Friday, December 5, 2008

Never Lost, Just Hard to Find

Originally published on

#1 Hers, Mine, Ours, All Aboard!

It was late afternoon when Quetzal sluiced between the massive breakwaters of Puerto Sherry, a huge marina complex just across the bay from Cadiz. We were finally on the other side of the Atlantic. My sixteenth crossing had been challenging as we coped with calms, gales and breakdowns. Now another challenged loomed, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it.

I heard them before I saw them. “Daddy, John, Daddy, John.” They were charging down the Quay at full speed, all four of them, waving, smiling, pushing and shoving. Nari, Nikki, Nicholas and Alex, ages 14, 12, 11 and 9. My daughters and stepsons, it was a race to be the first aboard. Yikes what a family, what a crew. My lovely wife Tadji trailed astern. She wore an expression of mixed relief – our long separation was over at last and, it was my turn to deal with the stinking kids.

“Hey guys,” I shouted, thrilled to see them and a bit overwhelmed. “Grab a line.”

Within a day my crossing crew departed and the family moved aboard. Our plan was to head west, into the Med, and see where we ended up six weeks later. I confess, I was less concerned about the Med’s fickle weather than I was about the potential storms that might erupt aboard Quetzal.

Although Tadji and I had been married for a year, the kids had rarely spent more than a week together before returning to the other parent. To further complicate matters, Quetzal had been a sanctuary for the girls and I after my divorce from their mother and they had proprietary feelings about the boat. They also were used to having their own cabins. But something was happening, something good.

The kids worked out the accommodations. Nikki moved forward with Nari and the boys took her quarter cabin aft. So far so good. What was going on? Nari, explained things to her old man. “Daddy we want to get moving, we have a lot of places to see and only have six weeks.” Was I dreaming?

Our passage through the Straits of Gibraltar was exhilarating. We blasted into the Med at 14 knots over the ground. I was nervously dodging a steady stream of freighters as the kids cheered every time we set a new speed record. The boat was rocking, rolling and flying. I had suspected seasickness, boredom and bickering. Instead, they kept pestering me for me quick quiz geography questions and marveled at the dry mountains of Africa. I pinched myself.

We made landfall in Morocco in a dust storm. No problem. The shimmering desert landscape and bewildering medinas drew them together. Something else I hadn’t expected was taking place. Isolated by language and culture, they felt safe as a group. They needed and counted on each other. They discovered that they really liked each other.

On the three day passage to the Balearic Islands they paired up. Nikki and Alex played for hours below, no matter the conditions. Nari and Nicholas sprawled in the cockpit reading and talking. Nari and Tadji teamed up for night watches and Nicholas sometimes accompanied me. The kids plotted position on the chart. They rarely argued. I wasn’t sure if they’d been drugged or I had. We were having a great time.

We made it to Barcelona before it was time to send them home. Tadji and I watched proudly and with an ache in our hearts as they boarded the plane. Two fair headed girls and two dark skinned boys, brothers and sisters. Sailing had turned us into a family and we knew we’d miss them terribly. Of course, for me at least, the prospect of another six weeks of sailing in the Med with just Tadji helped ease the pain.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mediterranean Musings #2: The Wrong Side of the Mark

Croatia, June 08

Cardinal marks are confusing. I know, I am not supposed to admit that, I am, after all, an expert. Take my expert advice: Beware the experts and pay attention to the chart and learn to read cardinal marks.

I was feeling smug. My spring passages in the Mediterranean had been a great success. In April we crisscrossed the Aegean Sea retracing the route of Odysseus from Turkey back to his home island of Ithica in the Ionian Sea. In May, we sailed north to Montenegro and Croatia before crossing the Adriatic and making landfall in Venice. This was good stuff. Of course there were a few mishaps along the way. While pinned down on the Greek isle of Andros during an Easter gale, an errant mooring line ripped the swim ladder off the stern. That same gale saw a poorly furled staysail make an unexpected and terribly noisy appearance and a reluctant return to a furled state. A groggy, early morning departure from the fog bound island of Silba in central Croatia found us cutting a rocky corner too close and planting Quetzal’s keel on the hard stuff. Still, overall I was proud of our track and our record, we covered 1,500 miles and made a dozen landfalls. My ten crew members seemed to enjoy themselves (they’ve all signed on for trips in 09) and maybe even picked up a wrinkle or two along the way.

It was early June I had window before beginning the Around - the - World expedition. I was looking forward to a month of lazy cruising with my wife Tadji and our four kids. They met me in Venice, at the crowded Venetian boat club in Santa Elena. A friendly, local boatyard, we practiced our Italian because nobody spoke English. After a week in, what I must confess, is my favorite city, we set off across the top of the Adriatic. Our first landfall was Grado, a humble beach resort perched at the mouth of a broad delta. We then arced south to Piran, Slovenia, a Medieval walled city where we were pleasantly storm bound for three days. Coasting along the Istria Peninsula, we entered Croatia at Porec, another lovely walled city with a well protected natural harbor. Continuing south, we had a near pefect sail to Rovinj, arguably the most beautiful of Croatia’s walled city, and yes that list includes Dubrovnik and Korcula.

Alex, my ten year old step son was steering as we made our approach. The kid is a good helmsman and always pays attention. Tadji was snapping pictures of the imposing spires standing sentinel over one thousand year old walls. My daughters Nari and Nikki and step son Nick, were on the bow, hooting and hollering, happy to making landfall after a long sail. I was studying the guidebook.

“What side of that stick should I go on,” Alex asked.

I glanced up quickly. Spying the cardinal mark, I replied, “leave it to port.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said, without glancing up again.

“I don’t know John,” Alex continued, “I don’t want to steer anymore, you take it.”

He’s a smart kid. Grabbing the wheel I took the helm but kept studying the approach chart in the guidebook. I just couldn’t make sense of the harbor, and this is something I am usually very good at. Glancing up, I finally realized that our course was taking us very close to a small, rocky island. Wait a minute I thought, the cones on the cardinal mark are facing each other, that means... too late. We ground to a stop, thankfully on a sandbar, but we were very stuck. The damned cardinal marker, clearly indicating that it marked the west side of the shoal, glared at me just a few meters away.

Before my embarrassment could even sink in, an armada of boats charged toward us. Several pleasure boats, the harbor master, and the harbor patrol. Within minutes, we had ten boats buzzing around us and a gang of people on board, all shouting instructions in Croate. Our grounding was big news in Rovinj. We finally managed to pitch a line to the harbor patrol boat and with genoa heeling us over limped off the shoal.

The marina was just a few hundred meters away so we didn’t have much time to regroup. After thanking everyone and pressing a pile of Kunas (Croatian currency) into the Harbor Master’s out stretched hand, I tried to calm the crew. We took our normal spots for picking up a laid mooring stern-to. Fifteen year old Nari’s job was to grab the mooring line with the boat hook then dash forward and secure it on the bow cleat. Thirty-something Tadji and twelve year old Nick handled the stern lines and thirteen year old Nikki and Alex jumped from side to side with portable fenders. In true Captain like fashion, just a whisker under fifty year old John steered. Mind you, this is not the easiest manuever and I was proud of our team as we often executed this modern-day Med moor better than boats with a full adult crew.

We had a large audience along the dock as we approached our assigned mooring. I was determined to make up for my boneheaded grounding and reassured everybody that despite the gusty winds, “everything would be fine.” Unfortunately, act two didn’t go well. As we neared the dock, a stiff crosswind picked up and we started to turn broadside. Nari struggled to control the slimy pennant on the mooring line. Trying to ease the strain, I put the engine in forward and gave it some love. It sputtered and the abruptly stopped as we wrapped a stray mooring line around the prop. Nari had to let go of the mooring line and we drifted alongside the dock and a powerboat, fending off like maniacs and enduring more Croatian advice. The bad day continued.

There was only one thing to do. I grabbed my mask and fins and dove in the freezing water. I freed the prop and then dove down and retrieved the other end of the mooring and tied it back together. I was exhausted as I hauled myself up the makeshift stern ladder. I slipped and smashed my ribs on the stern pulpit. Ouch. “I am okay, I’m okay,” I lied to the many onlookers and we eventually managed to wrestle the mooring line to the bow and secure Quetzal properly.

That night a magnificant sunset bathed the walls of Rovinj in golden shadows. Sitting in a café, Tadji asked me if I was okay.

“My ribs are sore, but I’m okay.”

“What about your pride?”

“Surprisingly, I don’t feel too bad,” I said sincerely. “I mean I don’t have a lot to prove and no matter how much experience you have, you’re going to have bad days. My ego is intact.”

“I am glad that you’re okay baby,” she said lovingly, then added, “because you really messed up out there.” Then she handed me two folded cocktail napkins, each one in the shape of cone, and yes, they were facing each other.

Mediterranean Musings #1: The Right Side of the Wall

Greece, March 08

Lying alongside a pockmarked concrete wall with rusty iron rings about to oxidize into nothingness, is no place to be when Aeolus decides to air mail 50- knot blasts down the steep mountain sides bordering the Gulf of Corinth. Surprisingly Quetzal was on the right side of the wall. The fearful gusts laying the boat over 15 degrees or more placed the load squarely on the mooring lines, not the fenders, and despite the afore mentioned rings, I was more than satisfied with that arrangement. If a ring failed, there were a few wobbly lamp posts available to take the lines. I’d rather deal with chafed lines than marred topsides.

Concerned crews on other boats had to brave icy rain and pea sized hail to adjust and readjust their fenders and lines. Their pinched faces told the story. They were worried, they were pissed. They were up against it, we were floating free. An occasional thump and sick squeal of fiberglass hitting the dock was followed by frantic shouts. Twenty years ago I would have felt like a genius, these days I have a lot more respect for dumb luck and for advice from fellow cruisers who waved me out of the inner harbor at the last minute and suggested that I lay on the other side of the wall. The right side of the wall. Mediterranean sailing tests your resolve. That old saw, “there’s either no wind or a capful,” is distressingly accurate.”

Huddled behind the dodger I admired the sounds of the wind. It reminded me of Beethoven, really. You heard it before you felt it. It built slowly but inexorably, first discernable as a hollow echo ricocheting around the boarded up buildings across the harbor. Then it mushroomed into a hum, the sure sign that it was gathering steam and coming our way again. Then it reached a higher pitch, a warning pitch. Hold on. Then it was on us, a powerful, rig rattling crescendi, at once a panicked screech and a deep throated moan merged in pure definition of wind. It was beautiful. It was terrifying.

It was beautiful to be tied to the right side of a wall. I love weather, good, bad, brutal, benign. You have to love weather to sail, you can’t hide from it, you can’t worry about forecasting its every move, you simply have to love it, it makes me feel very small, very alive. But soon guilt overtook me. Enough Beethoven already. My crew was ashore looking for fresh bread and more wine, I had no excuse to stay dry any longer. It was time to do what we sailors
do. I pulled on my foul weather gear and climbed on to the wall. Hail pelted down on me, the wind nearly blew into the water. But I reminded myself that I loved weather, all weather and scooted down the slippery, flooded quay to lend a hand, to push and prod, to squeeze fenders back into place. A French couple with two young children thanked me profusely. “No problem,” I assured them because next time I knew I’d be back where I belonged, on the wrong side of the wall.