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!