Homelessness and the Final Push

I left Cape May when it was blowing 20 knots in the anchorage. I was waiting for the wind to switch from the south to the northwest. As it swung around, it grew in intensity until my boat was bobbing around and the rigging was clattering for attention. I didn’t want to go out where it was blowing 20-25 with 7-foot seas. I had just come through enough weather getting to Cape May and I was sick of it. Why couldn’t it blow 15-20 with a nice gentle swell? I knew that if I didn’t leave, I would be stuck in Cape May for at least another three days because of another system that was due to roll through. Once again, my choice was to jump out between two storms. I was tired, my legs were covered in bruises, and I was sick of the cold, windy, wet overnighters.

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Days of pre-dawn departures were starting to weigh on me

At around nine that morning, before the wind had finished shifting, I laid on my back in the main cabin and called my mom. My parents circumnavigated on their Cal 25, and sailed up in the Arctic on their 33’ sloop. They’ve seen more weather than most, and I felt like I needed a pep talk. My mom was sympathetic: “You should just go”, she said. “If you can handle a little breeze, you’ll be so glad you went. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck in Cape May hating yourself”. She was right. So I went.

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Cozy mornings in my PJs are a rare treat compared to my usual pre-dawn departures

To prepare for another offshore trip, I had blocked up the anchor chain ports as much as I could with my limited resources on hand. The starboard hole, I sealed off with a plastic bag held in place with hair ties and sealed with putty stuffed into the cracks. The port hole was trickier because it had my anchor chain coming up through. After upping anchor, I stuffed a bunch of plastic bags in the hole and hoped for the best. I pulled back the v-berth cushions away from the locker and staged the pump. I was as prepared as I could be.

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Other prep involved making baked potatoes to stuff into my pockets on deck as homesteader-style hand-warmers

I unenthusiastically upped anchor and headed out into the swell. The waves were bigger than any I’d seen yet, although the wind wasn’t gusting to 35 like in Sandy Hook, so at least there was that. “See,” I told myself, “It could be worse.” Once the sails were up and Gecko was pointed in the right direction, I actually began to realize that this trip was going to be just fine. The wind was strong enough that I was making good speed without the thrilling gusts that dipped the rail under. The waves were large, but they were hitting me on the quarter, and Gecko was scooting along as happy as a clam, and just as wet, I thought to myself, as I turned up the collar of my jacket. I set the windvane and settled back in the cockpit to watch the sun ride across the sky and plop below the horizon. Once darkness hit, I started my routine of napping for 20 minutes, popping up on deck to check for ships and adjust my course, and then heading below again. It was so cold that I pulled my blankets over my head and curled up in a little ball to get warm. Right when I started feeling cozy, my alarm would go off and I’d have to get up. I slept in my full foulies, sea boots, and harness, because it was so wet in the cockpit, and every second I spent adjusting my gear was a second I wasn’t spending sleeping.

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Another boat sailing next to me. Nice bottom paint!

I kept up this routine until about one in the morning. There was a shoal that I was going past and I wanted to keep my eye on it until it was safely behind me. I went below and pulled the sleeping bag up to my chin, but instead of going to sleep, I kept my eye on the chart plotter to make sure I didn’t veer off course and over the shoal… I woke up an hour later feeling great and wondering why. With a start, I realized I was sitting up with the chart plotter in my hands. I frantically checked my position and realized I’d sailed right past the shoal. Fool’s luck, coming to the rescue once again.

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I’m a big fan of fool’s luck

I arrived in Norfolk the next afternoon. The wind never stopped its insistent blow, and Gecko sped down the channel. Navigating around all the container ships and navy cruisers on a half-working brain probably would have been more stressful if I wasn’t so tired. It’s kind of like a built-in anxiety destroyer, I mused. The more tired you are, the less you care about your limited functionality. I remembered the morning after I spent my first night sailing across the gulf of Maine. There were so many ships that I hadn’t had more than about an hour total of sleep that night. The wind died as the sun rose and I was motoring and falling asleep at the helm. At one point, I remember thinking: “It’s ok to go to sleep. Holly’s steering. She knows what she’s doing.”

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What I was wearing when I was mistaken as homeless

I spend that night in Portsmouth over by the Navy hospital. My legs were itching for exercise, so even though I was exhausted, I went ashore for a walk. I decided to go to the Food Lion and get some more provisions. On my way back, I found myself suddenly flanked by two woman wearing head-to-toe fleece, and big smiles. They told me that their church was having a free dinner and that I was welcome to join. I smiled and thanked them, thinking they were looking for new recruits or something. My sleep-deprived brain was too addled to realize what was actually happening. The women looked at me with concerned eyes, and started talking about how all hard times come to an end and that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Then they told me that they would walk me to their church. At this point, the truth started dawning on me and I realized that not only would I not get out of their free dinner, but that they thought I was homeless. It’s incredibly hard to refuse charity once people decide to give it, and the ball was already rolling. My protests only strengthened their resolve. I was ushered into a warm little room and given a fried chicken dinner from more sympathetic eyes and smiles. I tried to appear grateful and homeless so as to satisfy their need to provide aid to the destitute. How do homeless people act? I looked at the ground and smiled shyly at their compliments and kind words.  Finally I was set free. I somewhat guiltily made my way back to my boat, the first home I’ve ever owned, and the first time I’ve had a permanent place of residence in over four years. The dinner was a beautiful display of charity, and I was touched by the church warrior’s generosity. I was also convinced that I had been thoroughly been initiated into the live-aboard shabbiness that seems to befall so many of the cruisers I’ve met. I was officially Boat Trash. I was psyched.

It’s spring! (In southern Chile)

For the past week, I’ve been back at work on one of the two research boats I’m employed on for about a third of the year. The Laurence M Gould is a 70m research icebreaker in the employ of the United States Antarctic Program. I work between this and our other Antarctica research vessel, flying down for a month or two at a time.

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The Gould in one of the Antarctic fjords. I took this photo on my first trip down to the continent but am constantly awed by the endless beauty around me every time I come down to the ice

I work on board as a marine technician; every trip we do is different since we work with whichever scientists get grants to come study on our boats. I help them to interface their gear and the gear we provide with the icebreaker. Depending on the trip, my duties can include driving zodiacs, driving cranes, deploying large oceanographic instruments, deep sea fishing, etc. We have biologists who study penguins, whales, leopard seals, and other large marine life. We also have oceanographers, glaciologists, geologists, climate scientists, and ice scientists. We work with hundreds of different universities and scientific groups including NOAA and Woods Hole.

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Hanging a block on the A-frame- one of my varied jobs on the boats

This time, I flew down early to help work on one of our RHIBs (reinforced hull inflatable boat). It’s a 30′ aluminium boat that we use for research at one of the stations. This speedy nugget can go over 20 knots, and was custom built to provide research support for the scientists down at the station.

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One of the RHIBS in action down in Antarctica

The extra week working on the RHIB means that I’m spending more time in Chile than usual. Normally we have a few days of port call and then head straight down to the ice. I’ve been enjoying the equinox and the first few days of spring. Temperatures still hang out around freezing this time of year, but longer days indicate an entrance into summer. Eventually the sun never goes away and we experience all the beautiful shades of the midnight sun.

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0645 Sunrise in Punta Arenas. At this time of year, each day is getting longer by four minutes. That’s about half an hour more daylight per week!

On the second of October we’ll head south into the Drake Passage, a crossing which takes about four days. Around the 6th we’ll see our first sights of Antarctica. No matter how many years people have been in the program, everyone still lines up along the bridge and on the bow to stare at the mountains, glaciers, and icebergs. We always say that if you’re no longer awed by the scenery then it’s time to quit  and find pleasure in the perfect geometry of an office cubicle.

It has been four months since I’ve last been down here and I’m already getting excited for the landscape, some of the coolest people I know, and of course- penguins

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Gentoo penguins waddle around, completely unafraid of us weird humans in our bright orange drysuits