5 best boat gadgets not made for boating

It occurred to me the other day that the best boat gadgets we have on Hideaway are not actually marine specialty items. And it made me wonder what other handy tools and toys might be out there, lurking on boats or in backpacks, waiting for me to discover them.

The boat business is kind of like the wedding business in that as soon as you add the word “marine” or “wedding” to words like “dishes” or “lighting,” the price triples. So, if I can find what I’m looking for in Walmart or online for a fraction of the “marine” price, I’m all over it. After all, plastic dishes are plastic dishes…they don’t need to be “marine” plastic dishes to be used on a boat!

If you have any favorite boat gadgets to share, please do! I’m always looking for great ideas. In the meantime, here is a list of my five favorite “non-marine” boat gadgets:

1) Coleman propane camping heater

coleman catalytic heaterThis one is at the top of my list right now because I’m cold. Simple as that. With temperatures getting down to the low thirties (Fahrenheit) at night, I’m ready to marry this thing, I’m so in love with it.

What’s so great about it? Let me count the ways…

  • It runs on camping stove propane, which is cheap and easy to find.
  • It’s small and easy to stow.
  • It heats up our entire 34′ boat.
  • There’s no open flame, so I don’t have to worry about it catching the boat on fire.
  • One can of propane lasts about 20 hours and costs about $2.

Concerns? My father insisted we get a carbon monoxide detector for inside the boat because he was worried the propane fumes would kill us. The $30 detector we bought in Home Depot takes a digital reading of carbon monoxide levels, rather than just sound an alarm when levels are high. And so far it’s shown absolutely no traces of carbon monoxide in the air as a result of using our propane heater. Zilch.

How much does it cost? $46.90 on Amazon.com. During our five freezing days on board in Hurricane Sandy, I would have paid double this price.

2) Cobb portable BBQ grill and smoker

cobb grillDesigned for camping and BBQ picnics in the park, this grill uses charcoal rather than gas and can be placed anywhere on the boat – the cockpit, the cabin (though not recommended because of smoke), the deck, etc.

What’s so great about it?

  • It’s engineered to stay cool on the bottom and on all sides, apart from the lid. So, while the charcoal is burning, you can actually pick up the entire grill with your bare hands and not get burnt.
  • Food tastes better when grilled on charcoal rather than gas (in my opinion).
  • There are accessories for the grill, which allow you to steam food, make pizza and do other neat culinary things I have yet to try.
  • All parts can be bought separately. So when you accidentally dump the charcoal rack in the ocean along with the charcoal (ahem…yes, that was me), you can buy the rack on its own, for a small price.

How much does it cost? $139.21 on Amazon.com.

3) Dyson cordless vacuum cleaner with DC charger

dyson hand-held vacuumRyan is kind of a neat freak, so without this handy little tool, he would be a much more difficult person to live with. But with our Dyson, most of our messes can be cleaned up in a jiffy. Cat litter on the floor? No problem. Bread crumbs in the galley? No problem. Cat hair on the cushions? No problem.

What’s so great about it?

  • A lot of hand-held vacuums don’t have enough suction power to clean up a large mess. The Dyson does. We even vacuum our floor rugs with it.
  • There are no vacuum bags to replace. You just empty the body of the vacuum and you’re good to go.
  • It comes with different attachments, both long and short, so it’s very versatile. It even has a bendy attachment, so you can get into those hard-to-reach places, like the back corners of storage lockers.
  • It’s rechargeable.
  • You can get a DC (cigarette lighter) charger, so you don’t need to use an inverter to plug it in on your boat. (Note: we had to contact Dyson in the UK to get a DC plug because they don’t sell them in the U.S.)
  • It’s small and easy to stow.

How much does it cost? Here’s the kicker – this one doesn’t fit into the “cheap non-marine” category, since it’s expensive at $329.00 on Amazon.com. But it’s an item that never dies and has a 5-year warrantee (which we’ve never had to use). And if you’re at all OCD in the cleaning department, or you have a partner who is, this tool can be used to divert many a bad mood. Just sayin’.

4) Collapsible bowls with lids

Progressive International collapsible bowlsRyan thought these were gimmicky and pointless when I first bought them, but in reality, we rarely use any of our other dishes now because these bowls are so great for everything: eating meals, feeding cats, storing leftovers (they have lids), prepping meals (which is actually what they were designed for) and serving snacks. Plus, they collapse down to the width of a plate, so they don’t take up much room, which is always a plus on any boat.

How much do they cost? $14.88 on Amazon.com for a set of 3 (1 big, 1 medium, 1 small). They’re not as cheap as your run-of-the-mill plastic bowls, but they’re much more versatile and take up much less space.

5) Nesting pots and pans

tuff gear camping pots sailingtuff gear pots nestedtuff gear camping potsI bought this set of pots and pans in Russia over ten years ago, when I was living there teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I had these loooong before I ever stepped foot on a boat. But they’re the one item in my collection that I’ve kept through all my travels and would not dream of backpacking without. And now it turns out this little set is our main cookery set on the boat. Talk about long-lasting!

I can’t find this exact make of camping pots online, which isn’t a surprise since I bought these in Nakhodka, Russia from a shop we volunteers used to call “the mafia store” because everything in it was so fancy and expensive that only the Russian mafia could afford it. I had coveted this set of pots for 2 years while I lived in Nakhodka, so when I was about to leave and go hiking through Siberia, I splurged and paid a whopping $100 for them. Bear in mind, I only got a $220-a-month stipend from the Peace Corps to live on, so this was a colossal splurge. And so worth it.

What’s so great about them?

  • You get three different size pots (one of them a rice pot) with two different lids, a frying pan and a strainer.
  • They’re lightweight and indestructible – these pots have been carried halfway around the world in a backpack, thrown into the backs of buses, bashed around a boat, and there’s not a single dent to show for it.
  • They pack up to the size of a single large pot, which saves a lot of space in our tiny galley.

How much do they cost? Well, it depends on the quality of pots you go for. I couldn’t find this exact set, but I did find a similar, high quality set made by GSI on Amazon.com for $98.96. I also found a cheap set made by Texsport for only $20.58 on Amazon.com.

So, there you have it. Five of my favorite things on board Hideaway. (Other than Charlie and Celia, of course. And maybe Ryan.)

What are your favorite items (on your boat, in your backpack, or in your suitcase)? 

Sailing through North Carolina: A journey in 3 parts

Part 1: Smooth sailing (Oriental, NC)

Sailing North Carolina is getting better by the day. When we leave Oriental, it is 70 degrees and sunny, the wind is calm, I am wearing a t-shirt, and dolphins are swimming alongside Hideaway as we make our way towards Beaufort, North Carolina. This is finally starting to shape up to the kind of trip I imagined when we first decided to set sail for the Bahamas.

It looks like we’ve finally turned a corner with the weather and our grueling sailing schedule, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be putting on my sunglasses (rather than a hat and gloves) to head out onto the Neuse River.

As we unfurl our sails in the warm breeze, I am grinning, the cats are purring, the dolphins are frolicking and the boat is humming. In a word, this is perfect.

Part 2: Cruisers everywhere! (Beaufort, NC)

Taylor Creek Beaufort NC

Taylor Creek, Beaufort, NC

Turning up in Taylor Creek to see 20-30 other boats anchored is like turning up to a high school reunion – we keep pointing at boats we recognize, trying to recall the last time we crossed paths. A woman shouts from her cockpit, “Hey, Hideaway!” as we cruise by, as though she recognizes us from somewhere, too.

The town of Beaufort looks quaint and southern, with white picket fences and sprawling front porches lined with rocking chairs. The main street is only about 800 meters long, so the houses seem outnumbered by the boats in the harbor, which is probably what makes Beaufort such a popular cruising stop – it’s small, unpretentious and cute. And it’s welcoming to cruisers.

Motoring through the crowded creek, it is hard to concentrate on steering when I’m distracted by the dolphins swimming in the channel to my left, wild ponies grazing on an island to my right, and a reproduction pirate ship leaving the creek (apparently Beaufort hosts an annual Pirate Festival). I point excitedly to my left, then my right, and shout for Ryan to look at the wildlife while trying to maneuver through the crowded harbor without hitting anything.

The sun is still shining at 3:30 pm when we pull in (a new record arrival time for us). Ryan is pointing towards another Catalina 34, which has a wide open space beside it, roomy enough for us to drop anchor in. I am excited to see another Catalina, so I am visually cataloging all the similarities to our boat, including the cat lounging on deck, when a skinny, sun-tanned woman rushes up into the cockpit and yells something indecipherable at us in a southern drawl.

“How’s it going?” Ryan says to the Catalina lady, smiling and ignoring her unfriendly tone.

“There ain’t no room in hee-yer,” she says. “It’s awful tight and there’s a lotta boats.” She was standing defensively with one hand on her hip, the other holding a spatula.

“There’s plenty of room over here,” says Ryan, pointing to the empty space next to the Catalina.

“There’s a noreaster blowin’ in about 25 knots tonight so these boats’ll be swingin’ round,” she says. “There ain’t no room.”

“We’re not supposed to get 25 knots until tomorrow night,” Ryan says.

“Suit yerself, but this ain’t a good spot,” the Catalina lady says again.

“How long have you been here?” asks Ryan, which I know is his subtle way of asking, “Where do you get off telling people where they can and can’t anchor?”

“3 months.”

“That explains it,” Ryan mumbles under his breath. “You have a nice day now,” he says loudly, which in Ryan-speak is polite for “screw you.”

I could tell he was considering for a moment dropping anchor next to the Catalina lady, just on principal, but instead we moved on towards the back of the creek, where we happily drop anchor next to a boat who doesn’t mind having neighbors.

Then, not even five minutes after we cut the engine, I hear Ryan yell, “No WAY!”

I pop my head up to see who else is giving Ryan a hard time, and see a catamaran with the distinctive name “Oz” on the side. Unbelievably, Oz is our old mooring neighbor in Port Washington, New York. What are the chances?!

And as if running into Oz again isn’t enough excitement for us, I get a Facebook message from Jessica on Serendipity, who writes the blog MJ Sailing, and who I’ve never met before, saying “Hey, I think you just anchored right behind us!”

The next thing I know, we are on Serendipity, hanging out with a gang of young cruising couples, drinking wine, trading disaster stories, and trying to come up with a collective plan for getting to Charleston, South Carolina. We all agree it is way too cold to linger in North Carolina any longer.

The weather forecast shows a lethargic 5 knots of wind in the morning, and so we decide to take the “outside” route (the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the longer, more protected “inside” ICW route) to Masonboro the next day.

Part 3: Bad idea (Atlantic Ocean – Masonboro, NC)

tasha hacker hideaway storm

Sailing is North Carolina is not as warm as I thought it would be.

Someone should really advertise ocean sailing as the “secret to weight loss” in the backs of women’s magazines because I swear to you there is nothing you want to eat when you’re on a boat pitching from side to side in 25-knot winds and 6-foot swells.

It wasn’t some hair-brained idea to go out to the Atlantic Ocean, forgoing the protection of the ICW to get to Charleston. I assure you we studied our weather charts carefully the night before and worked out this route would be faster and more pleasant. The winds were forecasted to be 5-15 knots from the north, so they would be behind us, making for a smooth, if not boring ride. Or so we thought.

By about 11 am, the winds have crept from 15 knots up to a gusty 25 knots and it starts raining. Which means it is freezing cold, as well as windy. So we put out more sail and cut the engine, hoping to gain some speed, conserve our fuel and get out of the rain.

But by 12 pm, with the wind gusting up to 31 knots, the boat takes on a rolling, wave-surfing pitch that has Celia throwing up and cowering on a bathroom shelf, leaving Ryan and I feeling nauseous, cold and miserable.

Actually, that’s how I feel. Ryan, on the other hand, says he feels “alive.” Although I noticed “feeling alive” doesn’t make him any less enthusiastic to leave the helm when his watch is up.

If there is one thing I am grateful for, it is having an auto-helm to steer in these conditions while I ball up my hands inside my mittens and count the minutes until Ryan takes over.

Huh. The auto-helm appears to have died. There is a lot of beeping and a flashing message saying “drive stopped.” I think, like me, the auto-helm has just had enough. It refuses to hold its course in heavy gusts, and so Ryan and I spend the next 6 hours taking turns at the wheel, steering by hand until our shoulders are sore.

Trying to hand steer with gusts of 30 knots blowing over your starboard side feels a bit like trying to steer a car in a straight line while a battering ram drives into the right side of your car every 10 seconds. I force the wheel to the right, pushing against the force with all my might until it subsides and I can relax. Then I brace myself to fight it again in another 10 seconds. Then another. And I repeat the process for 6 long hours, rhythmically straining against the pull of the boat.

I keep thinking about the single-handed sailors of old legends, crossing oceans without auto-helms and I wonder how they survived.

And to top the day off, by the time we reach Masonboro Inlet, it is pitch black. So, we have the added challenge of maneuvering between the unlit channel markers in the dark, trying not to hit them while we bounce around in the waves. Ryan’s job is to scan the horizon with a flashlight while I stare out at the black water, feeling like I’ve gone partially blind. I can’t tell if the lights I see up ahead are 10 feet away or a mile away, which has me terrified of the things I can’t see and skeptical of my digital chart plotter.

Thankfully, we reach safety in the form of a dock at Seapath Yacht Club, which also offers a hot shower to cleanse our tired spirits. As soon as we are docked, I fold myself into the couch, turn on the propane heater and cease to move or speak. Ryan and I look at each other after a few minutes of silence and laugh one of those thank-god-THAT’S-over laughs, and give each other an exhausted hug.

“How about we take the inside route tomorrow?” says Ryan. I just nod.

In truth, we are feeling pretty proud of ourselves for surviving a grueling journey with our spirits still in tact. In the end, North Carolina doled out one-third sunshine, one-third friendships and one-third stormy weather. And if I had my choice, I’d take the first two-thirds and toss out the last.

But I don’t get to choose what gets thrown our way. Though I’m reassured that we can survive the storms, even if the experience is unpleasant. At the very least, we’ve come away from North Carolina with a little more confidence in ourselves and our boat.

Now, for more of that sunshine…

Celia hideaway sailing with cats

Celia, hiding in the head.

Outer Banks Marathon: With a little help from our friends

I have mentioned before that land schedules do not jive with sail plans. Yet I don’t think we’ve quite internalized this fact because we keep scheduling things like we still live in Manhattan. Luckily, with a little help from the universe (i.e. Facebook), the internet and the kindness of strangers, we’ve found we can sail and make our land schedules work (it just takes some creativity and help from friends).

Before we left New York in October, Ryan and I signed up for the Outer Banks Marathon in North Carolina, not knowing exactly where we’d be in the course of our travels on the weekend of November 11th. It might have been optimistic, but we made the commitment and then decided later to sail as far south as we could and find a way to get to the marathon once we crossed that bridge…or, well, those waters.

But on Thursday night, with the marathon quickly approaching, we worked out if we arrived in Oriental on Saturday, we would be a three-and-a-half-hour drive south of the Outer Banks, where we would need to be before 6 pm Saturday night. And, unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be many options for getting between the two.

So, I posted on our Turf to Surf Facebook Page that I was having trouble figuring out how to get to a car rental (there are none in Oriental) so we could then get to the Outer Banks Marathon. Within minutes, I got a response from Brittany at Windtraveler, who said she’d just emailed one of her blog followers in Oriental to see if they could help out. And help out they did!

It took some impeccable timing, a reliable boat, and a lot of help from two incredibly generous cruisers, Gretchen and Chris (s/v Alchemy) to make this schedule happen (almost) as smoothly as it did:

Saturday 11/11/12

  • 4:00 am – Pulled up anchor in Belham, NC and motor-sailed to Oriental, NC to arrive at marina for 12:00 pm.
  • 1:00 pm – Gretchen and Chris, never having met us before, dropped their boat repairs to pick us up from Whittaker Pointe Marina and entertain us with sailing stories while they drove us to our car rental in New Bern, NC (30 minutes away).
  • 1:30 pm – We headed for Kill Devil Hills, NC in our rental car.
  • 3:00 pm – Stopped at a gas station/diner for hot dogs, burgers and fries, and learned a cute southern term: having your hamburger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato and mayo).
  • 4:30 pm – Got pulled over and ticketed for speeding. Bummer. Bigger bummer: court date is 1/2/13 (the day after New Year’s!) in Manteo, NC. (Note to self: find NC lawyer to sort this out. And get Ryan to ham up his English accent to the police next time.)
  • 5:45 pm – Arrived to Outer Banks Marathon Expo. Picked up our bibs just before they shut at 6:00 pm. Whew!
  • 6:30 pm – Arrived to hotel in Nags Head, NC. Ate steak. Slept.

Sunday 11/12/12

  • 4:30 am – Woke up to find we hadn’t packed warm enough running clothes for 40-degree temperatures. Why is it so cold here in the south?!
  • 5:00 am – Drove to Manteo, NC (race finish line) to catch 5:45 am shuttle to race start.
  • 7:00 am – Ryan started Outer Banks Half Marathon.
  • 7:30 am – Tasha started Outer Banks Marathon.
  • 9:00 am – Ryan finished Half Marathon, looking strong.
  • 11:50 am – Tasha finished Marathon, hobbling.
  • 1:00 pm – Showered and checked out of hotel. Went for big, wonderful post-marathon lunch at Tortuga’s Lie in Nags Head.
  • 3:00 pm – Drove back to Avis Car Rental in New Bern, NC.
  • 6:30 pm – Gretchen and Chris picked us up from New Bern, bringing us a fresh loaf of bread, which Gretchen made herself (how nice is that?!), and drove us back to our marina in Oriental.
  • 7:00 pm – Had drinks and fresh bread on board Hideaway with Gretchen and Chris. Compared Charlie and Celia to Gretchen and Chris’ cats, Hawkeye and Radar, and wished we could sail together and have kitty play dates.
hideaway turftosurf sailing blog

Gretchen and Chris, hanging out with us in the salon of Hideaway.

And so, thanks to Gretchen and Chris, we are now back in Oriental, reunited with Charlie and Celia. But, as it turns out, we have another land date rushing up on us. On November 16th, our Long Island boat buddies Bill and Grace are flying into Jacksonville, Florida with the plan to sail south with us for a week. (And Ryan and I are hoping this trip will entice them to come cruising with us sooner rather than later, wink, wink).

So, we’re rushing south again, in an effort to get warm and to see how close we can get to Florida before Bill and Grace arrive, though it looks doubtful that we’ll get as far south as Jacksonville. It may take a little more creative solution-sleuthing to make this one work, but I’m sure the universe will comply.

One of these days, we’ll probably have to learn to let go of our land schedules a little more if we hope to lower the revs on our new cruising life. But I guess I’ll just have to add that to my growing list of things we need to learn.

tasha hacker obx marathon

Running the Outer Banks Marathon

Motor-sailing the ICW: 8 lessons in 24 hours

We may not be in the Caribbean, but I am starting to have fun again. Which is good because I didn’t want to follow up a post called “Sailing Sucks” with one called “Sailing the ICW: The Great Dismal Journey,” or something equally miserable.

tasha hacker great dismal swamp

Navigating the Great Dismal Swamp.

Luckily, having gotten through the Great Dismal Swamp yesterday and to our free dock in Elizabeth City, North Carolina (the reputed “Harbor of Hospitality” which lives up to its name), we woke up this morning to sunshine, fair winds and calm seas. Okay, it’s still not bikini weather, or even 1-layer-of-clothing weather, but it will do.

And I can say that in the last 24 hours I learned a small number of new things, including:

1. Locks are kind of amazing.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through the Panama Canal (though we may do it one day), but going through the humble Deep Creek Lock was definitely cause for excitement… and a little graffiti.

ryan horsnail deep creek lockdeep creek lock

2. Auto-pilot is awesome. But I wish it would let me change course by half a degree.

Motoring through the extremely narrow and mostly straight Great Dismal Swamp for hours by hand would have been annoying, so having an autopilot was certainly appreciated. But our autopilot couldn’t keep us on a perfectly straight course. We had to keep adding and subtracting one degree every 3 minutes to keep from running into the shallows. I know, I know, I should be thankful to have an autopilot at all. #firstworldproblems

3. Motoring in a straight line for 6 hours is boring.

The Great Dismal Swamp was interesting for about the first hour, and mainly because it looked like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. But each hour following, the lack of wildlife and unchanging view of swamp trees got less and less interesting, though it still remained weird.

great dismal swamp nc va

4. Cruisers are a breed of folk all their own.

Having run into a fair few experienced cruisers now, and having never known they existed before, I am starting to see how this life offers a community the way any other lifestyle choice does. I always thought sailors were loners, but it turns out a lot of cruisers move around in groups, or make plans to meet up in the same places. And the further south we go, the more we keep running into the same boats. We also keep running into sailors who know other sailors we know.

My guess is that, as a cruiser, if you were to announce to your cruising friends that you were going to give up your sailboat to buy a house with a big lawn, garden and satellite dish, it would be just as shocking as if you announced to your suburban neighbors that you were going to give up your two-car garage, good school district and landscaped yard to buy a boat and sail off into the horizon. It’s just another way people have chosen to live, and they surround themselves with people who live similar lives. Who knew?!

5. Battery banks and amps will inevitably come up in conversation.

We went out for drinks and fried food in Elizabeth City with our British boat neighbors, Martin & Bridget on Shin Dera, and while I grilled Bridget about their washing machine on board (how is that possible?!), I overheard Ryan grilling Martin about their battery bank. It was a moment for gender stereotyping, yes, but I’ve noticed that any time we meet a new cruiser, one of the stock questions Ryan asks is how much battery power they have. And I’ve noted that the cruisers we meet always have a lot more battery power than we do. I’m starting to see now that Ryan covets bigger batteries at sea the way he coveted a bigger television on land.

6. Getting off the boat to sweat out my cabin fever makes me a more tolerable person to be around.

Elizabeth City is so hospitable to cruisers that not only do they meet arriving cruisers with a wine and cheese reception each night, but they’ve collaborated with their local gym, The Fitness Warehouse, to offer hot showers for $5, and a gym workout plus shower for only $10. We took full advantage of this opportunity and the world is a better place for it. Ryan and I can now exist on the same boat more easily for a few more days.

7. The cold weather brings out the CRAZY in our cats.

We went to sleep in 30-degree temperatures, bundled up in our thermal underwear, trying to ignore the wrestling match going on in the salon. I swear I heard clanking cooking utensils, as though Charlie and Celia were smacking each other over the heads with frying pans like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. And then, throughout the night, Charlie expressed her discontent by climbing onto our heads, then jumping on our chests, then running to the foot of the bed, then running back and jumping on our heads again. And when I would try to pet and soothe her, she would leap up and run to her food dish as though she thought 2 am was a good time to be fed. This pattern repeated itself all night until 7 am when we finally got out of bed, at which point the cats ran to where we were trying to sleep and promptly passed out in a serene slumber for 4 hours. I wondered if this was some kind of cruel justice for not having children.

8. Sailing (rather than motoring) is actually fun.

This morning, after we departed Elizabeth City, I had the rare opportunity of being completely alone at the helm while Ryan worked at his computer down in the cabin, trying to stay warm.

Prior to this trip, Ryan and I have always sailed together, or together with friends on board, so even if I was at the helm, he was always nearby to either correct my mistakes or tell me what to do when I had no idea. And therefore I never really learned how to decide myself what to do with the sails. And I never really built the confidence to make any important decisions as a captain.

So this morning, while Ryan was engrossed and out of the way, I decided to take on the sails myself, without asking for help. And because Ryan wasn’t there to unknowingly interfere with my learning process, I actually learned some new things about Hideaway and grew to enjoy the experience of sailing itself, as opposed to sailing just to get somewhere.

It was wonderful. And liberating. With 18 knots of wind behind me, and the motor shut down, I finally figured out why people like sailing. It’s exhilarating to make a boat go somewhere under the sheer power of the wind and your control over the sails. Any mistake I made was immediately evident, and I could then fiddle with the sails to see if I could make the boat go faster, or smoother. And by the time my watch was up, and Ryan came up into the cockpit, I could ask him real questions that I needed the answers to about how the sails worked and what I could have done to go faster. I felt incredibly empowered and, for the first time, a little competent.

So, if I could make a plea to all you experienced sailors out there: if you are the more competent sailor in your partnership and your partner is reluctant to take the reins and make decisions themselves, I would highly recommend leaving your partner alone at the helm. And often. Make an excuse to go read, take a nap, or anything that gets you out of the cockpit. In doing this, you’ll encourage your partner to experiment on their own with what makes a boat sail well or not, the way you probably learned yourself. It will empower your partner and it will make you a happier sailor to know your partner is learning to be just as competent as you are.

I’ve always felt like the clumsy, bumbling crew on board our boat and have preferred to stay out Ryan’s way because of it. But I’ve never liked the feeling of not knowing what he knew, though I didn’t know how to learn what he’d learned. Now, I know. He just needs to leave me alone at the helm more. And, actually, long trips in cold weather make this possible – who knew the cold could be a good thing?!

If I do happen to fall head over heels in love with sailing one of these days (and not just traveling by boat), it will be because it offers me a challenge and a steep learning curve.

And I’d be a fool not to grab the opportunity to learn something new about sailing…and myself.

Elizabeth City, NC - Alligator River, NC

Elizabeth City, NC – Alligator River, NC

Sailing sucks…today

Sometimes sailing sucks – I’m not gonna lie.

Like today, when I woke up in all my ski gear, covered in cold condensation, dreading our departure from Norfolk in 40-degree temperatures with 25-knot winds on the nose, which we fought through for four hours in choppy, lunch-tossing waves to get to Mile 0, the official start of the Intracoastal Waterway, in…eh? Norfolk?

Yes, that’s right. We left Bay Point Marina in Norfolk, Virginia, and four hours later we arrived at the start of the ICW in Norfolk, Virginia. It was like we’d just gone to the base of Mt. Everest to run in place. On a sunny day, perhaps I wouldn’t have minded. After all, there’s that thing they say… “Focus on the journey, not the destination.” Right. Well, I’m guessing whoever said that probably had heat.

But all joking aside, we did do a little high-five with our mittens when we went past red buoy #36, marking statute mile zero on the Intracoastal Waterway (throughout the ICW, the buoys mark what statute mile, rather than nautical mile, you’ve reached to help you understand your location and how far you’ve gone). And we celebrated by breaking out a pack of hand-warmers, which Ryan thankfully picked up on our weekend in Vermont. Almost as good as popping a bottle of champagne

mile 0 intracoastal waterway

Buoy #36 – Mile 0 of the Intracoastal Waterway

The fun was just beginning, though. During our shifts down in the cabin, taking turns sitting with our tiny 12-volt hair-dryer heater, we desperately pored over the ICW guidebooks to work out how to hail the bridges, what times they opened, and whether we’d be able to get through the Deep Creek Lock before the end of the day or whether we’d have to anchor and wait until the next day to get through.

As it turned out, the bridges weren’t as straight forward as we thought. They had schedules, sure. But when we got to the Gilmerton Bridge for its scheduled opening at 3:30 pm, we found that it was closed because right behind it was another railroad bridge that wasn’t open. And it had a train on it, which wasn’t moving. So, we hailed the bridgemaster, if that’s what you call him (just a guess), and he said as soon as the railroad bridge opened, he’d open. And so we waited. And waited.

Waiting on a sailboat under motor in a canal that has a current involves literally going around in circles in front of the bridge, trying not to drift too far away and waiting for the moment you can rev your engine and go forward again. And in the freezing cold, this is a frustrating exercise because you just want to get to your destination. I know, I know… the journey. Whatever.

Eventually, after an hour passed and the bridge still hadn’t opened, we called the bridgemaster again to see if he had any info for us. And his response, if you can imagine an angry southern drawl, was, “Do you not see that train up there on the bridge?! I done tol’ you, when that train goes and the bridge opens, then I’ll open the bridge!” And so we waited some more.

The bridge did finally open, as promised, but we didn’t have time to get through the next bridge before it closed, so we pulled off into the Great Dismal Swamp to anchor (my favorite name so far…I love that Great and Dismal can describe the same thing).

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, reading this, that I really should not be spending my days sailing if I can complain this much.

But I don’t recount this day as one that completely sucked because I want sympathy, or pity, or because I’m having doubts about this great, long journey we’ve embarked upon.

I’m only telling it how it is because I believe it is important to acknowledge and give a respectful nod to the troughs of any great challenge, because it makes the peaks that much more rewarding.

My father always called these experiences “character-building.” I like to say that nothing in life that’s really worth doing comes easy.

And today was, quite simply, a reminder of that.

Delaware City Marina: Thank you for the thank-you

On the eve of Election Day, following months of merciless mud slinging between the Democrats and the Republicans, you may be wondering if there are any manners left at all in this country.

Well, I’m here to tell you that at least the mamas and the papas of the state of Delaware have been doing something right.

Because we got this lovely thank-you card from the Delaware City Marina thanking us for visiting them with Hideaway a few weeks ago.

What?! Talk about diving head first into my directory of “marinas I would definitely go back to.”

So, when you line up at your polling stations tomorrow, remember your manners and thank your local volunteers for helping to support democracy. And maybe I’ll just drop a thank-you note in the mail thanking the Delaware City Marina for their lovely thank-you note.

delaware city marina

Talk about hospitality!

Wish you were here: Postcards in cyber-space

It’s a sign of the times that we’ve just spent the weekend in Vermont celebrating the union of a Jewish friend who works for the Huffington Post with a non-Jewish friend who works for Facebook married by a gay rabbi who conducted the wedding ceremony with an iPad.

Though I’ll always remember our own wedding as the best wedding ever, my friends Matt and Dana may have set a record for corralling the largest number of the most interesting and attractive people in the U.S. And they gathered all these folks together in idyllic Pittsfield, Vermont in a converted barn at Riverside Farm, and mixed it up with a non-stop stream of booze and an outrageously talented band who covered everything from The Jackson Five to Katy Perry with a flare that had everyone, young and old, out of their seats, kicking off their shoes and raising the roof like they’d just been told this was their last chance to dance ever.

And to think this wedding almost didn’t happen because of Hurricane Sandy. Last year’s devastation in Vermont at the hands of Hurricane Irene was fresh in everyone’s minds in the week running up to the wedding while we waited and wondered what would become of Vermont this year. At the time, Ryan and I hadn’t even booked our plane tickets because we couldn’t be sure until the last minute which airport we would fly out of or where we would be after the hurricane passed. In the end, we booked a flight out of Norfolk, Virginia, giving ourselves a deadline, which is always a worry when traveling by boat. But a deadline it was, so we pulled on our thermals and our winter hats and we motor-sailed like maniacs into the blistering wind for two days to get to a marina that would keep Hideaway and our cats safe while we took off for the green mountains.

I can tell you it didn’t take me long to adapt to land life again, especially since we were now indoors and enjoying the grossly underrated luxury of heat. Plus, I finally got to put on my running shoes and literally take off for the hills, which came in handy for sweating out some of my morning hangovers and lifting my mood (sailing in arctic temperatures + not getting off the boat for a week = grumpy Tasha).

My only concern then was how to answer the inevitable conversation starter, “Where do you live?” since we’d be mingling with lots of strangers. But as it turned out, this wasn’t a concern, as we were not unusual in this internationally savvy wedding crowd. No one even batted an eyelid when I said, “We live on a sailboat” or “We’re on our way to the Bahamas.” In fact, we found new friends in amazing couples of all ages, some of whom were sailors themselves, or travelers, or had quit their desk jobs to become snowboarding instructors, or did any number of fascinating things that fueled stimulating conversation for hours.

So, while I reunited with some good old college friends, Ryan and I also made some great new friends who we hope to keep in touch with and maybe even meet again one day when they themselves sail to the Caribbean or when we go up to Vermont to do some skiing.

And though you would think it’s hard to maintain friendships when you’re constantly on the move, to some degree we’ve always had to do it because we’ve always been on the move, traveling for work or pleasure and relocating to new cities or countries every few years, just like many of our friends. Which I guess is also a sign of these modern times, that people are traveling more and living farther away from their families and friends than they used to. Thankfully, the computer geniuses of the world keep developing new ways to help people like me keep in touch with their ever-growing network of international friends.

But Facebook can only do so much to maintain a friendship. Nothing holds a candle to good old-fashioned quality time hanging out with friends, which is one reason I love going to weddings. Not only are weddings the most joyous of celebrations, they’re also great opportunities to rekindle old friendships and meet new and interesting people I never would have met if my friends hadn’t brought us together.

So, even if I have to fight off a hurricane to traverse both land and sea by boat, plane, train and automobile to get to a friend’s wedding, I’ll always make the effort. And I have no doubt that I’ll be reunited with some of our friends as we sail south. Because just as a destination wedding is a great excuse to book a vacation, so is having a friend in the Bahamas!

Riverside Farm – Pittsfield, Vermont

Dana, walking down the aisle with Mr. and Mrs. Kalish

Dana and Matt, under the chuppah.

Me and Ryan at Dana and Matt’s wedding.

Happy Halloween from somewhere in Virginia

I know it’s Halloween and all, but truth be told, the only scary thing here in Mill Creek is the temperature and the language coming out of my mouth. Ryan’s been listening to me grumble a stream of expletives through my scarves all day to the tune of: “I haven’t been this flipping cold for this long since I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Russian-flipping-Far-East!” or “When we set off for the frigging Bahamas, I thought I’d be wearing a bikini by now!” Or the imaginable equivalent.

The problem is that we’ve been holed up inside our boat, freezing and wet, for five days and then I woke up this morning in 3 layers of clothing, a ski hat, knee socks, to realize we’ve been in the Solomon Islands for five days now and we haven’t seen anything other than the inside of our boat, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. And now we are leaving because we can’t bear to stay a minute longer.

So, I am a bit grumbly, to say the least, even though I know I should be elated and grateful that we didn’t suffer the effects of Hurricane Sandy the way many others did and still are. But I do have a tendency to be selfish when I am cold. I blame Russia.

Either way, there was no time for wallowing – we had work to do putting our sails back up and getting Hideaway back to her pre-hurricane condition. And as exhausting and cold as it all was, once we get out on the Chesapeake Bay, it just felt good to be moving again. With 18-knot winds, we were able to shut down the engine, sail at a smooth 6.5 knots and hear nothing but the sound of water rushing along the hull.

Ryan putting up sails after Hurricane Sandy - Solomons Island, MD

Ryan putting up sails after Hurricane Sandy – Solomons Island, MD.

Hideaway sailing in the Chesapeake Bay

Hideaway sailing in the Chesapeake Bay.

But then we lost our wind, the sun went behind the clouds, and we were motoring like mad through the Chesapeake in a dash to get to Norfolk, Virginia before Thursday night – after all, we have a flight to catch to Vermont on Friday morning for our friends’ wedding.

Every sailor knows that land schedules do not jive with sail plans. But we made this plan and we are sticking to it, even if it means additional stress. I guess you could say we haven’t quite gotten Manhattan out of our system yet.

The plan was to get to Fleet’s Bay, Virginia, by the end of today, still giving us a fairly long haul to Norfolk on Thursday. But as it happened, we didn’t quite make it to Fleet’s Bay before sunset, so we have pulled off into the Great Wicomico River to anchor in Mill Creek for the night, which means an even earlier start on Thursday morning.

Hideaway at sunset in Mill Creek, Va.

Hideaway at sunset in Mill Creek, VA.

I was still swearing like a well-trained sailor when we pulled into Mill Creek, since it had gotten progressively colder throughout the day. But just as we dropped anchor in the middle of nowhere in Virginia, the setting sun splayed a grenadine shadow on the water and trees around us, and the air became supremely still.

There was nothing else around us except a few private homes and docks, some birds and one other anchored sailboat. As frozen as my face was, I couldn’t help but look around and smile…just before I ducked down below to turn our portable gas stove into a personal hand warmer.

No doubt, in the morning, I’ll be swearing my head off again through my scarves and ski muffs on the way to Norfolk, Virginia, and I’ll forget momentarily…that it’s the small moments like this that make it all worthwhile.

One thing I can for sure is it’s still way better than a day at the office.

Sunset on Mill Creek, the Great Wicomico River, Virginia.

Sunset on Mill Creek, the Great Wicomico River, Virginia.

Hurricane Sandy: Praying for a safe harbor for all

I’ve been avoiding checking the news of Hurricane Sandy because I don’t want to get freaked out by the horror stories while I’m waiting out this storm on our boat at Zahniser’s Yachting Center. I already caught word of the HMS Bounty sinking off Cape Hatteras, attempting to outrun the storm. My only hope is that all the other boaters out there got themselves to safe harbor in time.

It turns out being on board your boat during a hurricane is equal parts fun, terrifying and boring.

The terrifying part didn’t start until today, when the winds started whipping up to gusts of 45-50 knots, which had the effect of whipping our boat around on its mooring like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. Meanwhile, the rain poured down in sheets, filling our dinghy in a matter of hours and drenching us to the bone on our hourly checks.

We’ve been checking our lines every hour since 4 pm yesterday, while alternating watches of 3 or 4 hours. Thankfully everything has held fast and there’s been no drama to report. Around 6 pm today we gave up the line checks because it became too windy to go outside, so the plan is to stay down below and continue doing watches, play a little Scrabble and try unsuccessfully to read books until the storm passes. (Ryan has pointed out that this is probably not the best time for me to be reading My Ship is So Small by Ann Davison, the story of a woman who lost her husband and their boat in a storm and survived to become the first woman to solo sail across the Atlantic. He may be right.)

The book seemed like a good idea yesterday, when it was more exciting than terrifying to be holed up listening to the winds whip up to a tame 10-20 knots and it was clear we were safe as anything on our mooring. It was fun in that way that riding a rollercoaster is fun – you tingle with fear, but you have confidence in the equipment, so you’re not worried.

The slightly boring part was when we were doing hourly watches while the other slept, or we were both awake and struggling to concentrate on anything for any amount of time while we tracked Sandy’s path towards us. I kept thinking about this forced hiatus in my marathon training – I’m not sure Ryan would tolerate me running back and forth inside the cabin, as it’s only about 20 feet long. But give me a few more hours and I might try it.

As boring as it was, yesterday’s log looks something like this:

  • 4:00 pm – heavy rain, wind 12-15 knots, Ryan sleeping, cats sleeping on Ryan
  • 6:00 pm – heavy rain, wind 10-15 knots, Ryan sleeping, cats wrestling
  • 8:00 pm – heavy rain, wind 10-15 knots, cats sleeping, retrieved Scrabble piece from bilge, Note: bilge pump might not be working?
  • 11:00 pm – heavy rain, wind 17-22 knots, Tasha wins Scrabble!, water in bilge going nowhere, removed stuck joker valve from bilge pump with a hacksaw (pressure might be damaging pump?), bilge pump working again

It continued pretty much like that, except getting even more boring, until 6 am this morning when the gusts started hitting 35-45 knots.

If I could have my way, I’d happily be bored with nothing to write about until Wednesday morning when we ship out of here in one piece and I get let out of my cage for a run.

To all of you on land and sea: I wish you a safe harbor and a boring few days ahead.

Tasha, drenched from checking the lines

Ryan, bailing out Mighty Mouse

The “what ifs”: Preparing for Hurricane Sandy

The universe must be worried that I won’t have enough to write about if we just sail smoothly from port to port, all the way down to the Bahamas. So she whipped up Hurricane Sandy to throw at us to see if we learned anything from last year’s fiasco with Hurricane Irene.

This time we knew Hurricane Sandy was coming and we’d been watching the weather forecasts carefully to judge which side of the Chesapeake Bay we should be on when she hits, which by all accounts is the west side.

In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have left Annapolis Friday morning, but we were antsy to get going since we’d already been there two days longer than planned, and we knew we had another 24-30 hours to get south before we would be forced to wait out the storm. So, foolhardy or not, we made the decision to sail overnight to Norfolk, VA, then changed our plan at dusk when fog appeared on the forecast, and instead pulled into Solomons Island, Maryland and anchored. (Our new Rocna 20 worked a treat!)

Our ZyGrib weather charts showed that winds were going to start kicking up Saturday night and worsen until Tuesday night, so we made the decision to check out Solomons’ marinas in the morning to see if they were suitable for docking in a hurricane.

Last year, during Irene, we had no idea what to do, except we knew we needed a good, protected river to go up. So we made a dash from Block Island to the Connecticut River, and got lucky enough to meet a well-worn sailor named Glenn in Old Saybrook, at the mouth of the river, where we tied up after dark, soaking wet and nauseous. Glenn came out to help us tie up and gave us some valuable advice about where to go to upriver, what he does in North Carolina during a hurricane, and gave us phone numbers of people who could help us decide what to do with Hideaway, since he’d already done the research himself.

Back then, we made the decision to haul Hideaway and leave her in Essex, Connecticut for a week, since this was cheaper than keeping her on a slip (and because our boat insurance offered to pay for half the cost of the haul).

But this year is different – we live on our boat, and we don’t want to haul her if we don’t have to. And looking at the wind patterns for Monday and Tuesday coming through Solomons Island, the forecasts show a maximum of 30-35 knot winds where we are, though they’re showing 60-65 knot winds out on the Atlantic. We’re pretty sure we can withstand 30-35 knot winds on a mooring and we’re definitely not going out to the Atlantic.

But the debate over what to do to prepare for Hurricane Sandy seemed to have us flipping back and forth between the “what ifs” similarly to last year:

  • If insurance pays for half of the cost of hauling because statistics show that boats fare better out of water, then shouldn’t we just haul?
  • If the wind is going to get up to 30-35 knots in the creek, then a mooring with a 500 lb. mushroom anchor (like the ones at Zahniser’s Yacht Club) should hold us just fine. Right?
  • But what if we get swells up to 10 feet? Will the moorings hold?
  • Other cruisers are here on moorings and they’re a similar size to us. They must know what they’re doing.
  • Oh wait, some people are leaving. Why? Where are they going?
  • What are those people on anchor doing? Should we anchor? No, this is a terrible time to test our anchor.
  • Maybe we should get a slip – that might be safer than being on a mooring. Plus, the moorings are near shallow water; if we break loose, we’ll run aground.
  • But if we’re tied down to the docks, we’ll get bashed around and risk worse damage than on a mooring.
  • What about all the boats docked near the moorings? If the swells are bad, will the docks hold all those boats? What happens if those docks float away? The pilings are short, and we’re only a few feet away.
  • Why won’t the dockmaster give us any advice? He just keeps saying he isn’t responsible for whatever happens.

In the end, we decided to take a mooring and once the decision was made, we spent the entire day taking down our sails, removing our dodger, running back-up lines to our mooring, taking our bikes to shore, siliconing our leaky portholes and covering them with plastic and duct tape (maybe not the best time for this job, but we did it), and after we heard another cruiser’s story about his dinghy flipping over in a storm and nearly losing his outboard, we decided to remove our outboard, put it in the cockpit and tie up the dinghy behind Hideaway. We also decided, though other cruisers were removing their anchors, to keep our anchor on the bow in case we broke loose from our mooring and needed to drop it. Then, once we were all set and done, we hit the local Tiki Bar for their Halloween Bash because, well, there was no point in worrying now!

Whatever happens, we’re committed to our decision. And the decision we made was one of many possible choices, none of which anyone can be sure is the best decision in this port, in this hurricane, in this situation.

So, with gusts of up to 38 knots blowing outside, we’re on board with a good many episodes of Homeland downloaded to our iPad and we’ve set up an hourly watch where Ryan and I rotate going up to check if our dinghy needs bailing out, that our lines aren’t chafing on our anchor and to log the wind speeds.

There are a good many unanswered “what ifs” at the moment, but this is an unavoidable part of any long journey. Sometimes you just have to wait out the storm and know you did everything you could do.

Hideaway no windage

Hideaway, stripped down and clear of windage.

duct tape plastic portholes

Plastic and peace sign duct tape to protect our new silicone job.

zahnisers yacht club docks

Zahniser’s Yacht Club docks – not far enough away, for my liking.

Mighty Mouse, hopefully safe behind Hideaway.

Outboard engine tied down in cockpit

Outboard engine tied securely down in cockpit.