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.

Dolphins, Whales, and Avian Hitchhikers

I set out from Pemaquid Harbour at around noon on October 30th with a strong tail wind, and high ambitions. My parents saw me off, lovingly attaching my jib sheets and halyards. Half an hour before I was due to leave, my dad was headfirst in my lazarette, messing around with the engine, and my mom was giving me a jar of homemade butternut squash soup. They stayed in their dinghy as I cast off the mooring lines and sailed out of the harbour. It was the best send-off I ever could have wished for.

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Glorious sunset on my first night out. I had 25 knot winds and I covered a ton of miles.

My first evening was beautiful; I had great wind, and the gleam of adventure made everything shiny.

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Some windvane action

That night the wind died, the temperature dropped, and there were ships everywhere. I made it through the night wearing all my clothes and huddling in my sleeping bag. If you want a visual, imagine a colourful maggot clinging to a tiller and eating crackers.

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Breakfast after a freezing night of temps in the mid 30’s

By the next morning, I was near Cape Cod, and life was on a hard upward swing. I had a pod of about 10 dolphins playing in my bow wake, two little land-birds hitched a ride on my boat, and I sailed so close through a pod of whales that I was worried they would hit me (or that I would hit them).

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I picked up a mooring  in Province Town that night. It was blowing 20 knots, the sun was down, and I was hilariously tired. It took me three tries to grab the mooring because I kept getting blown off before I could run forward and grab it. I kept telling myself that soon I’d be happily attached, as the wind stole the curses out of my mouth and sent them flying.

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My temporary shipmate

The next morning I woke up at five and headed for the Cape Cod Canal. It was gloriously warm, and I spent the day cleaning my boat and singing loud nonsense songs at the top of my lungs. There’s a great freedom to being at sea by yourself.

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Gecko going under her first bridge in the Cape Cod Canal

After the Canal, I motored through Buzzard’s Bay in the dark. There was a huge weird tide rip, no moon, and unexpected swirly currents. Several years ago, I made the same trip at night when I worked aboard the Harvey Gamage. The only difference then  was that I was in charge of a watch of fifth graders, who were on the helm the whole time while I nervously jittered by their elbows. In comparison, this time was, if not a walk in the park, maybe a jog  through a bad neighbourhood.

Yesterday night I picked up a mooring in Marion and I’m waiting out some bad weather. I’m hoping to leave early tomorrow morning and see how many miles I can make before another system rolls through on the 7th. Fingers crossed!

 

Overhaul Part 1: Carpentry, Love Notes, and the Custom Galley

When I first purchased Gecko in May of 2017, she was set up as a weekend sailer. Even though she’s only twenty-seven feet, I was able to comfortably sleep seven people. The galley was perfect for storing booze, snacks, and plastic cups. The storage was minimal, and the cushions were plaid horsehair; in short, I had purchased a floating hunting lodge. Regardless, I had a great summer cruising around Maine and starting my fathoms-long list of changes and improvements.
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Gecko the way she looked when I purchased her as “Seamark”
I hauled out in October of 2017 and started on my first project: rip out and rebuild the galley, convert the pilot berth into lockers, change the drawers into lockers with doors, and redo the head storage area. I figured it was smart to start with something unambitious and easily manageable.
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The most torn apart Gecko ever was. At this junction there was no plumbing, electrical, and all the main cabin lockers were torn out
I started by replicating the port side lockers into the space that was formerly the pilot berth. Once I had completed this, I took out the sink in the head, redid the counter top, and pulled the locker face forward by about eight inches to create more storage. Although I liked the idea of saving time by washing my hands while I was using the head, I felt like I could handle the twelve-foot trek to the galley sink.
Gecko’s original galley when I purchased her
I ripped out the entire galley and purchased a two-burner gimballed stove with an oven to install in lieu of the Princess two-burner stovetop. I started designing my new galley by putting all my kitchen supplies into the empty space and building cardboard partitions around my kitchen-ware. I find it much easier to build into the three dimensional space, rather than trying to draw it out on a 2D piece of paper.
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Early cardboard mock-up for my galley lockers area behind the stove
Once I was satisfied with cardboard palace, I created templates and started cutting out plywood and building my lockers. Therefore, my locker that holds pots and pans is the width of my widest pan, the plates fit perfectly into the plate area, and I can never buy any new kitchenware ever again or I’ll have to rip out all the wood and rebuild.
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The dry-fit galley lockers. And new stove!
I also put in a new sink, a fresh and a salt water pump, and installed a new counter-top.
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My completed galley
After I’d created all the shelves and bulkheads around the boat, I cut out locker faces and doors. Instead of using finger catches to hold the doors closed, I carved little tabs out of teak for each door. This is a locking system my dad came up with on his first boat, and it is an elegant and inexpensive solution for motivated fools with a chisel and spare day or two.
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Same view, different boat! (This was pre-launch, so minus the mast)
I replaced all the port lights with lexan that I cut and routered into shape. I’m not sure what brand of ’till-death-we-part adhesive was used to seal in the original port lights (probably 5200), but it took about half an hour with a hammer and chisel to get each one out. They came out in splintered pieces.
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Replacing the port lights was a tedious job. Here I was celebrating my last day with giant holes all over my cabintop

 

Rebuilding the interior was the first project I started, and it was ongoing throughout my other renovations. After several months in, I went back over the very first locker I built, and was able to see how far my skills had come (not as impressive as it sounds since I was starting somewhere after macaroni necklace but before mud fort). Underneath the counter-tops, I wrote messages to myself like little hidden talismans in the heart of my boat.

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