Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for Leg 3

The salt of life

Pinot Grigio at harvest time

Pinot Grigio at harvest time

Because we REALLY know how to reward ourselves, halfway through our delightfully long stay in San Francisco we took a romantic trip up to Napa Valley. By boat. Who knew it was navigable, especially for a big ole ocean-going boat of our draft!? We heard from our cruising friends that it was, so we inched up the sun-drenched Napa River for the weekend and anchored behind a bend lined with eucalyptus trees and flanked with ripe vineyards. Aside from the large cows grazing near the riverbanks, no other living creatures were around us on that sleepy river. We pulled in at sunset, enjoyed an incredible dinner in the cockpit, and slept soundly in the motionless eddy where we’d dropped the hook.

Sunset from the cockpit in Napa

Sunset from the cockpit in Napa

Velella in a vineyard

Velella in a vineyard

Of course, what we learned very early on about the cruising life still holds true every day: “Paradise” is jam-packed with trials and tribulations. It looks so lovely (and it is!), but by no means is it idyllic.

Take, for example, in the middle of our perfectly sound sleep in Napa when the river became uncannily still. I mean, it was still to begin with, but this felt like sleeping on land. And when you live on a boat, it feels very strange when you finally stop moving altogether. Sure enough, when I peeked my head out of the cabin, those cows on shore were a whole lot closer! The moon was full and cast its majestic silvery light all over the mudflats that were creeping very close to our boat as the tide (10 miles upriver!) drained out. No WONDER we weren’t moving. Strike 2: Aground again. At that point there was quite literally nothing to be done because the tide was about to rise again, so instead of kedging out another anchor and trying in the middle of the night to haul ourselves off, Prescott made me exercise the most patience I think I’ve even concentrated in once place, and we just waited. We sat on the starboard side (the deeper water side), and watched about five episodes of LOST until we sensed that we were boyant again. Who knew after all that seasickness that I’d be praying for the boat to start moving again?

Since then we’ve left San Francisco and made two beautiful day trips along the southern coast, stopping in Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. The guidebook says Santa Cruz is a year-round summer vacation spot and surfer’s haven. Turns out “surfer’s haven” is definitely a warning word to sailors. As rookies who didn’t know the difference, though, we la-dee-da paddled in to shore this morning and realized only when we got there that the surf was actually quite surfable. We did our best to time our run between crashing waves, but completely failed. Prescott jumped out in waist deep water, and I, determined not to get my new jeans salt-soaking wet for a second time, stayed in the boat and desperately paddled while he tried to pull me in against the undertow. One crash later came over the stern and flooded the boat, so I gave up and jumped out just as it started to rain.

After Prescott singlehanded the dinghy back out over the surf (if ONLY I had video–it was comical), he picked me up at the wharf and we trembled our way back to the boat to repeat the heater/hot tea ritual we’d started after our dumping at Aquatic Park. But the surge in the cove was extra strong, and after a few hours of reading and writing in the cabin, we both decided we had to brave the dinghy once more to get to stable shore for the afternoon. This time, we called the harbormaster, politely asked if we could have permission to tie to the wharf (despite the signs), and they said “Roger Skipper, go right ahead, just watch out for the sea lion population that lives on the landing.” Sweet. No more surfing. Sea Lions = cute.

Wrong again, they’re not cute like seals, they’re big and mean. They barked at us when we tied up the dinghy and I felt compelled to carry an oar in my own defense. We fled up the stairs to the wharf and found a coffee shop from which we could keep an eye on the dinghy. Every once in awhile I would look up to make sure no sea lions had tried to board our vacant boat. And then I looked up… and it was gone.

NOOO. It was like the feeling of having our car stolen. Plus, it was really surprising because we lock it up with a heavy galvanized chain and padlock and could not figure out how it could have broken loose. Prescott was already running back, and I packed up our computers as quickly as possible and followed him. By the time I got there it was absolutely pouring rain, and Prescott could not fight his way past the stubborn sea lions, despite his physical threats with a large orange traffic cone. The dinghy had broken free and was floating just under the wharf–if only we could get the sea lions to let us by. Finally, with the help of a very kind wharf worker and a borrowed boathook, we snagged the dinghy and were able to bring it back around within reach of the ladder. The sea lions were very vocally disgruntled that we’d disturbed their naps, and were swimming threateningly around the piers and our dinghy as we jumped in and pushed off as fast as we could.

As we rowed back and the downpour subsided just as we reached Velella, I thought about how so much of this trip has been picturesque, but how more of our time is spent dealing with things like this. But I suppose that’s entirely fitting, because this trip isn’t in freshwater–it’s all full of salt.


Meghan Cleary is so organized

Like rafting, crew or basketball, sailing is a team sport. Though there are all sorts of stories of sailors single-handing crafts around the world, I’ve never understand the fun in that. Half the enjoyment of sailing is the social interaction. It’s kind of like playing house, where each member takes on a specific role for the duration of the cruise. It allows you to play a part different than that which you might be in normal life. For instance, before this trip I never had an interest in engines and now I’m the ship’s mechanic. Meghan, in addition to her other admirable contributions, is the organizer.

I have never been called ‘structured’. In middle-school, my one rebuke from my teachers was my lack of organization. My desk was a mess. My pencils were marked up and down by my tooth. My Elmer’s glue bottle was encrusted with solidified paste. My penmanship refused to be detained within the constraints of tiny blue lines. I was a chaotic, spontaneous child, the type teachers watch expectantly for either artistic or else maniacal tendencies. There was never a question of my keeping the boat well-organized, which left the task of organizing the boat to Meghan.

She took to the task immediately. One day last summer I came home from work to see our house filled with every type of container ever invented. It was like a Tupperware convention from the future, with products that don’t yet exist. Aside from the plastic babushka containers that fit neatly inside one another, there was a family of plastic bags, half a dozen buckets, vacuum-sealed tubes, and strange fluorescent cases. My eyes went wide but, recognizing this as one of Meg’s ‘projects’, I didn’t say anything.

After she’d put every one of our possessions into a container, labeled the container, and then stuffed them into the walls and floor of the boat, I had to admit the space looked less cluttered. She somehow managed to make a house-worth of clothes, food, and repair kits invisible in a 35 foot space. I was impressed.

Until I wanted to find anything. Having not been present when the boat was “organized”, and having no direct insight into the logic behind its stowage, I am at a disadvantage whenever I’m doing anything other than walking through the boat’s cabin. I’m rendered completely helpless in all my onboard activities. Anytime I have to do maintenance work on the engine, I must first write out a checklist and present it to Meghan. She then sends me on a scavenger hunt to the various extremities of the boat to find the tools I need.

It’s not so bad, except that the organizational system seems to change on a weekly basis. Where my screwdriver was once kept in a drawer beneath the trash, it’s now kept in a shelf above the table. And my engine manual, which I use several times a week, changes its accommodations just as often. Sometimes it’s stowed next to the spare kits, other times it’s in the “navigation” library or else in my “personal library”.

The logic of the system is the most beguiling. If I want to make a sandwhich, I’ll ask Meghan where the jelly is.

“In the fridge, obviously,” was her response.

OK, so where’s the peanut butter?

“You know that little panel behind the couch? Behind that there’s a little vacuum-sealed bag that says ‘misc’. Open that. The peanut butter is in a black, plastic container marked ‘Pnut.”

Or when I ask her where my flashlight is and she gets exasperated.

“It’s where it always issss,” she singsongs impatiently.

“Uh… remind me?”

“There’s a little baggie hidden inside the mattress.” Again delivered as a melody. “Sew it back up when you’re done.”

The truth, of course, is that if I ever owned a vessel of my own I’d be paddling a half-submerged bathtub back to shore the day after I set out. The messy kid isn’t allowed to take to the high seas. He has his designated pig-pen on land. For his own good and for the good of the true sailors, he is kept in the dark about the joy of sailing. Were it not for Meghan organizing my disheveled ass into action, I’d never know the fun I’d missed the first 26 years of my life. Her fastidious is what keeps us afloat, and I happily put my trust in it. Even if it means I have to ask for the peanut butter.

Tipping point

Sometimes I’m hard to motivate, especially when the sun is falling behind the Golden Gate Bridge and the evening swell in the anchorage starts to make Velella rock like a cradle. Around sunset, it gets windier due to strong local thermals, the birds finally shut up, and the beach quiets down. We usually paddle home from town around this time, as I invariably say, “I need a nap,” which really just means, “I need to go to bed very early again.”

Last night was a lovely example of the perfect evening to stay in on the boat. We had just spent the afternoon screaming around sunny San Francisco Bay with two reefs in the main. The wind was howling just on the outer edge of perfection; my four girlfriends got to come along for the rail-dipping ride. When we finally pulled back in the Aquatic Park downtown and dropped the hook, the wind was blowing like stink. Flipping on the weather radio verified our suspicions that the deceptively sunny winds were gale force (indeed on the high end, gusting 40-50 until midnight, NOAA predicted.) As the sun dropped and the wind sustained, it quickly got chilly, and we dropped a second anchor and pulled closed the hatches. Eager to embrace the autumnal atmosphere after so much sun, I made roasted squash risotto, and Prescott lit the large brass lantern and started up the propane fireplace. As dinner simmered, I laid utterly exhausted on the settee, wrapped in fleece with my feet near the toasty chimney of the heater. Having spent the morning working frantically to finish scrubbing the teak before we left the dock, I wanted nothing more than to let my aching body collapse into a rocking sleep for good.

But Prescott had a social itinerary lined up for that evening, a rarity we just couldn’t pass up. His friend from college lives in town, and had planned to take us out since earlier that week—and we were looking forward to seeing parts of the town we hadn’t yet explored. I was excited to go, but exhausted to begin with, so dragged myself dressed while warning “you know I’m not going to be able to get all crazy tonight or anything, I want to go out but only for a couple hours…”

Well it turns out we had an excellent time. For a long time. We saw multiple neighborhoods on our nighttime tour of the city—from the gussied up Marina district to flashy Chinatown to the soul-filled Italian quarter. It was an interesting evening, and we escaped having only a couple drinks each despite the hour. As our hosts kindly drove us back to the beach, I looked forward to solid, hangoverless sleep at last.

But first: we fell in. Yep, full moon, one a.m., straight up to our necks, full purse, feet last, fell in. You know, it’s not actually very easy to launch that dinghy on such a shallow beach. We do this: he pushes the boat up to the surf so my shoes don’t get wet, then I jump in up to the bow and start kind of jumping as the waves push up under us to wedge the stern off a bit more, and then he jumps in last over the stern and starts rowing out, and then I have to move over him to the stern because the boat balances better that way. If I were on shore watching this, I would secretly be rooting for us to fall in. I think he jumped too vehemently or far or something, I lost my balance, grabbed him to steady myself. I noticed my rising aaaaaahhhhhoooOOOO before I felt the salty, icy water fill inside my coat, mittens, jeans, boots, etc. I ran up to the beach as Prescott was yelling, “get in you idiot we’re out here now we might as well just step right in from knee deep!”

So ends the perfect boat-life day—in the dark when no one is watching it sometimes REALLY stinks. We rowed back to Velella as I threatened to pee my pants from the cold, we stripped the sand-salt filled clothes off in the gale-force-windy cockpit (HORRIBLE), and ran downstairs to recreate the toasty fireplace scene we left a few hours earlier. Tonight, there again were a number of people awaiting us onshore. We couldn’t get in touch to find out where, though, because my cell phone is experiencing some severe post-capsize shock. And anyway, after my freshwater sun shower this morning, I am much more comfortable tonight beneath the glowing, swinging firelight, and happy to have the excuse this time to opt out.

Nude in the middle of the city

Our anchorage  is pretty much prime cut: It has a killer view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, a protected downtown beach on which to land the dinghy, and a choice of either the colorful curiosities of Fisherman’s Wharf or the vista-rich lawns of Fort Mason both within a quarter-mile stroll. It even has quite a few resident harbor seals, who follow our dinghy so closely it would be alarming if they didn’t look so much like Nuala. Of course what our Utopian anchorage does not have is an outlet to plug ourselves into, so we swing free on the hook, reliant solely on our (awesomely large) solar panels for power.

There are surprisingly many things on Velella that need electrical current to function–things that I never really considered while living on land. The electric bilge pump is a good thing to keep on, and of course refrigeration draws a lot, the anchor light adds a few watts, and we find it pretty important to have charged phones and computers. Even having running water takes the energy of an electric pump to create pressure. Unfortunately, drawing water and drawing HOT water are two different systems, a fact that somehow I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no notion of until yesterday morning.

One of the things I love most about our boat is the incredibly hot hot water heater. It’s not lukewarmish water that we imagine is hot, it’s like scaldingly, luxuriously hot. I was imagining my first hot shower at the anchorage when Prescott informed me that “uh yeah Meg, that hot water heater is on the AC circut–didn’t you know that? It’s either from the engine or from the plug, and we have niether right now.” The news was like a bucket of ice water.

However, we did have one power-free, fresco option. The solar shower. A very simple, very black, five-gallon bag that heats up in the sun, supposedly. I, for one, was a bit skeptical, because I was not into the idea of a tepid shower, especially on that blustery San Francisco Bay day. There is no way that the sun could heat up that bag of water as hot as I wanted it, not North of LA. So Prescott was the guinea pig (he was dirtier too, so a little more motivated). He looked like he was having quite the time–no goosebumps or squeals… and I had to admit that lavender scented Dr. Bronner’s soap (Thank you Brook!) smelled delightful mixing with the salt air…

Then I got impatient and made him give me a turn. Do I wear a swimsuit (we’re in the middle of the city)? I better have my bathrobe close by because that wind was brisk, and I was going to be pretty pissed if this thing wasn’t warm. Prescott was dressed and moving around the cockpit already, leaning up the cushions vertically along the lifelines, and pinning towels around the cockpit’s circumference to create a windproof privacy fence for my shower. No one on the docks or the beach could see me as the solar shower bag hung from the end of the boom and I stretched out on the warm, sunny teak for my first bath in awhile. I thought it would be cold and camplike–instead it was decadent and heavenly. My hair tingled and squeaked clean, my skin woke up, my head cleared, as the steaming bag of water rained down on me in the sun. My bathrobe was right in the shade of the dodger, and as I toweled off my hair in the wind, I felt like a character in a book.

We rowed into shore feeling less like the vagrant hippie sailors we were beginning to look like and more like pressed and clean yachties skipping around the Bay. It’s taking some time for me to get used to not having life’s luxuries readily available (and sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass), but my shower was an enormous accomplishment, and a daily ritual I look forward to repeating in anchorages all along this beautiful coast. Thank you Mom for the last-minute gift of the solar shower!

I think we’ve found a way

As I am learning, the origin of San Francisco is rooted firmly in the California Gold Rush. My San Francisco experience has yielded a gold rush of sorts, although a more personal one. Today both Meg and I had our “Eureka” moment, the revelatory equivalent of striking a rich gold vane.

I remember in high school and college bemoaning the fact that space in America is disappearing. As population increases, the United States becomes more cramped. Beautiful land in this country is hard to come by, as our forefathers and their offspring have snatched it up. Like many of our natural resourced The American Dream -to own a tenant of land, nurture it and craft it after one’s ideals- seems to have been hunted almost to extinction. The government no longer pays stipends to adventurers looking to move west. The opposite; property costs more than ever and is viciously hoarded. Nowhere can you expect to live for free.

If one must save their whole life to buy their little slice of heaven, they can never expect to leave. After paying the mortgage on a house, how can one possibly have enough money left for travel? That requires paying fees and taxes, for residency on another’s property comes at a premium price. There must be a better way.

The answer, of course, is timeshares.

Actually, sailing is the answer. My long-winded intro was a little obvious, so I needed a curveball.

Today was our first day in San Francisco. We dropped anchor in Aquatic Park yesterday evening. Aquatic Park is a small manmade cove just off the north shore of San Francisco, next to the Fishermen’s terminal. Upon arriving, my first thought was “how can this exist?” Here we are, staring into downtown San Francisco, and we’re not paying a single cent. Have you ever seen an RV park in the downtown of a city? Neither have I. But somehow we are not only saddling up next to the heart of the city, but its completely free. This was my first revelation.

This morning, Meg and I rowed in to go exploring. We took BART (the Bay Area Transit) downtown, where we expected to find a farmer’s market. Instead, we arrived in the middle of cramped skyscrapers (damn you, googlemaps!). Luckily the San Fran Library was across the street, so we looked up a guidebook on the city and discovered that the true location of the market was on Fishermen’s terminal, not too far from our boat.

(As an aside, I also had a euphoric moment in the library when I discovered a book I’ve been searching for this past year. When Meg and I began planning this trip, I figured that as long as we’re living out our dreams, I might as well write that biographical Beach Boys screenplay I’ve been mulling over for the last six years. The original Beach Boys biography, written in 1973, has been out of print for years. It fetches over $300 on ebay. I’ve been looking for it forever and San Francisco is the first place I’ve seen it. This is like the holy grail of books for me and I was overjoyed to finally be able to leaf through it today, heaping luster on already amazing day.)

We spent a total of $40 for the freshest vegetables, fruit, bread, cream and a loaf of goat’s milk cheese referred mysteriously throughout the market as “batch #8” (after tasting a small sliver of it, Meg and I spent a good half hour tracking down the one booth that still had batch #8). Then we took BART back to our park, where our dinghy was locked to a lamppost. The aquatic park where we’re anchored is on a beach, and we got a lot of weird looks from the adults and kids playing in the water as we unhooked our raft from the lamppost, dragged it into the water, and took off with our groceries into the windy bay. It was an incredibly hot day, so we put on our bathing suits and had a delicious lunch on the bow of Velella, with the San Francisco skyline on one side and Alcatraz on the other.

Eventually we rowed back to town. There’s some sort of funk/soul festival going on in the park and, if we weren’t going to buy tickets, we figured the sound quality might be better off the water. Not to mention, the San Francisco public library (my newly adored institution) was having its yearly book sale. A huge waterfront warehouse had been dedicated to housing all the library’s no longer needed books, being sold as a fundraiser for a dollar apiece. After 3 hours of browsing, we had a shopping cart full of “the field guide to the gray whale”, “the rolling stone’s illustrated history of rock and roll”, “lonesome dove”, “watership down” and many others. They had an amazing book from 1879 “Magic for the Stage”, a performing magicians handbook. It was the most earthy, mysterious tome I have ever laid eyes upon. A one-of-a-kind relic, its price sticker was $500. I tried to get the surprisingly pecuniary librarian to give it to me for $100 but he would not lower his price.

An amazing day, to be sure, but what most surprises me is the richness our boat provides. The best part about this is the sanctuary we have. Anytime we choose, we can become engulfed in the city. We have friends ashore and a thousand different adventures wait. But Velella remains our inner sanctum, our fortress surrounded by an infinite moat. By rowing our dinghy half a mile out to our anchorage, we are afforded all the solitude and self-sufficiency of country living. It’s truly an amazing experience. I’ve never felt so completely self-reliant, and at no cost other than what we spent on farm-ripened fruit and a basket of used books.

After a month of hideous weather and rough seas, the winds are changing. Meghan was on to something when she proposed this trip a year ago. In a world where your ability to be self-sufficient is directly proportional to the size of your bank account, we may have found a loop hole.  It’s called “cruising”.