Sailing from Quarantine 2020 Part 1: Let’s go north

You know 2020 was an amazing awesome year. We can look back to April on a particular day and it wasn’t such a bad day. I was sitting at work looking from my office out into the blue sky of Florida. I was pretty sure that the world was coming to an end. Still, we had sunshine. Such was the impending feelings of the world and the increasing awareness of the pandemic about to reach us. You know I’m not the normal guy off the street. I make a lot of money from making predictions and being completely right or right enough for people to make money off my advice. Such was the awareness of the pandemic. I’d already been telling my staff to stay home. I’d been tracking the pandemic since December. 

When you think about it. Between Thanksgiving 2019 and the Chinese New Year 2020 co-mingled with the cold-and-flu season you really have a powder keg of disease. It seems like half the planet gets up and moves somewhere else with one of the largest migrations of humankind in such a short period of time. Saying there might be an increase of sickness is like Homer Simpson drinking beer. What else did you expect? This though isn’t about beer drinking yellow people, viruses, or anything else. This is a story about the amazing year of 2020. Written in the final days of the year. 

I’ll bring you up to speed. As we closed out 2018 we were having fun.  My wife and I had new jobs, our teams were solidifying, we were figuring out the new gigs. We’d been living on our sailboat in a quaint little marina in Dania Beach Florida. Our sons were celebrating freedom at University doing what twins normally do when they are around each other. Ignoring everybody else. We were closing out the year after Thanksgiving and my birthday. When my wife woke me up and said, “Honey I think I’m having a heart attack.” I was dumbfounded. I mean this is my rather youngish wife, marathon runner, and general health nut spouse. For darn sake she made me be vegan for three years. 

Rocking the chemo therapy haircut

Don’t worry though she didn’t have a heart attack. While we were sitting in the hospital the doctor explained very patiently there was no indication of a heart attack. No, it looked like she had cancer instead. From that point on into the new year of 2019 and every day until 2020 dawned the days were filled with mortal terror. Many rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and discussions of imminent mortality. Death was a near companion as every step through the year of 2019 was taken. So, there you go. In the second week of 2020 we found ourselves sitting in chairs with the oncologist. She said, “You’ll never be totally free of cancer, but you are in full remission and we see no signs of it. We’ll see you in six months, and then six months after that.” In May we got the second all clear. 

So, let’s talk about the living on a boat thing. I’ve lived on and off boats since I was about six weeks old. My parents were the blue collar yachties. You know they owned powerboats, and sailboats, and started a yacht club in Brownsville Washington. On and off my parents would take off cruising up the west coast as far as they could get in a month and then hightail it south. Many Christmases as a young man were spent in some anchorage or harbor of Canada. Living on a boat wasn’t a plush yachty lifestyle. It was pretty much a homeless with boat kind of lifestyle. I literally had to walk a half mile to get a shower, which costs 50 cents if you wanted hot water, and then walk back to the boat. I often pocketed the quarters and just took a cold shower. That walk was fften in rain, sleet or the miserable wet stuff they identify as snow in the pacific northwest. Walking barefoot, in the cold, in shorts, and getting under the needles of cold water was actually soothing. 

On June 14th my family and I untied the lines from the dock in Fort Lauderdale. They say in the full time sailing and cruising world that untying the lines is the hardest thing to changing your life. We found it quite easy. The office team I led was sent to home until the end of the year. We were now a remote workforce. My wife was hiding from a pandemic they said she would not be treated for if sent to the hospital. If you lived on a sailboat what would you do? Collecting our sons from university we headed north along the east coast. 

Watching the sunset on the open ocean brings a whole new concept to chilling.

When you take off on even a large sailboat it is still tiny when compared to the sea. We had plans of hopping into the Gulfstream a high-speed ocean highway of water moving at up to 4 knots north directly towards our destination of the Chesapeake. Three or four days in that water and we’d be in the cool mid-Atlantic temps and working from boats in glorious anchorages. Plans are for the weak.

When you go sailing you must consider the wind direction, strength, the tide, wave height and direction, the number of hours of daylight in the total period of the day, the moon phase for light at night, the needs of the crew for sleep and rest, and balance all that around working remotely. Working from boat was different than just being retired on boat. Add into that equation we were in the middle of a merger with a sister company and you get the idea things were busy. Our plan involved sailing like crazy for about 12 hours and knowing we’d hit a bunch of early summer squalls. At some point we knew we’d jump into a wind hole (big spot with no wind) for about 4 hours of motoring the first night away from the dock. Then we’d get wind again and head further north on a highspeed water born express route. 

So… There we were. It sounds like a hold my beer moment doesn’t it? We were having a grand time with smiles all around. My wife was making gourmet meals in the galley we’d refit (overhauled) for her. Our yellow Labrador retriever was snoozing in my lap. She is a bit big to be a lap dog, but she is hard to say no to also. It was late or early in that strange way that after midnight feels. The wind as expected slowly evaporated, and the sails started flopping up against the stays and shrouds. The stays and shrouds are thick wires that hold the mast of the sailboat up and in near silence we rocked gently in the middle of the gulf stream. The warmth from the water was a fine mist gently caressing us in an embrace of unfathomable grace. Being cruisers first, and sailors second school of thought, I reached over and turned on the engine. I can hear the utter horror of sailors, the gnashing of teeth, and the rumbly sound of trolls unleashing the purist agenda of sailing. To that I only can answer the rumble of the tiny diesel lightened up the night with the chuff and chug of the water-cooling system. We took off and watched flying fish the strangest adaption of a water born species I’ve ever seen skim across the bow. 

A sailboat auxiliary diesel is like a friend with will and charisma. It just keeps being there for you. Trusted, capable, and nearly forgotten because it is all you will ever need. Every sailboat engine seems to have a character, a sense of difference, and the one in our boat is no different. Then about two hours into our motoring it went silent. There was a gurgle and then it went silent. I had been sleeping and my sons were on the helm. Sleeping in the cockpit isn’t easy but it allows me to be in the middle of the action. I woke up and told my son at the helm to start it again. A few seconds later the engine started. We were on our way and all was right in the world. Must have been one of those strange things that only happen…

The engine died again. Thus, I began diagnosing and waking up. The cold water of something being wrong evaporated the idyllic and replaced it with dread. The generator ran but the main engine died. I had fuel. I could see fuel. The engine was full non-start at this point. I looked and a vacuum gauge located on the fuel filter was maxed out. There are all kinds of gauges, dials, indicators, alarms on a boat, and this one was in the red. Having spent three years studying the systems of our boat I knew two things. The problem was in the upstream fuel system and that I was royally screwed. It was time to look for other options. There was only one really good idea of what was happening. Our hypothesis was that our beautiful boat had been infected by diesel bug. 

Even with all the electronics available to the modern navigator there is just something special about real books and real charts to find your place in the world.

The diesel bug is a biological material that grows in the water that is inside of diesel storage tanks. We used a chemical additive every time we filled up to keep this stuff from growing in the small tanks of our sailboat. The problem is that even though I’m willing to run the engine much more than some. I still have a sailboat and 100 gallons of diesel can last a year where you chug out of the inlet, put the sails up, sail somewhere, and then reverse the process. Living in Florida you must treat fuel because the humidity is so high that it infection and growth can happen quickly. Suffice it to say we had the bug and at sea there was nothing to be done about it. The lines were too short to swap the generator and engine inlets. We had a big sailboat with no engine. Not a huge problem. Just a big problem. A nearly 50-foot, 20 ton problem, and not much to be done about it. We were thinking and considering all the variables of weather and people. 

As a popular YouTube celebrity says everybody wants to be skipper until there is skipper shit to be done. Using every light wind trick in the book I moved us from dozens of miles off the coast to get close enough to make a cell phone call. The wind blowing offshore towards the ocean meant we weren’t in real danger of anything. I started making lots of phone calls wishing I could have done that hours ago. I also decided to buy a satellite phone about the fifteenth time we had to tack. As we got closer and closer to the shore, I got more nervous about no engine, wind change, and what that would mean. We could continue to sail. The solar power array on our boat would keep the batteries topped off. Little alarm bells of danger danger and more danger were going off in my head. They grew from polite tinkles to gregarious klaxons. We could always drop the dinghy into the water and tow our big boat. We could drop an anchor. We had options. I got on the phone and called for a tow. A short time later they showed up. 

They pass you the tow line and tell you to monitor the radio so they can tell you what they need. Then they let out a huge amount of tow line to make you track better. You’re on a boat being towed by another boat and though we are on a rather large sailboat we are still being towed. The weather has turned a bit and now the seas are rough, we’re going to be pounding into them, and there are a few issues with stuff not being tied down for this kind of sea condition. 

I remember leaving Victoria Harbor in British Columbia one year on my parents’ sailboat. We were going to sail across the Straits of Juan de Fuca in a stiff breeze. As we exited a friend of my dad’s called us on the radio and congratulated us on being sturdy sailors and said he “hoped” to see us on the other side when the weather cleared. Our 34-foot sailboat went out and with the wind and tide going out meant not coming back in any kind of real option. As the bow lifted for the first time and sank into the next wave the sails absorbed the shock. The boat rose up again and buried the bow again. Water streamed down the decks. The edges of the deck called gunwales have these slots to drain water called scuppers. It is amazing to see these spray water back into the boat. This is where I learned to skipper as a young teen in heavy weather. Sliding across the waves with water spraying you in the face. On the water, in the winter, with cold mist pricking at your face. Then you look up and see nothing but a glorious blue sky and forget about the misery you are feeling. 

As we entered into the fray of steep seas I coached my twenty-something son. The boat is going to rise and point away from the tow boat and then when you come down the other side instead of blasting into the next wave turn to the starboard (right) and slide down the wave on the side of the boat. Within a few minutes he gets the hang of the motion and he is surfing nearly 20 tons of sailboat from wave to wave. The tow smooths out. The tow boat isn’t being yanked around so much. We’re still taking a lot of water across the boat. A hatch cover shatters. Every little leak on the boat is streaming water. The locks on cupboards fail. The dog is not very happy with me to be honest. 

Huge waves crash across the bow even with my son’s heroic efforts. The seas wash across the cabin top splashing up against the windshield filing the cockpit with water. Salt begins to coat everything first in a gritty layer and then in a solid coating of white. With each large wave the tow boat pulls us through them and the bow rises up. Then from ten or twelve feet high slams down into the trough shaking the boat from stem to stern. Then it all happens again and again. That is the truth of the difference of living on land versus living on a boat. Take your home ten feet in the air and drop it repeatedly for hours and hours. Then soak everything on the boat in salt water.

On June 15th we arrived in Cape Canaveral a day after having left Fort Lauderdale. Shaken, battered, bruised, and thinking about our life choices to that point. We admit to being fluffy sailors not hearty or hard-bitten sailors. We are in it for the sunsets. You can say what you will about the lifestyle but trying to survive a washing machine of pain when the expectation was idyllic sailing and motor sailing was a hectic truth to swallow. 

Things happen when you sail. Good things, and bad things. They aren’t some grand challenge like Southern Ocean racing. They aren’t some honorable activity like saving lives. They are just things that a family goes through and thinks about as they mature and grow. These are the stories that get told when you are long gone. You don’t go looking for trouble. That is just crazy. Instead, it is how you handle the trouble when it arrives. The flat tire in the middle of nowhere or running out of gasoline when all the stations are close. You’re not teaching your kids or family how to solve the problems you are teaching them how to handle problems. It will be a life lesson far beyond the ones you thought you were experiencing. 

We arrived in the waning hours of the day and were delivered to a slip where we immediately began trying to find somebody to cleanse our diesel tank. During a pandemic. When nobody wants to even talk to you. How were going to get our boat fixed? I started ordering parts from Amazon and negotiating with vendors. There was a lot more to this than we originally thought. That though is for the next installment.