Tuesday, July 31, 2012


As we continued north in the gulf stream aboard Farfarer, each day was marked by another exciting event, not the least of which was a pod of three orcas taking out an 8-foot tuna. The tuna launched itself a couple of meters in the air, before 3 tall fins circled its position.  It really was a National Geographic moment, as were the numerous dolphins that accompanied us on a number of occasions throughout the journey.

That evening, Frank informed us we would likely face squally weather throughout the night, and to be alert and prepared to run on deck to help whomever was on watch (with only 3 crew members, we each did our night watches alone).  It was around 1:30 AM, as I layed off-watch in my bunk, when I awoke to Will hollering Hey hey!! Hey hey!!

Assuming Will was on watch, and trying to alert Frank and I that he needed help taking-in sail, I threw my legs over the side of the bunk and grabbed my jacket.  That's when I noticed Will, standing to my left in his pyjamas, and Frank to my right, in his foul weather gear and harness, as he'd just run down below to see what all the yelling was about.  Confusion settled in deeper as Will looked at Frank and said, "I'm bored!"

Hmmm... bored? Really?

Frank didn't know what to make of it all, and said calmly and frankly, "Well, Will, I'm sure I could find something for you to do...?"

Having lived with a sleep-walker and sleep-talker for the last couple of years, I was starting to understand the scene I was witnessing.  Will declined Frank's offer, as he began to come-to, and simply responded, "I'll go back to my bunk now."  I looked at Frank, we both shrugged our shoulders, and he went back on deck as I put my head back on my pillow and went to sleep.

Will was great company and very entertaining, even when fully awake.  He had some interesting theories on women, and his charm became fully apparent as he explained how in his youth, wearing one particularly-becoming sweater helped to make him quite popular with the ladies.  And thanks to him, I now know the meaning of a lazy wind (standing frozen on deck as we sailed our final miles to Lunenburg, he declared 'This wind's so lazy, it blows right 'tru ya!')

As sunset approached on our final day at sea, we felt we were well poised for a late Saturday night arrival, but not so late as to miss last call at The Knot Pub.  It was a valiant effort on behalf of the 3 crew, and our autopilot (named Jorge), but when all was said and done, we made our final approach to Lunenburg Harbour after 3:00AM.  After close to a week of constant motion, we rafted alongside two lovely wooden boats, Samara T and Avenger, and a perfect calm settled over Farfarer.  With a bottle of English Harbour Rum, we did a toast to the sea god, the ship, her crew, and I watched as day broke over the town that always lets me go, but periodically insists on my return.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Back At Sea

There is nothing quite like sailing Home.  

Nova Scotia is on that horizon, though only barely visible, even with binoculars. After less than 6 days at sea, we had covered over 1,050 miles of ocean between Charleston, South Carolina, and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

I joined Schooner Farfarer in Charleston a few days before departure, with the intention of catching up with a few sailors I'd crossed paths with a few years earlier aboard Annie Laurie.  For those of you who are relatively new to this blog, you might not be familiar with Banff, Jeff, and Jodi.

Jeff and Jodi kindly loaned me their EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) after Justine and I limped into Charleston Harbour, en route to Cuba, after five horrible, no-good very bad days at sea. At the time, they lived dockside aboard their Cape Dory, and had no immediate plans to go cruising, and felt the EPIRB would be of better use on a relatively ill-equipped leaky wooden sailboat.  I could not have known it at the time, but the day would come when the United States Coast Guard would receive a distress signal from this particular EPIRB, and a frantic effort to make contact with Annie Laurie would ensue.

One day last winter, as friends and family lay peacefully in REM sleep, a dozen phone calls were made by the United States Coast Guard providing a rude awakening, that the EPIRB belonging to Annie Laurie was transmitting a distress signal.

Jeff and Jodi received the call around 2:00am.  It had been some time since I'd touched base with either Jeff or Jodi, and for all they knew, I was en route to the Bahamas and had gone down somewhere in the Gulf Stream. They were concerned.

Jeff's parents got the call too, assuming Jeff and Jodi were still in possession of the EPIRB, and thought perhaps their son and daughter-in-law were lost somewhere in the Atlantic.

Other calls were made; my parents, Phil's parents...  but our first inking that something was amiss was luckily not waking to a cold salty sea rising above our bunks, but instead a knock at the door by Phil's mom and brother.  After probably 30 missed calls on my cell phone, they had driven an hour in the wee hours before dawn, to make sure we hadn't gone sailing for the weekend. The one night I forgot to bring my phone into the bedroom with me.

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, the EPIRB had malfunctioned, and as a result began transmitting a false distress signal.  But with a signal so weak, it could not provide a latitude and longitude.  The Coast Guard could not determine that it was in fact sitting on a closet shelf in our new house, 2 miles inland.

I was glad to be back in Charleston to apologize in person to Jeff (grey shirt) and Jodi, but even more-so to finally meet their little girl, Ally, who was a new addition since we'd last met. One perfect family.

And it was also a perfect opportunity to catch up with Banff, whom I'd last seen while we were both sailing solo in the Bahamas.  He lives aboard his catamaran a stones throw from where Farfarer was alongside, and he spent some time playing tour guide in, again, my second favourite city in the world.

The crew of Farfarer for the passage between Charleston and Lunenburg were Captain (and owner) Frank Blair, Will MacDonald of Prince Edward Island, and myself.  Frank's reputation preceded him (for some background, read his website HERE) and I therefore had no concerns about the Captain, the vessel, or the passage we were about to make. But seeing as Will was a proud Islander, I knew how fast things might go downhill if we ran out of potatoes.

On our second day full day at sea, just as we sat down in the main salon to enjoy an evening meal, the whirring sound of the reel told us we had a fish on our hook.  We dropped our utensils and ran on deck, and Will being the experienced fisherman, he started to reel her in.

I didn't know I could be so emotional over a fish...

Dolphin, or mahi-mahi, are stunning creatures as they surface from the crystal dark-blue depths of Gulf Stream waters.  With shimmering scales of bright green, yellow, and blue, I have never felt good bringing one aboard.  This 4-foot beauty was no exception.

The fact that we had plenty of food aboard, and a freshly-made meal waiting for us below, I really wanted this fish to have a second chance for that reason alone.  Will had pulled the fish in within a few meters of the rod when something heartbreaking happened.  The fish's mate appeared...

We had the female (probably, it was the smaller fish) just off the stern, and the male swam up beside her, brushing her left side as he passed, before turning a tight circle and approaching her again, brushing her other side.  I know I'm projecting human emotions onto the event, but as tired as she looked, and as hopeless as things seemed, what else could you deduce other than he was trying to comfort her?  The scene could not have been any more heart-wrenching. But then, the rest of the family showed up.

Three baby dolphin swam up behind the star-crossed lovers, anxiously awaiting news from Dad of what misunderstanding could have resulted in Mom's arrest.

Of course I teared-up (it's what I do...) and I said, "We can't keep her, can we please throw her back?  Frank said he would be okay with that, and he looked to Will and asked if agreed. He did. After getting her aboard, and carefully pulling the hook from her lip, Will dropped her back into the sea. She swam away the the same vigour any creature would who had just been given a second chance at life.

Many more stories to share in the coming week... Standby!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hasta La Vista, Miami!

I am taking off this week to my second favourite city in North America: Charleston, South Carolina! A schooner awaits...

We are bound for Lunenburg, Nova Scotia early next week. We are scheduled to arrive just in time for Tall Ships Halifax 2012.  Impeccable timing!  

If you are in Halifax for the ships and festivities, look for me aboard Schooner Sorca at Alderney Landing.  I will be selling copies of Written In Water, with proceeds supporting the youth sail training program of Think Sail Inc.  I look forward to seeing you there!

I will be posting photos of my journey on my Facebook Page, so for updates on my current whereabouts,  head on over and 'Like' my page.

While away, I will miss certain aspects of my daily life on the River...  Scotty's tail slaps, Ella's wet willies, the look on Jack's face when he presents me with another "gift" of the rodent variety, Effie's looks of ecstasy following a catnip binge, and Ocho's suppertime entertainment as she demonstrates how she earned her nickname, The Shovel

Am I forgetting anyone?  

Oh, right. There is this one guy...

Monday, June 4, 2012

What If...

After arriving in Gloucester, I had finally psyched myself up to make the solo journey from Massachusetts to Sheepshead Bay, near Coney Island, New York.  My friends, Eric and Alexa, had booked their flight to the nearby JFK airport, and I felt I had plenty of time to make the (very roughly) 250 nautical miles in time for their arrival the following week.

The Scituate situation changed all that.
Instead, I walked miles everyday, taking photos of the the continuing nor'easter that pummelled the northern peninsula of the town.  I cringed every time I looked at the tiny entrance to the harbour. Frothy, churning... even the veteran lobstermen weren't taking any chances, and stayed securely on their moorings. I agonized over my broken finger, fearing I would never be able to play my bagpipes again.  The words what if  played like a broken record in my brain... What if I had sailed into the inner harbour the day before, before the brunt of the storm hit? What if I hadn't been kept up all night by 40-knot winds and the fear of the mooring line breaking loose, would I have had my wits about me the next morning, and perhaps snagged that new mooring line on the first try? If only, if only...

But what if I hadn't broken my finger at all? I would have continued to sail alone to New York, mid-November in the North Atlantic.  If Annie Laurie had been lost, she wouldn't have been the first boat to go down in these waters this year.

Whatever makes you sleep at night, Laura.  Yes, in fact it does.

Eric and Alexa changed their flights to meet me in Scituate, and after a week of waiting, we were once again underway.  Our first day out, we made our way to the Cape Cod Canal.  It was a rough ride until we reached the mouth of the canal, where we received our reprieve, dropped the sails, and motored comfortably to the west end and anchored for the night.

You don't know the meaning of cold until you spend a night down below in a wooden boat surrounded by the frigid moisture of New England water as winter is coming on (well, my friends living in Nunavut right now might argue with that statement).  The residual warmth of the engine, Dinty Moore beef stew, and the first few swigs of post-sail rum made the evening tolerable, but there was little worse than having to get out of our sleeping bags the next morning and into cold, damp clothes, then to step outside to find frost on the deck.

As we made our way past Martha's Vineyard and Block Island, motor-sailing in little wind, the engine began making a funny sound, but it wasn't something that was familiar. Having changed the fuel filter in Gloucester, I was confident it hadn't clogged quite yet.  I called Super Dave, who, along with my sister had brought Annie Laurie to Gloucester.  They hadn't had any issues during their passage, but he thought it was probably the alternator.  We were within cell phone range, so Eric called the West Marine in Newport to see if they had what we needed in stock.  They assured us they did.

"It's for a diesel engine, a Perkins 4-108."

"Yes, yes, we have exactly what you need.  Just ask for Derek, we will have it set aside waiting for you."

If you have a boat with a diesel engine, keep reading.  It might one day save you from sailing 6 hours out of your way, which, in cold weather, feels more like 1 week.

West Marine does not stock alternators for diesel engines. 

Sure, they can Special Order just about anything you need, if you have 3 weeks to wait around, but we didn't have the luxury of time.  Having never had the issue before, I definitely over-reacted to the situation.  The alternator was still periodically providing some charge to the batteries, and that was the main concern.  If the batteries were to completely die, there would be no way to start the engine.  We would get by for now though, and ultimately, Phil brought one with him from Miami when he met up with the boat in Norfolk.  We'll get back to that later...

Regardless of my frustration with West Marine and the hours of forward progress we had lost, Newport, Rhode Island was a nice place to visit.  The harbourmaster was helpful in finding us a free dock for the evening, and I had never been to Panera Bread before.  Not all was lost.

We left the dock a little after midnight, and tension built as we approached The Race, the narrow entrance to Long Island Sound, known for its treacherous conditions when the current runs hard and the winds blow harder.  It couldn't have been an easier passage though, as we continued to motor in little wind, and the current was behind us.  There are many such places that have dotted the map of my travels over the years, but they rarely live up to their names or reputations.

Tomorrow: Hell's Gate.

Monday, May 28, 2012

It's Hard to Find Time to Write When Running a Shelter

My next post will be coming to you tomorrow. In the meantime, here is Effie's latest post.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Three Years of Hard Work and Dedication

Before I get back to Christopher Robin, sailing with one hand, and keeping a relationship alive despite two weeks at sea on a 30-foot sailboat with a power-boater, I'd like to announce the release of my new book, Written In Water: An Uncharted Life Aboard a Wooden Boat !

Look to the left of this post for ordering options, or, if you see me out on the water, feel free to hail me on Channel 16 for a copy!

If you're a big fan of Effie, she has just written of a very special offer on her blog.  I'll tell you now, it's worth checking out.

And if you're into that thing called Facebook, and would like to help spread the word, you can "Like" my Facebook Page, ingeniously titled, "Written in Water: An Uncharted Life Aboard a Wooden Boat". My sincerest thank-you to everyone who has shown their support to date!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"The Situation"

Inner Harbour, Scituate
No, this isn't the Jersey Shore. At least not yet.

I left Gloucester mid-morning, piloted to the mouth of the harbour by a friend.  He was kind enough to join me for a few miles after picking up on my apprehension and utter dread (the tears were a good sign) of heading to sea alone for the first time in more than a year.

The day was dull and overcast, and large swells from a distant storm were rocking Annie Laurie like a pendulum once we passed the breakwater.  It felt like the calm before the storm.  With 4-foot rollers but not a breath of wind, I puttered along under engine power alone, watching Boston's skyscrapers in the distance creep by at a snails pace.

The approaches to Scituate looked straight-forward enough. The visibility was fine, I could see the breakwater, and the series of Red and Green buoys leading to the outer harbour.  Aside from one Red marker mid-channel, obviously displaced recently by stormy weather, I had no concern regarding Annie Laurie's passage through the narrow channel.

A small lobster boat had approached from the south just ahead of my arrival, and provided the first inkling this might not be a smooth entrance.  When the 4-foot swells in 200-foot deep water converged in the narrow passage which quickly shallowed to 15 feet of depth, the waves more than doubled in size, and began to break.  I watched the lobster boat completely vanish in a trough, and my mind raced, as I quickly tried to weigh my options.   Avoid this entrance completely? Do a 180 and head south to the Cape Cod Canal?

But it was already too late.  I was committed.

Annie Laurie's stern was lifted high in the air, and I was recklessly surfing down the face of a wave, towards the edge of the shoal, momentarily without steerage as her rudder was helplessly out of the water. My knees went weak, and once in the trough, I looked back to see two more waves in the series.  Times like these, I ask why... WHY! WHY do I do this to myself!?  Are all the good times, when specked with these moments of horror and stress of extreme proportions that instantly take years off my life, are they all worth it?

Two more large breaking waves surfed Annie Laurie along the edge of the breakwater, and it was over as fast as it began. I was in the safe calm waters of the outer harbour.  There were plenty of empty moorings, and I picked up the first one I saw.  As I tried to calm myself from my most recent bout of terror, manically tidying an already clean and orderly deck, in sailed a beautiful Canadian-flagged boat named Christopher Robin.

We spent the night on adjacent moorings, as the wind caught up with the waves, and was soon blowing 25+ knots.  Not knowing the quality of the mooring I picked up, I spent the entire night peering through my windows, making sure the rocky beach on my stern wasn't getting any closer.  When a lull in the wind came the following morning, I watched as Christopher Robin dropped their mooring and headed for the inner, more protected harbour. I wish I had done the same.

The lull only lasted 20 minutes, and when the wind increased again, it was easterly and gale force. I was near the entrance, and from this direction, I had no protection.  I knew I couldn't spend another sleepless night of worry, so I decided in the rough conditions to follow Christopher Robin.  Unfortunately, the wind was so strong, it was next to impossible to get enough slack in the mooring line to take the loop off the sampson post on the bow.  I tried motoring forward, a dozen times, but by the time I ran from the helm to the bow, the wind would already have caught the bow and Annie Laurie would drifting sideways, mooring line taut.  My last option was my sharpest knife.

It was a downwind run to the inner harbour, no more than a half-mile.  Once inside, the winds were still 40+ knots, but there were no waves or current to contend with.  The problem now was that the place was packed with boats.  My challenge was to find a mooring without the wind blowing me into another boat.  To retain steerage, I was forced to motor faster than I was comfortable doing in this limited space.  I found an empty mooring, but again, by the time I ran forward and grabbed the boat hook to snatch the mooring line, the wind blew me off course.  I tried three or four times, before three guys in a skiff came out to offer their help.

One of them picked the line out of the water and passed it to me, just as Annie Laurie was blowing down over the mooring ball.  She was running over the line, and as I stupidly tried to hold a 4-ton boat against the now fifty knot winds, my hand became jammed between the line and the hull, as I was being pulled overboard.  When I got my hand back, my finger was bloody and crooked.  I was in denial for a few minutes, as I tried to convince myself a full break would be a lot more painful. At this point I felt nothing (did I mention this was the North Atlantic in November and I was working with bare hands?).  When I thawed, it was off to the liquor store for a bottle of sugarcane elixir.

That's when I finally met the crew of Christopher Robin, who offered to be my water taxi (with their dinghy Pooh) for the duration of the Scituate Situation, seeing I was unable to row my own dinghy with a broken finger.

And that was the answer to my WHYs the day before:  it's all about the friendships made along the way.