Sunday, May 27, 2018

Bumping The Shallows

The first time I went aground I did the job completely and thoroughly and stayed parked in the riverbank for twenty five very long and embarrassing hours.  I had taken three weeks off and had decided to explore San Francisco Bay as carefully and extensively as I could while afloat. I had read about the joys of river sailing up the Petaluma River where I was told the breezes were constant and air temperatures approached tropical, an alluring prospect to one used to sailing the frigid Central California Coast.
At first it all went beautifully to plan starting with an overnight trip from my home base at the Santa Cruz harbor overnight to Half Moon Bay in my twenty foot pocket cruiser, a Flicka built by Pacific Seacraft, then in Santa Ana, California.
Image result for flicka sailboat santa cruz
I made my way to San Pablo bay carefully following the charts and I turned toward the Petaluma River motoring up a long row of markers stuck on posts above the thick brown waters. Much to my astonishment I could occasionally see the bottom in the eight to ten feet of water. I felt very daring taking my three foot draft into such thin water over a  sandy  bottom.
By the time I passed under the road bridge and found myself in the river itself two things became apparent: one was that the famous land breeze blowing down the valley was right there but unexpectedly the river views were miserable as I found myself locked on river bordered by tall riverbanks, levees in the local parlance, tall enough to contain the river at flood but also tall enough to obstruct all views. This was not what I had imagined, picturing myself sailing lazily up a brook between meadows, sharing the afternoon sun with cows and fields of pasture and whatnot.
So I did what a sailor does and I started sailing. I am going to tack up river all day if I have to, and great fun it was too, in flat water with a  fresh breeze on the nose.  The Flicka was a fine boat to sail being small enough to make single handing simple, sheets to hand a stout tiller and a responsive cutaway full keel. Except...I seemed to be having difficulty coming about, a pronounced reluctance to spin through the wind alerted me to the fact that a change of plan was in order but I was too slow. Suddenly, very suddenly the boat got a mind of it's own and chose to ignore my efforts on the tiller by driving itself into the reeds at the river's edge with the determination of a Samurai hellbent on self destruction in some glorious act of self sacrifice. 

Unfortunately my dignity was the only thing offered in sacrifice  that day in distant 1987. The Flicka plowed those reeds apart like Moses crossing the Red Sea and we came to a gentle halt in glutinous dark mud clamped all round the hull perching the boat bolt upright in the muck. I of course lowered sails as the boat wasn't heeling one bit, The ten horsepower diesel was no match for the muck and soon I found myself sitting in the sun on a perfectly level sailboat with a splendid view of the many and various weekend afternoon activities on the water. And all of them could stare back and giggle at my predicament. 

I was released eventually by a cheerful power boater ("stink pot" as we sailors derisively term them) who gratefully took a bottle of wine for his trouble. I was pathetically in his debt as I had tried all the textbook maneuvers to get out of the mud and failed - kedging with an anchor, trying to dig the mud out from under the boat with a paddle, and waking up at the top of the moderate high tide in the middle of the night in a hopeless effort to motor smartly out of the mud. Nothing doing, it took a ski boat with a monstrous large outboard to un-stick the Flicka.

As California has a steep and therefore deep coastline the chaos I suffered on the river was about as much experience as I would get in shallow water until I went sailing in Florida and the Bahamas three years later. I trailered the Flicka to Texas and motored round to a new job in Tampa. After I wore out my welcome I set off for the Bahamas with my girlfriend at the time.

It was an unhappy journey as I felt the responsibility keenly to keep my little home afloat and  safe not just for me but for her as well. Our relationship did not survive the cruise but my boat and my sailing ambition did. While in the Bahamas I came face to face with my worst fear: shallow water.  I sailed with determination and awful memories of 25 hours aground in the Petaluma River. To my amazement I did okay. I was scared, and scarred, but I piloted the shallows of those lovely crystal clear waters.

I had the  best sailing of my life in the Bahamas, thanks to the  steady breezes and close knit islands. For the  first time ever I really didn't much need a motor. It is possible to take all day to sail a few miles, following a late breakfast and  before the obligatory sundowner drinks, that sort of a "day" not sun up to dusk....Some short tacks in water barely deeper than your keel, the splash of an anchor and settling down for a swim and drink in the silence of an engine-free day. The Bahamas can offer the best sailing even if ashore there is nothing much to see or do. To visit the Family Islands not on your own boat seems a waste of time to me.
My wife and I wanted to sail level so we bought a catamaran and kept it on San Francisco bay in the mid 1990s, traveling upo from Santa Cruz most weekends, learning to handle strong winds and powerful currents and cold breezes. There was method to our madness for in 1998 we took off with our two dogs and aimed squarely at the Panama Canal with final destination my old hunting grounds of Key West.

Which I suppose makes the choice of a boat with an 18 inch draft rather odd as the coastline is mountainous and the waters are deep right up to the beach almost all the way from San Francisco to Panama City ( and beyond from what I've read). But there was no doubt our  34 foot Gemini catamaran was light, easy to sail well and very comfortable for us and the dogs.

 Debs ready to leap off to chase something while Emma always kept an eye on me.

Eventually it happened that shallow draft became not just nice to have in certain uncertain anchorages, Belize's coastline comes to mind mostly shallow and full of reefs, as well as the San Blas islands all very deep except where they suddenly were't...mostly we sailed and anchored in deepish water. 

On the very final leg of our two year trip to Key West we met the second major storm of the journey, strong winds and large seas in the middle of the Gulf Stream south of the Dry Tortugas. One boat in our group hove to, stopped in the stream to wait, while we and another smaller catamaran similar to ours turned tail and fled for the Cuban coast. I had no desire to sit like a duck in the path of one of the world's busiest shipping channels. We found refuge in Cuba and that was where I finally learned to embrace shallow water.
The couple fo who sailed See Ya, another Gemini catamaran showed me the way ahead, threading inside the reef along the north coast of Cuba, in waters protected from the storm, too far from land to be interfered with by officialdom. I watched the rocky bottom of Cuba's reef slip underneath my gaze with just a few inches to spare under the keels of the catamaran. When See Ya ran aground the crew laughed, and I tittered nervously alongside. They got off we proceeded. They dodged rocks and slipped through narrow passes, they watched the bottom and ignored the flimsy fake charts we had copied from some other Cuban wannabe visitor. I had never wanted to visit the Forbidden Isle wrapped up as it is in bureaucracy and ill feeling from our officials but there I was and in almost no water and having the time of my life.
I have never had any mentors in my life and every crazy idea that passed through the antechamber of my brain had to mature and express itself by my will power alone. To be taught how to sail the shallows by an almost stranger was a gift and I took the lessons with gratitude. Much easier than learning to sail a river by being stuck aground for 25 hours in the mud.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Roosters are everywhere in Key West including as art:
Weirdly enough the town in England where I was born has a rooster as it's symbol, here seen in the form off a giant statue I photographed in Dorking last month:

Dorking doesn't have public roosters like Key West:
Another form of public art I saw a coupe of weeks ago:
Ah Key West.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Invest 90 - Sub Tropical Storm Alberto

The  tropical disturbance over Belize and the Yucatan has been declared to be an Invest, Investment 90L to be precise which means not that it will became a hurricane though there is a 70 percent chance, but simply that the National Hurricane Center in Mia mi is interested in the formation's progress. Aren't we all if we live remotely close to its projected landfall?
Hurricane season starts June 1st officially and runs through November 30th in the Atlantic Basin so all this activity is a little early and coming on the heels of last year's Hurricane irma fiasco it is setting nerves to jangling in the Florida Keys. I was shopping in Publix yesterday and I overheard a (loud) conversation between two women discussing their hurricane preparations. They were lamenting their lack of preparedness for Hurricane Irma last September and are determined not to be caught out this season. And already with a previous tropical depression flooding the Keys with rain we have seen a  wet start to the summer.
The thing about the Western Caribbean is that it is a heat catchment area, the waters are shallower and the heat is intense early on in that area so hurricanes which need hot water to fuel their spiralling winds. 
So  hurricanes tend to form off the Central American coast early in hurricane season and late while the waters of the Atlantic spawn mid-season storms when the ocean is warmest.
Even though forecasters try to warn us of what's ahead they can only guesstimate numbers of storms not direction of travel or landfall, so even if there are an average number of storms, as they point out it only takes one to ruin your day. Hurricane Irma with its 140 mph winds has left a trail of damage that is taking a while to repair. there are hundreds of tarps still on roofs in the Lower Keys, not so much Key West but the islands between Sugarloaf and Big Pine. Reconstruction is still underway and insurance companies aren't helping when they contest every single claim.
A  lot of people lost their homes in Irma and many left the Keys. There is a shortage of labor already in the islands though rental prices keep rising and wages don't match the increased costs so there are more people leaving for that reason.Suddenly hurricane season has become real again and the prospect of more damage, more unpaid evacuations, more chaos is causing yet more people to rethink their idea of life in paradise and you can hardly blame them. 
It may be that all we get is a ruined Memorial Day with massive rain storms, and if that is all so much the better. And if one has to be laid flat by a disaster frankly I prefer hurricanes to fires, mudslides, lava flows and earthquakes. However hurricane season is an annual event and it is relentless. I would prefer not having to sit out another catastrophe, but this is the reality of life in the Keys from time to time.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Road Rage Commute

A  funny thing happened yesterday morning as I rode home from work. It's been a process of getting around in between rain storms if I'm lucky and yesterday morning was lovely, unlike the night before. My ride to work was a nightmare of incredibly heavy rain that penetrated the collar of my waterproofs, reduced visibility to fifty yards and reminded me why not all Florida weather is considered mild. This was pre-hurricane rain and wind storm material.
Anyway there I was enjoying the ride home just as light was breaking through the clouds to the east, my Burgman 200 was  rolling along silently at around  55-60 mph  and all was well with the world. Until I came across a bunch of four vehicles crawling along painfully at 45 mph stuck behind someone either distracted or unwilling to drive the speed limit so I set myselkf up and as soon as we hit a set of dotted yellow lines I zipped by.
I passed another outlier also driving well below the limit and then I sat back ready to enjoy my speed limit plus five ride home. In Florida police can't write a ticket for speeding if you are within five miles and hour of the limit. Of course if they really want to they can get you for something else,  say "too fast for conditions" or "reckless" but in the grand scheme of things riding at the limit plus five gives you leeway to enjoy a  clear conscience and make reasonable progress.
I was feeling daring at that hour and in the 45 mph where there were no homes or cross streets I stepped up to 55 mph  - speed limit plus ten -  which could get me a ticket but I pay close attention to the road ahead and my speed just in case of lurking guardians of the peace. 
My relaxed ride was suddenly enveloped in a burst of air and noise as a big gold pick up truck rent the air as the headlights I had seen barreling down on me never slowed and pushed past on a double yellow line, certainly a reckless ticket if spotted. AS  the truck pulled ahead the driver waved at me through the window. 
I ride my own ride and I have found much to my pleasure that my Suzuki Burgman scooter even though only 200ccs looks much more imposing than my moped-like Vespa 150 which I loved. The Vespa did not look to the average poorly trained car driver like it should be able to go 65mph but the Burgman not only goes 80 mph but looks like it will. Why the truck driver was angry at being passed I couldn't  say. I imagine he felt stupid for not showing his own imitative and passing the dawdling car when he had a chance instead of being shown how it's done by a hairy old Hobbit on a moped...
He didn't get far ahead, they rarely do the angry ones as they run out of steam and initiative when they've made their point and find themselves unsure what to do next. I watched him turn off on a little dead end road, Pirates Cove where fishermen store and prepare crab pots. 
Last night on my way in to work a late shift I found myself stuck in a line of cars going ten under the limit. Not one of them passed the weaving car at the front of the line and I had to work my way up past them all to take a shot at getting past the evidently drunk driver in the small dark SUV. At least none of the cars in that initiative-free line took umbrage at my efforts to get to work on time.I wish there were a driving course like the advanced motorcycle riding class I took in England decades ago which taught me how to pass safely and effectively and "make progress" as the British motorcycle police call it. This is the best description I've found of that riding style by an American living in Wales: Making Progress by Chris Cope

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Renting Key West

My sister lives in the far north of Scotland, a lovely place no doubt and I had a fine time visiting last month. I got to see it under unexpected  sunshine, very welcome but  a rare interlude. That was followed by rain which was quite different.
There however I was on vacation. Here I am not and when the rain can't stay away I am forced to go back to look at the pictures I snapped when the norm was sunshine, when walking was a pleasure. I met JW on the street, a former dispatcher I trained who went to work elsewhere in the city he was born in. If you think you are a Conch my rule of thumb is that you must know JW to be able to make that claim. I am very glad he has put in his papers to become a cop so I will see him around the police station once again. 
I try to be nice when I see tourists stuck on the street, I really do. This lot were actually a lot smarter than my rather stupid stereotyping might have first indicated. They were smart enough to be making sure they knew where they parked their vehicle. Being Germans of some sort they were dying of heat poor things so I directed them to an oasis and congratulated them on thinking ahead, Even as I write this I think of my night at work yesterday when we started the evening in dispatch with TWO calls from tourists with lost cars.
I wondered if this was some variant on ice fishing. Apparently not:
There  was  some bad news last  week for Monroe County thanks to lingering problems from Hurricane Irma. The problem concerns canal clean up in the areas hit hardest by the hurricane's 140-150 mph winds.  The Feds have loaned the county six million dollars to get the canals cleared of  rotting sinking debris, so naturally they went with the low bidder at $55 per cubic yard.  Half a million dollars into the contract with just five canals cleared they have bowed out. 
It  turns out 55 dollars  a yard wasn't enough (the high bid was 160 dollars) and the employees after a  long days laboring had to sleep in their cars as they couldn't afford the Keys hotel rates. I guess the contractor felt no obligation to house the slaves. What extraordinary times we live in. So much public  hand wringing about  decency and wealth inequity and so much unseen servitude. Meanwhile the canals aren't getting cleared.
The housing situation gets no better and  workers are fleeing the Keys creating shortage that impact the ability of businesses to operate.   The wealthy retiree component of the Keys population wants fewer tourists - no problem considering the negative hurricane publicity - which flies in the face of the working segment of the population.
The  city commission has several "affordable" and "workforce" housing plans but get this: the rental rates are based on a  formula that has seen adjusted median incomes rise over past years.
Here's what they do. The people in charge calculate the median wage and set affordable housing as  a percentage, between about 60 and 120  percent depending on family size and home size. Here's the thing though and I could hardly believe it when I read it. It seems the median income in the Keys has gone UP by about $20,000 this past year which sounds  completely wrong considering diminished tourism and hurricane stresses and so forth.
Here's what happened. They calculated  adjusted median income by adding in the income of the non working element in the Keys, the wealthy retirees and snowbirds, people who would never qualify for subsidized housing. It just seems like the people in charge aren't even pretending to try.