Tag Archives: Sailing

Sheltering at Sea, Part 1: Taking the Leap

We’re off!

“We could shelter at sea.”

The idea sounded crazy. Launch a sailboat from New York City, head south, and live aboard it for an unknown amount of time?

But then, the world had gone crazy.

It was March 15, 2020. Vov and I had just completed the Everglades Challenge, his 7th (or 8th, we aren’t quite sure), my second. We were driving up from Key Largo, Florida to New York, catching up on the news.

We’d been out of contact with the outside world for over a week. Things seemed to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse: Apparently New York City was on the verge of being shut down due to the pandemic.

What did that even mean, “shut down”?

Would they close the bridges and tunnels? The downside to living on an island is that during a crisis, you can be trapped. I remembered what happened on 9/11, and fought back a rising sense of claustrophobia.

Over the 20-hour drive, we obsessively scanned the news and discussed our options.

We could shelter in my apartment, the larger of the two. We’d be reasonably comfortable.

But my apartment is just a few blocks from what was shaping up to be Ground Zero for the pandemic: Mt. Sinai hospital.

If this disease were as contagious as reported, we’d have an increased chance of catching it in the narrow aisles of the grocery store, in the apartment lobby, in the elevator…

There was always Vov’s apartment in Nyack. That felt safer, and it was just a block away from the Hudson River.

But it was a one-room efficiency; no way could I manage to work there if we were both staying there.

As we ticked off the miles on I-95, the idea of sheltering at sea made more sense. Particularly if, as Vov feared, the pandemic were merely a harbinger of total societal collapse.

I didn’t think that would happen, but I couldn’t say it wouldn’t. And even if it didn’t, things could get pretty grim. I’d read John Barry’s account of the 1918 flu. At least on board a sailboat, we could leave the country if things got really bad.

More realistically, we could head south, out of the early-spring gloom. Although we didn’t know much about this virus, it’s true that ultraviolet rays are generally anti-viral and anti-microbial. And even though the phrase “social distancing” was just emerging, it’s safer to be miles away from your neighbors than breathing the same air.

Still. Living on board a sailboat? For an extended, indefinite period of time? Vov had spent over a decade living on a sailboat, so the idea made sense to him. But me? Despite the fact that I’d spent the past five days as crew on an inflatable catamaran, I didn’t even begin to know how to sail. Could I work? What about Mully, the cat that found me?

We talked through the details. Mully could live on the boat with us. We could bring the kayaks, both for recreation and as dinghies to get from the anchored boat to land. We’d get solar panels, and batteries, so I could work. We’d stay near the coastline, so we’d be within range of cellular Internet services.

As the miles ticked away, the idea of sheltering at sea began to make more and more sense.

The only question was which sailboat.

Christina Rose

Vov had a sailboat, but it was in dry dock. It needed repairs to be fully seaworthy, and with a pandemic closing everything down, getting the equipment (not to mention launching the boat) seemed risky. We could afford a used sailboat, and Vov had the model in mind: an F-27 Corsair trimaran. The wings would provide stability for me to work (trimarans don’t heel the way monohulls do), plus extra living and storage space.

But could we buy and outfit a boat fast enough?

As I drove, Vov researched. We found five boats that might work: Two in Florida (now hundreds of miles behind us, and receding rapidly). One in Ohio. And two in Massachusetts. Ohio, like Florida, seemed too far away.

Vov made inquiries about the Massachusetts boats.

We arrived in NY late Sunday morning. By Monday afternoon we’d picked Mully up from the vet where I’d boarded him. We made a hurried sweep through the apartment and grabbed what I thought we might use.

Then we headed for Nyack: Mully, gear, and all.

Less than a week later, on Saturday March 21, we were in the yard of a friendly man named Dave, in Massachusets. We met his price for the Corsair, Christina Rose. He said we could pick it up as soon as the check cleared. We drove back to Nyack and began stocking up frantically.

Three days later, Vov drove to Massachusetts, put a fast coat of bottom paint on the boat, and drove back down to Nyack.

Meanwhile, I made a final visit to the NYC apartment and picked up anything I thought we could use. Before I locked the apartment up I took a long look around. When would I see it again?

No time to wonder. Curfew would start that evening, and the rumor was that the marinas would be shut down, too. We’d pulled the two kayaks out of John F. Kennedy Marina where we kept them, just hours before the authorities closed it.

But the private marina where we were keeping Christina Rose was beginning to push back. We needed to launch, and fast.

We got her into the water on March 27. We worked frantically finish stocking it, peripherally becoming aware of the illogical grocery store shortages: Water was rationed. Toilet paper was nowhere to be had (fortunately Vov had a supply of marine toilet paper.) Hand sanitizer was gone, but rubbing alcohol was plentiful (so we stocked up.) We also bought plenty of on canned vegetables and fish, along with rice and pasta. We’d bought a supply of freeze-dried food on the way north from Florida, so we had that.

By April 1 we were ready to launch. It was a cold, gloomy afternoon. With some trepidation, we motored out of the marina. Once out on the Hudson, Vov raised the sail. We were en route!

Who is “Vov”? How did I come to be completing another Everglades Challenge, this time on a sailboat? And how did we fare sheltering at sea?

Stay tuned…

Setting sail!

Sail and Sky Composition

Sail and sky composition

By Johna Till Johnson

Blue sky. White sail. Harmony.

Happiness!

The Blues of Battle Creek

Great blue heron and shoreline, Battle Creek

By Johna Till Johnson

They say to start a story in the middle, so here goes:

The sun was slipping towards the tree-covered hills that lined the dark, navy-blue water. The air was fresh, silent except for the occasional chirping of birds, including the “weep-weep” of the ospreys and the deep grunt of the great blue herons*.

I climbed down the ladder from our trimaran, Christina Rose, and stepped carefully into the cockpit of Sisu, my blue, white, and black surfski. I unclipped the carabiner from the bow line, and pushed off, water lapping gently at my bow.

My immediate destination: a tiny golden spit of beach that jutted out from the trees, about 40 yards away. Over the sound of birds chirping I’d heard voices: an adult and a child, and—was that a dog barking?

Sure enough, it was a young family: Mother, father, little girl and naked baby brother, along with their fluffy dog, Houdini. They’d come across the creek in a gleaming brown wooden rowboat, now pulled safely up onto the dunes.

The baby played in the gentle surf under his mother’s watchful eye as I chatted with the father, who pointed out some good places to explore by boat.

The evening before, my partner V. and I had been to the end of Battle Creek, where the deep-blue waters terminated in a spreading misty-green marsh. Today, we decided to head in the opposite direction, to the Patuxent River, into which Battle Creek fed.

We smiled and waved goodbye to the little family, and set off into the slight chop. As we headed south out into the river, the chop increased. We were going against wind and current; nothing particularly strenuous, but new-ish conditions to us in the surfskis. Moreover, following V’s lead, I’d adjusted my wing paddle to its shortest possible length, with a strong feather angle, and I was still familiarizing myself with how it handled.

So we proceeded carefully, with an eye on the conditions. There was a finger of land extending out the eastern shore into the river. We crossed over to it, and paddled along the edge. Green grass and reeds stood out from clumps of mud; in places the water was only inches deep, but lively and bouncy in the wind. A brisk southwest breeze dusted the waves with white froth.

As we got closer, the apparent “finger of land” dissociated into a string of individual islands, with swift channels between each. We rode the waves through one channel and found a quiet oasis beyond, where the water was barely ruffled.

The shoreline was consistent: Green hills dotted with white, brown, and brick houses, many with wooden steps leading down to a dock or two.

Patuxent River shoreline

After a bit we turned around and made our way back through the choppy river back into the sheltered creek. The waves slowed, softened, and evened out. The sun was now low. Its slanting rays illuminated the eastern shore and touched the blue sky beyond with radiance.

Blue creek, blue sky, green trees: In its serene beauty, the shore was very different from my usual urban haunts.

We paddled up the eastern shore of the creek, taking the time to explore every cove, inlet, and tiny marina. In each, we admired the boats: A tiny, sleek powerboat creatively named “Ice Box”; a graceful black sailboat lovingly moored in the center of a cluster of pilings. There were clusters of kayaks, canoes, and dinghies, with the occasional Zodiac, but no people (other than the young family we’d encountered at the start). All was strangely still, and peaceful.

Cranes and herons patrolled the shore; V. saw an otter swimming. Osprey calls were ubiquitous. Every now and again we caught sight of a bald eagle wheeling overhead.

Great blue heron on shore, Battle Creek

After we’d been out about an hour, we turned again and headed back to the Christina Rose. The sun was getting low, and more importantly, we were getting hungry. Back at the boat, a feast of fresh-caught fish awaited us: Earlier that day, V. had caught a catfish and two perch, and made rice and salad as accompaniment.

Within a few minutes we were back at the boat. We lifted the surfskis onto the “wings” of the trimaran and hung our wetsuits to dry on the stays. Then we tucked into our dinner of hot just-fried fish and cold rice and salad, surrounded by the blues of Battle Creek: blue creek, blue river, and deepening blue twilight.

Early morning, Battle Creek

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, this post might leave you with more questions than answers. Who is V.? How did I, a New Yorker, wind up on a river off the Chesapeake Bay in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown? Where did the trimaran come from?

And most importantly… after 12 years committed to sea kayaks, what was I doing paddling a surfski?

All will be revealed, I promise, although it may take a while. I hope you’ll find it entertaining!

* In a previous version of this post, I misidentified a Great Blue Heron as a crane. I actually thought first of a GBH, but didn’t take the thought seriously enough to look it up; for some reason I thought they were too “exotic” for Maryland. My friend Chuck Conley set me straight! 

All men shall be sailors…

Sailing and freedom

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them…” — Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

I’ve been listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lately. I’m not alone in this; he’s experiencing an (in my mind deserved) groundswell of popularity in the 14 months since he died.

His themes are universal and serious: the inevitability of loss, imperfectability of human nature, the ephemeral transcendence of love.

His fundamental stance is religious, but while it’s rooted in his native Jewish tradition (he remained devout all his life), it draws from a broad set of perspectives, with a pragmatic bent. He once told the New Yorker:  “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.”

He wasn’t joking. Over the years, he studied Scientology, became an ordained Buddhist monk, and studied at an Indian ashram—along with pursuing various intoxicants (from acid to alcohol) and ascetic practices (particularly fasting). His goal was less the abstract pursuit of enlightenment than to ameliorate the bouts of depression that struck him throughout much of his life.

Sylvie Simmons wrote a wonderful biography of Cohen in 2012, “I’m Your Man,” One of the interesting paradoxes of Cohen’s life is that although he was deeply embedded in the contemporary cultural matrix  to a degree that’s almost Zelig-like, his essential formality was fundamentally out of step with the “anything goes” ethos of the times.

The Jewish magazine Forward has an insightful obituary that highlights this: “The “absence of the casual” may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries,” writes Seth Rogovoy.

And it paid off in the long run—Cohen is one of the rare artists who pursued his craft with intensity and diligence all his life, and  peaked as a performer in his 70s.

In a surprising twist that serves as a hopeful beacon to us late bloomers, after his business manager embezzled his money and left him broke early in the 2000s, he decided to go on tour to support his ex-wife and children. Although he had previously hated performing, he put together a stellar backup band and collaborated with them to develop innovative arrangements of his work.

The result was almost a decade of some of the best live performances in popular music history (you can find many of them in YouTube). Cohen not only accomplished his goal of earning back a fortune, he left a shining legacy that touches millions.

That “absence of the casual” is perhaps the most appropriate response to the inevitable tragedies of life, which may be one of the reasons Cohen’s work is experiencing a renaissance.

The lines above (“until the sea shall free them”) particularly resonated with me because the sea has always been associated in my mind with freedom. Towards the end of his life, my father (who was a naval officer)  turned to me and said, “The open ocean is closer than they led us to believe.”

He was referring, of course, to his imminent death, but what struck me was that he associated it with the open ocean—and freedom.

 

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouette

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Silhouette.

IMGP3331 cropped small 2

Sailing across Tampa Bay at sunrise, at the start of the 2014 Everglades Challenge.

The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges

By Vladimir Brezina

The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges
Richard Hoad and Paul Moore
Bloomsbury Publishing
London, 2012

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From the description of the book on Amazon:

“The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges” profiles 50 of the most extreme marathons, triathlons, bike rides, adventure races, climbs, open-water swims and other iconic endurance events from around the world. Breathtaking full-color photographs and insider commentary from top athletes will thrill endurance athletes, extreme sports addicts, and outdoor adventurers of all stripes.

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