Sunday, June 4, 2017

Beer and a Scratch Off

One of my oft-told stories comes from my days having started a plastics manufacturing business in Florida. My business partner and I were off to a good start but had to walk away from our original financial backer and carry on with no money behind us. At one point, business was slow, there was no money in our accounts and my partner was with his wife, who was in the hospital. I spent a couple weeks by myself at the shop; cleaning, making cold calls by phone and trying to occupy myself. There was no business and not much to do. I had very little money to distract myself out in the world.

In fact, on this day, I was down to a couple dollars and a few coins. We had some invoices out but I didn’t have any idea when I might see more cash. This must have been in the days after the boat when I was living in a twenty-two foot Prowler camping trailer. I remember that I was driving the tan Ford
Home Sweet Lil' Trailer
Ranger with the broken gas gauge. I left the shop, and pulled into the Super America gas station just outside our industrial park. A grocery store would have been a better place to spend my last two dollars, but I wandered around inside looking at my options. Affording something to both fill my stomach and slake my thirst was not going to be possible.

This was also post-divorce. I had a few friends around town, but nowhere to go this day but back to my little trailer at the Circus City Trailer Park. Likely, in a fit of pride, I chose not to call on a friend. There might have been a little brown rice in my cupboard, but I had eaten through my larder in the days before. As I walked past the beer cooler in the store, I had a jubilant stick-it-to-the-universe revelation. I bought a tall boy of Coors Light, a scratch-off lottery ticket and walked out. I gave my present circumstances the bird and prepared to enjoy my beer.

It was still light out, but in those days I’m sure I opened the beer right there in the parking lot. I dug through my near empty pocket and found a dime to scratch the ticket right there on the steering wheel. The greyish foil balled up and crumbled into my lap, while I sipped my beer. Enjoying every drop while it was still ice cold - the only way to drink cheap American beer.

I can get caught up in defying the universe; one part martyr, one part vagabond and two parts stubborn. But my defiant moment was practically ruined when I won forty dollars!! That’s right, sitting there in my old pickup with an open container and a few cents in my pocket - I scored. It wasn’t the beginning but a confirmation of my life’s motto: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

I went back inside to claim my $40 and then headed straight for the grocery store. In those days, if I avoided buying more beer, I probably ate for three weeks on forty bucks.

I spent nearly five years struggling against the universe, all kinds of unique setbacks and economic factors, and a location less than supportive of manufacturing in general. It was a holy quest for which I quite willingly sacrificed greatly. The business struggles did not directly cause the end of my young marriage, but was certainly a catalyst. I lived for a couple years on fifty bucks a week, drove a cab for a while, and did all kinds of day labor and crew work. Along the way, we stole all our equipment from ourselves, got sued for $600,000, and got teased but left at the altar by several potential “angel investors.” I learned a lot about business law. And I learned to struggle and grub for something that was important to me. In fact, my former partner is still running a business from the thermoforming machine we built back in 1991.

I’ve brought that same determination to my 'wandering the seas' project. It’s been ten years and I’ve got another 10 or 11 months to go. There’s been three boats and an uncounted number of jobs in three “careers” to get here. At varying times I’ve been defeated, frustrated, elated and sublimely joyous. I’m so close now that I know it is going to happen one way or the other. One lesson I’ve learned is to differentiate and prioritize the long term goal, the steps to get there and the little pesky details. The goal and the steps are clear cut by their nature and can be written down. The real progress relies on momentum. The key is to not get bogged down; to learn which pesky daily details need conquered and which should simply be ignored.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Day in the Life.

I have to admit that somehow I’ve wiggled myself into a good place. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing, I own the boat I have always wanted, and I’ve even fallen into an excellent job situation. Not just a good little company, but because Carroll Fulmer picked up a large contract just before I applied there, the specific fleet I was assigned to is perfect for me. They don’t pay the highest, but I get lots of miles and my schedule is uniquely flexible. Further, my boat is less than ten miles from one of the distribution centers I deliver to most often.

I rolled into town early last Tuesday morning for a couple days off and jumped into boatwork. Tuesday and Wednesday were productive days; even though I had a dentist appointment Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday evening and Thursday morning were scheduled for working on my book. All went well even though after the dentist I had to backtrack to the marina to pick up my forwarded mail. UPS tracking showed it had just arrived.

It was about 2.5 miles back to the marina and another mile back to the bus stop. All the while, I was eyeing the darkening sky. A large storm was forecast to bring heavy rain throughout the night. I was hoping to get back to the truck and off my bicycle before it hit. It is eight miles from the marina to the truckstop where I parked, and the bus does six of those miles for me if I time it right.

It’s two bus routes to my destination and after transferring to the second, it began to rain. Halfway through that route we drove through a torrential squall. Luckily, by the time I pulled my bike back off
the bus bike rack, it was barely sprinkling. I hopped on the bike and road through the damp streets, dodging the puddles and the rivulets along the curb.

Back at the truck, I organized my thoughts, my mail, and the spare clothes I had stuffed into my saddlebags. The good news was that everything was dry after the downpour. The saddlebags had still been attached to the bike out on the rack in front of the bus. Looking back on my workdays, I had got some good work done. The cockpit was lifted out of the way, the fuel returns were installed into the new tanks, and the tanks themselves were set in place in the engine room. The trouble was the great hole in the deck where the cockpit had been. I had covered the aft third of the boat with a couple tarps that were onboard but one was already torn and frayed, and the other was too cheap and thin to survive the blasting wind of the storm that had just started.

There is such a things as a boat sinking in the boatyard. A neglected boat will eventually develop leaks.
My tarped Cape Dory, 6 yrs ago. 
After a few years, the weight of rainwater in the boat can become too much for the cradle or the jack stands. Eventually, the whole thing will tip over or split open. Or more insidiously, fresh water can quickly rot any wood, structural or decorative, soaked by even a small amount. I had to come up with a plan.

Thursday afternoon, after a nap, I headed for Savannah to pick up a load. My next load was right back to Fort Pierce and as I headed down I-95, a plan began to come together. I needed good tarps and a bit of rope.

My first Florida job last winter was delivering sod to Home Depots and Lowes. Hence, I knew right where there was a hardware store with a large parking lot, just off the highway. At Titusville, I jumped off and grabbed three tarps and 50’ of some cheap line. Down to Fort Pierce, I dropped my load, hooked an empty trailer, and cut across town to the marina. I have gotten away with parking my tractor and trailer for a couple hours at a time right next to a No Parking sign on a short, orphaned side street that goes downhill from the new Federal Highway to the Old Dixie Highway it replaced. If someone ever buys the empty industrial site here, my sneaky parking will likely come to an end.

I grabbed the tarps, walked across the road and into the marina. It’s almost June, the start of Hurricane Season, and the boatyard is filling up. So many boats lying akimbo like beached whales, completely out of their element. Right next to Emma, I met Dan, a friend of Captain Tony and Carol, whom I knew online until I finally met them ‘IRL’ here at Riverside Marina. Dan and I joked about endless boatwork and compared notes about our coming engine installations. He's trying to launch next week; I'm looking at next year.

As expected, the storm I had barely escaped a couple days previous, had wrecked the cheap tarps over Emma’s cockpit. One had been slung over the boom like a tent, the other was draped over a storage tub laid upside down across the hole. The boom tent was shredded and water had collected in the lower tarp.

The lower tarp, despite being tattered and baked by the sun, now held a couple gallons of water. As I gathered the folds of the tarp and gingerly attempted to lift it, water began running out of the raggedly porous tarp. Suddenly, a fold below my grip opened up and the water dumped into the boat but was caught in the tub that had fallen below. OK, not so bad.

I lifted the tub and leveled it out the best I could to keep the water away from its rim. Just as I got it all to deck level, I discovered that someone had drilled in the bottom as it emptied into the engine room. Well, I got some of the water out.

With the tattered and wet tarps gathered and pitched overboard down to the ground, I set about re-tarping. The two good heavy-duty tarps went over the boom as a double layer tent which I tied tight from the corners. The smaller lighter tarp was stretched across the cockpit hole and over the tub which gave some shape and slope to prevent water collecting. The previous lower tarp had collected water because it was not tied down, but laid across the tub with buckets in the corners. This time I tied it tight like a rain fly.

Back on the ground, I gathered the old tarps and the trash to drag to a dumpster. I had forgotten my phone, so I have no picture of my handiwork, but I walked around Emma to evaluate her new storm readiness.

After hitting the dumpster and hiking back out to my truck, I got out of my sweaty shirt and climbed in. I turned the key, the truck roared to life, needles on the various gauges sprung to attention and I was ready to hit the road again. The onboard computer showed I’d only been off duty for an hour and twenty minutes. Good quick work to secure my girl, Emma. I drove around the block and headed north again on U.S. 1, nobody knew or cared that I had made a side trip for my own project.

Back toward Savannah and life is good.
Sunrise on the Chesapeake, 2 yrs ago. I'll be back soon.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ten Years Ago ...

Transmission on the engine
Ten years ago, I quit my last “career” job. I had bought an old sailboat that I foolishly thought I could escape with by that fall. Three boats later, though it’s been frustrating, and more than occasionally painfully slow, the good ship, sv Emma, and I are on the cusp of ocean sailing. Toward that end I now have fuel tanks and a transmission to go with the engine that I found a couple months ago. The pieces are assembled and ready to be installed.

The next big project is the standing rigging. The engine will get dropped into the boat and the mast taken down on the same day, with the same crane. The mast will be inspected along with the standing rigging and all the related bits and pieces -- tangs and shackles, etc. I expect to replace much of the hardware bits and
Emma in the yard
all the wire rope. After that all my boat projects are small and medium sized. At some point next year, Emma will go back in the water and we can sail occasionally while the last projects are finished.

Nevertheless, it has been a slog. Many times I’ve questioned just what I was trying to accomplish. My resume is a wreck -- as if that mattered to me anymore. In the last ten years, besides trying to find the right boat, I’ve tried to find the right kind of work. Working full time, I had boat money to spare, but not much time for boatwork. When I worked part time, I got lots of boatwork done but didn’t have the cash flow to sustain it. The key to my success has been that I’m simply too stubborn to quit. And I am actually quite comfortable with my ‘bombed-out’ resume; it is a solid reflection of my dedication to the boat project over my career.

My first boat had a good pedigree but turned out to be more project that boat. It only took me six years to figure that out. The second boat was a good, seaworthy boat, but she was a little bit small. I knew I would outgrow her sooner than later, but she was going to get me out of the Great Lakes and to a few islands at least.
The first boat, a Cape Dory 28

After I helped deliver a Westsail 42 from Stony Point, NY to Florida in 2015, I knew that I had to have a Westsail of my own. I’ve told both stories previously, but after sailing Alex’s Eleanor, I found my Emma, a 32 footer, floating at a mooring in Miami. 

I used to look at used sailboats online like some guys look at porn. I still bump into used boats through some of my sailing-related Facebook groups. Every once in awhile, I’ll see a bargain, or a well equipped boat, and feel that tug of doubt. Do I have the right boat yet? Why am I doing all this work on land? Why am I not sailing? Eventually, the answer always comes back to “yes.” I absolutely have the right boat for me.

My second smaller boat, Bella, had the advantage of being in the water. I sailed her like crazy in 2014! Escaping with that boat, a 27’ Albin Vega, would have been like living in a nice camper. Doable, certainly. Emma, my current boat, is a big, heavy girl. She is roomy and stable with an unquestionable reputation for
Bella, photo by Sherry
safe, long distance ocean sailing. Living aboard her will literally be my retiring to a nice apartment. Further, refitting Emma -- all this work -- is the perfect expression of my used boat philosophy.

The reality of my situation is that I was never going to afford to spend tens of thousands all at once on a boat. Further, a used boat will always come with some surprises. Surprises can be tedious, and more often than not expensive. One oft-quoted rule of thumb is to plan on spending half again what you just paid for a used boat to get her ready for serious sailing. The more you spend on a used boat, you might expect fewer surprises. However, they wouldn’t be surprises if you could expect them. Even brand new boats can have surprises. I just read about a recent batch of brand new catamarans with immediate osmosis issues in the hulls. I bought Emma so cheaply, all these numbers, ratios or rules of thumb are not much use.

Rowing out to Eleanor, 2015
Even now with an engine and transmission bought for her, I only have about $12,000 invested in my boat. There are boats out there, of course, for $10,000 or $12,000 that can be sailed away today. The purchase price, however, does not include the cost of the proverbial surprises. It’s a bit more than $4,000 a year to keep her at a dock or in a boatyard. I’ve not added that into the total investment as is would be a wash between my boat or another.

Rather than spend 10 or 15, or even $50,000, I bought the best hull I could find; a well proven design in good shape. When I re-launch her, she will almost be rebuilt: new engine, new rig, new bowsprit and boomkin, new galley, new cushions and upholstery, and a refreshed interior. I’m not saying I can beat every surprise, but nearly all of the typical surprises will have been addressed. When she’s back in the water, I will have around $22,000 invested -- along with gallons of sweat equity. A Westsail 32 was recently listed for sale here in Florida. That boat is well equipped and a couple years younger than Emma. They are asking $52,000.
My Emma in Miami

This is my philosophy: buy the best hull you can find and refit her well; take care of the potential surprises. Especially, if you can do most of the work yourself. When Emma and I take off, I will have a rock solid boat under my feet. I will know the boat and her systems inside and out. I can’t wait to show her around.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grunge Rock Hero to Homeless

I’m hitting the road hard lately; saving boat money. To that end, I am only home three or four days a month. If someone gave me a car, it wouldn’t be worth paying insurance or getting plates on it. Nevertheless, I still need to haul stuff around.

My world is actually pretty small when I’m in town. My storage unit is right up the hill from the marina. Pictured above is my garden wagon. The real work was the trip up the hill with a cumbersome rolled up inflatable dinghy topped with Emma’s mainsail. I didn’t get a picture of the trip up the hill, but the sight of this stuff reminded me of the morning I was knocked down from Grunge Rock Hero to Homeless.

Twenty six years ago, I was starting a business in Sarasota and I used to tell people I was a biathlete. I was living aboard a small sailboat and had sold the old car that had defaulted to me in the divorce. The boat was anchored off Bayfront Park in downtown Sarasota. Each morning I had to row to shore and then ride my
bike to work. The same lock and chain kept the bike and then the dinghy attached to a palm tree.

I always had an army surplus knapsack on my back; with a change of clothes, a book or two, and room for grabbing groceries on the way home. It was dirty work in the shop, so the change of clothes allowed me to go out with friends after work, or accept the occasional dinner invitation. It was always worth it, but going out usually meant leaving the bike at the shop to ride along with someone. The next morning would be complicated as I had to ride the bus as far as I could and then walk into the shop,

We were working our asses off in the shop, so my standard uniform in those days was a t shirt, cut off BDU cargo shorts; topped with a flannel shirt in the winter. My business partner, Don, had a couple kids. His daughter was into the lateset music and thought that I would fit right in with the Grunge Music scene coming out of Seattle. Flannel and Army Surplus were all the rage.

It was a similar uniform that got me into some amusing trouble. After one of those evenings, when I left my bike at the shop, and then got dropped off at the boat after dinner with friends. The next morning I walked to the bus and rode it north out of town. The last bus stop on US-301 was in front of an old motel turned apartments with an ancient trailer park out back. From there I had to walk about a mile to the shop. US-301 was a divided highway with a wide median and lots of weekday morning traffic. I sauntered into the shop, a little late, greeted my partner and got a cup of coffee for our morning planning ritual. Not long after sitting down, the shop phone rang.

“Pro Form Technologies, this is Todd.”

“Three people this morning have told me about my ex-husband walking down the highway looking like a homeless person!” The all-too-familiar-voice of my ex-wife filled my ear and half the room. Don smiled.

Before I could stop her, I heard all about how my walking down the road in my best Grunge Rock Hero look was ruining her life. When she paused for a breath, I said “You don’t get to do this anymore” and hung up the phone.

Well, that’s the way my ego-infused, fallible, human-male brain remembers the day. At this stage in my life, I can understand her frustration. She worked in a large office; the software division of a large accounting firm. We had attended several corporate events together so a lot of her coworkers knew me and I knew how nasty the office politics could get. On top of that, she had moved to Florida to be with me and neither of us had any family or close friends in the area. Just a few years later and now she had no reason to be where she found herself. I get that, now. And if I really did hang up on her, I feel bad about that too.

Eventually we got to be friends again and for a time we spoke on the phone every month or so. Life has a way of moving on. It dissipates and it complicates. Each of us had got into a situation where we haven’t been able to talk for several years. Just recently though, I heard from her long enough to discuss that life was pretty good for each of us and that neither of us had any regrets or hard feelings.

I’m good with that.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Emma's Engine! Emma's Engine!!

I was in town for the delivery of Emma’s engine and had some time to kill. The anticipation had me up early anyway, so I hiked over to the boat with some tools I’d bought. First order of business, the sloppy caulk all around the cockpit well. As I was scraping at the caulk, my gaze fell on the crappy lines on Emma’s mainsheet traveler. The traveler adjusts the lateral position of the line that controls the mainsail; the main sheet. A line from each side runs through a couple blocks, so that the traveler can be adjusted under load. The faded, fuzzy red lines were probably the oldest pieces of rope on the boat, and the port side had an ominous duct tape patch. Emma deserved better and I had to remove the eyesore. 

Just beyond the traveler, hanging off the aft corner of the cabin, was the staysail sheet; the second oldest piece of line. I walked forward to loosen the other end. While I was up there, I snugged up the staysail boom and tied it tight. Back in the cockpit, I pulled the sheet through the blocks and flaked it at my feet. It occurred to me that I needed to measure all these lines for replacing them. The long staysail sheet could be used for something but the ratty traveler lines were pitched over the side and onto the ground. 

I sat and contemplated the scattered knives and scrapers that I had been de-caulking with. Over my head, the mainsail was still flaked and covered on the boom. When Hurricane Matthew threatened Emma last year, I had wrapped the mainsail cover like a roman sandal with a good piece of line. Looking up from where I sat, I wondered why I had left it all baking in the sun. With that I was resolved to take in the sail and stow the good line. Once I got started, all the running rigging, including the halyards, came down. The mast will be brought down for inspection and repair in a few months anyway. Emma is under bare poles now. 

I hung the mainsail cover, damp with dew, over the lifelines at the bow and decided to break for lunch. My food was in the truck, so I walked out to the front of the marina where I had parked and made a peanut butter sandwich. Just as I was cleaning up, the phone rang and Emma’s propulsion had arrived. The courier/mover guy had pulled into the gate and dialed my number and when I looked out the window, the engine was right below me. 

The guy I hired to pick up the engine describes himself as a Craigslist Entrepreneur. I got a couple quotes but just had a good feeling about this particular guy. In fact, his wife came along on the trip. Her sister lives nearby, so they have often driven past Riverside Marina. They would like to buy a sailboat and sail around once they retire and had always wanted to look around inside the marina. Now they had an excuse, and were getting paid to come!  

I was really happy to finally see Emma’s engine in person. It is a beautifully repainted and rebuilt Perkins 4.108. The Perkins is old school simple and rugged. And even better than that, the couple who brought it to me are super nice people! We spent quite a while chatting about boats and sailing; and wandering around the boatyard. They walked all the way back to see Emma and I explained my reasons for wanting her and why everyone has their own reasons. Different boats are for different cruising/sailing styles.  

It was after they had left when I finished stowing my mainsail and all the lines. I also took a bunch of
measurements of my engine bed inside the boat and the motor mounts on the engine. It’s not going to just drop right in but it will fit fine. Nothing is that easy; although this engine was an option on later models.

Later that afternoon, I celebrated and rode over to my favorite joint for a beer and my favorite: blackened mahi sliders; that’s three little, fancy fish sandwiches for you yankees up north. On Thursday, I went up to Marine Connection Wholesalers to look at fuel tanks and then rode over to the grocery store. By the time I took a nap and hit the road again Thursday night, I had probably done 6 or 8 miles on the bike. Lord knows I could use more miles like that rather than sitting on my ass in a semi truck. 


Now I need a couple fuel tanks and a transmission. Well, and an updated drive plate too. The fuel tanks have to go into the boat before the engine or they won’t fit. I bought the engine four or five months too soon, but it was a great deal on exactly the engine I wanted. Also, it was a hobby project of a dedicated mechanic. He tore it down completely, sandblasted and repainted individual parts before putting it back together with new gaskets and seals. It’s practically like having a new engine; pretty too.  

If you’re watching the narrative on the blog lately, this is exactly the engine I wanted to install in exactly the boat I wanted. I don’t know if I’m stubbornly patient or patiently stubborn. It may have taken me ten years(!) but I am lucky to be right where I am, doing exactly what I want to be doing.
Won't be long, honey!