Jun 26, 2022

The beginning of the sailing season aboard sv NIRVANA has officially begun! After five weeks at Spring Point Marina in South Portland, we finally untethered from the dock on June 16. Living aboard at the marina allowed us to enjoy the proximity to Bug Light, downtown Portland, friends, and family, as well as to ready the boat for our second sailing season in Maine.

Our first cruise is an overnight to Jewell Island with our new friends Bill and Kristin, whom we met at DiMillo’s last winter. Although neither of them has much sailing experience, they bought a 49’ boat a year ago and have been rebuilding nearly every system and lived aboard most of the winter. We leave in a thunderstorm, have a short sail after the weather cleared, and then pull into the anchorage just as more rain descends. It’s fun showing them our ropes, grilling fish in the cockpit, feasting on fresh bread and pancakes, hiking around the island, and climbing the tall tower that gives a wonderful view of Casco Bay. Let the summer games begin!

We take various friends out for a sail locally in Casco Bay, including a birthday cruise to the Goslings and taking the dinghy ashore on the white sand beach on Long Island. After walking across the island, we discover a small café and buy a blueberry pie, which we share in the cockpit.

As we’re raising sail on the way back, we lose our jib halyard up the mast. Damn! Next day, Will makes arrangements with Bill to meet us at Knight’s Landing in South Portland to help haul him up the mast in the bosun’s chair to retrieve it. Will was calm and steady, and I was surprisingly nerve-free despite his height of at least 35 feet up.

Knight’s Landing is a little hidden gem under the Casco Bay Bridge that connects Portland and South Portland where Will spent most of the summer two years ago with his former boat. The dock has a bird’s eye view of the oil tankers coming and going so has a very industrial feel and is a local haunt for those in the know, especially because you can stay overnight for free. We meet the usual cast of characters—a pair of fishermen brothers, one of whom has been living on his scrappy, demasted boat and gives us a half dozen crabs from his brother’s lobster boat; the guy who runs the South Portland Sailing School and happens to have bought our old mooring; and none other than Simon and Jill, my son and daughter-in-law, doing a Solstice sunset cruise on Jill’s boat, On the Rocks Cocktail Cruises. Jill got her captain’s license two years ago and is running her boat for the second year, this time with a liquor license.

We spend a few low-key nights at Clapboard Island just across from Falmouth Foreside where I used to keep my Sabre 28 sailboat. Never having gone ashore here, we discover a sweet writer’s hut owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, where we come across a book with a chapter dedicated to Alna, Maine, the town where my relatives have lived since the 1940’s.

One morning we’re invited aboard the Linda Kate, a 40’ fishing boat whose captain Will got to know at DiMillo’s as he was preparing his boat for the season. In addition to lobstering, his boat is now outfitted for purse seining and scalloping to diversify his catch. His wife is one of the newest aquaculture farmers in the bay growing and harvesting sea kelp. He invites us aboard for a day of fishing and we readily accept. We wake at 5:30 AM and watch as they haul the huge net aboard for a day of pogie fishing. With two crew, Will who is willing to get his hands dirty, and me, the film crew, we have an extraordinary experience fishing for pogies, which is one of the primary bait fish for lobster. It takes a while to locate a school among the other fishing boats, but eventually he spots one based on the oily purplish water and “flips,” not to mention the seals who are circling for food. With great finesse, they drop the net being careful not to catch a foot in the line and begin to circle up the fish when the captain realizes he didn’t attach a line, so out pour all the fish! With the assistance of a hydraulic winch, they haul the net, carefully packing the floats and metal rings so it can again run free. Another hunting expedition and we regroup around the same school, set the net again, and this time, haul eight barrels, only half of the legal catch for each boat. We are regaled by his crew who is extremely knowledgeable about purse seining and lobstering and is on the verge of launching a new sustainable fishery business he’s invented for crabs, squid, and whelks. Impressive!

*     *     *

But lest you think that our pre-sailing season has been all smooth sailing, let us now share some of the experiential learning that has led up to our casting off from the dock. When it comes to boat preparation, I am someone who emphasizes planning, list-making, and methodical progress, and I dive in only when I feel sufficiently prepared. But how prepared can you really be when there’s still so much that’s unknown and we’re both still learning? Another approach is to simply “go for it” and figure it out as you go. Obviously, there’s a place for both, especially when so much depends on the unpredictable nature of nature, humans, and the material world!

*     *     *

Our planning starts in February when we order a composting toilet kit to replace our head to avoid having to find places to pump out our holding tank while cruising. Will had experience with one on his previous boat and was a big advocate, so he dives in carving a 5-gallon bucket to fit the “pee diverter” and then carving a wedge out of the bottom of the bucket to place it closer to the curved wall of the hull. Next comes removing the existing head and hoses (thank you Will for taking on that nasty job), installing the bucket and hoses, and fitting a teak plywood cover over the whole area, complete with hinged openings for trash and the composting material, in our case, coffee chafe. This stuff is a bi-product of the coffee roasting process and can be obtained in huge quantities for free from our local coffee roaster in Portland. It’s light and fluffy, absorbs moisture, and you guessed it, smells like coffee, which is pretty sweet when blending with poop to absorb not only the moisture but the smell.

The last step is deciding what to do with the pee, which when separated from the poop doesn’t smell either, as long as you empty it regularly. Normally, composting toilets—or more accurately, dehydrating toilets—collect pee in a container that you then have to dump overboard, which, in case you’re wondering, is safe because it’s inert. In our case, after much debate, we decide to attach a hose to the diverter and plumb it directly into the waste hose below the sink, and out it goes with an electric pump. So now, we push a button to flush the pee directly overboard, along with a splash of fresh water we recycle from rinse water in the galley. What a great system! Well, except that sometimes water or pee spills over into the coffee-chafe-covered poop making it soggy. 😦 Will has since modified the diverter and extended the hose so it can hold more liquid before being pumped overboard.

We also installed a salt water foot pump for the galley sink for a first rinse of dishes. This hose connects to the through-hull that used to serve the head. This will save us a lot of fresh water and the “free” saltwater allow for generous rinsing of our cook- and place-ware.

Life is an experiment.

*     *     *

It’s April 15 and time to leave our winter slip at DiMillo’s and motor a mile across Portland Harbor to a temporary mooring at Spring Point in South Portland where we planned to leave the boat while we were gone for a few weeks out west. The mooring ball is due to go in a few days later, so we head to Spring Point Marina in South Portland for a couple days. We’d removed the shrink wrap a week earlier, retrieved the dinghy from the house, and changed the oil in preparation for the short trip across the harbor. After a winter of sitting idle, the engine fires up on the second try so we’re pleased and set off. Fifteen minutes later, a loud alarm sounds. Having just changed the oil, our minds immediately go to the oil pressure alarm, until smoke starts billowing out of the engine compartment. The sails aren’t bent on, so stopping the engine in the middle of the harbor doesn’t seem wise. The thought occurs to snag a mooring ball or hail a passing motor boat, but Will is busy trying to see what’s wrong and the boat hook is still stowed below. Instead, we push on for another ten minutes until we reach the dock, smoke pouring from the engine, neither one of us able to imagine what the cause might be.

Will reaches out to our friendly mechanic Alec whom we met in Belfast and has been beyond helpful to us as we continue to learn about our diesel engine. His first question is, “Did you open the raw water sea cock?” “SHIT!” we both utter out loud when we realize that we’d made a major, rookie blunder. The all-important sea cock supplies sea water to the engine to help cool it while it’s running, along with fresh water coolant. No sea water and the engine overheats in a hurry, along with burning out the impeller, the little rubber gadget that circulates water through the engine, and melting the plastic 60-degree exhaust. OUCH! That is a painful learning experience that we will never repeat. The good news is that in the process, we learn how to replace the impeller, inspect and clean the heat exchanger, and flush the hoses of impeller debris, of which there was plenty.

All these items back to square one and the sea cock now in the open position, we ready ourselves to motor ten minutes from the dock to the now-in-place mooring to leave the boat while we’re away on the West Coast. And wouldn’t you know it, the alarm goes on again, despite the care we had just given our poor engine, but we leave the next day and there’s no time to diagnose it. Upon our return, we run the engine a third time to haul the boat so we can clean the bottom and replace the zincs, and the alarm sounds again! The marina staff brings the boat back to our slip.

We add coolant, remove and test the thermostat, which is functioning as it should, and discover a broken seal on the radiator cap. We give it one more test, revving it up in reverse at the dock and using our new laser heat gun to test the temperature throughout the engine. No overheating! Next day we take it out circling close to the marina for 30 minutes and still no overheating.

We’re feeling both relieved and emboldened by our newfound understanding of our cooling system and decide to take on the long overdue task of flushing the icky brown-green coolant and replacing it with the recommended extended life red stuff. Two days and five flushes later, we are savvy and quick at this procedure, our coolant is now a rosy red, and both we and our engine are calm, cool, and collected. The experiential learning continues!

*     *     *

We’re getting ready to move onto the boat and decide to install our bimini and dodger. The bimini had eluded us when we bought the boat so we never used it. This year we decide to try it again and realize the deck fittings that the thing attaches to were installed backwards such that there was no way it could attach. We reverse the fittings and voila, the bimini now slips directly into the slots as it should.

We move on to a minor repair of the cracked plastic windows on the dodger and install it, leaving two of the hooks detached so the repair can dry. That night, there are 35 mph winds. Next morning, we come back to the boat to a shredded dodger and a sinking feeling. We’re already planning on buying new sails later in the season and found a one man shop in Boothbay who still measures sails in the old-school way by stretching them out on the floor and with a block and tackle. We weren’t planning on a new dodger too, but I guess it aged out and needed replacing.

We race to find someone to get started on it before we leave for the west coast only to find the businesses are too busy or they quote outrageously high, though we find another guy who agrees to do it for almost half, but it won’t be ready until mid- to late-June. We get a call in early June saying he’s started making the dodger but is encountering issues because the old once didn’t quite fit the frame, so he unexpectedly abandons the project in the middle, refunding our deposit and giving us his work on the almost finished roof. We scramble and by stroke of luck find an 80-year-old guy who agrees to pick up the job in the middle. Amazingly he had the time and was up for the challenge. Now that’s our kind of guy! We pick up the dodger any day now and will install the snaps ourselves to make sure it fits. And the adventure continues!

*     *     *

Next on the list is replacing our rusty, plastic-coated, wire lifelines with Dyneema, a braided rope made of fibers that are stronger than steel, making it an excellent choice for this application. We had bought the stuff on sale last year and had it in our “project box,” but first we had to learn a Brummel splice and buy the proper Swedish fids. Amazingly, when we were in Italy, out of the blue my brother Tyler said one day, “Want to learn a Brummel splice?” “We sure do!” So he taught us the basics and we got to practice a few splices on some line he had laying around.

However, as we find out, doing a single splice is significantly easier than figuring out how to turn pieces of Dyneema into lifelines! This project turns out to be far more challenging than we imagine as we puzzle through how to attach the lines to the stanchions when you need two ends to do a splice, making them the right length given shrinkage, and finding the right hardware for tensioning the lines. After much discussion and many YouTube videos and days of experimentation later, we’re now pretty proficient at the lock splice and bury, and we’ve exercised our hands-on spatial geometric reasoning to create eight beautiful new lifelines and cross-bracing to stabilize our davits! Through this process, we’ve learned a lot about how differently we approach such projects and the importance of hands-on experiential learning.

*     *     *

And if all that wasn’t enough, one night, we return to the boat to the sound of the CO alarm. Mystified, we open the hatches and wait for the alarm to turn off. On the next night sleeping aboard the boat, we’re suddenly awakened by the alarm again. Now we’re getting nervous as we know carbon monoxide is an invisible killer, thus the alarm. But we’re not burning any fuel so can’t imagine what it could be. We open the hatches and sleep with extra blankets. This happens several more times until we learn that charging our lead acid batteries generates hydrogen gas, which the CO monitor registers along with CO. Common knowledge? Not for us, but now we know and bring the alarm in our cabin instead of right over the batteries where the hydrogen likely won’t reach. Experiential learning strikes again!

*     *     *

All this is to say that along with significant planning, list-making, and doing on both our parts, there’s been plenty of experiential learning along the way—about our boat, about our process, about each other, and about ourselves. We’ve appreciated all of it as we launch ourselves into our new season aboard sv NIRVANA for another summer of sailing and adventure, the outcome of which is as yet unknown!

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