Monthly Archives: May 2017

The view from the back porch

Pelicans awaiting sunrise, Tuncurry, NSW, Australia. 


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That sinking feeling

The pressure on Yours Truly had been building for quite some time. As crew repeatedly informed me, all the skippers are doing it, nothing could be easier and it’s free! What could go wrong? The list boggles the mind, but I’m man enough to know when it’s time to give up. Tomorrow morning I was resigned to doing something that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to avoid. I would pilot our beloved home Escape Velocity over to a shallow spot on the beach and run her aground. Well, with any luck at all it would be more controlled than that but that’s pretty much what it adds up to. The plan was to hold EV over the Golden Spot with anchors and chains and slowly sink down with the ebb tide until she was resting on the bottom of the bay. We call this careening which avoids expensive marinas so that bottom can be scraped, protective zincs can be replaced and even those with an excessive over abundance of energy can slap on anti fouling bottom paint. This golden spot had to be really shallow with only a meter and a half tidal range so we’d lose the anchor and backup to the, oh let’s just call it the GS. Things went pear-shaped pretty quickly when, as we fought to back up to the GS, the depth sounders jumped from the expected four feet to fourteen feet. No, no this won’t do. A fourteen foot hole could cause catastrophic damage, bad enough that when the tidal flood waters came back we just might stay on the bottom of the bay. Sounds like an old blues tune where the guy sinks to the bottom and drinks himself up dry! 

Now where was I?

This was pretty much reasons 1 through 7 on my list of why we shouldn’t do what sailors call careening. After three tries, unsure if the problem was technical or if there really were unlikely deep holes in an otherwise benign shallow beach, we decided to poke around in CatNip with a boat hook. So it was back to good old number “14” mooring ball and a fair amount of good natured ribbing at sundowners that evening.

Now my Dutch was up. I don’t like it when my Dutch is up. I become determined, driven, and not the fun-loving guy you might think of me as, plus it can lead to…damage. The following day I found the new GS quickly and backed up until we felt that EV was aground! I hopped down into chilly water clear up to the thermometer, stumbled around to the front of EV where Marce was lowering our main anchor down into my waiting arms. It was a case of, yeah I have it/no I don’t have it kind of thing. You can’t imagine how difficult it was just to walk through this stuff and adding a fifty pound anchor and heavy chain made it nearly impossible. This is how we would later kedge EV off the beach, with any luck at all. Finally I gave a push to the thing, just missing my feet and wobbled back to the stern to run a stern anchor back farther up the beach. I was exhausted!
Now to await the ebb tide. Too soon I thought I’d better get started. I could see about a foot under the water line. It was tough scraping even with my heroic efforts in Blackwattle Bay. Every step threatened a lurch and fall back into the water. Hey, shouldn’t there be less water by now? We seemed to have sunk down into the soft bottom so instead of sitting proud of the bottom EV had sunk down into it, putting pressure on the saildrives. I couldn’t even see the propellers. That would be reason three of seven on my list of why we shouldn’t careen the boat. I had to lie down face first in the water and dig sand away from the blades just to scrape them. With Marce’s help we cleaned everything we could see. Periodically passers-by would come down the beach for a chat. I was a man on a mission so I just told them where the scrapers were. No takers. 

Eventually the flood waters caught up to us and it was time to collect all the broken scrapers and wait for Escape Velocity to swim again. As I climbed the swim ladder I thought my god we haven’t taken one photograph. All I would have to do, Dear Escapees, is climb up into the cockpit, grab the camera, climb back down and stagger across the rapidly flooding soft muck without falling into the water with the camera, take the snap, safely wade back to the swim ladder and climb back up into EV. 

I wasn’t able. You’ll just have to take my word for it.


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Cocooning back home

Our trip back to Escape Velocity was long but without drama. It started with the middle of the night wake-up call, a 45-minute shuttle to the airport with ten other sleepy people, a 6am flight to Brisbane, then a four hour layover before our final flight to Sydney. That was followed by a half hour train ride and a 70-minute bus ride, and finally a two block schlep with luggage down to the dinghy dock where Di picked us up and ferried us to Toucan to be welcomed home with cold beer and hugs. It was good to be back home and I didn’t even tackle the unpacking for two days. 

Escape Velocity is down there somewhere.

We went from two layers of fleece back to thin jackets and the glorious sunshine beckoned us outside every day. The Toucs suggested we climb Barrenjoey to the lighthouse before we venture north for the winter so we loaded the matching picnic backpacks we both bought in Whangarei and joined what seemed like the rest of Pittwater on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to see just how much fitness we gained hiking in New Zealand. Not much, we discovered. 

Barrenjoey is the long thin stickout we sheltered behind at midnight when we first sailed south to Pittwater last December. 

“It’s a tombolo,” said Bruce, our resident smarty-pants. It’s a what? A tombolo, he told us, is a bit of land that was once an island and is now connected to the mainland. That’s a new one on us but obvious once we knew what we were looking at. 

The day was crystal clear and the view fom the lighthouse spectacular. We took pictures of each other and as always Jack was enlisted to photograph passersby. He has the look.

We ate lunch on a flat rock warmed by the sun, happy to be in the company of friends, sad knowing that we will leave this place that’s been a comfortable temporary home. We’ll be back in the Spring, of course, but saying goodbye to people and places never gets easier, no matter how much we do it. 

Australia is huge and there are so many places we want to see, but we’ve enjoyed Sydney and this special corner of the country so much that it’s hard to leave. We still have boat work to do and general planning and organizing for the thousand mile journey to warmer weather and time’s a-wasting. Play time’s over. Back to work. 

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Invasive species or biodiversity?

I have some final thoughts on New Zealand, and I hope people smarter and more educated than I am on this topic can shed some light on the Darwinian conundrum of New Zealand’s relationship with wildlife. 

Let me say first that we love New Zealand. Who wouldn’t? The beauty of the landscape defies description. The people are warm and welcoming. Nature and the outdoors inform the culture. The people take pride in how green the country is, both literally, in the lush vegetation, and politically, in their no-nukes, clean energy, reduce-reuse-recycle way of life. 

That said, we noticed almost immediately when we first arrived in Opua last year and again on this trip to the South Island the complete absence of terrestrial wildlife. There are birds and there are fish but last year when we first went ashore to hike the tracks in the Bay of Islands the only evidence of animal life we saw were the many traps to catch stoats, an animal we had never heard of and which, we soon learned, is considered an “invasive species” to be eradicated. Our education in what Kiwis consider pests continued when we saw a vendor selling hilarious taxidermy of another animal we couldn’t identify and which turned out to be an unfamiliar species of possum. They are killed without mercy and their fur spun with wool and sold in tourist shops as sweaters, hats and gloves. 

We come from a place rich in wildlife, the hardwood-forested Western Pennsylvania, where on my morning walks in the local city park I was guaranteed to see squirrels, chipmunks and deer, and occasionally a fox or raccoon. The sounds of small animals scurrying in the undergrowth make the woods feel alive. All across America you’re likely to find yourself up close and personal with animals, from jackrabbits in the West Texas desert to coyotes in the Sonora to elk in the mountain west, alligators in Florida, black bears in the upper Midwest, iguanas in the Virgin Islands. We love them all. 

For us, encounters with animals are part of the joy of travel. It was always a delight to suddenly come across monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica and Panama, tortoises and iguanas in the Galapagos, pigs in the Marquesas, goats and sheep all over the Caribbean. Unexpected close encounters with wild animals are some of my most cherished memories. By contrast, the only animals we saw in New Zealand were behind a fence. We never heard the telltale rustling of leaves or saw a pile of scat that hints at a hidden creature nearby. The landscape is sterile. Beautiful, but empty and silent.

We mentioned this several times to Kiwis we met and always got the same answer. There are lots of animals, they told us defensively, and went on to talk about the abundant bird and sea life. But what about land animals? Again, the answer was always the same. They are “invasive” and threaten the indigenous species of birds or plants and need to be eradicated. 

“I think they must be taught this in school,” Jack said, because it sounded like doctrine. We read that New Zealand originally had no native mammals beyond a few species of bat. Then European settlers brought rats, cats, possums, deer, goats, pigs, weasels and others, all of which are now considered pests because they disrupt the delicately balanced ecosystem that existed hundreds of years ago.

I struggle with this notion. What moment in time, I wonder, do we designate as Year One, the baseline of an ecosystem beyond which any introduced species is considered invasive? Who decides that change stops now? Or 100 years ago? Or 500? (Listen to an insightful podcast on this issue here.)

This notion is not limited to plants and animals either, as I can think of some religious sects who’ve chosen to remain at a particular period of time as to mode of dress and the rejection of technological advancements. Isn’t time a river? Isn’t change changeless? If evolution is constant, why do we designate a species invasive instead of an example of survival of the fittest? Why do the English want to eradicate the gray squirrel to protect the red squirrel, when the gray squirrel is the more successful species? When is a non-native species valued and allowed to find its place in an ecosystem vs. categorized invasive and marked for death? Can we control nature? Should we try? (John McPhee tackles this question in “The Control of Nature.” He comes at it from the perspective of a geologist, but the quandary is the same.)

I poked around on the internet for answers and found a forum of biologists among whom the consensus seemed to be that science doesn’t decide the value of a species relative to another, but politics and economics do. And with that, the lightbulb went off. In New Zealand, the only non-native species that seem to be valued and protected are the sheep and cows farmed for food. In recent years they’ve added deer and it was a shock to our North American sensibilities to see herds of deer in pastures in the daylight. Where we come from deer are largely nocturnal and live in the woods. “We call them venizon,” a Kiwi friend told us, because they’re only raised to be eaten. That made me sad.

All of this gets to the heart of my discomfort with New Zealand and it’s relationship to animals. The only animals they value are raised to be killed and eaten. As a Buddhist, I’m troubled by the selective lack of affinity for fellow creatures of the earth, by the offhanded way Kiwis explain that whole species must die because they prefer other species to live. We never heard anyone express a fondness for animals beyond their pets — birds and sea life, yes, but small mammals? No. I don’t mean to paint Kiwis as cruel and heartless. On the contrary, they are kind and wonderful people. But their culture does not value or nurture a relationship with animals and as much as we loved New Zealand, we never quite got over the silence of the land. 


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We may never pass this way again

Sixteen days is a very short time to fully appreciate the legendary beauty of the South Island but that was all we could squeeze out of our budget so it will have to do. Every day we were mindful that we may never get here again and we tried to burn the breathtaking images into our memories. As we stumbled exhausted into Christchurch for our last day we were in full-on, end-of-vacation mode, which is to power through and promise ourselves a long sleep when we get home. 

Christchurch is an odd place to end after so much natural beauty. The city was hit with a devastating earthquake in 2011 and they’re still trying to recover and rebuild. One hundred eighty-five people died in the quake, memorialized in a temporary art installation of white chairs. I found the variety evocative, from office chairs, to dining, lounge, beanbags, garden, bar stools, even a baby carrier. You’re invited to sit in any chair that beckons you. We stayed for a while, meditating on the lives lost and the capriciousness of nature. 

The damage is still very much in evidence, especially at the Anglican Cathedral, which is fenced off and shored up for safely, reminding us of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, left unrebuilt as a reminder of the pointlessness of war. I don’t know what the parish plans to do with this building, but in the meantime it’s a powerful demonstration of what happens to our feeble attempts at posterity when the ground beneath us shifts. 

To accommodate the religious communities they’ve built a temporary “Cardboard Cathedral,” the soaring roof supported by giant   paper towel tubes resting on shipping containers. 

Much of the Central Business District was destroyed or endangered, sending a lot of the population to seek homes elsewhere and threatening the livelihood of many who stayed. The business leaders wisely came up with an ambitious plan to reopen within sixty days by clearing the rubble and importing and outfitting shipping containers to create temporary storefronts, cafes and other businesses to serve shoppers, tourists and downtown workers. As each area is rebuilt the containers are removed, but you can see there are still quite a few remaining, and they’ve become an attraction in themselves. Smart move! 

Between seeing the cyclone destruction in Fiji and the earthquake damage here in New Zealand, we’ve come to appreciate the efforts of relief organizations of all kinds, from foreign governments to NGOs to volunteers. We especially admire the design and construction of temporary buildings that get people back to some kind of normal as quickly as possible. By contrast, we’re watching Treme, a short-lived HBO drama about the aftermath and slow recovery of New Orleans after Katrina and we’re saddened at how little was done for so long, how much people suffered just trying to live in a place they call home that was rendered unrecognizable and uninhabitable, in America, one of the richest countries on earth. The trauma and ongoing stress of losing everything is unimaginable for most of us and my heart goes out to those who suffer the loss and those who pitch in to help. 

There are areas of Christchurch that were undamaged and we could still appreciate how lovely the city is, despite the brisk and gloomy weather. 

Eventually the cold got to us and we took refuge at the International Antarctic Center, which turned out to be a ridiculously overpriced waste of time, with barely a mention of the great Antarctic explorers and science displays rooted in the 1950s. The only saving graces were a short film of aerial shots of the continent and a penguin habitat similar to what we saw in the North Island last year. We could only justify the entrance fee by consoling ourselves that at least they are rescuing and caring for injured penguins. 

We took the free Penguin Bus back to town and hit a Falafel stand for takeout. Our flight is the dreaded 6am, which means a pickup at the hotel at 3:15am. We’re definitely looking forward to a long sleep back home. 

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 We’d planned a complete circumnavigation of the South Island but shortly before we arrived we discovered that the coast highway from Blenheim to Christchurch was severely damaged and completely gone in a couple of sections, thanks to a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that centered over Kaikoura in November 2016. There is now only one way to get to Christchurch and that is to backtrack over the mountains, a long slog joined by everyone else who needs to cover this territory, including the trucks now necessary to move goods that were previously delivered by train, as the rail line is parallel to the highway and also closed for at least the coming year. 

We are obviously disappointed as this section of coastline is by all accounts spectacular, but really, how much more “spectacular” can we take? We will miss seal and penguin colonies but we were lucky to see them further south, so we put the best face on it and started out early on what would be a very long day of drive, stop, shoot photos, drive, stop, shoot photos. Ha! So boring! 

Having to go back over previously covered territory gave Jack the opportunity to order for the second time a pulled pork sandwich he found particularly good at a cafe in Murchison. No complaints from the skipper. 

Hour after hour we squiggled over mountains and through pasture lands, knowing our days in New Zealand were about to end. 

After a while the view starts looking like a mall painting, the winding road, the puffy clouds, the artfully placed fence. How can this be real?

We drove all the way to Akaroa on the Banks peninsula, a former French settlement nestled in an old volcano crater. We would love to spend a week here. The towns are charming, the setting is awe-inspiring yet homey.  We arrived on Anzac Day but after the municipal activities had ended and it was quiet and largely free of tourists or even many locals. 

We found an outdoor cafe and had lunch in the sun, then started the long twisty drive back up over the crater rim to a cafe we’d passed on the way down for a restorative coffee. At the top we found where everyone had gone. Seems the soldiers and dignitaries who’d celebrated Anzac Day at the town monument were continuing their celebration with the best view in town. And who can blame them? We lingered as long as we could then reluctantly made our way to Christchurch with one day left in our New Zealand adventure. 

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Escape from The Honest Lawyer

We managed to quit the Honest Lawyer Country Pub and Accommodation without incurring penalty or lawsuit, despite their insisting that we sign a full page wavier of our rights. However this was not my only concern. Today’s route out of Nelson on the Tasman Bay promised a healthy diet of mountain switchbacks, cliff precipices, and fabulous views from on high. Certain crew of the Toyota have had their nerves tweaked once too often in New Zealand’s glorious mountains to sit quietly by while Yours Truly skillfully carved the curves of northern New Zealand. Don’t get me wrong, the roads are by-and-large well-paved, engineered, and even sport the occasional odd guardrail but, well let’s just leave it at some were Not Amused and voiced much supportive correction.

Picton, on the beautiful Marlborough Sound, is first seen directly from above as you carefully corkscrew down out of the highest mountains. Several fast ferries from the North Island were lined up looking anxious to get going. 

There were several scenic stops on the way to Blenheim but our main focus was on getting to the air museum with enough time to do justice to Sir Peter Jackson’s (yes the film director) collection of WWI airplanes. The Weta Cave people made several vignettes similar to the Gallipoli exhibit at Te Papa in Wellington. These guys really know how to do this stuff so we were pretty excited to see this one.

We’d heard about the Makana Chocolate Factory and as luck would have it, it was near by. Nothing soothes jangled nerves like chocolate!
Clever folks these Kiwis.

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 Three years on and so much richer

Three years ago today we experienced a disaster at sea when a critical fitting failed and our entire rig toppled into the ocean. We were 450 miles west of the Galápagos Islands en route to the Marquesas, on a dream passage with high confidence in our boat and our abilities, confidence that was dashed in the 8 seconds it took from the time we heard the break to the rig hanging over the side deck threatening the hull. The loss tested us not only in our seamanship and decision-making under stress, but in the day-to-day struggle we faced in the following months to keep the dream alive while we repaired the damage. At first we railed against the loss of an entire year of cruising. But as time went on, and especially now in hindsight, we realize how much we gained from the event. 

From the moment we notified the insurance company we were treated with kindness and concern for our well-being and safety by our agent and adjusters until the claim was finally closed more than a year later. The cruising community, both in person in the Galapagos and online, were supportive and sympathetic. The crews of Dancing Bear and Deesse took care of us when we limped back to Isla Isabela, especially Dirk Aardsma, who guided us through the preparations for our long motor back to the mainland while we were still in a daze and could barely put a thought together. 

Because of our dismasting we visited Costa Rica, a place that was never on our itinerary, and met for the first time my cousins Arturo and Roberto and their families and were embraced and surrounded by family love. My cousin Douglas flew in from Colorado and took us to some of his favorite places in the mountains and generally eased our stay in an unfamiliar place. While we struggled with the Dragon Lady at Costa Rica Customs we lived in the warm cocoon of the boating community at Land-Sea Marina, as comfy a home as you can have in our situation. We met the crews of Georgia J and Kia Ora and they became friends. We were given the TV remote for the local bar so we could watch the Grand Prix races early Sunday mornings before they opened for breakfast. We saw whales in the bay, turtles in the anchorage, monkeys and sloths in the trees, orchids in the gardens and spectacular scarlet macaws every day. 

Because of our dismasting we joined the incredible ex-pat and cruising community of Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, and were taken care of by Bill and Jean and Lynn and Lou and the ever-changing cast of characters who pass through that little piece of paradise every season, and when we eventually left for our second try at the Marquesas they gave us a rousing send-off. 

Because of our dismasting we were able to fly back to the States for our niece’s wedding and enjoy reunions with both sides of our family and many of our old friends. The whirlwind extended trip also made us happy to get home to Escape Velocity again and confirmed the decision about our chosen life, even after suffering a setback. A sunrise over the estuary beats almost anything you can see out a window in the mid-Atlantic states. 

Because of our dismasting we road tripped to Honduras and Guatemala and saw inspiring art and culture that will stick with us always. We arranged for a long-stay visa in French Polynesia and got an earlier start on the long ocean passage than we had the year before. That meant we had time to visit all the populated islands in the Marquesas, an accomplishment we’re very proud of and a highlight of our voyage so far. 

Because of the yearlong delay the dismasting caused we reconnected with Caribbean cohorts on Macushla, Flying Cloud and Field Trip, and met new ones on Enki II, Toucan, Rehua, Silver Fern, Full Circle, Moondancer, Qi, Palarran and so many others, dozens of amazing and inspiring people, both cruisers and locals. They have all enriched our lives more than we can measure. It’s true we would have met other, equally wonderful people the year before, but circumstances brought us to this time and place and we can’t imagine it otherwise. 

Because of our dismasting we have learned to slow down, to appreciate where we are every day, to cherish time with friends. We are now more than five years in and not yet halfway around. But what’s the hurry? Every day is a winding road and we’re so much richer for the twists and turns it brings. 

“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.” —Basho, Narrow Road to the Interior


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Road discoveries

We are starting to get a little burned out and agree with everyone who warned us that two weeks is really not enough time to appreciate the incredible South Island. It’s no problem covering the short distances, but we don’t have time to spend in each place to explore, to hike or kayak or visit museums, etc. Given the cold weather, we’re ok with not kayaking and we do hike every day but some areas are by necessity being left unexplored. This is one of those areas. 

We left our little beach cottage early on the day of the International March for Science. The closest sister march was in Christchurch, many miles and days away, so we had our own private march and posted a photo on Facebook and Twitter to show our solidarity with everyone who showed up in cities all over the world to support science and the people and agencies who work to advance our understanding of the world around us. 

The road along the coast into Abel Tasman National Park ran through this rock formation that I had trouble squeezing into the frame. All the scenery in New Zealand is BIG and mostly beyond my ability to photograph it. 

For the first time we were near a marina and the magnetic pull of the boats revealed a placard promising coffee. Unfortunately that didn’t pan out, but we did talk to a young man crewing on a big squarerigger who invited us to have a look onboard. Jack took the trip down the rat lines while I waited on the dock in the sunshine. The ship is mostly a construction site but the young man insisted they are days away from sailing to Fiji. We have our doubts. 

 We were still undercaffeinated when Jack spotted a handlettered sign on the unsealed road toward Abel Tasman: Totos Café and Gallery. The sign pointed straight up. We followed the steep and narrow switch-backed road, barely able to pass a cyclist chugging along at such a good tempo that I leaned out the window and gave him a thumbs up and an attaboy. We had no idea what to expect but we reached the top to find an absolutely stunning view and a charming cafe with a woodfired pizza oven. Totos has moved into our top five of favorite cafés. 

A few minutes later the cyclist summited, and a few minutes after that his wife arrived by car and they joined us for a mid-morning coffee and pastry. What a find this place is! 

We wish we could come back later for pizza and beer but we need to keep moving. Back down the narrow driveway, back along the unsealed road and we were once again on our way through the stunning landscape toward Nelson. 

We found a cozy lunch spot with amazing vegetarian food and topped off the day with the best gelato we’ve had since Waiheke Island last year in the North Island. Is it a Kiwi thing? Not sure, because the man who made these complex flavors — blackcurrent-wine and boysenberry-Glühwein were our favorites — is Israeli, not Kiwi, but nevertheless, we’ve had our best ever in this country. Reason enough to come back some day. 

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