earlier taken Scout and Hannah for a cross-country ski up Maroon Creek Road, for an end-of-day top-to-bottom ski run. I wanted to get a good ski photo of Nan and me, and Jon suggested the new Ski Patrol hut at the top of the mountain for its amazing views. The sun was low in the sky and directly behind us, but Jon's photo turned out nicely, with the sun's flare coming from between Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells in the distant background.

The three of us skied the leg-burning thirty-six hundred vertical feet back to the base and then hobbled over to Jon's house for apr├Ęs-ski. When Jon's wife Lori, their kids and assorted guests finally returned from skiing, we all toasted the holidays and sat down to a wonderful Christmas Dinner.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Speak of the Devil

     Edward possessed an unusual talent. He could summon people at will—but not like a king could summon one of his subjects to the throne. Edward’s talent was more subtle than that. In fact, it was mostly unconscious. If Edward was daydreaming, as he did frequently, and happened to think of a person from his past, then within a few minutes, days or weeks, that person would make an appearance of some sort in his life. For instance, Edward would pick up the phone and hear a familiar voice: “I was just thinking of you,” he would say. Or he would wonder what an old acquaintance was up to and then open a newspaper to find an article about that person.
     For Edward, many of these incidents were happy coincidences, but not all of them were. Sometimes that article in the newspaper was an obituary. Edward had a dark side, and he would dwell on the bad experiences in his life more often than was normal. With his special talent, the results could be disturbing.
     Once, several years ago, he was on a backpacking trip with some friends, who were also business associates, in the Colorado mountains not far from his home. As they hiked up the trail, they discussed some of their worst business experiences, and Edward told them about the time his Christmas had been ruined by a client who refused to pay a very large overdue amount before closing his business for the holidays. A few minutes later, who should come walking down the trail past them but that very same client. Edward was thankful for his baseball cap and sunglasses, and for his friends reacting with waves and greetings but nothing more.
     When they were safely out of earshot, the friends stopped and confronted Edward. “How did you do that?” one asked.
     “Do what?” Edward replied.
     “How did you get that terrible client of yours to show up on cue like that? Did you know he would be out here?”
     “No,” said Edward, looking down at his boots. “Things like that happen to me all the time. I think about somebody and there they are.”
     “Speak of the devil!”
     “You mean that old expression, ‘Speak of the devil and the devil appears’?” asked Edward.
     “Exactly! You’d better be careful who you think about if you want to keep things like what just happened from happening all the time.”
     The friends saw the look of concern on Edward’s face and started laughing to lighten the mood. One said, “Don’t worry about it! It’s not like you know any axe murderers!” They drank from their water bottles, adjusted their packs, and continued up the trail, with Edward bringing up the rear.
     As he hiked, Edward thought about what had happened and replayed in his mind all the similar occurrences that he could remember. There were many. And the bad feelings about them far outweighed the good. He resolved that he would try to prevent the devil from appearing ever again by living as fully as possible in the present and not thinking about the past.

     Edward’s strategy worked well for him while he was awake, but he could not control his thoughts as he slept. His brain, deprived of its normal daydreaming, would work overtime at night, creating vivid dreams and horrific nightmares. Edward would breathe a sigh of relief on mornings when he awoke with no memories of his dreams. When he did wake up remembering them, he would jump out of bed and busy himself with his morning routines to put them quickly out of mind.
     Early one morning, when it was still dark, Edward awoke suddenly from a dream so intense that his ears were ringing and his heart was thumping in his chest. He rolled over and tried to fall back to sleep, but there was no hope of that. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the dark ceiling, replaying the dream in his mind:

     A classmate from childhood had somehow gotten in touch and invited him to her home for Christmas Eve dinner. It was snowing as he walked up the sidewalk to the address she had given him. Her adult son was bent over shoveling the front walk. When he saw Edward approach, he stood up and introduced himself. They entered the house together and removed their coats and boots in the front hall. The rooms were decorated for the holidays, but there was no one in them. Sounds of cooking and young children came from the back of the house, behind a swinging door at the rear of the dining room to their right. The son gestured to the living room on the left and told Edward to make himself at home. He said he would let his mother know that Edward had arrived and pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, giving Edward a glimpse of a young woman that he guessed was the son’s wife, seated at a table with their children.
     Edward walked through the arch leading to the living room and looked around. The room was comfortably furnished, and the walls were lined with built-in bookcases full of books and music CDs. He walked over to a shelf of CDs to see if he shared her taste in music. He was noticing the abundance of classical music when he saw her enter the room from the corner of his eye. He turned to face her and she stopped, still a few feet away. She was just as he remembered her, but her hair was shorter and more auburn in color. She wore a sparkling silver gown and matching shoes that made her glow in the room’s soft light.
     At a loss for words, Edward asked, “Do you still play cello?”
     “No,” she said. “I play the piano now.” She gestured through a door off the living room, where Edward could see a grand piano with its top open. “I’ve been looking for a guitarist to play duets with.”
     “I play guitar,” Edward said.
     She stepped closer and took his shoulders in her hands. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. As she turned to pull away, Edward took her by the shoulders and kissed her softly on the mouth. “I love you,” he said. “I’ve always loved you.”

     That was the moment when Edward woke up. Somewhere in his subconscious mind, he still harbored feelings for this woman he had not seen since their twentieth class reunion, almost fifteen years ago. He also knew that given the intensity of his dream about her, she would soon appear in his life. His special talent would see to it. But he had been suppressing it for so long, he was no longer confident that it still worked. He needed to find her and tell her how he felt. He couldn’t wait for the talent to make it happen.
     Edward rolled out of bed and went into his office to turn on his computer. He tried every search engine and every networking site, but there was no mention of her. Finally, he found an address that might be hers. He wrote a quick letter saying that he had been thinking about her and asking her to get in touch with him. He put the letter in an envelope and hurried to the post office to mail it before he lost his nerve.
     Days passed and turned into weeks and months. The letter went unanswered. And the devil did not appear.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Letter 2010

Christmas card photo 2010: Nan, Scout and John at Redlands Mesa Golf Club with the Colorado National Monument in the backgroundChristmas 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

It’s hard to believe we’re almost through the first decade of the new millennium. Fears of Y2K seem quaint now compared to the real difficulties we all face these days. If anything, all the economic and political uncertainty has strengthened our relationships and made them that much more important: We’re all we have.

The year saw us still doing our fair share of travel. We continued our recent spring tradition of sailing with our friend, Capt. John Kretschmer, aboard his 47-foot sailboat, this year sailing from Bocas del Toro, Panama to Isla Mujeres, Mexico over two weeks. Nan and I flew into Panama City and spent a night at a hotel located at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, right next to the appropriately named Balboa Yacht Club. The next day, we took a puddle jumper over to Bocas, on the Caribbean side, and met up with John and the rest of the crew. We sailed north for two days to the tiny island of Providencia, a Colombian island off the coast of Nicaragua. From there, over three days, we rounded west and made landfall in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. We spent a pleasant few days there, touring the island with a friend of John’s, and snorkeling in the crystal waters off the West End. We sailed north again, heading for Lighthouse Reef and its Great Blue Hole, but the seas were rough and we couldn’t risk the reef’s dangerous entrance, so we sailed overnight to San Pedro, on Belize’s Ambergris Caye. Our final passage took us past Cozumel to Isla Mujeres, our favorite place in Mexico. In two short days there, we raced around touching base with all of our local friends, distributing birthday gifts and fond greetings.

As soon as we returned home, I flew to Baltimore to inspect a sailboat for sale. Capt. John met me and offered his expert advice. A few weeks later, I was the proud owner of a 1980 Valiant 40 cutter, now named Whispering Jesse, in fulfillment of the dream I established in my blog of the same name almost six years ago. A week later, my sailing buddy Kevin met me in Baltimore and we sailed the boat down to Solomons, Maryland, where refitting work is being done to prepare her for bluewater passages. If all goes as planned, a small crew and I will set sail in March for Savannah, where my folks have a vacation home, and spend some time sailing with family in local waters. From there, Isla Mujeres and other Caribbean destinations beckon, as preludes to a trip around the world, but plans are still being formulated.

Nan’s mother, Mary Claire, is 87 now and still living at home, cared for by Nan’s younger sister, Amy. Over the summer, Nan made a few trips home to Manitowoc to spend time with her mother and give Amy a break. She timed her trips to take advantage of running races in the area. Nan has carried on with her running pursuits, racing almost every weekend through the spring, summer and fall, and usually placing in the top three in her age group. When she was in Manitowoc in October, Nan was joined by Amy for a trip down to Milwaukee to run in a lakefront event, their first race together.

I made it home to Wauwatosa just once this year, as a side trip on my way to Solomons to check on the sailboat’s refit progress and spend a weekend with my friend Curt and his family in the DC area. Sister Jane and her sons were in Tosa from Seattle and sister Susan’s family lives across town in Shorewood, so it was almost a family reunion. The actual reunion took place later in the trip, when everyone traveled to Chicago for the reunion of the Allen clan, my mother’s relatives. Close to a hundred showed up for an all-day barbecue and reminiscence.

Nan and I returned to Isla Mujeres in September. We had planned to stay for two weeks but cut our trip short due to terrible weather caused by hurricanes Karl and Matthew, which struck well to the south in the Yucatan peninsula but still managed to cause massive amounts of rainfall where we were.

Our card photo this year was taken at the eleventh tee of the Redlands Mesa Golf Club, where we have been members for three years. It’s located within easy walking distance of our home, so the photo gives a good idea of where we live and the views we enjoy of the Colorado National Monument. The golf is pretty dramatic, too, like playing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The holidays are Nan’s and my time to let you know how much we care about you, even if this letter and card are the only communication you receive from us all year. Know that you are always in our thoughts. Here’s to a warm and wonderful holiday season and a prosperous New Year!

Love,

John, Nan and Scout

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Return to Hidden Valley

Scout posing in front of the petroglyph wall in Hidden Valley, Moab, UtahOn Friday afternoon, Nan, our dog Scout and I drove down to Moab for an overnight trip. Nan was signed up to run in the Winter Sun 10K race on Saturday morning, so Scout and I went for a hike.

In thinking about where Scout and I should take our hike in the days leading up to the trip, it occurred to me that I have not hiked the Hidden Valley trail in almost three years, not since our dog Charlie and I hiked it together a few weeks before he died of cancer. The cover of Raising Charlie, the book I wrote about him, shows a photo of Charlie standing in front of the trail's petroglyphs wall, which was our usual turn-around point. I knew it would make me sad to return to that spot, but I wanted to share it with our new dog, Scout.

The Hidden Valley trailhead is a few miles south of downtown Moab, just off of Highway 191. It is reached by turning right on to Angel Rock Road and then following the trail signs. The weather was cold and cloudy when Scout and I started hiking at 9:30, but we warmed up quickly while climbing the steep switchbacks leading up to the hidden valley that gives the trail its name.

When Charlie and I had hiked the trail together in March 2008, spring had already arrived in the high desert and it had been a warm day. We had stopped to rest and drink some water in the shade of a large juniper tree located where the trail starts to flatten out. The details of that hike are included in Raising Charlie, in a chapter titled "The Last Good Days." Scout and I stopped at that same tree, and I stood there for several moments, remembering Charlie sitting under it and smiling at me the way he did that day. Scout broke the spell by moaning as he rolled in a patch of snow that the tree was shading.

Scout on the Hidden Valley trail, with the petroglyph wall in the distanceWe set off again and soon emerged into the first of the sagebrush fields. Surprisingly, the trail through it was snow covered but the field itself was not. A few hundred yards further on, we crossed over a rocky section and entered the second sagebrush field. In the distance, I could see the petroglyph wall. In the photo to the right, if you click on it to see the full-size version and then draw a line from Scout's nose through the center of the dark bush behind him and extend it to the rock face in the distance, it will pass through the petroglyph wall right below the skyline.

The wall is a little ways off the right side of the trail, and there is not an established path to it, so Scout and I bushwhacked over to it through the rocks and scrub. As with the juniper tree, I stood for several moments and remembered Charlie standing on the ledge below the wall as I took photos, some of the last photos of his life. Scout sat patiently watching me. I called him over and had him sit on the ledge while I took photos. I wanted to include the petroglyphs in the photos, so the angle is a little different from the Raising Charlie cover photo, but the details are the same.

The Hidden Valley trail, with the La Sal Mountains in the distanceThat day with Charlie, it had suddenly occurred to me that the petroglyph that looks like three circles joined by lines depicts a primitive map of Hidden Valley. With Scout, I noticed a petroglyph I had never noticed before. It depicted the figure of a man, and at his side was an incomplete figure that I imagined to be the man's dog. It is gratifying to know that the primitive people who pecked these figures into this wall valued their relationships with their dogs enough to include them in their artwork.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Golf: The Final Frontier

It has been a year and a half since I last wrote about golf, in a post titled "Golf-22," from March 2009. At that time, I had high hopes for getting my golf game back on track well enough to actually enjoy it again, a feeling I had not experienced in more than thirty-five years, since I was fifteen and shooting in the low eighties. What has prompted me to write about golf again is a book my wife Nan found for me, The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport by Carl Hiassen. Like me, Carl started playing golf again after a lengthy hiatus, to disastrous effect. Sharing in Carl's frustration, knowing that I am not alone, has given me the courage to continue the story of my golf game from where I last left off.

After the men's club opener at Redlands Mesa Golf Club in March 2009, which my foursome won by several strokes, I was pretty excited about the game. I used my prize money to buy a Cleveland Golf lob wedge, a club I had needed for years but never owned. I adjusted my work schedule so that I could play eighteen holes every Wednesday afternoon with other men's club members, and I went to the driving range and putting green every chance I could get. Instead of improving from all that play and practice, my game gradually fell apart. An errant shot would land me in trouble, and I would waste endless shots trying to get out of it. Double-digit scores on single holes were not out of the question. But like most bad golfers, there were also occasional flashes of brilliance--a birdie here, a chip-in there--that helped keep hope alive.

After a not utterly terrible men's club round, my golf buddy Tom asked if I was going to enter the Redlands Mesa Open, the club's annual May tournament. I'm sure my look said, "Are you out of your mind?!" He smiled and said, "I was just thinking that with your high handicap, you might be able to play a couple of break-through rounds that would put you in the running for the low net championship." I gave it some thought over the next few days and asked another men's club golf buddy, AJ, who played at about my level, if he wanted to join me. He wisely opted out.

On the first day of the tournament, I arrived more than an hour before my scheduled tee time to work out the kinks at the driving range. I don't know if it was nerves or just another stage in the natural disintegration of my game, but I sprayed shots all over the place. If I hadn't already paid the entrance fee, I would have just gone home. Instead, I went up to the clubhouse to meet my two playing partners, an older guy who worked at the golf course and a younger guy who was only playing with us high-handicappers because he had needed to attend his wife's college graduation ceremony earlier in the day. As the last group to tee off, at least we didn't have anybody putting pressure on us from behind. Not that it mattered to me, I triple-bogeyed the opening hole.

The round proceeded in about that same vein or worse. I'm sure my playing partners were wondering what I was even doing out there, but they were nice enough not to laugh, though I gave them plenty of opportunities. Within a few holes, my nervousness had given way to a slow-boiling anger and I was swearing fluently after every bad shot. By the time we reached the fourteenth hole, I was ready to explode.

The tee shot on number fourteen must go between two giant boulders on either side of the fairway in order to set up a short pitch to the green, which is hidden around the corner from the boulder on the right, making for a ninety-degree dogleg. My drive was short. I could either try a blind shot over the boulder to the green or lay up for an easier shot. The pin was at the front of the green so I opted for the lay-up. My next shot needed to land on the fringe at the front of the green and roll close to the pin. Instead, it went under the lip of the sand trap that protects the front of the green. I opened my sand wedge's clubface as much as possible and took a vicious swing, hoping to pop the ball straight up and onto the green. The ball hit the lip and dropped even closer to it. I tried again. And again. All I managed to do was dig a deeper hole. I turned to my playing partners and asked what my options were. They just stared at me like I was crazy, and at that moment, I did go a little bit crazy. I took a stance ninety degrees to my right and hit the ball out of bounds with all my might. I turned toward where the golf carts were parked and two-hand overhead tomahawked my sand wedge as hard as I could in their direction. I stepped out of the trap and did the same with my putter, which I had foolishly carried with me, thinking I would be finishing the hole. I picked up the rake and dragged it through the wreckage in the sand trap, then walked back to the carts without making eye contact with my playing partners. I took my seat in the cart, picked up the scoring pencil, and marked a large "X" on my scorecard. Disqualified.

I finished the round in silence, uselessly parring the final hole. When we got back to the clubhouse, I handed my scorecard to one of my playing partners, took my clubs off the cart, and went home. Even though she could see it on my face, Nan still asked, "So how did it go?" All I could think to say in return was, "Worst round of my life." We had planned to go out to dinner at a new rib joint, so we went ahead and did that despite my foul mood. After a couple of glasses of wine, I told her about my day. After several "Oh, my"s, she asked what I was going to do about the next day, the second day of the tournament. I wasn't sure. What if I showed up and they told me I couldn't play because I had been disqualified? I didn't think I could stand the humiliation. I lay awake in bed long into the night thinking about golf and what I should do about it. I finally reached two conclusions: I would not try to play in the second day of the tournament; and I would stop keeping score.

Golf is the only sport I participate in regularly that involves keeping score. Scores allow golfers to compare their performance to past performances and to other golfers' performances. If you're good, this is part of the fun. If you're not, it takes all the fun out of it. I enjoy the activity of golf, being outside in a beautiful environment on a sunny day, socializing with friends and getting a little exercise, but keeping score just ruins it for me, so I don't do it anymore. Sure, I know if I've just parred or birdied a hole, but I don't add the holes together to get a final score. I no longer have a handicap, I no longer belong to the men's club, and I will never enter another tournament. And you know what? I enjoy golf much more now.

By the way, I found out later that playing partners in a tournament are not allowed to ask for advice. I also found out that it is permissible to take an unplayable lie in a sand trap. Oh, well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Update from the Boatyard

The deck of Whispering Jesse, my 1980 Valiant 40, masked and ready to be paintedDon from the Spring Cove Marina boatyard called me on Thursday to ask what color I wanted for the anti-skid deck paint for Whispering Jesse. I asked what the options were and he explained that sailors used to go with a contrasting color like beige to avoid excessive glare but that the current trend is to go with the same color as the deck. The deck is being painted in Awlgrip's "snow white," so I agreed to go with that same color. It will be awfully bright but hopefully also cooler than beige, which is already going to be the color of the new dodger and bimini--I don't want to overdo it.

After the deck is painted, Don said they would be covering the boat and moving it out of the paint shed for a few weeks while they work on a different boat. The next logical step in the refit process is to replace the engine, and that would involve moving the boat back indoors. It will be January, after all. I would like to be there in person when the engine is removed to get an idea of what is involved and to see the transmission and stuffing box. Don said he would be away the first week of the new year, so I told him I would look at heading out there the following week for a few days.

Steve from Creative Canvas Designs was on-site later that same day to take measurements for the new dodger and bimini, and was nice enough to send me the photo above, showing the deck masked and ready for painting. I noticed that the manual windlass and the cable TV/phone hookup box that is located directly to starboard of the cockpit bulkhead's port were still in place. The windlass will be replaced by an electric one and the hookup box is obsolete, so I had asked Don to remove them before the deck is painted. I emailed him a reminder. Another thing I noticed is that the new chainplates are in place now, so that completes the rerigging work, except for restepping the mast, of course, which will take place next spring.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Circumnavigation Routes, Part 7

During our sailing trip this past spring from Bocas del Toro, Panama to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, the subject of circumnavigating came up, as it always does when Nan and I sail with John Kretschmer. Being in the Caribbean at that moment, we spent most of our time talking about the best ways to sail that particular sea.

Several books are devoted to advice about sailing the "Thorny Path" from the east coast of the United States to the Virgin Islands by way of the Bahamas, which is, as the name implies, a relentless bashing to windward. Most recommend avoiding it by staying to the north and sailing as far to the east as possible using the variable winds of those latitudes before turning south into the easterly trade winds and aiming directly for the Virgin Islands. For those with the patience to pick and choose their wind opportunities, there are books that prescribe the path itself, like Bruce Van Sant's Gentleman's Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, which was recommended to me by my friend Paul Caouette but which Amazon tells me is out of print.

John Kretschmer is a proponent for sailing the Caribbean islands from south to north, or more accurately, from southeast to northwest, using the trade winds to natural advantage instead of fighting them. He has crossed the Atlantic several times, and this south-to-north route is part of his normal return trip, but what about those wanting to sail directly from the United States? John says the best way is to circumnavigate the Caribbean in a counter-clockwise direction. When he first mentioned this idea, during our sailing trip last year in the Spanish Virgin Islands, I imagined that he meant sailing from Florida to Mexico, following the Central American coast to the south and then the north coast of South America to the east, arriving in Trinidad and then island-hopping back to Florida.

During this year's discussions, I discovered how wrong I was. John said that sailing east along the north coast of South America is even more of a thrashing than the Thorny Path. Instead, he recommended sailing east from Mexico's Yucatan peninsula to Cuba's southern coast to stay in the lee of the trade winds and then using the evening land breezes to make progress to the east past Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. One would still need to island-hop to windward from the Virgin Islands down to Trinidad, but then one would be in position to reverse course and enjoy the downwind sail back through the islands, hitting any points of interest missed on the way down. Hang a right at Puerto Rico, and negotiate the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas to arrive back at the original starting point.

This is the route I hope to take beginning next spring, when Whispering Jesse is set to sail. Depending on what we find along the way, it may take a year or more to return home. Then what? As John has suggested, why not get Europe out of the way sooner rather than later?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Bogeymen

     When John and his brother Stuart were very young, their father and mother gave them classic stories on vinyl records to encourage the development of their imaginations. The brothers played the stories over and over again on an old record player. Their favorites were The Knights of the Round Table and Robinson Crusoe, which they loved for their heroic characters, even though the Robinson Crusoe record skipped in the same place every time they played it: "… and knocked down one of his pursuers."
     Imaginations are impressionable, and the brothers listened to two of the stories only rarely, when they could work up the nerve: The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. The Poe story was so frightening, with its rhythmic narration matching the imagined beat of the heart beneath the floorboards, that they could listen to it only during daylight hours or it would cause terrible dreams. By comparison, the Irving story was all-consuming. The image of a headless horseman charging his red-eyed stallion down upon the helpless Ichabod Crane and hurling his flaming jack-o-lantern caused frequent nightmares. John would awaken in a cold sweat, imagining himself knocked off his horse by the vengeful horseman. As he lay awake, waiting for his own telltale heart to stop beating in his chest, he would listen to the silence. On summer nights, when the windows were open, he imagined he could hear the headless horseman breathing outside the ground-floor window of the bedroom he shared with his brother. On particularly bad nights, he imagined he could hear the headless horseman scratching at the window screen.
     One rainy Saturday afternoon, when John and Stuart were racing their slot cars around the track in their bedroom, their friends from up the street, Gary and Dean, who were also brothers, knocked at the door. John and Stuart’s father answered the door and invited the brothers in out of the rain. Dean was holding a small white jewelry box in his hand. He announced that he had found the mummy’s finger and lifted off the lid. Inside was a ghostly pale finger surrounded by cotton batting. As everyone leaned in to get a closer look, the finger wiggled, eliciting shrieks of fright from everyone but the jokers, Dean and Gary, who laughed uncontrollably. Dean had powdered his finger and put it through a hole in the bottom of the box. He said that he and Gary played jokes all the time, like wandering the sleeping neighborhood and making noises outside windows. John’s gut tightened. He suddenly had an explanation for the sounds he heard at night.
     The next time John had the headless horseman nightmare and awoke in the middle of the night, he listened more intently than ever. He was so sure he could hear the breathing and scratching that he said as quietly as he could, “Dean?” The imagined sounds ceased immediately, replaced by the noise of crickets and the hum of distant cars on the highway. Then there was a new sound, a whispering. John strained to hear, not believing his ears. The silence that followed made him doubt he had heard the whispering at all. But then there was an answering whisper. Now there was no doubt. “Gary?” John pleaded in a soft, hoarse voice. There was no response. Blood pounded in John’s ears. He lay on his back, frozen in fear, until he lost consciousness.
     A few weeks later, John and Stuart’s family drove the brothers a couple of hours away, to their grandmother’s house, to spend a week with her, just the three of them. Grandma’s house had only two bedrooms, so John and Stuart shared a double bed in the front bedroom. It was hot enough that the ground-floor bedroom window was wide open every night. John slept peacefully, with the confidence that the headless horseman could not possibly have followed him to Grandma’s house.
     On the last night of their stay, Grandma made some popcorn, and they stayed up late to watch an old movie. It was after ten o’clock when the movie ended and they went to bed, more than an hour past John and Stuart’s regular bedtime. Stuart fell immediately into a deep sleep, but John lay awake, playing the movie over in his mind. As he lost control of his thoughts and drifted into sleep, the movie scenes melded into his recurrent nightmare of the headless horseman. At the moment when he expected to be struck by the flaming jack-o-lantern, he snapped awake. Nightglow flooded the room through the open window. There should have been cricket noise, but the room was quiet. He could hear Stuart’s soft breathing next to him, and beyond that, from the window, a second set of quiet breaths. His explanation that Dean and Gary were outside the window was suddenly so implausible that it was like a trapdoor dropping out from under him. He held his own breath and strained his ears, expecting to hear scratching at the screen. Instead, he heard a muffled tearing sound, like someone slowly cutting the screen, thin wire by thin wire, with a sharp pocketknife. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t release his breath. He wanted to flee, but he couldn’t move. He lay trembling, tears squeezing out of the corners of his tightly closed eyes.
     The cutting noise stopped. John expected to hear the sound of someone crawling through the window, but there was only silence. Then he heard the sound of breathing, and it was coming from right next to the bed. He could almost feel the breath on his face. There was a strange smell. As he tried to make sense of it, the rhythm of the breathing changed, and he realized that there was a second breather. The one closer to his face started whispering. It was the same voice from home! They couldn’t have followed him to Grandma’s house. They must have found him somehow. The other one responded, and John realized that he could not understand a word but that they understood each other clearly. He recoiled as he felt hands lightly touch his chest and legs. His body lifted slowly off the bed, floated through the slit in the screen, and drifted up into the night sky.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Another Trip to the Boatyard

Me, Pete and Curt in our matching Packer caps at the Packers-Redskins gameTwo weeks ago, I made another trip out east to check on the progress being made on Little Walk's refit at Spring Cove Marina in Solomons, Maryland. It was also an opportunity to attend the Annapolis Boat Show and to spend some more time with my friend Curt and his family in Falls Church. I arrived at Curt's on Friday evening and tried to muster some interest in the boat show, but there were no takers.

I went to the boat show by myself but met up with my friend Kevin Harrison, who helped me sail Little Walk from Baltimore to Solomons, and his girlfriend Beth. The three of us walked around together on some impressive new sailboats late in the afternoon. Before that, I attended a seminar on marine electrical systems and gathered information on some of the items I need to buy for the boat, like an inflatable dinghy and outboard. I also met with Scott from Handcraft Mattress Company to firm up an order for a new mattress for the aft berth, and talked with Collin from Chesapeake Rigging about his progress on rerigging the boat.

Whispering Jesse showing off her new Awlgrip hull paintOn the way back to Curt's, I called and found out that the family was at his son Pete's flag football game, so I joined them there. I learned that the rules have changed dramatically since we played it in gym class growing up, when the only difference between flag football and regular football was that you grabbed a flag instead of tackling. On Sunday, Curt, Pete and I attended the real deal, the Green Bay Packers versus the Washington Redskins game at Fedex Field. Like true Packer fans, we tailgated before the game, grilling brats, drinking beer and tossing the football around. Our seats in the end zone were better than expected, and we cheered as the Packers ran up an early lead, only to watch it evaporate in the second half, when a last-minute field goal attempt that would have won the game instead "doinked" off the upright right next to where we were sitting. The Packers lost to the Redskins in overtime.

The current state of Whispering Jesse's deckI drove down to Spring Cove Marina the next morning. Alan, one of the boatyard's managers, saw me in the parking lot and directed me to the paint shed, where Little Walk was waiting. Her new hull paint was dazzling, snow white with royal blue stripes. It made the rest of the boat look old and tired by comparison. I climbed up the ladder and noticed that the deck's traveler structure had been removed for the installation of new Harken traveler equipment by Chesapeake Rigging. I went below and saw that all the chainplates had been removed and that the water-damaged chainplate knee on the port side had been repaired. I went back down the ladder and saw that the boom had been painted but was covered with masking paper and resting on supports next to the boat. The mast was out back, having just been painted. It looked good, the same snow white as the hull, but the new sleeving that will reinforce its base had not been installed yet. I took a look at the masthead, which was missing its windvane and anemometer, and tried to figure out how to place a Windex as an analog backup to the electronic wind instruments.

Whispering Jesse's newly repaired chainplate kneeJohn Kretschmer, our frequent sailing companion, was conducting a celestial navigation seminar in the marina's lounge, so I walked over there to say hello. Jan, from our Bocas del Toro to Isla Mujeres trip this past spring, was there as well. We agreed to meet later, after the seminar was over, to look at Little Walk together. I left to go check in to the same hotel I stayed at the last time and try to catch up on some real-world work. When I returned late in the afternoon, Jan was gone but I found John talking with one of his seminar students, John Simonton, who is originally from Denver but is now living aboard his 37-foot sailboat in the marina. The three of us walked over to the boatyard for another look at Little Walk.

Whispering Jesse's mastheadAt this point in the refit process, the Little Walk name has been removed from the hull, so I feel it is appropriate to start referring to the boat by its new name, Whispering Jesse, even though it will be a few more months before the new name is affixed to the hull.

After the boat walkaround, John K. left to meet his sister Liz and brother-in-law Trevor, who are partners in Spring Cove Marina. John S. and I walked out to look at his boat and stood chatting on the dock next to it, agreeing to meet for dinner the following evening.

The next morning, I met with Don, the boatyard manager, to discuss the work on Whispering Jesse, what had been done and how to proceed. I mentioned that I had talked with the Beta Marine people at the boat show about a new engine and he proposed the idea of a remanufactured Perkins instead. It would greatly simplify the repowering process since it would be a like-for-like swap, and it would be less expensive since it would negate the need for new stringers and engine mounts. John Kretschmer and John Simonton examine Whispering Jesse's freshly painted mastHe called the dealer and they quoted him a price over the phone, which he added to his list of work items. We walked over to the paint shed together to look at the work in progress and figure out the best plan for future work. With the boat out of the weather in the paint shed, it would make sense to address the deck work, which will involve sanding down and applying Cetol to all the teak, and repairing, refinishing and repainting the deck fiberglass. This would also be the time to remove any attached equipment that will be replaced, like the manual windlass, dodger and bimini, or eliminated, like the wooden dinghy chocks and cable TV/phone hookup. I asked about bottom repair and painting, and Don recommended that we save that until just before the boat goes back into the water next spring.

Sunbrella fabric samples in heather beige, beige and toast, and clear plastic dodger windshield materialAs we were leaving the paint shed, I mentioned to Don that I wanted to meet with his recommended canvas people. He pulled out his phone to set up a meeting with Steve from Creative Canvas Designs. Steve and I met at the boat at nine o'clock the next morning and spent about an hour talking about a new dodger and bimini, a new sail cover, new hatch covers, and new interior cushions. We agreed to meet again the next day at his shop in Solomons to look at fabrics and foam. At that meeting, on a rainy Thursday morning, Steve showed me some Sunbrella samples in various shades of beige, which Don recommended for the exterior canvas because it reflects heat better and does not fade as quickly as darker colors. For the interior canvas, we're going to go with a bright royal blue to brighten the look of the dark wood paneling.

On my final day there, I met one last time with Don. He thought they would have the engine pulled within a week or two. They then would be able to paint the engine room, in anticipation of installing a new engine at the beginning of the new year. They would also continue work on the exterior wood and fiberglass. If it's at all possible, I would like to try to get out to see Whispering Jesse one more time before Christmas to check on progress. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The importance of being handy

A few days ago, I received this complimentary blog comment from reader Steven:

Hi John. I started following your blog a few months ago and I am finally caught up :-) You've done such a great job here and I know I am not alone in being inspired and educated by what you have written. I am going to be scheduling sailing lessons for next Spring, it will give me time to raise the money. Anyway, I wanted to ask you a question and hoped you could help: Do you have to be handy to own a sailboat? I am useless with tools and I noticed you are having your boat repaired by the yard. Many of the sites I have read the owners always seem to be doing all repairs themselves. I know I am not capable of doing that without being bitten by some sort of radioactive spider. Are you a handy person by nature and plan on doing a lot yourself, John, or are you more like me? Thanks for your time and keep up the great work on the blog.

Here is my response, which I am posting as a blog entry so it doesn't get lost in a comments section:

Steven, the work I am having done on the boat involves skills and materials that I have no experience with, like machining metal parts and repairing fiberglass gelcoats. I am more of a home repair guy, able to do basic carpentry, plumbing, electricity and painting. I can also fix stuff that breaks, so in some regards, I would be considered fairly handy.

In answer to your question, I don't think it's absolutely critical to be handy to be a successful sailor and sailboat owner but it definitely helps. If you limit your sailing to coastal areas with well-equipped boatyards at every point of contact, then you may never need to worry about fixing anything on your boat by yourself. But if you sail far away from familiar shores, which can be a little scary all by itself, then having the confidence that you can fix most of the things on your boat that might break will help tremendously to reduce fear and stress.

Unfortunately, confidence can only be gained through experience, which means that you need to expect that things will go wrong. The trick is to control the things that can be controlled and to not worry obsessively about the rest. The best place to start is with preventive maintenance. Almost every piece of equipment on a boat comes with a maintenance manual. It is critical to read those manuals and follow their recommendations. Many times, this will involve buying suggested tools and spare parts. It will also involve a schedule, which means you are maintaining your equipment at routine intervals. If you can do this, you are eliminating most of what can go wrong through simple neglect and inattention, and you are building your confidence in your ability to use tools and fix things. You are becoming handy.

One more point: More than anything, being handy is an attitude more than it is an ability. It is a willingness to take on a problem instead of running away from it. When something breaks, if it's not an immediate emergency, then get the swearing out of the way, take a few deep breaths and start looking at what went wrong and why it might have happened. It doesn't pay to fix something if you don't first fix whatever it was that caused it to break. Take the time to figure out a lasting solution, using trial and error as needed. As you try different options, you will learn more about the particulars of the problem and be better able to apply your innate creativity. After several successful experiences with fixing things, you will know in your gut that you could jury rig just about anything it would take to keep your boat moving toward its destination.

An excellent book that touches on some of the points I have made here is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I have read it twice and expect that I will read it again someday.

Thank you for your readership and kind comments. Best of luck to you in your sailing future!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Vote for my aha moment!

Hey, everybody! Want to see my smiling face on TV? Vote for my Mutual of Omaha "aha moment" and it might be in a future commercial!

http://www.ahamoment.com/pg/voting?id=17692

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Home from Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Juan, Paulina, Daniel, Paul, Chris and Manolo snorkeling at the wreck near El Ferito on Isla MujeresNan and I arrived home on Monday night from our vacation in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We cut our two-week trip short by five days due to work concerns and lousy weather. The remnants of hurricane Karl were still causing rain when we arrived, transitioning seamlessly into hurricane Matthew's near miss, with its own downpours and high winds. When it wasn't raining, the heat, humidity and sand gnats drove me mostly indoors to sit in our air-conditioned Color de Verano penthouse apartment reading Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, a topical, enjoyable page turner. Nan toughed it out without me, getting as much "beach time" as possible.

Dark cloud and rain passing over the observation platform near El Ferito on Isla MujeresEvery time we go to Isla Mujeres, and we have been there eight times now, we spend time with the same friends, see the same sights and eat at the same restaurants, but we always make an effort to explore new areas and try new restaurants. This time, we even went on a "parade of homes" tour with a real estate broker named Rogelio and our Spanish instructor, Juan Torres. There are still oceanfront and lagoonfront lots for sale on the island, but they are ridiculously expensive for foreigners and would require an inordinate amount of work to build on, not to mention extensive communication in Spanish.

Rosi and Ariel on the boat as we pass 'the white house' at Sac Bajo on Isla MujeresWe tried three new restaurants: Chuuk Kay, a new Mayan-themed place located on the Laguna Macax channel and managed by our friend Ventura, whom we know from his days at Na Balam's Zazil-Ha bar and restaurant and from Brisas Grill; Rooster, a new, upscale place at the north end of Avenida Hidalgo that features wonderful creations by chef Sergio but unfortunately does not take credit cards; and Mango Cafe, an excellent breakfast and lunch place that is usually closed by the time we drive our rented golf cart past its location on the Caribbean side's main drag, but which we were lucky to find open one afternoon for jerked chicken tacos, grilled chicken empanadas and ginger lemonade.

Cervezas and pina coladas at Playa Tiburon on Isla Mujeres, with Manolo, Paula, Juan and Nan, while we wait for tic-n-xic barbecued grouperThe Sunday before we returned home on Monday was our best day, even though it had its share of rain. But we were out on our friend Ariel's panga for some snorkeling, so we expected to get wet. We had run into Ariel on our first night, working as a waiter at a new restaurant on Hidalgo, and agreed to do a boat trip with him. I asked if we could invite our good friend Juan Gomez's family to join us, and Ariel agreed enthusiastically. September ("septi-hambre") is always a very slow month for business, and Ariel told us he had not had a paying boat trip in more than a month. If you're down that way, please call (011-521-998-165-6332 from the US) or email (arielsantizo@yahoo.com.mx) him for a boat trip of your own.

Paula and Paulina at Playa Tiburon on Isla MujeresAriel, his wife Rosi and her son Chris met Nan and me with the panga on the beach across from our apartment. When Juan showed up with his wife Paula, kids Manolo and Paulina, and nephews Paul and Daniel, we all piled into the boat and headed over toward El Ferito, the little lighthouse that marks the entrance to Isla Mujeres's large bay. There is a partially submerged wreck there, a casualty of hurricane Wilma back in 2005, that is a natural haven for sealife. Juan and the kids put on lifevests and snorkel equipment before jumping overboard to see what they could see. A dark passing cloud soaked everybody left on board. Already wet, I jumped in too, but all I saw in the churned up water was a school of needle fish.

Group shot on the boat ride home from Playa Tiburon, with Manolo, Juan, Paula, Paul, Paulina, Nan, Daniel and meWhen everybody was back on board, we headed east for a slow circle around Laguna Macax, admiring the many yachts that are moored in its protective waters. Juan and his family could just see the top of their house in the Lol-Beh colonia over the mangrove treetops. The kids were intrigued by the inhabited "plastic bottle island" that floats on the opposite side of the lagoon. We departed through the channel and passed by Sac Bajo, where "the white house," another casualty of hurricane Wilma, sits abandoned except for its caretaker unit. From there, it was a short trip down the western coast to Playa Tiburon, where Ariel had arranged for "tic-n-xic" barbecued grouper, with rice, pasta, salad and tortillas supplied by Rosi and Chris. Delicious!

We plan to return to Isla Mujeres next June, when we will sail the new boat there from the United States. More on that later...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dog Days 2010

Scout resting poolside at the 2010 Dog Days event in Grand JunctionI was walking back from dumping lawn clippings into the dumpster yesterday when my neighbors Rich, Diane and Mim pulled up in Rich's truck with Kola, Rich and Diane's schnauzer. They said they were on their way to Dog Days at the city swimming pool and that Scout and I should join them. If I paid more attention to our local news, I would have known about the event, which I have attended several times in the past with both Charlie and Scout.

Kola trying to get the ball from Scout at the 2010 Dog Days event in Grand JunctionI finished up the yardwork, put Scout in the car and drove over to Lincoln Park. Even though the event had been going on for two hours by that time, there were still plenty of wet dogs and damp owners in attendance. It took me a few minutes to locate my neighbors at the kiddie pool, encouraging Kola to swim after the tennis balls floating on the surface. I pointed at a ball for Scout to go after, but he just stood at the edge looking at it, so I gave him a nudge. After that, he belly-flopped off the edge after balls until he wore himself out. When they weren't swimming, Scout and Kola played keep-away with the other dogs, even though there were more than enough balls to go around.

Scout and Kola eating ice cream cones at the Dairy Queen after the 2010 Dog Days event in Grand JunctionAfter an hour, the dogs had had enough. Rich suggested that we go to Dairy Queen to get Blizzards for the adults and kiddie ice cream cones for the dogs. Scout had never had more than a taste of ice cream, so I thought, why not. Scout finished his cone in about two minutes, so quickly that I wondered if dogs get "ice cream headaches" the way people do. Apparently not, because when he was done, he wanted some of Kola's, too.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What's wrong with Colorado Springs?

Last week, I listened to a segment of "Colorado Matters" on Colorado Public Radio that featured the budget director from Colorado Springs. She said that tax revenues were so low that the city couldn't afford to maintain its parks or turn on its streetlights at night. This wasn't due to the current sad state of the economy; it was due to tax cuts approved by voters.

To keep things from going completely to hell, volunteers have been stepping in to cut the grass in the parks, and some neighborhoods have paid to have their streetlights turned back on. According to the budget director, this was a point of pride for many citizens, that they were actively engaged in keeping their community running.

My immediate reaction was, "Are you freakin' kidding me?! This is not a community! This is every man for himself!" The whole idea behind taxes is that we're all paying our fair share to support the services that benefit all of us, that make us a community instead of a bunch of selfish, small-minded individuals.

Extrapolating to the nation as a whole, this is what makes me so angry about the Tea Party, where Tea stands for "taxed enough already." I happen to think that income taxes are a reasonable price to pay for living in a free society, even though I take very little advantage of the services those taxes support. To think otherwise is to believe that you and your kind deserve some kind of special deal, maybe because you think you're working harder than the slackers who are milking the system. The truth is that, with few exceptions, people are doing the best they can. The sooner you understand this, the sooner you will realize that we are all in this life together. There are no winners, no losers. We all die in the end. Wouldn't you rather reach the end of your life knowing that you contributed what was needed to help your fellow man and support your community?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Minifish

Not my AMF Alcort Minifish sailboat, just one I found on the Internet that looks exactly like mineI have owned an AMF Alcort Minifish sailboat since one was given to me as a present from my family for my eleventh birthday in 1969. My father and I taught ourselves to sail the little boat and enjoyed cruising it around the Chain of Lakes in Waupaca, Wisconsin over the next several summer vacations. When I was old enough to drive, I would take the boat out to the lakes west of Milwaukee, where I grew up, and sail it with friends. I even took it with me to college in Madison, sailing on Lake Mendota after classes. When I moved to Aspen, Colorado in 1986, there wasn't room in the U-Haul trailer for the boat, so I drove it out the following year. Nan and I would sail it every summer on Ruedi Reservoir, about an hour from home. Now we live in Grand Junction, and there really aren't any good places nearby to sail. There's Highline Lake to the north and Ridgway Reservoir to the south, but they're both so overrun with powerboats most of the time that we haven't even bothered. So the boat has been sitting unused in the garage for more than five years.

When I was back in Milwaukee visiting family in July, my sister Jane mentioned the boat. She and her family live in Seattle near Green Lake, and they also have a vacation home on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. Her sons, Max and Ben, are developing an interest in sailing from lessons they have been taking on Green Lake, and she was wondering what I was doing with the old Minifish. I explained that we weren't really sailing it anymore and asked if she would like to have it for the boys to sail. She said yes, and we emailed back and forth about it again this past week, so next spring the Minifish is going to get shipped up to Seattle. I need to do a little work on it first: the plastic rings that attach the sail to the mast and boom are missing or cracked and need to be replaced; one of the mast's endcaps got dinged when the mast and boom fell off the trailer the last time we used the boat; and the current nylon halyard needs to be replaced with a better, non-stretching one. None of these repairs is too major, but I want to hand off the boat in good condition. Ideally, I would like to fly up there and introduce Max and Ben to the boat after it arrives to give them the benefit of my forty-one years of personal experience in rigging, launching and sailing it. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, August 27, 2010

My "aha moment" is live now

I just received an email message letting me know that my Mutual of Omaha "aha moment" is live now at http://www.ahamoment.com/pg/moments/view/17011.

The final film clip actually turned out better than expected. They managed to distill about ten minutes of my interview down to a single minute and still have it retain the points I was trying to make about how my dream of sailing around the world got started and what I am doing to fulfill it.

Nan liked their photo of me smiling so much that I have made it my blog's new profile image.

If you have a chance to watch the film clip, please leave a comment to let me know what you think. Thank you.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Hard Day on the Planet

Loudon Wainwright III is best known for being the father of singer Rufus Wainwright and for his early '70s hit, "Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road)". I was thinking today of another one of his novelty songs, "A Hard Day on the Planet", which has as its refrain:
It’s been a hard day on the planet,
How much is it all worth?
It’s getting harder to understand it,
Things are tough all over on earth.
Today was a bad day--not for me personally, but for the planet as a whole and mankind in particular. Everywhere I turned, there was bad news: jobless claims are at new highs; there's still much more oil in the gulf than BP is telling us; Pakistan is underwater but nobody is contributing any money for assistance; Russia is on fire; China's air is unbreathable; Indonesia's coral is dying from water temperatures seven degrees above normal; the stock market is swinging wildly up and down; the midterm election ads are all negative; people still believe that Obama is a Muslim; and Israel is on the verge of attacking Iran.

I am normally a fairly optimistic person, but it's all enough to make me give up hope. Since I have been old enough to think for myself, I have known that nobody really knows what is happening and that nobody is really in control of anything. The most we could hope for was that our better natures would predominate over our baser instincts to prevent utter chaos. Now it seems that chaos is winning. In my gut, I know that life will never, ever be as good as it was just two years ago, before the housing bubble burst. We have reached the point of diminishing returns. It's all downhill from here.

Do we take deep breaths, steel our resolve, and keep doing the best we can, knowing that it doesn't really make any difference, or do we take stock, re-evaluate our situations, and move in new directions, knowing that it is somewhat selfish but ultimately more rewarding to make the most of the time and opportunities we have left? Nobody ever gets to the end of their life and wishes they had worked harder, but as Loudon sings, "Things are looking kind of gray, like they’re going to black." Life is short. Make the most of it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

My aha moment

Clapboard for 'my aha moment' with Mutual of OmahaLate this afternoon, I drove over to the Mesa Mall parking lot, where Mutual of Omaha's Airstream mobile studio was parked. I had received an email invitation last week, as a result of a marketing person's discovery of my blog, inviting me to be filmed for their "aha moment" campaign. You have probably seen the commercials on TV featuring ordinary people talking about the moments that changed their lives. They couldn't guarantee that my spot would make it into a TV commercial, but it would definitely be posted to their website.

The invitation was specific that my aha moment should be about sailing and that I should plan to bring a prop to the filming. I didn't need to think too hard to come up with an idea: My aha moment happened in 1968, when I was ten years old. I read a National Geographic article about Robin Lee Graham, the first teen-ager to sail alone around the world. I knew right away that I wanted to do the same thing someday.

'My aha moment' prop: October 1968 National Geographic magazine with the article about Robin Lee Graham's solo circumnavigationThe studio people, Jessica and Dave, interviewed me for about ten minutes, starting with my dream and expanding on it to discuss my plans for actually sailing around the world. It was a nervous blur, but when it was over, Jessica said that it went really well, that my face was lit up with excitement. She told me that my aha moment would appear on the Mutual of Omaha website at http://www.mutualofomaha.com/aha within three weeks, and she handed me my clapboard as a souvenir. When it goes live, I'll be sure to post a direct link to it here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Trip to the Boatyard

Little Walk sitting in the Spring Cove Marina's boatyard without her mastA little over two weeks ago, I took a trip out to Solomons, Maryland to check on Little Walk for a couple of days. A few days before I left, Don, the boatyard manager at Spring Cove Marina, called to tell me that the boat's mast had been unstepped. This was good news because it meant that he had found the time, after two months of the boat sitting in the boatyard, to begin the refit. As the marine survey had indicated, the corrosion at the mast's base needed to be addressed, and the standing and running rigging needed to be replaced. Removing the mast was the first step in the repair process.

When I arrived at Spring Cove, the boatyard was very quiet. It was a Sunday and most of the staff were off for the weekend. Little Walk's mast was resting on sawhorses outside the boatyard fence. The horizontal perspective allowed a close-up view of all the mast's workings. Ray, the previous owner, had told me that the boat had been hit by lightning in the last couple of years, but there was no evidence of any damage. The lights, wind instruments and VHF antenna at the top looked almost brand new, though, like they had been recently replaced.

The boat itself looked a little funny without its mast, more like a motorboat than a sailboat. I found a ladder and climbed aboard to see what had been done. On the deck, duct tape covered the hole where the mast had been, and the boom was lying between the hatches. I unlocked the companionway hatch and went below. It was unbearably hot in the cabin, so I opened every hatch and port to cool things down. There is a fan in the salon, but I couldn't figure out how to turn it on. I had originally planned to stay aboard, but the weather reports had been showing temperatures in the high 90s and humidity at 90 percent, so I had booked a cheap hotel instead. Now I was happy I did, because there wasn't enough breeze or cloud cover to help lower the cabin temperature to more tolerable levels. I took a quick look at the place in the bilge where the mast had been stepped against the keel and then fled to the air-conditioned marina office to inquire about some packages I had sent out ahead of my arrival and to use the guest computer to send Ray an email about the fan.

Little Walk's mastless deckThe vacuum cleaner, coffee press and box of dishes, towels and linens I had shipped were waiting for me. I had thought to use my time on the boat to clean, sort through all the stuff left behind by the previous owner, and unpack some of my own stuff. But with the heat, I knew I wouldn't be very productive with work inside the cabin, so I started with the deck, tidying up loose equipment and stowing the fenders and dock lines that were still in place from when the boat was hauled out. Thinking it might get cooler as the sun went lower in the afternoon, I went off to Jerry's Subs for a late lunch. When I returned, the cabin was still "instant sweat" hot. I checked my cell phone's email and saw that Ray had responded to my message. He said that the salon fan did not work, which explained why I couldn't turn it on, but that the ones in the forward and aft berths did. I fooled with the unmarked electrical panel switches until I got both fans working. As long as I was at it, I figured I would try to get the stove working as well, since I hadn't been able to when Kevin and I sailed the boat down from Baltimore. No such luck. I think there might be a blown fuse in the solenoid panel because flipping its switch does not cause the little red light next to it to light up. I spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking and stowing stuff, and cleaning in the area of the companionway since it was the coolest spot in the cabin. By dinnertime, I was dripping sweat and ready to call it a day.

The next day, a Monday, the marina was a noisy hive of activity. I met with Don in the morning and spent some time walking around the boat, inside and out, to confirm the work that needed to be done, and looking at the mast to determine what the rigging needs would be. Don told me that Collin from Chesapeake Rigging would be on-site in the early afternoon to evaluate the rigging, take measurements and talk options. As we parted company, Don said that he would catch up with me in the afternoon with a quote on what he thought it would cost to correct all the issues in the marine survey. I climbed up the ladder and went back to work in the cabin. It was still cool enough inside for me to unpack the vacuum cleaner and spend most of the morning lifting cushions and moving equipment in order to vacuum underneath. At lunchtime, it was back to Jerry's Subs and then over to West Marine. To open the hatches the day before, I had to first remove their screens, and I had managed to break one of the latches in the process, so I wanted to see if they had a spare. They did.

Where Little Walk's mast used to beWhen I got back to the boatyard, Collin was already taking measurements on the mast. "Are you the rigging guy?" I asked. He smiled and replied, "Are you the owner guy?" I laughed. We shook hands and started talking rigging options. The boat's standing rigging was a combination of rod and cable. Collin said that while rod is stronger than cable, it's more prone to catastrophic failure. We agreed to go with cable throughout. The single existing jib furler was an old Hood one. Collin said I should send it to a sailing museum. I had been leaning toward Profurl furlers for both the jib replacement and the staysail, but Collin said that if they failed, I would need to order parts from France. He suggested American-made Harken furlers instead. I wanted a whisker pole added to the rig for poling out the jib in light winds, and Collin suggested a Forespar one on a track attached to the forward surface of the mast. Some of the halyard sheaves showed wear and needed to be replaced. Collin said he would include all that in his quote, which he expected to have ready in a few days. Don stopped by and the three of us went to look at the boat together. Collin looked closely at the chainplates, the mast step, and the sagging life lines, which also needed to be replaced. He offered excellent ideas for improving just about everything he saw, including the addition of an electric "bitch winch." Dollar signs were dancing in my head as we climbed down the ladder and said our good-byes.

Little Walk's cleaned up companionway areaI went back to work in the cabin, cleaning up the V-berth. I felt a little melancholy as I peeled off the hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars, moons and planets that Ray's daughter had stuck to the ceiling when she was a little girl and they were living aboard Little Walk in Boston. I followed that with scrubbing and vacuuming, both in the V-berth and also in the port-side pilot berth. Late in the afternoon, I took a break and walked over to the marina office for the last of my many trips to the deeply appreciated, refrigerated drinking fountain. It was getting close to the time for me to close up the boat and get ready to go home. On my way back to the boat, I stuck my head into Don's office. He invited me in to discuss his quote. He had written out a detailed list of improvements and assigned a price to each one. It added up to about what he had told me it would when we first talked about it back in May, after the trip down from Baltimore. I stared at the list, trying to figure out how I was ever going to pay for it all. Don sensed my consternation and said that the work could be done in phases, spreading out the expense over a long period of time. "A very, very long period of time," I thought.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Little Walk sails to Solomons Island

My 1980 Valiant 40, Little Walk, at Tony's dock near BaltimorePart 16 marked the end of the Boat Quest series. As of May 15, I am the proud owner of Little Walk, a 1980 Valiant 40. As one dream is made real, a new one is enabled. I now have the means to sail anywhere in the world. Where to go?

Well, the first stop is the boatyard, to make the necessary repairs and upgrades that will ensure safe travels. During our Central America sailing trip a few months ago, I spoke with John Kretschmer about my plans to sail the boat--if I ended up buying it--from Baltimore to Savannah, where my parents have a vacation home, to get the necessary work done. He had a better idea: his sister Liz and brother-in-law Trevor are partners in a marina and boatyard in Solomons Island, Maryland. Their people are experts at the kind of work I needed, and as an FOJ (Friend of John), they would take extra special care of me and my boat. What more could I ask for? John said he would contact them to make the necessary introductions.

That just left figuring out how to get the boat from the Riviera Beach area, southeast of Baltimore, to Solomons Island, a distance of about seventy-five miles. To be safe, I didn't want to sail alone, especially on an unfamiliar boat. I needed to find someone to go with me. The kicker was that the boat needed to be moved from its current location at Tony's dock within a week and a half, so I needed someone who would be available on short notice. Kevin Harrison, from our Odyssey sailing trip, came immediately to mind. He lives in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, only a hundred miles from where the boat was docked, and he would have just completed teaching the spring term at McDaniel College. I emailed him an invitation, and he emailed me back right away with an acceptance. We spoke over the phone a couple of days later to work out a strategy for meeting at the boat, driving two cars down to Solomons, and leaving one there for the return trip. Kevin agreed to bring his toolkit, just in case, and I agreed to provision for the short trip and cover his expenses.

Kevin and I met at the boat on Sunday morning, May 23. We hauled our stuff aboard, and I gave him a quick tour. He liked what he saw, except for all the bird poop on the deck. We took the time to wash down the deck so it would be clean and dry when we returned, and then we got into our respective cars for the drive down to Solomons.

Kevin aboard Little Walk at Tony's dockA couple of hours later, we met up again at the Spring Cove Marina's parking lot. We wandered around to get a feel for the place and its facilities and then walked into the office and asked to see Trevor. He came down from his office, and we spent a few minutes getting acquainted through our mutual connection to John Kretschmer. I ended the conversation by telling him we were headed back up to Baltimore to sail my boat down to the marina and that we would be back by early the next afternoon. He wished us well, and we left in my rental car to drive back up to the boat.

Tony was home when we returned, asleep in the hammock that overlooks his dock. He roused as we were preparing to depart and came down to talk with us. It's a good thing that he did, or we might have left the boat's meager fenders and dock lines behind. He assured us that they went with the boat. We thanked him, fired up the engine, and shoved off. There was only one problem: no water was coming out with the exhaust. I tried frantically to remember what Ray had said about where the water coolant seacock was located, but I had no idea. There had just been too many details during the orientation. I also forgot the way out of Rock Creek, because we found ourselves going up a dead-end tributary. It was time to call Ray. Fortunately, he answered--maybe he was expecting my call. He calmly told me to turn off the engine before it overheated and then directed me to look under the seat in the aft cabin for the seacock. I sent Kevin below to find it so I wouldn't lose the call, and he reported that as soon as he turned it, he could see water flowing through the associated filter's clear top. We fired up the engine again and looked over the side to see water coming out with the exhaust. The engine's temperature fell to about 110 degrees and stayed there. One disaster was averted. But we still didn't know where we were going. I still had Ray on the phone, so I tried to explain the landmarks around us. He didn't recognize anything but told me to follow the starboard-side shore until I could see the White Rocks Marina, which I should recognize from our sea trial sail. From there, I should know where to go. I thanked him and told him I would call later to let him know how we were doing.

View of my Valiant 40 Little Walk's bowKevin and I could have cheered when we reached the open water of Chesapeake Bay, but we noticed that the water was extremely shallow--no more than fifteen feet deep--even at White Rocks, a small formation of bird poop-covered rocks (thus the name), about a half-mile offshore, and we were concerned about running aground. After we passed the rocks, we rounded up into the wind, put up the sails, and bore off to the south for Annapolis, our destination for the day, all the while keeping an eye on the depth meter.

There was enough wind to just sail, and we were in no great hurry, so we cut the engine and trimmed the sails. The GPS showed us at six-plus knots, with occasional bursts over seven, not bad for the blustery, unsettled weather conditions. Kevin and I took turns at the helm since neither the windvane or electronic autopilots were working. Before long, we had passed under the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, which was our cue to turn west toward Annapolis. We started the engine and doused the sails as we passed the Naval Academy and sighted the public docks, where we picked up a mooring for the night. We settled up with the harbormaster who came out to greet us and then hailed a water taxi using the VHF radio. The taxi driver suggested the Middleton Tavern for dinner, so we gave it a try. Good steaks and atmosphere.

We were up by 5:00 the next morning to get an early start on the remaining sixty miles. I tried to boil water for instant coffee, but I couldn't figure out how to get the stove lit--guess I should have covered that in the orientation with Ray. We made due with juice and muffins as we motored out of Annapolis harbor and headed south for Solomons. Spring Cove Marina normally stops hauling boats out at about 2:00, so we motorsailed all the way to make good time in the hopes of meeting that deadline.

Sailing Little Walk, my Valiant 40, toward the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial BridgeWe arrived at a little after 1:00 and were directed to tie up at the end of a T-shaped dock. Kevin wasn't feeling well and went to find a bathroom. I went off to find Trevor, who informed me that the haul-out bay was busy and that they wouldn't be able to haul my boat out for a day or two. Oh, well. At least we were there safely, even if we hadn't needed to leave Annapolis quite so early. Trevor introduced me to his wife Liz, who is John Kretschmer's sister, and we chatted for a few minutes, mostly about John and his escapades. The family resemblance was easy to see. Liz excused herself, and Trevor and I walked over to the haul-out bay, where I met Trevor's brother Alan, who was stepping a mast. We walked up to the shop and met Don, the boatyard manager, who was painting a mast. Don would be the person coordinating the work on Little Walk, so we set up a meeting for the next morning. To give him an advance idea of what was involved, I told him I would leave a copy of the boat survey on his desk.

Kevin and I hauled our stuff off the boat, readjusted the dock lines, and drove to a nearby hotel. After showers, we went off in search of a cold beer, which we found at the famous Tiki Bar, and then dinner at a waterfront restaurant. It had been a long day. After dinner, we returned to the hotel and called it an early night.

Kevin and I had compiled a short list of items the boat needed, so after breakfast the next morning, we went to the local West Marine store to see if we could find it all. We did. Those places are amazing, like boating toy stores. We returned to the boat to drop off the new goodies before my meeting with Don. When he showed up, Kevin wandered off to look at boats and said he would meet me at his car when I was ready to go. Don and I walked around on the deck, looking at the mast and rigging, and then went below to look at the chainplates and engine. He was pretty matter-of-fact about things, saying that a thirty-year-old boat should be expected to need the types of repairs we were considering. I mentioned that I wanted to get the ratty cushions reupholstered. He said I should pitch them, that the foam was old and disintegrating, and get new ones, plus a real mattress for the aft berth. He also suggested replacing the manual windlass with an electric one. I hadn't thought of any of these things, but he was right. All it would take is money, of course. Don said I should probably expect to pay almost what I had paid for the boat to get it into top condition, more if it needed a new engine. I nodded knowingly, but I was thinking, "Whoa! That's a lot more than I was expecting!" The first order of business was to pull the mast. Don thought they would have that done within a couple of weeks. We agreed to stay in touch about the work as it progressed, and I went off to find Kevin for the drive back to Baltimore and the flight home.

Thank you for all your help, Kevin!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Boat Quest, Part 16

Base of Little Walk's mast showing recently painted-over corrosion and relatively clean bilgeNan and I returned home from our Central America sailing trip on Saturday, May 8. The following Monday, just two days later, I flew to Baltimore to take a second look at Little Walk. John Kretschmer flew up from Fort Lauderdale to meet me and take a look for himself. The two of us met Ray, the owner, and Bob, the broker, at the boat, which was docked at Ray's friend Tony's pier on Rock Creek, near Riviera Beach, southeast of Baltimore. John and I spent about an hour looking at the boat, inside and out, using copies of the marine survey as our guide. I took advantage of Ray's intimate knowledge of the boat and asked dozens of questions, which he answered patiently and proudly, providing me with an invaluable orientation on the boat's many systems. John checked the chainplates, mast and bilges, looked into every nook and cranny, and then started a conversation with Bob in the cockpit, while I continued the orientation with Ray and took photos until the camera batteries died.

Original Uniflite electrical panel next to navigation station--switches below control lights on deckThe weather was threatening rain, but we all agreed that we should take the boat out for a quick sea trial. Ray showed me how to power up the diesel engine and turn on the water coolant seacock. We let the engine idle for a few minutes to hear how it sounded before casting off the lines and motoring up the creek to Chesapeake Bay. Once we had reached open water, Ray revved the engine's RPMs up to cruising speed and insisted that I take the wheel. The boat steered smoothly and responsively, and the engine sounded smooth and steady. We put up the mainsail and unfurled the jib, and they filled immediately with the wind blowing in from the west ahead of the imminent rain. There was enough wind to just sail, so Ray cut the engine and we enjoyed the relative silence that followed. We tried different points of sail, and the boat handled nicely at every angle.

We could have stayed out all afternoon, but the sky was getting dark, and John and I had flights home to catch. Ray took the wheel as we sighted Tony's pier and slipped the transmission into neutral while we were still over a hundred yards away. Momentum carried us to a smooth stop just as the first raindrops began to fall. We quickly secured the boat and exchanged parting words. I thanked Ray profusely and told Bob I would call him within a couple of days.

Shelf next to Uniflite electrical panel showing VHF radio (working) and engine hours meter (not working)John and I drove to a seafood diner and ate lunch while discussing the boat. John said that it was in better shape than he expected given all the negative comments in the survey. He was pleasantly surprised by how "stock" it was, lacking much of the stuff that most owners pile into their boats. But he cautioned that the rigging and mast issues were serious and needed to be corrected before considering any bluewater sailing. He advised replacing the engine, to give the boat a fresh, reliable start in its new life. And he recommended replacing the furling gear, windlass and bimini with "beefier" gear that could stand up to bluewater conditions. Overall, though, he thought Little Walk was a sweet little boat and that if I could get her for a good price, I should go for it.

I called Bob a couple of days later to discuss a revised offer based on the marine survey and a ballpark estimate of the necessary repairs. He said that he doubted if Ray would accept the new offer but that he would run it past him. Bob called back a little later with a counter-offer from Ray. I wanted to accept it, but Nan insisted that I offer a thousand dollars less. Ray accepted it, Bob wrote it up, and we had ourselves a deal.