Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sailing Dilemmas

Originally I posted this story in 2008. A bit of time has passed since then.

Tale Of Two Heads

Emma and I, Punta Jutia, Cuba, February 2000

Modern day sailors have a saying that sums up what can be a lonely hobby and an alienating way of life:
You can't get a woman to lie down in a boat she can't stand up in.
Which pretty much sums up the dilemma of about 95 percent of men who dream of taking off on a boat. I have sailed a fair bit in my life and I have always pretty much lived on the boats in which I sailed. I was helped in this by virtue of the fact I lived in California, although Santa Cruz is far from tropical and winters were cold damp months with little prospect of raising sails on Monterey Bay until spring. I decided early on I needed a small boat that I could handle alone as I had discovered that a larger boat with a bigger cabin was an absolute bear to deal with on the large swells and strong winds of the Pacific Ocean. I dreamed of tropical breezes and warm waters and had I known of him I might have become a Buffett Parrothead in those early years. I yearned for a change in latitude. I bought a boat like this, a twenty foot long Flicka by Pacific Seacraft, a boat so cultish it has a website of its own whence I took this picture lacking one of my own boat close to hand:

It was small, salty sailboat, a tried and tested cruiser on long ocean passages. From the same friends of Flicka website I found this picture that summarizes superbly the tight but very agreeable living conditions found on this micro cruiser:

This picture looks, if I remember right, to be an original advertisement from the factory in Santa Ana California,also found on the Friends of Flicka website (Google Flicka 20 for a fabulous resource for these amazing boats). The settee up front that turns into a bed, a compact kitchen to the left, a table that folded out to eat off and a couch to the right with a reading lamp. All that and a single cylinder diesel engine was my home for a dozen years. The door to the right closed off the head, the marine toilet that is the other important feature in any boat that hopes to be a home to a woman. Even if the cabin is less than ten feet (3 meters) long. With full headroom.
Turtle Bay, Baja California, Mexico, October 1998. Baja Ha Ha Rally.
Eventually I could stand it no longer and I got a friend to trailer my boat, in effect my entire life, to Texas and I took off around the Gulf Coast bound for the tropical islands. I got as far as Tampa where I stopped to take up a very flattering job offer. I met a woman and she could stand up in my cabin, so we took off together and sailed for the Bahamas. Wonderful stuff no doubt, very romantic, but I was ill equipped mentally to travel alone, never mind in company in that tiny cabin, and our personalities didn't mesh very well. They didn't mesh at all after a few weeks, and by the time we had reached the cruising hub of Georgetown I was ready to put her on a plane home.East Hollandaise Cays, San Blas Islands, Panama, November 1999.

The Flicka was a very modern boat in some respects and the toilet was one of those features. In nautical lore a toilet is known as the "head" in American sailing, or the "heads" in Britain. This is because in the good old days of Nelson's Navy, sailors held onto the cattheads and swung their bottoms out over the void to take a crap. Modern sailors prefer the comfort of an indoor apparatus, and in order to encourage women (again!) pleasure boats carry around a throne one third the size of a land bound commode. The toilet is fed by a complexity of plumbing that boggles the mind. That's because we can't dump our waste just anywhere anymore and we have to flush with saltwater usually and carry the contents around in a tank until it can be emptied out at sea or into a marina's dump station. Yes, imagine that. All those pretty boats you see at anchor are hauling around gallons of fermenting sewage in their bowels. Nice huh?
A neighbor heading north. Cabo Gracias a Dios, Western Caribbean, January 2000.

It happened one night at anchor I wanted to pump out the bilges at the bottom of the boat. Which is the place where water, seeping in through the propeller shaft, accumulates harmlessly until it gets too full and has to be removed. I opened the locker and started pumping. "I don't see anything," my pretty young girlfriend announced as she stood at the stern (the back of the boat) watching the sun set over the Exuma Islands. I pumped harder. "It must be coming out," I grunted. "I can feel the pump pushing the water out." She continued to deny it and I continued to lambast her in my mind as a dolt. I pumped some more. It did occur to me suddenly that the water level in the bilge wasn't going down but was in fact rising. Impossible! But then with a whiff of my nose I realised what had happened.Pretending to be a mechanic. Inside Belize's Barrier Reef. January 2000.

I always carried numerous spare parts to fix the toilet, which though convoluted, was fairly simple to keep operating provided the right spares were to hand. And spares for frou frou marine heads are not to be found in Third World economies where buckets do just as well. I had replaced the diaphragm in the pump earlier in the day as it had developed a leak and it no longer had the suction to clear the bilge. What I had forgotten to do was switch the pump back into it's overboard mode and with a few firm strokes I had emptied most of our holding tank into the unconfined space in the bottom of our little floating home. The stench was appalling. My soon-to-be-ex girlfriend was not happy. Though I dread needles I am quite at my ease dealing with sewage and it took a while but eventually the bilge was clear and the antiseptic whiff of chlorine assailed our nostrils as we lay in bed wondering why I was such a dork. Our relationship never recovered and at every future gaffe I made, and there were plenty, the night I poured our shit into the bottom of the boat was a night to remember. It happened 20 years ago and I have yet to forget. It was a learning experience but I am afraid I cannot say no one  was hurt on that learning curve. That it was my fault doesn't make it any the better.
Playa Culebra, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica, January 1999.
After that I returned to Florida, hung out in Key West, lost the woman to another man and eventually put the boat up on the hard and went back to California. I also lost the urge to travel by boat at least temporarily, and a little voice in the back of my head was insistently telling me to go back to Santa Cruz where happiness lay. I was miserable in Fort Myers with she of the recent cruise, so I loaded up my Yamaha 650, said good bye to the Flicka, now an albatross of unhappy memories and went west. I was 34 years old.Figuring out the laundry with Emma looking on. Puerto Corinto, Nicaragua. December 1998.

I met a woman and we got married and I settled down in suburban married bliss. For about five minutes. After we were comfortable in our homes and in our jobs with a convertible in the garage and a Honda Goldwing alongside (not my kind of bike I discovered) and with two stray dogs happy to have found stability, I got the urge to sail away. This time my wife dived in with me and we bought a bigger boat, a thirty four foot (11 meter) catamaran with all mod cons- standing head room, queen sized bed, diesel engine, refrigerator, and a toilet, this time with indoor shower.Miki G, our Gemini 105 catamaran on the beach for maintenance. Costa Rica, January 1999.

"I called the boss and told him I needed a six month sabbatical," my wife said in one of the only momentous decisions we've ever taken without one consulting the other. "I guess we're taking off for Panama this fall." And so we did, with every kind of trepidation and bad memory loaded in my mind we sailed to San Diego in August 1998 and launched ourselves with a hundred other sailors south to Mexico. With two large dogs on board.Eugene Debs enduring another passage on Miki G. He loved arriving. I still miss him daily.

We loaded the boat with food and spare parts and I made sure to carry at least three sets of spare valves, springs and seals for the sole toilet as my wife, despite her many qualities, doesn't like to pee in the bushes. Ever. We sailed,we walked the dogs in the most unlikely places.We ate odd food and introduced a whole continent of unsuspecting peasants to the notion that dogs can be members of families too, just like children. Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman had the time of their lives. They heated sailing especially as we had no dog toilets on board and despite our best encouragement they would never go on deck. But they loved arriving in new places and chasing new and unusual forms of wildlife. It was an idyll afloat for nearly two years.
Joseph Conrad Country. Bahia Honda in the roadless west coast of Panama. December 1999.

We had mad adventures, sailing and motoring from Mexico, which was relatively affluent to the poorer and smaller countries to the south.The further we went the fewer boats we saw. Many turned off to cross the Pacific, an option we could not follow with Debs and Emma on board, but we were keen to see more of Latin America. And we did, in and out of deserted beaches, islands and solitary peninsulas. We carried food and water and books and took time to stop and smell the seaweed. The dogs got more attention than they could ever have expected in their former distressed lives and we learned to seek out and find dog food everywhere we went.Welcome to El Salvador. Far nicer than US officials. La Union, Gulf of Fonseca. 1999.

And then the head broke. And I couldn't fix it! There we were in paradise with a toilet that wouldn't flush. All the chirping cicadas and croaking bullfrogs in the Eden surrounding us couldn't disguise the fact that we were royally screwed. I disassembled the pump and put it back together. I read the instructions again and again. I reset the torque, I fiddled with the spring, and I cleaned the ball a second and a third time. I greased everything with waterproof silicone grease. It pumped smoothly and powerfully but no water flushed into the bowl.A beautiful day turned within hours into a ghastly storm. And Punta Gorda, Belize, has no harbor. We sailed for our lives back to Guatemala. January 2000.

I felt three inches tall. Here I was the great provider unable to assure a free flow of fresh water into the bowl. Civilization was lost and the airport at Liberia had flights to the US. I struggled some more and the pump pumped but no water came in. I sent my wife into the water with a screwdriver and she started poking the hole from the outside to dislodge any marine growth that might be blocking the pipe. "All clear" she mumbled through the fiberglass hull as I sweated and pumped in the hell hole inside.Ferries serving small villages between Colombia and Panama. January 2000.

I sat back completely defeated. My wife got back in the boat, quietly waiting while I wondered what the hell to do. So I did the only thing I could do. I pulled the effing pump apart one more time.I expected nothing but sometimes stupidity repeats itself and I had to get the thrice damned thing working. Instead I found something.Gas station, pull up in your dinghy. Rio Diablo, San Blas Islands, Panama. December 1999.

"Dammit!" I said, or something stronger. "Why the hell did you put a tampon in the toilet?" I couldn't believe my eyes there was a little gray wad wedged in the corner of the pump inlet pipe, blocking the water flow. We never ever put anything into the toilet that we hadn't eaten first, for years, an inflexible rule on our boat to avoid just these scenes. "I didn't!" she protested and I started to think terrible thoughts about women and their protestations of innocence. Someone had to be blamed for this nightmare that had reduced me to quivering incoherence.Technical sailing in the Panama Canal. September 1999. Three months before the handover.

I pulled the little tampon out of the pump and discovered that indeed it was a fish, a very dead fish. "See!" my wife laughed at me cheerfully as I ruefully reassembled the pump for the sixteenth time and found myself immensely cheered to see fresh clean salt water swirling once again around the porcelain bowl. My momentary loss of faith in myself, in my wife, in modern marine plumbing was banished. We had civilization back.Thanksgiving 1999. On a deserted San Blas island, and food flown in from Panama City!
The only thing I can figure is the fish must have taken to hiding in the inlet pipe and got sucked up when I pumped the pump blocking the flow of water. So when I sent my wife to poke the inlet with the screwdriver she covered his emergency exit and on my final effort to suck in water I sucked him into the pump to his death. Frankly he deserved it as his antics had made me damn near crazy.

From the road. Contadora Islands, Panama. Thank you Anna and Ian of Joss (now Gecko). 

And thus it was we sailed on to new adventures, exploring deserted island etc.. etc... with a fully functioning toilet. The beauty of it was that though I got short tempered and irritated beyond belief, and I spread the irritable metaphoric shit around by myself, my sailing companion on this occasion, thought the whole exercise was a tremendous joke and a great opportunity to go for a swim. So I guess I have got some things right in my old age. Like the company I keep when I am around marine toilets. I managed on the second occasion to find a woman that still loved me when I was an idiot.End of one adventure, beginning of another. Miki G at Key West, February 2000.
Imagine that, this woman sailed with me for two years and has since endured countless road trips and adventures in dozens of uncomfortable places and she still likes living with me. It takes a marine toilet I guess to test a woman's mettle, as much as the head room on a boat.