June 25, 2008

Heavy Weather, Part Two

It happened again Sunday morning. Lying in the forward v-berth reading (the ultimate Sunday morning luxury), I became vaguely aware of a darkening sky.

Sure enough, creeping in from somewhere west of the Kennedy, was this cloud bank:

So, up and at 'em for the same routine: pull everything down from topsides, clamp down the hatches, stow anything loose into something tight, and get ready to roll. The difference this time was that dear friend Mariah was aboard. We had hosted a little dinner party the night before (a blogworthy subject in and of itself). It worked to Mariah's advantage to spend the night with us before driving back to her home behind the Cheddar Curtain. She helped me prepare for the blow, and was understandably curious about what was going to happen when the storm wall was overhead. I reassured her that I really couldn't say for certain, and we braced ourselves for the show.

We talked a bit about lightning. When you're sitting in a vessel that features a metal stick rising 40 feet into the sky, and an electrical storm is advancing on you, talk has a tendency to turn to lightning.

I wish I could find the sailing textbook -- maybe it's on the boat -- that describes this sort of natural cone of protection that hovers over a sailboat in the event of a storm and repels lightening. I know it sounds ridiculous and somewhat Get Smart-y, but I know I'm not hallucinating, Dave remembers it, too. In my mind, I can see the illustration of the concept, I just can't recall the physics of it enough to offer a plausible explanation. But I suppose the empirical evidence is that not many sailboats get struck by lightning. Not in Monroe Harbor, anyway. When you consider how many sailboats float there, and how many storms pass over, and how many lightning strikes they contain, you have to figure the cone of protection is fact, not myth. We rarely hear of a boat taking a hit.

Yeah, I know. Mariah wasn't buying it, either.

But we waited, and we watched. This time I had the presence of mind to grab the Rebel and shoot a few pix. The cloud formations started to get really crazy. Check this out:

Neat, huh?

So then the talk turned to tornados, because of the rather distinct circularity of this cloud. By last Sunday I had done my waterspout research, though I was disappointed in what I found online. Just some language like, "waterspouts occur primarily in the coastal regions of the southeastern United States and the Caribbean, and if you see one you should move out of its way." Duh, right?

But I didn't think this was really a vortex forming, just a remarkable cloud:

Have you ever seen anything like that?

Note the rain is going hell-for-leather to the north, but after all this show, where we were, nothing. Spat on us a bit. No significant lightning, no notable wind. Kind of anti-climatic. It's like, we went to all this trouble to batten down the hatches, Mama Nature, the least you could do is make it worth our while. No doubt I'll regret those words ...

Later that day we were visiting our harbor neighbors Deb and Steve aboard MV Bella (I'll introduce them soon), when another little squall moved through. As an au revoir, when it was finished with us, it tossed us a double rainbow coda. Nice. One thing's for sure, if you want to get in touch with meteorological forces of nature, sailing is the way to do it.

June 24, 2008

Maintenance and Housekeeping

One of the more daunting aspects of sailing is the sheer amount of maintenance and housekeeping required to keep a boat afloat. Nothing deteriorates faster than a vessel in water. We find ourselves constantly noting and fixing things that yesterday were sound and today are going to hell in a handbasket. Here Dave is tending to our leathers, which has nothing to do with our sex life and everything to do with staying secure on our mooring:

If you've ever taken a stroll along the waterfront in Monroe Harbor, you may have noted that the moorings are indicated by white bobbers in the water. They are attached by chain to enormous chunks of concrete that sit on the harbor floor below. I don't know the exact physics of it, but to hold a multi-ton boat in place, those chunks must weigh tons themselves. The effort to get every mooring placed properly in the spring and removed in the fall is an endless source of lunchtime entertainment for me. My hat's off to the Westrec guys. It's a scary-looking process involving cranes, minibarges, little skiffs and usually uncooperative winds and water.

After our first summer in Monroe, we noticed that our mooring (which we have come to love, honor and cherish, holding us fast as it does through thick and thin) had dinged up Smitten's bow pretty thoroughly, so out of an inverted Fleet Farm feed tub, a couple of swimming noodles and sundry bits of tin and rivets, Dave engineered a bobber cover. Seen above in a nauti shade of blue.

Between the bobber and the boat is the bridle, the lengths of rope that reach up and connect to our port and starboard bow cleats, keeping us secure on the mooring chunk. The bridle suffers a lot of wear and tear throughout the summer as Smitty dances against wind and water, so Dave periodically pulls out a darning needle and replaces the leather sheaths along the chafe points.

Becoming quite the little seamstress, he is. The process involves a tricky stitch that Mrs Lee, my 8th grade home ec teacher, would probably swear I will never have the patience for.

For my part, Chief Fiberglass Buffer and Bird Shit Chaser that I am, I try to keep topsides in order with a sponge and bucket. I spoke a while back of loving Crowley's ambiance for the sheer industrial-ness of it, but that environment produces a lot of dirt, and here I'm removing some smattered gak that adhered, well, probably to the whole boat, but I noticed it most on the windows.

Inspired by Jan Mundy, a frequent seminar leader at Strictly Sail and apostle of the green approach to boat maintenance, this year I'm trying to go green, eschewing my usual choice of noxious cleaning products for good old-fashioned water, white vinegar and baking soda. I'm pleased to report good results. Smitty shines when I'm done with her. Actually, I'm never done with her. Keeping a boat clean is a little like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. When you're done at one end, you start over on the other.
I grew real tired of some deteriorating cushioning we had lashed to the aft seat rails some years back, so next chore was to remove it ...

... then clean up all the stainless in the cockpit. Yes, that's me polishing the pole ...

... and no doubt wisecracking about it ...

Admittedly, keeping Smitten cleaned and tuned is time consuming. I've been asked if the maintenance and housekeeping aspect of boat ownership is a total pain, and a few of years ago I would have said yes. But maturity and patience have crept up on me. Or maybe Smitty has presented some good lessons, because I've learned to enjoy the focus of a task and appreciate the zone it opens. Get a lot of good thinking done while I'm at it. It's funny, I only grudgingly do housekeeping around the house, and in fact I contract the job out to a great crew that comes in twice a month to deal with our dust. But on board, I'm happy to pick up a rag and a pail and spread some elbow grease.

There are a lot of aspects to the boating picture besides zooming through the water under full sail. The actual act of sailing takes up a relatively small proportion of a typical weekend on the boat. To complete the analogy, many pictures make up the Weekend on the Boat photo album. They show us reading, napping, cooking, eating, sipping, watching fireworks, hitting the Grant Park festivals ...

... or just sitting around balancing large buildings on our heads.

Tending to the housekeeping is simply another picture in the album.

June 16, 2008

Heavy Weather

Is anyone else wondering if Mama Nature is unhappy with us? Because spring is dishing out some honkin' heavy weather and, following one of our nastiest winters in recent memory, I'm starting to think maybe we inadvertently offended a god or two somewhere.

Was it something we said? Something we did?

Dave and I spent last Saturday night on board. Waking up Sunday morning, in my kinda-asleep-kinda-awake segue, I realized the sky was getting darker, not lighter, so I got up to investigate. At that exact moment, a massive wall of black clouds was racing towards us out of the west at, found out shortly, 38 miles per hour. Pretty fast for a wall.

I did what all good sailors do when faced with heavy weather: I made sure the wine glasses left topsides the night before were stowed safely below.

Then I pulled in the cockpit cushions, closed the hatches, and suggested to my co-captain that he move a specific part of his anatomy out of bed and be ready for a little rock 'n' roll.

I finished pulling on my clothes, peeked out a salon window, and saw a dust cyclone spin east out of Grant Park into the harbor, pretty much heading right toward us. The word waterspout briefly entered my mind. I chased it back out. I totally didn't know what to do with that possibility, and figured it was better not to waste time thinking about something I had zero chance of dealing with.

The cyclone passed to the north, but at that same moment, the wind rose to a freaky whistle, cued the lightening and thunder, and before we knew it we were rocking 35 degrees to port then starboard, then port, then starboard, on winds blowing with gusts to 58.

In those high-adrenaline moments when you taste metal, it's hard to remember to pick up your camera and snap a few pix. So I'm unhappy to say I don't have images to show for the experience, except these:

In a weird meta-experience, we found ourselves peering at the NOAA website --

-- watching a real time radar display showing what was going on right outside our boat:

This little tempest spent the rest of the morning pinning us down below, watching swaths of rain, hail and lightening march across the screen and brush across our hatches.

Another band of weather moved through the area later in the day, there seen passing well to the south, thoughtfully not disturbing a housekeeping opportunity:

If the forces of nature contained in what we learned later was Special Weather Advisory 536 had caught up with us out on the water rather than at the relative safety of our mooring, this would be quite a different post. That's happened. It's not fun, but as long as we get our engine started and our sails down, Smitten can pretty much plow through anything. Not sure about waterspouts. (That may be a good topic for further research. Armchair research.)

Happily, that wasn't the case on this day that came in like a lion and went out like a lamb.

June 11, 2008


I talk about the 5:7 ratio of sailing to non-sailing months in the year, which is technically accurate but, realistically, that five month sailing season window is bookended by several weeks of dicey weather. What we really have is three and a half to four months of good sailing season, so we experience a lot of self-imposed pressure to enjoy every sailing opportunity that a Midwest summer will allow. This means feeling obligated to be aboard every weekend and many weekday evenings.

I know, boo-hoo, right?

The problem is Chicago.

Chicago dishes up more fun per square inch than any place I've ever lived, especially in the summer. This town gets absolutely dizzy enjoying its terribly few months of gentle weather. Combined with the fact that, even when nothing special is going on (that never happens, actually), Chicago is just a fascinating place to wander around. Open the map, choose a neighborhood, jump on the "L" and go explore.

So it was with some consternation, along about Season Three, that I realized our summer weekends were becoming a little too one-dimensional for my liking. A little too sailing-centric. We'd fly out of bed on Saturday morning, tear through the farmers' market and the Jewel collecting ingredients for Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch aboard, process the resulting provisions into some sort of semi-prepped condition, throw it all into a bag, pack our clothes, then barrel off to the boat, where we would plant ourselves until Sunday evening, while all things Chicago played out without us on the other side of a 500 yard span of water.

Finally, one Saturday morning before the madness could gain too much momentum, I blew the whistle and called a time out. We took a deep breath, sat down over a breakfast at Butch's (their Eggs Florentine...outta this world), and hammered out a new approach to the passion that we can both live with. It includes taking time to enjoy land-based activities that define the city lifestyle, like art fairs and jazz clubs and al fresco lunches and just wandering down an interesting street.

Last weekend it meant a stroll through the Printers Row book fair ...

... including a little music appreciation with a local troubadour ...

... admiring a handsome row of red brick ...

... plopping down on a chair in the street and getting lost in a book ...

... hoping to catch a cooking demo, or maybe some sort of obscure literary discussion, instead I wound up in a tent with these guys talking about the comic book publishing industry, which is quite robust, apparently:

Something I wouldn't have had the opportunity to consider if I'd gone straight to the boat.

Later that weekend, we found our way to the Bluesfest. That's another post.

June 7, 2008


When we were first learning to sail and considering buying a boat, I remember having a conversation with cousin Larry about the comfort of rituals, and how much sailing revolved around the successful completion of rituals that were not only satisfying, but also necessary to the execution of a safe spin on the water.

I didn't exactly have the morning coffee ritual in mind during this conversation, but as it turns out, morning coffee aboard Smitten is every bit as necessary and satisfying as it is at home or work.

Our first few summers on the boat, we brewed coffee in this old camp kit percolator that followed us from our camping days in California:

It's a great little workhorse, and it means well, but the stovetop percolator brewing method, as you may have learned yourself, produces just about the most toxic coffee you will ever taste. The boiling action absolutely punishes the grounds and renders a bitter, scalding brew that peels the tastebuds off your tongue.

By last summer, I was desperate for a brew method that would render a decent cup of morning joe.

We tried a 12 volt drip coffee maker from a notable marine store that cost close to a hundred clams and didn't even have a self-timer. Ideal for boats, RVs and cars! it promised. First time I plugged it in, it darn near burned the boat down. Consequently, I have no affectionate pictures or nicknames for it to offer here. Happily, the notable marine store accepted the merchandise return, no questions asked.

And I went back to the drawing board, cup of stewed java in hand, pondering my next move.

I thought about the various brew methods and coffee makers we had used over the years, and one morning, as I was standing around at home brewing my jump-start cup with my little single-issue Melitta cone I thought, well duh Emily, maybe the answer is right in front of you.

I thought about how it might work on the boat, and I resisted the Melitta method at first. So many pieces to the ritual. First you need a vessel in which to heat the water. Then you've got your cone. Then you need another vessel into which the brewed coffee will collect before it goes into your cup. I thought, crikey, it's only a 30 foot boat, where am I gonna stow all this stuff?

But, like anything in life, if it's important to you, you'll make room for it. In my usual single-minded pursuit of pleasure, the idea held fast, and soon I was online choosing the implements I would need to execute the method. So here's the routine:

Water is heating to a steam in the old workhorse (who is proud to still be on the coffeemaking team) while three big scoops of Dominick's Organic brand (yes, pre-ground...no, sorry, I'm not grinding on board) wait patiently in a #4 filter, within the #4 cone, atop the six-cup carafe.

Thar she brews:

And soon I'm enjoying my Sunday morning cup and a long-distance yak with my sister:

It's all about the simple pleasures, no?

June 6, 2008


I was getting ready to start my intended post about our onboard coffee ritual, but I'm back home after being away for a week, and my housecats are hanging all over me like needy, furry Christmas tree ornaments. It makes me think about the part they play in our lives, and the possibility of integrating these sweeties into our eventual live-aboard lifestyle.

We adopted both of them from a place we've come to think of as the Best Kitties In the World Store, but despite their common source, they are quite different.

Nooni is the likeliest candidate to make the transition from condo to
boat. She's a hey-why-not? kind of gal. Young, very few expectations beyond breakfast and dinner. We adopted her at the age of eight months. Not knowing her background, but now having fully experienced her range of attitudes, we guess she came from a house full of angry Jack Russells. She's fearless, full of moxie and ready to take on anything.
The Redhead, however, has had a cushy ride for six years and isn't particularly interested in a lifestyle change.

I can't picture him on a boat and happy about it.

Many cats and dogs are, though. They make good companions onboard as well as off. Some get left in ports, some go down with the ship, but for the most part, having them along is like having them at home. They're just happy to be where their peeps are.


While I wouldn't call us epicureans or gourmands by any stretch, co-captain Dave and I do enjoy the hunting/gathering, preparation, and execution of a good meal. Seven months out of the year we accomplish this in a perfectly serviceable kitchen with a big sunny window on the 11th floor of one of Chicago's many nondescript condo towers. But during the short, sweet Chicago summer months, we get to do it here:

Smitten's galley, in the hands of the impatient or disorganized, is a potential torture chamber of frustration. Picture the absolute minimum amount of counter space you think you'd need to prepare a meal. Divide by half. Divide by half again. Now you've got a sense of Smitty's galley counter space.

Complicate this with the fact that our counter space is mostly comprised of the trap door to the cooler well, and you see the set-up for cooking scenarios that are seasoned with aural flavors like "tsk!" "doh!" "argh!" and the all-purpose "%&^*$(@%#!". We do a lot of senseless shifting of ingredients and utensils to and fro if we haven't properly planned the meal prep and paid full respect to our mise en place.

That's a cooking term I just threw in, not a sailing term, so if you need a definition, look here, not here.

The galley also boasts a single utensil drawer that's jammed with those pointless implements that seduce me whenever I walk into a Sur la Table, and a two-burner propane stove with a pretty good-sized oven. Plus the aforementioned cooler that eats ice like a self-conscious teenager on a six pack of Red Bull.

When the stars align, we can put together a pretty respectable meal. On Memorial Day weekend, Chef Dave started by roasting a luvly green mix of chopped broccoli and spinach, tossed with rough-chopped garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper:

Then he laid two wild-caught turbot fillets I'd found at the Dominick's on top, slid it back into the oven, et viola! 25 minutes later (propane, slow...) we had this:

He threw on a little chiffanade of cilantro, squeezed on a half a lime, and it was good, reader. Damn good.

Smitty's little galley, if nothing else, drives home the point that good cooking usually equals simple cooking, which is about all we can accomplish onboard. So we "simple-down" our favorite recipes to their bare necessities to accommodate the limitations of the boat, then find ourselves turning to these simpler versions the remainder of the year when we're pressed for time on busy winter days.