Sunday, May 25, 2008

Post Script

I fixed the boat. Replaced the fuel filters, cleaned the separator globe, bled the fuel she is purring like a diesel-kitten.

And I bought a new VHF handheld purported to be an order of magnitude better than the one I already owned. Next time I need help, hopefully my transmission will be heard and I won't have to talk to some ditz in Virginia!

When You Dance With the San Francisco Bay, She Leads

There is this old adage, “Want to make god laugh? Tell him your plans.” The same could be said about the SF Bay. But let me start by sharing a little about the superstitions of maritime culture. I have read a bit of history regarding the last few hundred years of sailing….European sailing during the age of world exploration. A time before engines and the reliable clocks needed to calculate longitude. A time when getting a fix on a ships position would include taking sextant sights on a bucking square rigger and then spending the entire day doing a series of extremely complex trigonometry equations to get a rough and often unreliable estimated position. It has been written that during this time when a ship left the sight of land, sailors were basically lost. Even after a reliable clock was invented in the mid 1700’s sailors had to follow the trade winds, navigate without charts, work in unimaginably harsh conditions, eating shitty food, often suffering from scurvy, enduring the often brutal and absolute command of the captain. So it is not surprising that this culture gave rise to a rich and enduring set of superstitions…many of which influence sailors to this day.

These superstitions include: avoid flat-footed people when beginning a trip; never start a cruise on a Friday (I have read stories of contemporary sailors who have violated this one and believe they have paid a price!); always place a silver coin under the mast to ensure a successful voyage (just talked to a couple today who told me about the silver dollar they placed under their mast when they recently had it re-stepped); flowers and bananas are unlucky on board; it is unlucky to board a ship with the left foot first….and it is worse if you also sneeze to the left while doing so. In the North of England, during the caulking of a wooden boat a shipwright could claim a ‘caulking kiss’ from any passing girl. If she refused him, she had to pay a shilling (never tried this when doing my caulking…don’t know if it is honored in the SF Bay or on fiberglass boats).

Sailors have also always regarded the naked body of a woman as a luck-bringer, whether in reality or in the form of an effigy (well, I have had it both ways…sometimes lucky, sometimes not). And of course whistling aboard ship is supposed to invoke an adverse wind, which could harm the ship and crew. There are more, many more. And pervasive among contemporary sailors, good sailors, is a profound respect for the power of wind and sea. You are the guest, the sea is boss, be respectful and humble, and don’t tempt fate.

Day One
So fast forward to May 2008. It was about 11am and Val and I readied the boat for a sail, taking off the sail covers, tying the sheets to the jib, donning life vests, turning on the battery and instruments, starting the engine. It was warm and I was in shorts and a light jacket as we motored out of the marina and into the channel towards the Bay…the two of us chatting about where to go. The predictions called for mellow tides and currents and so we decided to head for the gate. It wasn’t an hour later that the wind predictably increased and things got cold…soon I was below putting on my foulies and a fleece. Maybe 20 knots…typical.

Val can sail, so despite the increasing winds we kept heading west beating into the wind, the waves and chop gaining height and intensity. West past Alcatraz we were in 25 knots. Again, typical. We both love all points of sail, the quiet calm of a broad reach and the noisy dramatic splash-filled ride of beating into the wind. Undaunted we kept heading west.

We gabbed and gabbed about sailing and life. Val is a butch dyke, 10 years my senior. I taught her to sail a couple of summers ago and she has taken classes and improved her proficiency. Usually we start out talking about sailing and boats and then move onto the subject of grrls when we hit Alcatraz (Val and I have logged a lot of hours together on the Bay and we have noticed this pattern). Suddenly Val’s attention moved beyond our conversation….she noted that the fog was moving in under the gate, moving at a quick clip. Yep. I looked around and noticed we were also getting flanked by the fog as it creeped over the city behind us, moving towards the space between us and my marina in Emeryville. Hmmm...noted. Then I made a stupid error….I unknowingly taunted the gods. I simply said, “Ya know, in all my years sailing the Bay I have never been caught in fog thick enough where I couldn’t get where I was going.” Val looked at me…you shouldn’t say that right now. Mer, I exclaimed in my head, what the fuck were your thinking! Keep your pie-hole shut! Don’t casually make such stupid observations while in the middle of the Bay in 25+ knots of wind with the fog booking in. Just don’t do that! It was too late. My fate was sealed.

Change of plans. Lets duck behind Angel Island. We’ll keep good wind. Great. We fell off the wind, adjusted the sails and settled into a calmer rhythm of a beam reach….then a broad reach. It was sunny and easy sailing as we cruised through Raccoon Straight between the mainland of Tiburon and Angel Island. We could no longer see the gate as we emerged east of the island….it was sunny and warm. Then we looked south. Fog. Dark ominous fog so thick we could no longer see the Bay Bridge, downtown Oakland, SF, Treasure Island….all of it obscured. Val and I looked at each other and contemplated what to do.

We talked it over and agreed to go for it….to make our way through the fog back to the marina. We headed towards the closest channel marker and figured a compass course to the next one. Red 6 channel marker. Yep, we know where we are. Headed to the next one….we were back in the slot. The wind was gusting to over 30 knots. We were over powered….too much sail up. I went to start the engine to pull into the wind to furl the jib….the engine sputtered and died. Oh shit. We can’t get the jib down. I lost steerage….shit. Wait for the sails to fill….steering again we bucked too fucking close to the buoy…almost hit it. We can’t see anything to the south…all of sudden a ship as big as a building heading north pops through the fog to the west. This is insane. We could head north to Richmond and duck into the sunny Marina Bay. We agreed that we could fight it all, but why? We turned the boat around, got behind the island again…the winds moderated and we headed NNW towards Richmond. At the Richmond harbor the engine started and kept running. Thank god.

At the dock at Marina Bay a couple of little kids sat on the stairs looking down at my boat. They saw the Jolly Roger flag blowing on my stern flagpole…is that a pirate ship they asked with sweet innocence. That’s my boat. They gasped, are you a pirate? Yep. They stared at me wide-eyed and stunned. Just kidding guys, it’s just for fun, I don’t steal. I walked away feeling the hypocrite….the Bay had just kicked my sorry ass, had me fleeing north with my tail between my legs. Pirate? Hardly.

Val and I put the boat away and took a cab to Emeryville. Exhausted, we bid each other a goodnight. I called Jimmy. You’re sailing tomorrow buddy, we gotta get my boat home.

Day Two
Next day Jimmy and I sleep in, are lazy, get a late start. We get to the marina mid-day. Shit. The fog is already in thick and dark. We drive to the point and look north…the fog is still high above the water. We can see through to Richmond. We drop Jimmy’s car at my marina and haul ass to Marina Bay and ready the boat. We head outta the harbor and the wind is already strong. Into the main channel of the Bay we are beating into strong waves…the ride is rough. Into the slot, we are now into gusts above 30 knots. It’s noisy and physical…waves crashing over the bow, showering us. Again, we decide to drop the jib to get more control, reduce our power. I go to start the engine to pull the boat into the wind….she won’t start. Sputtering…again and again we try. I instruct Jimmy to go below, open the engine compartment, try to prime the engine….pump the fuel line. He does it. Nothing. She won’t work.

We are now seeing gusts close to 40 knots. That is really fucking windy. To someone who has never sailed it is hard for me to describe the noise and intensity of the experience. And when you are in charge of the boat, well, the experience is exponentially more intense.

Jimmy is nervous…but I suddenly realize that doesn’t matter. Jimmy, the boat is hard to control. I need to be at the helm. You have to go forward and fight the jib in while I steer….that is the safest option at this point. You have to do it. He understands that I am right despite his fear. He trusts me. I am not negotiating or playing nice…there is not time for that. I am the captain in charge of our safety and I have made the decision and he understands. I talk him through what he needs to do. Release the halyard and then rush towards the bow on your knees. Stay low, hold on, and pull the jib in at the stay. It will be noisy and chaotic and hard because the wind will fight your efforts….so move quickly. I turn the boat into the wind…we are bucking violently into the waves…the bow crashing through them. Jimmy heads to the mast, releases the halyard, crawls towards the bow. I am screaming directions…he fights the sail in…he’s being tossed about. He finally ties down the sail…secures the halyard again…crawls back to the cockpit. He’s soaked but safe…he is breathing hard…he rests and regains some composure. I tell him he did good….he rallied. This is not fun. For either of us.

Next I radio Vessel Assist to send a boat to tow us into the marina. I am on my handheld VHF radio and the local captain can’t hear me well…can’t hear my position. He tells me to use my cell and call central dispatch. I do. A woman in Virginia answers and asks me if I have my membership number. Fuck no! I am in the cockpit helming my boat in 35 knot winds! I am pissed. She takes my name…she fumbles around…putting me on hold…asking how to spell Emeryville. She is clueless. Tells me the boat is coming from Bethel Island! Are you kidding me? That’s hours up the delta! I know she is wrong. I know the skipper comes from Alameda. She gives an hour ETA. I hang up. I hope he is coming. We wait, sailing back and forth into the intense winds….holding a position far enough off shore to stay safe. It is cold, rough, noisy. We are hungry and exhausted. Alas I think I see Captain Gary heading under the Bay Bridge. I call on the radio and ask if that is his position. Affirmative. I say I am just off his port-bow with a reefed-mainsail up. Roger. He sees me. We’re safe now. I sail towards the channel with Gary following on my quarter. At last he says he’s gonna tow us through the channel instead of coming along side….too rough. We’ll raft up to you in the harbor. Roger. His deckhand tosses the lines, Jimmy secures them. A half hour later we are in my slip where it is relatively calm.

We start cleaning up the Donna Clare…the mess in the cabin, putting the sail covers on, hosing her off, hosing each other off in our foulies, washing off the saltwater. We settle into the cabin changing into our land clothes. We debrief. Jimmy looks at me seriously and asks if I could have picked him up if he had fallen in while fighting the jib. Probably not. Not without hurting him. It was too rough. I explain I would have circled him…thrown him the life sling to keep him tethered to the boat….called mayday…waited for the coast guard to pluck him up. Clipping him into a halyard and winching him up would have beat him up…would be safer to wait for the coasties. Their response time would probably have been 10 mintes. We were close to the station. He nods.

The Bay is cold….low 50sF. Depending on the individual response one could stay conscious for 30 to 90 minutes if they stayed still, didn’t panic, conserved their heat. One could easily die within an hour or two of immersion. Jimmy knows what to do. We have gone over it many times. If you go in, you will immediately start hyperventilating. Let it happen. Don’t fight it. It will last about two minutes and then stop. Your job is to curl up and let your vest float you. Don’t move. Don’t swim. Conserve your energy/heat. Let help come to you.

I tell Jimmy the steaks are on me. We go home and take hot showers and head to Quinns, a lighthouse bar and grill on the Oakland Inner Harbor...a place of brass and wood and model boats. We often go here after a sail. It's fitting. We watch the sunset over the boats all safely nestled in their slips. I think back….did I greet a flatfooted soul before the weekend? Did I whistle? Did I board with my left foot? Sneeze to the left? No bananas or flowers on board…of this I am sure.

There is another sailing adage I heard years ago and it is burned into my sailor-mind because it is as concise as it is true: you can learn to sail in an afternoon, but it takes a lifetime to learn seamanship. I am a humble student. I think back on the weekend…I could have made different choices. Could have hid behind the island and hove to…tried to bleed the fuel line underway. Could have tried sailing into the marina…but I don’t feel skilled enough for this. Could have headed back towards Richmond…but I had a busy week ahead and that would mean a week as a guest at the marina.

Another rule of thumb for sailing: never sail on a schedule. It leads to poor decisions. I have read many accounts of this one in action. When I invite people to come sailing they will often naively ask if I can have them back to the dock by say 4:00pm sharp. I smile. Nope. Can’t promise that. I am not that good of a sailor…and when you dance with the Bay, she leads. There are too many variables. I offer that the odds are really good that I can have them back by the end of the day…by boat or by cab. But ya never really know....

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

It is 190 degrees in my office, there are 7 million bugs in the house and the yard….agressive spiders are multiplying and plotting an attack on humans, the dogs are shedding 3 pounds of fur an hour, I am suffering from heat exhaustion…and every homo in California is getting married except me! And, well, the whole situation has me on a hyperbole bender…

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

“Oh boy…”

This is not something you wanna hear uttered from the mouth of your doctor! But today, that’s exactly what was said as Dr. Bruce rubbed my back, felt my spine and shoulders….”oh boy.” Of course I started laughing and explaining that these were not reassuring words to hear. Bruce is a kind man, a gay man, a family man with strong, confident hands and a quirky sense of humor. Our appointments are always a nice blend of me moaning and the both of us giggling….me confessing my self-abuses, Bruce counseling me, giving me instructions for stretches and telling me what I already know and need only get better about practicing. So after he opined about how bad my back looked, we got to talking about the things you don’t ever wanna hear your doctor say, like “woops” or “it’s bad” or “oh boy” (with a sigh).

This of course led me to share one of the most unusual compliments I ever received. Last year I had to have surgery to remove an ovary because of a cyst. It was done laprascopically and I had the strange privilege of getting pictures of the procedure….pictures from the inside. I took these strange photos with me to my appointment with my regular doctor, Beth. Beth studied the photos and without looking up said, “You have very nice looking insides.” I said, “Beth are you kidding me?” “No! You have very healthy looking insides.” Of course I laughed and also felt good that my doctor was telling me my guts looked healthy.

When I shared this story Bruce laughed and said, “ baby! You could probably attract a doctor!” I cracked the fuck up! So now I am sitting here pondering the wisdom of adding to my personals profile one or two glossy’s of my guts. Hmmm.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jimmy Move's Into the Castle...Now the King has a Jester!

We did the math, it’s been almost 20 years since we last lived together. We were kids then, technically adults, but we were really just kids sorting our lives, trying to figure out how to move through the world without the comfort and company of our dear mother.

I have known Jimmy his whole life, and he has known me for his whole life…and I have known only a few young years without him. I remember my mother being pregnant with the twins, Jimmy and Lauri. She was a petite woman, maybe 5’4” and 120 pounds…but she was as a big as a house with those two little ones nestled inside her. It was early June 1968 when the doctor finally heard two heartbeats….twins. That explained why she was so big. Ten days later they were born 6 weeks early (typical for twins). Jimmy came out first, the older brother by 15 minutes. Laurs lingered a bit. Premature, they had to stay in the hospital for a week in incubators….weighing only a couple-three pounds each. I remember going to the hospital, to the garden outside where one at a time my father lifted Juls and I up to the window so we could peer into the nursery and catch our first glimpse of our little brother and sister.

I taught Jimmy how to play sports, football, baseball, basketball….rough games of smear-the-queer (hey, I wasn’t socially conscious when my age was a single digit). I kicked his ass, taught him how to ride a skateboard, a bike….and I played sergeant to his private, he and the other little boys my little platoon. I also gave Jimmy a hard time. He was a little goober with a lazy eye that had him in thick glasses with a patch over one eye. He wore his pants up near his armpits with his belt pulled so tight we called him Sinbad-the-Sailor (after the Saturday morning cartoon caricature). He would neurotically rub his head on his bed and make a snarled mess of his hair and my mother would brush it out as he protested with loud cries and screams. He was sensitive and we teased him relentlessly.

Jimmy and I were friends for a long time, until we weren’t. He was in high school and I am not sure what all informed it, but we had a split. Home was a complex mesh of comfort, familiarity, pathology…..alcoholism, my dad’s inability to connect or be kind. I took the brunt of my dad’s criticism and antagonism, but Jimmy was not that far behind. We were rough around the edges then, tough, angry….Jimmy and I more alike than not in our sensitivity and emotion and neurosis. I remember the day we stopped talking…we fought, although I don’t remember about what. He was insulting me, mean-below-the-belt insults, sitting on the stairs, baiting me, saying “why don’t you just hit me? Come up here and hit me! Right now!” We were yelling. My mom was there….I looked at her and with controlled rage said, “you better tell your son to shut his fucking mouth before I come up there and hit him…cause he’s big now and I will hit him hard so he doesn’t get up.” She told Jimmy to shut his mouth. I turned and left. After that Jimmy and I didn’t talk for a year. We lived together, but we didn’t talk.

My mom finally decided to get sober and insisted we all go to some family therapy session together. We did. We all sat in that little room with couches and pillows to hug, the seven of us, wanting to be supportive but also sighing and trying not to look too interested. Mike, the counselor, asked my mom what she needed from the family for support for her sobriety. The first thing she said, “I want Marie and Jimmy to start talking to each other again.” Jimmy and I looked at each other, shrugged and said, “ok.” We’ve pretty much been the best of friends ever since.

I have always been the big sister. The tough big sister. Jimmy has always been the antithesis of macho. He was born a skinny dude and has had the experience in life that comes with that biology and being male. His strategy has always been to lay low, don’t confront, make people laugh instead. When he would hear a scary noise in the backyard at night, he would come into my room and wake me….ask me to check on things. I would check it out. Don’t worry Jimmy, it was just a cat in the wood pile. He would go back to bed reassured.

There was the big kegger party I said Jimmy could have if I chaperoned and controlled the door (when the folks were outta town). I got diverted because Juls’ dog got hit by a car and I had to go with her to the emergency vet (a whole other story unto itself). I returned a couple hours later to a house teaming with drunk teenagers and cops everywhere. It was completely outta hand. The cops left and I continued to clear the house of all nonessential party friends and family. One guy was resisting and being belligerent as I pushed him to the front door. A dear family friend said, “hey why don’t you just leave you are not wanted here?” The guy hurled a really un-cool insult at her….that was it, you don’t insult my kin, insult me, but not them. I shoved his ass through the front door. He lunged back at me and I shoved him again and slammed the door on his fingers, breaking three of them. He was a big guy. He was coming at me. He was drunk. I wasn’t gonna fuck around. Jimmy’s friends were all around me and I knew they would have my back. He left injured and filled with rage…kicked a huge dent in the family wagon. Jimmy turned to me, “You don’t understand, that guy is crazy. He’s gonna kick my ass.” A few days later, said crazy guy approached Jimmy at school, fingers in a cast. Jimmy’s heart pounding….the guy says, “hey dude, I am sorry I was such an asshole. Tell your sister I am sorry.” Jimmy lived. No ass kicking. Although he feared it, people weren’t inclined to hurt him.

Then there was the time right after my breakup with my first girlfriend Tanya. I was devastated….could barely function…could barely get up in the morning and put on my shoes and socks. I was working at the homeless shelter….sitting in my office, unable to move, I called Jimmy. I don’t know what to do, Jimmy, I can’t move. I’m coming to take you to lunch….he was there in 10 minutes. We were poor back then and I remember Jimmy bought me a hamburger at some fastfood place and I was so touched by this simple generosity. We ate. He gave me tough love. Told me to stop analyzing. To accept she just doesn’t wanna be with me….whatever the reason. It no longer mattered the reason. It was a turning point. My little bro being my big bro. I was wounded and small and he was right there for me. He always has been.

There are countless stories I could recall and write about my little bro…but these came to mind on this day that Jimmy is moving his things into the front room of my little house in Oakland. I read this to Jimmy asking him to confirm my memory was accurate….he opined a little on the timing but said yep! That’s the way he remembers things too. He offered that I should add the story about knocking out his teeth. So here goes.

We were little kids playing football on the front lawn, I gave Jimmy a hard tackle and he slammed face first into the grass and his two front teeth flew out of his mouth. He got up, bloody, crying and ran into the house with me following feeling bad for hurting the little guy. My mother grabbed his face and assessed the damage and then turned to me seething with anger and said, “You get out there right now and find your brothers teeth!” I tried to comply… crawling around the front yard on my hands and knees, poking through the blades of grass….it didn’t happen. The teeth were gone forever….an offering to the gods of childhood football games. There are a few family pictures with Jimmy with no front teeth. I had knocked them out before their time….but eventually his grownup teeth came in and all was well and my mom forgave me.

So tonight we had a little welcome to the hood party for Jimmy. A few of my friends came over and we ate artichokes with garlic butter and drank sangria and sat around the fire pit telling stories. Then we bbq’d steaks and chicken and gathered round the table to eat….and the evening moved towards the predictable, Jimmy going off on some monolog that had the rest of us near pissing our pants! He was the only man at a table of queers….and he had us all laughing till we cried….Revi begging for mercy as she sprinted to the bathroom!

Jimmy and I are gonna be good roomies. He asked what the rules are….put down the toilet seat. He agreed. We move very easily with each other…we can talk about anything, like little boys in many ways, talking about sex or poop, whatever….nothing is sacred and our jokes are ridiculously crude and irreverent at times. But we talk easily about the serious stuff too….about feelings and relationships and all that shite so many men struggle with. Not Jimmy. He is very comfortable in his own skin.

I cringe at the thought of trying to use words to articulate the love and respect I have for my brother, for such a gesture would fall so grossly short. Suffice it to say, I love him unconditionally, feel the same in return, and respect him enormously. And lastly, something that I think speaks volumes, I regularly crave his company.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance

A Phaedrus (Pirsig’s) am I at times, classical in my approach, trying to figure things out through reduction, methodical deconstruction and rationality, mechanistic exploration…looking for the rules and laws, the predictable, repeatable, dependable. Logic-ing my way to fostering a diesel engine to perform. I have sat with the manual spread out in front of me as I compare the pictures, the metaphors, the representations of that which sits real, tangible before me, hundreds of bulky pounds of metal nestled into the hull of my boat. Loosen the nipple, drain the accumulated water from the separator…loosen the nut on the fuel filter housing, loosen the injector nut…pump to bleed the fuel line of all air, create the needed integrity, then tighten the bolts, push the start button. It works. It serves.

A Phaedrus am I at times, the romantic, contemplating how one can know a value, the quality of that which cannot be reduced, quantified, disassembled. Working to understand the intuition, the impressions, the art…people, love, respect, integrity, family, affinity… the possible, the infinite, the sublime, the ecstatic….anticipating the epiphanies.

A Phaedrus am I at times, fearing that I too will be reduced from the effort, rendered unconscious, a heap of human lying on the floor in a puddle of my own urine.

Perhaps I should take to the Pacific in my boat, the analog to Phaedrus’ northern plains on his motorcycle? Perhaps I should have a son so he could come with me….or maybe my dog Cosmo will do. She in many ways seems to already have it all figured out.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

What Makes Me Jump Up and Down, Point and Squeal Like a Little Kid?

Seeing porpoise surfing the waves next to my boat under the Golden Gate Bridge! Fucking awesome!!