The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next. Setting the stage Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.” As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point. After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas. When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West. Anchoring Under Sail After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by...

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

The vision: “The stars at sea are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  180 degrees of complete illumination, hundreds of specks of light you never knew existed if you’ve only looked at the sky near cities.  And night sails are the best way to experience it… the winds are steady, the seas are calm, all you need to do is put the boat on autopilot and enjoy the view from the foredeck.” The reality: “You know what to do if one of us goes overboard, right?  You know where the ropes are?  You know how to press “man overboard” on the GPS?  First, you need to try to save me yourself, then you radio for help.  You know where the whistle is on the life jacket?  You’ll have to whistle like hell because the reality of the situation is, with the boat rocking like this, no light from the moon, the rain, there’s a very slight chance, I’ll even be able to see you out there”, Brandon hollers over the sounds of the gusting winds, clanking of the sails and crashing of the waves.  I grimace in a failed attempt to fake a confident smile and not puke, peering out of a crack in the cabin door where I have been placed to shout GPS directions since the torrential rains made it impossible to keep the tablet outdoors.  Brandon is decked out in the stereotypical sea captain yellow rubber overalls and headlamp, chained to the base of the wheel and has just given up trying to fight the sea.  We both hope that heading 270 degrees west won’t send us into any wrecks or rocks since that’s the only direction the boat will go.  In the cabin, my panicked thoughts race between praying that Brandon doesn’t get thrown overboard, trying to hold down my backpacker-bean-dinner and reprimanding my naivety for getting on a sailboat without realizing it could be the death of me.  Brandon calls me on deck to steer for a bit to relieve himself, realizes we’ve been dragging a crab trap for the past three hours and shouts over the wind, comes up with a  plan to remove it so we can move the wheel again.  He dangles over the edge, waving the gaff hook in the darkness to unhook the contraption.  He lets out a victorious yelp as we leave some of the trap behind, I feel the wheel get a little freer and tried to wiggle more strategically through the wild waves.  Apparently, I had been forgetting to breathe, release a huff of air and surprised myself with a weird sense of peace about the situation because despite all the chaos, he had a plan and I knew we were going to be ok. He takes over the wheel and I lie on the bench to calm my nausea, convinced that I would be too nervous and gripping on to the side of the boat too tight to sleep.  However,  at some point, I fall asleep on the bench, hanging on to side cabinet for dear life, and am surprised when the sunlight wakes me to significantly calmer seas.  A bit confused to awaken in such relaxed surroundings, I squint and see Brandon whistling to himself, relaxed behind the wheel.  “Good morning, sunshine” he greets me.  If our life belongings weren’t scattered around the floor of the cabin below and deck of the boat still damp, I’d barely believe what just happened.  Still overwhelmed, I give thanks that I was still alive, albeit a bit wary for another day at sea. “The difference between a fairy tale and a sea tale? A fairy tale starts with ‘Once upon a time’. A sea tale starts with ‘This ain’t no $hit’!” – Edith Widder If you read my preface sailing post about the events leading up to me spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met, you’ll remember that I undertook this adventure wanting to feel alive.  Well, seeing my life flash before my eyes several times certainly accomplished that mission.  You’ll also remember that I stepped aboard knowing nothing about sailing but on a trip like this, I certainly learned a lot… fast!  When Brandon and I embarked on the week long sail from Marathon, Florida to Dry Tortugas National Park and back up to Key West, I had no idea what to expect.  Supposedly, we experienced more disasters in 7 days than he had in four months of owning the S/V Aloha.  Maybe it was bad luck?  Maybe sailing and I aren’t meant to be friends?  Either way, I thought I’d share with all you some of the stories of our sail, some pieces of...

Preface to Setting Sail: How The Anticlimactic End To My PhD Led Me to Board a Stranger’s Boat

Preface to Setting Sail: How The Anticlimactic End To My PhD Led Me to Board a Stranger’s Boat

Two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met…. what could possibly go wrong? And why does everyone turn into my mother when I told them about my plan? Well, I had to talked to the guy enough to know there was more to sailing than drinking margaritas and bikini parties on deck so I was not completely naïve. From my singular one hour sailing experience over a decade ago on a Sunfish in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, I knew that you need to watch your head for swinging booms and the wind may not behave when you try to dock, which may result in embarrassing photographs of a spread-eagle tumble into the sea if your parents inconveniently decide to watch you dock. So I knew enough to know that things do not always work perfectly when you’re on a boat. Why did I go? That’s a better question, one that I barely asked myself when I signed up for this. Back then, it felt like something I had to do. Reflecting back, I think the decision had some logical grounds in recent life events. I just finished my PhD in physics back in March. This goal of getting a doctorate had once seemed stimulating, challenging and worthwhile and propelled my life for the past five years. This winter involved an awful couple months, locked in a dark room, one-handedly, painstakingly producing a pile of papers that my advisor did not even read in its entirety. For what? To earn a piece of paper that I didn’t even bother removing from its envelope? To qualify to walk across a stage in a city that I left without a backward glance within 24 hours of finishing my oral defense? So I could have the option of buying a funny hat that I could potentially wear one day if I pursue a career path that does not seem as appealing as it once did? In short, I accomplishing this life milestone did not lead to any feelings of excitement, pride, satisfaction or confidence about a new life direction. It just left me feeling incredibly burnt out and relieved that I would never receive an e-mail from the university thesis editor about margins ever again. Since pursuing something logical didn’t seem to lead to anything, I wanted to spend my last couple weeks in the United States doing something completely illogical. I wanted to learn a skill that I probably won’t ever use again. I wanted to spend a few weeks trying something that I was skeptical that I would even like and doubtful that I would be good at. I wanted to spend time with a crazy person who had accomplished the American dream with a house, a truck, a nice lawn, his own business then promptly sold it all to buy a boat. He was willing to risk all that he earned for a childhood dream, despite having barely any experience sailing beyond hopping on boats in the lakes of Oklahoma. I knew he was nuts—he used exclamation points to write about running a continuous 54.92 miles— but he seemed happy and I wanted to find out how to put my life back on track for a fulfilling existence while my future was still up in the air. And I wanted to feel alive again. I’m going to save the intimidating task of summarizing our days at sea for another post but that’s how I ended up on a dark dock in Marathon, Florida, waiting to be dingy-ed to the 30′ sailing vessel that would be my home for the next couple weeks.  After a brief moment of thinking “what am I doing here?”, I reassured myself with one of my favorite quotes and life mottos then proceeded to hop aboard. “Twenty years from now you will be more disppointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain Here’s a sneak preview of the trip: there’s nothing like a lot of adventure, a little romance and a few near death experiences to get the adrenaline flowing and the blood pumping. I’m not sure if the trip revealed the answer for how I can accomplish a happy life but it did lead to lots of laughter, some tears, deep conversations, sing-a-longs and an ability to treasure every small moment. Stay tuned for the details about the trip. Song of the Moment: Ship to Wreck– Florence & the Machine (Brandon hated when I played this on the boat...

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. These mighty Midwestern states somehow never made the cut for family road trips, my own independent explorations but I was determined to see them before moving to South Africa for a research position in South Africa. Seeing all 48 continental states had been on my bucket list from the beginning but the dream became reality when I found a shotgun rider to accompany me on the adventure. I had met Kim when I was teaching at a university in Sonipat, India. I had glimpsed a flash of blonde hair down the hallway and thought I was dreaming, since I thought I was the only one. One morning at 6 AM, she bopped into the gym when I half-heartedly ellipticalling and thoroughly immersed in rationalizing the story line of the Bollywood music video that brought the team captain and his cheerleader girlfriend from their high school football field into the depths of an Amazonian jungle. Her voice interrupted my reverie, “so I must ask, what are you DOING here?”. I explained my nerd camp gig, she explained that she was a law professor and, as the two blondes at OP Jindal University, we were instant friends. We had a few adventures in India, involving take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken, American movie nights with a giant stuffed tiger, a hardcore yoga class and a lot of street side chai. Long story short… an unidentified health ailment sent her home from India early and the near death experience convinced her to take some time for soul searching and adventures. We kept in touch and I mentioned my impending road trip. Despite being an American born and bred, she had never been on a road trip and jumped on the invitation to join. I hesitated before I allowed her to enlist, “You know we’re going to have to go to some random places, right? I want to finish the 48 states and I don’t think I saved the best for last”. She didn’t hesitate for a millisecond, “sign me up! I can’t drive but I can DJ”.  And thus, the Great American Road Trip was born. After some arbitrary route planning on my part, before I knew it I was at the airport in Pittsburg, PA, picking up Kim and her suitcase full of “Southwesternwear” (i.e. leather and tassels), body glitter, sidewalk chalk and all sorts of fun surprises.  After a quick hug, we set out without much of a plan besides finding coffee and donuts as soon as humanly possible.  I’m not going to delve into the details of our adventures that followed because (a) it would be impossible (b) it’s not important.   However, traveling some of the most boring states in America did teach us some important lessons about road tripping, and more importantly, lessons about life.  I’m going to share a few of them: 1)  It’s The People That Make The Journey Worthwhile Our trip didn’t include any epic national parks, beautiful coasts, big cities or extremely noteworthy destinations so especially on a trip like this, people make the miles worthwhile. “Road trips are the equivalent of human wings.  Ask me to go on one, anywhere.  We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history, and stories, feel the ground and capture the spirit.  Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always.  Because stories are more important than things” -Victoria Erickson Some had legendary reputations– for example, at Wild Turkey distillery, we got to hang out with Jimmy Russell, the longest master distiller in the world.  For someone know as the “master distiller’s master distiller”, Jimmy was incredibly humble and down-to-earth, easy-going guy who laughed as his childhood dream to leave the family distilling business for a future in baseball.  After distilling bourbon for 61 years, the profession still hasn’t gotten old, despite having plans to be flown to Japan and Australia, he still seems most satisfied in his simple Kentucky home, making bourbon and making people happy. Others, we just stumbled on.  Route 66 was a jackpot for finding interesting people.  Our foray into Kansas involved a stop to the abandoned mining town of Galena.  After our obvious out-of-town vibe turned every head in the main town diner, Kim directed us further down Main Street to an old Kan-O-Tex station which was reconstructed to look like the set of the Pixar movie Cars (acknowledging that Galena inspired Radiator Springs, the setting of the film).  We said hi to “Tow Tater”, a reconstructed car outside, and poked our heads into the shop where we were warmly greeted by Melba Rigg, the voice of “Melba the...

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants. To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it. Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here! The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was. Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time. Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out. Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme...

Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

In many ways, Cyprus is one of the most boring places I have ever visited.  I partially visited it for that reason… although things in Israel and Jordan turned out to be quite calm, I wanted to make sure I had some time to relax somewhere far away from Middle Eastern squabbles.  Cyprus, especially in April, is idyllically quiet, peaceful and lined with gorgeous beaches.  I strolled by flamingos hanging out in a salt lake in Larnaca, walked for miles on the boardwalk in Limassaol, got blown away by the wind and the beauty of Cape Greco near Aiya Napa (infamous beach and party town).  Along the way, I toured a few castles, walked some boardwalks and it was nice but I felt like I had seen it at all before.  Especially since I have visited Greece and Turkey, even the food, language and culture was familiar. However, one aspect of my trip to Cyprus was something completely new, different and totally bizarre… Nicosia: Europe’s last divided capital. Before coming, I was aware of some aspects of the situation.  I knew the country was split into a Greek and Turkish side but I didn’t really know what that meant.  I had a Greek-American friend who studied in Cyprus for a bit and she talked about peering over the border to the Turkish side which was plastered in flags, including flags painted onto the mountain side. She assured me that I could walk right across the border and that “things were getting better”.  But the Turkish guy who was studying on the Turkish side and he told me he could not cross to retrieve me.  But the directions seemed easy- he said, “I live right near the bus station, just go down, cross the border and you will see me.”  My Larnaca host who had been living in Cyprus for a decade gave me similar instructions, “From the bus stop, go down the hill and you can cross”.  I asked the man at the bus station and he made it sound similarly simple, “Straight then left”. I started happily marching forward but after five minutes, I found a surprising lack of signs.  I asked a couple people on the way, and despite being assured multiple times, “Everyone in Cyprus speaks English” (it was a British colony after all), everyone waved away my question.  They replied to my inquiry with feigned ignorance and vigorous, almost desperate, “don’t-ask-me” hand motions.  Eventually, beyond a patio with a dozen hanging magic eyes, I followed the “tourist information center” signs to a dusty basement where a lady paused shuffling brochures to instruct me to retrace my steps down the main shopping street. So I went.  Past the Greek grandpa’s nursing already-cold coffees, kids chomping on cheese pies and pottery shops.  “This can’t be right,” I thought, hunting for wifi to tell my host that it might take me longer than expected to cross.  But then I almost walked into it. Some cones, a tent, a small sign “Nicosia: the last divided capital” and two border officials playing Candy Crush. One barely lifted her eyes from her phone as she plopped my passport on the scanner and waved me onward.  I walked for about 25 meters through some abandoned shops, lined with barbed wire and “no photograph” signs then I was at another booth.  The Turkish officials had me fill out a small paper which they stamped and waived me forward to where Sercan was waiting for me expectantly.  On a similar shopping street but now the shops sold simit (round thin bagel-ish like breads sold from carts everywhere in Turkey), kabobs, Turkish SIM cards.  Instead of a time warp, I felt like a entered a culture warp… the street felt eerily similar but simultaneously different. As I tried to re-orient myself, Sercan (my host) explained some of the border crossing regulations.  Greek and Turkish Cypriots could cross the border freely (although some refused on principle).  Turkish citizens could not cross but members of the EU and other countries could visit both freely.  He had only been in Cyprus the past couple years but had no desire for the island to be united since he felt that would mean he could no longer go to school here. I continued to peer around as we returned to his place to drop off my bags.  It sounded like Turkey.  It looked like Turkey.  By the looks of the restaurants, it tasted like Turkey.  I just spotted a few exceptions: I saw very few Africans in Turkey but here there were many, either studying for university or doing hard labor.  Towering casinos (which aren’t allowed in Turkey) dominate the streets.  As we crossed the street, Sercan pointed...