Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Direct Input Limited Duty Officers

The military has classifications for the officers who serve. Most are considered line officers, which means they can do just about anything and are in line for the top job; not sure and can't be bothered to look up if the 'line' comes from 'in line' or 'front line,' but that's what they are called. Other officers are restricted in what they can do, some may serve on a ship, but they'll not ever be a ship's commander because they are limited in their duty responsibilities.

Navy Nuclear Power School in Orlando in the mid-1980s was staffed by both line officers, most of whom had served on ships or subs and were getting some shore duty time managing our daily lives, and limited duty officers, who were grabbed upon completion of a physics or chemistry graduate program, shown how to tuck their new shirts in, and shipped to Orlando to teach us enlisted guys the basics of nuclear science and the related disciplines.

We sat through lectures about heat transfer and fluid flow, worked out complex physics problems, learned about interstitial point defects, and a whole bunch of other top secret stuff that I'll probably get arrested for if this blog ends up in the CNO's hands. The see-en-whatchoo-say? That's an acronym for Chief of Naval Operations. Like most bureaucratic organizations, the Navy loves acronyms. I suspect that creating many acronyms is a way of making up a new language, without it having to be something that adds any value to anybody's life; knowing how to use a bunch of little codes is a way of signaling other members that you are in The Club.

Letting civilians into the military during wars has resulted in a hijacking of the secret language. In fact, those draftees ended up adding their own acronyms that took off and have gone into the mainstream. Two of the best are SNAFU and FUBAR. Look'em up.

So, back to Nuke school (which was sort of a weird thing to call it in the penultimate moments of the Cold War), where I was taking classes from those LDOs straight out of grad schools in Berkley and Boston. The best one was this hot little blond Ensign, named Heisel. This being the eighties, and all nuclear-powered vessels being front-line warships, the Nuke program was a boys club. Only men could go to war at that time. My understanding now is that women are in the foxholes and on the front lines in aircraft carriers, et.al. I don't have any problem with that. I know that my biggest fear while serving on my front line ship was not the gender of the guys I was working with, but the intelligence level. A cigarette butt in a fuel tank full of a couple hundred thousand gallons of jet fuel was the thing that I feared far and above a silkworm missile from the Ayatollah.

And so but then back to Ensign Heisel and the rest of the LDOs. She would stand on this podium at the head of the class, wearing her officer khaki skirt and stroking up and down her thigh, while a classroom full of 19-26 y/o sailors watched her answer a question. Did she know what sort of reaction this was causing? I'll never know. What I did find out, however, is that all of these teachers were not only LDOs, they were also direct input, which if you put the whole together, in the right order (like in the title of this post) in an acronym, comes out as my favorite of all time.

Article of the Day

A good article in Blue Water Sailing about what to look for in the search for a cruising boat.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Messing about in Sailboats"

I've been following Messing About in Sailboats and loved this tale of a lost dinghy. It involves all the elements of a great sea story: the Caribbean, rum, piracy, lovely naked wenches, rum, a barracuda, and a giblet bag. Go read it here: Too drunk to find my dinghy. I'll wait for you to return.

So, pretty funny, eh? Reminded me of a (mis)adventure of my own from my Navy days. We were out to sea for a month or so, in transit from the Philippines to Thailand, with some at sea international maneuvers thrown in with the Australian Navy. At the end of our trek, we anchored off Pattaya Beach for five days liberty.

Being in the engineroom and anchored too far away for an extension cord to reach the shore power outlet meant we had to keep the engineering plant steaming, so my liberty was cut by a fourth. It would have been half that, but the other underway engineroom supervisor and I worked a couple of the upper-level watchmen extra hard the last two weeks before we arrived to get them qualified to stand an auxiliary steaming watch, giving us four watch sections to cover the time we were anchored.

I steamed the plant for the first day and night and then hit the beach for the last three nights. It felt good to kick around on solid ground with the freedom to walk anywhere I felt like going, after a month-long stretch at sea. I explored the little beach side town, did some shopping, picking up gifts for my wife and new baby back home, and then found a hotel swimming pool to relax alongside.

As I sat down I overheard the two guys next to me talking in Aussie accents about their own engineroom duties. When I introduced myself, and they knew me for a fellow hole snipe, they offered me a 'gin and tonic' which I happily accepted. I tipped it up and took a sip of straight gin. I coughed a little and said, "That's a stiff gin and tonic" to which my new found mates replied, "Yeah, we ran out of tonic about an hour ago, but still have plenty of gin." To me this incident is an illustration of the split between Englishmen and Aussies. Although they will stand on form, and continue to call it a G&T, damn if they are going to stop drinking for lack of a mixer.

As the sun began to fade away and the gin ran out, I said goodbye to my (at this point highly inebriated) friends and headed downtown to try and catch up with some of my shipmates. Pattaya faces west on the Gulf of Thailand and has a long beach that's wider on low tide. Toward the south end the beach ends and a seawall begins. Above the seawall is a long row of buildings that house all sorts of money-making propositions. The first of which was a kickboxing arena (found a recent picture [to the left]; it looks like the kickboxing either expanded to include a beer garden, or got replaced by a beer garden). Most of the businesses along Pattaya Road are open air, so as you walk along you can see the current kickboxing match-up, the latest t-shirt styles, and who's drinking beer in the handful of bars along the way.

I found my engineroom crew in a bar about 200 yards down from the beach's end and stopped in for a beer with the boys. Lucky that I had the gin in my system because these guys were well down the road of stupidity and it would have taken a lot of beer for me to catch up. Did I say lucky?

As time went on I caught up on the beers, while drinking and dancing with the local girls in a big group. As the bar got more crowded, a couple of us got up on the actual bar, toward the back of the building. I turned toward the Gulf and could see the Wabash anchored a half-mile out to the West. By this time I was pretty soaked in sweat from the dancing and took my shirt off as I turned back toward the crowd.

By a coincidence of timing, two important things happened that led to the events I will describe forthwith. First, the guy next to me had drawn everyone's attention as he was encouraged to chug a bottle of Singha and, second, the song Tarzan Boy (one-hit wonder Baltimora: who it turns out was a gay Irish dancer, named Jimmy McShane lip-syncing and fronting an Italian pop-song making songwriter/producer; sort of Milli Vanilli meets Lou Perlman, with some Fabio and Liberace thrown in) kicked off with its trademark jungly disco beat. Just as these two worlds collided and this tragically happy coincidence occurred, my shirt came over my head and I turned around, swaying to the lyrics "Jungle life, I'm far away from nowhere, On my own, like Tarzan Boy" and the little Thai girls, who'd been cheering my shipmates beer-chugging, began hooting and whistling and gesturing to me, as though we couldn't have choreographed the whole thing better if we'd thought to.

I occasionally hit my marks and nail the timing, only because I've seen it all done before and I'm a great mimic. Having arrived at this moment so serendipitously, I took my cue and I tossed my shirt to the ladies, the perfect picture of Tom Jones. With loud approval they signaled that they wanted more. My brain having been reduced to lizard-size by this time, I reacted as requested and, to the pounding rhythm accompanying the Tarzan yell "oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh" I kicked off my Sperry topsider, spun in a circle, and shoe number two followed, sailing out into the sea of inequity.

Our little group's focused cheers drew in more of the crowd, until the whole bar was bouncing and singing along (at least they had the oh-oh parts down; not sure anybody knew any other words; I had to look it up myself to ensure I hadn't misinterpreted, even though I've been singing along to it for 20+ years) with the manufactured electronica while pointing at me. Who am I to deprive the people of their entertainment? I unzipped my hiking shorts to "Night to night, Gimme the other, gimme the other, Night to night," slid them down and flipped them out to the crowd.

So, I guess this is the moment of truth, right? You're wondering to yourself: boxers? briefs? commando? Frankly, I don't recall, but I know there was at least one more stanza in the song and I had one final article of clothing. The Navy issued us Fruit of the Loom briefs, but I'm pretty sure I ditched those things right after boot camp. I think I must have been wearing boxers and at this point, the crowd wanted them.

And so but then to the oddly-accented encouragement of some Italian pop-mercenary, singing the strangely apropos words "It's all right, You won't miss home, Take a chance, Leave everything behind you, Come and join me, Won't be sorry, It's easy to survive," I slowly bent and worked my boxers down to my ankles. Stepping out of the left leg hole, I stood and flipped my right foot out over the crowd, tossing my shorts (and probably swinging a couple of other things) out to the masses, in the way that only a 23 y/o with no concept of consequences could do.

I took a chance. I left everything behind me (maybe in front, but I was in tune with the spirit of Jimmy's lip-synced request). And, to my surprise as I write this 22 years later, I wasn't sorry. I was, for a brief moment, happily liberated right up until the song came to an end a moment or two after my unveiling. What to do?

They always say, "Leave'em wanting more" which, of course, takes on whole different levels of meaning when a man is standing naked in the room, so, once more on cue, and again without much rational thought, I turned toward the Gulf and did a swan dive out the window, into the ocean. I had about ten feet before I hit and tucked to round off underwater.

When I came up I was facing out to sea with cheers coming from above and behind me. I turned, treading water and saw faces leaning out the bar and waving. Underneath the faces were the poles and piers holding the building up. I looked right and left and didn't see anywhere that looked like an access point back up to the bar or the street, so I started swimming back toward the main beach.

I stroked along for two hundred yards, mostly in the shadow of buildings, which were all similarly propped up and offering no apparent access to the street until I reached the beach just past the kickboxing palace. As I crawled out of the water, it dawned on me that I now had to return the same distance that I just swam, on foot, naked, down a crowded street.

With my fishing tackle in hand, I began the walk. Surprisingly, only about a 1/4th of the folks on my side of the street, shuffling down a crowded sidewalk, seemed to notice that they had just passed a naked man. One guy who did notice was sitting just inside and open air bar, facing the sidewalk. As I passed by a woman carrying a bottle of Singha on a small serving tray, placed the beer in front of him. He put his hand on her arm and said, "Hold on, baby, get me another, would'ya?" Then he handed his beer out to me and said, "This one's for you, sailor."

As I came back to the bar in which I'd last been seen clothed, a loud cheer went up. I saluted with my beer and my clothes were tossed back my way. One of my shipmates said that they had considered throwing them out to me in the water, but I'd swam away before they could gather them up.

Obviously there's no moral to this story, and, without passing judgment, there would seem to be very little morals involved either. I still wonder at the chance that I could have hit a submerged post, or a shallow bottom and broken my neck. But I didn't and I don't dance naked anymore, which is by no means a loss to anyone as I'm on the wrong side of forty these days and not quite the dancer I was at twenty three.

Someone take the wheel

Kris and I arrived a little early to The Sailing Life dock for our Saturday morning sail, so we kicked around and looked at boats. I think anybody who's thinking about making the move to a boat should plan on spending multiple hours/days looking at boats. Kris and I found this story by Suzanne Giesemann very inspiring. We are getting a steady education looking over any and all possible boats. It's even a little tempting to fly out to Annapolis for the big boat show in two weeks, but I'm not sure we'll do it.

The Sailing Life had a newly arrived Beneteau 40' in the commissioning stage. Still had some grease pen notes on the hull and the mast had yet to be stepped, but it was in the water.

We looked around at a few of our favorites, the Hunter Deck Salon models being at the top of the list. There are two DS 45s (picture to left from Hunter Web site) and one DS 41 in the vicinity. The 45s have been sold and the 41 is still available. We are both very interested in these models as they have more room in the main salon for living, as well as for storage.

Our boat for today's sail was the Hunter 38. This 2008 model had been sold to someone locally, who used it for less than a year and decided to bump up to one of the DS 45s moored a couple of slips away. So, she's in excellent condition and the main salon still has that new boat smell.

Kevin briefed us quickly on our roles for mooring when we returned and we were underway. After we got out in the main channel, Kevin gave me the helm, pulled up and stowed the bumpers, and started prepping us to get under sail. I helmed us out to the main river channel and then handed it over to Kris so I could go help Kevin and learn a little about how to setup and trim this boat's sails. That was the last I had my hands on the helm.

Kris was reluctant to take the wheel, even though she was sitting right next to it, and I ended the discussion by just walking away and telling her it was all her's. The winds were very light and blowing upriver, but it was a joy to shut the engine down once we hauled out the mainsail. After that we unfurled the foresail and made an easy 1/2 knot across the Columbia on a port reach, occasional puffs giving us the slightest bit of heel. We jibed upriver a couple of times, fell off, turned her into the wind, and began tacking back down the river, the apparent wind picking up noticeably.

Kris was excitedly calling out the boat speed as the wind picked up and bubbles began to flow under the transom behind us, our speed inching up toward three knots in a close reach to starboard.

There was nothing near a regatta, but a handful of boats were playing around in the light air. Our early fall day warmed steadily, turning into a nice day as the afternoon approached.

I'm sure Kevin thought we were pretty goofy, although he was a good sport and answered all of our questions about the boat, sail trim, and the local yachting/racing scene. He even shared some of his own adventures from the local beer can and club races.

After a couple of tacks down river we came about and pointed her into the wind so we could start up the diesel, haul in the sails, and head back to the dock in time for a late lunch.

Guess who helmed us back in the channel?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What do you know?

I've been surfing for a few years now, most of that time spent bobbing around on the surface of the sea, eyes cast offshore analyzing the swells moving toward me. I know the image that most of society has about surfing is more like what you see in the latest videos: a young, bleached, tanned kid dropping in, carving a cutback, and slashing off the lip; or maybe a long-bodied, baggy-shorted Wingnut (look him up; the heir of Robert August and one of the funnest [yeah?] guys ever), smilingly, soulfully-arched and cruising through a deep green barrel.

Those things happen and they look great on film and they stick best in memory, but the bulk of time spent in search of waves is a lot more pedestrian (amphibian?). Most of my time has been spent paddling around, working into position, especially on windy days, and a lot of staring into the distance. Rather than a frenetic music-video experience, I find myself drifting, floating and reflecting on my life. I've spent a lot of time studying the way water moves around near shore, the rips, currents, swells, and waves that eventually form up and break as that ocean energy pushes into shallower water.

The wind is a large part of the equation, and can quickly turn a session into something fun, when it shifts and blows offshore, holding up wave faces as they try to pitch over themselves. Alternatively, a fun session can quickly get messy and blown out when an onshore breeze kicks up and starts blowing the tops off the waves before they can form.

I've learned to spot a rip current and use it to get myself out into the lineup quickly. A spot I surf in Baja sits inside a little bay with a rocky cliff projecting out into the ocean on the North end. The waves pump into the little bay and the water that builds up in the bight has to move back out and, with the right swell, it will push along the beach to the North and then right out along the base of that cliff.

The first time I paddled out there I was nervous about how exactly it would play out, but I had scoped it pretty well and, although it was a very narrow little rip, it looked like the water was moving swift and true, right out to the back of the lineup, without exposing me to any breaking waves and the potential to get pushed onto the rough volcanic rocks. With a dozen other surfers surveying the spot, I was the first to test it out and after a half-dozen waves, followed by the express lift back out, I was quickly joined by a handful of surfers boldly riding my wake.

I know a few things about the near-shore seafloor, too. And can easily spot waves breaking over sandy bottoms, versus the more powerful and consistent reef breaks, which I love. When a surfer has surfed a spot long enough, he begins to know where to go, and when to be there. He knows what the wind and swell reports mean to his spot and he's always in the right spot out there in the water. He's got it wired.

It's pretty clear that some of my surfing skills and knowledge will fit with my sailing needs. I also have a pretty good base of experience with ships' systems, having run an engineroom on a Navy oiler. I even have some book knowledge specific to sailing, having read volumes of marine-related material including sailing blogs, novels, circumnavigation reports, maps and charts, technical manuals, ad infinitum. However, what really appeals to me about this adventure that Kris and I are embarking on is the things I don't know. And that's a lot.

I could spend every day of the rest of my life sailing and studying sailing and I'll never learn all there it to know, nor will I go all the places there are to go. I may get one or two things wired, but all I have to do is pull up the anchor, make sail, and I'm on a new course to something I don't know.

So, here's to not knowing. I hope I know enough to stay safe. I think I know enough to take risks that I can afford to take. I want to know enough to challenge myself to learn more. Most importantly, I know that I'll never know it all and that makes life look more interesting.

Here's somebody who is certain that she knows a lot more than me and you, including what's best for us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Love and Coconuts

Lately people have been asking us what the smiles are for. Apparently, one of the symptoms of full-engagement with your dreams is a big-ass smile displaying on your face when you aren't even particularly aware of it. We've ended up laying out the plan for most of the folks we talk to and, surprisingly, they seem to get a little swept up in it. The guys especially are excited.

I'm realizing that this dream I've had since I was about twelve and read my first Robb White novels, was only missing one key
ingredient, a fellow sailor to go along with me. I was somewhat affixed on the idea that my dream was a daydream and not something to actually do. Why? I don't know. Maybe I knew I needed to do some emotional-growth work, and so sought out partners who would challenge me in a relationship, as though it were some sort of contest on a hot tin roof. Now that I'm with a partner who meets me and only challenges me to be a better faster stronger me, I'm struck by how close I am to, and how capable I am of making the life I want into a real daily thing.

Best response so far, Kris sent a link (to a boat she's interested in) to a designer she works with. His response was, "That is a super-sweet boat! 150k is a great deal for a floating house! You could sell everything, buy that, and have hundreds of thousands left over. Then you can sail the world and live on love and coconuts."

Love and coconuts.

That's beautiful.

If we hadn't already named the boat Clarity, I think we'd have to go with Love and Coconuts.

Our hopes and dreams in a spreadsheet

Which is kinda like a bottle, but not really at all. Kris and I had a follow-up to our initial meeting, this one being a more practical, logistical type thing, and we put our hopes and dreams into an Excel spreadsheet. We have a project plan now (which I'll post here eventually) and can chart our progress toward boat ownership, living aboard, and eventually casting off the dock lines and sailing across the Columbia Bar for a warmer port.

The beauty of laying it all out in the spreadsheet is that we can see each step on our journey and we can chart or progress as we make way toward the larger goal. There are a raft of boring logistical tasks to take care of now, but each one (selling household items, etc.) is made more interesting for the progress it gains us in fulfilling our dream; the sails are beginning to rise up the mast, where they will eventually fill and be trimmed to our liking.

We are spending a lot of time looking at boats now, these initial explorations helping us to negotiate what design elements are essential, important, and attractive. I like the solid practical feel of the Catalina yachts, while Kris is drawn more toward the French design aesthetic in the Beneteaus and the appealing little liveaboard touches of the Hunters. Of course, spending time in any boats salon reinforces the dream. We had the opportunity this past Sunday to look at a boat that currently has a couple living onboard and Kris was much interested in how they had appointed themselves inside, taking note of the hooks and snaps holding pots and pans on the galley wall, the candles burning in the main salon, incense in the head, and a few of the other creature comforts that fit in a small space.

Selling the house is the next major step.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Kris and I packed up some notebook paper and a couple of reference books and went looking for a coffee shop one Saturday morning with the intent of creating a plan for our life. It very quickly started to feel like a business meeting, so we surrendered to the moment, threw everything back in a bag, went to Kris's office, which was nearby, and started drafting our ideas with a more formal approach.

The s/w firm I'm currently working for (look for this to change soon) employs an agile development approach and at the end of each two-week sprint we do a post-mortem exercise to review what is working well and what isn't. The approach there is to have each individual write down on post-it notes the things they want more of, less of, and stay the same. Kris and I took the approach of writing down every discrete item we were thinking about with regards to our desire to make the move to a cruising life.

We took all of the notes and stuck them up on the wall. There were about sixty notes posted all over and the next step we took was to begin moving them around and arranging them into groups that made sense. We ended with three groups: business/financial concerns, transition tasks, and knowledge and experience we need to gain over the next five years.

After this we pinned up a couple of 2'x3' sheets of paper on the wall, added headings to the top and ended up with four categories, having split the business category into a Portland living-aboard phase and an underway phase.

The next step we have to take is to organize all of this into a timeline. So, that's where I will be this coming Sunday morning.

Oh, yeah, the intial phase involves selling a bunch of stuff, including a house, a condo, a BMW Z4, a pick-up, and a bunch of smaller things. I took the first step and posted a surfboard and a bike on Craigslist. The bike went the first day.

Boat Shopping

The Sailing Life on Hayden Island was our first stop in the boat shopping journey. They have a deal on Sundays where they open all of the boats they have in their inventory and let you wander through and explore what's available. That's a good marketing plan, my friends. Let me tell you why.

They're beautiful.

Look at that main salon. Of course, you might not want to have white cushions in a living room that's going to be rolling around, but not many people think about that on Sunday afternoon, sitting with a charming yacht broker in a beautiful, teak-accented, French-designed sailboat cabin. Another exciting thing is the stripper pole right there in the middle of everything. Can't wait for the first Friday night we get to spend in our own version of this dreamboat.

I digress.

And so but then this how it all started for us, at the least the shopping phase of things. I have actually been dreaming about making a move aboard a boat of my own for more than thirty years. I started reading sailing stories as a boy and was immediately drawn to the independence, self-reliance, and freedom to wander.

Now as Kris and I search for our perfect boat, the boat that speaks to us, we find ourselves passionately engaging over each bit of each boat. What works, what doesn't? And we haven't even begun to factor in how things will be when we are underway.

So, the shopping continues, while we also are scheduling charter trips. Our first mission will be to charter with a qualified teaching captain, to help us gain the knowledge we'll need to set out into blue water. The British Virgin Islands seem to be a hotspot of sailing and chartering activity. Our first trip is tentatively planned for next April, when we'll fly down and learn the basics of keelboat sailing over a weekend, and follow that up with a week-long catamaran charter.

Bon voyage!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What, no running and diet information?

Yeah, so I've changed course and added a partner to this blog. Meet my wife, Kris. Can I get a 'Vive la France'?

I met her when I was forty and married her when I was 43. I took her to Hanalei and woo'ed her and then brought her back a year later and married her on the beach at sunrise.

She makes me happy and she likes to sail. So, we are going sailing.

What about the boat? That's coming, hold on. First of all, the name, sailing vessel Clarity, comes from a moment of, well, clarity that my wife experienced a few years ago at the Seattle Boat Show. She was a member of the Columbia River Yacht Club at the time and went up to Seattle with a few fellow sailors. They were power boaters and had all met on some of the cruises the YC sponsored.

Kris and a couple of the other girls worked their way through a couple of Lemon Drops when Kris had one of those moments of pure insight that we all experience at a time or another in life. As the moment of realization swept over her she said, "It's amazing the clarity one experiences after fourteen Lemon Drops."

Shortly thereafter a tattoo followed, and continues to follow her around to this day. It's the chinese symbol for clarity, or clear blue water.

There it is. The name of our boat.

So, what kind of boat is she? What was her maiden name, you ask? Ms. Hunter? Mademoiselle Beneteau, perhaps? Maybe a Grande Dame? Or a Taiwanese Hylas by way of Boston?

Well, the short answer is I don't know. I'm leaning heavily toward a Catalina, somewhere in the 37-47 range, but I haven't bought a boat yet.

As far as the original intent of this blog, I had set out to create a log of my attempt to change my life after three years of struggling to recover from a car accident. The goal hasn't changed, but the means have, I guess. The quote on our masthead (!) is from that self-professed non-navigator, Captain Ron Rico.

I admire a man who ploughs ahead with the intention of making a memorable journey taking precedence over the desire to plot a specific course. Yes, this may appear foolish to some of you. In that case, plan your plans, plot your course, and let me know when you set sail. We'll be out there, because if it's going to happen, it's going to happen out there and we'd love to meet up with you and share our excellent whiskey sour recipe.

So, stay posted as we make this journey from our current indentured homeownership to a life of cruising.