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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Am I crazy or is my bell curve just a little twisted?

I don't usually contribute to the blog - Kat is doing a great job, but regularly I get the urge to share more than I can on Face Book. Now there is a backlog of these themes and I suppose care must be taken to avoid a shotgun essay trying to lightly touch on far too many topics. I'll just talk about where we are and see where it goes; it's akin to seeing which way the wind is blowing when deciding where to sail to next.

So we're sitting in our first anchorage in Raiatea deep in a cove midway up the western shore. Already it is an interesting place to be. It's like a combination of a Marquesan island and a Tuamotuan atoll. The Marquesan Islands were generally high volcanic islands with lush vegetation. The Tuamotus were atolls which are a ring of reefs and little islands called motu.

The current theory which was proposed by Darwin is that the volcano creates the island. It gets sub ducted overtime; which means it sinks back into the earth slowly in a geologic time scale. When it is a young volcanic island then coral grows on its edges. As it sinks the coral continues to grow in this ring along its edges. Eventually the volcano is below water and the ring of coral is all that is left. Raiatea and Taha'a are two sister islands both volcanic that are in the process of sinking. They are well along the way and have a atoll-like reef surrounding them with a big lagoon between them and the reef.

The Marquesas have a reef along the edge but no lagoons yet. Tahiti has a reef and a small lagoon filled with coral heads between it and its reef. However; Raiatea & Taha'a like Bora Bora have a huge lagoon between them and their reef.
The motu on the atolls and the reefs around Raiatea are just sand without much at all in the way of organic material. So they can grow coconuts and a few salt tolerant trees and shrubs. But the volcanic islands are amazingly lush and most people have a little plot of land the size of a city lot which grows all the fruit they need. All they need is fish to supplement their diet with protein; which makes the islands like Raiatea perfect. They are the best of both worlds.

Where did that lead us? Not very far I suppose, but many things in the world have lifecycles like islands. Cruisers seem to have their own maturing process. Our process starts before we even own a boat normally. You see that only a small minority of cruisers grew up sailing their whole lives. Most of us came to this rather late. Most cruisers seem to be on second marriages and are in their 60 and 70s. There are younger couples often with kids but they are clearly a minority like single-handers.
For some reason the future cruisers step out of the normal bell curve and start thinking of traveling. Some fantasize their whole life before taking the plunge while others get the bug and buy a boat and take off in a matter of weeks or months. Some are born to this life with fathers who were fishermen or boat delivery guys. Most of us however took years of thinking about it and dabbling with coastal cruising for a while.

Then there is the common experience of unloading from our prior life. We sold or rented our old houses which were the center of our prior lives. We sold most or all of our material belongs to downsize enough to fit into a boat. Then we needed to retire or quit our jobs - a huge step. We were walking away for one of the biggest parts or our identities. I was a manager for 20 years at Boeing which is the largest exporter in the States. It was who I was, now I'm just an old man who is sailing around.
Anyway - we mostly seem to do the coastal thing for a while. There are exceptions, people who never sailed or owned a boat who buy one and just leave for the south pacific and learn along the way. We were a bit different. We spend a half dozen years in the great northwest sailing around Seattle, British Columbia, and Alaska. It is some of the best cruising in the world and we were able to incrementally improve our skills and confidence levels.

I should digress a bit here and talk about leaving. It turns out that the marinas and yacht clubs are filled with aspiring cruisers. They, like cruisers, come from all walks of life and all socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet for every hundred people who wish they could go cruising only a few percent take the step of getting a blue water boat. And for every hundred blue water boats, only a few go coastal cruising; not vacations but extended cruising up and down the coast, like from the Puget Sound to Alaska. You already know the rest, for every hundred coastal cruisers only a few head offshore. And finally for every hundred blue water sailors only a few go for protracted voyages of years or more.
What is it that holds us back at each stage? Many of you are already cruising or have been thinking about it or at least daydreaming about it. The think that holds most of us back are responsibilities; responsibilities to our futures, our families, our communities, and our jobs. We are herd animals and when we wonder too far from the herd they call us back to where we are comfortable. I always considered a good job was like being a farm animal. The company took pretty good care of us animals living inside the fence; then just walking out the gate made life much more uncertain. Where would the money come from? And families - there are aging parents, spouses, and kids all depending on us to be normal. Our communities also conspire to have us and the other inmates behave normally. Surely you need to keep your yard mowed and tidy. You need a good looking car in the drive. The community is filled with rules that allow the inmates to coexist. All of this turns out to be a huge deck stacked against the would- be cruiser.

If you can overcome all of that then you have to overcome the fear of being self-sufficient. Out here we are truly alone. Boats get wrecked pretty regularly and everyone tries very hard to help. But the distances are often too great and time too short for help to be effective. Many reefs have visible wrecks and many cruisers have had near misses. When you commission your boat it will become your space capsule and Houston will be very far away. But the good news is that regular folks are doing this all the time.

If you overcome all of that then you end up like we were in Mexico. We were like high volcanic islands; we were just beginning to grow our fringing reefs. We found the local people wonderful and embracing. We found the cruisers even more embracing and have forged many relationships that will last our lifetime. We also honed our seamanship skills, weathering several of Baja's crazy local weather phenomena. Kat developed a reputation for a great potluck chef and a mean Farkle player. But Mexico was cruising light, as we proved several times where we traveled or had friends who traveled to the state and were our mules carrying back much needed equipment.

When we left Mexico for the South Pacific there was no guarantee that we would make it. This was a whole different ball game. You cross the Sea of Cortez in a day up north and two days down south. It's between 100 and 250 miles depending on where you cross. The first leg of this trip from Puerto Vallarta to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas was nearly 3000 miles. It took 23 days and was filled with wild wind and rough seas. But we were up to it. We'd been maturing and building our skills and conditioning ourselves to the so called hardships at sea.
Many of the values from our old life are still in tack, but many have been revised. For example we are proud of the fact that our carbon foot print from April through June, or three months, was 42 gallons of diesel. That is all except for food which mostly was fish we caught and fruit. So environmentally this is a good lifestyle.

We also like living small or simple. It's one of the things that attract us to cruising. There is a boat we met in Mexico call "Willful Simplicity" which is a great name and part of what this has become. We reject consumption for consumptions sake. We don't need much at all beyond the boat, shorts and tee-shirts. Most Americans are exposed to 250 advertisements per day between TV, internet, and print. We haven't had TV in years and rarely get the internet and never get a current paper or magazine. We've essentially escaped the marketing groups and now we find like most cruisers that we spend around $1000 per month or less. The exception is when we put the boat in a marina which doubles that. No marketing group is compelling us to consume.

Occasionally a newbie will show up who hasn't had time to purge the consumer from themselves. You can see them agitate with their new predicament. They will go spend time in resort hotels or high end restaurants and malls. Eventually the marketing wears off or they simply leave the lifestyle all together. But mostly we all independently see simplicity as a freeing element of our lives to one degree or another. Those with more complex boats spend more time keeping them in repair and those with more basic boats have more time to snorkel.

Another dimension of our lives that got restructured is our comfort dimension. Our physical comfort was very important in our old life. We had central heat, nice riding cars, upholstered furniture, air conditioning, nice dining room tables, ergonomically designed workstations, fat bicycle seats, orthopedic inserts, tailored suits, and on and on. In our new life we realized that comfort is overrated. As I type this the wind is blowing through the anchorage at 15 to 20 knots and noticeably rocking the boat around. The halyards are banging and it's been raining so when I go outside it will be wet and the dinghy will be sloppy with water. It's just a normal day.

On a rough passage you will experience zero or near zero G's at the bow or stern of the boat. In large seas the 30,000 pounds of boat with you in it will be tossed up and down and side to side tens of feet every few seconds. The ocean can open lockers and empty them in a heartbeat. It will throw a thousand pounds of water right in your face and literally knock you down hard. But all of that is rather easy to deal with. The truly difficult aspect is if you can do so nonstop for days or weeks at a time. When you sleep, you are constantly being jostled rather roughly about. No land lubber can actually sleep until they get exhausted by several days of this treatment.

But you get used to it and you learn to like it. It's a beautiful thing the ocean. After a tough blow you feel happy and satisfied. You learn to move with the ocean. You use the movement to enable your movements. Standing up or sitting down or moving in the right direction in a graceful (or what passes for graceful) is a matter of becoming in tune with the motion. It turns out that picture or videos of sailing are generally inadequate for describing what it's like. It's more about motion and about the forces of the water and wind and the boats ability to harness these. It's about the relentlessness of the swells and waves and winds. In a sense we are becoming amphibians.

Well back to something I like to call a theme or the whole point of telling the story. Right about now we're in the windward islands of French Polynesia and I'd like to think we're like Raiatea in maturity. We've sunk down a bit and have a nice reef and lagoon. We've got the lush volcanic vegetation in the middle and surrounded by a lagoon rich in sea life. We sail into rough weather not with fear but in the search for better winds. We expect the local people to be fascinating and they are. We love the social aspect of the cruiser community -where we've made more friends in a shorter amount of time than any other time of our lives. We're like adolescents who are not fully formed but feel like we are adults. Our confidence is high but if you talk to us you'll find we've not been in are bad storm and they still worry us.

In our community there are more mature sailors - people who sailed their whole lives, who've gone around the world several times, who've been and lived everywhere, who've sailed in hurricanes and around the horn. They look normal and act normal; but they are the true sailors, the gurus or the community, the old salts (though some are young).

Since I started this note we've sailed on to the Cook Islands. We're in Suwarrow (which has a number of different spellings - all seem to be valid). Cruising is not only taking us on a journey in the physical world it's taking us on another internal journey - an internal journey where we grow and mature, although you'd think that at some age one would stop this maturing process. If you can't tell I'm groping for a way to end this in a profound manner that would justify you having spent your time reading it. We may be out of luck.

We arrived at Suwarrow the sun went down early; either that or they placed the island about 30 miles too far west. Otherwise; how do you explain our poor timing? You see it is foolhardy to enter an atoll at night; especially when there are no lighted aids to navigation and especially if you've never been there before. So somebody screwed up and caused us to heave to for 10 hours waiting for the sun that set too early the day before to grace us with its presents again.

Heaving- to, that's this trick they do with sailboats that's almost like parking them. You backwind a head sail and sort of point the boat into the wind. It still moves at about a knot and everything settles down to be relatively quiet. Often in a storm it's the only way to get some sleep. Well that's what we did; we heaved to and got some sleep outside of the Suwarrow reef pass. But this is not the kind of heaving to that we did in the Puget Sound when we were learning to sail, this heaving to involved 10 foot waves. In the Puget Sound we never even saw 10 foot waves but here in the pacific they are routine. We've seen far larger now but the 10 footers are rather routine. Routine enough that you can go to sleep on what amounts to a carnival ride.

You see you just park your boat (heave to) and the ocean lifts all 30,000 lb of it up and down every 8 to 10 seconds. Sounds like a roller coaster and often feels like one. Maybe a better description is a 30,000 lb maraca and you are the pea rattling around inside and this huge maraca is being wielded by a ginormous toddler who is throwing a huge tantrum . It's become our world - familiar enough that we gladly go to sleep, eager to catch as many Z's as possible before the next watch.

In the morning we headed for the channel, made our way in and put the anchor down. An hour later another boat s crew who spent a similar night came in. Come evening a dozen cruisers spent another social night on the beach entertaining each other and the two Kiwi park ranger/caretakers. IN the morning several boats departed for Samoa or Nui or Tonga.

Well I did I succeed in disguising the fact that there is no theme or plot or moral or message to this little digression? Darn - well I tried. I better run, Kat is making plans to dive with the manta rays tomorrow morning. The sharks are far more aggressive here than in French Polynesia. Diving with rays has become normal, but the aggressive sharks are pushing the envelope again. Guess we're still on that change and growth theme after all.

This is a special case of growth and change. This is a case where you just walk away from the bell curve of your contemporaries, but it's harder than that. You don't really just walk away from your bell curve of normalcy. You grow and as you grow, you redefine what your normal is. You end up changing your bell curve and usually you change social groups. You only look like you're outside your bell curve to your old friends and associates, "the old herd". You are completely normal to those in your new herd.

We are all accustomed to making change where the herd sees that we've improved. People do it all the time, get a promotion, get married, go to school. What we're not so accustomed to is when people change what their normal is; because they usually disappear in the process. They left our herd for another where normal is something completely crazy if you ask anyone in the old herd.
When you exchange your bell curve, then everyone starts asking you whether you're crazy or something. Why would you leave such a great job, or spouse, or country club? You don't look right when viewed from the old bell curve you are crazy.

Maybe I didn't just trade bell curves, maybe I am crazy. I spent years walking around with a cell phone in my ear to disguise the craziness of me talking to the voices in my head. Thank goodness someone finally invented the blue tooth, because my arm was killing me. Nowadays I just use my blue tooth ear piece as I trip through my own dimension which happens to intersect yours outside the shopping mall. You see I threw away the bell curve and I am really certifiably Loony-Toons so put some damn money in the cup or I'll put a curse on you.

Just kidding - cruising is way more fun than being crazy. I've done them both so I know…. Bill

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