Life Aboard LULU

November 15, 2000 (A Year to Remember)
Back Home Next 


 We recently celebrated our one-year cruising anniversary. It seems like we blinked and 52 weeks compressed themselves into less than a summer vacation. I don’t want to say “hard to believe” because this year vanished no differently than most of the past 60 – in flashes of color and texture, rich with momentary meaning, but streaking off -- like one glorious sunset after another -- to become, ever after, untouchable and unknowable except by memory. But, oh, what memories -- we never could have guessed just how many special moments buying this boat and sailing off would bring. 


On a sunny October morning last year we sailed out of our old familiar Snug Cove and off into an array of brand new coves -- from snug and sequestered to rowdy, bumptious, even dangerous. Each offered up its own unique persona and, all of them together, new vistas into ourselves. The indifferent sea, with its utter lack of worldly clutter, offers that kind of opportunity -- to just take notice and be. With every unpredictable challenge the sea sends there are possibilities for personal growth and an expansion of knowledge.


As if to jolt us into awareness of our expanded capacities, three days before the big milestone, as we settled into a  52-mile passage from Los Testigos to Margarita, we noticed big black clouds tracking behind us. What made this remarkable wasn’t that they were packing some walloping storm, but rather that we actually saw them coming -- in fact, called Mel and Jackie to ask if they’d seen weather coming in. They hadn’t.  A year ago it would have been Mel who radioed us.


Beyond seeing the approaching storm, we knew exactly what to do -- effortlessly, without fumbling, without fear. We moved smoothly and swiftly, as a team to ready ourselves. We reefed the main and the genoa in plenty of time, then calmly watched the wind indicator climb from 14 up through 45 knots. The boat flew through it, as if she were meant to do nothing less.


While Mel and Jackie pulled in all their auxiliary sails, we left ours reefed. We were in tune with the boat. We knew what we were doing. How much we’d learned was patently obvious – even had I not already been recalling, in technicolor, that day last fall in the Virgin Islands when we spotted a storm cloud ahead of us and actually let out more sail, hoping to take advantage of better winds, to accelerate our speed. We had no idea this was a dangerous move and, in fact, we would sail more efficiently, heel less and travel even faster with reefed sails.


Now, a year later, Gary and I watched our boat speed climb – and settle into a steady 10 knots, hitting as much as 11 and 12 knots. We giggled out loud as the winds buffeted us and the rain blasted us. To Lulu it was yet another chance to strut her stuff, but for us what a thrill to feel such confidence and competence.


We now understand viscerally what Peter Luciano, who captained Lulu back from Florida to New Rochelle, told his crew of virtual novices last June. Crew consisted of Gary and I and three friends: Susan, a day sailor if ever there was one; Ray, with many years of sailing, but no ocean, experience; Chris, whom I’d met on a beginner-level women’s sailing course and whose experience stopped with the liveaboard week and the tee-shirt.


It was during one of the worst nights of that miserable trip home. All day the steely gray Atlantic battered the boat with abandon, like some out-of-control abusive husband. Chilled, damp, uncomfortable and concerned, none of us could sleep or even stay in our own cabins. Two of us were white-knuckled in the cockpit on watch, Gary was seasick in our bed, the other three were huddled in the salon. And all of us but (perhaps) Ray, were feeling varying degrees of fright. Nights at sea are always more ominous


Peter had been hopping continuously. Back and forth, up and down, checking and adjusting sails, fixing whatever rebelled or simply gave up and broke – trying, whenever he could, to catnap up in the V-berth, an experience not unlike being a load of clothes in a washing machine.  Visibly exhausted, at around 9 PM, he stretched out on the salon floor.


“Wake me if anything happens,” he instructed, and not a second later nodded off as if he were merely swaying in a hammock on a balmy night. Captains, it would appear, can sleep through anything.


Meanwhile, crashing waves crested high above the hull and foamed over the main cabin windows, as if the boat were stalled in an automatic car wash. The malfunctioning hydraulics regularly howled in an unnerving imitation of screaming locomotive brakes. I watched the wind indicator clocking higher and higher and wondered if over 35 knots qualified as Peter’s “anything happening.”  Having already logged in several days of rough weather, our jangled nerves needed soothing. Reluctantly I woke Peter and asked the question on all our minds: “Are we safe?”


“You’re perfectly safe,” he boomed, with not a second’s hesitation. "The boat is doing exactly what she was intended to do. She’s having a great time. It’s you guys with the problem.”


Not any longer. Today, of course we’d laugh at a 35-knot wind speed and, though no one would choose such pitched seas and continuous stormy weather, I know we can cope with it and I consider us lucky to be riding a thoroughbred.

  Over our heads?

Some thought it chutzpah, others foolhardiness, that we jumped into a 61-foot sailboat when we’d never had any formal training or in-depth sailing experience.Though in our lives it was more like business as usual. Take a chance, make it work. “Extra sauce, please.”


It wasn’t that we didn’t – or rather I didn’t – have questions about whether we could handle such a big boat. We were warned over and over again about the pitfalls of owning the size boats we were looking at, by many of our experienced sailor friends and our intended trip mates, Jackie and Mel. “The forces, the forces…” Mel kept saying, meaning primarily the tempestuous clout of the wind, which can grab a sheet out of your hand and potentially take it along as hostage. Or the power of our own hydraulic winches: there did come a day when I wound my fingers in along with the mainsail and felt my bones compressing. It was only Gary’s quick response that saved my hand from being crushed.


To buy a sailboat at all, I had to ignore the fact that we were leaving a 2,000 square-foot loft and concentrate instead on the thrill of the life ahead. For years, we’d snuggled comfortably all summer on our powerboat. But it’s a huge adjustment, in both mental and physical space, to ratchet down from a 46-foot motor yacht to even, say, a 68-foot sailboat.


Trading foot for foot seemed impossible. Sailboats are narrow and their hulls curve dramatically in. I soon discovered you can practically fit the salon of a 46-foot sailboat in the master head of the comfortable old Granfalloon we’d owned for nearly 20 years. Sailboats also tend to be veneered in dark woods. Small portholes designed to keep the sea out also let very little light in. Sunlight and some feeling of spaciousness were important to us since we would be leaving our bright, loft apartment with its vaulted ceilings. And, being – I have to admit it -- spoiled brats, we knew we simply wouldn’t be happy making the compromises.


Thus, we started off at around 50 feet and it didn’t take long to break through that ceiling. Obstinacy more than anything else begat the courage to begin looking over 60 feet. That and our boat broker. Talk about your flim-flam man, your smooth talking used-car salesman. Broker Bruce: there’s a guy that can talk you up from a rubber ducky to the Queen Mary before you can say “hurricane.”  All the while seeming perfectly reasonable.


So, on one side of the scale, we had Jackie and Mel, thrilled we were planning on sharing the blue-water life with them, yet nattering at us day and night about the forces and dangers, our waning physical strength and general lack of knowledge -- all pointing to the stupidity, the foolhardiness, of even them -- much less us -- owning a sailboat bigger than 50 feet. They were encouraging us in the direction of the Good Ship Lulu-pup, while Broker Bruce was abetting our search for a lulu of a Lulu. Well aware of his fierce opposition, Bruce had his own arsenal of persuasive rationale  as to why such a decision would be no problem at all.


First and foremost he presented Walter and Claudia. Frankly we always suspected this couple were convenient phantoms he invented to up the boat length and the price tag (and quite incidentally, the sales commission) until we actually met someone who’d sailed with them. Walter and Claudia assumed for us the kind mythological magnitude one might accord to, say, Zeus and Hera -- while still maintaining all other aspects of, basically, your next door neighbors. Bruce trotted them out to provide us with moral support whenever some nagging doubt or entirely sane misgiving raised its practical head regarding our sailing prowess relative to the 78-footer he might be showing us. Walter and Claudia, off on a circumnavigation, just the two of them, manning a 102-foot Jongert. Or maybe it was a 120…it’s easy to get dyslexic about yacht footages; that is, until you actually get behind the wheel of one of these behemoths. But, exactly like us, neither Claudia nor Walter had ever owned a sailboat before the multi-million dollar Jongert.


Previous sailboat experience, in Broker Bruce’s universe, was no prerequisite for owning anything up to a square rigger in size or complication. It would all prove to be “no biggy,” promised Bruce, who’s been sailing probably since he’s six-months-old and seemed to believe – despite my protests to the contrary – that just because I owned a pair of Docksiders I knew the difference between a halyard and a haulout. All we’d need, according to Bruce, was two weeks of instruction with the other incipient god in our new universe – Anthony the Boat Captain, who could probably teach a cocker spaniel to sail.


In the end, we gave in to our inability to compromise and our faith – proven right so many times over these last 30 years – that whatever we wanted we could manage to get or to do, which is the same as saying, our faith in ourselves. Our feelings, questions and doubts distilled down to if a sailboat were to be home, she needed to feel like home, the kind of home we both need – something unique and well designed, with personality. And, indeed, a year later, almost always when we sight her from ashore or as we dinghy up to her, each of us feels like we did returning home to our loft: A moment of intense appreciation – “Isn’t that beautiful! “ – followed by shock of surprised recognition – “Oh, my that’s ours, how incredible is that?”  It isn’t the praise of others, though the boat gets plenty of that; it’s the pride of ownership and the knowledge that in what could, in an instant, turn into treacherous terrain, she will keep us as safe as the best of boats out there.


And Bruce was right. With Lulu’s power winches and roller furling, with her bow thruster and oversized engine, we and she can handle just about anything – at least so far. 


First Mite

In truth, I never doubted Gary’s abilities in this domain: Gary had already proved himself superb at technically manning a large boat, but he is also a physicist by education, a person who can fix anything because he understands intuitively how things work. He’s an insatiable researcher into the question of “Why?”  Why, anything. While he lacked the sailing vocabulary or had no sense – or even an interest in -- the tricks of trimming the sails to squeeze out that last tenth of a knot, he did understand the winds and how things like velocity and direction would impact the sails and the boat.


But for me, the learning curve was prodigious. In our yachting division of labor, Gary had always been in charge of piloting -- and I of making lunch. It’s not huge overstatement to say that after some 25 years on the water, what I knew about sailing, or for that matter boating in general, could be stored in a nail polish bottle. As of last year, I could call the Coast Guard smartly, but if they gave me an instruction, there was very little chance I could act on it. Boating-wise I was more First Mite than First Mate. I say this only to suggest how much I didn’t know and the enormity of our making a decision to take off cruising alone, and on a ‘61-foot sailboat, no less.


I knew I’d have to learn my part – a great deal, probably a lifetime’s worth – but, I told myself, how hard could it be – people sailed boats before they drove Dusenbergs. It had to be learnable. I became progressively less sure of this analogy as the process of buying and taking true possession of Lulu went on.


In late April we traveled to Mallorca for her survey. She’d been commissioned “North of 50,” which made me feel some comfort that someone potentially as old as we had owned something so big. Of course it was also true she’d had a crew sailing and tending her from launch day on.


We sailed out of Palma de Mallorca harbor for her sea trial amid a forest of masts, with that crew -- Maxine and Tim, a lovely English couple whose jobs and home we were eliminating in one fell swoop --plus the surveyor and, of course, Broker Bruce, undoubtedly overseeing those last tricky moments of the sale.

I wrote in my journal at the time, “We’ve got 27-knot winds and I’m happy. Happy that the boat isn’t turning over, that she moves so beautifully through the water -- also both happy and not so happy that no one is asking me to do a single thing. Gary is taking right to it, of course. Though I find myself wishing someone would include me, it’s just a measure of how little I know and how much they’re aware of how little I know.”


Indeed, Maxine had handed me a fender as we left the tight boat slip to make sure we didn’t hit any other boats. Twenty minutes out of the marina I was still holding it, but I wasn’t about to ask someone to tie it where it belonged, onto the lifelines. On the Granfalloon our fenders had vinyl strap handles with turnbuckles -- simple fastenings – making it easy to do this job. But to get this sailboat fender where it belonged I had to tie a proper sailor’s knot, which, despite considerable effort, I’d never gotten right. So the fact that I finally succeeded and it didn’t untie itself and float away was very, very exciting..

”Believe me,” I wrote, “this is akin to the monkey at the keyboard, typing out the first line of King Lear.”


Six weeks later, I’d forgotten this simple skill again and was still obsessively practicing bowlines and clove hitches during the entire plane ride down to Ft Lauderdale. It was June 7 and Lulu was arriving on the “car-carrier” type transport that had carried her across the Atlantic.


I felt elation when we first viewed her on the ship in Port Everglades, but terror, not joy, when it was time to pilot her off the ferry. The transport ship was called Super Servant and that’s exactly what was needed – a super servant, like Maxine or Tim – when it was our turn to back her out -- by ourselves -- off the ship. The decks were slick after a torrential tropical downpour that greeted us just as we climbed aboard. We were both completely drenched, with puddles of water falling from our hair, shorts and tee shirts. We had not so much as a paper towel to dry off with, Maxine and Tim having performed in typically flawless fashion: they’d eradicated the boat not only of dirt, but anything else that might have proven useful to us at that moment. Their “owner” had been stubbornly parsimonious about what on the boat was included in the hardline price he’d extorted from us: nothing that wasn’t nailed down. If we didn’t pay extra for every spare part for the myriad specialized systems he was keeping them – despite the fact that he had no use for them. Maybe they made nice lamps.


We’d arrived in Lauderdale like Peruvian immigrants, amid cartons of miscellany from the Granfalloon: kitchen gadgets, bowls, towels, sheets, a blanket, hair blowers, suntan lotions, manuals, to start our new life aboard, plus assorted electronics, warm clothing for the trip North -- and our old Granfalloon bed pillows, so we shouldn’t feel quite so strange in a new bed. We’d dropped it all at the marina where Lulu would soon be berthed and rushed over to the transport to scoop her up. 


All the Super Servant’s linesmen and boat handlers were, in effect, tapping their heels in impatience --  waiting for people they probably thought accomplished to accomplish the departure maneuver -- so they could then dispatch the other, bigger boats, in front of us. And there I was, yet again trying to figure out how to tie a fender onto the lifelines. Leaving me to this ostensibly simple task, Gary had raced below to flip on the navigation instruments, the air conditioning and the refrigeration. No such luck. Almost none of them worked -- or their nuances temporarily flummoxed him.


Somehow Gary succeeded in backing the boat off the ship and out into the harbor. We got to the drawbridge, and watched it slam shut in front of us. We had another hour before it would open again. We spent it toasting each other, our new life and our new home while dark rain clouds dumped their contents on us. We eventually, I’m still not sure how, got the boat into a slip and proceeded to open our sopping cartons and drag the stuff below.

Removing “North of 50” and putting the new stainless steel LULU letters on the transom didn’t truly make her ours. That would take a year of living on her, learning her quirks, understanding her gadgetry, distinguishing among the noises made by her various pumps, figuring out what tack she favors – sort of what side she dresses on -- and what she needs to make her bound ahead like a frisky puppy.


The weather on the trip back to New Rochelle didn’t facilitate our learning to sail, nor did the fact that we immediately started tearing Lulu apart to transform her into a home we could love, nor did the lightening strike that blew out most of her instruments, nor the piffling Long Island Sound winds. So that, in the end, during those three months before departure, we did precious little sailing.


Mechanical midgetry

At the end of the summer, I suffered a severe loss of self-confidence in my abilities. I was wondering aloud in my journal: “How will I ever handle the mechanics of a boat, understand the wind directions, ever get a “feel” for the wind, for the sea, for the changes in the reefs, the nuances of weather shifts? I doubt I will ever, given the level of my mechanical unconsciousness.”


I was mentally extending not only past history, but a recent miserable failure in our scuba certification class to my impending sailing life. During Lesson One Bob, the dive instructor, showed us the “rig,” an octopus-like apparatus that attaches to the tank, to the BC (the buoyancy control jacket), to the diver and to God knows what else. The rig seemed critical in keeping you the diver alive, and thus worth mastering. He demonstrated, one time, repeat, one time, how to connect it to the tank, how to inflate the BC, how to clean the filter, how to check the air supply, how to breathe into the regulator.


Then he said to the class, “Okay, go ahead and do it yourselves.”  I sat there completely befuddled, as if I were the octopus -- all hands and flailing arms -- while Gary and everyone else snapped their hoses smartly whereever they belonged. Sensing my frustration – because he’s well attuned to my whining windup -- Gary moved over and showed me.


“Okay, got that?” Bob continued, as if all of us were well on our way to becoming Navy Seals. And then he snapped off the lights, commanding “Now, do it in the dark. (He was well within his teaching rights --this was after all, an accelerated 5-lesson class.)


 “I need the 5-year class,” I muttered, though I proceeded to actually make two hoses meet, it looked like, properly. Tough break -- I couldn’t lock it in. Gary, sighing, announced, “I’ve got her all year, Bob, you help her!”  Turned out I had the string that attaches the cap caught up in my connection. That ended Lesson 1. God help me if I ever have to re-attach myself on a dark day underwater.


Lesson Two took place in the pool and by the end of the class I had terrible foot cramps. I reminded Bob he’d promised to teach us how to eliminate cramps.


“Where are your they?” he asked.


“Both feet and up one calf.”


“Let me see if maybe the ankle straps are too tight,” he said, torpedoing below to fiddle with my fins. Moments later he shot up to the surface, laughing maniacally – even through his mask and regulator. “It would help,” he snorted, “if you would remove the packing material from your fins.” And waved two black plastic inserts in the air. “You really are impossible,” he said.


In Lessons Three through Five circumstances separated me from Gary, which made the nightmare spiral even deeper – ineptitude followed by falling behind followed by panic followed by further ineptitude  -- so that when they finally passed me it was, I’m sure, only to avoid having me as a repeater. Also because I scored 98 on the written exam. (I’ve always tested well.)


My facile Dusenberg analogy was virtually in tatters. I’d glossed over the problem of my mechanical midgetry and general bamboozlement around any two non-animate things that are supposed to join, meet, clamp, interact, react to each other to create some change or modification or improvement in the physical universe. Call them mechanical non-sequiturs – the kinds of causes and effects that most people understand either intuitively or by memory once they get it, always elude me.


“Yank on the red line,” is something I can relate to, as long as it isn’t followed with, ”and at the same time press the button next to it,” which, on our boat, apparently instructs the hydraulic winch to reel a sail in or out. I had struggled for weeks with what that red line -- the outhaul -- actually did. Meanwhile, outhaul is just about the one term in sailing that means what it says – it hauls the mainsail out of the mast. Compare it to, say, the clew – about which I had no clue – or the spreaders -- which to me seemed more likely to turn up in my gynecologist’s office than on my sailboat.


But here it is a year later, and I not only know what the outhaul does, I can press the buttons in synch -- almost downright melodically -- so that the mainsail gets hauled out without snarling alarmingly insider the mast. And I even know the difference between an outhaul and a haulout – about $3,000. Or, expressed differently, 3 Boat Units.


A Boat Unit, (or BU) which I also have learned about all too well this year, is the smallest possible amount of money required to fix or maintain or replace any boat-related item. Cruisers don’t ask you what something costs, they ask, “How many Boat Units did that set you back?” You rarely run into half-a-Boat Unit ($500) and a quarter-BU is almost unheard of. Boat Units simply don’t lend themselves to being expressed in fractions.


On the other hand, you can, in many of the islands, get a decent bottle of French wine for 2 bucks. That’s because, I can only assume, it’s not Boat Wine. If it were, it would cost 2 or 3 Boat Units and we’d have to go back to drinking water. And salt water at that – considering the fact that you have to pay for your boat water – in Boat Units, presumably -- down here.


Since I always considered money and spending my particular area of expertise, it was unsettling for me to discover I was also a rank amateur in estimating what could possibly be spent on maintaining an essentially brand new boat. But Boat Units aside, there are, one year later, numerous facets of boating mechanics that I can now do with a great deal of skill, not to mention panache.


I can, for example, reach out and, on command from my captain, locate the hydraulics or the bowthruster switch, without first throwing the entire boat into disarray -- by turning off the autopilot or the battery charger or the toilet pumps. I know how to tie several important seaman’s knots with the same skill that I – without benefit of mirror -- apply lip liner. I now coil lines as if I’d sailed with Amerigo Vespucci. And, when given time to prepare, I no longer stand with a rope in each hand wondering whether I’m going to get the fender tied to the lifeline before we crash broadside into a thoroughly menacing concrete dock. Lulu’s toe rail, unfortunately, attests to the fact that it took me a few months to master that skill.


I also know a good bit more about sailing and navigation than I ever dreamed I might, though the amount I still don’t know is daunting. On one leg of our recent 50-mile crossing from Mochima back to Margarita, we had the boat honking along at 9 knots when the wind speed was no more than 12. Sailors among you may have surmised we had a little help from some favorable current, but, in truth, the sails– my forté – were trimmed as fine as a Madison Avenue haircut. And I still had time to fry up the leftover spaghetti for my skipper.


As for Gary, today he grasps from experience what he’d felt intuitively – that he could handle a 61-foot sailboat, or even one of Broker Bruce’s 78-footers, with ease. Some days I arrive topsides to find he’s unfurled and trimmed all three sails without me. With the help of his unfortunately not-always trusty bowthruster, he has just about perfected single-engine sailboat docking, no mean feat compared to the ease of maneuvering a dual-engine powerboat. Additionally, he now knows, about as intimately as he knows me, all of Lulu’s many systems and instruments -- main engine, generator, air conditioning, fresh water, hot water, watermaker, icemaker, refrigeration, electrical wiring, hydraulics, navigation instrumentation -- plus he has had his fingers in almost every one of a seemingly endless supply of pumps. Lifelong sailor friends like Jane and Chris are in awe of his boat handling and mechanical aplomb.


Not yet a black belt

Now I know I’ll never be able to repair a pump, nor would I choose to learn all those systems. It’s always hard for me to tear myself away from writing or reading a book or some very insistent boat cleaning project to learn how to do something Gary does so effortlessly, but I have decided recently, as part of my Year Two Plan, that I must learn to sail the boat myself. At least get us into port should anything happen to Gary.


Docking the boat may take me well into Year Three. Maybe even Year Four, because in thinking about parking the boat in a slip, I shudder, recalling my many perpetrations on various cars I’ve loved. The most stunningly difficult to achieve was the accident I had on my own street while driving my two-week-old, surprise birthday-present Jaguar sedan. I managed to crush all four doors when the street had houses on the left only and an unobstructed golf course on the right. But the real skill of this maneuver was twisting the car into a perfect bowtie shape while leaving all four fenders factory-pristine. I’ve always declined to explain how any sighted driver could accomplish this – every woman needs a bit of lingering mystery. So, anyway, that’s why I’m leaving docking for Year Four


Learning limits

There are several realms of sailboating over which I have not yet achieved mastery. For example, being the sole crew while leaving a slip. I must catch the bow lines the dock boy tosses, then race to the stern, grab the boat hook and somehow unloop two rear lines from the wood pilings – all while Gary’s backing the boat out into the channel. The loop maneuver usually escapes me and I find myself seesawing from one side of the stern to the other, tripping over my boat hook and choosing always the wrong piling to attack. Sometimes I just want to slash the lines. But then I remember the cost of that thought in Boat Units. Besides, some of you may recall, those dock lines were my birthday present last year.


I’m also becoming resigned to the fact that I can live blissfully -- but not unscathed -- aboard. Some days my body is so mottled with cuts, bruises, lumps, swellings, scabs and mysterious subcutaneous purple blotches that I could pass for an Italian sausage. It’s one more manifestation of my spatial-relations deficiency plus my head-elsewhere approach to the physical universe. But even for the attentive, sailboat decks are a minefield of raised, sharp, hard and I think hostile projections just ready to attack.

I’ve already broken and re-broken the same toe at least three times, not to mention numerous other foot, knee, elbow and calf-bashing encounters with shiny, stationary objects whose locations should, by now, be familiar to me.


Below decks, body bruises sustained in collisions with doorways and thresholds are the result of being a big, clunky galoot maneuvering around what is not much more than a glorified – albeit glorious --house trailer. Apparently I’ve not yet been sufficiently maimed to really pay attention to that fact.


The other day, trying to make the boat wrong, I actually measured. All our doorways are 18-inches wide -- my shoulders are 16. I’ve got to have a very good aim, or not be moving very fast, just to propel myself from one area to the next. Leaving the bedroom for a drink of water in the middle of the night can be perilous. The Pullman galley at it’s widest is 24 inches, at it’s narrowest 18. Just another reason to eat out, I say.


Our toilet/sink area at its commodious best is 22 inches by 18 inches. Just think about trying to pull up your undies -- even at anchor. Toilet to back wall is 16 inches; elaborate wiping scenarios are restricted -- diarrhea is a particular menace. Gary’s underwear attests to this. The actual available turning radius in our head is somewhere around 17 inches. You don’t want to (though I often do) turn around while toweling dry. Considering the uninhabited space for blow-drying, very long hair is a health-hazard.

The bottom line is: Arms-Akimbo is a position that is no longer available to me – a lesson I keep forgetting to learn.


Otherwise my commitment to unlocking the mysteries of the sailboat game has been global, up to and including picking the brains of other yachtsmen about their favorite brands of compounds, waxes, cleaners, polishes and all other sundry tools of the sailboat maintenance trade. (Full disclosure in this context demands I mention that Mel calls me Mrs. Tidy Bowl, referring to the fact that cleaning the boat has become an unexpected sideline – Mel would say consuming occupation -- of my ((supposed)) retirement.)


So my interest in scrubbery supplies is, in truth, more than casual. I knew I’d met my obsessive superior when I happened upon the rag bags of, let’s call him Bill because if I used his real name he’d never speak to me again. To me each of Bill’s three bags of rags looked exactly the same shade of white: every rag looked clean enough to diaper a newborn. Yet Bill could explain exactly why one snowy white scrap of cotton gets the grungy task of wiping up after a generator oil change and another gets the creampuff task of waxing the hull.


But my favorite investigation into maintenance minutiae turned up the Fred Hepplewhite Sponge Rotation System.


Now I happen to know Fred Hepplewhite  was a wildly enterprising entrepreneur who sold out for a tidy sum -- tidy being the operative word here, because he’s either that or he’s penurious or downright anal. In any event, the common, everyday sponge – the kind most of us throw away when it starts flaking or shredding or otherwise looks a little long in the tooth -- in Fred’s 46-foot universe goes through at least six or seven waypoints in its useful life, in a rotation as rigid as the path from private to brigadier general.


Hepplewhite’s system is actually more about demotion than promotion. A sponge right out of its cellophane jacket goes to the galley sink, for dish duty. When it reaches who knows what point of ripeness, it is then usable for cleaning galley counters. Next it moves to cockpit duty – fiberglass surfaces only -- after which it’s transferred back to galley floors, then back up to cockpit floor, and finally, should it still have some remaining wiping properties, is up for grabs as a bilge sponge.


That’s six different tours of duty, which means Fred needs to stock a rainbow’s supply of different sponge colors – and have designed an elaborate, computerized, I hope, sponge-dating system to keep track of all these itinerant sponges. Some nights I stay awake trying to guess what he does about backup – I mean what if a sponge in GC-3 (cockpit fiberglass) stays in good enough shape not to be moved, causing constipation in the orderly flow of sponges? Is the GC-4 (galley floor) kept on long past its prime and can you then no longer eat off a Hepplewhite floor? None of this analysis even factors in tangential topics, like: Scotch Brites -- yes or no? The acceptable uses of J-Cloths vs. Paper Towels. Simple Green or Cinch?


One thing that became clear to me about Fred is exactly why he remained single so many years after his divorce. Probably he was looking for someone to add a new phylum to the system. In any event, last year he did indeed marry someone who obviously is willing to share – or at least put up with – his sponge thing.

Ain’t love grand?


A successful marriage

Speaking of love and marriage, we also just celebrated our first anniversary with Jackie & Mel. The way I think about it, the four of us were engaged for 16 years and then this year we got married.


It’s surely as much a marriage as most marriages. We sail virtually alongside between islands, always checking in via radio along the way; we anchor 100 feet away from each other; eat most dinners together; sightsee together, shop together; share rental cars; cabs and buses. We even share the same general friend pool. When our boat was hauled we lived on theirs for two weeks; while they were on the hard eight weeks, they lived on ours. It’s a shocking amount of time to spend with another couple. Most friendships couldn’t withstand it.


We had a grand year, though not a perfect year. We’ve learned to hold our tongues, negotiate our way through each other’s preferences, feelings, prejudices, attitudes, and find a way to accommodate each other. Just like newlyweds.


Yes, after the honeymoon, we had our minor snits, one or two abrasive flare-ups, a few short bouts of keeping our distance and strained discourse. As couples we each probably contemplated divorce at least once, maybe even twice. As in any healthy marriage, we’ve – mostly -- figured out how to air our differences, have our sober discussions, hammer out our problems, swallow our pride and righteousness so as to apologize. Time-outs don’t come easily to the four of us -- we enjoy sharing this adventure too much. So we keep choosing to accept each other -- with our individual flaws, our stylistic differences and even our downright impossibilities (each of us, of course, secretly believing not to have any.) By now the invisible cord that joins us seems pretty invincible.


But meanwhile those marked stylistic differences define the individual roles we each perform for the group’s well being.


Jackie, for example, has the ability to ask anyone for absolutely anything. Want two or three of anything that’s one-per-customer? Need to use the bathroom in a store where it clearly says “Rest Rooms for Employees Only? Jackie’s your woman. Want to walk straight to the front of a long airport check-in line and be taken without comment, better yet, with a smile? Walk in to any crowded restaurant without a reservation and want a table for six? Just fall in step behind her. She was born to be in charge of Special Requests, Situations, Arrangements and Favors. Sometimes when she’s asking for something particularly outrageous, I have to skulk behind a pillar or actually leave the room.


Nobody can bat an eye, conquer a clerk, chat up an official like Jackie. A sub-specialty is menu alterations. There she flashes the dazzling dentist’s-wife smile, offering a tiny peek at those strips of shiny gold inlays, and just plows into her list of ingredient changes and additions. I have never seen Jackie order anything straight off a menu, not even a glass of water. I myself am a rank amateur with my piddly little “extra sauce” request. Sometimes I’m surprised she just doesn’t walk into the kitchen and do it herself.


She’s also a born teacher, which means she has the boundless patience to explain menu alterations to perfect imbeciles and the sanguine disposition to believe she’s actually going to get it that way. Gary, however, thinks she sets herself up for disaster because she’s not precise enough. He’s always trying to convince her she should be more specific as to what “I’d like the onions fried nicely” means. Or, she needs to be more precise: “Do you really want them to throw some mushrooms in? And what if they miss?”


Gary, in addition to being Master Mechanic and Wizard of Solutions, in charge of fixing or creating a way to fix almost everything that breaks, is our even-keel person. For his three more voluble traveling companions he provides perspective, the positive slant, or the downright silly to slap-happy point of view on minor annoyances, outrageous situations and even dire predicaments


“Where’s the check, dammit?” we’ll be fretting, having asked for it maybe, 15 times (It’s a Caribbean restaurant truism that it’s always easier to get the food – with or without requested modifications – than it is to get the check.)


And Gary will say, “They must think we ordered it well done.”


Sometimes his routinely roseate stance, his refusal to get sucked into “problems” or see anything but the positive, drives us all to drink – but that, at least, is a perfectly viable response under the circumstances.


My penchant for perfection, my anxieties about never getting enough – whether its food or experiences --  puts me in charge of restaurant choices and reservations. Also researching outings and out-of-the-way things to do. Plus discovering, tracking down and procuring products for our individual and group wish lists. Mention you need something and, wham, I’ve not only found it, but ordered it. Tough luck if you had a budget. It’s also my job to whip up flagging enthusiasm and push the others when they get lazy about going somewhere or doing something. I am the Simon Legree of Food, Culture and Entertainment. In my pursuit of extra sauce and excess in every category, I often need Toning Down, Reining In. Ask Jackie, who takes a more conservative tack.


Balance is important in every relationship. Since Jackie and Gary are insanely positive types, Mel and I provide the ballast, are the negative poles of our foursome, often vying for who can think of the most disastrous scenario that might, in a given situation, befall us.  As far as I’m concerned he always wins hands down, though Mel and I are often in the position of thinking the other one is nuts.


But meanwhile it is Mel who in fact holds the twin titles, Clairvoyant of Crises and Master of Disaster. (That’s because I gave them to him.) He always knows that the car is going to break down, restaurant is going to close, bus is not coming, thugs are going to mug, part won’t arrive, schedule won’t be met. Thinking the worst helps him prepare: he’s always got the mace, flashlight, water bottle, necessary phone number, extra battery, fail-safe strategy. He keeps us safe because he’s ever vigilant. He prefers to think of himself as Mop-up Mel.


We’re both bulldogs in our separate ways, me about goods and services, he about people. Since “benefit of the doubt” is not in Mel’s repertoire of responses, he can invariably pick a pain in the ass from 40 paces. If not exactly the first to admit he’s made a mistake about someone, he is willing -- on major proof of good behavior, only -- to reverse judgment. Those few who pass muster, always get to experience his generosity, loyalty and friendship. We were among the fortunate.


Mel is also the bravest among us. Gary, especially, and I, often enough, tend to be timid souls, taking pretty much what we get, minimizing disappointments. Mel’s taught me a lot. When he doesn’t like something or doesn’t get what’s promised, he speaks out. He gets people to perform on their promises. He therefore heads the Complaint Department. Nobody takes advantage of him – or by extension, us.


And if they dare, there’s always his secret weapon: Jackie.


Happy Thanksgiving

It’s obvious we are keenly aware of how much we have to be thankful for – all this bounty, plus Bobby’s in love; Jeff is flourishing in his new set-design career; the Baltimore Sun is mad about David; Suey and Karen are extraordinary – and extraordinarily happy as – mothers; Tony is in great demand as a freelancer and father; Wendy has turned into a remarkable, sensitive, together young woman. Our six grandchildren are all splendid, smart, adorable – and healthy to boot. All this and John and Lisa are about to bless us with yet another grandson: a younger sibling for -- God help him -- the now terrible-two triplets.


We wish you all as much joy in your lives as we experience every day in ours.


Louise and Gary



Back Up Next


Subscribe To Receive New Newsletters Via Email (LULU News)


Send a Message To Louise & Gary Regarding Their Journey


Send A Message to Wendy Regarding This Web Page


Return to Out There Living To Read Other Adventure Stories