Monday, July 30, 2012

Serenity and Storms, Bravery and Peace - Homer to Port Graham, AK

Calm After the Storm - Friday, July 13th

Early morning coffee on deck, silent sleeping crew below.  Tiger the cat comes out to join me during one of my favorite rituals at anchor.  Perching in a nest made of pillows and blankets, fresh coffee and a journal in hand, I begin the day by listening.  To morning bird songs echoing between steep mountains; to water gently lapping the hull; to curious otters paddling by on their backs, the swoosh of webbed feet propelling them while they stare point-blank at me.

This morning in Port Graham, glassy water reveals jellies undulating gracefully, tenaciously fragile, their celestial shapes - white moons, orange stars - adding to their mystique.

Morning birdsongs amplified by mountains remind me of awaking at our cabin, I recognize those boreal birdsongs echoing across the bay.  Now seabirds chime in, a flock of gulls congregates on the beach chattering about what to do today, where to go.  Twenty feet away, just above my head, a juvenile eagle wings by, the air so still I hear before I see the majestic bird.  Bobbing at anchor, I feel part of this natural world, a lucky observer of earth's uninhibited wonder.

This morning's misty serenity could not be more different from the noisy, tumultuous movement of yesterday's journey at sea amongst 12-foot breaking waves and 20+ knots of wind.  I felt connected to the power of the sea then, felt the adrenaline rush of taking risks and surviving. 

Stormy Seas Teach Bravery & Survival - Thursday, July 12th

We departed Homer in gentle 3-4 foot rolling swells and light winds.  Carmen steered us out of Kachemack Bay while Richard "rode the waves" on the bow, arms outstretched and shouting with excitement, only returning to the cockpit to shout at us to "come out here, it's AWESOME!"

Two hours later the wind picked up to 20+knots and the gentle rollers became 12-15 foot breaking waves on our starboard side, knocking us over 20 degrees or more.  For Richard, Carmen and myself, this became our first test of our sealegs.  (Bruce has been in far worse - which is why we are all okay with going on this journey - he is truly our captain, an experienced seaman.)  As Richard said a few hours into it, "I am definitely out of my comfort zone."  Day two on the water, and we were put to the test.

In order to stabilize the rocking, Bruce donned foul weather gear, lifejacket and tethers and raised our Mizzen and Staysails.  I steered.  What a feeling negotiating our 35-tons vessel through the swell and waves created by 20" knots of wind and a brewing storm!  I know from pasty experience that this is the only place for me in weather like this - at the helm, as fear and seasickness creep in if I go belowdecks.  Bruce and I naturally found our roles.  He goes on deck when needed as well as below to cook and clean up.  I stay above, feet wide and braced against the cockpit walls, arms muscling the 4-foot diameter wheel through the waves.  In my position at the helm, I feel charged and alive.

Meanwhile, Carmen (9) became afraid.  Tears streaming down her face, dramatic and feisty with an all-or-nothing attitude, she declard, "I want to go home!  I will never ever go out on this boat in weather like this again!"  

At first, Richard (11) retained his excitement, stating that it was FUN and trying to reason with his sister, although he did retreat to the cockpit to stay warm and dry.  We played word games to pass the time, 20 questions and Amnesia.  We even laughed when Richard looked below during one big knock-down and saw the laptop literally fly across the cabin, along with dishes and books and all kinds of other things that were not properly secured.  Then the BIG ONE came, a set that really knocked us over, water gushing in the porthole that we had left open in the galley.  Bruce went below to close it and clean up while we three became silent in the cockpit.

This is when Richard became literally white-knuckled.  Hands clutching to a railing, all color drained from his face, goose bumps rose on his arms and he began shivering, his knuckles literally white.  It is amazing how we as parents rise to the occasion for our children.  If Bruce and I were alone, it is very likely that I would have taken on both Carmen's and Richard's reactions (where do they get it from anyway?)  Instead, I became brave - not the complaining insecure suburban mom who has been all-too-often present in Anchorage, but instead I become the survivor, the self-confident believer, the Jen who moved 4,000 miles away for love and adventure 15 years ago.  But I digress....

After these largest waves knocked us over, we decided to head in to the nearest anchorage, Port Graham.  Turning so the waves were more behind us than on our side, the adventure wasn't quite over yet.  Bruce took the helm to negotiate a reef just outside the entrance with a push from the sea that made our large steel vessel feel like a rubber ducky.  Sure enough, once beyond the reef, we were all elated to enter the calm waters of the bay.  Looking back over our shoulders, it was hard to believe shelter was so close to the storm outside.

Suddenly the mood changed from fear to excitement.  As the blood rushed back into our faces and hands and adrenaline kicked in, the kids started bouncing around the deck, taking pictures, joking with each other, happy to be alive and with a story to tell.  They went below to assess the damage.  No, we were not prepared for that kind of knock-down weather so clothes, dishes, books and computers were scattered about after taking flight across the cabin.  Another of many lessons learned - batton down all belongings as if the worst storm were approaching, no matter what the predictions.

We tidied up, made a fabulous dinner, and Bruce and Carmen even baked apple muffins for the morning.  We slept like babies. 

Now it is 10:00am the next morning.  We are the only boat in sight in this idyllic anchorage.  I write while Bruce is takes advantage of the still bay by going up the mast to install a new windvane and radar, and take photos. 

Writing in the Ship's Log and reviewing our route
in Port Graham

As we continue to head south, we will experience warmer weather and calmer seas (both of which we are looking forward to), yet we will also enter more populated, "civilized" worlds.  Untouched natural places like these Alaskan coves that we are used to will become more and more scarce.  I wonder what our Alaska-born children will think of that, or if they will even notice.  Resilient and present, they teach me every day how to live with integrity and openness.  As my friend Julie told me back when my first born was only a tiny infant, they are our little Zen masters.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Living the Dream – Days 1 & 2 - July 9 & 10, 2012

We did it!  We got off the dock. We began to live our dream today! 

Family photo a few minutes before leaving Seldovia for a year or more.

Underway, heading out of Seldovia Bay.
Over the past year of hard-core planning, organizing, saving money, working hard, and procrastinating, it seemed as if this day would never come.  The past many weeks consisted of very little sleep and massive amounts of creating and ticking off to-do lists, completing home projects, packing, purging, building and installing new boat systems, finding foster care for our dog, loaning out our cars, and throwing away a humungous dumpster full of 12 years worth of living in the same place, we finally left our home in Anchorage, Alaska three weeks ago, and today we left the port of Seldovia, Alaska to sail the seven seas (or at least two or three).

Boat kids, Richard and Carmen posing for the reporter.
“It all began when . . . .” 15 years ago, Bruce and I met while living aboard sailboats (each in our own boat) in Jersey City, NJ.  Long story short, and it is a very long and messy story, we fell in love and moved to Alaska.  During the time of courtship when newly in-love couples talk about dreams, ideas, fears and desires, over wine at dark restaurants and midnight hikes in the Chugach mountains, we realized that we both wanted to sail the world with our family one day.  A few years later, we were married, we had two children, owned a house, had a dog and cat and two cars.  We settled into what appeared to be a traditional middle-class life.  However, late at night we took our laptops to bed and shopped online for the sailboat that would one day take us out of that world.  About three years ago, we decided to call our dream a Goal.  Changing the terminology somehow made all the difference.  The plans started to take shape, the kids grew to just the right ages, and eventually the boat became available.  We found “Northern Passage” in California and sailed her to Seldovia, AK in 2010.  Two years later here we are, underway.

We departed four days off schedule – not bad considering the date was set about a year ago.  Our first setback came when, 10 days ago, we discovered seawater pouring into the boat when we ran the engine!  Luckily we were at the dock, able to determine that the guilty part had frozen over the winter and cracked open.  We flew the part over to Homer, AK (a 15-minute bush plane flight) and Alan at Otto’s repair rebuilt it.  We have very much gratitude for experts like Alan.  
Looking ahead, heading out of Seldovia Bay.

First Mate tying up fenders.
Looking back.
 Now, we head out under blue skies (it has been raining for weeks in Seldovia), with calm seas and practically no wind.  A beautiful evening and a departure with no fanfare. 
Carmen hanging with Tiger (in the hole on the side).
In his element.

Carmen looks up the birds on her favorite couch,
Captain takes a much-needed nap with his
favorite blanket

Not a great picture, but seabirds are everywhere, flocking and chatting.     

Already journaling

At first grateful for calm seas, soon we were wishing for more wind when our ENGINE STOPPED WORKING about two hours into our journey, just as we turned south!  It was a nice quiet petering out, as if it ran out of deisel.  And what impressed me most was that there was not one ounce of panic aboard.  Bruce went below to the engine room while Richard, Carmen and I raised the sails and we began to move with the slight breeze, under sail and completely in control.

Seldovia in the Alpenglow
 When Bruce emerged half an hour later with a furrowed brow, I knew the engine prognosis was not good.  His guess was that there was air in the fuel line, but he couldn’t trace it.  So we had to make a decision – go back to Seldovia with our tail between our legs and with no promise that a diesel mechanic would be there to help, or go about 16 miles further north to Homer, where there would definitely be services and the ability to tow us into the docks.  We opted for Homer, I think more because of pride than anything else.  It seemed like part of the adventure to go to Homer, whereas Seldovia would have felt like going backwards.  As you can see in this picture above, Seldovia is to our East versus our west.  Although we are going to wrong direction, it is a beautiful view of our favorite seaside Alaskan town.

About 11:00pm, Alaskan sunset
            Thanks to Alaska’s 20 hours of daylight and clear skies, we were able to sail/drift for 14 hours to Homer overnight without losing visibility.  The kids went to sleep, peacefully drifting off to with the quiet bobbing of our boat under sail.  Meanwhile, the sunset, bird calls, and glassy waters were spectacularly beautiful.  If we hadn’t gone many nights with only a few hours of sleep, the overnight shift wouldn’t have been so difficult.  As it was, we called the coast guard at about 3am, when the lack of wind and current started making us spin in circles, and we thought it would be a good idea for someone to know we were out there.  They kept us awake by calling every hour or so, and we very slowly, like the turtle, averaging about 2 knots, made our way to port. 

             By about 9:00am the next morning the wind picked up and we were able to sail for two hours into Homer Small Boat Harbor (except for the last few hundred yards, when we were towed to the docks).  The perfect wind and sunshine seemed like a reward for making it through the slog of the night before – a crisp wind, sunny skies, we had all four sails up and a very happy crew (two smaller ones thoroughly rested and the other two thoroughly exhausted). 

Carmen at the helm in her robe
Perfect wind for sailing

Morning on Kachemack Bay

Once in Homer, our decision to bring four bicycles proved invaluable, we made the right decision – YEA!!  After two days at port getting the engine repaired (it was an easy fix and a good lesson learned) and doing laundry, we set sail again on Thursday, the 12th.