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...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Part II of the road trip went through North Carolina which has been my stomping grounds for the past four years as a graduate student.  Asheville is the perfect mountain getaway for fresh air, good beer and wacky people.  Tourists do not usually flock to Raleigh but there’s a lot of free, fun stuff if you know where to look (and thanks to me, you’ll get some good tips!).  This was our first stop in Philadelphia for years and we only had an afternoon to spend but it’s a fun, blue-collar, down-to-earth city, covered in colorful murals and mosaics, cobblestone streets and interesting neighborhoods. Asheville, NC: • Nine Mile Restaurant: A vegetarian-friendly, Caribbean fusion restaurant and one of my favorite places to eat on the planet.  The restaurant is in more of a residential area of Asheville and has a low-key atmosphere with reggae music spreading the love. Stop by for lunch served from 11:30-5 for generous portions of gourmet pasta and rich dishes.  Two of my favorites (I’ve been to this restaurant three times) are Soon Come (fresh sliced bananas, apples, currents & grilled pineapples, sautéed with white wine, butter & pumpkin spice- tossed with cheese stuffed tri-colored tortellini and onions) and the Empress Menen Salad (apples, toasted almonds, chickpeas, smoked gouda and house tempeh with sesame garlic tahini dressing). • Bend and Brew yoga:  Beer and yoga?  You can find almost any activity paired with beer in Beer City USA, known as the “hoppiest place on earth” with the largest number of microbreweries per capita.  A traveling yoga teacher offers a 1-hour beginning yoga class followed by samples at a local brewery.  We participated in the Tuesday 5:30 PM class at Highlander Brewery.  Highlander is one of the biggest breweries in Asheville and its right next to Asheville Distilling Company where you can get a free tour and tasting, fridays and saturdays at 5 and 6 PM.  If you want to skip the yoga, definitely check out The Wedge brewery in the River Arts District.  The extensive lawn, lawn games and art galleries near by makes it one of my favorite places to hang out.  For even more suggestions on how to have fun with beer, check out #12 on the “unusual beer experiences in the USA” article I wrote for Epicure & Culture. • Pritchard Park: It’s a small park in the middle of downtown but it’s a magnet for Asheville’s famous weirdos.    You can find jugglers, free hugs and people adorned in leather assembles challenging you to chess matches.  It also hosts a friday drum circle from ~5-10 PM which is a great way to satisfy your inner tribal creature. • Moob Music Factory: Moog Music synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments are designed and lovingly handcrafted in the Moog factory in downtown Asheville, N.C and they open their factory and showroom to the public for tours and playtime.  I stopped by to play with these motion detector instruments, inspired by Soviet security alarms.  The staff is knowledgeable and fun and it’s all free. • French Broad Chocolates: I’ve had friends that come to Asheville just to stock up on chocolates and baked goods from this factory.  Their Factory & Tasting Room is now offering 1.5 hour tours on Saturdays at 11am which take you through the entire process from cacao harvest and fermentation to chocolate bar, as well as backstage access to the facility, and an in depth tasting of our chocolate for  $10.00 (reservations recommended!).  Even if you can’t go on the official tour, you can visit the factory for daily self-guided tours from 2-5:30pm or just stop by to get a sugar rush of yumminess. • Art Loeb Trail:  This 30.1 mile trail is one of the longest (but most popular) in North Carolina.  Many people backpack and spend 2-3 nights on the trail but we hiked section 3 as a day hike.  The most popular section of the trail has spectacular views of the valley, transverses several mountain balds and ends in the Shining Rock wilderness.   When we went in mid-October, the post-summer wild flowers made the hike especially memorable.  It’s an unmarked trail but we encountered plenty of people so the route was relatively obvious. • Stay in a teepee (Eagle Rock Cove, Swannoanoa):  Slightly outside of Asheville, but if you’re looking for a cheap way for alternative mountain living, check AirBnB for unique housing accommodations including this tipi.  The owner, Everest, is undergoing a permaculture operation and he’ll be happy to tell you about his mushroom growing and show you his cute little bunny rabbits (which he eats).  I’ve written articles on USA glamping opportunities, where similar accommodations will cost...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 1: New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

If you like free live music and hearty soul food, this road trip is for you! Explore the origins of jazz, blues and bluegrass where it all began. We moved quickly across the south with only a night in each city so here are budget-friendly attractions suggested by locals. We tried to keep admission prices under $5 and meals under $10 so you can have fun without breaking the bank. I’ve included a few things that we didn’t get to see but were highly recommended to us. Much of what we decided to do depended on the day of the week so I highly suggest you check out event calendars for each city you visit. New Orleans: I wrote a whole post about this city back when I was feeling ambitious.  Find the detailed itinerary here! Indianapolis, MS: You’ll feel like you’re the Deep South with this stop because there’s not much going on in this town beyond cotton fields. We stopped here to break up our drive with an amazing museum visit. • B.B. King Museum and Mississippi Delta Interpretive Center (400 Second St, Indianola, MS, ): Fantastic, interactive exhibits that provide an overview of Mississippi Delta region, B.B. King’s life and the beginning of Blues. We debated this museum or the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. There’s probably more to see in Clarksdale (especially if you can go to Ground Blues restaurant and live music venue, opened by) but after comparing our options and experiencing this, I’d highly recommend you chose the same!  Tickets for students are a steal for just $5. • Blue Biscuit Café (501-503 Second Street): good southern soul food and authentic, live blues right across the street from the B.B. King museum. Apparently, you can even spend the night in one of their two villas! Memphis, TN: Although there’s not much shaking on Sundays (when we arrived), Memphis had a surprising number of things going on and could have easily spent a second day. • Explore an Egyptian obsession: Apparently, the people of Memphis love to compare themselves to Egypt, the country who houses Memphis’ namesake city. Both Memphis and Egypt strongly depend on their rivers (The Mississippi and the Nile respectively) and the city is dotted with tributes to this ancient nation. The University of Memphis has an impressive Egyptology Gallery (142 Communication & Fine Arts Bldg.
The University of Memphis) and a giant Ramses II statue on a lawn. The city’s skyline includes a giant pyramid that will house the world’s second largest Bass Pro Shop. It wasn’t opened when we visited but they expect to open December 2014 and the building will include climbing walls, laser galleries, bowling alley archery range and fitness facility. • Riverfront: The city has built paths along the Mississippi with beautiful views of the skyline and the river. Check out the Steamboats at Beale Street landing. • Mud Island: Right near the riverside visitor center, there’s a monorail station that will take you to Mud Island (by monorail $4 or by walking). At Mud Island, you can walk along and get your feet wet in the giant sidewalk scaled model of the Lower Mississippi. It’s a good place to go to spend time outside and learn more about America’s biggest river at their Mississippi River Museum. • Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St): We didn’t have time to visit but everyone raved about this museum and we checked out the interesting exterior. Partially housed in the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated, you can stand where the assassin shot him and see the room he was staying the day he died. • Central BBQ (147 E. Butler): “Go where the locals go” for Memphis-style barbeque. Here you can taste the slow-cooked pork served wet with the sweet, tangy, molasses/tomato/vinegar-based sauce that the city is known for. • Cheesecake Corner (113 GE Patterson Ave): This unassuming cheesecake, quiche and wine bar doesn’t look like much from the outside but all the locals know it as the best place to get dessert in town so you will probably have to wait in line. $10 buys you a mighty slice of delicious cheesecake and you can chose from dozens of flavors. • Duck Parade at Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave): What began as a joke after a hunting trip has become a true tradition at the fancy Peabody Hotel. Each day at 11 AM, a red carpet is unrolled for the hotel’s ducks to march from their penthouse on the top floor to the fountain in the lobby. At 5 PM, the ceremony is reversed as they march back to their home for the night....