Monday, November 23, 2009

The Three Lies

On this blog we mostly write for a non-sailing audience. But over time a lot of fellow sailors have asked us what it's "really like" to chuck it all to go sailing full time. As always, becoming adept at cruising long distances is a very personal journey, and what works for us will not work for some. But, for what it's worth, Alisa and I can boil down some of the biggest lessons we've learned about full-time sailing into the three "lies" of conventional wisdom about ocean cruising:

Lie #1 - You can be comfortable at sea.
Alisa and I were both lucky enough to work on commercial fishing boats in Alaska before we went cruising. Those boats were BIG - 90 to 150 feet, and, even though they were working boats, pretty luxurious - they didn't roll anything like as much as Pelagic, and we could always get a hot shower after our work was done. Even so, we spent a significant amount of our time on those boats being slightly uncomfortable to completely miserable. We figured that was just part of going to sea.

But a lot of cruisers seem to have this slavish devotion to being "comfortable" on their boats, and people tell us they don't like passages because being at sea for a long time is so uncomfortable. We (subtly, I hope) roll our eyes at this. "Comfortable" at sea - WHATEVER! Forget about it. People who want to be comfortable on their boats end up sitting in marinas. Sailing long distances across the ocean in a small boat is an adventure, it's a damn spirit quest, it's an act of self-directed will so intense as to be almost mythically beautiful. Who cares if the sheets are salty, or you're vomiting over the side?

Lie #2 - You will have lots of free time.
Here, our experience may not be representative at all, since we set out from home with a 10-month old child, our boat is 27 years old, I have continued to work on and off while we lived aboard, and I've also pursued the time-devouring task of trying to write as we go. That's a lot to tackle. But, understand this, anyone who would go to sea full time for a year or two: there is NEVER a time when we don't have some desperately long to-do list of boat maintenance jobs hanging over us. That list is usually posted over the chart table, for all to see, and we long ago gave up any hope of ever seeing the end of it.

Lie #3 - Technology is your friend.
I'm no Luddite. I love roller furling. I couldn't explain why anyone would want to sail without GPS. But, the hyper tricked-out, super-complex state of cruising yachts that people take as a given has nothing to do with what's best for going to sea. It's a state of affairs dreamed up by yacht gearmakers and advertisers and the sailing magazines that serve them. Fancy stuff like watermakers can be nice, but it's a mistake to get stuff like that until you've been cruising for a year or three, you're on top of all the basics, and you know that you really really want a watermaker. Otherwise, you'll turn out like so many who were convinced that you "gotta have" a watermaker to cruise, and you'll find yourself wasting money and time (see #2), trying to get the thing to work, when you could have just been taking a nice dinghy ride to get a few jugs of water.

The same argument applies to networked electronics, big freezers, gensets, long-range internet access, and a lot else. All those things can be nice, individually, but paying for and maintaining and learning to use all that stuff will, collectively, keep you from a lot of sailing. Read some Bernard Moitessier before you go sailing, and go sailing to be free!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fellow Travellers, Wrecked

If we had a totemic bird on Pelagic, it would have to be either the short-tailed or sooty shearwater. These two bird species nest at high latitudes in the southern hemisphere, in places like Tasmania and New Zealand, and they venture as far south as Antarctica to gather food for their chicks. And then when the breeding season is over they fly all the way to the Bering Sea for the northern summer.

Any bird that migrates between Alaska and Australia has got to be close to our hearts!

I was walking on the Iluka main beach the other day and discovered a tiny "wreck" of short-tailed shearwaters. There were eight carcasses on the beach, all but one of them very fresh and left by the last high tide. There was another bird on the beach still alive, awaiting its fate. (These are very pelagic birds that normally come to land only to breed, so one that is just sitting on the beach has clearly just about had it.)

And, most touching of all, there were two swimming in the surf - paddling away from land, but slowly, inevitably being washed into the beach by the waves.

"Wrecks" are a big part of seabird ecology. Very numerous birds like short-tailed / sooty shearwaters (I have seen them described as the most numerous bird in Alaska, or even the most numerous wild bird in the world) require large concentrations of food, especially when they are spent by the demands of an Alaska-Australia migration. It's common for these highly aggregated bird species to die en masse when foraging conditions are bad. So I assume the birds I saw had made it all the way to Australia on their pre-breeding migration, and then starved.

I brought a carcass back to the boat to ID it:

Separating the two species at sea is notoriously difficult, but the bill of this bird perfectly matched the short-tailed shearwater bill in our field guide.

Seabird geeks out there will notice how light the underwing of this bird was. If I'm not mistaken (?), it's the sooties that tend to have lighter underwings.

This all ended a bit freakishly. After we were done with the carcass, we chucked it into the harbor. Twenty minutes later, we got int the dinghy to go meet some friends at the pub for dinner. And what do we see right off the stern of the boat?
A short-tailed shearwater, swimming straight at us.

Seeing a short-tailed in a place like the Iluka harbor, on the Clarence River, is so unusual that we couldn't shake the feeling that it was the bird we had been handling in the cockpit, come mysteriously back to life. We had to drive around the harbor until we found the dead bird before we were sure that the second bird was a different (and also obviously very distressed) individual.
The next day I walked the beach and saw only one fresh carcass. And there was a feeding flock of gulls and terns in the surf, with some short-tailed shearwaters joining in.
So it looked like the travellers were getting a much-needed feed.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Alisa and I spell out loud as fast as a teenager texts. Spelling key words of our conversations gives us a tiny bit of privacy in the cramped confines of Pelagic. It's our way of talking about topics that we don't want processed and repeated by a three year old.

We have often rued the day when Elias would learn to spell.

Like most things parenting, it came sooner than anticipated.

This morning at breakfast Alisa and I were spelling the same word a little too frequently. It was a short word, one that Elias could master with a little repetition. And so, with cups of tea and coffee steaming beside us, and bowls of yoghurt in our laps, we got to listen to our little pride and joy spell his first-ever word.

S-E-X! Elias said triumphantly. S-E-X!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Widen the Gutters

There are a few towns that you look forward to revisiting - places where you know you'll find like-minded people, places that fill you with a bit of elation when you return to align the actual sights with the memories of your last visit that you've been keeping alive. There's a great line from On the Road that I always think of when I'm coming back to one of those towns - when Dean Moriarty is about to arrive in Denver, Kerouac writes that

"preparations had to be made to widen the gutters and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies".

I repeated that quote to Alisa as we were lining up the entrance to the Clarence River, finally arriving in Iluka after two weeks of hard yakka and mostly upwind sailing from Mackay.

Hmm, she said. Widen the gutters and foreshorten certain laws? Is it going to be all that?

It sure will, I said. And in this case you're the suffering bulk, and I'm the bursting ecstasies.


We headed south from Mooloolaba on the last leg of the trip with a sense of optimism that translated the forecast of SE-NE winds into a better-than-even chance of not having southeasterlies. Well, we found southeasterlies, so we spent the afternoon and evening beating into the weather, yet again. But the night fell calm, and a light northerly arose in the morning, and by noon we were running gloriously before a northerly wind, sailing wing and wing just like we did on tradewind passages, making 8 knots with the current behind us and revelling in the dry decks and level boat. Here's Elias at dawn on that last day:

And here's how salty Pelagic became during all that spray-flying, deck-soaking windward sailing. Wipe your hand over any surface above decks, and you come away with a handful of salt crystals:
But now we're here, and all that uncomfortable travelling on a deadline is behind us. There was even an early groundswell behind the idea of just staying here to have the new crew, in a town where we know some wonderful people, instead of heading off to Tasmania where we know no one. But that idea didn't last long - when we settle down again, we're going to do it in Alaska. For now we're in travelling mode, so we're going to keep moving and see a few more places before we leave Oz.
Here are a few pics I took on my first walk around Iluka. What else could a couple of Alaskans far from home want?