Waning Summer

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Come with me on a meander through the waning days of summer in New England, and memories built under the warmth of the sun. It blows me away how quickly this season has flown: how unexpectedly we find ourselves adding a layer in the evening, noticing the path of the sunset towards the south of west, feeling tick earlier of dusk. I even made soup for dinner the other night because everyone was chilly! Just a couple of weeks ago, it as so hot that even the “brisk” (~70F) temp of the Mystic River was tempting.

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It also was just a couple of weeks ago a period of summer vacation seemed to be starting, heralded by our open-boat party at the Noank. Hard work prepping in the sun… Niall took it upon himself to help his sisters keep cool while scrubbing deck.

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We had a blast welcoming people on board Totem to share what normal life on a cruising boat looks like, from how the fridge works to how small (and sloppy) my two shelves of clothing are. Of course it had to be one of the hottest days of summer! I lost count of the visitors somewhere north of fifty. By the way Don & Lisa — the kids keep asking if they’re going to see Grace again, OK? No pressure…
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The only problem with having so many visitors is that source of some truly excellent host gifts got muddled (not these, though- thank you Tammy-Jo, Jim, and Anne!). I have apparently done a good job of communicating my love for dark chocolate, dark rum, and chardonnay… not together, mind you, but mmmm… and you have to love that there is a rust-prevention lubricant in the mix. CRUISER GOLD!

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Burning indelible memories by recalling old ones flowed while getting together with friends we haven’t seen in a very long time. My childhood neighbor Wendy invited us to speak at the Ferguson Museum on Fishers Island, which turned into a whirlwind weekend of fun. It was really cool to hang out on their porch, looking out across the lawn to watch boats sailing down the Sound and talking like we’d only seen each other a few months before–not years.

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photo: Wendy O’Neil

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She and her husband are both artists: Wendy is a silversmith, Tom is an abstract painter. Walking through their island studio and learning from Tom about his work was pretty special, especially for the artistically inclined kids.

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There has been a host of reunions from all corners: from childhood and young adulthood and new parenthood, college and grad school, Michigan and Connecticut and Seattle.

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New encounters left lasting impressions, too. I’ve hoped for months to talk with Anne Patterson, founder of Solavore (where my much-loved solar oven comes from). Stars aligned to gather at her family’s off-the-grid haven on a little Connecticut island, and lunch turned into a photo shoot.

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It was a magical spot (secret!), and a great conversation–more on that soon! Meanwhile, does it get much more New England than this?

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Also new in our lives this summer, and indelibly impressed, are local Ocean Cruising Club port officer Sandy Van Zandt and his wife Sidney. Circumnavigators who make their fellow salty travelers feel at home on the Mystic River, this wonderful couple has done so much to help us feel welcomed and wanted.

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In addition to trading sea stories, they took us on a hike to extensive property that Sidney has worked tirelessly to acquire and preserve for conservation and public access. We couldn’t have had a better or more informative guide to educate us about native plants, invasive species, and dynamics of the environment (such as the pea-soup color of this pond– which is perfectly fine, despite the understandable gut reaction to the contrary!).

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Also in the mix, we hosted a few interviews on Totem! These smiley folks visited on behalf of the communications team at my alma mater, the nearby Connecticut College, for an article in the college’s magazine. I love how every time we have these conversations, our kids find a new piece of themselves to be proud of. They know they’re not normal, but don’t always appreciate just how much.

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We plan to depart Mystic after Labor Day weekend (just over a week- ack!!), and that list of “things we should do before we go”– like hit (the epic!) Defender for new lifejackets– is taking over.

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I admit, the photo from the entrance to Defender’s retail store / clearance outlet below is posed… but this IS the girl who still won’t wear shoes, and carries her flip flops with her to don if required.

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It’s not just Siobhan. This is how the troops are shod as we walk up from the river to the Mystic & Noank Library.

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Aboard Totem, Jamie works tirelessly on projects to get us ready to go again: here, replacing some slides on the main while Solavore cooks lunch.

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I’m getting quality time in with my sister-in-law, hot yoga mornings, and mentally stockpiling these beautiful views. Experimenting with HDR… not so sure about it… feels a little too, I don’t know, Kinkade or something…

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Our little corner of the Mystic River has gotten almost too comfortable. It’s wonderful, but we feel the itch, and as much as we’ll miss people here…are looking forward to pointing south towards new adventures soon.

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Besides, Siobhan’s wearing fleece already.

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How cruising wrecks lives

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It’s become profoundly clear that we’ll never be normal again. Is it unsettling? A little. We were a poster family for Normal, and utterly happy. Sitting in Totem’s cockpit from our mooring in the Mystic River, looking towards Noank in the fading light, that normal life—and the security that came with it—is lost to us.

Traded it all for the excitement of boat plumbing

Traded it all for the excitement of boat plumbing

The feeling germinates being back in a sped-up world, where there’s more of a rush to the finish than an appreciation for what’s around. Close traffic, fast cars. Foul language over the VHF, disrespect for rules of the road. We have fallen out of sync with our routines on board for learning, writing, taking care of Totem, and taking care of ourselves. If it weren’t for the steady stream of family and friends we’re sharing these weeks with I’d probably feel thrown off balance.

Daphne’s crew departing just after sunset

Daphne’s crew departing just after sunset

A couple of thought provoking conversations drive the feeling home. We’ve had a few interviews in the last couple of weeks and I appreciate how they’ve pushed us to better understand the space between us now, and us before. I’m not sure how to articulate it yet, but keep trying! Part of the difference is how we’ve embraced the loss of security. I’ll recount our early years, saying “when we ran out of money the first time, we stopped in Australia.” Just the idea that we might be willing to do this is anathema to our old selves. But it wasn’t going to kill us, and it did make us stronger. Our worries and priorities shifted.

Processing events of the day with Siobhan

Processing events of the day with Siobhan

“Tell me about places where you’ve seen environmental devastation?” comes one question, followed with, “and what about places of hope?” One of our early goals was to help the kids appreciate our human impact on the world. This is accomplished in spades, but to what end? We can share a litany of examples to answer the former question, but relatively few for the latter. We’re back in the middle of a consumption-driven society that seems namelessly behind so much of the imbalance we experienced between humans and our environment, and it screams at me, but there seems to be little recognition of our collective responsibility. Changed as we are by what we’ve seen, it is now anathema to re-enter the culture we once claimed.

Two cruising families in two weeks have intersected with our crew, buoying us. One has been back a year: the former crew of Daphne offer a sounding board and a lifeline. They’re proof you can pass, for a while at least, and find a way forward. Hearing their stories, sharing ours, helps center me again.

There’s Sasquatch!

There’s Sasquatch!

We see with the kids from these cruising families how that much-feared question of socialization plays out in practice. The awkward gaps of conversation in meeting fade quickly. With each family, it only takes minutes for the kids to make their way from the neutral meeting zone of the cockpit to the table in the main cabin down below. They are playing cards, sharing music, and laughing uproariously in minutes. None of them are owned by a little screen somewhere nearby, dropping bits of pixie dust to an irresistible lure away from genuine human interaction.

Dutch Blitz with new friends aboard Totem

Dutch Blitz with new friends aboard Totem

Busy weeks of exploring and experiencing the USA again are slowing down, and ready for reflection and context. One clear sign that “cruiser normal” is returning is that there’s time again to resume our routines. Exhibit A: the kids’ computer is back in action after a long haitus for repair, and Niall spent the morning helping his sisters with math lessons.

I love how she’s touching his arm while he explains linear equations

Sneaky Mama Pic: I love how she’s touching his arm while he explains linear equations

Jamie spent the morning working on the watermaker, and cleaning some apawling (ba dump bump, bad sailor pun) winches.

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Winch maintenance: at least as fun as plumbing

Balance is found, for now. It’s supported by the company with like-minded humans who recognize we’re not crazy for walking away from our secure, safe lives.

Rigging Darrin’s 110 for racing

Rigging Darrin’s 110 for racing

“Becoming a parent wrecks your life…for the better.” This was the sage advice of my cousin when I was pregnant with Niall. While we couldn’t quite grok it at the time, he was right. Your life is profoundly impacted, and the lens through which you see the world is forever shifted. Cruising is much the same: our lives, as we knew them, are wrecked. There’s no going back to before. Looking at how it’s changed us and shaped our kids, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

aloha shirt, jam jar of wine...must be sundowners

aloha shirt, jam jar of wine…must be sundowners

Big picture routing and Totem’s plans

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The Mystic river was blanketed with fog when we poked our heads into the cockpit this morning. Totem is anchored roughly between Mason’s Island and Noank: the shoreline is only about six boat-lengths away, but impossible to see. We had to get a compass direction to know which way to point the dinghy to go ashore. Lack of visibility mixed with sound insulation gave the strange feeling of being adrift while moored in our little floating home.

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Amtrak south station (thank you Joy & Alex!)

That sense of being out of step with our environment follows us during these first weeks back in the US. We’re happy to be here, just feeling a little unmoored. Focusing on the reason we’re back—time with family—helps. Early morning walks with my sister-in-law and her dogs…a new ritual. “Cousin camp” in Boston this last week, visiting my brother and his family (the kids’ cousin Lana has doubled in age since they last saw her in 2013). It’s nearly three years since the kids have seen their grandparents, too, who joined us in Boston for a mini-Fravel-reunion.

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Mairen and Siobhan bookend their cousin Lana

 

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Niall toasts his grandparents

When we feel our Differentness a little too keenly, it helps to focus on what’s ahead instead. What’s ahead breaks down into three stages: 1) this summer in New England 2) fall in the Chesapeake and working south, then 3) winter in the Caribbean.

Next week, we’ll head up to Narragansett Bay to visit with friends, old and new. Then it’s Buzzard’s Bay for a few days: Totem crew will speak as part of Falmouth Academy’s community series on July 18th (details on their website). From there we’ll sail to Nantucket before making our way back to the Mystic river, and settling back off Noank for the remainder of the summer. Planning an “open boat” for the second weekend– August 13-14–for whoever wants to come by. Just let us know.

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Radically scaled back plans for summer ’16: Maine? NH? maybe next year.

Our southbound track begins in early September. I can’t wait to come down the East River into New York City – I’ve dreamed about looking up at the buildings of Manhattan from the deck of Totem! We’d like to spend a week there before coast-hopping our way to the Chesapeake. Destination: the SSCA gam in Camp Letts, Maryland, which starts September 29. The US Boat Show follows a few days later in Annapolis (I’ll be with Voyaging with Kids publisher, Lin Pardey, in her booth). Niall tells us he needs at LEAST a week in DC to see the museums, and I bet he’d use more time if he had it, so we hope to linger in the Chesapeake for a solid month at least. There are things to do, people to meet up with, places to visit.

The problem with that, of course, is it will eventually get cold. You know what we miss already? That we’ll miss even more by then? Water this blue, and warm as a bath. So there’s really no question about the fact we’ll be heading back to the Caribbean for the winter.

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Ahhhh…..

Plans are fuzzier once we point south of the Chesapeake, late-Octoberish. There are myriad ways to get tot he Caribbean: it isn’t the straight up march south that left coast cruisers do to Mexico. Where will we land first? And how will we route after we get there? The only thing we KNOW at this point is that we want to spend a chunk of time in Cuba. For the rest, we have some decisions to make:

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…a tiny fraction of the options. Purple line was our track this spring.

  • Where to leave from the US? Carolinas, Georgia… or all the way to Florida?
  • How to route through Cuba? (Preference on board: the more rural south coast)
  • What’s the goal destination at the end of the season? We need to take this and prevailing conditions into account for a big-picture route. (Is it time for the Panama canal? Can we save enough $$ to do some work on Totem in Trinidad or Grenada? Another summer in New England, via Bermuda and the America’s Cup? CHOICES!).

I’m all for opinions, so drop a comment about places we shouldn’t ‘miss. There’s no rush to figure it out: a route will unfold, probably slowly. And meanwhile, we pick our way through the fog.

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After years as nomads, returning to the USA

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Dun colored cliffs on the back side of Block Island emerged from a hazy marine layer: our first sight of land as we approached New England. With each mile, landmarks and islets and buoys along the way tickled old memories of these waters where Jamie grew up racing, and where we met. Names remembered, but now unfamiliar enough they take a few beats to put into context. What’s the best channel east of Fishers Island? How close are the rocks off that point? What Jamie could have navigated blindfolded in years gone by needed careful chart references as we pointed towards landfall in Stonington, Connecticut.

Totem is in US waters for the first time since 2008. This is supposed to be a glorious feeling, this homecoming, but we were tense and a little stressed. Perhaps it stemmed from realization that a once-indelible mental map had faded. Certainly, a lot can be chalked up to the rough passage from Bermuda we were completing. Some was thanks to the terse reception from the boatyard, which ceased being helpful with our arrival (US Customs & Border Protection—CBP—officials work through their facility) when they learned we would be anchoring in the harbor that night (free) instead of paying them for a mooring ($50). But if I try to examine it honestly, it was also the niggling question: were we missed, after these many years gone by? Just as Jamie and I were getting a little snappy with each other a runabout motored up, carrying old friends hailing us and welcoming us home. More friends and family waited on the dock. Our mental cloud lifted.

Totem in her party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we've visited

Party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we’ve visited

First days back in the USA feel surreal. Kicking it off was the friendliest welcome by officialdom in eight years. CBP requests notice three hours in advance of arrival so they can send an official; it turns out Officer Alvarez drove out from Bridgeport, an hour and a half away from our landfall. We came ashore bearing a folio stuffed with the legacy documents of many past clearances, our passports, and boat stamp and ink pads. Disentangled from hugs with loved ones, we pulled ourselves together to get the official work done. It’s usually a series of papers to complete, declarations of what’s on board, crew lists completed in triplicate, etc. A little awkward while standing on a dock, I thought, but that’s OK, and just asked Officer Alvarez what we needed to do. And he gave us the most unexpected response:

“Welcome home, family! Can I take a picture with you?”

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Love this kid but his eyes are closed in 90% of the pictures

And THAT, my friends, was clearance back into the USA for our little crew. Oh, he did take the copy of our Bermuda port exit papers before leaving, but there was no lengthy process of forms and questions and stamps and judgment: it was a warm welcome, pure and simple. When that finally sank in, it took restraint for me not to give him a big hug! We spent about fifteen minutes on the dock, just chatting, answering his questions about our trip, basking in his reception and blessings (blessings!).Somewhere in all this…any vestige of arrival anxiety faded.

The kids then took off running down the dock, after Jamie told them they hadn’t REALLY connected the dots around the world till they set foot on shore. I think he actually instructed them to kiss the ground, which unfortunately we did not witness.

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Walking up the street afterwards, Niall soaked in his new surroundings. We got progressively punchy calling out all the American things to see: American flags! American license plates! Cars on the right side of the road! He was full of questions that reminded us our children are strangers in their homeland. It was the first of days answering questions about their environment, establishing norms that are ridiculously obvious to most Americans – just not so obvious to our three.

What’s that? – it’s a fire hydrant. And that stick on it? –it’s to show how deep the snow is, and where the hydrant might be under the snow. NO WAY! –yes, really! The questions and observations keep coming: there is that house a typical American house? (We’re in the painfully quaint hamlet of Stonington village, where charm is carefully molded in a Rockwell model of New England. No, that waterfront cracker box is not typical, and it’s probably worth seven figures.) And we have our moments of awkwardness. The kids expressed some discomfort at being surrounded by “spectacular wealth,” as Niall described it. I had my own predictable freakout in a grocery store that was normal by US standards, but dwarfed most I’ve seen for the last few years…found babbling in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed by options.

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Re-integration is eased in steps. The morning after arrival we sailed to Essex and the Seven Seas Cruising Assocation gathering, but before pulling up the anchor, met briefly with the teacher from Falmouth Academy who has engaged his class in join projects with us this year. Excited to meet him in person, he bowled us over with a welcome-home care package of treats: Hershey’s kisses. Chocolate chip cookies. Vermont sharp cheddar. Local craft beer. Twizzlers. And a gorgeous blueberry pie, because when their class asked over Skype what American foods we missed (Siobhan: “What’s American food?”), Niall chimed in with pie.

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Not so fast, Mairen! Surveying the loot…

Speaking at the SSCA gam both helped us process our own experiences, and benefit from the positive energy of sharing our knowledge. We hope to do a lot more of that while we’re back, and have a few yacht club and bookstore presentations lined up (contact us if you’d like to nominate a location!). But this first little roller coaster ride is just the beginning, and I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs as we get to know our home again and the myriad of ways it’s changed since we  left. For the kids especially, who for have grown up outside: Siobhan has no real memories of living in the US, and Mairen’s are few. And in truth, it’s fascinating seeing it through their eyes, unburdened by past experience.

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Passage notes: Bermuda to Connecticut

1 sunset at sea“This is turning into an expensive passage.” Those were Jamie’s words to me after the latest breakdown on our third day at sea. A large block, used for the genoa sheet, had permanently parted ways with the track on deck.

The passage started benignly enough, once we got going. Although the weather watch to depart began the day we arrived in Bermuda, there were people to see and boat parts to fix, and a week felt sufficient. Plenty of time all around, really: there were three weeks before we needed to be in  Connecticut and our passage time, in good conditions, should take only three or four days. What was there to worry about?

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Plenty, it turns out. Systems come from multiple directions: you have to watch for cyclonic weather spinning up from the tropics, and lows rolling off the US east coast. We’re out of the trades and into the realm of variable winds (e.g., no consistent and reasonably predictable wind direction and strength), with convective weather—squalls—to keep things exciting.  Day after day, reports showed either potential heavy weather conditions to avoid, or an unstable forecast marked by significant disagreement between weather data sources about what might happen. A clear weather window for the passage proved elusive, as we have no interest in tempting fate.

At one point it seemed like we wouldn’t even make it to Essex in time for our June 21 presentation (now that was an email I didn’t want to write the event organizers). So when the various models Jamie monitors for weather forecasts finally resolved into agreement – and with conditions looked reasonable- we dove into passage prep and were on our way in a couple of days.

We hauled anchor at dawn in the placid bay inside St George’s. The first day was a gentle beginning, sailing north over the top of the bank to the west of the islands. A small pod of beaked whales—Cuvier’s beaked whale, possibly (any cetacean jockeys able to ID from the fuzzy pictures below?)—were the sentimental boost to a perfect day of comfortable sailing. If only it had lasted! By evening, the wind and seas combined to make life on Totem more bouncy than is comfortable.

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One of the significant dynamics in this passage is the Gulf Stream, a fast, warm ocean current that flows northwards along the US east coast, bending out and across the Atlantic towards Scotland and Norway. In our path, we’ll cross it at points where speeds may be up to 3 knots. When wind direction opposes current, the Gulf Stream is a famously miserable place to be.

We didn’t cross it until our third night at sea, and at a time that the wind and current aligned, making the passage relatively smooth. But beginning the first evening and lasting for the next couple of days, the swirls and eddies to the east of the main force of the stream created very uncomfortable sea state.

The dominant current stream bears close watching and careful planning to avoid when wind opposes current, but it’s the smaller flows spinning off from it that make a significant impact to passage planning. Current is the foundation of the sea state here: specifically, streams current in close proximity that are running in opposite directions. This causes peaky waves of enhanced size. It can be really uncomfortable. This is similar to our experience in the Mozambique channel. There, too, the dominant current is conventionally described as monolithic – when actually, it’s much more complex.

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Compounding the confused seas, we seemed to be doing a lot of unexpected upwind work. Routing algorithms indicated we could expect up to 25% to be upwind, but other than some gorgeous beam reaching the first day, the passage was almost entirely hard on the wind. And then, the wind was much stronger than expected forecast: instead of 20 knots (which we always always assume could be 40% higher, so, pushing up near 30 knots) we instead had a lot of mid-thirties, one especially uncomfortable night in the 40s, and top gusts around 50. Sailing into this wind, in sloppy seas, is cagetorically Not Fun. Recall that force=mass x acceleration, mix in square-fronted waves that are moving against us with the current, and it makes for uncomfortable pounding. Water sluices back along the side decks. Every imperfectly sealed hatch is found the hard way, and the girls’ bunk was soaked with saltwater. Leaks from the main cabin hatches make everything damp and salty.

The stress of these conditions cost us our kayak. We picked up the well-used Keowee from CraigsList back in… 2007, I think, or maybe it was 2006. It was a playground for the kids during that time at the dock while we worked getting Totem ready to leave. It was their first stretch of independence. It’s been our second car for years, the kids’ by default. My haven for solo exploration, or the nest for 1:1 time with one of the kids.

Niall and Mairen in our home port, Eagle Harbor…wearing jammies

Niall and Mairen in our home port, Eagle Harbor…wearing jammies

It happened when one of these steep-fronted waves smacked into the bow for the Nth time. The kayak spends passages lashed to a couple of stanchions, and there was enough energy in motion for the broad, flat bottom of the kayak to exert significant force against the stanchions. One broke off at the base, loosening the lashing. A subsequent wave picked up the kayak and flung it over the lifelines, still attached to the boat and now banging on the hull while full of water. There was no safe option but to cut it loose, complete with paddles, fishing pole, dock hose, and more stored inside.

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no more kayak; the broken forward stanchion is tied to its aft neighbor

This wasn’t even the worst chapter. Most frightening of all was in the wee hours of our third night at sea. Towards the end of my watch I caught the whiff of a faint odor; it got stronger when I went below, and seemed like smoke. I woke up Jamie, who has a gift for going from zonked to alert in seconds (not my specialty), and thank goodness for that, because it was apparent that something was burning and fire on board holds among the greatest potential for disaster. Jamie immediately went in action to suss out the source. Niall sees the lights on in the cabin, and although our teen is usually only up at 2:30a.m. if he hasn’t gone to bed yet, pops out to assist—getting out the life raft, putting it in the cockpit with our ditch kits, following us with fire extinguishers, doing whatever needs to be done. Tense minutes tick by searching for the source: engine, battery bank, charger, electrical panel check out. Finally, it’s found at the controller for the solar panel. This voltage regulator shorted internally, and the smell is from wires melting inside the unit. A breaker has already tripped, and likely prevented any further problem even if we hadn’t found it ourselves, but our hearts are pumping as Jamie disconnects the remaining wires.

last sunset at sea: no more ocean sunsets for a while

last sunset at sea: no more ocean sunsets for a while

Chalked up to Neptune’s might: one kayak, one stanchion, one fancy big block, much salty laundry and cleaning to come. Some wet books, salvaged with careful drying. Not claimed: morale of the crew under tough conditions. The kids chipped in proactively, whether washing dishes or standing watch. Laughing and dealing instead of griping when the saltwater spray and leaks find their way, unwanted, into yet another corner of Totem. Acting quickly and as a team in an emergency. I am so proud of our crew. And I know we are all very grateful to put this passage behind us.

This wasn’t the dreamy voyage of night watch ruminations under a canopy of stars. It’s one we’re all happy to put behind us. Closing the miles towards Stonington, although I mourn the kayak, the energy on Totem isn’t mired in the difficulties of the past days. There is palpable excitement as we get closer to the “home” our kids have mostly learned about from afar, and the friends and family they recall through a few distant memories.

Totem is now tucked in at the Essex Yacht club for Summer Sailstice! Looking forward to a long weekend of good times and information sharing with the SSCA’s annual gam.