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Cruising in the Here & Now

May 5, 2014

Here & Now and her fun crew are currently on their way to the Caribbean. If you share an anchorage with them, tell them we said hello. But don't tease them too much about their humble beginnings.

The larger the ship the more it seems to be bearing down directly on you. You can watch the lights for hours and alter your course by miles, but still the ship's relative position doesn't seem to change, and you're sure that at any moment your little vessel will be run down by one of the giants on the water.

The Gulf Intracoastal isn't like its East Coast neighbor. It is a wide, deep channel between the occasional barrier island and the mainland. And rather than providing a means of safe transit for thousands of pleasure boats each season, the Gulf Intracoastal is a highway for commercial traffic. So when Denise saw their lights headed for her, she altered course to avoid the behemoths. At 3:00 a.m. when Frank joined her on deck, she had to admit to being a mile and a half out of the channel.


Here & Now

"Oh Denise, here. This is how you do it." Frank returned their Allmand 31 to the channel, despite the tug and barge that Denise was sure would run them over.
"It's like NASCAR: aim for them and they'll be gone when you get there."
Tired from traveling through the night and not able to adequately judge distance when all they could see were lights, they decided to hail the tug on VHF channel 13, unaware that commercial traffic in the Gulf monitors 18. When he heard no response, Frank decided to turn hard to port to avoid the tug. But like Denise had encountered earlier, the lights of the tug seemed to follow him, altering its course accordingly. After several minutes Frank feared they would run aground with their four-foot draft before clearing the path of the oncoming tug, so he altered course hard to starboard. When Denise illuminated the night with the spotlight, they immediately realized their mistake. The tug was yards from bashing into their home. Frank quickly determined that running aground was preferable to being rundown, so he spun the wheel, reversing their direction yet again.

"The only thing that saved us that night was the tug's bow wake. We felt it shove us aside as the tug passed feet behind us."


New York Harbor

A spotlight from the deck of the tug was lighting up the water on its port side, since the captain had not seen the sailboat alter course. Sure that he had crushed the tiny boat, he hailed them on VHF 13. (Another vessel told him that a sailboat was trying to contact him on 13.)

Ten days later, after several lengthy radio transmissions with tug captains and bridge tenders, Frank and Denise were on their return trip to south Florida from New Orleans when they again encountered a tug that seemed to be heading right for them. This time they knew to hail the tug on channel 18.

"Did you say your boat is Here & Now? Do NOT alter course. We will go around you."
Their reputation preceded them.

Frank and Denise readily admit that they are newbies. Their interest in sailing started in 2009 when they were both laid off, and they started thinking about what was the next stage in their lives.

"We basically decided to run away from home. My adult son wasn't ready to leave the nest, and I didn't feel good about kicking him out with him leaving claw marks in the walls as I pushed and shoved him out the door, so we decided to leave instead."


Here & Now

Some people talk about weather windows, but for two unemployed chemical engineers in Ithaca, New York it was more of a life window.

Knowing that they wanted to sail away, but never having sailed before, they enrolled in the ASA 105-106 course, sailing from Norfolk to the Bahamas. During their reading and studying they came across the recommendation that the best way to learn how to sail is in a dinghy, so they purchased what would become their cruising dinghy: an eight-foot Fatty Knees.

On their first sail together in their new dinghy, Every Moment, Frank had the tiller and was sailing directly off the wind.
"You're going to gybe her, Frank." Denise, though not a seasoned sailor, still knew enough to respect a gybe.
"It's OK. I read about this. It's no problem. You just..."
The boom swept across the dinghy heeling them until they shipped gallons of water, tore the gooseneck off the mast, and ripped the sail.

Sitting in a bathtub of water, listening to the wounded rig, Denise looked at Frank and said, "What do your books tell you to do now, Francis?"
"Bail."
Denise searched the items floating around her waist and asked, "Where's the bailer?"
"Oh no. Sitting on the kitchen table."
"Give me your hat."


Sailing off into the sunset

In April 2010 they gathered their savings and paid cash for a 1982 Allmand 31 in what the survey called "fair to poor" condition. They spent the next 5 months cleaning, repairing, and making her a home as cheaply as possible, doing what work they could themselves.
"We could have easily stayed and worked on the boat another year, but then we may not have ever left."

So, with no depth sounder or charts and only a grill on the back deck for cooking, they traded their boat cradle for an anchor, sealing their fate so that they had to leave before the locks closed. Because of their inexperience, they only felt comfortable leaving that fall once they found some friends who were headed south, as well. They agreed to buddy boat, but two days before their scheduled departure, Frank found rot under the steering quadrant. Their friends had counted on sailing away 10/10/10, so Frank and Denise were left to travel on their own. Within a few days they were forced to play their hand: a storm was coming, forcing the locks to close probably for the rest of the season. Flexibility is a much needed trait for cruisers whose worlds change so quickly.

During their travels in upstate New York they encountered marinas and restaurants closed for the season, but many business owners were eager to accommodate one more late-season customer. One restaurateur offered them the use of the shower in their home, since the marina's heads were closed. The ensuing dinner, drinks, and laughs made friends of strangers.

Where the Hudson empties into New York Harbor, Denise got her first ocean sailing experience onboard Here & Now. Without charts of the area, Frank had to rely on directions over the VHF from a marina, steering them around the shoals. Denise, in five-foot seas, one hand on the backstay and one on the wheel as they neared Sandy Hook in the dark, finally admitted, "I can't do this, Frank."


Miss these guys already

"You want to navigate or you want to steer?"
She was amazed to discover that she could do it, after all.

After a few weeks of traveling Denise quit asking herself, "I wonder how I'm going to die today." Memories of almost being pulled over the dam when the engine died, of nearly crashing into the lock, of close calls with tugs, and seas she had never before imagined were replaced by the joys of cruising.

They followed the migration to Stuart, Florida where they cut across the State along the Okeechobee Waterway in order to avoid the reefs near Hawk Channel. While enjoying the atmosphere in Key West, Frank mentioned to his father that they may try to sail to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Within a week his dad called with his flight information, intent on meeting Frank and Denise there. Their journey up the Gulf Intracoastal was not as they had expected, with the devastation of Katrina still evident in empty lots where marinas once stood.

"Where we come from hurricanes are just something that happen, they show on the news, and then it's over. The reality of the destruction was sobering."

Back through the Okeechobee they saw the ghost towns left in the path of Wilma, too. When they reached Jacksonville Beach, Florida what at first seemed to be a run of bad luck, turned into their salvation: their 16 h.p. motor needed to be rebuilt. But had they not stopped in Florida, Mother Nature would have put an end to their cruise when the canal systems in New York were severely damaged by fall floods.

"I'd rather be stuck here than there," Denise jokes.

In their first year of cruising, Frank and Denise traveled nearly 7,000 miles. Since they've always lived frugal, being savers and instead of consumers, they estimate that they can continue for another year before they need to replenish the kitty. They are hoping to see the Bahamas and maybe even the Caribbean, taking life one passage and port at a time.

They've got a lot to learn, but that's the joy of sailing as a sport or a lifestyle: it can never be mastered. Every day it presents us with a new set of challenges, forcing us to live in the Here & Now and enjoy Every Moment.

Previously published on Sailing Spoken Here.

Boats will always need some maintenance, but MONDAY we'll share the sad case of working on the boat to the point of destroying dreams of sailing.

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