Fear

by Jane Miller

Fear comes like the fog – “on little cat feet.” I had thought I was only afraid of dentists, but now I am faced with stomach-gripping anxiety and heart-skipping panic.

I’m afraid …

… we’re going up to the boat in less than two weeks.

… sometimes I almost remember the fall and the impact that took my right eye and crushed my face.

… the medical bills I’ve racked up over two countries seem insurmountable.

… I don’t have a job and given my list of physical injuries and diseases, I am not likely to find one.

… we’re planning on Alaska this summer – three months on the boat, sailing the Inside Passage.

… sometimes I still don’t know if I wouldn’t place second in Erik’s heart to the question of “Jane or the boat?”

Yep. Fear about a lot.

And then, the preternaturally cheerful part of my soul begins to break through the gloom, sunshine burning off the fog of a chill morning. Even though I do not have answers or a plan for almost anything, I am pretty sure it will all work out.

One. Learning to sail has been on my list for as long as I can remember. My Irish ancestors were ship captains and engineers who came over in the 1860s. My great-grandfather captained a clipper ship, the General Knox, out of Thomaston, Maine, down around the Cape, up to San Francisco, and back and forth to England.

My first time on the boat was magical. Our teacher said I was a natural, but that was before my fear about heeling and capsizing came to the fore. I have learned and continue to learn, though, about sailboat dynamics, lines and rigging, standing and balancing, navigation and currents.

In my heart I knew I was ready for sailing, but that was before the fall.

Two. The “fall.” So many people want to know if I remember it, and until recently the answer has been that I remember the fall (sort of) but not the impact. But just last night before sleep crept over the snow to my pillow, I remembered: my foot not quite making the landing, the sense of falling, my face as it hit the unforgiving fiberglass and mahogany.

I don’t know if it’s real, though. I don’t remember hitting the deck or being wedged between the seat and the binnacle. The only thing I remember for certain is being lifted, set down so gently, a towel pressed into my hands.

I don’t want to remember the rest. That bit of amnesia is what’s enabling me to even think about setting foot on the boat.

Three. I received excellent medical care in Canada and Oregon. Dr. James Taylor (yes, that’s his name) in Victoria, BC, tried hard to save my eye but knew it was a long shot all the way. The care I received at OHSU has been phenomenal. But the specialized surgeries, with appointments and follow-ups, tests and medications, along with the prosthesis, are beyond expensive. And in America, no job means no affordable healthcare.

So I’m buying insurance for the year at a price that will wipe out every cent I have saved. That leaves my household bills, car payment, insurance …

It’s no one’s burden but my own, but sometimes I wish the government would be able to provide help quickly and compassionately to people who can’t work anymore, instead of relying on the Social Security Administration to force people to apply and reapply, hire a lawyer, wait, and then – maybe – be granted disability.

Four. Alaska. Life on the boat, in port, costs almost the same as life in Sisters. It’s still just the two of us, we buy groceries, do laundry, work on maintenance … The list is pretty long, but when we are in Sisters we do the same thing.

Sailing to Alaska is different. With no real crew, it’d be just us. The boat was designed to be sailed by two people, but I’m pretty sure what they had in mind was NOT me. It’s going to be last summer’s trip to Desolation Sound multiplied by 12. On that trip, the fan belt broke and clogged the turbocharger, we broke a line clutch, and we jury-rigged a way to shift gears using two strings. I almost left completely in a fit of pique, and then we motored a marathon 22 hours over two days breathing diesel fumes from the poorly-running engine to reach Anacortes in time for me to go back to work.

It was also beautiful beyond words, more fun than I imagined it could be, and exciting and rewarding as I gained new skills and grew more comfortable on the water. We can do this! It just might take some additional help.

Five. Erik and I had a discussion one night earlier this week or last, once we reached the warmth and security of the treehouse. Concerns had been brewing, some new, some not, about my dedication to strength training, my fear of capsizing, his desire to keep the sailboat because of the time and money committed, about his need to spend his time doing, not lounging.

He was wrong about some, maybe right about a couple. When I am pushed to do something, I won’t. Simple. Stubborn. Irish. And sometimes childish. All the literature on Parkinson’s Disease lists the need for fitness, but I never suggested we Barco-lounge for hours watching football, although I do love the game.

However, I understand his concerns. I need to be stronger than I was and definitely than I am after five weeks of operations and recoveries from the injuries of my fall. When the boat heels, I range from mildly discomfited to panicked. I’m improving, but I don’t hide it well. I cannot spend my days on the boat scared we’ll capsize, which is virtually impossible in the kind of sailboat we have.

But as we talked just a couple of days ago, we want to be together, on the water, or in Sisters, or traveling. And that’s what matters.

I am still afraid. I will be until I step across the water from dock to boat. But I decided when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and I tell myself again and again … I am not going to be defined by my adversities. I am going anyway.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

The Good Life

Quiet waters lapping against the hull lulling us to sleep, swimming in a warm ocean, in Fiji, snorkeling to view brilliant wonders of nature, maybe catching a fish to filet and toss on the grill. My hopes for life on the water: idyllic, adventure, a time of writing my deepest thoughts, for myself if not for others .

But the inspection board was stuck. It was wedged tight in the main cabin sole (floor), over the macerator pump, which I wanted to be able to access in case there was a problem. It had possibly swollen due to the change in climate here in Foxy’s new home. I’d brought my little hand-held electric sander that would make short work of the problem.

How hard could it be?

I tried one more time to remove the board without unscrewing other parts of the floor for access to pry it off. Success! The board came up a quarter inch, enough so I could get a grip and ease it out of its confine. This was going to be much easier than I feared.

It was eight a.m., I’d be done at nine, maybe ten.

Oh, gross! There was water in the cavity under the macerator pump, an irregular puddle about the size of four hands side-by-side, and something that might have been a sponge at one time but was so covered in blue-green mold that it was unrecognizable. A gelatin-like substance ringed the uneven puddle so perfectly, I knew it had grown there.

Sanding the board and ignoring that mess wasn’t an option. What if the growth pushed the board up by itself late one night and crept into the stateroom (bedroom) to suck what’s left of my brains out one ear? Even if it didn’t, I’d know it was there. The little wet-and-dry vac was just waiting for its first use.

Though I missed her, I was glad Irish wasn’t here to see the mess. It would have left a lasting impression, and I wanted her to think highly of the boat. I was also glad this macerator only removed water collected from sinks and the shower.

I sucked up the puddle, used doubled plastic bags from grocery store turned inside out to pick up the sponge-like mass, whatever it was, then sprayed the cavity with bleach, dried it all out with paper towels. There! Problem solved!

It wasn’t that hard!

Except for one, very small, nearly inconsequential detail: When I turned on the pump, a few drops of water leaked out. Maybe it wasn’t enough to worry about! Just put the board back! It’ll be okay!

Not a chance. I’m not built that way. Tracing the drips to the pump itself was tricky, then it took a half hour to find a wrench that would fit the nut on the pump under the stuck floor board that started all this. I couldn’t get the wrench where the pump was wedged against the hull, so I had to take the pump all the way out. Four screws and two hose fittings. Maybe half a turn on the nut would fix it.

How hard could it be?

Before I could disconnect the hose fittings, I needed to turn off the line from the shower drains because I’d filled the shower pan with water trying to get the stateroom sink to drain.

Fortunately, I knew where that valve was, I’d found it  when I had to shut it off the night the washer overflowed two hours before guests arrived for the night.

When the nut wouldn’t tighten, I disassembled the pump. Good thing I did. After seeing a gap in a microscopically thin paper gasket, I pulled pump section off the motor and saw a ruined impeller, one vane completely missing and a second one torn nearly off.

Time for a trip to the store. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too many days for a replacement rebuild kit to arrive.

WestMarine not only had repair kits, they had whole new pumps on the shelf, for only twice the cost of the repair kit! A new pump would save me hours of assembly, and I’d have a new motor. That was an easy decision to make, so I dropped a couple of hundred dollars for pump and electrical connectors and a couple of other knick knacks. I was shopping, after all.

Back at the boat, I plumbed pump back together. It drained the bathroom sink and stayed dry. Success! Filled with a feeling of deep personal accomplishment, I went to turn on the valve from the shower stall. There I found out that turning off the valve had allowed water to sit in the shower, water that found some way to escape into another hole under the floor.

Not tonight! That had do be done when everything was dry, Foxy was a mess with tools scattered all about the salon (living room) and the galley (kitchen), water everywhere, and I was a sweaty, dirty mess to match. I sanded the boards, dropped them into place. They fit, to my relief.

Tools put away, everything cleaned up, I finally took a shower. It was six p.m., ten hours after I started a job I thought would take an hour, maybe two, and I was tired and sore from the contortions of working most of the day on my belly or on my knees.

But everything (almost) stayed dry, and there was some satisfaction in that.

Tomorrow I’ll tackle the shower drain with a little plumber’s putty or silicone, and might even tackle that seal beneath the toilet bowl. It’s held on with just four bolts. Maybe I can just tighten them up and that leak will be fixed, too.

How hard can it be?

Fire

“Give him some slack!” Roy said, his voice rising.

Joe was struggling to clip spinnaker pole to mast as the boat heaved, and Roy wanted the spinnaker out about a minute ago. There were seven lines feeding through the clutches on the deckhouse, and I didn’t have a clue which one would give Joe the slack he needed.

“Pull the downhaul!”

Crap. I don’t know the downhaul from the outhaul, and barely from a haul-out. I sure as hell don’t know which of the lines coming through the clutches was which.

“Second from the outside!” Roy said.

I reached up and tightened the line second from the outside.

“The other side! Port side outside!”

We’d done well enough on the first leg of the race, though with boats races are called “regattas.” I’d never thought of myself as a “regatta” sorta guy, but racing is racing and I’ll try to beat you to the register in side-by-side checkout lines at Trader Joe’s.

That may be a character defect, but it’s my character, defective or not here I come. I’ve learned to live with it.

We weren’t first or second, but we’d gained on those that were, maybe a little. But when we turned downwind, our inexperience showed.

“Okay, that’s my mistake,” said Roy. “I didn’t say it was the port side.”

After the stiffening wind ripped the spinnaker out of Joe’s hands for the third time, Roy told Irish to take the helm and went up on the bow of his small race-boat/cruiser to helpt Joe stuff  that big parachute of sail in its bag. We weren’t going to catch them with or without it and Roy could tell we were losing concentration instead of gathering it up.

Irish was great. I knew how petrified she was when Rachel heeled over and dipped the sheer line of her hull into the water. Irish didn’t let out a peep, though I could tell from the way her blue eyes looked about she was sure the boat would go right on over and we all would be tossed into the bay to drown in icy gray water.

“You can go below and hook up the lee cloth on the bunk,” Roy told her.

“I’d rather stay up here,” Irish said.

What she meant was, “I’m going to die up here, swimming, and not trapped down there in the dark!”

I was busy at that moment, trying to grab a winch with which to climb up a deck slanting at 45 degrees, just so I could dangle over the rail as “meat ballast.”

The gusts died as quickly as they’d come up, and we headed back in. I took the helm and guided Rachel into her berth as Roy and Joe pulled down the sails and readied the lines.

What a difference from two days before, when Roy and I delivered a boat from here to a small marina down past Port Townsend, where we’d stopped for lunch. Then it was calm, glassy at times in Rosario Straight for almost the entire length of Whidbey Island.

He and I talked for almost 12 hours, motoring down off the islands, through the canals. Waiting for the bus to take us back north to catch the ferry to where Roy parked his car to drive me back to Irish just at dark. It was a long day, but great conversation.

Allowed to choose anybody to teach Irish and me about sailing, and navigation, I’d choose Roy. Sometimes it seems he and I lived parallel lives, offset by a few years and different opportunities, but similar in how we wring what we can out of what life offers.

After he drove off, Irish and I started to head out for a bluecheeseburger at the Brown Lantern.

“Crap!” I said, as we got to parking lot after a chilly walk up the dock from where Foxy gently pulled at her mooring lines.

“What?”

“The car’s back at the service center where I parked it this morning.”

“Let’s get a salad and a cup of chowder,” she said, nodding at the restaurant we’d just passed.

Two days later, after the regatta, we sat on the deck of Foxy with Roy in the waning sun of early April. They had a glass of wine, I had my lemonade. The bruises Irish had suffered as she clambered about hadn’t yet shown up. The tendons I’d stretched past easy elasticity hadn’t either. It would be a four ibuprofen night.

“You guys did great today,” said Roy.

“The start was good, the end was good, the middle was all f*#^ed up,” said Irish.

“No, you did fine,” said Roy. “You’re getting it, and faster than most people.”

Getting it, but just enough to know how little we know. And getting to know just how addictive this life could be.

2016-04-05

Water

Water dripped from the valve behind the engine at the bottom of the boat. It wasn’t that hard to get to because “Foxy” has more room to move around in than most boats, but the valve was behind other hoses, and contortions were required to even get down into the hold.

It was raining like stink outside. Tarps I bought to cover the leaky hatches should stop water from dripping onto rugs in the main salon, tiny splashes that woke us up the night before. The dinghy that lay partially deflated over the forward hatch, air leak still not found, should keep rain water off the sheets in the stateroom.

Some said I had no business buying this boat. By any rational standard, they’re right for many reasons. I don’t know anything about boats like this, even less about sailing. But I love the water, and figure I have one grand adventure in me. I had a chance to acquire Foxy and I took it, depending on my general mechanical knowledge (mediocre), ability to acquire new information (pretty good) and my desire for adventure (excessive, nearly pathological) to keep me safe.

Being in the bowels of a gently rocking boat was the result of ten years dreaming about it. Hopefully it would not become a nightmare.

It didn’t matter if the valve was on or off, water dripped and added to the inch or two washing about as Foxy swayed gently at her dock lines. I reached down and flipped up the float on what I thought was the bilge pump. Nothing. If the water continued to drip for the week I expected to be gone, I could come back to find a flooded engine room, or worse.

I’d promised Irish weeks ago I would attend the gathering that evening at the school where she was getting her MBA. It’s a four hour drive to Portland — and that assumed no delays going through Seattle, not usually a good assumption.  I should have been on the road a half hour ago.

Irish would understand completely if I called and told her the boat was leaking and I couldn’t make it. She’s really good like that. She would also be disappointed, and in the short while we’d been together, absurdly short considering the bond we felt for each other, seeing her smile had become a major priority for me.

Besides, I have a nearly Obsessive/Compulsive need to do what I’ve said I’ll do, and I’d said I’d be there.

Turning the valve off seemed to make the leak a little worse, adding an extra drip in between the steady “drip, drip, drip” I’d noticed when I pointed the flashlight into the engine room before closing the hatch one last time. Now it went “drip drop, drip drop, drip drop.” I turned the valve back on, the cadence  didn’t change. I flipped the float again  on what I thought was the bilge pump, again the pump didn’t come on.

With a bit of reluctance I turned traitor to my life-time habit of stubborn self-sufficiency and called the boat yard. No answer. It was Saturday, and everyone was working the boat show down in Seattle. I finally called the owner of the yard on his cell phone, feeling more than a little foolish in again putting the massive mountain of my ignorance on display.

“I’ll have Curtis go check it out. I’ll call as soon as I know something,” Jim said. There’s something reassuring about people who will “just take care of it,” whatever “it” is. Jim is one of those. I’m looking forward to following him up to Alaska a year from now as part of a small flotilla. By then, all the little leaks, cracked hoses, dead electrical connections should be taken care of.

But she’s a boat. Which means “there’s always something,” as I’ve heard and read, even about this boat, “my” boat,” in a story written long before I knew her. My friend Jaime says there’s something to the theory you should always leave something undone, because as soon as you think everything is all taken care of, a boat will break something else, usually at the worst possible moment.

Like now. Drip drop, drip drop.

I had to go, and hit the road south toward Portland. This was not good, not good.

Curtis from the yard called an hour later. He got the leak to stop by turning the valve off. Maybe I hadn’t turned it quite far enough, not wanting to break it off. He said the bilge pump worked just fine, maybe I was trying to trip the alarm float switch, which he’ll look at on Monday.

Jim calls later to say the same thing. “Happy to do it,” he replies to my thanks. Worry begins to lift.

When I show up to change from dirty, bilge-tainted boat clothes into a suit and tie for the celebration with Irish, she greets me with a hug, and a smile that makes everything seem like it’s going to be okay.

Full sail