Archive for the ‘Marine’ Category


March 8, 2011

I love boating of all kinds, but dislike yacht clubs.  The desperate smell of needing to be ‘cooler than thou’ is so rife in these places, which also tend to be filled with the idle rich parasitized by feckless youth.  Nevertheless, through a friend I had an intro at the Sydney Yacht Club, and this was the only way I was going to get out onto the water in anything larger than a surfboard – so I am grateful.

The CYCA has the pleasant, slightly brutal informality of the Aussies, but still has that competitive tinge to the air.  I am sure if I knew anything about boat classes, racing rigs, ocean passages and the like, I would be as insufferable as anyone, but the fact is I sail my boat, often alone or with a friend, and the watch comes off as I step on board.  I don’t really know what anything is called, settle for adequate rather than cinching everything down for maximum speed – it’s a holiday and a hobby, not a job or a sport.

I did my best to keep up with the yachties over a beer, but ended up wandering down the walkways between the slips in the forest of masts.  Mostly sugar-scoop sterns and racing machines with names like Rodd & Gunn and Wot Eva, though there was one sweet classic sloop named Samien – a rose among the thorns, as far as I was concerned, in this sea of frozen spit and aluminium.  Out on the ends were the ocean races that cross the Pacific, or at least The Ditch between here and New Zealand.  Signs – For Sale or ‘Crew needed bound for Tahiti” – spoke of the romance of the Pacific yachting life I once considered but was not destined to know.

After a bit of palaver, I was welcomed aboard the Cyrene with Bill and Mark and Sandy and Garda and Elena and Tim.  About the size of Tycha, but a racing machine, with the composite sails and ropes running everywhere through jam cleats.  They lent me a pair of those fingerless gloves and off we were.

The spirit of the Monday night race was cheerful but intent.  I took a station at the winch, which I know how to grind.  Where I am very reluctant to go to the trouble of changing headsails (they take up so much room), these guys had a surfeit for every wind and sea condition.  Of course on this evening, we were within Sydney Harbor, with a light to moderate breeze – hardly seagoing conditions.

We got everything up and shipshape, and maneuvered around the warning guns to be on the starting line as the seconds counted down and twenty boats argued for prime position.  We were pushed up (legally, but nastily) so that we had to turn around and run the line late.  We were soon settled, with the crew on the windward rail, and I could enjoy the view of the Opera House, the bridge I climbed (was it only last week?), and the Sydney skyline (that’s ‘skoyloin’).

There seemed to be about three captains among the older men, and a lot of lines, sheets, and halyards to control, with contrary orders stepping on top of each other.  Once we made the upwind mark, out flew the spinnaker (which I have never even used on Tycha – you need a crew of at least three to fly one, and for the race we were all fully engaged – topping lift, brace, two sheets, and the halyard, pole – arms and legs flying everywhere.  I tried to watch while helping, as I would like to add this to my sailing repertoire.

It was twice around the course, so it was jib to spinnaker to jib to spinnaker – we all got our exercise.  The sun set behind the Opera House and bridge in spectacular fashion, and it was deep dark before we cracked a beer back at the slip.  They were all very nice, and said kind things, but I slipped away myself not to invade on their dinnertime.  Churlish of me to be reverse snobby about yacht clubs when they so kindly took me on, but I prefer my leisurely approach to the Maine coast than tear-assing around a harbor in search of a sic transit gloria.


Surf’s Up

March 6, 2011

When in Oz, do as the Australians.  The alarm went off in the dark, and I wished I could have a bit of a lie-in after seven days straight of teaching.  But it’s my early morning surfing lesson.  Just across the street on the beach Mark was lifting the garage door on his surf shop in the little cement building under the palms. My “G’day” is getting less self-conscious.

Mark is about my age – at least he’s been hanging on this Cronulla beach for over forty years. Tan, but lined and a little gone to paunch, he looks more like an executive than an overgrown teenager (Masa, the guy I had the other disastrous day when I couldn’t even find a place to get a lesson, fit that bill).  Mark’s gone from surfer to surf board shop owner to surfboard designer to runner of surf programs for local schools, youth-at-risk – turning surfing into good works.  Doing a private lesson like this is a little money on the side – with a heart operation and an ear problem behind him, he’s semi-retired and has nothing to prove.

He kitted me out in a wet suit and a long board, and we walked in the dawn gloom across the sand to the break.  Time after time he set me in motion in front of the waves.  Patiently he got me to make haste slowly in turning getting up on the board into a single balanced motion.

I’m proud to say that after an hour, I was actually up on the board and, as Mark said, “You’re riding the board now – next comes riding the wave.”  Not much of an accomplishment for anyone who knows surfing, I know, but after falling off and wiping out any number of times in an hour, it was great to be up there, feeling the board as a boat.  The same moment happens when a wind-surfer stops being an enemy and starts becoming a tool, and I see the same relaxation when someone gets the ‘feel’ of my sailboat.  I would need a lot more time at it that I am not likely to find, but it was good to feel the wave under me.  I was muscle-tired by the end, and falling because of weakness and lack of neurotransmitters rather than ineptitude.

We stopped for a few minutes on the way back, squinting into the now-risen sun.  We watched the surfers already out in the green waves, and he analyzed their techniques.  But more fun was watching him read the water.  I prompted him on this, and soon I could see the rips and the rivers where the rip heads back to see (the easiest way to get out there), and the waves breaking on either side of these outgoing currents.  He can tell what will happen to a wave before I can even see it forming, and I felt as much awe of him as others feel when I start bodyreading.

I came back to the hotel and had that unheard of luxury, usually physiologically impossible for me – the mid-morning nap.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

March 2, 2011

When I lived in London, I never did anything touristy unless one of my American friends came to town – and then I would gird up my loins for the trip to Greenwich or Buckingham Palace, or Hyde Park Corner.  I never did make it to the Tower of London in ten years of living there.

My genial Australian seminar organizers and mates for these two weeks Brad (sharp-eyed, athletic, shaven-headed) and Geoff (gentle -eyed, but observant, with the resigned, tolerant, and self-aware air common to fathers of three girls), had never climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, but they bought tickets for my visit.








When I was here before at the end of ‘87, you couldn’t climb on the bridge, though I did see the bicentennial fireworks, sitting with my one-year-old daughter who learned to walk on a Sydney porch.  They have continued the fireworks tradition, trying each year to outdo the last.

I don’t know what I was thinking  – that we were just going to walk up the bridge, and these guys are athletes, like most Australians, so I imagined being humiliated as they sprinted to the top.  I didn’t bring any trainers – was going to buy them on the way to the airport, forgot, they are mightily expensive here – so here I am in boat shoes.

But the Bridge Climb was a good choice, and a totally unexpected variation on a carnival ride.  I thought it was a lot of overplayed palaver at first – the T-shirts and Sno-Globes for sale in the lobby, the photos of celebrities who have made the walk (the most recent and most famous being Oprah the previous month). The orientation in a series of locker rooms, medical forms and taking a breathalyzer test (two people were eliminated on that one), getting into a jump suit like an astronaut, going through a metal detector, strapping on a hankie, clipping on a cap and lanyarding your sunglasses (nothing, but nothing, must drop), a raincoat, and a radio with a headset – seemed totally over the top just to walk up a bridge.

There were about 12 in the group, all pleasant enough.  Most were from overseas, including a couple from Carolina and a fellow from Toronto (with one ‘Stry-an with a thickened accent of flat vowels presumed to lecture us Americans and Canadians on the Queen’s English).  The oldest in the party, Maureen, was going up for her 70th birthday with her daughter.  I wasn’t very hopeful be the time we set out 45 minutes later – seemed like a tourist trap and a doddle.

Finally, you drew yourself into a belt system with a webbing strap – just like the one I clip myself into my boat with when the going gets rough.  The end of the strap was a unique and clever little yo-yo-shaped metal doohickey that we threaded onto a steel wire as we stepped out of the staging area and onto the bridge-work.  We all went single-file in the same order all the way, as were always strung to the wire.

At this point, I was glad of all the prep and safety gear.  Five stories above the street on a tiny catwalk with a metal mesh floor, I tried to hide my fear from my compadres (morbid fear of heights didn’t enter our conversations about organizing workshops), but I was alternately gripping my strap or a handrail, as we traversed metal ladders up past the road and railways, and up onto the bridge itself.

Once onto the span (still the longest single-arch metal bridge in the world – go somewhere else for the factoids of how much metal was used, and why it is the record-holder still – the only ones I remember are an estimated 10,000 rivets dropped into Sydney Harbor and that 16 people were killed in the making, and one Irishman who fell survived by hitting the water just right – straight as an arrow and toes pointed – and came up with only three broken ribs) the fear was over.  The arches on each side are wide, the climb easy, and the power of the wind abated by being strapped in.

One sits astride the city, stretching out in all directions from the sea to the Blue Mountains.  The view from the top is magnificent; looking down at the Sydney Opera House, of course, the most recognizable building in the world, and the complex waterways of this vibrant cities that combines the best of LA, Seattle, and New Orleans.  Out away lay Manley Head, the last land before the endless Pacific.  Sailing yachts, tugboats, ferries, tankers, and luxury motor yachts passed under us while we were up there.  We could see schools of fish jumping in the green waters of the bay.  Our guide Darren pointed out the sites and pumped a steady stream of cheerful information to us through the headsets of the radio.

The whole thing was exhilarating and very worthwhile.  By the trip down I was very nonchalant, pulling my yo-yo along the wire with aplomb.  I found the business aspects most interesting.  Many governmental obstacles had to be overcome, and the thing took nine years to put together (the Bridge Climb, not the ridge itself – that took less).  It used up the fortune of the man who pioneered it.

Over 200 employees work this gig, taking up to 1800 people safely up and down the bridge in a day.  Now they are raking it in, and it is very well-run.  Of course they take photos and get you for that on your way out.

Most intriguing to me was the security system that they had to perfect to get governmental permission to do this business: You were never off the steel wire from the moment you stepped into the catwalk until the moment you stepped back in.  There was no way that you could remove the yo-yo from the wire, even if you wanted to.

Even your hip belt was cleverly constructed so that you could not remove it from yourself if you chose this way to end your life spectacularly.  Even if you managed to get a ceramic box cutter onto the bridge like some terrorist, it would take you so long to get through the webbing that Darren & Co would have been on you like white on rice.  I find my fear is less of falling than of jumping – that the devil in me will urge me over the edge against my other will and better judgment.  But even here they are protective and protected – you couldn’t commit suicide on this ‘ride’ even if you wanted.

Down the bins with the jump suits and recover your goods from the locker, and back through the lobby to the street.  Touristy it may be, and expensive it is, but it is a unique opportunity to see a unique bit of engineering in two forms: the bridge itself, and the operation to take people up and down it with absolute safety.

Though I wonder how we would all feel if an earthquake such as happened at Christchurch, New Zealand last week had occurred when we were on the bridge.

Greece #4 – A Ferry Ride

January 30, 2011

Misty with the cliffs of Aegina

In the 1970’s, when I first came to Greece, the only way to get to any of the islands was by ferry.  I first saw Greece from the deck of a ferry, as dawn broke after a long night pitching across from Brindisi, Italy.  Kerkyra (Corfu) lay still in the ‘wine-dark sea’, looking like Zeus lying on his back in the water.  I fell in love with Greece at that moment, and have never forsaken her.  Now we are about to zip to Thera on an airplane (though zip is a funny word for a process that will take less than an hour in the air, but requires six hours – only one hour less than the ferry – to effect, between getting all the way out to the airport, waiting, securitizing, boarding, and getting back in at the other end).

But meanwhile, I wanted Misty to have something of the ferry experience I had back in the day, so we wandered down to the tiny sook-like streets of lower Plaka and booked a 3-island cruise via Manos, the kindly but opinionated agent we found in a messy upstairs office – that, at least, has not changed since my day – smoky offices with inefficient phones and telexes, though now they have upgraded to inefficient computers.

The cruise required turning to early, and walking a cold and echo-y street.  The van that came to waft us to Pireaus was only 8 minutes late, a Greek record.  The port of Pireaus really is amazing, having been a working port steadily for more than 3000 years.  Our boat was not dissimilar to the ferries of my youth, but cleaner, and the whole feeling of being handled was more professional and less chaotic.  Instead of hundreds of European hippies carrying satchels and backpacks, our shipmates were Japanese and Chinese and Spanish tourists, but that was really ok.

The ferry experience, I explained to Mist, was really something different: on the way to Kriti we slept out on the deck, used even more horrible toilets, and could find no food worth eating, and learned to bring what we wanted.  There was a lot of back in forth between the intrepid travelers, and between the travelers and the crew.  In one game, you stood with your back to a semi-circle of players, with your left hand, palm out, against your right ear (try it).  One of the crowd behind you whacks you up side o’ de head, and is back in line before you recover.  If you correctly identify the attacker, he goes into the hot seat.  If not, you stay there for another hit.  Eventually, I ventured a whack or two, and I was duly identified. My first two hits, I couldn’t recover fast enough to identify the striker, but on the third try, I received such a blow that I knew it could only be the sailor with the Popeye arms, and I retired gratefully if not gracefully.

Our ferryboat in Hydra

The crew for this cruise was impressive not for their muscles but for their polyglot talents.  Every announcement came in Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, as well as English.  Our most beautiful stop was the first, Hydra (ee’-dra – apparently the un-named island in John Fowles masterpiece, The Magus), where there was a sea-blessing ceremony that involved incessant ringing of church bells, followed by cannon fire, and a bunch of teenaged boys jumping into the winter sea after a flag and a cross, I believe – it was a little far to see properly.  Mist and I followed a path up to the battlements on a pinnacle above the town with a spectacular view, befriended a burro (not so hard, but it would have been better if we had had more food), and sensed our way through goatpaths back to the town before our boat hooted and left.

The food was not spectacular, we were paired for lunch with a couple of airheads from LA, and we made no new friends on the trip, but we did get to see Greece looking at the land from the sea, which, like Maine, is an essential part of the experience.  All day, as we worked our way upwind from Hydra to Poros, and on to Aegina, the wind blew steadily from the north, sometimes working up some white horses, but mostly a desultory breeze that would have been perfect for sailing.

The island scenery looks like Santa Fe – low pines and chapparal – but they rise from the water with dramatic white cliffs, islands and rocks of every size and shape, with the welcoming arms of the harbors waiting to take you in.  Oh, to have a sailing boat in Thessaloniki, and work your way down through the islands on these boreal winds!  And then ride the Meltemi back north again in the summer – it still would work, after all these years and the Euro and all the development, the islands are still the islands.

I did this once, sailed among the islands – twice actually, but on the same boat.  In 1979, I was playing guitar in a restaurant in Bodrum, Turkey, for a meal and tips.  A European foursome came in, clearly off a boat.  The restaurant was nearly empty – the tourist season was over – so I naturally played for them.  I didn’t get much of a tip, but I sailed with them the next morning, and for the next few days we plied desultorily around Patmos (where John crawled into a cave and came out with Revelations, and the captain, Alexander, and I climbed the hill to the church over the cave to have a mass said for his Uncle John, a Greek orthodox priest who had essentially given him his boat).

We also had a helluva storm to contend with trying to get to Mykonos, and ended up being blown to Ikaria (where Icarus fell from the sky when his wax wings melted – history is everywhere here).  The next summer, I and a few friends chartered Alex’s boat again, and we sailed back and forth between Turkey and the Greek isles.  It was idyllic – the Anatolian coast was as yet undeveloped.  The Turkish fishermen would see us sailing in, come over in their caiques and hold up their catch.  We would point to one, and they would give their characteristic nod, and spin away.  At first I turned to Alex, puzzled, but I soon learned: He brought our fish to the only restaurant in the harbor where we were heading.  The restauranteur watched the boat to see when we climbed into the dinghy, and put the fish on the grill then.  It wasn’t a matter of ordering; he served what he had, and man, it was good.

Sunset at Aegina

We never met anyone on our paths with whom we could share our food, so we ended up on Aegina having salami and feta rolled in pita as the sun sank into the sea on a little beach under the remains of a temple to Zeus that we couldn’t find a way into.  It served as dinner, as we the day on the boat was strangely tiring, and we never made it out of the hotel that night.

Ferries in the 70’s, sailboats in the 80’s, but in the 21st century the planes have invaded, and the ferries are pretty much left for the poor, the nostalgic, and – as with us today – the Asian tourists seeking a ‘genuine’ experience.  Of course, Lord Byron, fighting with the Greek war of independence in the 1820’s, would have said I already missed it.  Byron – a roué in England but a fully fledged hero in Greece – has my vote when he can write this about a friend:

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of

(That’s pronounced ‘bosun’, you landlubbers.)


December 31, 2010

The East Coast storm delivered the snow, and I was soon out playing in it, diving into the pristine woods (to get out of the wind) on my cross-country skis while it was still coming down.  Dollops of white roll off the evergreens onto my head; the pine branches arc upwards when relieved of the weight. It’s great exercise – by the time I’m twenty minutes in, my coat is open and my hat off.

Even when the snow stopped falling, the wind continued reforming it.  You could shovel  – not such great exercise, but a necessity – a path through the foot-deep fairyland – out to Quan’s rabbitat, say – only to see the trench fill in over the next minutes.  The wind scours the snow off the high spots down to the earth, tosses it up into the sunny air with gay abandon like ocean spume, whirls and weaves it into all-white sculptural desert shapes downwind of obstructions, and piles up three and four feet deep drifts in the lees.  The old folk here built their houses at angles to take advantage of this tendency.  The path to the woodshed, specifically, was designed to be a scoured area, so you could get your morning fires started after a blizzard without too much work.

The weathermen and people who move here call these storms ‘nor’easters’, but anyone who grew up here knows they’re ‘no’theasters’, and no one but a weatherman from the city would say noreaster.

I was thinking on these old native winters as I took a turn outside last night, looking up at the myriad stars that profuse on the lens of a cold winter sky.  Low over the horizon to the southeast, I spotted a strange twinkling light.  It appeared to zig-zag over the trees in an odd manner.  It was large and very bright, with red, green, blue, and white lights on it.  It could have been a helicopter – by this time it was apparently still in the sky – but what would a helicopter be doing hovering over the sea on nearly New Year’s Eve with a bunch of Christmas-y lights underneath?

I called to Quan to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, and then ran to get the boat binoculars, in my bedroom for the winter.  By holding the binocs against the window, we could get a pretty steady view of the lights.  There was red flashing lights every 120 degrees, with a steady white light, another appeared to be flashing, and sporadic green and blue lights – a cosmic version of those lightboxes that added so much to the 70’s.

Quan has a lovable crank tendency to believe in UFO’s, having seen them before, and in chem trails, and in 9/11 as a government plot, and Aids and Lyme disease as CIA-tinkered viruses that escaped – generally a prophet of coming apocalyptic doom.  I am of a more conservative and logical turn – I lived through Watergate; the government can’t even keep a third-rate burglary secret, let alone a highly complex airlift designed to poison our soil, and UFO’s venturing light years only to fly around in our skies without landing to gas up or try sushi makes no sense to me – but I was having a hard time coming up with anything earthly that would match my sense impressions.

I called up a friend who lived to the southeast to see if she could see what we could see.  At first she thought it was just a star twinkling, but I countered, “This is no twinkling star, at least none I’ve ever seen. It’s way too big, and the lights are flashing too regularly.  Something military, maybe, but that doesn’t make much sense either.”

I had even, in my initial excitement, called 911, to ask if they knew of anything happening that could explain this.  They were polite, non-committal, and gently dismissive.

Both my friend and Quan, independently, could see tendrils of bending blue light raying out from this thing, which my friend described as ‘like a colored jellyfish in the sky’.

She has a telescope, so we agreed to meet at Pemaquid Point.  With the world turning ghostly white every fifteen seconds as the lighthouse lit up the eerie night, we set up her grandfather’s telescope on the rocks over the sea and trained it on the object over Monhegan Island.  In the half hour it took to get there from home, the colored flashing had diminished.  It was still there, but fainter, and we were quite chilled but no closer to knowing what it was when we had finished with the telescope.

Fortunately, there’s an app for that.  Literally, when she got home, my friend downloaded an iPhone app for finding stars, and texted me before I made it to bed: It’s Sirius.  The Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky.  Nah, it cannot be.  I couldn’t resist texting back ‘Seriously?’  But then I went outside to look.  Easy to spot – just follow Orion’s belt down and to the left – Sirius was by this time well up in the sky, and had settled down to be the big bright blue slightly-twinkling star she had first thought it was.

What we had been looking at was Sirius on the horizon, where the light was prismed through a large secant of cold atmosphere, splitting the light into its constituent colours.  As it rose, it became less and less spectacular, as the light fell less tangentially and more directly toward our position.  The phenomenon – like the size of the rising moon – was very local, very explainable, very sheepish-making.

Now, it really was an extraordinary light show, one I’ve not seen in my 60 years of gazing upward – not that I am an astronomy buff or anything.  But what I am ruminating on in the aftermath is just how gullible I am, how easy it is to be drawn along into a narrative, and how all the evidence tends to be pulled into alignment with that story, like filings around a magnet.  I am sure I am that way about the importance of fascia’s role in consciousness, and I believe Quan’s that way about her intricate government plots.

Our image of reality is but a computation of a computation of a computation.  It was my mind – or even the neural processes in the eye and optic nerve before it reaches consciousness – that made the coloured twinkles into a regular pattern.  It was adjusting nystagmus that gave the illusion of the object zig-zagging before it ‘settled down’. It was my unreliable eyewitness mind that, both drawn along by and encouraging agreement from others, created a powerful and sustained illusion.

Coolin’ Up – Another Sailing Season

November 21, 2010

November is a capricious month in Maine, prone to going from September to December without much notice.  I had been stretching the sailing season this year since I was home more, but the combination of frost in the mornings, short days, and the demands of work finally pushed me over the edge, and I decided to take her down to Mike, who will haul Tycha and store her.

I went for it on Friday, figuring a strong northerly and a fair tide would sluice me out of the river.  I was more than halfway down when I remembered to turn on the motor, which I didn’t need but the bilge pump would.  Both batteries were dead, and I could start me no engine.  So I turned around and battled my way back uptide and upwind, past The Gut in South Bristol, past the shipyards of East Boothbay, up through The Narrows in the thick of the tide and the dying of the sun.

With sunset, my wind faded, and I managed to ghost her (it’s full moon, so I had enough light to see) back to my cove, 7pm and shivering, but I had to row her in.  Thank God I had the dinghy with me – not usual, but I would have needed it to get ashore at Mike’s – and I simply rode it ahead with the bow line under my heel, and stroked again and again until I had enough momentum to bring the 35’ heavyweight into the dock and tie her off.

Saturday morning the wind came up early and Tycha was pulling at the traces, water splashing over the dock and the lines tugging in a fresh westerly.  Knowing I was underdressed and underequipped for the strong predicted wind, I nevertheless trusted me and Tycha under whatever conditions the sea could throw at us.  Hubris.

Down the river again – but with a fresh battery and engine power in reserve – and the wind was strong but certainly handle-able until I came out of the lee of Heron Island; then 30+ mph of wind bore down upon me without advance notice.

Too much wind – it doesn’t happen very often, and it’s a little hard to describe. Suddenly a challenging but calm sail turns dangerous and heart-pounding, with the rigging shrieking, the boat on its side, difficult to maintain a course, and breakage or swamping a real possibility.  My body tenses, hard and short. The noise is overwhelming – the whistle of the wind, the sails flapping, the hardware jittering and clattering, the thump of the waves on the boat, the thunge of the sea (I stole that from Annie Proulx).  Why hadn’t I put on my safety vest with its harness?  Why hadn’t I worn my boots?  I turned the engine on, I will admit, and took the one angle I could take in the confused cross-chop of the whitecaps and swell the wind was already setting up.  At this angle, the waves were sending gobs and plumes of spray over the cockpit, and I was drenched wave after wave in that phony ‘throw a bucket of water at him from the wings’ Hollywood way.  I was laughing, but shivering too – this is November and close to freezing.  Things break in this weather.

There was nothing to do in such a wind but angle her out to sea to get some sea room, and then try to handle her.  As I avoided the Devil’s Washbowl, cleared Trumcap’s rocky point, and headed for the White Islands and the open sea(thank God that was the angle I could make), I couldn’t help but hear the whispers: Fool! You are the only one stupid enough to be out here in these conditions.  Don’t expect any help if you are thrown off or lose a sail.

I had furled the jib, which you can do from the cockpit (though with difficulty in this wind), but I could not leave the wheel to get the mainsail down since she was pitching so much and had to be kept at a precise angle to the wind.  The dangers are: don’t stop! if you stop, you cannot steer, and are at the wind’s mercy and can be knocked down (so the sails touch the water).  Fittings can break in these conditions.  I wanted to be angling downwind, but with the full mainsail up, that was too dangerous.

So I did the only thing I could – keep her headed out to sea at about 45 degrees to the wind.  After 20 minutes or so, the first blast abated – not much, but enough to get her through the eye of the wind (with the help of the engine), coming about onto the other tack.  In this tack, I could angle downwind, and I flew back (at more than 8 knots sometimes, even though under main only) through the Thread of Life and into John’s Bay.

Sheltered by the peninsula of Rutherford’s Island, the screaming winds were no longer accompanied by the choppy seas.  I was able to fly right up the bay into Poorhouse Cove to wave hello to my Dad’s grave on the slope of the Harrington Meeting House – “Thanks for the gift of sailing, and here’s to you at the end of another season” – before climbing up the wind again past Witch Island to the mooring field outside of Mike’s.

As I turned off the GPS for the final time and pocketed it, I noticed that the odometer had reached exactly 1111 nautical miles for the year.  That’s a pretty good amount of ‘therapy’ (as Mike calls it – he’s right, it is my most expensive and most effective therapy) given the business constraints of this year of years.  Sorry to put it away, but therapy is over until spring, and I must turn my attention to the task at hand: cleaning up our act for the coming decade.

All Hallow’s Eve

November 1, 2010

When I get on the boat in these late fall days, it is not for the pleasure of being on the water.  Though that is always there, it’s too cold to expand into the surroundings.  And it is not for the privacy of getting away, though the feeling of freedom always accompanies the touch of my shoe to the deck.  After summer, I get on the boat for exercise.

Today is Halloween, and later I will carve pumpkins, not because we actually have any trick-or-treaters, but just because I love carving pumpkins, and later I will write that email, and still later I will curl around my beloved, but right now it’s exercise time.

A bit of danger time too – with everything cold, a failure is more likely – contracted metal pulling out of the deck or cracking with fatigue to zing into the air – hope it’s not into me.  With the high winds, the margin for error in navigation is reduced.  It takes but a minute for a steering error to be compounded into an onshore rush that cannot be stopped, even with the engine.

The wind is singing in the rigging even before I get everything ready – lines coiled, main up, everything else tucked in.  After I let go the anchor road and mooring pennant, there is a sudden whoosh and we are sailing across the harbor ‘on my ass’, as they say.

Alone on the 35’ yawl, I am in constant motion.  If you made me do this at the gym, I would complain, but here it is pure pleasure.  At least with long silk underwear and a down jacket my middle is all warm.  The danger of something going wrong at any moment adds to the adrenalin excitement.  The boat is over on its edge most of the time, white water pouring in over the coaming when a gust hits, with me standing on the side of the cockpit for seconds at a time while I wait for it to right itself.

The trees on the shore are all rust now; only the evergreens are still carbonizing, the deciduous are all oxidized – how many days until I simply must take it down to be hauled out for the winter?  I hate to say goodbye for another year to my good, good friend – we’ve traveled more than a thousand nautical miles together this season.  If I wait too long, a really bad storm will come in and damage her, if I go down too early, I kick myself every sunny pleasant day after that.

But for two seasons – early spring and late autumn – sailing is pure exercise: muscular, multivectorial, using long chain movements originated in the core, and with periods of rest between the spasms of abject terror – all right out of the book for Fascial Fitness.

Sasanoa – Giving Annie Heart Attacks

October 4, 2010

Tomorrow I start fourteen days in a row of teaching, so this weekend was probably the last one for this year where Annie and I could sneak off to sea.  Already the air is sharp with the tangy zing of fall.  Even though we had a glorious summer and no real freezes yet, the turning leaves are less than spectacular this year.  As we slide the ebb down the river on a beam reach in the west wind, we see patches of red or yellow deciduous flame, but mostly russet or just plain rust among the steady evergreens.

Denied access for a day because of the rainstorm that flooded New Hampshire, we left at a chilly 7:30 am.  We didn’t beat the lobster fishermen though, and we wave to them as they haul their traps, bobbing in the last of the rising fog.  We shot through The Narrows at 7 knots as the wind picked up, taking us past the shipyards of East Boothbay, the fishing village of South Bristol, and the summer colony of Christmas Cove – normally a forest of masts, but just a few remain in this October 1st.

The wind, as we had hoped, comes northwest and really starts to blow, tossing the tops of the trees, singing through our rigging, and scuttling us out to sea.  Out beyond Heron Island, the breakers are coming in over the Bulldog, and the wind is ripping the tops of them and curling them back to sea like early Elvis Presley hair.  We’re perfectly safe where we are in the swells – just going up and down 7 feet every few seconds – it’s only where the water shallows that the waves build, curl and break that you don’t want to have your boat, but we are well outside the buoy.

Deep in the breakers is that green that painters strive for but neverfind, but glassblowers sometimes achieve by accident.  The outermost island before boundless sea is Damariscove, occupied since 1608. (Most people don’t know that English fishing boats came over here for summer fishing trips well before the Pilgrims showed up.  They used Damariscove Harbor as a summer pit stop – a place to dry fish, get stocked up, find liquor, trade gossip – before leaving for home when their holds were full – and certainly by this time of year.  It was far enough from the mainland to be out of reach of the ‘savages’ – though Indians did kill Mr. Damaris himself, the store owner, a bit later on a canoe raid, and he is said to walk the island still, a headless ghost with his dog.)

The harbor is long and thin, difficult to maneuver, but hell, men in boats have been doing this since the 1600’s, so we can too, yes?  In a northerly breeze, you sidle up next to The Motions (giving Annie a heart attack, because you can look right into the green breaker beside you), and then turn and run along the line of ledges into the harbor.  You don’t want to tack in a fresh northerly with only a couple of hundred feet of width or less to make your moves.  We run it far enough up in to be calm, though Annie has a second heart attack when she sees how close we lie to an underwater ledge, but we sit there for an hour, getting warm, never touching, and having a meal before the long slog across Sheepscot Bay.

I don’t know why the mouth of the Sheepscot is so prone to high winds, it just seems that many times when we cross, it is this: navy blue waves marching in rows (just like the Barbara Cooney books), white caps torn off by the wind, spray whistling through the rigging.  By losing the mizzen and shortening the jib, we are quite comfortable sailing (though we are on our side, so going below requires acrobatic skills).

As cruise director, I have timed things brilliantly so that we leave the Damiscotta River on the falling tide, and get to the bottom of the Kennebec as the tide starts on the rise.  Best laid plans: the tide is rising alright, but the tidal current is still pouring out of the river, and the trip from the lighthouse atop Seguin to Fort Popham takes an age of tacking, and it’s not until the double elbow of Fiddler’s Reach that we get help from the tide.

In one attempt to cheat the current gods and sneak behind a marked ledge, I give Annie a second heart attack by coming hard aground on its rocks on the northern side.  The water in Maine, rich with plankton, is pretty opaque, and you can sail into 5’ of water without being able to see the bottom.  I brought her around by backing the sail and she came off successfully, only to collide again.  The noise and the immediate angle of the boat are a bit terrifying, but the damage is minimal, and usually so is the danger.  To appease her (in fact, the tide was rising and we soon would have been off, no repeat of the deadly low tide puncture –, I break my rules and turn on the engine and with some wiggling get us free.  Some fishermen in an aluminum outboard come over.  The old local in the baseball cap is trying, over the wind and the engines, to take me to task for attempting this stupidity (and he’s right), but I am having too much fun, and his bald and goateed companion gets it and waves, smiling, across the water.

Around the corner from Fiddler’s reach is Bath Iron Works, the treasure of Senator Olympia Snowe, supposedly a ‘moderate’, though you wouldn’t think so from her voting record.  She needs to get her head far enough out of Mitch McConnell’s wrinkled fundament to free her ears to hear the people of Maine: we need relief from health care gouging, we want Wall Street and tax reform to reverse the class war that the upper crust has been winning these last 30 years, and we want clean energy that we don’t have to go to war to get.  But Senator Snowe just keep s bringing home the bacon – navy contracts for BIW – and we keep voting her despite her neo-con record (and Susan Collins too with her really awful voice – Maine’s senators are often tagged as the last of the moderates, but Reagan couldn’t get elected as a Democrat these days, so ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean much.)

But BIW is magnificent from the water: the giant cranes from Star Wars, the dry dock from The Abyss, the huge boats from 2012, all made strange in the sunset light.  We cannot pass under the Bridge, so we turn right into the Sasanoa.  That involves a bridge too, and I have read in the cruising guide that the vertical clearance at high water is 51’, and we can’t be much over 35’, but it looks dodgy anyway, and Annie has her third heart attack (we did hit a bridge once, to be fair) as we go under (safely).

Once into the Sasanoa, a thin and kinky inland passage between Arrowsic Island and Woolwich, everything quiets down – the wind is shaded, the water calm, the light fading. The master plan would have brought us in here as the tide turned, but once again the tide may be high, but here in the Sasanoa it is still flowing against us to beat the band.  There is no place to stop for the night on this side of Upper Hell Gate, so we must get up it – literally ‘up’, as the water is flowing like a tesseract.  You can literally see that it is higher where we are going than where we are.  You don’t get this out at sea.  “Well named,” I say to Annie as we turn on the engine to attempt the climb.  Even revved up so high I don’t want to keep it there long, we are barely making forward progress.  Many a boat has been flushed backward here, and the passage is barely wider than a Vermont stream, so we are careful to keep bow to current, and not let the flushes and thrusts turn us sideways.  Finally, muscles and motor straining, we make it to the tongue of smooth water at the top, and escape the velocity.

Soon a welcome little cove with a mooring in it appears in the fading twilight, and we gratefully break the rules of courtesy to snub up to it (not likely anyone would be coming back here after dark) and get to the side of the current.  Once the sdails are put away, we start up a fire in the good little wood stove.  Annie has brought oak kindling – the stove is small, of course -that burns hot, and in the dark we can see the stainless steel sides and top start to glow red. This scares us in a wooden cabin, so we lay off loading in more wood for a while – but a warm cabin is a balm after a cold day in the air.

As we heat up the chili (good to get hot from both endo- and ecto-derm), it is an evening of birds: an eagle flies over the sky gap between the trees, still bathed in golden light as we darken, just one piercing raptor cry.  Then an owl hoo-hoos from the black cotton of the trees before going silently off on his hunt.  Then a heron (I think, we never did see him) starts a cycle of scratchily cawing that he will repeat all night (he was still doing it when I got up to pee at 2, and there still at 5 when I got up to warm myself up), for no reason we can discern.  At 5, some rooster around the corner starts in an unending round, reminding me of Greece.  He does shut the heron up, though.

Morning brings a fair tide, and we continue what is now ‘down’ the Sasanoa, through shallow Hockamock Bay past Montsweag into Knubble Bay.  Somewhere in here we give Annie her last heart attack in Lower Hell Gate, which is another tidal boil – though this time we are going downhill – where we are shouldered past a ledge by the rushing water so close that we could have reached out and touched it.  I knew we were safe – the tide won’t take you onto rocks – but it sure looked hairy.  Taking a kayak with a 6’ draft into these rapids I probably not such a good idea, but it is unique.

Once safely back in the Sheepscot, we turned around the Cuckolds and headed across Booth Bay for home.  No hot tea, not even Quan’s soup can penetrate the cold now, and we’ve had our adventures and want a warm bath.  The sere north wind has us tacking up the river, and the first of the students is waiting on the dock to hand us in – the life of the vagabond is over, and I must put my shoulder to the wheel for the next two weeks.


September 2, 2010

I’ve already mentioned my scythe in these pages.  An impulse buy at our ‘Common Ground’ organic fair, it has not languished like so many of my ‘good ideas’.  A well-handled scythe is as deft as any weedwhacker, with the added advantage of waking no one up at six in the morning, when the grass is wet and so falls easily before the blade’s arcing sweeps.

Scything requires an unexpectedly lovely total rotary movement, Spiral and Functional Lines working around a stablised axis from feet to neck.  Like Tolstoy’s peasant workers, I march slowly forward with an easy swinging motion.  Unless I am working around a rock or tree, I watch out for using my arms, as this changes the movement from ‘being’ (axial) to ‘doing’ (appendicular) in an instant.  You can carry on with the core movement for a long time without fatigue.  And about the time you do feel a bit tired, you pause to hone the blade with a few singing sideswipes of the whetstone I carry on my hip.

This morning’s task is to clear out around ‘Lake Julia’, our small pond by the road.  With my larger blade, even the tough-stemmed ragweed and Queen Anne’s Lace (must be almost time for school) is cut off at the knee, releasing bursts of pollen to which I am happily immune.  An unfamiliar runner passes and asks, “Is this your farm?”  A bit aback, I look around – here I am with a scythe, across the country road from where Donna is turning out the horses and feeding the ducks – I do indeed live on a farm, though I have never aspired to the romance of farming, and don’t think of this my home – which has had three names in my lifetime: Saltwater Farm, Abandoned Farm, and Mudfog Farm – as a farm at all.

I turn back to my scything, where we can leave me working the next hundred feet or so of weeds along the shoreline with the ducks and geese eyeing me warily while we set up the next and more interesting encounter of this dawn’s light.

I believe I also mentioned in my autobiographical posts that I have been stuck between town and gown my whole life here.  As a boy, I was a Mainiac, born right here in Damariscotta and raised right here on this ‘farm’.  My parents, however, were ‘summer people’ who had graduated to ‘from away’ when they moved here in ‘49.  Long story short, I never felt at one with the native kids with whom I went to school in the winter, but nor did I feel much kinship (nor they with me) for the kids from Darien and Scarsdale and Wellesley who came in for the summer, with whom I did sailing lessons and scampered among the granite boulders while the adults with drawling  upper crust New England accents held evening shoreside boozy picnics.  I was a half-caste in both groups, and learned to enjoy my own company.

I have great sympathy with the locals – almost all of the shore property has been bought up by these out-of-staters, so that only 20 miles of the entire 2000 miles of Maine coast is accessible by commercial fishermen, and few locals can afford the kind of access that these Boston bankers can easily buy to occupy only one or two months a year.  In order to have a chance at buying this farm from my family, I have had to live away from here to make my fortune before returning, and still board planes regularly to keep me in funds.  So my cultural sensibilities are of the over-educated foreigner, but my political leanings are with the locals who wrest their living from the river – and thus our wharf is available to local lobstermen and aquaculturists as well as yachts.

The confusion extends to the locals themselves.  On the one hand, I am ‘little Tommy Myers’ whose crewcut, bottle glasses, knock knees and Keds used to climb the hill to the two-room schoolhouse; on the other hand, I don’t speak like a local, clearly have resources, and the whole bodywork thing is certainly a puzzlement.  Mervin Rice offered the opinion that I must be teaching these people to grow marijuana, because ‘no one would come way out heah to learn to rub bodies’.

And it is to Mervin’s son David that we now turn.  David and I grew up here together, under Mrs. Thompson’s watchful glare.  ‘Thompie’ once caught David ‘feeling up’ Cheryl in the back corridor, and furiously pelted him through the schoolroom, punctuating her words with blows: “David Rice, how dare you, you, you…” and forced to use a verb: “fighting with that girl for?”  We managed straight faces until they were through the far door, and then we burst into wild giggles – she was the last one to know what was going on in behind the wall, all of us having seen that ‘fighting’ was the last thing on precocious Cheryl’s mind.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when David ‘inherited’ the cottage in the corner of our field from Eleanor, Mervin’s patron and girlfriend (they were so cute – even at 90 they ‘didn’t want anyone to know’).  As Adam, David’s son, said, “He ain’t goin’ to hurt her none.”  The gift of her house was a surprise, as Eleanor – still very much alive, the feisty old curmudgeon – went around her only daughter to do so.  This raised some eyebrows around the neighborhood and there were murmurs of ‘undue influence’, but honestly, this was none of our business.  I mention it only to set the context for the larger issue – once ‘in’, David applied for permits to build a large pier out from the cottage into the cove.

Yesteryear, you could build what you wanted on your own property, but now laying a single plank over the water requires all manner of licenses and public notice, which brought the neighbors, a mix of locals and summer residents, out in true NIMBY fashion, me among them.  I sat uncomfortably in this group – we have a large pier, and the cove (and my neighbors’ view) is cluttered with lobster boats and aquaculture gear we have initiated and encouraged.  Who am I to deny a local fisherman access, no matter how dubious?

The neighbours were pursuing various means to stop David in terms of misrepresentations on his permitting application, but their ace in the hole was that the right-of-way to Eleanor’s cottage (and thus his projected pier) run over our land, so that we could conceivably stop any commercial operation David might want to commence.  I offered for David to have a mooring  and lobster from our pier, but that offer was declined with some salty language thrown in.

Last chance to talk was a highly emotional shouting match down on her property when the DEP had a meeting for airing the issues – and this was a couple of years ago.  The DEP was not impressed with our arguments, as they tend to side with the fisherfolk; and with the bitter words spoken (nay, shouted) at that meeting, the rift was complete, and none of us spoke to Eleanor or David any more, and a tense silence has reigned in the neighborhood. In due time, David (whose family is well-connected in town) got his permits and the pier went up, in spite of the efforts of the neighbours and their lawyers to delay or stop it.  It was indeed a large pier for a one-man show, but honestly the overall negative effect on the cove was underwhelming.

The neighbours, who include good and decent folks, as well as those summer visitors concerned only with their view, continued their legal efforts to get the pier restricted or even removed, but now that it was in, I could no longer find much adamance inside myself.  The pier wasn’t so bad, and he only seemed to be running a traditional single lobster boat operation off’n it, and I could hardly object to that in good conscience with three lobstermen doing the same off our pier.  And also (again, none of my business, but I couldn’t ignore it), they seemed to be taking good care of Eleanor, giving her 24-hour care and keeping up her home, where she had clearly voiced for years to all of us that she wanted to stay – so they certainly weren’t neglecting her.

So one day I called up David’s brother, de facto mayor of this tiny town, and confirmed with him that all David wanted to do was run his lobster boat, not anything bigger – no trucking operations or multiple fishermen the large pier would suggest.  “If that’s all it is,” I confirmed, “You’ll get no trouble from us.” A few weeks later, our family lawyer conveyed this sentiment in legal beagle language.  No good deed goes unpunished: I heard that David was crowing that the Myers’s had ‘backed down’, and the neighbours group was quietly furious at me for tossing away their ace in the hole – so I found myself again in the middle with no friends on either side, but my conscience was clear.

Since then, my feelings continued to be in sympathy with David, an unpleasing man who is just ‘not a people person’ according to the local philosopher, and I found myself increasingly frustrated with the neighbours’ huffy objections, which seemed petty, superior, and without much standing.  David and I hadn’t spoken, but he took to waving at Quan, and then to me when we passed on our little road.

One of the neighbour group opposed to the pier is wealthy enough to own a beautiful sailboat, but he isn’t much of a seaman and checks on it very seldom, and scarcely uses it all summer.  One day on a spring tide his boat lifted its inadequate mooring and floated off down the river on the ebb.  David, coming back from his day’s lobstering, noticed it.  I was on the phone at the end of my wharf, when he steamed up close and points to the boat as it was turning merrily out of sight, calling over his engine (the first words to pass between us since the shouting match), “Damned if I’m goin’ after it after what they done t’me, but you can if you want to”.

The law of the sea is clear: you don’t let a boat be destroyed if you can help, so I jumped aboard my sailboat and went and chugged off to rescue it off the ledges where it had lodged, calling the owner when I had it in, so he could come and reset it.  Scant thanks I got for my few hours work, but if you will allow it, I know the boat itself was grateful and bobbed its thanks to me, and that was enough – she’s a beauty.

Truth is, I have more respect for a man who can care for a boat, no matter who small or humble, whereas the one who just buys it for status is not as much of an ‘owner’ in my book.  Participation = ownership = democracy.  When he first wanted to access this boat off my pier, it was his idea that since he wasn’t using his boat for a commercial operation, he should pay less than the others, the fishermen.  Now that’s noblesse without the oblige,  My idea was that the fishermen had bait and fuel and traps and permits to pay for, and that he, a man of leisure, should pay more.  My respect for the neighbours’ position continued to deteriorate.

So back to scything along the farm pond, and by now I am down near the dirt road that forms the right of way down to Eleanor’s.  A new black pickup pulled to a halt at the head of Eleanor’s drive (actually ours), and out rolled David, and he came over to speak to me.  He’s my age, but he feels older and short of breath.

The details of the conversation aren’t important – he still feels persecuted, though he has largely gotten his way.  He wanted me to know the neighbours were speaking against me also – all that aquaculture gear out in the cove – but I don’t set much store by that either way.  We agreed the river is there to be fished as well as enjoyed.  I asked after Eleanor, and asked for permission to go see her, as I really enjoyed the old battleax before this neighbourhood falling out.

Up close, he was still unpleasant, but sad and just incompetent at communicating, not a villain.  As we finished, I stuck out my hand in a way he could not refuse, and in that handshake a wave of relief came over me.  I was not afraid of David, nor of the neighbours, and am accustomed to the cognitive dissonance of being at odds with either or both.  But how sweet to put this chapter behind me, to be at peace with the surroundings.  Neither David nor the errant sailor will probably ever be my close friends again, but I can handle them both.  It set my teeth a little on edge to have a two-year silence after a shouting match with the guy who (de facto until Eleanor goes, and de jure after) lives next door.

I heard his boat going out into the harbor a few minutes later as I finished edging the pond, and shouldering the scythe, I stepped off my country farm and back into the management of the worldwide Anatomy Trains ‘empire’.

Stern Watch

August 2, 2010

There’s a lot of ingenuity where the land meets the sea meets the sky, where the Fire of our imagination stirs the three elements – Earth, Water, and Air.  The hull is made of heavy ‘earth’ material, yet it floats through the water powered by the air.  While not everything to do with boats is ingenious, it does involve engineering, or what my old mentor Bucky Fuller called ‘comprehensive anticipatory design science’.  Never use one word where four will do: design.  But it is anticipatory: you give it your best shot, but you never know what a boat’s capacities are going to be until it hits the water.

Simple ingenuity: Take rowing, for instance: get into anything that floats with two sticks, and pass them one way through the heavier element – water – and back through the lighter – air – and you will propel the boat along in a ‘preferred’ direction, as Bucky would say.  The more the wind, the more substantial the air element becomes and the more you want to feather the oars to keep your progress.  There is something in the sea’s movement and malleability that begs for a cleverly considered solution, not just the westward-moving sodbuster’s hard work and determination.

I am sure it was long ago that someone first held up their arms – and then an animal skin, and then a piece of cloth – up to the wind’s resistance to propel their primitive craft across a lake, down a river, and eventually out to sea.  But it took observation, experimentation, and a ping in the brain to shape and fasten the sail in such a way as to run side to the wind and then more refinement to climb up toward the direction of the wind, if not actually into it.  While people trickled or poured over the Bering land mass from the East to people the Americas with Anasazis and Abenakis, others moved west – from Babylon to Greece to Rome to Spain, to Netherlands, to England.  Finally their boats were good enough to leap off the face of Europe across the mighty Atlantic, starting with Columbus and Vasco de Gama and Amerigo Vespucci and John Cabot, followed by successive waves of fishermen, trappers, missionaries, and outcasts in an East-meets West confrontation that was disastrous for the industrious land-based AmerIndians and a ‘success’ for the upwind-sailing Europeans.

Bucky introduced me to this idea of the history of civilization being tied to the ability to sail ‘uphill’, so to speak.  He tended to dwell on the cleverness of going upwind and the design of boats having to withstand a ‘24-hour earthquake’ in the form of waves; the consequent decimation of the Indians is my own sour note, added to Bucky’s cheery techno-boostering.

Such are my thoughts as Annie and I bear down in the afternoon southwesterly on Bear Island, Bucky’s spiritual home.  I have been visiting this perfect Maine island for many years.  It has a little cup of a harbor at the leeward end with a couple of small beaches, rising through the woods to a meadow, with a huge summer house on the edge of a cliff looking south.  These islands were purchased by such aristocracy as a young country like America can boast (the Porter’s, with Eliot the photographer as the most well-known member, own Great Spruce, just to the north), and the Fuller family took this one over in 1904, building this house and a couple of others on the island, summering in successive years with successive projects that left the island in a state of genteel playground for the ever widening family.  Right through the 70’s the island was run by Bucky, my teacher, and by his sister Rosie, my friend.

She lived in the winter near my home in Newcastle with her husband Alphonse, who struck me as a patrician buffoon, but Rosie was anything but.  She might have had the education, and the mid-Atlantic tones of the Boston brahmins, but she was a pint-sized bottle of energy with her short Camels and long opinions.  I recognized in her determination something that I only half-recognized in the kindly Bucky, but must have been there: a ruthless ambition to be right.  It was she who stayed on the island all winter during the war – not an easy billet – to keep it from being sold.  In 2004, I attended the centenary of the Fuller family owning Bear Island, and though tributes to Bucky were much in evidence, it was really Rosie who should have been getting the accolades for keeping this jewel in the family that now sprawls over the world, and takes each summer in turns, like so many inherited properties.  As we pass a little beach on the south side, we see some children swimming who could be Bucky’s great-grandchildren, still on the same island as his grandfather.

I sailed myself here first in 1970, on a cruise with my older brother and our respective girlfriends.  My brother, a bit diffident, was loathe to bother the family, but I led our troop up the rutted dirt road traversed only by an ancient Land Rover they kept going from year to year to haul things up from the harbor the great house.  And sure enough, we were welcomed (this was before cell phones, my children, before you could announce your every few yards of progress through the world to all and sundry at any time of the day or night) to the table at Rosie’s house, our bottle of wine cracked and food shared at the groaning board of the family table.

After dinner, Rosie took me aside – “Go on, down to the Tea House, he’s waiting for you.”

The Tea House was just over a knoll, and in the gathering summer dusk we heard the unmistakable tones of Bucky’s Boston drawl, and we entered the soft ball of light from the kerosene lantern.  Bucky was sitting at an old wooden table with a man (the mathematician E. J. Applewhite, as I found out later).  They must have been hard at work on Synergetics, Bucky’s masterwork, but Bucky could not have been more gracious, turning our attention to us.  A  tiny milk-bottle of a man with thick glasses that made his eyes large and swimmy.  The original nerd, the glasses were held on by a string, and the ends of the bows were extra large with embedded hearing aids.  He had a ready smile, but only some really lit up the corners of his eyes.  His mind, so capacious and quick, must have reeked with impatience for the rest of humanity, but Bucky was always kind, always attentive, always patient.

As I was his student, they deferred to me and I asked Bucky some questions.  But since I was his avid student, my questions were coming from his point-of-view, so there was no contrast, and the conversation faltered.  My brother, an artist and literary polymath, broke in and started asking questions I would never have thought to ask: what about Freud? and Robert Frost? what about Communism? what about various schools of art?  Andrew Wyeth?

These questions started the old Fuller gears a-moving, and I have never been so rapt as I was for the next two hours, as Bucky soared through the major movements of thought in the early 20th century, as at home talking about the Impressionists and Jackson Pollack as we was about Lenin and Jung (whom he preferred to Freud, let the record show).  Bucky developed tensegrity, invented the geodesic dome, created the only new projection of the earth to get a patent, as well as making the first aerodynamic car, a manufactured aluminium house, and a lot of other things as well.  What attracted me from the halls of Harvard to sojourn among the hills of southern Illinois was World Game, an attempt to be comprehensive and holistic in addressing the world’s energy and food needs (still in existence:

This systems approach to problem-solving informed my reworking of the human locomotor system – Bucky Fuller meets Ida Rolf.  But that was all ahead of me – back on this night I was the acolyte, and once I had receded and let my brother run the questions, we had a glorious tour of the intellectual landscape.  After a couple of hours, Applewhite gently intervened and suggested it was time for an old man like Bucky to go to bed, and we left them and adjourned to the bluff at the high end of the island.  Perched there was a platform with just the frame of an odd geodesic dome (the ‘thirty-verty’), made of rough-hewn lumber, woven and tied together.  Lying on our backs with our heads together, looking up through the hexagons and triangles at the stars, it was easy to see the earth turning under the sky.  At the centenary in 2004, I helped rebuild this dome, which had sagged into asymmetry, as part of the event.

Our perspectives, we agreed, had changed.  We reviewed the night’s conversation, cementing in the salient and oblique points.  We stayed there another couple of hours – the night was warm – and then ambled the full length of the island back to our bunks on the boat.  As we past the Tea House, the ‘old man’ Bucky and Applewhite were still deep in conversation, having never moved.

So here I am, 40 years later, back at Bear.  I sailed into the harbor, but by now Rosie and Bucky are long gone, and my connections to the family with them, so we cast an appraising eye on how its being kept up (well) and then turn our attention another problem, which we solve by clever and unexpected (or so I think) use of the boat’s design.  The rest of this is just for sailors:

One of the welcoming arms of Bear’s harbor reaches up toward Great Spruce in the form of a long ledge and another reaches down from Great Spruce. There is a chink in the middle that I know is deep enough for us to get through, but it is small and I am not sure exactly where (the water in Maine, rich in plankton, is not penetrable with the eye below a few inches).  The trouble is the wind is blowing straight into it, so we either hold our breath and barrel through before the wind, hoping for the best (and maybe experiencing the worst: hung on a rock with the wind pushing you onto it), or go all the way around one island or the other.  Don’t want to waste that time; how to go through slowly?

This trick was actually taught to me by my father, and it makes use of the special characteristics of a yawl.  The yawl rig has a tiny little handkerchief of a sail on the rear, the mizzen, which takes a lot of ribbing, sometimes from other sailors who don’t see the point or like the look.  A small mizzen adds little power but a lot of maneuverability, in my opinion.  Put it up at night and you will lie comfortably in the wind at anchor.  Adjust it under sail and she’ll sail herself long enough to get a cup of tea below.  And you can do little things like this:

How to go through a dodgy passage when the wind is bearing you through it:  Turn the boat up, so it points like an arrow into the wind.  Take the jib away, but leave the main up – this sail is now flapping, acting like a wind vane.  Stand at the back of the boat with the mizzen up but loose.  By pushing the mizzen boom this way and that to catch the wind port or starboard, I was able to push the stern to the left or right, backing the boat slowly down through the passage.

Annie knelt below the boom on the stern with me, watching for rocks.  We have a ‘bow watch’ frequently when we are unsure of our depth – someone high on the bow can see dark or light patches that signal thin water.  But this is the first time we have need a stern watch.  By pushing the boom of the mizzen and occasionally tugging the sheet of the main, we were able to go through the passage at less than a knot; even if we had hit, it would have been a bump and a scrape, not a disaster.  Annie, dubious in the extreme about undertaking this, favouring the longer but safer trip around the islands, was delighted and impressed.

As it was, we never touched, and when I judged it safe, we unfurled the jib and backed it, turned on a dime and sped out of there in the usual forward way, to round up some minutes (instead of some hours) later behind the Barred Islands.  Here Annie left glass ten years before.  This habit she has of going ashore to break bottles on Maine beaches is not one I approve of (she does it out of the beaten path – swirly places are best, and she stirs it in), but damned if she didn’t find some pieces of glass she left there when last we stopped here ten years ago – now polished to a soft frosty matte: sea glass, a vanishing phenomenon in our world of plastic.