We've been living aboard our sailboat now for over half a year, though for much of it the learning curve was too steep to know how to make things more comfortable. We've reached our summer destination, New England, which has allowed us to slow down a little and focus on fixing things and generally improving life aboard the boat. That said, the list of what's left may as well be endless, as the list seems to grow quicker than we can mark things off.
We are now on our third toilet in our short stay on the Miramar. The original electric toilet that came with the boat never worked very well, and furthermore electricity is a rather precious commodity. So, while in Key West some months ago we replaced it with a manual toilet, and though proud of our accomplishment this new fixture never seemed to work all that well. Perhaps we should have listened to advice and not bought the cheapest toilet available. Within a month the handle had snapped off and we were left awkwardly flushing it with a pair of vice grips. The company wanted to sell us a rebuild kit for the price of a new toilet, but Jamie managed some creative negotiation and had two replacement handles waiting for us in Ft. Lauderdale.
The second handle lasted a little longer, but by this time the rest of the toilet was starting to fail. It is said that if you throw a frog in boiling water it will quickly jump back out. But if you set it in tepid water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog won't realize what's happening and won't jump out. This analogy has been used to describe the human condition and our continual abuse of the environment we live in. Well, our toilet experiences are perhaps deserving of the same analogy. Not to say we weren't aware of what was happening, but somehow we had allowed the toilet to get to a truly reprehensible state. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that it would recycle fluids and solids as you flushed, and only with great difficulty, persistence and a little luck would it draw clean water in from the ocean and expunge the dirty. Worse, as you flushed at times it would spit contents upwards toward your face.
This weekend we'd finally had enough. We took our boat to the neighboring community of Marblehead and purchased a new toilet. We were fully prepared to spend $1,000 on the nicest, least likely to recycle and spit bodily fluids toilet they had, but they somehow talked us into the $150 floor model. Within hours of purchase, the new toilet was installed, complete with a new inline water treatment system to keep the pump clean which also colors our water blue. Instead of 50 labored pumps to get the bowl tolerably clean, the new toilet requires only 15 pumps for fresh, blue water. And, no offensive odors filling up the entire boat. It has become a joy to use the head again!
One weekend while moored in Block Island, Rhode Island, we decided to go ashore in the evening to watch a movie. As we were running behind schedule, I jumped into the dinghy, started the outboard, untied us, and impatiently waited as Jamie remembered something unfinished on deck. It became clear that she wasn't going to go any faster in spite of my witty comments, when I saw that the cat was still outside. I jumped out of the dinghy, set him inside, and closed up. Another witty comment about being fast and efficient hadn't fully made it out of my throat when I suddenly came to an awful realization.
Turning around, I saw that the dinghy had drifted about ten feet away, the outboard still running. In my hurry, I had idiotically jumped out of it while it was untied. Seeing no alternative, I quickly stripped down to my underwear and dove into the surprisingly warm waters. Dripping wet, I pulled myself up into the dinghy intending to motor it back. Instead, the moment I touched the throttle the outboard died.
I yanked on the starter cord repeatedly, but it refused to start. So there I was, soaking wet in nothing but my underwear, drifting through one of the more populated mooring fields we'd seen on the entire East Coast. With no oars.
Meanwhile, Jamie sat on the stern of our sailboat simply laughing and laughing, commenting, "you do have to appreciate the humor of this situation, right?"
What humor she saw in my predicament I do not know, but I was finally able to start the outboard and return to the sailboat with everything but my pride.
It's easy to get caught up in the moment, whatever the moment may be, and to forget to enjoy it for what it is. As we "raced" up the East Coast we occasionally succumbed to this.
Lately, moored in Salem, Massachusetts, we've gotten better about appreciating what we have. Jamie has learned to make an impressive array of tasty meals with the cranky stove in our galley, and our new habit is to sit outside in the cockpit while eating. It's beautiful, the sun setting as countless other sailboats return from a day of play. Sipping from our bottomless box of cheap wine, we look around our floating home and smile.
Anchoring is a skill that I feel we still need much more practice at. At many places we have talked about anchoring before arriving, only to find our intended destination clogged with so many other boaters I tend to opt for mooring balls or even docks. Some take the "what's the worst thing that could happen?" approach to anchoring and sleep soundly through the night, but my imagination tends to have too many answers for that question. Dragging through a flotilla of other sailboats during a rainy, windy storm simply doesn't sound fun to me (and yes, we've watched it happen to others). And now that we've reached New England, there are numerous rocks that make dragging sound even less fun.
On those times when we have anchored, we set an alarm to go off every two or three hours, taking turns to go up on deck and make sure we've not dragged. In the beginning I took the task solely upon myself, but Jamie quickly insisted on participating so we each only have to wake up once or twice during the night. I remember my lecture her first night, "don't just poke your head out, actually go out and look around, giving yourself time to wake up so you can be sure we've not dragged".
The next week she had a cold and so one night I woke for all the anchor watches. Evidently an insufferable hypocrite, in my exhausted stupor from trying to fight off the same cold I merely poked out my head to glance around and then returned to sleep. The next morning when getting ready to move on we discovered that we'd dragged nearly 100 yards and I'd remained oblivious by ignoring my own instructions. We've not dragged since, but it was a lesson learned. On those nights when it's cold and wet outside and I'm tempted to do no more than poke my head out, I remind myself that Jamie always goes up on deck and does a thorough check, walking the deck, feeling the anchor chain, and properly confirming that we are where we want to be. If guilt is what it takes to motivate myself in the dead of night, then so be it.
Gathering the motivation to wake up and go outside can be difficult at first, but once you're out on deck it tends to be a reward in itself. The peaceful silence of night is a great time to simply appreciate life and the beauty we've been traveling through. Thanks to these regular anchor checks, I've seen more sun rises in the past six months than I'd previously seen in my entire life. Somehow I always feel more in touch with the world around me and appreciative of what we have after a night of checking the anchor. And anchoring is always free -- it costs nothing, and it reminds us of the freedom that can be found living the cruiser lifestyle.
This Engine Thing
The engine is a large, loud thing of seemingly black magic that lives underneath the entryway into our sailboat. We religiously check the oil and water each and every time before starting the engine. Generally when we turn the key the engine simply starts. And once started, so long as there's fuel in the tank the engine runs without complaint. It makes getting in and out of marinas simple and safe, and has reliably carried us along for days on end when there were no winds. But the sad truth is, I have a miserably limited understanding of how it works.
This weekend I spent a few hours changing the oil. It was my first time, which was stupidity in and of itself -- I've read enough to know that regularly changing the oil is one of the most important tasks for keeping the engine happily working. While with a car you simply loosen a bolt on the bottom of the engine and drain the oil into a pan sitting underneath, with our boat this is not possible. If a bolt even exists under the engine I do not know, but it doesn't matter as there's no way to reach it. Instead, we have to remove the dip stick and then thread a plastic tube into the hole, using a hand pump to tediously suck out every drop of oil. It is a tiring and messy process, though upon reflection it's not that difficult and something I've firmly resolved to do with proper regularity.
I recently saw a class advertised which offered a weekend training session on how diesel engines work and how to properly maintain them. For an extra hundred dollars, they even offered to spend half a day one on one on our own boat. Sadly the class was in a town that we were just passing through, but I'm now on the lookout for other similar classes around here. I really would like to understand how this engine thing works, and to feel confidence that should it one day not work I'll actually have an idea on how to fix it.
There's always a strange thrill sailing into a big city. They look different from the water, and each offers its own unique experiences. We'd been looking forward to Boston for a while, as it's a fun city with a lot of culture and history. As it turned out, while the moorings were conveniently close to the heart of town they were also extremely expensive. Ferries came and went throughout the day and night, uncourteously passing quickly and causing a large wake so that we frequently bounced around uncomfortably. Logan International airport was just across the water. And a subway line literally passed directly underneath our boat -- the first time a train passed under us I ran outside to find the source of the noise, perplexed when I found that everything was quiet and still.
Regardless, we did enjoy exploring the city, and the chance to reconnect with my friends, Mahesh and Anusha. We took the opportunity provided by a city to restock our dwindling food supplies, explored much of the city on foot and with the subways, and sampled a variety of tasty foods, from vegan duck to real Maine lobster.
Boats do not drive like cars. There's a significant delay between the time you turn the wheel and when the boat actually starts to turn. When going backwards, depending on currents and wind and your overall speed, the boat may not turn at all. Fortunately, as with all things, with practice it becomes easier. We're able to easily get in and out of places today that I'd not even dreamed of attempting when we first bought the boat.
Yesterday we made a quick trip to Marblehead to purchase our new toilet, which involved tying up to a dock for half an hour. It wasn't clear which dock was the public dock, but someone on another boat we were passing waved us over and offered to grab our lines. So we reversed the boat, then pointed it bow in toward the dock and came in so smoothly it seemed as though we'd been doing it all our lives. With impressive teamwork we quickly tied up securely and patted ourselves on the back.
After twenty minutes of hemorrhaging money in West Marine, one of the employees walked up to me and asked, "do you have a boat named the Miramar, tied up in front of town?" When I curiously acknowledged that I did, he informed me that the harbor master was on the phone. Evidently we had expertly tied our boat to the wrong dock.
While lugging our purchases the mile back to the boat, a local pulled over and offered us a ride, having been in the store when we received the call. All ended well, the harbor master was reasonably understanding and we were quickly underway back to Salem.
Quixote is a two year old punk cat. He's lovable when he wants to be, but he doesn't always want to be. When we were all land lubbers, he was especially intolerable. But living on the boat has been good for him. He's proven to be incredibly adaptable, and went from being shy and reserved with strangers to overwhelmingly outgoing. Anyone visiting our boat is instantly covered in fur as Quixote begins rubbing himself all over them, firmly convinced that he is the sole reason for their visit.
He tends to sleep when we first get underway and the boat is rocking. When it's rough he will wedge himself next to the steering wheel and sleep, preferring to be close to either Jamie or myself. Otherwise he spends his time exploring the deck, wandering between Jamie and myself, chasing bugs and watching the water and distant planes passing overhead. And regardless of the fact that he's not been off the boat more than a few brief and accidental times in the past six months, as soon as we start approaching land he excitedly paces the deck, his nose twitching at all the new smells as he watches the distant land in obvious excitement.
He's proven to be a consistent source of entertainment on the boat, and has evolved from just being an annoying punk to being a good companion. His favorite hang out is the boom, where he burrows into the sail cover and watches the world go by. When we go to bed he grudgingly allows himself to be carried inside, then curls up in his bed purring loudly for a few minutes from the attention before promptly falling asleep.