Thursday, December 30, 2010

Inspirational Television
By Michael

Is TV still as bad? Yes.
Remember The Love Boat? In a weird way, that terrible and top-rated television show of the late seventies is responsible for my interest in sailboat cruising.

In 1979 I participated in a fundraiser for my 6th grade class, a magazine sales drive. About that time my folks returned from their first trip aboard a cruise ship, inspired by The Love Boat. Eager to read more about cruise ship vacations, they took a look at my list of magazines and bought a subscription to Cruising World. When the first issue arrived, it was clear they didn’t get what they expected.

Ten years later, they were still subscribers. I’d grown up without a sailboat, but with a magazine at home that gave me a knowledge and understanding of the cruising lifestyle. In my 20s, buying a boat and living aboard seemed as viable an option as securing an apartment. After living aboard for a short time, I learned that almost all of my dock neighbors were planning for departure. It took only a hint from a sailor I trusted to shift my perception away from the notion that I needed a boat designed by Colin Archer, Carl Alberg, or Robert Perry to plan a cruise of my own. The idea of a coastal cruise in my small production boat was born. For seven months spanning 1996 to 1997, Windy and I sailed from Ventura to Key West.
During our trip, we were on the lookout for other young cruisers and found few. Greg and Danielle Podlesney of Uhuru were among the few. Our wakes were in sync for a few months and we buddy boated. Eventually, we ended our cruises, sold our boats, and launched land-based lives. We settled on different coasts but kept loosely in touch and we each bought a house and had two kids. The Robertsons maintained careers, while the Podlesneys maintained their own businesses.
Now, 14 years later and all in our forties, both families are dropping out and heading off on paths radically different from how most Americans live their lives. Coincidence? This blog chronicles our big shift and Project Pragmatizo chronicles the Pod’s upcoming adventure in an RV they transformed.
My conclusion is that a taste of a different lifestyle should be encouraged for anybody in their second decade, if just to illuminate the possibilities. I think it helped offer us a unique perspective in our fourth decade. Of course, a big thank you is due also to Captain Stubing and his ABC crew.
P.S. -- I would love to find out where the first Del Viento is today—reportedly purchased from me by an Austrian couple for use in the Bahamas; I know that Uhuru was lost off the Pacific coast of Baja several years ago, two owners later.
--  MR

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Go Small (sort of), Go Now (5-year plan)
By Michael

When I planned my first trip aboard the Newport 27 Del Viento, I knew I needed crew aboard to manage that tender vessel. The Autohelm 1000 tiller pilot was not reliable. Even when working, it was often not quick enough to overcome the intrinsic weatherhelm of the Newport. Long days at the helm, and especially overnighters, wouldn't be practical. Yet, while doing my due diligence to find crew, a part of me retained hope that I wouldn't be successful, clinging to the romantic notion that I'd be forced to sail off alone, to join the fraternity of singlehanders.

Alas, I found my crew in the 11th hour and we sailed off together December 7, 1996. Less than three years later, we married. And now, 14 years later, we are on the verge of heading out again, with two little crew.

I no longer retain any desire to singlehand. Every future trip I imagine involves at least Windy. Yet, what a part of me now pines for is what we left behind when we sold the first Del Viento: minimalism. As we plan and outfit the Fuji 40 Del Viento, I miss the cruising aesthetics of the minimalists, the cruisers out there today on relatively small vessels making do with just what they need. This is a subset of the cruising community who are living the life purely, not cluttered by the trappings of a land-based life that turn the average cruising boat into something Slocum would not recognize.
The tub in the "spectacular master stateroom" of the Hunter 50

Minimalist cruisers eschew these things not because they are traditionalists or luddites: Lin and Larry Pardey don't have an engine aboard, but carry a GPS and use a solar panel; James Baldwin has never carried an EPIRB, but sings the praises of AIS. No, these successful cruisers are just plain practical. None has (or at least did not start out with) the resources to fill their boat with every boat show gadget and electronic device billed as a necessary safety item or comfort imperative. Accordingly, they launched their journeys afloat with the bare minimum aboard and allowed--paraphrasing Robin Lee Graham--the sea to teach them not how much they needed, but how little.
Over time every voyager comes to understand exactly what they need aboard. What is necessary for some seems superfluous to others. The distinction between the minimalist cruiser and the rest of us is how they determine what gear or system earns a place aboard.

Space, power consumption, and failure criticality are overriding considerations for every cruiser deciding what to bring or install aboard. Every purchase decision, for every cruiser--minimalist or not--means weighing these factors in a risk-benefit calculation. While nobody [in their right mind] questions the value of a cold beer or hot shower, that value is relative. A minimalist cruiser is likely to argue that refrigeration is a power-hungry system prone to failure, that a water heater adds undue complexity and risk of leaking a precious commodity, that neither earns a place aboard. Another cruiser may decide that either or both systems deliver a benefit that offsets the risk of failure and risk of being stranded in an undesirable location waiting for parts...and then sending them back for the correct parts.

In the same way that the overall size of a boat increases geometrically as the length increases linearly, the cost--measured in risk--of hosting systems aboard a boat increases geometrically with each system added. The hot water heater requires additional water lines, additional electrical generation capacity, a larger battery bank to store that power, and a pump/pressure tank to make a shower worthwhile. Of course, all of that means a bigger boat to hold it all. All of that means a likely increase in water consumption and stokes the need for a watermaker, which of course begets more of all the same. And how often then will you run the axillary for the sake of warming up that heat exchanger or generating power, thereby putting undue wear and tear on that system?

Of course, nothing is wrong with any of this. Even minimalists express contrary opinions about what belongs aboard their particular vessel. The danger lies for the cruiser who is not aware, or does not acknowledge this calculus.

The cruising minimalists I've read are the ones who endure, the ones for whom cruising is not just a phase or experience, but a life. Accordingly, they have earned our attention and consideration. As we prepare to head out there again, and with a relative paucity of experience, we plan to take a lesson from the minimalists--and from our former selves: to deliberately assess everything we bring or install aboard. Is it worth it? Are we prepared for its failure? Might we be happier without it? I aim to be able to present a very compelling, reasoned defense of every single piece of gear aboard our ship--and why we use it the way we do.

While my minimalist heroes have a lot to offer in terms of perspective, none are sailing and living with small crew aboard. (Yes, Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander raised Roma Orion aboard as minimalists. Yes, Dave and Jaja Martin sailed with two children aboard 25-foot Direction and with three children aboard 36-foot Driver, in relatively minimalist fashion. Yet neither the Goodlanders nor Martins transitioned as families from a land-based lifestyle to the cruising lifestyle.) We will have our own unique considerations.

If our girls are eager to end "this stupid boat trip" after a couple years, it will be over. We will not be successful afloat unless everyone is aboard (pun intended). Rationally, I suspect we will all look back ten years from now at my characterization above and laugh. But we will hedge our bets by cruising aboard a boat that is comfortable, homey, and kid-friendly. Beyond the obvious consideration we're giving to the increased energy and physical space demands of four people (so much for "go small, go now"), we are keenly interested in helping the girls to embrace and identify with the cruising life. Like at home today, I imagine kid art adorning the bulkheads. Like at home today, there will be no TV, but movies will play on the laptop and books-on-tape will boom from cabin speakers. Like at home today, cold milk for cereal will be at the ready each morning. Like at home today, hot water will be available for bathing before bedtime, when necessary. Like at home, Eleanor and Frances will share a cabin, but be afforded individual bunks and private space for their stuff.

Granted, this lifestyle will be radically different; that's why we're going. And we are not trying to reproduce aboard all of the creature comforts of home--we can't and we don't want to. There will be a lot of changes to which they'll have to adapt, changes that are significant and inherent to the lifestyle. But we aren't going minimalist, we just aren't. We are in a different class, as separate from the childless minimalists as the cruising couple is from the singlehander.

Like in all areas of life, about the best we Robertsons can do is to benefit from the experience of those we are following. At this point that means--as best we can--eschewing the hyper-consumerist mindset common to the preparing-to-cast-off cruiser. We've both pledged to see first what we can get by without, so long as we don't compromise our notion of what we need to ensure the safety of our girls (and so long as it means we can bring an iPad).

If Atom ever finds herself floundering offshore, James Baldwin can admirably walk his talk, testing for the first time the water-tight bulkheads he's prudently engineered on his 47-year-old Pearson Triton. In that instance, he won't have an EPIRB with which to hail assistance. But he will have enjoyed weeks of freedom afforded by the savings realized by not purchasing an EPIRB. He will be comforted by the fact that he is truly self-sufficient as he effects repairs and gets back under way. He may indeed be better off. Of course, he isn't planning to manage that situation while also managing the safety and well-being of two children. Accordingly, his reasons for going without an EPIRB are not relevant to us as we prepare to head off with our children aboard, and an EPIRB for each.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Christmas
By Windy

Eleanor and our tree
These days it seems everything is our last. Our fireplace mantle is graced with holiday cards, many inscribed somewhere with "final" or "last." We've had last birthdays and a last Halloween, a last Thanksgiving and now our last Christmas.

Weeks ago our tree became the subject of a battle between practicality and sentimentality. Mike wanted to sell the eight-foot plastic behemoth before Christmas (out-of-town neighbors offered us theirs). Eleanor was appalled at the potential tragedy of selling our tree--and on this, our last Christmas! Sentimentality triumphed.

This year Mike and I were thinking journals for gifts, not bicycles. The dearth of gifts under the tree caused Eleanor anxiety--she could do the math: three small wrapped presents divided by four family members equals Worst Christmas Ever. (We're working with her on the true meaning of Christmas.)

This Christmas was decidedly more spare. That is not to say we didn't receive plenty of generous gifts. Family and friends thoughtfully gave consumables (gift cards, tasty treats, cash) or portables (DVDs, Chico Bags). Donations were made to charities in the girls' names. We received two lovely handmade calendars. (Laura made hers extra small to fit nicely on a boat's bulkhead. Amy Jo considered ending her calendar in May, symbolizing our upcoming departure.)

With our lives shrouded in finality, I find significance in once pedestrian activities like going to a park. Casual gatherings with friends are often poignant, and holidays have an added layer of complexity. Interestingly, the Worst Christmas Ever was one of the best. Maybe it was due to an exaggerated appreciation for what we have, or maybe it was because it was short on material goods and long on time together. Perhaps this christmas is a harbinger of future Christmases. Perhaps this is not a last Christmas after all, but a first Christmas.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

First Contact
By Windy

Del Viento's home for now
Last week I saw our boat for the first time. (In fact, it was the first time any of us have been aboard since we took ownership last June.) I arrived at the small, private marina in Puerto Vallarta where we are renting a slip until we move aboard. After the bump and surge and dust of the local bus, the marina was positively serene. It is a postcard of cozy multicolored villas, skirted by palms and giant bird of paradise plants, and with a small, still harbor home to fishing boats, sailboats, and a couple large power boats. I walked down a brick and stone path and stood for a long moment regarding our boat with excitement and a pinch of fear.

Until that moment, I don't think I'd acknowledged, even to myself, my quiet fear. What if upon boarding I realize we'd made a big mistake? What if I find the cabin dark and claustrophobic? Most of all, what if I can't imagine our family living happily there?

The long, narrow, plastic ports squinted at me. The teal canvas looked cheerful and sharp. And then I was aboard and turning the key and shoving the companionway hatch open, feeling so completely focused and thrilled to be there.

Excited to be there!
Heat billowed out of the hatch, carrying the smells of diesel, mildew, and head.  I scanned the interior. Nothing obvious was wrong, but everywhere my eyes rested there were surfaces to oil, or polish, or clean. My strongest initial impression was that this boat really needed someone to inhabit it--which is what I was there to do, if only for a week. (Note: our boat sitters are excellent and conscientious. My impressions did not stem from any negligence on their part; on the contrary, they have gone above and beyond more than once.)

My mom arrived that evening and we spent a productive six days scrubbing, inventorying, measuring, and making a few simple repairs. Each evening we rested over a delicious meal and a margarita at a local restaurant, and each morning we started up again. By the end of the week, we'd covered every inch of the boat.
Aside from adding a thousand and one items to our to-do list, I learned that the Fuji 40 has an incredible amount of storage for the size of the boat, miles of headroom, and woodwork of rare beauty and precision--after 30 years each drawer glides smoothly into place and doors close with a satisfying click. The topsides are functional and free of ornamentation, with wide side-decks and and an expansive foredeck. In short, it is a lovely boat with a superb layout, and I can't imagine a better choice, either aesthetically (for me), or functionally (for my family).

Remaining are the needling fears I have been aware of since we began our 5-year plan. I fear for the safety of my children aboard--though rationally I know they will be safe. I fear for our finances--well that one isn't irrational at least. I fear leaving everything and everyone behind, not returning. Yet, I'm comforted that these fears amount to little compared to my overwhelming feelings of excitement for the adventure before us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Violence Happens

Police aboard a panga, enroute to s/v Adena, anchored in Laguna
Diamante, near the mouth of Honduras's Rio Tinto.
La, Tela, Honduras, December 4, 2010
This week, Latitude 38 reported online that Milan Egrmajer, a 58-year-old Canadian cruiser of the vessel Adena, was murdered over the weekend by armed thieves. Adena, an Ericson 35, was anchored peacefully in a remote Honduran anchorage called Laguna Diamante. Little else is known at this time, but his adult daughter was aboard and survived, so we will soon learn more.

News such as this is broadcast quickly throughout the cruising community, via a real communication grapevine. Because friendships are made quickly before boats sail in opposite directions, the grapevine exists to shorten the seeming distance between geographically dispersed members of the community. In the couple years Adena has been out cruising, boats and crew she crossed paths with have scattered about the world. Some will hear about the tragedy via SSB radio nets, and will spread the news on morning VHF nets. Some will share recollections of their encounters with Adena and her crew in cockpit gatherings.
Cruisers will mourn the loss and be eager to learn where and how this happened, hoping to gain or reinforce knowledge they can use to safeguard themselves.
This tragic event is not isolated, but neither are attacks on cruisers common. In fact, these types of senseless, predatory crimes happen so infrequently, and their circumstances so peculiar, that their likelihood doesn’t merit much worry. What these crimes do is to:
  • open the big—yet quiet—debate among folks heading off cruising about whether or not to carry firearms aboard.
  • remind everyone to carefully consider whether or not you will fight intruders to protect your property, or cooperate fully to expedite the removal of your valuables and minimize the risk of conflict.
  • cause cruisers to evaluate the measures they can take to make their boat a bit less attractive to boarders, such as a very bright spotlight as a powerful deterrent to approaching vessels/people at night, such as alarms that are set to be tripped by boarders, and which can potentially scare off bad folks who aim to be stealthy.
  • encourage people to adopt best practices wherever they go, such as not flashing your relative wealth nor engaging in criminal commerce, such as buying drugs.
We don’t consider the risk of a run-in like this to be high. But should those odds fail us, we will do, and will have done, all we can to lessen the potential for a tragic outcome.

I am very sorry for Mr. Egrmajer, his daughter, his family, and his friends. I cannot imagine.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Hurricane Hugo, 1989

Aboard the Casey J II in Tortola, BVI
1988, the year before Hugo 
Like most, I'm loosely familiar with the devastation wrought by the biggest hurricanes to hit North America in my lifetime: 2005's Katrina and 1992's Andrew.

What's harder to come by is information about the impact of these events on the cruising community. Sure, I read the Katrina-related articles by cruisers in the sailing magazines. Years ago, I watched an intimate yacht club presentation by a cruiser who buckled down in Hawaii and survived Hurricane Iniki as it passed over. I read Toast's harrowing posts about weathering 2009's Hurricane Jimena in Santa Rosalia, Mexico. I've read the Pardey's account of December 1982's rare winter storm that put 29 cruising boats on the beach.

For all of that, I've never seen anything like the compelling video below. I've never seen anything that better describes the impact of a major hurricane on the cruising community.  It is an hour-long collage of interviews of a small number of sailors who survived 1989's Hurricane Hugo in the Virgin Islands. The video was made shortly after the storm hit and it ain't the cleanest, but the grainy, unpolished quality--and the fact that the impressions were recorded so soon after the fact--brings the thing to life.

Winds of Hugo were recorded at 200 miles per hour; 190 boats were wrecked ashore.

I found the link to the video on Fatty Goodlander's site, and he and his family are featured prominently. Fatty tells of trees blowing into his rigging and of stanchions pushed down vertically, straight through his deck and into the cabin--all the while with his wife and child taking cover on the cabin sole.

More amazing than the superlatives used by everyone in this video to try and describe their experiences (with a goat aboard!?!), are the descriptions of camaraderie, of cruisers helping cruisers before, during, and after this astounding meteorological event. Camaraderie is an ironic attribute of a community comprised of determined individualists, a community to which we will soon return.

Video by Virgin Islands Search and Rescue (VISAR)
and hosted by, a site providing video
hosting for the people of the British Virgin Islands.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Ode

Latitude 38, November, 2010
Tonight, I asked Windy to not renew our subscription to Latitude 38. It seemed to her a weird request.
Every month I look forward to the newest edition arriving in the mail. I've considered feigning sickness on those days, just so I could beg a bit of quiet time alone in bed, free of parenting and household responsibilities, to dive into the latest issue. (I subscribe because the magazine, while free and widely available on the West Coast, is no place to be found in D.C.).
I've been reading Latitude 38 since the early nineties. I recall quarter-mile walks from my boat to the marina village at Ventura Harbor to pick up a few copies of the latest issue for myself and my neighbors, spending the next few hours in the cockpit, making my way through it, reading nearly every word, tearing out snippets from other cruisers writing from the far away places I planned to visit. I remember when color first found its way into the newsprint rag, first on the cover, then on the insides. I remember as the world wide web dawned, the publisher, Richard Spindler, opining confidently that there really didn't seem to be a need for an online presense for the magazine, that things would remain as they were, analog.
I remember when Latitude 38 sponsored and launched the first Baja Ha-Ha in '94. In fact, I remember that when we untied the docklines and headed south in 1996, we didn't participate in the Ha-Ha only because the nominal (and reasonable) entry fee would have busted our cruising kitty. We were low-budget cruisers; the entry fee was something like $85 bucks. I remember while cruising Mexico, in Mazatlan, hearing on the morning VHF net that a fellow cruiser had returned from the States with a few copies of Latitude, hot off the press--and the scramble to get my dinghy launched in a bid to secure a copy.
So, tonight I asked Windy not to renew. Not to renew because--assuming we've sufficiently appeased the real estate gods and our house sells quickly after listing it--we will not be here for all of the next 12 months! It's hard to justify the $50 subscription when I can read it online. In addition to just plain cutting costs for the sake of this trip's kitty, we will be using a mail forwarding service and want to minimize the amount of stuff they have to ship to Mexico. Ending our Latitude 38 subcription is the first concrete step towards that effort and it really brings it all home. We...are...leaving. The chair I'm sitting in now as I type this, the living room around me, the sounds of the bedtime routine drifting down from upstairs: we are leaving it all. In months. Whoa.

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