Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sailing Part 2: Living Aboard

Immanent Threats to be Wary of

In a boat, I've learned, absolutely everything must serve more than one purpose, and not knowing  what those purposes are, I'm now convinced, may as well be a direct threat to your life. For instance, there is a wooden step in the V berth (below deck at the front of the ship) attached to the surrounding storage areas which allows you a place to sit while rifling hopelessly for what you need inside them as well as providing a boost to open or close the hatch in the ceiling. This, I had surmised, must be the complete list of uses for such a small structure and near died in the process of learning I was wrong. At our anchorage in the wilds of whatever state this is we are so far removed from civilization that there is no unnatural light whatever to compete with the stars. This I first noticed through the three inch opening of the hatch above me and, instantly dazzled by their brilliance, I called Alaina to come look and jumped up onto the obliging step to stretch my head out for a better view of the sky. As it turns out, that "step" is also a miniature storage unit all its own, meaning the top of it is a sliding removable lid which, as it is designed to do, abruptly fled from beneath me sending me slamming down against the edge of the hatch which knocked the heavy lid on my head and furthered the violence of my already being hung by the throat from our roof. Alaina fell almost into the head (sailing lingo for impossible-to-keep-clean ship toilets) overcome by laughter and I tried to join her but was relatively limited on oxygen even when I wriggled free of the what we now refer to as "the guillotine hatch" and now conduct myself with even more exaggerated care about the ship- which is difficult enough when it's not moving but near impossible when it's pitching in someone's wake.


But the boat can be equally dangerous to those who know their way about it as well as their own body. Recently Jan (wife of Kevin, owners of our boat's twin sister who're headed the same direction and have therefore joined us t form our own mini floatilla the last week or so) hailed us with an offering that might as well have been the Holy Grail: a baggy of long, raw carrots, the only fresh produce we'd seen in weeks. She waved us down as we passed her and Kevin on the Pearl of Eastport but we weren't close enough and the precious gift didn't make it aboard with her toss. My darling siblings took it as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate "man overboard procedure" and our neighboring sailors immediately made for enthusiastic spectators. Luckily no one thus far HAS fallen overboard because Alaina's arms resulted to be too short for rescuing and she missed the bag when Pat expertly guided us back past it. Simultaneously he started laughing, our audience started "Aw!"ing and I started grieving the loss of our only opportunity to swallow something that neither had any trace of starch nor required being mixed with our typhoid water to be eaten. Then- midway through a mocking imitation of my sister's failure- her husband accidentally smashed his jaw into a metal cleat and dove through the companionway into the cabin below sputtering that someone had to steer. How he managed to bite his tongue in such a way that it split down the middle like a snake we shall never know. What we DO know is that Alaina doesn't have much of a stomach for gore and I don't have much of a faculty for emergencies. Patrick filled the sink with mouth blood, Alaina turned pale as she slumped over the tiller on the edge of fainting, and I abruptly forgot what the object floating under me was called -along with every other piece of knowledge that might possibly have been useful in helping to navigate it unassisted. Kevin and Jan watched us bewildered as we sailed straight on in a state of chaos whose source they couldn't possibly identify from that distance. Pat, like a true captain, dried his tongue off, stuck it back together and resumed control of the tiller. We, on the other hand, once the shock had passed, were useless crewmen because he could only communicate instructions with an unrehearsed and, therefore, unreliable system of "MMMM!"s and gestures which were so pathetically hilarious it took us triple as long as it should have to understand through our own laughter- which was only intensified by the ironic discovery that our pantry was down to absolutely nothing but bread and peanut butter. It had been 6 hours since Patrick's last meal. We tried to argue him out of eating it anyway. He regretted it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Long Unrecorded Sailing Memoirs

Some late transfers from my sailing journal... First installment.

Basic Sustenance

Keeping hydrated has steadily become a simple question of "how many senses can you simultaneously disengage?" Spending upwards of 10 hours a day in blazing sunlight- both that from the sky above and that of every beam that might have missed you on the way down reflected up from the water below- creates an obvious thirst that is nearly never satisfied because of the complicated skills required to ingest the only accessible fresh water. You see, the small engine used to help fight currents when in unfavorable winds (which so far has been nearly always, in our case) happens to be built directly next to our water storage tanks and generates a shocking amount of heat considering its size. This, in turn, makes the water an unbearable temperature to drink when you're already sweating, strained, and sunburned. Solution: disengage sense of feeling. Meanwhile the water itself, after a day or so of re-filling the tanks, generates a sort of sickly-stagnant smell which, paired with the diesel fumes that almost perpetually fill the cabin while we're under way, becomes so nauseating that straight up sea-sickness would be a welcome relief. Solution: disengage sense of smell. A day or so after that the stagnant smell aided by the heat settles into a stagnant taste only worsened by the sour diesel-dominated air, at which point there's one solution: disengage sense of taste. All of this I was beginning to get a handle on until a few days ago when we accidentally refilled the tanks with a hose normally used to power-wash decks and sails which stirred up some kind of whitish sediment slightly resembling wood shavings in the bottom of our holding tanks so that every glass we fill now bears a visible water to ??? ratio of 3:1. At this point, I'd be happy to resign myself to the less complicated option of never taking a drink again, except that I can at no point ever possibly be farther than 30 feet from my suddenly-extremely-maternal older sister for at least a few more weeks and, therefore, will never be out of earshot from her demanding that I "swallow something before I shrivel up and die." Solution: disengage sense of sight. I've never been quite so familiar with the miraculous synchronization involved with the many small muscles in the mouth and throat required to move something downward as quickly as possible. Because once you've removed nearly every possible thing that could draw your attention that's about what you've got left!

Cabin Fever

Things are different than I'd expected. Living in such limited space I thought I'd never see a moment to myself again until we docked in Baltimore and all started working but that isn't the case. I'm learning a lot about everything. They tell me I'm learning quickly too, but lately we've been going for long stretches (as in several days) through areas that haven't been dredged well and if I were to make a mistake we can't afford the time or money for a tug to come get us if we were to run aground. Between times that it's safe enough for me to practice anything interesting, I'm assigned to tying lines, hailing on the VHF radio, or keeping a lookout for logs or anything else that might damage the ship to be avoided. None of these tasks require constant attention. Alaina and Pat get so absorbed in the charts and depth finder that most days they go for hours (and sometimes the entire day) without hearing a word when I talk to them so I haven't really bothered anymore. I understand. They've got everything riding on this ship. It represents an enormous investment, their temporary home for the next few years, and only hope to make it to their new city. But I can hardly believe there are the same number of hours in these days as every other that I've lived. I read constantly, I listen to their arguments over routes and how the sails should be trimmed to learn more about how everything works, but still there are hours upon hours left to fill and now that I've already alphabetized the CDs, DVDs, and spice cabinet as well as performed what could have been a surgery on the mass of wires in our electronics bag to separate and organize them I'm low on options. Much of this time, I've realized, I spend listening with an intensity I had never known myself to be capable of, first to the great deluge of sounds as a whole, and then I separate them distinctly one at a time. Especially the engine. There is a constant emission of a million and one sounds coming from its place below the deck at the front of the cockpit and I shatter them into categories of hums and whirs and metallic clics and rhythmic drips like an orchestra. I keep finding that I can hear things far quieter and far further away than I ever knew and wonder if this was always the case but I never knew with all the other competing distractions or if it's developed over the course of this frequent exercise. I'm half convinced it's because of the sensory adaptations which become imperative every time I get dizzy enough to make myself force down a drink leave my hearing as the sole operating source of input… I've never been particularly interested in machinery before this and I have to laugh at how childish my imagined picture of this engine is having matched each sound in my head to knobby gears or thin springs and cogs that could just as easily be buttons and yarn or paper chains. But I realized that sometimes I see it as an oily old man grumbling and spitting about "doing all the work around here." Patrick opened the wall to look things over the other day only to find that we've been leaking oil badly for a while now. We joked that our engine's "crying black tears in protest" but in my mind's eye he'd just been sweating 'til the bilge was full of motor grease.