Sailing fitness: Runnin’ down a dream

Tonight I met up with my Urban Athletics sprint training group for the last time in Battery Park. I hadn’t told them previously I would be leaving because float plans are fickle and I didn’t really know which Wednesday evening would be my last time running with them. For all I knew, I could still be running with them come November.

Also, it’s not the easiest thing to explain… that you’ll be sailing to the Bahamas…not on vacation, but forever. What?!! The looks I get are usually a mixture of confusion and intrigue. The looks get even more interesting when I say we don’t actually know what we’re doing next, after we get to the Bahamas. And then the questions begin, which are pretty much along the lines of the questions I threw at Ryan 6 or 7 years ago, when we were living in Spain and he nonchalantly mentioned that it was his lifelong dream to sail around the world. On a boat. With me. My reaction was so negative he didn’t speak to me for 2 hours. “Who lives on a boat?” “What do you do in the winter?” “What about hurricanes?” “What do you do for exercise?” “Where do you go to the bathroom?” “Nobody does that…are you crazy?!”

This evening’s group workout consisted of 7 reps of 300 meters and I nearly puked from pushing myself so hard, probably out of desperation to get the very most out of my last group training session in New York City possibly ever. This probably doesn’t sound like much fun to most of you, but I look forward to these workouts just as much as I dread them. They make me a faster and stronger runner, which is always my goal. My other goal is to run the Outer Banks, N.C. Marathon on November 11th, on our way down the East coast. It’ll be interesting to see how my marathon training goes while we’re sailing. It’s hard enough as it is to train for a marathon on your own when you don’t move around. Maybe that’s why I was feeling like I was really going to miss these torturous sessions – because it will probably be even harder to train after we leave.

When the workout came to an end, it was time for me to say good-bye. Actually saying out loud to my running group that I was sailing to the Bahamas on Monday and never coming back kind of made the plan concrete for me, which I don’t think it really has been up until now. And then it made me kind of sad. The looks I got were exactly what I was expecting (shock, horror, confusion), but there were also a lot of smiles and comments like, “That is so cool!” which I appreciated. I tried to downplay the dramatic departure announcement, and found myself saying, “Hey, you never know how it will turn out… I may see you back in New York again some day.” I am so uncomfortable saying good-bye, even to people I only run with once a week. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like to admit how very attached to people and places I get.

After I said my good-byes and left my group, I still had to go back to my office to do a little work. My office is about 3 miles north of Battery Park, so on a whim I decided to run the long way back to 26th Street. I usually run up the West Side Path because it’s quicker, the view over the water is spectacular at night and you don’t have to deal with traffic. But on this night, I decided to run straight through the heart of Manhattan so I could have a good look at my city one last time.

Within a few minutes, I found myself a little turned around (I have the world’s worst sense of direction) and discovered I was right in front of the 9-11 Memorial in TriBeCa, a neighborhood I know better than any other neighborhood in New York. TriBeCa is where Ryan and I started Teaching House, our teacher training school. We had been there since 2007 until this summer when we moved to our own commercial lease space in Chelsea. We also lived in TriBeCa for 4 years (at one point, in the same building as our school) while we grew the business from just 1 classroom to, eventually, 15 classrooms. And here I was, standing in front of the 9-11 Memorial, just 3 blocks south of where our school was, realizing that I’d never even looked at or visited this place.

So, I took a moment to walk around and look at the engravings on the walls and the plaques with pictures of all the firemen and policemen who lost their lives. What struck me most, looking at the pictures, was how young a lot of the men were…many of them looked like they were only in their 20’s. It’s probably a cliche, but I really did start thinking about the impermanence of life and all the things that could unexpectedly cut our lives short. And it made me feel resolute in the decision to sail away while we’re still young and, well, because we can.

After the memorial, I ran slowly up 8th Avenue, through TriBeCa, the West Village and SoHo, and I stared through the restaurant windows at all the young, slim, hard-working, fashionable New Yorkers drinking wine and enjoying meals that probably cost as much per person as a month’s worth of groceries in the Caribbean. And it made me realize that Ryan and I have lived this life for six years now – six long, sleepless years. It’s been gluttonous and glamorous and wonderful, and also overwhelmingly stressful and rather unhealthy, in many respects. Looking through those restaurant windows, I realized I didn’t crave or need those $150 steak and wine dinners anymore. Or the fabulous theater shows on any day of the week. As wonderful as it all has been, I’ve had my fill of ambitious, wondrous New York City. I’m now ready for something different.

With that thought, I ran back to my office, picked up my things, and boarded a train back to Long Island and back to our sailboat. And I sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t have to make the commute back to Manhattan too many more times before I could say good-bye for real.

central park race nyc

My last NYC race – 18-mile marathon tune-up in Central Park


So, here we are…on our scheduled date of departure, planned in detail exactly 1 year ago. We’re standing arm-in-arm on the bow ofour Catalina 34, waving good-bye to the Statue of Liberty, feeling the spray of the Hudson River on our faces as we lean into the wind, and towards our future… *record scratch*

What?! Are you calling bullshit? What do you mean float plans never go as expected?! (*insane chuckling* a la Robert De Niro in Cape Fear)

Yeah, okay, you got me.

Truthfully, on this planned day of departure for the Bahamas, I’m in the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York, at our winter lodge with our 2 cats, Celia and Charlie, researching pet vaccinations.

Ryan, on the other hand, is in Port Washington, Long Island, at our marina, dealing with the disaster that is the aftermath of a bad regulator installed on our engine’s new and “improved” alternator (forgive me, mechanical experts, if that made no sense, as I’m not sure if the regulator is on the engine, the battery, or the alternator.) I told you I know nothing about boats, right? What I do know is that the alternator charges our battery, and because the regulator was bad, the battery-charging thingy never shut off, which resulted in all of our lovely new electrics being fried. To a crisp.

Just to give you an idea of the scope of the disaster, prior to installing a new alternator, we had the mast removed from Hideaway so we could run wires up through it, which attached to a new Windex, running lights, steaming lights, and a Rogue Wave WiFi extender, which is the accessory I was most excited about. In the cockpit, we also had a new chart plotter installed, a SiriusXM Weather Report Receiver, along with a fancy new depth finder and wind gauge to go along with our not-so-new but working autopilot. Here’s our boat being put back together after its dismantling:

Let’s just say, a fair bit of money was spent on these upgrades, and the bad regulator fried ALL of them, including our old and perfectly fine autopilot. So, that’s where we stand: it’s D-day and we can’t leave until these problems are solved and replacements are ordered and installed. Again.

To add to the comedy of errors, we also now have a screaming propeller. And when I say screaming, I mean like a Ban-shee. When we had the boat hauled for repairs, we also installed a new (and hopefully faster) propeller… a beautiful brass thing that just looks fast and sleek. But in the “shakedown cruise” (my favorite new nautical term) when Ryan and our boat buddy Bill took Hideaway out for a test, it was discovered that our new propeller screamed at a pitch that could crack our wine glasses if they weren’t made of boat-proof plastic.

After calling the propeller manufacturer, it turns out that we hit the jackpot – we cashed in on a one-in-a-million chance that the frequency of the water flowing over the propeller at a certain speed would create a scream akin to the sound of a crystal glass when your finger rubs along the rim, multiplied by 1000. What luck, eh?!

The solution? Remove the propeller and bring it back to the manufacturer in Flushing so they can scuff up the blades and change the angle at which the water hits the rim. And to do that, we had to get a diver to go down and get the propeller off our boat. Doesn’t sound too complex, right? The only problem is that the diver is also known to like his drink, which means he sometimes disappears. So, now that we have our propeller back from the manufacturer, we can’t seem to find the diver to put our propeller back on the boat.

But I’m sure there’s a way around this. Even if Ryan has to swim under the boat to put the propeller on himself. Right? Not really.

I should also mention here that we’re not the handiest couple I know. Have I told you the story of that time I once fixed our clogged head? Mentioning this at least twice a day isn’t annoying to Ryan at all – I’m sure he’s really proud of me. And it’s definitely not annoying that I also told Gary, our marina pump-out guy, so that now he mentions it to Ryan every time he sees him. I like to pretend it’s not at all because Gary is a teeny bit sexist — being crazily shocked a girl could fix anything, let alone a nastily clogged head — but because I’m a genius.

Never say never

Ryan and I are both relatively new to sailing in the sense that neither of us grew up on the water, though Ryan arguably grew up near water, considering England is an island. But Ryan’s interest in sailing didn’t bloom until his father bought a 23′ keelboat when he retired and started taking Ryan out for day sails in the North Sea whenever he came home from traveling in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Hong Kong.

When Ryan first introduced me to sailing, we were living in Doha, Qatar, on the topaz-blue Arabian Gulf, teaching English. It was our second date and he wanted to impress me by renting out a little Hobie Catamaran for an afternoon jaunt. It was impressive; especially the way he knowledgeably handled the sail in such strong gusts of wind. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Which is why I didn’t panic…even when a heavy gust and a drastic turn seem to lift one half of the Hobie completely out of the water. I looked quickly at Ryan the way an airline passenger would look to an air hostess for a reassuring expression of calm during turbulence… and I could just make out the words “OH SHIT” on his lips before the mast went completely over and we were in the water.

So there we floated, laughing and waving for help while standing on the bottom of our upside-down Hobie Cat in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, wondering how we were going to get home. And then I remembered how clever I’d been to pack my cell phone in a zip-lock bag, in case we got wet. “We can call for help!” I said, pulling open my submerged backpack.

never say never

The view from my apartment window of the Arabian Gulf in Doha, Qatar

It turns out, however, that zip-lock bags aren’t waterproof. It also turns out that motor boaters in the Gulf aren’t helpful. We waved our arms frantically at every passing boat, but they must have thought we were just waving to say hello because no one even tried to slow down.

Finally, one boat slowed down, then sped up, then slowed down again and reluctantly came over to us (probably after the captain’s wife forced him to). Feelings of relief, however, turned out to be premature, as the “rescue” played out like that scene in The Full Monty, where two guys are standing on the hood of a car that’s slowing sinking into a lake somewhere in northern England. A guy walks by with his dog, sees the guys sinking and says, “Alright?!” One guy responds, instinctively, “Not so bad.” So, the dog walker keeps walking on, without a pause. Then the other guy on the car retorts, “Not so bad?! Not much of a chuffing SOS, is it?!”

Similarly, our British motorboat guy pulled up and said, “You two all right?”

I thought, “We’ve been standing on the bottom of a capsized boat for the last 30 minutes because no one’s come to help us…not so bad!” But instead I said, “Um, we flipped over.” To which Ryan added, “Would you mind throwing us a line? We could use it to right the boat.”

Good idea!” I thought. “So obvious!”

But, instead, the dry fellow in his speedboat shook his head and said, “Oh, I don’t know ’bout that. It’s a bit risky. Could you call someone?”

I was now staring daggers at Full Monty Man whilst holding up my sopping wet sandwich bag. “I WOULD call someone,” I said. “But we’re under water. Could you call the club, perhaps?”

“I don’t know the number. Do you?” said an unfazed Mr. Monty.

Again, I held up my dripping phone in a sandwich bag phone and said, “Maybe you could look up the number and call them for us?”

Full Monty sighed like I was holding him up for a hot date and I imagined what I would do if I found him shivering in the North Sea, having capsized his little motorboat. “Alright?” I’d say to him, and drive off in my shiny mega yacht.

And the daydream continued until someone from the Diplomatic Club, where we rented our Cat, came and rescued us. Full Monty guy didn’t stick around to make sure we were okay, as expected, leaving as soon as he got confirmation that someone else knew we were stranded. So Ryan and I just waited it out and laughed at our misfortune. Luckily, it was one of those experiences that turned a good date into an extremely memorable one. It turns out capsizing with your future husband isn’t such a bad thing.

And because that date went so well, it wasn’t long before Ryan threw out the idea of doing a basic keelboat course together. I agreed, as it seemed like a novel and wonderfully impractical idea to me at the time. And impractical ideas are the most fun when you’re only 27.

Manning the tiller on the Colgate 26 we were learning on, I thought it was so calm and peaceful to be on the sparkling blue water in the mid-day sun, floating around in the Gulf… and then a bark from my instructor would jolt me out of my reverie, prompting me to get the boat back on course (though I could never quite tell what the course was). I wished the instructor would stop making me tack and jibe every five minutes, and just let me relax. Maybe I should have signed up for a day cruise, rather than a keelboat course… but then again, I really liked Ryan. And we were in that giddy early phase of dating when you think every idea your date has is genius.

At the time, I also remember thinking that I’d heard about people who had sailed around the world, which led me to think of that frightening fishing book I’d once read, The Perfect Storm – a bad idea, in hindsight, as scenes from the book now form my nightmares about being at sea. Sitting in the uncomfortable cockpit of that little Colgate 26, looking down at the spartan cabin below, I could only think to myself, “There’s no way in hell I could ever live on a boat.”

That was 2004.

Never say never.

Marine toilet paper, my arse

This is probably a good time to mention that I know very little about sailing, apart from what I’ve learned from co-owning a boat with Ryan and our friend Rich for the last 5 years. But, truth be told, I haven’t taken much responsibility for learning everything I could about sailing.

Ryan, however, delved with unfailing enthusiasm into sailing the moment we stepped foot on Hideaway, chatting up sailors for advice in bars, participating in J-24 race nights, reading countless books about sailing and generally taking every opportunity possible to take the boat out and play around with the sails. I, on the other hand, have managed in that same time to learn how to respond to commands to pull lines, dock and un-dock rather clumsily, trim the sails (with explicit instructions as to what “trim” means), and I’ve occasionally been known to make cocktails and snacks for the crew and guests, transforming myself into some kind of 1950’s housewife who thinks the heavy lifting and decision-making should be left to the boys.

Pathetic, I know. Gloria Steinem would not be impressed. Which is why this year, as soon as I knew we were actually leaving for real, I’ve tried to undo some of the lazy damage of the last 5 years by paying more attention to the points of sail, learning how to check the engine oil, knowing where all our through holes are, and I’ve taken – quite enthusiastically – to driving our dinghy, Mighty Mouse, around as much as possible at full throttle. It turns out that our little 3.5 horsepower dinghy goes fast when Ryan’s not weighing it down! Yes, we named our dinghy Mighty Mouse. Isn’t he beautiful?

Oh and I shouldn’t discount that I agreed to move onto the boat, which has been moored at Manhasset Bay Marina in Port Washington, Long Island, as our permanent residence for the last 6 months. After all, living on a boat is way cheaper than living in a Manhattan apartment (and often larger), it’s like luxury camping (and I love camping) and it gives me the chance to get to know the boat and its idiosyncrasies better.

I’m ashamed to say, though, that I still don’t know what anything on the boat is called – for example, I still call the charts “water maps,” lines “ropes,” I’ve never taken the boat out on my own, and I’m never quite sure what “point of sail” we’re on when Ryan quizzes me.

I also only just discovered that a bedroom on a boat is called a “state room.” I had been calling it an “estate room,” which is what I thought people were saying, though this term makes little sense on such a small vessel. And the other day, when Ryan mentioned that the “joker” valve on our head was not working, I began referring to it as the “jerker” valve, which is what I understood it to be in Ryan’s British accent. He laughed, but I pointed out that “joker” valve didn’t make a great deal of sense either… was he sure it wasn’t called a “choker” valve? As that would make much more sense…it does, after all, “choke” the flow of waste from coming back into the toilet bowl. You see where I’m going with this??? I had to Google it to make sure, but it is, indeed, a “joker” valve, it turns out. Most importantly, though, ours does not work, which means our toilet is constantly filling up with smelly waste.

Speaking of heads (toilets, to you lucky land-lubbers), ours has not worked very well these last few months, and the problems all started with the “marine-safe” toilet paper we bought. In fairness to us, we bought it at West Marine, so it must be good for boats, right? At the time, Ryan convinced me that the paper was designed to break down in water (if you’ve ever been told this, you’re probably chuckling, as this all depends on how much paper needs breaking down), but I had a nagging memory of Hideaway‘s previous owner bragging that he’d never had a clogged head: he gave us an explicit warning that we should always follow the rule he had plastered to the wall for us:

clogged head marine toilet paper

Sure enough, about 1 month later, we encountered a blockage that no amount of pumping could budge. Shouting “I told you so!”, I insisted this was a “blue” job, rather than a “pink” job, or at least a pay-money-to-hire-someone job. We had been without a working toilet for more than a week, which meant that I had grown accustomed to peeing in the sink (an acrobatic feat, to say the least), or off the back of the boat after dark (we live on a mooring, so it’s easier to hide after sunset), and therefore it was time to take matters into my own hands.

Which, in my mind, meant throwing money at this nasty problem. To complicate that plan, however, it was Saturday by the time I got hold of someone who could help, and it was the weekend of the Round Long Island Regatta, meaning Ryan had left the day before with his friend Bill and 2 other crew on Bill and Grace’s boat, Calico Skies, to do the race. Therefore Grace and I planned to hang out for the weekend on Hideaway and have some fun… and that fun was not to involve peeing off the back of the boat.

So, I called a marine head guy named Dan and he quoted me the rate of $475/hour to drop everything and come help me with this “emergency” on a Saturday. $475! I only slightly hesitated, and then I asked him if he could guarantee fixing the head in one hour only. Of course, he couldn’t.

Dan said, encouragingly, “Listen, it really isn’t complicated. I do it every day. You’ve probably got one of 3 types of marine heads and they’re all bolted down pretty much the same way. You just gotta unscrew the bolts and pull out the pipe. 99 times out of 100 the problem is a simple clog.”

“And what happens to all the stuff in the toilet when you unscrew the bolts?” I asked.

“Well, it comes out. Listen, you got kids? It ain’t nothing you ain’t seen in a baby’s diaper. And it’ll save you 475 bucks. If you need me to talk you through it, gimme a call.”

Fair enough. Except I don’t have kids, and this problem sounded disgusting to fix. But not impossible. Luckily, Grace isn’t squeamish and didn’t mind, after a few cups of wine, being my cheerleader as I pulled on the rubber gloves and disappeared into the head with the plunger and garbage bags we’d picked up for this job. “Just think of the brownie points I’ll get if I actually fix this thing!” I said. “I’ll never have to fix anything again!”

Right, because that’s exactly how boats work.

Sure enough, in about two hours, with the help of an unraveled coat hanger, some pliers, rubber gloves and a plugged nose, it looked like I might have loosened the blockage. I pumped the handle and, wondrously, the smeggy brown water disappeared down the pipe! I lunged into the galley victoriously, gloved hands punching the air like I’d just scored a touchdown, screaming victory at Grace. I fixed it! I was so proud of myself, I immediately took a swig of wine and posted the pic of my newly unclogged toilet on Facebook, which I hoped would reach the boys somewhere on their sleepless journey around Long Island so they could give me a mental high five.

marine toilet paper clogged head

And ever since then, I have been dropping “that time I fixed the head” story into conversation at least once a week. But c’mon! Wouldn’t Gloria Steinem be proud?!

Keep in touch with us as we sail south by connecting to Turf to Surf’s Facebook Page, Twitter Feed, or Google+ Page.

What it takes to sail away for good

Every journey has to start somewhere. And though ours has yet to begin, it has been an adventure in itself just getting to the point of departure. (See future posts on fried electric systems and broken heads.)

For the past year, Ryan and I have been planning to sail away from New York Harbor on our 34′ Catalina sailboat, Hideaway, with our 2 cats Charlie and Celia, leaving behind our Manhattan lives, our businesses, our families and our friends to pursue something… else.

Actually, I say “we” have been planning. But, really, Ryan’s been planning. I, on the other hand, have mastered burying my head in the sand, taking up all-consuming projects that are completely not boat-related, half-hoping this crazy idea would either go away or miraculously start feeling like my plan, too.

We set the departure date of October 1, 2012 some time last year when Ryan was fed-up with our overly stressful Manhattan lives. The plan Ryan made, which I vaguely agreed to, was to get to the Bahamas on or around November 15th, his birthday.

In the year leading up to our departure, I’ve semi-successfully ignored the fact that we’re leaving, while occasionally reading books and blogs about sailing (Tania Aebi’s book Maiden Voyage was the most inspiring, so far) and also scrambled to cram in every last bit of land-based fun I could possibly have, just in case we did actually leave as discussed. (Possible future post: “How I came to be a downhill ski racer and roller derby player simultaneously.”) Nothing like a little roller-skating and skiing to remind you of the things you can’t do on a sailboat.

I know, I know, you seasoned sailors out there know that most of the fun in cruising is had by getting off the boat to explore, but I can’t help imagining that we’ll be living like Reid Stowe, that crazy guy who set a record by spending 1500-some-odd days at sea without ever touching land. Ever. Stowe’s voyage, as awe-inspiring as it is, sounds like the worst thing that could ever happen to me… a floating sea-prison where I’d be forced to do yoga, sit in sober silence, and kill my own food.

But, it turns out no one does that. Well, not no one. Obviously Reid Stowe did that. But Ryan has promised me that we will spend a larger portion of time on land than we do on the boat. He promised. Which is why I’m documenting it here for you all to see.

So this is where our story begins. In writing this, I am acknowledging that Ryan’s dream is about to become a reality, and it’s now time for me, too, to embrace this adventure 100%. There are some things about our future I feel uncertain about, but my life experiences so far have taught me that this would be true whether I were on a boat or firmly rooted to land. And the truth is, I am always up for an adventure. Especially one that involves traveling.

These last few weeks in New York City, as the weather has cooled off and our boat preparations/reparations have come to a close, I’ve started to inch closer to the feeling that it’s time to go. And if there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s always better to leave a town while you still have some love left. I can see Ryan’s appreciation for my favorite city waning very quickly (evident whenever he indicates to change lanes and some crazy driver accelerates to prevent him from moving over…to which he screams, “I hate this city!” and I reply, “It’s not New York that’s bad; it’s the people in it.”). The truth is, I need to get him out of here if I ever want to see Manhattan again.

So there you have it. Who knows where this path will lead us? It doesn’t matter. For now, we start with the story of two travel-loving, over-tired Manhattanites in love (one from East London and one from upstate New York), who decided to take a leap of faith, set sail to the Bahamas…and just see what happens next.