Saturday, September 9, 2017

You're Not A High Latitude Sailor Until...

You know the saying from the old days - "you're not a cruiser until you've towed the Pardeys into port!"

(That's just a delightful bon mot from an earlier and much more innocent era in the sailing game, and not at all a dig at the Pardeys, who, when we met them in New Zealand, were more than kind and hospitable.)

But, having heard that joke from the past recently, I was inspired to coin my own variation: "You're not a real high latitude sailor until you've had Jérôme Poncet on board for dinner!"

We Galactics were recently privileged enough to do just that.

Our mate Leiv Poncet has been operating his sailboat Peregrine out of the Kodiak this summer, and his dad, Jérôme, came to Kodiak from the Falklands for a bit of a sailing holiday with his son. Having been hanging out with Leiv every chance we got this summer, we naturally also got to hang out with his dad while he was here.

In the world of high-latitude sailing, Jérôme is just about as big a deal as there is.

Consider this: his first boat Damien, which he co-owned with Gérard Janichon, sits right next to Bernard Moitessier's Joshua in the Musée Maritime de la Rochelle. Damien was a 10-meter, cold-molded sailboat that more than once went as far or farther than any small sailboat had before. After the Damien days there were the even more groundbreaking days in Damien II with Sally and their kids, and after that the professional years in the Golden Fleece.

It's all quite a record of achievement and derring-do, more wonderful and detailed than what I can do justice to here.

The great part, though, is that all of that means nothing when you're talking with him. Jérôme comes across as a normal guy who happens to be extremely authoritative about high-latitude sailing. He was tremendously kind and interested about our boat and our infinitely more modest sailing ventures. He reminded me of a truism that we first recognized from observing commercial fishing boat captains in Alaska: the very best and most skilled mariners have no need to show off or brag about what they have done.

There was this one difference between Jérôme and commercial fishermen of our acquaintance, though - the commercial fishermen don't have anything like the irrepressible gleam that Jérôme carries around in his eye.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Gales of...August

The winds of August. Those big islands are the Kodiak archipelago, just off the Alaska Peninsula.
So...Alaska weather is a funny thing, at least as it pertains to sailing.

For much of the summer, when the days are long and the temperatures are high, the Gulf of Alaska is a complete millpond. No wind at all for weeks and weeks, a veritable ashes and sackcloth land of the damned when it comes to getting anywhere under sail.

Then there's a transition period, towards the end of summer, when the winds start to pick up, but aren't yet gales. Experience says that this period lasts for about...two days.

Then, some time in September, the bounds of polite restraint are cast off, and Kodiakers start dreaming about time shares in Arizona.

This year, the first really good blow arrived at the tail end of August - that's the forecast for today (above).

Tonight, as we listen to the rigging hum, we are reminded...while the Falklands and such places might beat us for year around winds, there are few places that can compete with Kodiak when it comes to plain old crap weather.

But the diesel heater is warm, and we're snug at the dock, and as happy to be on Galactic as we could be anywhere.

Monday, August 28, 2017

In the Tradition

Last week the Galactics went beach seining.
Pulling the seine

A beach seine is about the simplest net there is to use. You set it from the dinghy, then pull it in to the beach by hand.

Sorting the catch. Alisa still has her deep knowledge of the juvenile groundfishes of Alaska
Age-0 saffron cod
A little help from the team

The Baxter Guide to the fishes of Alaska
Back in the 90s, Alisa and I did a lot of beach seining as a part of a large study seeking to understand how climate variability limited the ability of seabird populations to recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

We have great memories of those summers spent doing field work in coastal Alaska. Being outside all day every day, work that was both physically demanding and intellectually engaging, the camaraderie of fantastic people...who wouldn't remember that fondly?

It was great to be doing that kind of work again. The names of the fishes came back so easily. Kelp clingfish! Penpoint gunnel! We talked about the people we worked with, 20 years ago, and how some of them have found a lifetime's pursuit in the study of Alaskan fishes. And we remembered some of the people from prior generations whom we encountered in one way or another. It's a great tradition to be a part of, the tradition established by those rugged men and women who have pursued knowledge for knowledge's sake in the wilds of Alaska.

Writing it down
There's also a larger tradition that we were invoking - the tradition of understanding the world with repeatable measurement, careful observation, and falsifiable ideas. In this era where the wonderful intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment is held in such low esteem, and the scientific enterprise is under such specific political attacks, it was great to be back in that tradition....doing the simple things of observing the world, and writing down what we saw.

More specifically, we were working to support a study that has been running for more than a decade, using beach seines to measure the abundance of juvenile Pacific cod, and to sample their body condition and energetics, in order to better understand the factors that regulate this population that supports an important fishery around Kodiak.

Mama said there'd be days like this

Tufted puffins

We've always thought that wrapping family life into field work would be a wonderful thing to do. And it was, mostly. Elias in particular is right there with being able to help out. He measured fish, he took notes, he pulled the net.

Eric is still a few years away from being real help, as is his right as a seven year old. Both boys did a great job with some very early mornings to catch the tides we were working, but during these four days of seining Alisa and I were also reminded of the limits of what we can ask the kids to do.

We'll keep those in mind as we cook up plans for more extensive field work in summers to come.

But for this first run, I was very satisfied to see how happy the family ended each day, and how glowing the boys' overall reviews were for the experience.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Abyss of Time

Tufted puffin - the baddest seabird of the North Pacific
Idyll underway. If the kids are safely tucked away in a book, all is well with our world.
The miraculous Pacific halibut - they're nearly all meat.
The pics above are from our recent biological sampling trip around Kodiak.

It was...great. A detailed report soon, as soon as I get enough free time from science to tell the story.

But for now, I want to consider two other pictures.

The first image is from Long Island - our very first-ever anchorage after we left Kodiak. That's our Pelagic in the background, and of course cabin boy #1 Elias on my back.

And we were just back in Long Island on this last jaunt of ours, ten years and two months after the picture above was taken.

That's Galactic in the background below. Elias has been promoted to AB, but he's still on my back. And cabin boy #2 is very much in the picture, both actually and metaphorically.

As any parent of young children will tell you - the days are endless, and the years go so fast. As I view the progression that is captured by these pics, I am reminded to drink up every minute of time that I have with these two pre-adolescent sons of ours. Nothing could be sweeter than what we have, right now, as a family.'s reassuring to see that Long Island has gotten sunnier over the last 10 years!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

From this first step...

...we hope that great things might come!

So, now that we have sailed back to Alaska, what's the status of our sailing life?

Well, we're back to the dreaming stage.

As a part of our move back to Alaska, I've taken a research faculty job at the University of Alaska, based in Kodiak.

One of the things that I hope to do in this new job is field research from the decks of Galactic. For years and years, Alisa and I have shared a daydream that goes something like, "We're two marine biologists who operate their own boat. Surely there's some niche of useful research that we would be poised to fill?"

Well, I'm happy to note that we have taken our first tentative step in that direction. We have four days of sampling scheduled from Galactic over this week and next, supporting a study of the dynamics affecting juvenile cod survival.

It's a funny place to be back in, dreaming about our next sailing step, rather than living it. So I'm very happy that we have a little biology work from the boat so soon after we returned.

Details to follow!

A beach seine, used for sampling the rich nearshore piscifauna. It should fit nicely on Galactic!

You Know - Alaska!

Well, you may have noticed that our country is going through Interesting Times. (Open question: will an American president who is proud of the fact that he cannot make the moral distinction between Nazis and anti-Nazis be abandoned by his party? Stay tuned and find out!)

But while this painful transition to whatever comes next is underway, our family has been enjoying a completely idyllic summer in Alaska.

Long-time readers may remember that one of the reasons we decided to forgo the Northwest Passage is that that route would have gotten us to Kodiak in September, after the summer was officially a memory. Following our couple of glorious seasons in the global South, we had reached a point in our sailing lives where, rather than another high-latitude adventure, we would prefer to just spend a summer getting in touch with the island that is our once and future home.
Dreaming the beautiful dream
And that's what we've been doing. We're rediscovering Kodiak through the eyes of our boys, which is so much fun I could literally cry at times.

We're in this great timeless-feeling period between our arrival from Hawai'i and the Start of School, which will mark a big transition to Structured Time for the whole family.

And even though the signs of autumn are beginning to announce themselves, we remain in that timeless state. Day after day, we
The Kodiak waterfront

Alpine joy

Fishing. In Alaska, Team Galactic spends a lot of time fishing. This can have consequences...

...both bad (that's Alisa de-hooking Elias)...

...and good (Eric with a dolly varden at Mayflower Beach).

More soon.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Best Help That Money Can't Buy

Now, I know that plenty of people raise well-adjusted children ashore.

And we only have the two examples of Galactic's own AB and Cabin Boy to go on, so our inference will suffer from some pretty severe sample size problems.

But with those caveats in mind, I have to say that if you want to raise kids who, if nothing else, are generally game to lend a hand when there is work to be done, raising them on a traveling boat is the way to go.

For example, consider these shots from our recent haulout.

We have been through every stage of out of the water maintenance with a young family. In the early days this entailed Alisa looking after the kids while I humped it like a convict in the boatyard.

Occasionally in more recent years it has involved Alisa getting a babysitter to look after the kids while she helped me paint, and then feeling afterwards like it made no sense to pay someone twenty dollars, or whatever, just so she could sprint over to the yard to slap on paint for a couple hours.

But now, our kids are suddenly old enough that not only do they not need constant minding, they are actually clamoring to get in the yard and help, too.

Elias begged insistently enough that we let him suit up and paint a bit on this last haulout. And these pictures show just how proud he was to be lending a hand.

And the wattage of those smiles also reminds me of how much joy kids can make out of tasks that adults see as drudgery, and just how easy it can be to salvage a moment or two of fun when the right kid is around.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Speck 'dat

Did you read Barbarian Days? You really should. "Speck 'dat" is my memory of William Finnegan's rendering of Hawai'i slang of the sixties for "check that out!"

Admission: I read very very few sailing blogs. I suppose that if I'm doing it myself full time, I don't feel the need to go online to read about someone else's experience afloat.

But though I don't read them in quantity, I have tremendously enjoyed a few blogs over the years, mostly written by erudite friends of ours. (Shout-out to you, Enki!)

So check this out: the sailing blog of Pandion. This is the real-time memoir of some great friends of ours, from our own barbarian days in Iluka. These people are switched on, in the Australian parlance, and though they are only just getting going, I reckon they'll be well worth following over time. So get in on the ground floor!

Alisa and part of team Pandion on board Galactic, back in the day.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

57,000 Miles

We just bought a used car, sight unseen, from Anchorage. That's what people do in Kodiak.

As a part of our due diligence, I had an independent mechanic take a look at the car. 

"No problem," he reported. "That car has tons of life in it - only 57,000 miles."

And how's that for a difference from the sailing world. As I've reported before on this blog, when we bought Galactic we installed a new GPS in the cockpit and left the meter running. As of just now, we have about 51,600 sea miles on the clock.

That feels like a lot. On a traveling sailboat, fifty-odd thousand miles will carry you through several lifetimes worth of memories. And for all the questions we get in port, from general landlubber and dock queen alike, about any "really bad storms" that we might have encountered at sea, our experience is that fifty thousand miles of sailing will bring you moments transcendent and terrible in a ratio of about 100:1.

I'm sure that I'm not embellishing my memories here.

News flash: fifty thousand plus miles is nothing for a car, even though it's well more than twice the circumference of the earth. And you don't look for too many moments of transcendence along the way.

Anyway! Great to get a car, as a step towards setting ourselves up in this new life. I won't quite say "land life". Perhaps what we hope to be doing is setting ourselves up with a home port.

There's just one more difference that I'll note. Sailors tend to count miles as they apply to people, rather than to boats. When someone wants to demonstrate how totally salty they are, they drop numbers like "a hundred thousand sea miles". I've often thought that these self-reported numbers tend to be bollocks and as dependable as sailors' reports of wind speed ("it was blowing sixty!"). But it's another interesting difference between the lives of sea and dirt. Hard to imagine someone bragging that they've driven a half million miles.

Alisa had the great insight that it would actually be cheaper for her and the boys to fly to Anchorage and bring the new car back to Kodiak on the ferry than it would be to ship the car over on the barge. So they got a visit to Anchorage out of the deal. Here they are, with the car safely strapped down and about to leave port.
Leaving Whittier on the ferry. Whittier is the town where I had my first job in Alaska, working on a cannery dock. 
Here and below - driving the new beastie off the ferry in Kodiak.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Boat Not For Sale

The Land of Fire in winter
Over the years we've seen a lot of friends and acquaintances reaching the end of their dream cruise, and a unifying feature is that the sailboat in question usually goes on the block immediately. Or sooner - often a cruising boat is listed for sale while the final homeward passage is uncompleted.

This only makes sense. A well-found traveling boat represents a lot of capital, and demands a lot of upkeep. If you're not using the beast, there's little point in keeping it.

Plus, as Paul Beatty points out in The Sellout, having a yacht that you never use is a signifier of the second level of white privilege. And who would want to go there?

We've just completed our first haulout since South Africa. And while Kodiak is a great place to work on the boat out of the water, that doesn't mean it's cheap. When you're living on the boat and traveling widely, that sort of expense just feels like the price of the ticket. But it feels very different when you're back in your home port and looking for a house. What felt like the price of the ticket can start to feel more like a frivolous outlay of cash.

But for all that, we have no immediate plans to sell Galactic. And that has to do with our current vision/dream for what the next stage of our sailing lives will look like.

We've spent the last 10 years as all-in, full-time sailors. No house ashore waiting for us, no vehicles, no furniture in storage save my grandmother's rocking chair and my grandfather's work bench. That's the Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander style of sailing. No compromise to dirt dwelling made, and a sailor sleeps on his/her boat every night of their life.

But over the last few years of our sailing we became more and more aware of another way to pursue decades-long sailing odysseys. We can call it the "home base" model.

When Lin and Larry Pardey very generously opened their home to us on Kawau Island for their annual Thanksgiving dinner, we realized their was a home base for them, and had been for decades, if I'm not mistaken. It certainly makes years of tromping around in very small sailboats easier if you have a small house and a big shed waiting for you somewhere, patiently holding your stuff.

Likewise for the fantastic time that Leiv Poncet showed us at his family's place on Beaver Island, in the Falklands. Leiv's parents are pioneers of far southern sailing, and have decades and decades of sailing achievements behind them, but they didn't do it while using the yacht as the exclusive family home. Even 50-foot Damien II would get pretty small for a family of five during a Falklands winter.

And so for us, we hope. We're stopping the all-in part of our sailing both because being full-time sailors doesn't encompass everything that we want to do in our lives, and because we wouldn't mind having more of a home base than our uninsured sailboat. Our sights aren't set nearly as high as Kawau or Beaver Islands, but I'm sure we'll be able to find something cozy in Kodiak, with a shed as a part of the deal.

And, in our case, as I've written in this space before, we hope to transition to a more purposeful sort of sailing, and start using Galactic as the platform for our marine biology research. No telling how the funding gods will view that idea, but we have plans to submit two research proposals along those lines this year.

And in the meantime, we will continue to live with the maintenance list that comes with Galactic, and work to keep her in good shape for whatever it is we end up doing. We love sailing as much as we ever have, perhaps more than we ever have. And after 10 years all-in, we're as good at sailing as we are at anything else in life. So we're daring fate by hoping that we might be lucky enough to keep the magic going for a few more years in this new way.

This is a good excuse to dig out old Kawau and Beaver Island shots. Here are the crew, in a much younger state of being, in front of Taleisin.
Here and below - Thanksgiving dinner.

I think the guy to my right was spinning a real line of bull...
Leiv and the boys lighting a fire on Beaver Island, to roast... 
...Beaver Island mutton chops. 
Alisa and Leiv canning meat for ship's stores on Peregrine and Galactic

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Better Than Real

Her: I'm so glad to be back in Kodiak.

Me: I know. It's such a real-world place.

*Thoughtful pause*

Her: It's better than real.

Metaphor alert! Stepping off the boat...
I'll begin with a note on congruence between life on a traveling boat and life in Alaska. They're both all about the people.

We have been met by our old crowd in Kodiak with typical understated Alaskan hospitality. Friends met us at the dock with ice cream and beer and home-cooked treats. In the days when we were freshly back, people stopped by the boat to give us halibut and salmon.

Friends who are off the island offered up a truck that we could drive for a month while we were looking for our own vehicle (thanks so much, Heather & Pete!). And friends who were going to the Lower 48 for a family visit kindly offered up their house as a place we could stay if we wanted to get off the boat.

We didn't really want to get off the boat - except.

Except that the middle of summer is the perfect time to haul out a boat in Kodiak. The days are super-long, the temperatures are conducive to painting, and the yard is mostly empty, as Kodiak's working fleet is out working. We always prefer to move off the boat when she's in the yard. So, we took the opportunity of a place to stay (thanks, Sara and Ian!) and hauled.

Real help: Joe and I watch the slings come off.
Pretend help: Eric pressure washing.
Fuller's boat yard is part of the "delightfully real" aspect of Kodiak that Alisa and I were commenting on. At most yards where we've hauled through the years, there is a driver for the travelift and a yard worker or two who pressure wash your boat and position the jack stands. In Kodiak, there are first of all no jack stands - those tall boat stands for sailboats. Commercial fishing boats don't use them, so Fuller's doesn't have them. We had a set of our own ordered and waiting at Kodiak Marine Supply when we sailed into town.

And, as for the yard workers who pressure wash and set up the stands, that would be the crew of the boat being hauled. Who also have to provide their own pressure washer (thanks, Debra!).

Another friend, who just happens to be the second owner of Hawk, which he took through the Northwest Passage, stopped by at just the right moment to give us a hand with the stands.

And so it has gone through our time in the yard. People just stop by now and then to talk and look at the boat. It's part of the pace of life in a small town in Alaska. And it's part of the process of our re-integration into this town, one conversation about this and that and nothing at all at a time.

Elias in a triumphant mood.
Allright - listen up you dreamers who want to chuck it all and sail away but don't know much about sailing. Find someone who has a boat and volunteer to help them with their next haulout, start to finish. You'll learn a hundred times more about the sailing life that way than by taking one of those "learn to cruise" classes.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


Me and mom (and Eric).
Well.  I would count us as lucky.  We have had a life over the last ten years that has been far richer than the life awaiting us in that alternate universe where everyone gets just what they deserve.

Our good fortune has been wonderfully multifaceted, and, I hope, not been taken for granted. (In conversation with Alisa I have started using the shorthand "white privilege goes to sea" to refer to a certain sort of American sailor.) But just now I want to focus on the tremendous good fortune that we had in our shoreside ship's agent during our ten years afloat.

That ship's agent to Galactic would be Joan Litzow. Mom to me, "JoJo" to my kids. (Someone felt too young to be called grandma almost 11 years ago when Elias was born.)

Anyone who has been on an open-ended sailing trip will tell you how important it is to have someone back in the home country to look after your affairs. We Galactics cut the ties more than most. No house or business back in the home country to tie us down. And the internet has of course made the mundane details of life infinitely more tractable for travelers.

But, for all that, if you're going on a years-long trip, you really need someone to help out with practicalities. My mom was set up to sign checks for us and authorized to deal with our credit card companies on our behalf. She could deposit the checks that came in from my science work and my writing for Cruising World, she could let us know when the credit card company was calling to OK the sudden splurge of spending in the final 48 hours before we put to sea from some foreign port. She could sign the annual application to renew our vessel documentation and send us the new paperwork wherever we might be. She could open our mail and pay the occasional bill that, for all our efforts to live cheap, still somehow made its way to us.

For all those years that we were gone, robbing her of easy access to half her grandkids, she kept our affairs in order, and was an absolutely dependable backstop against late fees and unmet obligations on our part. That role she played gave us a tremendous peace of mind when we were off in some atoll, blissfully pretending that the real world did not exist.

So. For playing such an important role in making our voyage a success, and for all the thankless tasks that she pursued on our behalf, I wanted to say a very public and heartfelt "thank you" in this space.

And, don't worry, mom. We just got a post office box of our own.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Family Affair

Allright - passage recap. There have been a few of those through the years.

For this Kona-to-Kodiak leg, the destination was more important than it has been for most of our passages, so we'll begin with pictures of our arrival.

Elias is quietly ecstatic. Eric is suddenly anxious and has taken refuge in a "disguise".
Alisa is overjoyed. And that smear on the shoreline to the left? That would be dowtown Kodiak.
This picture would seem to suggest more complicated emotions on my part.
Our state of dress in the pictures above tells you everything you need to know about the climate that awaited us at almost 58° North latitude. It has been a particularly cold summer in Kodiak.

But we started this 18-day sail in tropical conditions. Check out the crew watching pilot whales, below. 

And that would be the Marine Engineer getting after a broken batten box on our full batten mainsail below that. Schaefer may make some good products, but their batten boxes are rubbish! Luckily we still had one of the spare boxes that we bought in South Africa. If we are lucky enough to sail up to the Arctic Ocean next summer, my bet is that our remaining Schaefer boxes will be off the main... 

And, well. The junior crew. There were some heated parent-offspring moments in the passage, I will admit. The frictions of endless energy (them) vs. short sleep (us) are guaranteed to produce combustion at some point. But those moments are quickly forgotten (by us at least; they may be in therapy for years for all I know). We really have the best under-11 crew you could ask for. You've never seen kids who are more game for a passage than these two.

How's that for insouciance under sail? Eric hasn't been seasick once since we left South Africa, though he did keep the throwup bowl near himself for the first week of this passage....I thought of it as a little comfort talisman, like a favorite blanket for a younger, or more land-bound, kid.
Sleeping arrangements - Elias in the port bunk, and Eric under the table, which is the spot he insists on. Notice the Tintin craze that has gripped our boys...

Elias rugged up to stand an evening watch somewhere in the 50s North latitude. Can you see how proud he is to be standing watch?

We played endless card games...
And, a persistant theme in Twice In a Lifetime passage notes...the fishing report!

A wahoo and...
...a mahi mahi made up our tropical catch.
While a silver salmon...
...and a rockfish made up the higher latitude catch. Elias managed to grab the rockfish in the ten minutes it took me to pause and check the oil while we were motoring the final miles to Kodiak.
And finally, there was the endgame. For our return to home waters we strung up all of the courtesy flags for the foreign nations that we visited during our 10 year voyage. This is the Chilean's seen its share of wind!

I have a special fondness for the text-only blog posts that I put up while on passage. It seems so much easier to grasp at the elusive nature of seafaring when you're actually doing it, and when you're not distracted by the literal nature of photographs.

In this land-based, retrospective version of the passage's story, I'll throw up my hands at the idea of any what-it-all-means summaries.

I'll just note that being all alone together on the big big blue can make for the very best family time that we have ever known.