Friday, October 22, 2021

Superstitious Mine

I don’t have many superstitions on land, but I have a few around the sea. Occasionally, I make fun of old sailors’ superstitions by participating in them. Other times, it feels more serious than I’d like to admit. I may have told a version of this first story back in 2014, but it’s a good segue into a tale about last weekend. 

In 2013, I had been working on my first boat for about six years and I was really burnt out. Late in the year, I had a heart-opening conversation with a good friend. She gave me the vocabulary that I needed to give myself permission to move on; to give up the boat project I had started with. The traumatic process of letting that first boat go is described in this post

Of course, a sailor is always looking at boats; especially a boatless sailor. Way sooner than I had expected or planned, I found a great boat at a good price. That boat was Bella, an Albin Vega. The story of buying Bella is here. I had found her on Craigslist, went and looked at her in a freezing cold Wisconsin barn in December, and worked out a deal to buy her with a little help from a wonderful friend. When the snow and ice finally melted, I was able to get some time off work to go back to Wisconsin and bring her home. That finally brings us to the superstitions. 

I had owned the boat starting in mid-winter. The Winter Storage bill had been paid, so all I had to do was wait until it was warm enough to go see her again. During that time, I started obsessing about her name. Bella was nice, but it didn’t connect with me at first. I started making lists -- and lists -- of potential names. I’m mostly Irish so I looked up salty names and phrases in Gaelic. I considered Spanish and Portuguese names for some reason. Of course there were options in English, but also in Ojibwe. I fretted and deliberated on many, many potential names. It became a problem; an addiction. While I waited to go get my boat, I had nothing more to do than to grind and grind my brain about her name. 

It felt especially important for me to decide on the name before I went back to retrieve her. I was never sure how superstitious I actually was (still not sure), but I knew that I would have been pushing my luck if I had sailed her across the Lake as "Bella" and then changed her name. It needed to be settled before I launched her again. That was my rationale in deference to Posiedon, Ruler of the Seas.

In the end, I gave up. I had wound myself so tightly about her name that I eventually snapped. I decided to just keep the name. It was a good name; “beauty” in Italian. It also fell in line with my two rules about boat names. First, a boat name should be easy to say and to understand over the radio. And second, the story behind the name can’t be too cute or too convoluted. You will likely be asked many times, “so how did you come to name her that?” The story has to be one that you can stand to tell perhaps several times a day whenever you are with the boat. In keeping the original name my story was abbreviated to simply “that was her name when I bought her.”

When May came around and the snow was gone, I got back to Wisconsin, back to the storage barn, crawled inside to survey my little ship … and nearly fell over at what I found. I had not noticed back on that chilly day in December, but above the door into the forward area of the boat was a small plaque. It was a thin rectangle of metal, laser-cut with the name “Bella” in script. If I had changed her name and attempted to remove that little plaque -- for certain there would have been two screw holes left in the wood, but also, and most likely, the shadow of “Bella” would have been a permanent mark in the finish. Surely the varnish on the door frame had faded over time, but the rectangle and “Bella” was protecting the finish underneath. Superstitious or not, to some degree or more, I would have been completely shaken by the bad precedent of the old name remaining aboard. Further, I didn’t have time to sand and refinish the frame before leaving. 

If you’d like to read the story of meeting Bella again, prepping her, and crossing Lake Michigan without an engine, that story starts here. Click on “Newer Post” at the bottom of each page to get the whole story.

I was happy to have kept the name “Bella” and perhaps to have kept myself and my little ship in the good graces of Poseidon, Davy Jones, and Old Hob. [ certainly not the words of a skeptic ]

That brings me to this last weekend. 

I had ordered vinyl graphics for sv Ruth Ann; her name and hailing port. And after hanging them in different spots and deciding on the best location, I cleaned the hull and applied them. Ruth Ann is a U.S. Coast Guard Documented Vessel, so her name must be in letters four inches tall. I think that that is supposed to apply to the hailing port as well but I had some spacing problems. “Ruth Ann,” just seven letters and a space, is too wide for my transom at four inches tall. I have a windvane mounted at the center and a swim ladder to port, so I only have the transom’s starboard half for her name and hailing port. What I decided to do was put “Ruth Ann” on each forward quarter in 4” high letters, but put “Ruth Ann, Detroit, Mi” in two lines on the transom in letters sized to fit. I think I will be all right. 

After I had emblazoned her name on the topsides, I confirmed that there was no evidence of the old name aboard. Then last Friday night, I caught Mike, one of my boatyard friends, and we walked out to the dock on the river. I had a slip of paper with the old name written on it and a pint of Wild Turkey. Bourbon has become my traditional boat christening liquid and Wild Turkey has been my bourbon for a long while. I’m not really a champagne kind of guy and the boats I’ve owned are not champagne boats either. I poured a shot for Mike and one for Poseidon (I only had two shot glasses). I raised a glass and said:  

“Poseidon, Ruler of the Seas, I beseech thee. My little boat has had many names; the last being neither proper nor fitting for a sailing ship such as her. Please strike that name from your ledger as I will be christening her in honor of my mother and grandmother in the coming weeks. Please keep an eye on my boat and I as we travel your waters.”

And with that, I heartily pitched a shot of Wild Turkey 101 into the Cape Fear River. And then I slipped the paper and the old name into the water to dissolve in the river on its way to the sea. Finally, I poured a shot for myself and another for Mike. We may have had a few more right there on that peaceful night. 

The water here is brackish, a mix of freshwater and salt, and very much connected to the sea. The Atlantic’s tidal currents come all the way here; 35 miles or so upstream. The river actually flows backward at the peak of the flooding tide and races a little faster when the tide is in full ebb. The river will carry the drink and the stricken name straight to Poseidon himself. 

It’s no secret that the boat’s most recent name was “Afraid Knot;” a name altogether too cute and too corny for a proper sailboat. Such a name is befitting only of a lowly, prosaic powerboat. I’ll have no reason to speak of such a name any longer. 

So … was I playing with an old sailor’s superstition? making fun? or was I taking it all very seriously? I don't know what to tell you, but I do know that the first time through, I had forgotten the piece of paper and had go get it in order to do it all over again to make sure that all was right with Poseidon. Sounds pretty superstitious to me. 

Here’s to old sailboats and oak barrel-aged whiskey.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Struggles, Schmuggles

Post Road Trip, loaded bags.

I don’t deserve this bike, but that is getting way ahead of the story. 

It turned out to be kind of ironic that I was working on a blog post about my struggle and all that it can take to dump a career and get a boat set up for off-the-grid travel on the water. I started working on a piece about self sabotage, but it had transformed into a curious review of my project. “Fourteen years and four boats” was the opening line. It all seems a little ridiculous. I can’t decide if I’m a special kind of stupid or a special kind of stubborn or whether I have been on the right track all along. It’s probably a combination of all three, but I wouldn’t want to weigh out how much of each is in there. 

I’ve been through all of the classic self sabotage routines. Procrastination. Time wasting. Burn Out. Distractions. Etc.  Luckily, it had gotten bad enough for me that I could recognize it. Many people suffer from self sabotage without ever realizing that they are doing it to themselves. 

I’ve actually been lucky even after all these years. I’ve learned an awful lot and I’ve done some great sailing too. It was especially lucky that I decided to cash out my 401(k) in 2007. I literally bought that first boat with my so-called retirement funds mere months before the 2008 crash and Great Recession. I had cashed out for a greater purpose, a righteous quest, just before I would have lost a lot of dollar value. 

I got bogged down on that project but I did some good work and she taught me some things. I’ve made better decisions each time from the knowledge I gained on the previous boat. Money, in dollars, is not even the point. I don’t consider that I made an investment in a boat; that’s a fool’s errand. What I’ve done is invested in myself; in the lifestyle I want and in my own skills through the medium of those four boats. 

The luckiest bit of all was in 2018, when my mom got sick, that I could pack up and go home to help. If I had managed to already have had a boat in the water at that time, the logistics of heading home would have been much more complicated. It was a precious privilege to have spent so much time with Mom in her last few months. I had had a boat in Florida, but it was not very close to completion. I simply tarped that boat and left. I spent the rest of that summer in Michigan; precious time with Dad and did a little sailing too. In the end, I managed to sell the Florida project as the opportunity to acquire Ruth Ann came up. 

That special kind of stubbornness showed up today. Stubbornness that kept me going and helped me solve a problem. I was on my way to the temp job, had stopped for gas, and then was only a couple miles away when I heard my serpentine belt go. The Alternator Light came on immediately. I was coming to a stop in the left turn lane of a red stoplight when it had happened. When I got the green arrow, I quickly realized that I also had no power steering. And then the temperature gauge started climbing. Going on into work was no longer an option. The lumberyard where I was working is way out in the country with a gate and a long driveway that would have complicated any recovery of the van if it wouldn’t start at the end of the day. I drove right by the yard and called in at both the shop where I was headed and the temp agency. 

I kept my eye on the temperature gauge except when I was wrestling the steering wheel around a corner. On the small stretch of unavoidable freeway, I had my hazard lights flashing at first, but  was able to sneak up to 55 miles per hour in the cool morning air without pushing the temperature out of the ‘normal’ range. When the Moose and I coasted down the long hill toward the Navassa exit, the temperature went down significantly. I crept down Royster Road to the boatyard where all my tools were. As the gate slowly opened, I noticed that the morning sun was shining through a couple trees that stand over the dock. Of course, I had to stop and grab a picture. Then I lurched over to where sv Ruth Ann sits and backed into my usual spot. 

I plugged the campervan in right away because the battery charger tops up both the house bank and the starting battery. The side windows were still down, so I tried to restart the van, but it struggled. The windows closed with just the dwindling battery power. The engine needed to cool before I could do any diagnosis, so I opened the hood and let it rest while I cleaned up my bike. I was going to need the bike.  

My poor bike has been neglected for over a year. I used it a little last summer, but it spent a long time chained to a fence in the driver parking area of a truck terminal. The poor thing has been chained to the tongue of my tool trailer since about April. I am ashamed of how I have neglected this bike. A flowering vine of some kind had nearly swallowed it. That morning I hacked back all the vegetation and then cleaned up and greased up the bike to make up for my neglect. The front tire checked out fine, but I needed to replace the rear tube as there were a couple leaky patches on it already.

When I decided that the engine was cool enough, I started poking around. To my amazement it wasn’t the belt at all. In fact, the belt was still in one piece and not in too bad of shape under the hood. The belt tensioner pulley bearings had failed and the plastic wheel spun until it melted … and fell off!!  I found the gnarled pulley caught in the front end suspension; it had made the trip all the way home. 

I started checking online and dug up the Haynes manual that I had. The Moose is a campervan built on a Ford E250 work van chassis. All the relevant mechanical information is the same. The manual wasn’t a great help other than the names and locations of parts. YouTube wasn’t that much better, but it’s probably not YouTube’s fault. My campervan is a 1994; 27 years old. Many of the videos were about more recent model vans and, of course, since 1998 or so the belt tensioner design had changed significantly. Nevertheless, I was able to glean some solid information and confidence. The most helpful video was actually about an F150 pickup truck about the same age as The Moose.


If you had asked me two weeks ago -- hell, four days ago -- to point at the belt tensioner, I would have been stumped. I knew what a belt tensioner did, but I didn’t know exactly where it was on this engine. I had never needed to be too deep under the hood of The Moose. I know now! 

With more than a little apprehension, I started looking around online for a belt tensioner. Last fall when I was having transmission trouble and a funny noise, a local Florida shop quoted me almost $900 for replacing the belt tensioner and something else. I’m curious to find that paperwork because in my memory the tensioner was the majority of the $900. The other thing, which I don’t remember clearly, was actually a misdiagnosis of something else that was fixed when the rebuilt transmission was replaced. I haven’t been having any belt problems and I kind of ignored that recommendation because the other recommendation was faulty. 

The Auto Zone website said that a belt tensioner was in stock locally but I called to make sure. They indeed had a couple in stock and plenty of belts too. And for way less money than I had feared. At the boatyard, the crew were just arriving and starting their day. My other friends who are working on their boats here weren’t around yet that early. I wasn’t going to wake someone or pull someone from their job for what really wasn’t an emergency, so I turned to the bike. It was going to be an adventure; and a good story. I don’t think I ever biked into town last year, but I always meant to. The pannier bags were in the back of the van, in the shower actually which I use for storage. The bike was clean and ready to go. And it looked great with the bags on again. I was off. 

On my way past the office, Sam, the owner of the boatyard, had just arrived. 

“Good morning,” I yelled as I pedalled on by.

“Alright!” he answered enthusiastically.

It’s four miles to the Auto Zone from the boatyard and it was a pleasantly cool morning. I waited for the light at Village Road, then swung around behind the Walgreens, and locked the bike in front of the parts store. No sense in making it easy for someone to grab. The Auto Zone guys were great and it turned out that I could buy just the pulley rather than the whole belt tensioner mechanism. I bought a new belt as well. Another half mile down the road was a Food Lion and I had a grocery list too just in case I was stuck at the boatyard all weekend. 

As I came around the corner of the grocery store, I noticed that Brodee Dogs was open. With COVID and the economy and all, Brodee hadn’t been open much when I was around in town. I hadn’t had a dog since last year. It was about lunchtime by then, so -- hey -- this how we do up car repair around here: I stopped for lunch. I had a Tarheel Dog and a Gaelic Ale from Highland Brewing in Asheville, NC. The Gaelic Ale was a rich, full bodied Amber Ale and was so good that I didn’t even get a picture of the Tarheel dog; one of my favorites. After a dog and a beer, I grabbed some groceries, packed them up, and pedalled back out to the boatyard. It was about a nine mile round trip, but the Gaelic Ale in the middle made it an enjoyable ride on a beautiful day. 

The belt tensioner pulley went on very quickly; almost anticlimactically. I had a bit of fun running the new serpentine belt over and around 7 or 8 pulleys and getting it seated and tensioned. Nevertheless, the van started right up and purred as usual without heating up. Success! 

The Load, 2 bags worth

My whole boat project story has been a bit like that day. Escaping ‘the system’ is actually harder than it seems. With some regularity, an obstacle shows up unexpectedly and must be dealt with or fixed. These obstacles can lead right into self sabotage modes. They can cause a cascade of burnt out feelings or, in many cases, become a rich source of distraction and procrastination. It takes some discipline to think “all right, I’m going to fix this properly but as quickly as possible and get right back to my project.” I am so close now to the life that I want that even a belt tensioner pulley failure can’t slow me down much. Further, I’ve exchanged emails with the temp agency, told them that I had fixed the van, and I am still on to work at the lumberyard next week.

It’s another one of those quirky things about doing whatever I need to do to get off-the-grid. Mondays and Tuesdays, I am in a button down workshirt consulting on inventory issues, developing policy ideas, and often working for hours in their computer system. The rest of the week, in t shirt, jeans, leather gloves, and a sun hat, I am grunt labor schlepping lumber around the county; hand-unloading it and carrying it across lumpy, dirty job sites. It’s great exercise actually.  

Now ... back to boatwork.

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Homeward Epilogue

sv Ruth Ann in Beaufort, SC, 12/23 Ruth Ann is the last in a series of boats on which I was attempting to escape. I found her when I found a...