Archive for the ‘Sailing’ Category

Wait, what?

May 10, 2013

river 1

  John McPhee has recently written two pieces for the New Yorker* that have made me feel much better about myself.  The first word in one is “Block” – as in writer’s.   The other begins (well a sentence or so in…): “I lay down on it (a picnic table) for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing…I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it…”

  The project I’ve undertaken is a big one and the research part is fun.  I greatly enjoy learning new stuff and meeting interesting people.  The problem comes when I try to convince myself to to make something out of it all.  As opposed to McPhee though, I don’t fight fear or panic, I just daydream,  something at which my roommate will tell you I am very very good.

  Above you see the view out the window of my office.  Nice, huh? On the far side of the river is a ‘tow’** making its way through the lock and dam.  It is interesting because the river’s high just now and I’ve noticed that there is an extra towboat out there to help ensure smooth passage of the narrow channel.  I looked into it and found that the Corps of Engineers mandates the presence of  auxiliary muscle when the river level is above a certain point.  And that each nudge costs the barge line hundreds of dollars.

  The bridge you see isn’t the original.  The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was up river just a hundred or so yards  from there.  Its development and construction were problematic and contentious with Jefferson Davis,  Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce,  preferring a span further to the south and the steamboat lines, fearful of competition, claiming that a bridge would impede efficient river travel.   Litigation ensued but the project moved forward nonetheless with a survey by Robert E Lee.

   The last rails were laid on the morning of April 21, 1856 and a steam locomotive pulled the first cars across soon thereafter.  Fifteen days later disaster struck.  On the evening of May 6 the nearly new Effie Afton, was making her way up river and several hundred yards after she passed through the draw, something caused one engine to fail, she heeled to starboard, and crashed into the bridge.  The resulting conflagration destroyed both. 

  Hearing the news the next day, steamboats up and down river blew their whistles in solidarity.  Capt John Hurd filed suit against the Railroad Bridge Company claiming that eddies created by the bridge’s piers had been the cause of the loss of his ship and cargo.  The Rock Island Railroad Company held that the crash had been deliberate and hired Abraham Lincoln to defend their interests. 

  The case ended with a hung jury which was considered a victory for Lincoln, the Rock Island Lines, and Chicago over the steamboats and St Louis.  It was crucial to his career as a lawyer and an important precursor to his first presidential campaign three years later… Lincoln? The Rock Island Lines?  Steamboats and St Louis?  Wait, uh, what were we talking about?

*1/14/13 and 4/29/13

** “Tow” is the term used to describe a floating means of transporting freight comprised of a towboat and as many as forty 200’ barges, though not so many this far north.  Odd that they’re call ‘tow’boats because they don’t  tow, they push.

All Ok

March 23, 2012


  The thing about sailing is that you’ve got to pay attention to the wind.  Ya, I know, duh.  But it’s that the more time you spend on the water, the finer your attention becomes.  Minor changes in course or sail trim can make for a huge change in progress – upwind or down.  And careless disregard, especially downwind, can “do considerable damage, up to and including bringing down the mast”*.

 Everybody on board pays attention – whether it be with the top of their mind or a few synapses back.  All can but notice if they’re getting the crap shaken or welcoming the more smooth interludes.  Life under sail is an incredibly refreshing, invigorating step away from the quotidian.  Whatever might transpire.

  Recently for example yours truly, in an incredible display of skill and prowess, managed to foul the dingy line.  Twice.  First time was a real mess.  Daughter voiced concern as the yellow polypro line tightened around her arm as other end wrapped around the propeller.  Someone yelled to kill the engine before it dragged her under.

  Examination with mask and snorkel found a potentially serious problem.  The line was not only tightly cinched around the propeller, but shreds were also drawn into its coupling with the shaft.  An inability to clear it would have had us adrift until rescue.  Or grounding.

  Son, son-in-law, and I took turns holding our breaths and using an assortment of tools in an effort to clean things up.  It was easy to saw through the exposed coils, but the stuff wedged in proved problematic.  The extra buoyancy of the salt water helped by holding us against the bottom of the boat while working.

  After some progress, we heard a banging on the side of our boat – the “Buff”.  I surfaced and was told breathlessly that there were a bunch of barracuda about.  Sure enough there were a dozen or so of the snarly looking fish grimacing at us.  They were about a yard long and only sort of menacing, but their jagged under bite was hard to miss. 

  After quite a bit of time and effort and bursting lungs, it seemed like we’d gotten it all.  Fired up the engine, engaged the prop, and bingo! Forward and reverse both worked just fine.  So much more satisfying than working on computer problems, dealing with the TV remote, or “recalculating”.

  Shut it back down, hoisted sails, and made for the next port.  Dropped anchor and let out the prudent five times depth rode (chain).  Watched landmarks on shore to make sure anchor wasn’t dragging.  Seemed ok, but crew member donned mask, snorkel, and fins to make certain.  All okay.  Time for a glass of wine. 

*Nigel Calder’s Cruising Handbook

Hey! Lose the ear buds!

August 27, 2010


  Furthermore, in an interview with Terri Gross on her NPR Fresh Air program Matt Richtel (the NYT reporter quoted in the previous post) drew an analogy between food and technology.  Too little of either can impair effectiveness and vitality.  Too much can lead to obesity, distraction, and actual neurological damage.

  Incredible as it may sound, the evolutionary precursor to this problem is the fight or flight syndrome.  Primitive man hears rustle in the bush, synapses fire, cortisol released, he runs or throws a spear.  Repeatedly induced by some signal to check your device or screen, same chain of events ensues all be they separately more diminutive.  Ill effects though are cumulative.

  Research on rats show that it is during downtime that memories form and creativity is enhanced.  “People need to take breaks.” Relatedly: multitaskers have more, not less, trouble filtering out irrelevance and staying focused.  The more often you switch from one screen or device to another the greater the negative impact upon your effectiveness.

  The reason you feel compelled to check is because of what’s called ‘intermittent reinforcement’.  Rats again.  If one in a cage knows that there will occasionally be a food pellet in its food dispenser, it will feel compelled to frequently check.  Similarly, while most of the stuff in your inbox is such junk it might as well be empty, sometimes there are gems.

  As mentioned in the previous post the researchers all felt a shift, if subtle, in their consciousness after the third day of their trip.  Ms. Gross commented that she noticed a difference in hers when a weekend extends from two to three days.

  I wonder if a similarly salubrious effect might be made possible in a shorter period by different conditions.  Extenuating, say… Wife and I were under sail last night in our twenty foot/216 sq ft sailcloth C Scow.  Breeze was way up and swells were big.  Barge and other boat traffic.  Last time we went over I broke ribs and wife’s eye was blackened. 

  Attention thus broadly drawn, there were no thoughts of Blackberry, office, bills, etc etc.  Matter of fact there was no thinking.  Way hiked out, minor adjustments in trim and body position were all that lay between full speed and swimming.  Back ashore, we felt renewed and refreshed.

*”Fresh Air” on NPR 8/24/10

**Research shows that it’s riskier to talk on a cell phone while driving – even hands free – than having a conversation with a passenger.  Passenger is even an asset: “they modulate their conversation – both topic and tone – based on what they see in front of them.”

***Sadly, Anne Franks’ tree went over last week.  Happily someone had the foresight to plant seeds and saplings have been distributed around the world.


June 21, 2010


   That’s  the light tower on Michigan Island in the Apostle archipelago on Lake Superior.  This National Seashore area holds the highest concentration of light towers in North America.  They take a variety of forms and shapes, are in good condition, and all quite picturesque.  The day after this visit we sailed to Devil’s Island, the northernmost.  We’d hoped to go ashore there to, but the winds were shifting so we listened to the NOAA weather report.  Big storm coming.  Strong winds from the south.

   Change of plans. Checked the chart and made for a bay approximately fifteen miles away that opened only to the north and set anchor.  Did then ‘batten down the hatches’, had a great chicken curry dinner, and slid into our sleeping bags to get what rest we could before the sound and fury.  It arrived at about 10:30PM.   We were obviously protected from the worst of the wind, but were still violently rocked by the waves.  They rolled us so severely that the mast nearly slapped the water repeatedly on both sides.

  Fortunately, it wore out before did we and a fitfull sleep ensued until about 8:00 AM.  It was our last day and we were anxious to set sail for our last stop – Madeline Island – the only inhabited one of the group.   We’d heard it was a neat/funky sort of place and a fine spot to celebrate my birthday.   After brewing the coffee I went forward to raise the anchor.  “Better hold off on that” said wife from the cockpit.  “Engine won’t start.”

  Thing turned over ruling out electrical issues.  We figured that the storm had either shaken up sediment in a fuel filter overdue for change or somehow introduced air into the system.  Having no spare filters or tools we going to have to do everything the old fashioned way.  Which we knew was going to be brutal because we were a long way from home and the wind was a steady twenty-five to thirty nm/h blow directly down our course.

  Wife at helm I pulled out the headsail a bit while son took anchor just off bottom ready to reset if necessary.  Breeze took the jib and bow with it around and to a downwind course.  Pulled the sail the rest off the way out and stowed the anchor.  Raised the main and into the channel we made it.   Unfortunately another problem soon presented itself.

   Sailing upwind requires one to beat back and forth as far toward the direction of the wind as sail design will allow, in this case about fifty degrees off.  In strong winds it is important that the main swing fully from one side to the other  so that some of its force is allowed to spill off and you’re not overpowered.  On the Marcie however, the apparatus that positions the boom (“traveler”) would be moved only with great difficulty.  Fearful of it getting stuck in the middle during a change of course we decided to furl the jib so that problems couldn’t compound during a tack.  This made the helm a bit heavier and forward progress slower.

  Though, as son pointed out, we were up there to sail and that we surely did.  The island’s rich red cliffs and dense green forest salved the chafe of the elements.  Wind seemed to calm a bit and we raised the jib.  Quite better progress until the problem we foresaw above did manifest.   Son put his considerable back into the traveler and we furled the jib for the rest of the day.

  Some ten hours later we were sunburned, wind whipped, exhausted, but portside.  We furled the sails, cleaned up, hosed off, and enjoyed a very fine birthday spaghetti dinner with billowing pink cumulus providing the pyrotechnics.  Drank a bit of wine and sat around philosophizing.



June 5, 2009

  Of all sorts of contractors, bridge builders are those most in tune with nature.  Homebuilders, general contractors, and road builders take steps to hew to unremitting schedules of which their predecessors would never have dreamed.  In the winter, they thaw the ground.  Once the framing is up, they enclose with polyethylene sheeting and plumb and electrify.  Once there is a lid on a project there is not much that will slow them down.

  Bridge projects however are often remote and astride a force of nature that won’t be ignored.  Thus the crews are more independent, flexible, and solemn than other types.  They know they can’t bullshit mother nature.  River comes up, they move to higher ground and wait for the sun to return.

  Something humane in that sort of pace.  Primal maybe.  I was thinking about it this morning, first when running along the river.  Ran under a bridge and saw a few carp swirling about thinking of spawning.  It’s really turbulent when they all get the idea.  Ducks and geese with their rafts of ducklings and goslings.  Felt sorry for one duck and drake pair whose progeny had dwindled to just two.

  Driving to work I noticed the fluff of the cottonwood trees along the river.  Jeesh it gets thick.  Every year the algorithm in my mind takes me first to dandelions and then “oh ya, there’s too much too high, it’s the cottonwoods’ turn”.

  For one sitting in an office remembering a nasty recession at the beginning of a career while sweating a new one, the throes of Mother Nature’s rhythms hold allure. 

  Freud wasn’t exactly thinking about the economy or weather when he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, but, well, it’d sure be great to have a sailboat and shove off.  Leave the razor’s edge behind.

  At sea the choices are clear and Mother Nature won’t be trifled with.  There’s work, relaxation, and terror.  One emerges from this last either stronger and respectful or, uh, quite wet.

  “Confronting a storm is like fighting God.  All the powers seem to be against you and, in an extraordinary way, your irrelevance is at the same time both humbling and exalting.”  Francoise Legrand.

  “For the truth is that I already know as much about my fate as I need to know.  The day will come when I will die.  So the only matter of consequence before me is what I will do with my allotted time.  I can remain on shore, paralyzed with fear, or I can raise my sails and dip and soar in the breeze.”  Richard Bode.

Seagull Sunset

 March 29, 2007


September 19, 2008

  The persistence of vision is an interesting phenomenon.  It’s a conjunction of physics and biochemistry that allows our visual stream of consciousness to be seamless.  Like how the scene behind a picket fence looks essentially unbroken if you ride by quickly.  Or how a movie appears continuous rather than a succession of cells.

  It’s all because the biochemical transmission of nerve responses from retina to the back of your brain is much slower than the transmission of light.

  I’ve long wondered if there is some sort of analogue in our memory banks.  Long periods of separation from friends or loved ones often seem to disappear into some sort of synaptic negligibility.  You pick up where you left off almost as if it had been in mid-conversation.

  Recently however, I’ve begun to believe Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is what is operative.  It basically holds that all pertinent facts about something unseen cannot be known with precision – only probabilities.  And that actual observation can yield surprise.

  A week or so ago for example I hadn’t seen oldest daughter for quite some time and stood not far from Casco Bay in wait.  Saw something catch the sun in the distance and lost my balance.  She had the lines of a really sweet sloop, fine sailcloth trimmed tight, on a run, heading towards me at speed.

  I swear last time I saw her she gripped my index finger to steady herself in the surf on the warm gulf shore of Florida.  

  But now, what with Maine’s rugged coast, it was critical that I quickly regain an even keel.  I wasn’t sure whether to tack or jibe or heave to and only at the last minute was, thankfully, after all these weeks, rescued by my navigator. 

  I looked into her compass and found my sea legs again.  We listened together about a candle burning at both ends, briefs, pro bono, and the state supreme court.  First part of her passage may have been tough, but we could tell that her grip on the tiller was firm and her ability to read the wind solid. 

  Soon it was time to shove off.  We sheeted in and  made for  points north.