Southbound to Chesapeake Bay

We still didn’t get to do all the rounds of goodbyes we wanted in Connecticut. We didn’t even just to see everyone we hoped to see. Our summer was full to overflowing in all the best ways, but if one word had to describe it, it’s “BUSY.” Seasonal change and a nip in the air turned us south.

Dinner on Totem in Noank with the well-salted Van Zandt and Bohlen families

Dinner on Totem in Noank with the well-salted Van Zandt and Bohlen families

Getting underway again, starting the transit toward lower latitudes, resuming our cruiser rhythm… it feels good. In the bustle of our summer, we lost some of the time we usually give to “just being” as a family. It’s been a long time since we had so many different plans that a calendar was required! Casualty of busy: I lost control of my email inbox (still recovering, slowly), and haven’t had time to write. Minor tradeoffs for meeting wonderful people along the way, and spending time with the old friends we can intersect with.

Finally meeting up wtih the family of SV Fezywig!

Finally meeting up wtih the family of SV Fezywig!

Our southbound trail led west through Long Island Sound to New York City, each stop along the way touched by the kindness of others. It started in Essex with the cousin of a cruising friend: lime bitters with Jim in the cockpit of his catboat, Amity, then dinner at a restaurant that defines ‘quaint’ and was the site of one of my first dates with Jamie, layering new memories on old.

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In Norwalk we were hosted by  two-time circumnavigators Scott & Kitty Kuhner. Scott & Kitty did their first lap as a young couple; they repeated it with their children, and did a victory lap around the Atlantic in later years. The stories and memories flowed during dinner at their home with the family soon to be known as “the Mariposas,” who move aboard their cruising home in a matter of days.

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In Westchester county, a reader reached out and offered his mooring at the incomparable Lachmont Yacht Club. HL DeVore and family made our stay everything we could have wished, starting by greeting us on arrival with a couple of LYC’s signature drink, the Monte-Sano cooler (rum-based, natch). Excellent company over several evenings, a beautiful base for daytripping into NYC, and the use of a sturdy Jeep Cherokee named Josh to make it all easy.

Getting close, getting excited: first time in NYC for the kids!

Getting close, getting excited: first time in NYC for the kids!

The only picture we took - thank you Cindy!

The only picture we took – thank you Cindy!

Josh removed the pressure to do too much at once: instead, we could take time to see the city—and absorb it—at an unstressed pace. Like having ONLY two objectives for a daytrip (getting lost in the Frick, then meeting with some really special folks, old friends—Andy Halsey and Jane Coyne—for lunch in Central Park) instead of trying to cram in a half dozen more activities. These days, and new friends, were a wonderful gift for our family.

The kindness of strangers leads to a family photo op on the Brooklyn Bridge

The kindness of strangers leads to a family photo op on the Brooklyn Bridge

One of the only requirements the kids had for NYC: proper Dim Sum. check.

One of the only requirements the kids had for NYC: proper Dim Sum. check.

In Larchmont I finally started to get caught up on life and the email inbox again, but even better was reconnecting with a college friend I haven’t seen since graduation.  Those years (all 26 of them, yikes!) melted away on the afternoon Doriel and her sons spent on board. A phenomenon repeats itself in the reunions we’ve had this summer: how really great it is to find all the goodness we remember in old friends are all the goodness, somehow improved again with the addition of years.

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Doriel teaches elementary school in the NYC school district, and has a fantastic YouTube channel (LearnToGrowU) with her energetic and heartfelt reflections on experiences and inspiration. She’s pretty awesome—interest in teaching totally optional to appreciate these videos! She quizzed me on homeschooling / boat schooling for a spontaneous cockpit edition of #WhatTeachersDo.

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We felt compelled to take several pics at the Club with our college mascot, a camel.

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The Leach family from Keep Your Daydream came by, too. It’s always fun to meet up with other full-time traveling families: this crew is at the outset of their adventures, but has been producing interesting content about folks who have been out for some time. I think we got the kids on board with boat life vs RV life… not that we have an agenda, real!y ?

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This respite week also made it easier to visit the Mowery family. When folks like Rich and Liia engage here or via Totem’s FB page through the years, we really do feel like we know them – and it’s been great to turn those virtual conenctions into in-person meetups for a whole new raft of good memories. So we trundled up to Newtown, CT, for a late summer BBQ.

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Niall is so good with little ones like Aili! Girls loving on Kaia.

Dessert first (a good life rule in general!) at an award winning dairy farm / creamery nearby. Possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.

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There’s one problem with all the generosity we’ve experienced from the last few weeks: our cache of karma is probably just about tapped!

Sailing south from Larchmont, we decided to day-trip our way to Chesapeake Bay instead of charging through with some overnight runs. Because how many times in your life is there a chance to watch sunset glow on the Manhattan skyline, at the foot of Libertas?

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PINCH ME. I cannot believe we were in this spot!

Just getting to that spot was more interesting than expected, because it turned out that the UN General Assembly was in session this week—which means total closure of the East River to all but ferries, 9am to 9pm. Whoops. You also have to carefully time transit on the East River based on tides, as the current is not worth fighting. You could say that messed up our plans, but flexibility around expected timing is the nature of cruising. No big deal, just something to work around! And so we spent an extra day in Larchmont, then another anchored under the Throg’s Neck Bridge, finding the juncture of time that let us get downriver with positive current before Homeland Security closed it down.

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Companions were first the working boats of the river, tugs and barges with debris or raw materials—later, our personal (and well armed) USCG escort. They waved back.

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We reveled in every minute of this spectacular anchorage off Liberty Island.

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It’s been a few days of transit south from there, our way to Annapolis for the SSCA gam and US Boat Show.

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Sliding between a car carrier and big barge at dawn, Verrazano Bridge.

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Watching for current and shallows in the shoals at the Atlantic City entrance

As I post this, we’ve just entered Chesapeake Bay. That’s a celebration worth of apple pancakes, real maple syrup (THANK YOU Conant family), and the last bacon on board! We’ll be the Chesapeake for at least a month, and probably longer. It feels like one part homecoming (are more “old friends we’ve never met” to finally hug in person) and one part inflection point, as we consider options for Totem to return to the tropics.

Meanwhile, everyone is looking forward to being parked in a place we can go ashore after four nights of anchorages without getting off the boat! Besides, we’re out of produce, milk, bacon, wine, and toilet paper…who provisioned this boat anyway?!

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

A New England summer aboard

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DSC_9688Our summer in New England is half over: flying by! Dangerous, as we have a long list of projects and repairs to do on Totem…but before digging into them, we had a few people to visit, places to see, presentations to give.

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It was a great experience for all of us to share our stories at Falmouth Academy to a mix of people, instead of a more exclusively “cruiser/sailor” audience. The questions are great! It also afforded our kids an opportunity to get in front of a crowd, one of the ‘normal’ kid experiences ours don’t often have. But the pressure of getting up and speaking in front of a roomful of strangers is something just about everyone needs to learn, they’ve now had three chances to do that since we got back. Each time, it’s a little smoother – a little easier – a little less stressful.

For us, the loop around this corner of New England and our first busy weeks have been about much more than speaking opportunities. It was also a great way to meet up with old friends…those we’ve known from our pre-cruising lives, and those we only knew through email/blogs while we were away…like Rebecca from the catamaran Summertime Rolls, who set us up at the Nantucket Yacht Club.

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Backyard lounging at the Vaughans with Rebecca & Brian, and SV Calico Skies’ Grace and Bill

We’ve been lucky to see some of the best of the region, iconic names and places.

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Nantucket’s ridiculously picturesque lighthouse

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Looking towards the mainland from the high point of Cuttyhunk

The Mata’irea family treated us to a spread from the Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farm’s Raw Bar service. Call them up on VHF 72 for boat-side delivery of the sweetest oysters!

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There were two different tours at various Woods Hole institutes–coordinated by our friends at Falmouth Academy. Inspiring for anyone, and pure gold for the ocean lovers on Totem.

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BIG resident stripers outside WHOI’s Marine Biological Laboratory

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This isn’t even biologist humor! Only at MBL.

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Totally lucked out: ALVIN was in residence, preparing to ship out. ALVIN!!

The spin up to Massachusetts gave us another chances to be in range of my brother and his family for an additional round of “cousin camp.” Another is already planned!

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Last night, we picked up a mooring near Noank again. We’ll be here, in/around the Mystic river, for another month—hunkered down to projects done now.  Watching the Poet’s Lounge sailing charter go out for sunset cruises in the evening, while we welcome our own from Totem’s cockpit.

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And at the core of it all, time with family and friends. Jamie is originally from Mystic; much of his family is sprinkled between southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island. I’m so glad Niall can get schooled on how to shuck oysters and clams from his great uncle Lance – I don’t think it’s something he’ll ever forget.

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Family time. #1 reason we’re here.

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Jamie’s aunt and uncle are here from South Africa, and we’ve been out on Totem with cousins who flew in from California.

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Jamie’s cousin Hillary (who I swear could be MY cousin) and her son Noah

And there’s something great about circles coming around, being out with the adult kids of dear friends… who are now some years older than Jamie was when he met their parents. DSC_9797

It will be nice to slow down for a few weeks, where morning walks with Jamie’s sister and her dogs are one of the few things scheduled.

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lets meetIn a couple of weeks, we’ll host an open boat party on Totem in the Mystic area. I don’t expect to post the location here, so if you’d like to join us (August 13, anytime between 3pm and sunset), get in touch! Low key hanging out, trading stories, enjoying a sunny summer afternoon.

Maintenance and repairs will keep us busy enough otherwise: we’re dogged by charging problems that started in the Caribbean and have only gotten worse. The broken stanchion is still broken. The “clears” on our dodger…aren’t. And then there’s the matter of kayak replacements. I need to replace all my Nikon gear, two bodies and three lenses, because it has a fungus that has twice defeated a professional servicing. ouch.

Come September we’ll begin our southbound journey, by way of many stops along the US east coast. Maybe by then we’ll have a better idea of our route for wintertime and beyond. At this point, it is still best summed up as “Cuba sounds great!”

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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.