Sunday, December 14, 2014

Celebrate with Me!

Bella in a Milwaukee Boatyard, 12/2013
I've never been a very good example of anything, except perhaps being too stubborn to give up on an idea; too dumb to understand the odds stacked against me. The last week or so has been full of important anniversaries of how seven years of stubborn has actually worked out. I invite you to celebrate with me. Last December, I emailed a guy in Milwaukee about a boat he was selling. That boat turned out to be s/v Bella, now the love of my life. Bella and I are sailing south next summer.

Most of my adult life I've been dreaming of and working toward living on a boat. I actually did for a while in Sarasota. I found a boat and quit my last “career” job in April 2007 and set to work pursuing my dream in earnest. That boat was quite a project and like an old house, for every project I got started I found three more that needed done. I kept slogging along but my dream was about sailing not about perpetual boatwork.

Last August I had a long, heart-opening discussion with a friend. Accidentally, I had laid bare exactly what I needed to do next. Before I knew it I had placed an ad online that began: “I'm broke, I'm exhausted ...” 12 hours and 4 emails later, I had found the boat a new home; I was free again.

Well, free more in the sense of free fall. There were a few rough days back then. Friends and family will attest that I went through a period of swimming in possibilities. I was going to take a months long Zen retreat, then I was going to move to San Francisco; wait … Boston. There was a live-in internship at a homeless shelter I looked into; a motorcycle, an RV, etc. Without the project I'd been working on for seven years, I no longer had anything looming over me every day. Suddenly, I had no forward motion. Without forward motion, called 'way' by sailors, a boat has no steerage. I was that rudderless boat for a time.

Since I found another boat and things are back on track, more than one friend has complimented me for giving over to the universe, for trusting that things would work out. I have smiled and nodded at the idea, but the trust story is apocryphal. At the time I never thought “OK, I will now let the universe handle this.” I was pretty messed up. I'm sure I drove those around me crazy as every day came a new, really important idea of what I could do next.
Bella, getting ready, June 2014

Not knowing anything better to do, I kept stumbling toward my vague plan. Somewhere deep in my heart, I knew that if I didn't keep working toward a boat and a voyage, as I took my last breath on this planet I would wonder what it would have been like. The takeaway for me was that my plan was good, I had simply picked the wrong boat. I no longer needed to be local. I needed a lucrative job to save money for the next boat. I won't rehash the details again. I have written about my frustrations, letting go of the last boat, finding Bella and getting help to buy her, getting her ready and sailing her 'home' across LakeMichigan.

The first anniversary was December Second; the day I sent the email inquiring about a boat I saw on the Milwaukee Craigslist. December Third, I learned she was still available; December 10, I went to see her; and despite thinking I would play it cool, I made the deal on the 11th. Along the way, even before I had gone to see Bella, I was tightening up the details with a friend who helped me buy her before I had had time to build my savings.

Voyaging is not about sitting in some idyllic harbor watching the sun set, its about raising the anchor and moving on. OK, there will be sunsets in idyllic harbors too. Perhaps a part of being stubborn is a way of trusting the universe. Either way, I went from letting go of an onerous project to finding a boat that was ready to sail. In August of 2013, I watched my project boat go off down the highway, out of my life. Four months later, I had found Bella. This last June, I sailed her 'home' to Muskegon from Milwaukee. In 7 or 8 months, Bella and I are headed south. The one thing I've wanted to do most of my life.

No one dream is like another. What is your dream? Celebrate with me by pursuing yours! If you let go of the specifics of how you think it should go, the universe will help. Like sailing, you can't always go straight from Point A to Point B but if you learn to use the wind you can get there from another angle. Maybe you want to start a bakery, a dog shelter or a tree farm. Maybe you don't want a major change but you want time to make art or to learn to play an instrument. You might want to find a way to help others; a way to serve, to strive and thrive. Whatever it is, please be stubborn. Don't be hold tight to how you think it should be done, but be open to another way, but keep a 'weather eye' on your goal. Look to the horizon and don't get mesmerized by the water right in front of you.
On toward the horizon ...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Non-Plan Plan

Many people are curious about my plans. Some of my closest family and friends might be a little concerned too. I thought I would write a few ideas down to explain my non-plan. Please use the comments section below to ask any other questions you might have. I am wide open to constructive dialogue, but I will not necessarily defend or explain my particular choices ad infinitum. This is a lifestyle choice that is out of the mainstream; not only do I accept that, I revel in it. Further, I may not be able to explain my plans in words that everyone will understand. This is not my problem, it is theirs.

There are a few things that I want to do to Bella in the spring. I will be making a dodger and possibly a bimini. There are some organization and preparation details to take care of. The interior cushions could be reupholstered. I need to make some decisions about batteries, solar and wind power generation and the inboard diesel. There is a slightly better than even chance that I will pull the engine and replace it with some kind of sculling oar, Chinese or Bahamian. These are real propulsion options. Check out a couple Youtubes: here, here or here. The sails are in quite good condition, but I will be going over them closely to be certain. Also, I will have the marina tune my standing rigging before she goes back in the water.

The first part of the my vague plan begins around July 15, 2015. Bella and I will begin to move toward the Bahamas. We will sail up and over Michigan, out the Erie Canal to the Hudson River, to the Atlantic at New York Harbor and then south through the Intercoastal Waterway to Florida. I have a tentative schedule to meet a fellow sailors in the Bahamas next winter. We are all regulars on, a discussion board for small boat sailors.

Chines Yuloh

By starting in July I will have a fair amount of time to wander as I go. This is not a boat delivery where I have to go straight from Muskegon to Green Turtle Cay on a schedule. I will have three or four months to do four or five weeks of sailing. I want to get near Jacksonville before mid October simply to avoid getting too cold. Hopefully, as I wander my exit from the Great Lakes I can have people join me for parts of the trip. Keep an eye on social media for arranging to make a passage, if possible.
Bahamian Oar

In early 2016, after a couple months or so in the Bahamas, it will be time to come back to the States and find a good marina. I will work nearby and eventually have the boat hauled out of the water. In May 2016, I'll come back to Michigan, probably by bus, and spend a few weeks here around a graduation party I am committed and honored to attend. Then I will go back to Bella.

There are some additional boat maintenance and upgrade possibilities that I will do at this time. I'll likely work some more again. Replacing the standing rigging is a possible project. I might also resurrect the stove side of the galley that the previous owner took out. Unless I get north of Florida when I come back from the Bahamas, it will be hurricane season until November so I'll have time to do some boat work as needed. With these upgrades, Bella will be ready for some serious sailing. We are going to explore the Caribbean Sea. Once again, hopefully some friends and family will join me for a passage or meet me on some island somewhere.

The Caribbean Sea is over a million square miles. A sailor could never explore it all. The Caymans, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI, and maybe the Lesser Antilles are all on my mental list. I would like to explore Central America as well. The Rio Dulce has stuck in my vagabond heart since I read an article in Cruising World Magazine twenty some years ago. And I'd like to see Costa Rica and Panama as well. There will be no schedule or plan. If I love a place, I'll stay a while. If I hear about some other cool place, I'll go see it. If I start cruising with other boats, I might go where they go a few times. When money gets low, I'll wander back to the States.

In my voyage dreaming I would really like to cross an ocean. I don't think I am ambitious enough to think about circumnavigating, but an ocean crossing is very possible; probable even. Ireland and Sweden are in my ancestry. I would love to sail there and maybe down to Portugal and the Azores before returning to the Caribbean. Bella could do it with a little prep. We'll see if I can get my brain and my wallet that far.

Bella is a very seaworthy little ship. She is an Albin Vega, a Swedish boat with an ocean going pedigree. Vegas have sailed the globe with literally hundreds of ocean crossings. Her accommodations are on the spartan side, but that is right where I want them. I will not have refrigeration or air conditioning for they use too much battery power. Initially, I will cook on the single burner swing stove that I used this summer. There is also have a propane grill hanging on the stern pulpit. Electricity will be supplied by a battery bank charged from solar and wind. I will carry staples like rice, beans, flour and dried vegetables, as well as the some cabbage, potatoes and onions. I will not be a tourist, I am a vagabond. When I find a spot to stay, I will shop where the locals shop and eat what the locals eat. There will be plenty of fresh produce and fruit along the way. I'll also have fishing gear with me. The wannabe chef in me can't wait to learn to cook new things from the people I meet along the way.

I will carry a basic prepaid cellphone for necessary communication with governments and marinas. All other communication will be by email, social media and Skype/GoogleChat. This voyage is a bit of personal retreat too. The last thing I want is a smart phone type of tether to the so called real world. Bella has all the required safety equipment plus a VHF radio with GPS and AIS. We will carry a device like an inReach or a Spot so our position will be tracked in real time. The InReach allows for some two way communication as well so I could post to social media and notify about delays, etc. from wherever I am. Further, before setting out on any particular voyage, I will post/submit a float plan. My relative departure and arrival dates and locations will be known. Besides allowing for status updates from anywhere at sea, the inReach and the Spot both have a panic button for emergencies. My safety will, however, be my own concern and responsibility. There will be no reason for reports or inquiries to be made to any authorities if I am overdue.

In 2006 I coined the Bubba the Pirate motto: “Eat When You're Hungry. Work When You're Broke.” This is the guiding principle of my non-plan. I will work to fill my “Cruising Kitty,” then I'll go sailing. I will wander until my cash situation is lowered to some predetermined threshold and then I will work again. The Caribbean is a good place to start this routine as with a little planning I can easily wander back to the States to work. An ocean crossing would require a much larger cruising kitty which would have to be preceded by a longer work period. All this will either come together or it won't. It will be fine either way. The only reasonably solid plan is out of the Great Lakes to the Bahamas and then back to Michigan for a time. I'll keep you posted after that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reunion Cruises

s/v Bella (photo by Sherry)

 … and suddenly it's October.

Bella is out of the water for the winter and I am back on the road. My main job now is saving boat money for next summer. Perhaps I can get caught up on my writing as well.

August was a month of reunions. My brother, Tim, and his family were visiting the States from Switzerland. Tim's and my schedules lined up so that we could go sailing. I hope to get the rest of the family out when they return next year. Part of the old family crew [see below] was back together and we had a great day of sailing. Even Bella was enjoying herself in a brisk breeze and plenty of sunshine. I think that was the day I lost a hat.
Lost Hat

A few days later, my crew from the lake crossing came out for another sail. Dave and I had a nice sail and we took Bella out on the big lake. It was the first time that I had her on Lake Michigan since Dave and I crossed from Milwaukee, so it was a double reunion of sorts.

Bella was back in her element out on the big lake and the wind was just right on our return; opposite what it had been in June. We took up the challenge to sail all the way up the channel into Muskegon Lake without using the engine. Bella crept along, wind at her back, as other sailboats under power and all the powerboats were passing us. We had to wiggle past the sheriff and a boat they had stopped halfway down the channel. As we ghosted by the USS Silversides Museum, I said I thought we were going to make it all the way.

Dave and I under tow in June
“Shut up!” Dave exclaimed, “I've been trying not to jinx us by saying that.”

Bella gracefully took us all the way. It was quite a victory over having to get a tow last time.

As much as I enjoyed sailing with Tim and Dave, the important reunion was the privilege of sailing again with my Dad. Somewhere around 1976, Mom and Dad bought the family a sailboat. I had come back from scout camp with a Small Boat Sailing Merit Badge. During his Navy days, Dad did a Far East tour in the western Pacific on the USS Bennington (CV-20), an 872 foot Essex Class Aircraft Carrier. While he was aboard, the Bennington was sent to Sydney to help the Aussies celebrate ANZAC Day. He later helped build the USS Enterprise (CVN-65); 1123 feet long! We thought we were qualified to sail a 15 foot Chrysler Mutineer.

My sailing experience started with a Sunfish on Arrowhead Lake at camp. The Sunfish has a single lateen sail and is a good basic sailboat. Our Mutineer, a sloop we named the Luff Boat, had a furling jib forward of the mainsail. Sailing a sloop seemed more like proper sailing. Dad was my first captain.

Mom and sister Amy didn't appreciate the heeling motion of the Luff Boat as much as the guys. Our crew was most often Tim handling the jib sheets, me on the main sheet and Dad on the tiller. We drilled, practiced and sailed in bristol fashion. Dad called out “Ready About” and “Hard Alee.”

Our crewing was proper and salty but not really formal. We were all learning and we talked about the wind, the points of sail and navigation on the many Michigan lakes where we sailed. Dad let us try our hand at the tiller. It was with Tim and Dad that my love of sail began. With them, I began to get a 'wind sense' and some skill as a sailor; many of the most important moments of my life.

It was with Tim and Dad when I first got addicted to the sensation of a sailboat shouldering into the waves. With them, I first learned the quiet joy of gurgling along barely making way and felt the exhilaration when heeled over tearing across the water. I can still feel those delicioius moments hiked out over the windward rail with the boat heeling so much I could see the centerboard ghosting under the water over my shoulder.

Later, Dad was confident enough in my seamanship that I was allowed to take the boat out myself. Often towing her behind the family Chevette to go sailing with a buddy or a girlfriend. It was during these days that I discovered the true love of my life – sailing. These last eight years specifically, but really my whole life has been trying to get back to sailing. I had a few boats when I lived in Florida and even lived on one for a while. I've been working hard to get to the point that I can sail off for a while on an extended cruise. Turns out its a lot of work to set yourself up to be a boat bum.
Captain Dad

Back to this August, my cousin Sherry and her son Ben came out from New Jersey to see Grandma Curtis. While they were here I was going to take them for a ride. The dock where I kept Bella is not quite stable. I had been looking around for a dock or a pier that was more solid. Dad has some balance issues these days and I wanted him to be comfortable enough to come out and go for a sail. I hadn't found it yet, when two cars worth of family showed up to watch me take Sherry and Ben out. Dad came walking right out on the dock to greet me. I was elated! When Sherry decided to stay on shore and take pictures, I asked if anyone else wanted to come along with Ben and I. Dad stepped right up! It was fun to have Ben aboard and talk to him about sailing. He and his dad have a Sunfish they rescued and are sailing in Jersey. No offense to Ben, but to have my Dad, my original captain and sailing mentor aboard was incredibly important to me.

It was an auspicious day! The wind was such that we ended up sailing up the lake toward the city. We didn't make it easy for Sherry, the photographer, to get any good shots until we were coming back.

Next year is going to be a big year for Bella and I. These special moments will be along with us as we sail south.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Lake Crossing, Part Three

This is third of three posts. Find the first and the second.

Last I was telling the story, I thought I saw snow. The first week of June, Dave and I were sailing across Lake Michigan bringing my boat, s/v Bella, home from Milwaukee where I had found her. It was very cold. The Mid Lake Buoy had reported 39 degree water temperature midday Tuesday. We left that afternoon and sailed all night into Wednesday morning. After dark, I had occasionally shined a flashlight at the wind vane on top of the mast. Somewhere around 3:00a, I saw little flaky things blowing across the beam of light. I didn't need to see that.

By 5:00a or so, I figured that we were well across the northbound shipping lanes. We could rest easy that freighters were unlikely for the rest of the trip. About that time, I saw another sailboat. It was five or ten miles away, motoring south and west, a white hull and bare mast like a ghost in the moonlight. Put some damn sail up, I thought to myself. It was a beautiful night for a sail.

The sun came up and Bella started to warm up. We had most of the trip behind us. Though we were getting back into cellular range, our phones and Dave's iPad were running out of juice. I managed to text an ETA to our ground crew. Mom and Dad, and Nancy would be waiting on shore and taking lots of pictures. My optimistic ETA turned out to be wildly inaccurate, but that's sailing. 
Dave's iPad tracked us until its battery died.

Approaching Muskegon with more than 10 hours on the tiller, my brain started playing tricks on me. The coast ran for miles and miles to the south. The far away dunes looked for all the world like a jetty sticking out into the lake. The lighter color of the shallow water along the beaches could have been the mud trail of a river emptying into the big lake. Or it might be a sand bar! I strained my eyes, hand twitching on the tiller, ready to come about at a moment's notice.

Gradually, the coast came into better focus. I compared the smokestacks on the horizon with those on the chart. The GPS was locked in on the coordinates of the Muskegon jetty and it still wanted me to head a little south of east. I wasn't completely convinced but I trusted the stacks on the chart and the GPS. We sallied ... well, sailed forth.

On the Michigan side of the lake, the forecast was for stronger winds, 15-20 knots, and the chance of rain. Bella was in her element. She healed over, lee rail almost in the foam and I thought heard her snort like a thoroughbred. I felt safe and dry but was concerned about handling all the lines if I had to tack in a hurry. I called to Dave for help.

Headed more south than east with a shift of the wind, I could finally see the Muskegon jetties. We were pointing toward the beach north of the jetty but I wanted to get in close before tacking. It was going to be tricky getting up the channel. With Dave helping me sail Bella, I raised some signal flags to make a grand entrance into Muskegon. Dave called me Captain Subtle and teased that the drag of the flags was costing us at least a knot of forward progress. Nevertheless, Bella was decked out like a debutante and I was a proud skipper.

We tacked south toward the jetty. I waited as long as I could stand and we tacked in toward Muskegon but we couldn't make the channel. I'm not a racer and more than a little rusty anyway, but slicing acute angles out in the lake is hard. We sailed back to the north, then tacked down along the same track and past the entrance. I waited, waited some more, cursed myself, waited some more, and finally tacked – dammit – we missed the entrance again. Back to the north and then south again. This time closer to the end of the pier.

And then I heard the securite call from the Lake Express.

The Lake Express is the Milwaukee to Muskegon ferry. She was letting all stations know that she was coming into channel at Muskegon in ten minutes. I hailed them on the radio and practiced my real-sailor-radio-etiquette. On a working channel I told them that I was a sailing vessel also approaching Muskegon but would stay well out of their way.

Staying out of their way was a bit of a joke. The Lake Express crosses the lake in two and a half hours. We were almost 22 hours into our trip and only just approaching the coast. Worse yet, on our way out Tuesday, we had seen the ferry go into Milwaukee for the night. Here in Muskegon, Wednesday morning, she would enter the channel, cross Muskegon Lake, disembark her passengers, load again, and - dammit - leave for Milwaukee, all before we managed to enter the channel.

Back on Bella, we sliced as thin as we could closer to the jetty and then way, way past. This time, tacking back, we managed to enter the outer harbor. I was amazed how close to the wind Bella could sail! At times, she was headed so close into the wind, the wind vane practically pointed in the direction we were sailing.

We sliced back and forth inside the jetties; Bella was ripping. I could tell she just loved a broad reach. A broad reach is the fastest point of sail where a boat crosses the wind, rather than sails into it. Her theoretical hull speed is 6.4 knots. Dave called out when we hit 6 knots! It never felt like she was out of control. We were safe and dry and within a half a knot of her top speed. It was awesome sailing!

It was raining a little too.

I handed the tiller to Dave and went below to check the heading of the channel. If the wind direction out on the lake held near shore and I could get Bella pointed close to the wind on the starboard side of the channel, we could inch our way into the lake. We flew back and forth across the channel entrance looking for the right tack but we could not cut it close enough. The geography of the dunes and the seawalls of the channel funneled the wind straight out into the lake. Try as we might, we could not sail right into the wind and without an engine that was it. I dropped anchor just north of the channel mouth and called for a tow.

Next I had to get all those damn signal flags down. Even Captain Subtle can't make a grand entrance under tow.

The trip from outside the channel into the marina was complicated and at times infuriating. I'm not even sure I want to tell that part of the story. Nothing can diminish the fact that we made it. A couple of rusty sailors had crossed almost 75 miles of open water on the fifth largest lake in the world. We had survived more than 22 hours, overnight, just Bella and us against the elements. It was wonderful, it was amazing, and it is exactly what I have always wanted to do.
Home Dock, Torresen Marine

The Lake Crossing, Part Two

This is the second of three posts. Find the first and the third.

West Michigan is blessed with sunsets at the lakeshore. The population here is thick with sunset addicts. Actually people come from all over to savor the moments when the sun sizzles into the western horizon and splashes its colors across the clouds and sky. These sunset fans will all know the icy blue color the lake often gets in the fading light of the day. On our trip across the lake, as the sun flared orange and red over Lake Michigan, I was surrounded as far as I could see in every direction by that shimmering, living topaz blue.

I really should have woke my crew, Dave, to see the sunset. We had done the first six hours together and were going to split the rest of the night in three hour watches. I had let Dave take the first break. As the sun slid toward the horizon and the premature moon came out, I revelled in the fact that I was sailing my
own boat across Lake Michigan. It was glorious. In all my days and daydreams of sailing, I had longed for sailing beyond the horizon. I wanted to get to where I could not see land – anywhere. Like the sweaty junior high anticipation of actually dancing with a girl, I had no idea what I was doing or if I could pull it off, I just knew that I wanted to more than anything else. The night was a little overcast without many stars and it was getting cold. Dave wasn't due into the cockpit until 10:00p.

The lapping waves and gurgle of the boat moving through the water is as relaxing as you might imagine – in the cockpit. When Dave relieved me and I went below to catch a little sleep, I couldn't believe the racket! Imagine shrinking yourself to lay inside the drain of your bathtub as it empties, the loud rush of water was deafening. I wasn't sure I could sleep as excited as I was; let alone with all that racket. It hadn't occurred to me that in all my sailing, having never really sailed offshore, I was never down below underway. Soon I managed to slip off to sleep anyway.

And then the proximity alarm went off.

“What is that?!” Dave called from the tiller.

One of the reasons I've been so happy about getting Bella is how well equipped she is. The VHF radio, normally used for talking to other boats, bridge tenders, and marinas, is also equipped with GPS and AIS. The GPS is just like in your car without the streets. It tells me my latitude and longitude, plus which way and how far it is to a waypoint; a destination.

The radio also recieves AIS signals. Cargo ships, ferries and other commercial vessels are equipped with transponders that broadcast their name, call sign and heading. I had set up the radio to warn us when a big ship was seven minutes away. I just hadn't told my crew.

“He's lighting up our sails with a spotlight” Dave said.

I poked my head out the companionway and could see running lights of something big behind us. By his green and white lights, I knew he was headed north well behind us to the west. Their amazingly powerful spotlight was just a pinpoint out there, but a splash of light against Bella's white sails. There were a couple other boats north and east of us, but their lights were far enough away I couldn't make out which way they were headed. The AIS screen wasn't showing anyone on a convergent course. The couple of blips that were there were just skirting the circle, off in other directions. I laid down again but didn't sleep any more. As jazzed as I was just to be sailing that would be enough.

About 1:00a, on Wednesday now, we traded spots again and I was back on the tiller where I wanted to be anyway. It had gotten even colder! I had five layers on and draped the wool blanket across my lap when I settled in and got Bella in her groove. The joy soaked
back into me and kept me plenty warm. We were slightly north of Muskegon already. Later when the wind shifted, again in our favor, I slid Bella's bow more toward Muskegon. We hadn't tacked yet. We ran before the wind from Milwaukee, then leaned into a broad reach to the northeast and had just leaned into a reach toward Michigan. The boom hadn't crossed the boat since we were becalmed a mile from Milwaukee. The wind gods were taking good care of us.

Its funny how being skipper changes your attitude. The feeling of responsibility weighed on me. I couldn't have made the trip without Dave being along. He was a great help. Though I had considered making the trip alone, I couldn't have pulled it off. But with crew I was also responsible for more than just myself. Though it was more comforting than worrying, it was at the forefront of my thoughts.

At 4:00a Dave was to come back on watch. He woke up freezing cold and couldn't stop shivering. I was worried about him getting hypothermic. It was cold and damp now, but we hadn't ever closed up the companionway in the fair weather we'd had. When it got cold overnight, the cabin had gotten just as cold as the cockpit.  I had him heat up some water on the stove to warm the cabin and told him to stay down there. He bundled up and eventually fell back to sleep with a couple drop boards in the companionway and the stove on. Without an engine, any medical issue could have spelled the end of our trip and quite possibly the end of s/v Bella.

I was doing fine, until I saw snowflakes.
Well ... not quite this much snow.

Last image from Flickr. Used without permission. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Lake Crossing - First Installment

Moon Over the Flag

This is the first of three posts, find the second and the third

When we last left our hero, he was trapped by the fickle winds and roiling weather in a Milwaukee marina just wishing he could give a friend a daysail.

I was stuck at the marina because the starter on s/v Bella would not turn the engine over. Given my time constraints,  I decided to cross the lake without an engine. The one good thing about sitting on a boat with no engine wishing for better wind was that in just watching the weather, I had rehearsed many scenarios for sailing off the dock and out the pass into the lake. 

Dave, my crew for the lake crossing, was as excited as I was to do some serious sailing. When I called to explain my decision to sail without an engine, Dave was still gung-ho. If I had broken the mast off and proposed sailing across the lake with a jib strung sideways on the jagged stump, I'm not so sure that Dave wouldn't have been up for that too.

I had been tempted to try to beat Sunday's weather and cross the lake on Saturday, the day after the launch and tow. The weather window, however, was very small. As this crossing was to be my first actual sail on Bella, prudence was the better part of valor. Dave came over on the Lake Express ferry on Monday. The plan was for a Tuesday departure with Wednesday held as an option.

As mentioned in the last post McKinley Marina is close to shopping, dining and museums. While we didn't take time for museums, Dave, Nancy and I walked all over, did some provisioning and found a fantastic little Thai Restaurant. Tuesday morning we wandered across the street to Collectivo Coffee for a crew breakfast. After some coffee, one of a sailor's four basic food groups, Dave and I began our preparations. Nancy wasn't making the trip across as she was driving home, but she stuck around. She had volunteered to take pictures, some video and also made some guacamole and a veggie soup for the crew.

Its counter intuitive to land lubber logic but we were leaving in the afternoon in order to sail all night and arrive at the unfamiliar harbor during daylight. The trip was to be around 20 hours, so making the trip in one day's light was just not possible. I had wanted to push off before 4:00p, but rain late in the Muskegon forecast had me move that up to 1:00p. The wind forecast was for northwest wind backing to northeast on the Wisconsin side with east wind at Muskegon for most of the next day, Wednesday. My float plan was to head northeast until the wind shifted and then southeast into Muskegon. A dog leg for you land lubbing golfers.

The wind was 5 to 10 knots slightly north of west. I was glad it was a bit mild for the my first ever sail with Bella. The 100% jib was a little small given the wind speed perhaps ... prudence again. We bent a spring line amidships and stowed the bow and stern dock lines. With a backed jib, we eased off the dock using the spring line to control Bella's first steps before the wind. When the jib came across, we were sailing! I cut the corner of the mooring field, passing one boat and several buoys to port with the rest of the basin to starboard. I laid her over into a broad reach and we sheeted the jib to run the channel. It all went like we were a seasoned crew. I loved it.

Bella trembled with anticipation and hitched her skirt to jog a little – even under the jib alone. Dave stowed the dock lines and fenders as I sailed her into the area behind the breakwater. We headed straight south across the wind, tacked back along our track and then entered Lake Michigan through the northern entrance with the wind behind us. Dave, Bella and I fell into a groove and got familiar with each other. We raised the main and she pushed a little harder eastward toward Michigan, her new home.

Wind in my hair, my hand on the tiller of a boat shouldered into the waves can only be described as spiritual exaltation. Even without much chop on the lake, Bella galloped to an even rhythm, like breathing. Sailing is just so natural and positively alluring to me – it is where I belong. Whenever I return to sailing, I am amazed that I had survived however long as I have without it. I know its the same feeling a parched, wilted flower feels the morning after a rain, when she straightens, and opens up again rejoicing with a beaming smile to the sun; for the sun stands in as the whole beloved universe.

And then the wind stopped.

We were a mile or so off Milwaukee and becalmed. Becalmed is a part of sailing, its OK. Without an engine, however, becalmed is more disconcerting. We were so close, the Milwaukee skyline still loomed above us. Worse yet, but for the lake, we still could have easily walked back from there. I maniacally twiddled with jib sheets and the main. I tacked the boom by hand over my head. With the lopsided, dilated eyes of a twitching lifeboat survivor, I searched frantically for the slightest puff of wind.

Exuding a wisdom beyond his years, Dave calmly said, “Dude, there's no wind. You're not going to accomplish anything but wearing yourself out.” I managed to settle down, anesthetized by the gentle rock of the waves. We munched on guacamole and jicama ... and waited.

Eventually, without making us suffer too long, the wind returned. It came back a little south of west, then later backed to the northwest and we went from running to reaching again. I had been very happy with the deal I had got on Bella just as raw equipment. Now I know first hand that she sails like a dream. The sailing was glorious and I am thrilled with my new boat. She has no idea what I have in store for us.
Sailing Again off the Milwaukee Skyline

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bella Gets Wet

Once I decided to leave the starter issue to later, I went to work on my other priorities. The mast went up, the rigging up and the boat was launched by the guys at Pier Milwaukee; a great boatyard. I had been calling around about getting a tow down to the McKinley Municipal Marina where I had reserved a slip. There is a dearth of tow boats in Milwaukee. I have tow insurance through Boat/US but their nearest franchise was in Kenosha, a good distance away. As a non-emergency tow I would responsible for half of the charges from Kenosha to me, the tow to the marina, and their trip back to Kenosha. Chris, the owner at Pier Milwaukee, suggested I talk to the boat next door. He had heard that they were going downriver to McKinley that evening.

When Bruce showed back up with his wife, son and dog along, it turned out that he was planning to piggyback on my appointment to get under the railroad bridge. Instead of following me through, I followed him because he agreed to tow me down to the marina. We were on!

Bruce had never towed another boat with a sailboat, but we shoved off, he swung around to grab Bella, and I tossed him a line. We puttered around the first bend of the Kinnickinnick River and lolled our way past the Horny Goat Hideaway and under the 1st St. drawbridge. Bruce was in charge and was contacting the bridge operators as we went. The tricky part is the CP Rail bridge and the KK Ave bridge. The railroad swing bridge and the city street drawbridge are so close together they have to be opened at the same time. There's no room fora a boat between them.

As we approached the CP Rail bridge, the bridge attendant was out on the far end of the bridge beating on it with a sledge hammer! Bruce called the tower and found out the bridge was broken; not moving. We started circling around in the narrow river; to one side a few large fishing vessels and on the other an ancient rusty seawall. After a couple pirouettes, I watched Bruce make another call to the tower and saw his shoulders slump. He called back to me “The bridge is fixed but an Amtrak is coming. We have to wait.”

One more circle, two sailboats dancing mid river in the early evening. The Amtrak train roared across the river, not over our heads but just down the river way up in the air. As the rumble died down, the bridges began to move. The rail bridge swings downstream while the street bridge draws up in two halves. It is amazing how close they get when finally open. Bruce opened up the throttle and we scooted under both bridges.

Most of the rest of the journey went smoothly. The Kinnickinnick is quite industrial on the way toward the lake. We went by all sorts of industrial buildings, some with wharves. There were boats stored in nooks and crannies everywhere. The grain elevators we passed hummed like hives. Under the beautiful I-765 arch and out into the breakwater area we passed a couple small lighthouses. Even though I was under tow, I relished in my boat moving through the water.

The breakwater area is huge and runs both north and south of the Government Cut where Milwaukee's three rivers join and enter Lake Michigan. McKinley Municipal Marina is at the very northern end. A beautiful line of fancy racing sailboats coming in off the lake caught my eye. Most of them had single sails that cost as much as I spent on my whole boat. As I enjoyed the boat porn, it occurred to me that they were all coming into the breakwater's northern entrance - right where we were headed! It was the Friday night race, I later found out. About half the racers were crossing our path and going into other marinas around town. The other half were headed into the same yacht basin as we were.

The folks at McKinley Municipal Marina were great. First, they happily took my 5 or 6 day reservation and allowed me to pay by the night so I could watch the weather and pick the right sailing day without paying for nights I didn't use. Then when I informed them I was getting towed in, they put me at the end of a T dock so that I could sail out more easily.

I let Bruce know where I needed to get. He was very helpful. We came wallowing in to the basin toward the end of dock 'B.' Bruce pulled me close enough that I got a stern line on a dock cleat. Going forward, I called to a boater who happened to be a couple slips down the pier. He caught my bow line and attached it. Bruce had been just tugging in low throttle to keep me against the dock. He tossed me my line and was off to find his own summer dock. I rigged a spring line, tightened the other dock lines and went to check in at the office. McKinley is a very nice facility with nice restrooms and showers. The marina is right next to the large Veterans Park and close to the art museum and downtown. A variety of shopping is within walking distance but marine supply stores are a drive. The marina gave me a couple keys for the gate and a hang tag for parking a car; all included.

With no engine, however, conditions needed to be just right to be able to sail out of, and back into, the yacht basin. Conditions never were just right, the wind often just wrong. A couple times we pulled the main sail cover off, but that just seemed to immediately upset the weather gods. A good part of the weekend, a train of thunderstorms marched up from Iowa, across Wisconsin and right over Milwaukee. With my flags regularly stiffly cracking in the breeze, there would be no daysail in Milwaukee. However, we were trapped at a wonderful marina, right next to a big park, with a coffeehouse right across the street. And my crew for the crossing was coming over on the Monday ferry.

Photos: some by Nancy and some by Bubba 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Greeting Bella

I found Bella too soon in my plan. Without the help of my friend Nancy I wouldn't have been able to do the deal. Nancy is one of my oldest and dearest friends, so I was happy when we hatched a plan for her to give me a ride over to Milwaukee. She is important to the whole project and I wanted her there for the launch and to give her a ride on Bella. More on the lack of sailing later.

Back in April I ran over to Milwaukee to spend a long morning poking around Bella and doing some measurements. Mostly, I just wanted to spend some time with her again, but I did use the measurements to order a stove and some graphics for the stern. The logistics were easy when I was driving over and then back home again. It was more complicated when I needed to get to Milwaukee but then sail back to Michigan. Getting a ride solved that problem.

The rest of the plan got a little sideways. I planned spend a couple weeks in Milwaukee prior to Bella's launch. The first two weeks of June were to be dedicated to getting the mast up, prepping the standing and running rigging, checking things over, and learning about the boat from the previous owner (PO) and then waiting for good weather to sail her home. However, the PO's plans changed as work and life got complicated for him. He was not going to be available after June 1st. The great little company that I drive for gave me two weeks off to move my boat. Then when I had to go back and ask if I could move my schedule up a week – to the day after Memorial Day – they happily obliged.

Nancy had all kinds of touristy things planned to occupy herself in Milwaukee while the PO and I got Bella ready. As it turned out I needed a lot of help. She regularly ran me to the hardware store or to West Marine for parts and supplies. I also borrowed her car to run across town and have a crown glued back in my head by a Milwaukee dentist. She even helped put a fresh layer of bottom paint on Bella, and took a lot of pictures and some video for which I'm grateful.

It wasn't all work. We had some great ethnic food while we were there. If anyone needs a Milwaukee recommendation for Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian or Thai, let me know. A couple of those places I would sail all night to eat there again, but that's getting ahead of the story.

I had a huge list of things to accomplish on the boat before the launch and the trip across the lake. There were safety items, comfort things and stuff just for show – like
the graphics on the stern. On the second day, however, the schedule was disrupted by a 40 year old diesel engine. Not only did it not want to start, but the flywheel didn't want to turn at all.

The PO was chagrined as the engine had just brought him all the way up the river last fall. Before I bought the boat, we talked about the fact that every spring turning the ignition key was a crap shoot because of the engine's age. It wasn't that I expected everything to work the first time. Dead stopped, however, was not in my plan. Especially since the boat was at Pier Milwaukee waaayyyy up the Kinnickinnick River from Lake Michigan. The three miles downstream would be near impossible without an engine, but add in three drawbridges, one that required an appointment, and doing it without an engine was out of the question.

I went to work diagnosing the engine. There was a little bit of movement in the flywheel. Three crucial days were spent – grease covered – coaxing the flywheel, removing the belts, checking the starter and the alternator, scratching my head, replacing the belts, trying again, and over and over. The engine got to feeling a little better and the ignition would spin the engine, but when I dropped the decompression lever it bogged down and just couldn't turn over. The PO and I decided that it must be that the starter was bad.

I had to start thinking about the overall schedule. If I spent the time to pull the 40 year old starter and have it tested, I could find out if the starter was good or bad, but I could not get it fixed in the time I had before we wanted to cross the lake. I decided to stop spending time on my knees with my head in the engine compartment. I had to get back to my list and get the boat safe and ready. Especially now that we were going to sail her across the lake without an engine.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Meeting Bella

As explained in a previous post, I didn't mean to find a boat so soon. But when I found s/v Bella on the Milwaukee Craigslist, she sounded too good to be true, but after talking to the owner for a while on the phone, she sounded more true than too good. I had to see her.

On a random Thursday last December, I was home for a couple days from my truck driving and arranged to meet the owner in Milwaukee on his lunch hour. It was 11 degrees in Hudsonville when I woke, 3 degrees in Milwaukee. By the time I drove through Chicago and around the lake to Milwaukee, it managed to get to 11 or 12 degrees there.

It was love at first sight. I struggled to not try and buy her right then. Bottom paint is made to wear off and most older used boats have a splotchy bottom as more paint was just splashed on. The previous owner (PO) was wet sanding the Bella's bottom paint every fall! From the water line down, she looked like a brand new boat.

Then looking up toward the deck, I saw double lifelines - uncoated double lifelines! This will mean nothing to a landlubber, but double lifelines is something only a serious sailor would do. Further, pretty white vinyl covered lifelines are very popular because they “look nice.” However, stainless steel corrodes more seriously when in a limited oxygen environment. Coated lifelines are likely to wick moisture up under that pretty coating and corrode. And the coating prevents you from seeing the corrosion as it progresses. Then during some bad day sailing when you fall on the lifelines expecting them to help keep you on board and they just don't. Uncoated lifelines allow a skipper to keep an eye on the condition of his lifelines - pretty be damned.

Most of the rest of the tour of "my next boat" was simply confirming the details in the ad and the personality of the PO. You could eat off the engine compartment floor. All the interior lights and the navigation lights outside are converted to LED lights. There is a HUGE inventory of sails - two furling jibs, five hank jibs, a spinnaker and two mains; many in new condition. There are three anchors, the main anchor with way more chain than typical. The interior is mostly original but in great shape. The running rigging (the lines that move sails, etc) was new in 2009. There was $2500 or $3000 worth of upgrades and improvements that I would make on any random used boat that were already done.

The radio is a relatively new Standard Horizon brand VHF that includes GPS and AIS. The GPS is similar to a car GPS without the streets, it simply shows latitude and longitude. AIS is a system for identifying other vessels. Landlubbers might be familiar with the concept because of the movie “Top Gun.” Fighter jets have transponders so that ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ can be tracked in the navigation system. Large ships and other commercial vessels on the water have been equipped with similar transponders. With a receiver like Bella’s radio, the name, call sign, heading and speed of the larger vessels can be tracked.

I’ve carried around a book for several years called “Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere” by John Vigor. His review is reproduced here. s/v Bella is an Albin Vega, a Swedish built, offshore capable boat that ranks highly in Vigor’s book. I recognized the brand and knew the reputation as soon as I saw the ad. Vigor said of the Vega “She’s modest but plenty tough.” The Vega is 6th on his safety-at-sea list which includes several larger boats. She was designed to be a fast, light ocean cruiser and once held the record fastest Atlantic crossing. One of my parameters has always been a relatively full keel with an attached rudder. This greatly reduces the chance of rudder damage as the rudder hides behind the keel as it goes through the water.

Reviews like this one make me excited for our future travels: “She is very handy indeed off the wind. A Vega called Little My III crossed the Atlantic from the Cape Verde Islands to Barbados in 14 days, 16 hours. Richard Henderson, commenting on the trip in his book Singlehanded Sailing (International Marine), says: "She reportedly surfed in the trade winds at speeds up to 13 knots, yet was dry, comfortable, and easily managed.”

Bella was a hidden gem on Craigslist. She is not set up for how most people would sail, but fits my plans to a ‘t.’ December too was a good month to buy a boat as there were practically no other shoppers to compete with. I am super, super - super duper - happy with how she sails!  But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rolling along with Rocks and Punches

Our old friend, Sisyphus keeps rolling along.

It was a weird weekend for boat money - good and bad, I guess. Friday in North Carolina one of my molars decided to fall apart. Monday morning, I had to enter a new dentist unannounced and ask for help. My old dentist is not 'in network' under the dental insurance at the new job. But the people at Hudsonville Family Dentistry were great. Three hours in the chair and I am all fixed up, just waiting for a new crown to be made and installed. I walked right in to an opening created by a cancellation. Some of you have heard me say "I'd rather be lucky than good."

Also, this weekend I converted my blogs back to Blogger. As a humble traveller I don't need to be paying for cyberspace. My blogs are NOT super stars of the interwebs and the traffic really never justified having my own URLs. My writing and rambling site is back too. My zennish reflections blog has always been here on Blogger.

And I sent in paperwork for getting s/v Bella documented by the U.S. Coast Guard. This will make it easier to check into foreign countries. Foreign countries are familiar with the USCG paperwork. Having only a state registration really slows down the immigration process. At least this last item was boat money spent on the boat.

I'm back ...

s/v Bella, an Alvin Vega 27.
Well, I've decided to return to Blogger as host for my ramblings. As I look to departing aboard Bella in June, 2015, I am taking a close look at how I want to spend my boat money. Renting cyberspace for my anemic, untraveled, yet untrammelled blogs never made sense, I suppose. I am but a humble traveller, I will act more like it. Cheers and stay tuned.