Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Non-Plan Plan

Many people are curious about my plans. Some of my closest family and friends might be a little concerned too. I thought I would write a few ideas down to explain my non-plan. Please use the comments section below to ask any other questions you might have. I am wide open to constructive dialogue, but I will not necessarily defend or explain my particular choices ad infinitum. This is a lifestyle choice that is out of the mainstream; not only do I accept that, I revel in it. Further, I may not be able to explain my plans in words that everyone will understand. This is not my problem, it is theirs.

There are a few things that I want to do to Bella in the spring. I will be making a dodger and possibly a bimini. There are some organization and preparation details to take care of. The interior cushions could be reupholstered. I need to make some decisions about batteries, solar and wind power generation and the inboard diesel. There is a slightly better than even chance that I will pull the engine and replace it with some kind of sculling oar, Chinese or Bahamian. These are real propulsion options. Check out a couple Youtubes: here, here or here. The sails are in quite good condition, but I will be going over them closely to be certain. Also, I will have the marina tune my standing rigging before she goes back in the water.

The first part of the my vague plan begins around July 15, 2015. Bella and I will begin to move toward the Bahamas. We will sail up and over Michigan, out the Erie Canal to the Hudson River, to the Atlantic at New York Harbor and then south through the Intercoastal Waterway to Florida. I have a tentative schedule to meet a fellow sailors in the Bahamas next winter. We are all regulars on, a discussion board for small boat sailors.

Chines Yuloh

By starting in July I will have a fair amount of time to wander as I go. This is not a boat delivery where I have to go straight from Muskegon to Green Turtle Cay on a schedule. I will have three or four months to do four or five weeks of sailing. I want to get near Jacksonville before mid October simply to avoid getting too cold. Hopefully, as I wander my exit from the Great Lakes I can have people join me for parts of the trip. Keep an eye on social media for arranging to make a passage, if possible.
Bahamian Oar

In early 2016, after a couple months or so in the Bahamas, it will be time to come back to the States and find a good marina. I will work nearby and eventually have the boat hauled out of the water. In May 2016, I'll come back to Michigan, probably by bus, and spend a few weeks here around a graduation party I am committed and honored to attend. Then I will go back to Bella.

There are some additional boat maintenance and upgrade possibilities that I will do at this time. I'll likely work some more again. Replacing the standing rigging is a possible project. I might also resurrect the stove side of the galley that the previous owner took out. Unless I get north of Florida when I come back from the Bahamas, it will be hurricane season until November so I'll have time to do some boat work as needed. With these upgrades, Bella will be ready for some serious sailing. We are going to explore the Caribbean Sea. Once again, hopefully some friends and family will join me for a passage or meet me on some island somewhere.

The Caribbean Sea is over a million square miles. A sailor could never explore it all. The Caymans, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI, and maybe the Lesser Antilles are all on my mental list. I would like to explore Central America as well. The Rio Dulce has stuck in my vagabond heart since I read an article in Cruising World Magazine twenty some years ago. And I'd like to see Costa Rica and Panama as well. There will be no schedule or plan. If I love a place, I'll stay a while. If I hear about some other cool place, I'll go see it. If I start cruising with other boats, I might go where they go a few times. When money gets low, I'll wander back to the States.

In my voyage dreaming I would really like to cross an ocean. I don't think I am ambitious enough to think about circumnavigating, but an ocean crossing is very possible; probable even. Ireland and Sweden are in my ancestry. I would love to sail there and maybe down to Portugal and the Azores before returning to the Caribbean. Bella could do it with a little prep. We'll see if I can get my brain and my wallet that far.

Bella is a very seaworthy little ship. She is an Albin Vega, a Swedish boat with an ocean going pedigree. Vegas have sailed the globe with literally hundreds of ocean crossings. Her accommodations are on the spartan side, but that is right where I want them. I will not have refrigeration or air conditioning for they use too much battery power. Initially, I will cook on the single burner swing stove that I used this summer. There is also have a propane grill hanging on the stern pulpit. Electricity will be supplied by a battery bank charged from solar and wind. I will carry staples like rice, beans, flour and dried vegetables, as well as the some cabbage, potatoes and onions. I will not be a tourist, I am a vagabond. When I find a spot to stay, I will shop where the locals shop and eat what the locals eat. There will be plenty of fresh produce and fruit along the way. I'll also have fishing gear with me. The wannabe chef in me can't wait to learn to cook new things from the people I meet along the way.

I will carry a basic prepaid cellphone for necessary communication with governments and marinas. All other communication will be by email, social media and Skype/GoogleChat. This voyage is a bit of personal retreat too. The last thing I want is a smart phone type of tether to the so called real world. Bella has all the required safety equipment plus a VHF radio with GPS and AIS. We will carry a device like an inReach or a Spot so our position will be tracked in real time. The InReach allows for some two way communication as well so I could post to social media and notify about delays, etc. from wherever I am. Further, before setting out on any particular voyage, I will post/submit a float plan. My relative departure and arrival dates and locations will be known. Besides allowing for status updates from anywhere at sea, the inReach and the Spot both have a panic button for emergencies. My safety will, however, be my own concern and responsibility. There will be no reason for reports or inquiries to be made to any authorities if I am overdue.

In 2006 I coined the Bubba the Pirate motto: “Eat When You're Hungry. Work When You're Broke.” This is the guiding principle of my non-plan. I will work to fill my “Cruising Kitty,” then I'll go sailing. I will wander until my cash situation is lowered to some predetermined threshold and then I will work again. The Caribbean is a good place to start this routine as with a little planning I can easily wander back to the States to work. An ocean crossing would require a much larger cruising kitty which would have to be preceded by a longer work period. All this will either come together or it won't. It will be fine either way. The only reasonably solid plan is out of the Great Lakes to the Bahamas and then back to Michigan for a time. I'll keep you posted after that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reunion Cruises

s/v Bella (photo by Sherry)

 … and suddenly it's October.

Bella is out of the water for the winter and I am back on the road. My main job now is saving boat money for next summer. Perhaps I can get caught up on my writing as well.

August was a month of reunions. My brother, Tim, and his family were visiting the States from Switzerland. Tim's and my schedules lined up so that we could go sailing. I hope to get the rest of the family out when they return next year. Part of the old family crew [see below] was back together and we had a great day of sailing. Even Bella was enjoying herself in a brisk breeze and plenty of sunshine. I think that was the day I lost a hat.
Lost Hat

A few days later, my crew from the lake crossing came out for another sail. Dave and I had a nice sail and we took Bella out on the big lake. It was the first time that I had her on Lake Michigan since Dave and I crossed from Milwaukee, so it was a double reunion of sorts.

Bella was back in her element out on the big lake and the wind was just right on our return; opposite what it had been in June. We took up the challenge to sail all the way up the channel into Muskegon Lake without using the engine. Bella crept along, wind at her back, as other sailboats under power and all the powerboats were passing us. We had to wiggle past the sheriff and a boat they had stopped halfway down the channel. As we ghosted by the USS Silversides Museum, I said I thought we were going to make it all the way.

Dave and I under tow in June
“Shut up!” Dave exclaimed, “I've been trying not to jinx us by saying that.”

Bella gracefully took us all the way. It was quite a victory over having to get a tow last time.

As much as I enjoyed sailing with Tim and Dave, the important reunion was the privilege of sailing again with my Dad. Somewhere around 1976, Mom and Dad bought the family a sailboat. I had come back from scout camp with a Small Boat Sailing Merit Badge. During his Navy days, Dad did a Far East tour in the western Pacific on the USS Bennington (CV-20), an 872 foot Essex Class Aircraft Carrier. While he was aboard, the Bennington was sent to Sydney to help the Aussies celebrate ANZAC Day. He later helped build the USS Enterprise (CVN-65); 1123 feet long! We thought we were qualified to sail a 15 foot Chrysler Mutineer.

My sailing experience started with a Sunfish on Arrowhead Lake at camp. The Sunfish has a single lateen sail and is a good basic sailboat. Our Mutineer, a sloop we named the Luff Boat, had a furling jib forward of the mainsail. Sailing a sloop seemed more like proper sailing. Dad was my first captain.

Mom and sister Amy didn't appreciate the heeling motion of the Luff Boat as much as the guys. Our crew was most often Tim handling the jib sheets, me on the main sheet and Dad on the tiller. We drilled, practiced and sailed in bristol fashion. Dad called out “Ready About” and “Hard Alee.”

Our crewing was proper and salty but not really formal. We were all learning and we talked about the wind, the points of sail and navigation on the many Michigan lakes where we sailed. Dad let us try our hand at the tiller. It was with Tim and Dad that my love of sail began. With them, I began to get a 'wind sense' and some skill as a sailor; many of the most important moments of my life.

It was with Tim and Dad when I first got addicted to the sensation of a sailboat shouldering into the waves. With them, I first learned the quiet joy of gurgling along barely making way and felt the exhilaration when heeled over tearing across the water. I can still feel those delicioius moments hiked out over the windward rail with the boat heeling so much I could see the centerboard ghosting under the water over my shoulder.

Later, Dad was confident enough in my seamanship that I was allowed to take the boat out myself. Often towing her behind the family Chevette to go sailing with a buddy or a girlfriend. It was during these days that I discovered the true love of my life – sailing. These last eight years specifically, but really my whole life has been trying to get back to sailing. I had a few boats when I lived in Florida and even lived on one for a while. I've been working hard to get to the point that I can sail off for a while on an extended cruise. Turns out its a lot of work to set yourself up to be a boat bum.
Captain Dad

Back to this August, my cousin Sherry and her son Ben came out from New Jersey to see Grandma Curtis. While they were here I was going to take them for a ride. The dock where I kept Bella is not quite stable. I had been looking around for a dock or a pier that was more solid. Dad has some balance issues these days and I wanted him to be comfortable enough to come out and go for a sail. I hadn't found it yet, when two cars worth of family showed up to watch me take Sherry and Ben out. Dad came walking right out on the dock to greet me. I was elated! When Sherry decided to stay on shore and take pictures, I asked if anyone else wanted to come along with Ben and I. Dad stepped right up! It was fun to have Ben aboard and talk to him about sailing. He and his dad have a Sunfish they rescued and are sailing in Jersey. No offense to Ben, but to have my Dad, my original captain and sailing mentor aboard was incredibly important to me.

It was an auspicious day! The wind was such that we ended up sailing up the lake toward the city. We didn't make it easy for Sherry, the photographer, to get any good shots until we were coming back.

Next year is going to be a big year for Bella and I. These special moments will be along with us as we sail south.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Lake Crossing, Part Three

This is third of three posts. Find the first and the second.

Last I was telling the story, I thought I saw snow. The first week of June, Dave and I were sailing across Lake Michigan bringing my boat, s/v Bella, home from Milwaukee where I had found her. It was very cold. The Mid Lake Buoy had reported 39 degree water temperature midday Tuesday. We left that afternoon and sailed all night into Wednesday morning. After dark, I had occasionally shined a flashlight at the wind vane on top of the mast. Somewhere around 3:00a, I saw little flaky things blowing across the beam of light. I didn't need to see that.

By 5:00a or so, I figured that we were well across the northbound shipping lanes. We could rest easy that freighters were unlikely for the rest of the trip. About that time, I saw another sailboat. It was five or ten miles away, motoring south and west, a white hull and bare mast like a ghost in the moonlight. Put some damn sail up, I thought to myself. It was a beautiful night for a sail.

The sun came up and Bella started to warm up. We had most of the trip behind us. Though we were getting back into cellular range, our phones and Dave's iPad were running out of juice. I managed to text an ETA to our ground crew. Mom and Dad, and Nancy would be waiting on shore and taking lots of pictures. My optimistic ETA turned out to be wildly inaccurate, but that's sailing. 
Dave's iPad tracked us until its battery died.

Approaching Muskegon with more than 10 hours on the tiller, my brain started playing tricks on me. The coast ran for miles and miles to the south. The far away dunes looked for all the world like a jetty sticking out into the lake. The lighter color of the shallow water along the beaches could have been the mud trail of a river emptying into the big lake. Or it might be a sand bar! I strained my eyes, hand twitching on the tiller, ready to come about at a moment's notice.

Gradually, the coast came into better focus. I compared the smokestacks on the horizon with those on the chart. The GPS was locked in on the coordinates of the Muskegon jetty and it still wanted me to head a little south of east. I wasn't completely convinced but I trusted the stacks on the chart and the GPS. We sallied ... well, sailed forth.

On the Michigan side of the lake, the forecast was for stronger winds, 15-20 knots, and the chance of rain. Bella was in her element. She healed over, lee rail almost in the foam and I thought heard her snort like a thoroughbred. I felt safe and dry but was concerned about handling all the lines if I had to tack in a hurry. I called to Dave for help.

Headed more south than east with a shift of the wind, I could finally see the Muskegon jetties. We were pointing toward the beach north of the jetty but I wanted to get in close before tacking. It was going to be tricky getting up the channel. With Dave helping me sail Bella, I raised some signal flags to make a grand entrance into Muskegon. Dave called me Captain Subtle and teased that the drag of the flags was costing us at least a knot of forward progress. Nevertheless, Bella was decked out like a debutante and I was a proud skipper.

We tacked south toward the jetty. I waited as long as I could stand and we tacked in toward Muskegon but we couldn't make the channel. I'm not a racer and more than a little rusty anyway, but slicing acute angles out in the lake is hard. We sailed back to the north, then tacked down along the same track and past the entrance. I waited, waited some more, cursed myself, waited some more, and finally tacked – dammit – we missed the entrance again. Back to the north and then south again. This time closer to the end of the pier.

And then I heard the securite call from the Lake Express.

The Lake Express is the Milwaukee to Muskegon ferry. She was letting all stations know that she was coming into channel at Muskegon in ten minutes. I hailed them on the radio and practiced my real-sailor-radio-etiquette. On a working channel I told them that I was a sailing vessel also approaching Muskegon but would stay well out of their way.

Staying out of their way was a bit of a joke. The Lake Express crosses the lake in two and a half hours. We were almost 22 hours into our trip and only just approaching the coast. Worse yet, on our way out Tuesday, we had seen the ferry go into Milwaukee for the night. Here in Muskegon, Wednesday morning, she would enter the channel, cross Muskegon Lake, disembark her passengers, load again, and - dammit - leave for Milwaukee, all before we managed to enter the channel.

Back on Bella, we sliced as thin as we could closer to the jetty and then way, way past. This time, tacking back, we managed to enter the outer harbor. I was amazed how close to the wind Bella could sail! At times, she was headed so close into the wind, the wind vane practically pointed in the direction we were sailing.

We sliced back and forth inside the jetties; Bella was ripping. I could tell she just loved a broad reach. A broad reach is the fastest point of sail where a boat crosses the wind, rather than sails into it. Her theoretical hull speed is 6.4 knots. Dave called out when we hit 6 knots! It never felt like she was out of control. We were safe and dry and within a half a knot of her top speed. It was awesome sailing!

It was raining a little too.

I handed the tiller to Dave and went below to check the heading of the channel. If the wind direction out on the lake held near shore and I could get Bella pointed close to the wind on the starboard side of the channel, we could inch our way into the lake. We flew back and forth across the channel entrance looking for the right tack but we could not cut it close enough. The geography of the dunes and the seawalls of the channel funneled the wind straight out into the lake. Try as we might, we could not sail right into the wind and without an engine that was it. I dropped anchor just north of the channel mouth and called for a tow.

Next I had to get all those damn signal flags down. Even Captain Subtle can't make a grand entrance under tow.

The trip from outside the channel into the marina was complicated and at times infuriating. I'm not even sure I want to tell that part of the story. Nothing can diminish the fact that we made it. A couple of rusty sailors had crossed almost 75 miles of open water on the fifth largest lake in the world. We had survived more than 22 hours, overnight, just Bella and us against the elements. It was wonderful, it was amazing, and it is exactly what I have always wanted to do.
Home Dock, Torresen Marine

The Lake Crossing, Part Two

This is the second of three posts. Find the first and the third.

West Michigan is blessed with sunsets at the lakeshore. The population here is thick with sunset addicts. Actually people come from all over to savor the moments when the sun sizzles into the western horizon and splashes its colors across the clouds and sky. These sunset fans will all know the icy blue color the lake often gets in the fading light of the day. On our trip across the lake, as the sun flared orange and red over Lake Michigan, I was surrounded as far as I could see in every direction by that shimmering, living topaz blue.

I really should have woke my crew, Dave, to see the sunset. We had done the first six hours together and were going to split the rest of the night in three hour watches. I had let Dave take the first break. As the sun slid toward the horizon and the premature moon came out, I revelled in the fact that I was sailing my
own boat across Lake Michigan. It was glorious. In all my days and daydreams of sailing, I had longed for sailing beyond the horizon. I wanted to get to where I could not see land – anywhere. Like the sweaty junior high anticipation of actually dancing with a girl, I had no idea what I was doing or if I could pull it off, I just knew that I wanted to more than anything else. The night was a little overcast without many stars and it was getting cold. Dave wasn't due into the cockpit until 10:00p.

The lapping waves and gurgle of the boat moving through the water is as relaxing as you might imagine – in the cockpit. When Dave relieved me and I went below to catch a little sleep, I couldn't believe the racket! Imagine shrinking yourself to lay inside the drain of your bathtub as it empties, the loud rush of water was deafening. I wasn't sure I could sleep as excited as I was; let alone with all that racket. It hadn't occurred to me that in all my sailing, having never really sailed offshore, I was never down below underway. Soon I managed to slip off to sleep anyway.

And then the proximity alarm went off.

“What is that?!” Dave called from the tiller.

One of the reasons I've been so happy about getting Bella is how well equipped she is. The VHF radio, normally used for talking to other boats, bridge tenders, and marinas, is also equipped with GPS and AIS. The GPS is just like in your car without the streets. It tells me my latitude and longitude, plus which way and how far it is to a waypoint; a destination.

The radio also recieves AIS signals. Cargo ships, ferries and other commercial vessels are equipped with transponders that broadcast their name, call sign and heading. I had set up the radio to warn us when a big ship was seven minutes away. I just hadn't told my crew.

“He's lighting up our sails with a spotlight” Dave said.

I poked my head out the companionway and could see running lights of something big behind us. By his green and white lights, I knew he was headed north well behind us to the west. Their amazingly powerful spotlight was just a pinpoint out there, but a splash of light against Bella's white sails. There were a couple other boats north and east of us, but their lights were far enough away I couldn't make out which way they were headed. The AIS screen wasn't showing anyone on a convergent course. The couple of blips that were there were just skirting the circle, off in other directions. I laid down again but didn't sleep any more. As jazzed as I was just to be sailing that would be enough.

About 1:00a, on Wednesday now, we traded spots again and I was back on the tiller where I wanted to be anyway. It had gotten even colder! I had five layers on and draped the wool blanket across my lap when I settled in and got Bella in her groove. The joy soaked
back into me and kept me plenty warm. We were slightly north of Muskegon already. Later when the wind shifted, again in our favor, I slid Bella's bow more toward Muskegon. We hadn't tacked yet. We ran before the wind from Milwaukee, then leaned into a broad reach to the northeast and had just leaned into a reach toward Michigan. The boom hadn't crossed the boat since we were becalmed a mile from Milwaukee. The wind gods were taking good care of us.

Its funny how being skipper changes your attitude. The feeling of responsibility weighed on me. I couldn't have made the trip without Dave being along. He was a great help. Though I had considered making the trip alone, I couldn't have pulled it off. But with crew I was also responsible for more than just myself. Though it was more comforting than worrying, it was at the forefront of my thoughts.

At 4:00a Dave was to come back on watch. He woke up freezing cold and couldn't stop shivering. I was worried about him getting hypothermic. It was cold and damp now, but we hadn't ever closed up the companionway in the fair weather we'd had. When it got cold overnight, the cabin had gotten just as cold as the cockpit.  I had him heat up some water on the stove to warm the cabin and told him to stay down there. He bundled up and eventually fell back to sleep with a couple drop boards in the companionway and the stove on. Without an engine, any medical issue could have spelled the end of our trip and quite possibly the end of s/v Bella.

I was doing fine, until I saw snowflakes.
Well ... not quite this much snow.

Last image from Flickr. Used without permission.