Thursday, June 14, 2018


Here we are, at the end of our “Big Year”.  It’s been an incredible experience, one we will remember for the rest of our lives. Rick is already wistful for the time we’ve had on the boat. He’s had a very productive sabbatical year, writing most of the book he’s been working on, and thoroughly enjoying the mental space that the freedom from land-locked life afforded him. I, on the other hand, am very happy that we will soon be back on terra firma, with a real house, a real kitchen, and real internet once again. I’ve had a blast, but I’ve missed my friends, having space to stretch out, walks in the park, rotisserie chicken, not getting seasick… A year on a boat is a loooong time.

Back in the Slip!

A number of things need to happen before we can resume our land lives. First, we need to have a place to keep our boat. We had let our slip go when we left last July, and we weren’t sure there would be another one available. To further complicate things, Young’s Boatyard had been sold in our absence, and we had yet to meet the new owner, Anthony Steward. Luckily, “Ant”, as he likes to be called, is a terrific guy, and we’re sure we’ll be very happy back in our old haunts at Youngs. In fact, Ant has had his own sailing adventures, spending two years sailing solo around the world in a little open boat. Rick googled him after their first meeting and now has developed a wicked man-crush, making me watch YouTube videos about Ant, and worrying me that he’ll want to make a similar voyage himself sometime.

You can read about Ant here:

Next, we need wheels. We gave away Rick’s ancient car before we left, intending to keep my old junker for when we got back, but mine died pretty spectacularly soon afterwards so we ended up donating that one away too. Now we find ourselves in a catch-22; we need a car to drive around, looking for a car to buy. Rick’s brother Jim came to our rescue, finding us a fairly new Toyota at auction, and handling the tags and title process for us. Score!

Last, we need to move back into our house. The house is not exactly in the same condition it was in when we left; a leak in the roof has caused some interior plaster damage, some of the furniture is a bit worse for wear, there are some plumbing issues, and one of the trees has died. We may find more problems once we’re actually back in there, but even this preliminary list is a bit daunting.

Our house the way we remember it...

Rick and I have been struggling a bit with separation anxiety. We’re still living aboard the boat, in and out of the slip at Youngs, until we can get back into the house, and we’ve had a few occasions where we’ve been apart for a short time. A solo trip to the grocery store, or a lunch out with friends, nothing major. But after having spent an entire year living in 125 square feet of space, even a brief separation feels comically traumatic for both of us. The move to land life may be more difficult than we imagine.

There are some other transitions happening as well. My son Dewey graduated with his Masters degree in May. Dewey was born with a number of birth defects that have required numerous surgeries over the years. He also suffers from hearing loss and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), both of which have affected his relationships with people and his academic progress. Earning a Masters degree is a big deal for anyone, but for someone with Dewey’s issues, it is a huge accomplishment. I couldn't be more proud.

Dewey’s graduation was complicated by a really pesky back injury I suffered a month or so ago. I was standing on the companionway ladder when we suddenly ran full aground on a sand shoal. I flew backwards into the cabin and landed hard on my derrière, busting my tailbone. Ouch! I spent most of my time after that flat on my back in the v-berth and in a good deal of pain. By the time of Dewey’s graduation ceremony I was somewhat improved, but still found it difficult to walk or sit. But hey, there was no way I was missing my boy’s big day, even if it meant being hauled in on a stretcher! Doped up on mommy euphoria and pain pills, I limped into that arena with Rick, got seated in the handicapped area, and saw my baby graduate. Nothing better.

Then there was my “retirement” party.  I have been unable to play full time for the past three years due to some pretty debilitating overuse injuries in my neck and shoulder, elbows, back, etc. (Not helped by my latest butt-busting fall). My doctor has been telling me for the past year that my career as a professional violinist is over. I’ve been arguing with her, of course.  My physical problems really began about twelve years ago, and I’ve been experimenting with alternative ways of holding my instrument ever since, trying to eke out a just a few more years of playing. Now, permanently damaged, I am unable to play for even a few minutes without exacerbating my symptoms.  So, as of July 8, I’m being terminated by the BSO.

There are four musicians leaving this year, and the orchestra honored us with an onstage acknowledgement, and then an after party where we were all wined and dined, roasted and toasted, stories were shared and good-byes were said. But what can one really say about the end of a lifetime career?

My dear friend Ellen Troyer, eulogizing me

In my own case, I have to admit that it is not a completely sad event. In the course of the last years, when I was still playing full time, I had grown tired of the daily grind of practicing, the ball-and-chain-ness of having to drag my violin with me everywhere, even on the boat, in order to stay reasonably in shape. More recently, I’d begun dreading practicing, due both to the ever increasing physical discomfort produced by the act of playing, but also to the ever increasing amount of music that needed to be prepared each week. I seemed to have very little remaining patience for the behind-the-scenes politics at my workplace, and had become frustrated and angry about the uninspiring, non-existent interpretations of great masterworks by mediocre conductors. The old joy that I have felt for most of my professional career has been beaten down during the last decade, really only making an appearance for chamber music and certain guest conductors.

Nonetheless, I am sad to leave a career that connects me directly with my colleagues, the powerful action of combined efforts creating an experience of sound, the total of which being far greater than the sum of each individual contribution. I’ve always felt the spirituality of these moments on stage, the threads of sound weaving us all together, musicians, audience and the universe. I will miss being an active participant in that.

It seems unthinkable that I will never again play the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, or the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Shostakovich 5, Mahler 1, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Barber, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak, Stravinsky, on and on and on. Every piece that I hear on the radio now becomes my favorite work, my favorite composer, and I want to scream out in anguish, “BUT I WILL NEVER PLAY THIS AGAIN!!!”

There’s also the inconvenient and down-to-earth problem of not getting paychecks. My disability insurance premiums may or may not continue after July 8, and if I am ultimately unsuccessful with my claim, I will have a few years of zero income before I can start collecting social security, pension and other traditional retirement benefits. Having spent my entire life – since the age of ten – intensely focused around the violin and other music related pursuits, I find myself with no other marketable skills.  And at the age of fifty-nine, not a lot of time (or inclination) left to learn something new.

Luckily, Rick makes a decent living, and we have some savings built up. We may need to exchange our house for something smaller, but there are certainly worse things that people can suffer. We’ll be okay.

Even if the disability company comes through, what will I do with my time? I’m actually not too worried about that question. My sewing machine collection has been languishing in our basement for the past year, and I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to it while we’ve been on the boat. My quilting has never been professional quality, and I am a poor excuse for an artist, but I thoroughly enjoy piecing fabric together into something new. I’ve long used quilting as an antidote for the momentariness of music, something tangible that can be held in your hand and touched, as opposed to the ethereal, temporary quality of my work with the violin. I am looking forward to devoting some real time to my craft.

Baby Quilt

Another baby quilt

Twin-sized for Dewey

I may not be able to make music on my own any more, but we’ve been doing a good deal of listening to music while on the boat. We’ve got a pretty good sound system down below, and every evening while I’m making dinner, Rick acts as DJ. I’ll admit, I can’t yet listen to my own chamber music recordings, it’s just too painful. But I’ve enjoyed listening to piano music, stuff I never played myself. Over the course of the year, we’ve developed two standard “must-plays”.

The first is Brahms Intermezzo, op.118, no.2. This is a piece I used to listen to every night in college when I was having trouble sleeping. I rediscovered it at the beginning of our boat trip, and Rick and I spent an entire evening listening to every version we could find on the internet in an effort to find the best one. Grimaud, Rubinstein, Kissen (surprisingly yucky), many others. The hands-down winner was Radu Lupu, from a 1976 recording. We bought our copy, but here’s the same one on youtube:

Next in the playlist is the real theme song of our year away, and I always need to hear it right after the Brahms. Just in case you think we only listen to classical music here on Valkyrie, think again, because we have very eclectic tastes (and also, Rick wouldn’t last a day if he couldn’t listen to his beloved Stones). This is a country classic, sung by Peter Wolf, called “Nothing but the Wheel”. The lyrics are what draw me to this song, and although it’s really about a road trip, I always think of the big wheel in our cockpit, the wind, and the night sky. 

Tomorrow we go home.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Draining the Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp is a lovely place. Really. According to Wikipedia, William Byrd II was leading a land survey in the area in 1728, and he apparently had many not-so-nice things to say about his experience there. We have him to thank for naming it the Dismal Swamp. In the years since, it has become a National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 112,000 acres of beautiful, forested wetlands.

(from the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center website, October 30, 2017)

The canal that cuts through the eastern edge of the swamp is an alternative route of the ICW, connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. When we came down in the fall, the swamp canal had just reopened after a year-long closure due to damage from hurricane Mathew. The main route is called the Virginia Cut. It is also beautiful, but less wild, and it stayed open after the hurricane for boats to travel down the ICW. We thought we would be one of the lucky first vessels to go through the swamp after it re-opened, but then we did some online research. The canal had been dredged and was safe to traverse, but after so many months of inactivity, the surface of the water was covered in a heavy carpet of duckweed. Looking like algae from a distance, up close you can see that duckweed is actually made up of tiny leaves, making a thick green soup. You can get an overheated engine if the stuff clogs your water intake. The canal website showed scary pictures, and warned that the duckweed was the worst they had ever seen it. Sadly, we chickened out and took the Virginia Cut instead.


Since then, we’ve met up with other cruisers who had taken the Swamp route, and they all said that the duckweed was no big deal. Rick has decided that the way our boat is configured, with the cooling water intake mounted low on the hull and a good strainer on the water hose higher up, we will be okay too. While we aren’t completely sure of the status of the duckweed this spring, we’re determined not to miss out again on our way north.


Walking tour with "Savannah Dan"


Magnolia Plantation 

Magnolia Plantation
Awaiting  dinner at Husk

Myrtle Beach

Cyprus trees are KING in the low-country

We’ve been steadily making our way up the ICW, stopping in Savannah, Charleston, and Myrtle Beach, SC. Along the way, Rick has started a driftwood-themed photography project:

Always the philosopher, Rick seems to be fascinated these days with death and decay. Very uplifting. He’s also been tempting fate by adding to his collection of boat disaster photos. Thankfully, his conspicuous enjoyment in creating this album of other peoples’ misfortunes has not resulted in any divine retribution involving a disaster of our own. At least, not yet.

After spending the night just north of Elizabeth City, NC, we are ready for our one-day trip up the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. As we head out early in the morning, we can see that any lingering fears about the duckweed are almost completely unfounded. After a winter of boating activity in the canal, the surface of the water is beautifully clear and glassy, the only duckweed relegated to the very edges of the canal. Everything is gloriously still, and even with the sound of our engine, we can hear the birds calling to one another.

We will encounter two locks today, one near the beginning and the other at the end, the bookends of the canal. Having only gone through one other lock aboard Valkyrie, last fall in the Virginia Cut, we’re still excited about the whole lock experience, and we don’t even try to hide our school-kid giddiness as we enter the area. We are definitely not the only ones feeling this way. The powerboat directly ahead of us is named Magic, and a member of her crew yells out to us, “Isn’t this AWESOME?!!!”

The lockmaster corrals us into place on the port side, and instructs us to hold on to our docking lines as the water rises. We will be rising up about eight feet, and the lines will need to be tightened on the way up. The lock gate closes behind us, and then water from the north side is allowed to slowly drain in while we float gently upwards. 

Just in case you were tempted...

Once we have risen enough to come even with the northern water level, the gate in front of us opens, and we move off into the canal and past the draw bridge, one by one. As we’re leaving, the lockmaster warns us, “Watch out, you may encounter some kayaks or canoes up ahead.” Okay, no problem.

Some kayaks or canoes”????

It’s Paddle for the Border, an event for over three hundred participating kayakers, canoers, and paddle boarders, who are making their way along the Dismal Swamp Canal from South Mills, NC to Chesapeake, VA, where they will join up for a picnic lunch. This only happens one day out of the whole year, and lucky us, today’s the day! We pick our way through the throng, Rick at the wheel, and me on the bow, blowing Rick’s battered old moose horn to try and warn the paddlers of our approach. I may be a trained musician, but I am no wind player. My calls on this instrument sound more like a sick cow than a moose. But the people we pass are very good-natured about it all, asking what the heck is making that noise, and joking about hitching a ride with us.

The canal crosses the border between North Carolina and Virginia, and there’s a great two-sided sign on the east bank, letting you know which state you’re in. The Dismal Swamp Hotel was built on the west bank, completely astride that state line, at about the time the canal opened in 1805. This created some advantages for gamblers who frequented the place. If a sheriff arrived, they would simply move to the opposite side of the room, across the state line where the lawman had no jurisdiction. Sounds like a fun place, but sadly, that hotel no longer exists.

As we passed through the thicket of kayaks and canoes at their lunch spot turn-off landing, we promised to join them again next year, but hopefully on kayaks. Registration for the Paddle starts in January, and we were warned that it fills up fast, so if you’d like to meet us there, mark it down in your calendar!

We had the canal to ourselves once again, and it was smooth sailing (or motoring) up to the last lock. Then we re-entered the Chesapeake for the first time since last November. After anchoring in Portsmouth, VA, just south of Norfolk, we stole ashore for a celebratory dinner at the marina. It feels good to be almost home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Running Amuck

Sailing out into the open ocean can be a scary proposition. Out of sight of land, and out of cellphone and internet range, the off-shore sailor can find him- or herself in an unexpected storm with nowhere to hide. Equipment failures, health crises, falling overboard - all nightmare scenarios for a blue water boater. But the one disaster you will thankfully almost never encounter while out in the deep blue sea is running aground.
Georgia ICW

The ICW is a set of protected waterways that are just inland of the Atlantic, made up of rivers, canals and inlets that provide a pathway north and south for traveling boaters. Many areas of this meandering snake are very shallow, particularly at low tide, and are maintained by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), who are mandated by law to cut through the low spots regularly to ensure a mean low depth of at least twelve feet. Because they don’t dredge the entire waterway, but only a very narrow channel, this results in a deceptively wide body of shallow water with only a thin cutout for boats to pass through, not unlike a very narrow two-lane country road. It’s not for nothing that the ICW is nicknamed “The Ditch” by boaters. The USACE is also in charge of checking the channel markers periodically and, if necessary, move them to reflect the latest shoaling of a constantly changing bottom. Unfortunately though, they don’t catch everything, and due to chronically low government funds for dredging, the depths are inconsistent. Things can change so rapidly that sometimes even updated charts are just woefully wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, we crossed over from the Bahamas to Florida, joining the ICW at Fort Pierce. Since then, we have been working our way north, looking forward to revisiting some of our favorite stops from our trip south, and hopefully discovering some new places as well. We spent a lovely Easter holiday in Vero Beach  - “Velcro Beach” to the locals, due to the hoards of boaters who travel down there and end up staying indefinitely. Leaving Vero behind, and looking to anchor in a little cove just south of New Smyrna, we suddenly found ourselves hard aground. True, we were off the beaten track, well off the “magenta line” that indicates the ICW route, but our chart plotter still showed that we had plenty of water under our keel. Clearly this wasn’t true.

Barely aground, still upright but stuck in the mud

No real reason to panic though; I have learned this by now. Just wait for the tide to come in and then you’ll float off. And we were intending to anchor here anyway, so not being able to go anywhere for a few hours was really not a big deal. Rick used the extra anchor, which has rope rode instead of chain, and ran it out in the dinghy to set it. He cleated it off at the stern so that he could later use the winch to help get us off the shoal. Then we had our usual evening routine of cocktails, dinner, and bed.

Around midnight or so, we were awoken by a reassuring rocking of the boat - we were floating free! But we were also completely turned around. Once the boat was released from the bottom, the current had swung it completely around, and since we were anchored from our stern, the anchor rode got all tangled up with our rudder. Oops. We started up the engine to turn us back around, but the rudder was so tightly wound with the anchor rode, we couldn’t go anywhere. We were going to have to untangle things by hand.

Rick always seems so cool in these circumstances, it’s easy to think that everything is effortlessly under control, no big deal. But this time, my mighty hero came a bit unraveled. It was the middle of the night, after a very long day of motoring, and he was exhausted. The lines he was trying to run weren’t cooperating. I was trying to help, but I just couldn’t understand his instructions, and of course that resulted in a predictable string of bickering between us. And then the damned dinghy motor stalled on him.

That’s when Rick just started maniacally laughing.

We had to do some fancy finagling to get it all unwrapped and re-secured from the bow, but it did work out in the end. Friggin’ charts.

After a wonderful second-time-around visit to St. Augustine, we again headed north, knocking out thirty-five miles each day, averaging six to seven hours of steaming. The stretch from Florida’s northern border up through Georgia is particularly squirrelly, winding back and forth like a string of small intestines (try not to think too hard about that metaphor). This type of terrain, criss-crossed by strong tidal currents, makes a great recipe for shoaling, and sure enough, we noticed a number of abandoned boats on the way that had either run aground or succumbed to some other calamity. Rick has developed a morbid fascination with these wrecks, taking pictures of as many as he can so he can add them to his “collection”. He tells me that he sees each of them as an image of the human condition. I think it's just an intellectualized version of rubbernecking after a car accident. But what do I know?

Just south of Savannah, we saw a stellar example of the run-aground sailboat, high and dry on a sand bar, and Rick grabbed his camera to document it, handing me the wheel. The boat looked abandoned to me, but Rick was pretty sure the owners were still aboard. “Wow, how could they have misread their chart plotter so spectacularly?!!” we said to one another. I don’t know about Rick, but I was smiling to myself in that self-satisfied way, thinking how we would never have been that stupid. Oh Karma, why did you have to be paying attention? I was watching the chart carefully, sticking to that magenta line like glue, but somehow… something was off. The sand bar that held that forlorn vessel was directly in front of us. Rick came back to the cockpit and questioned my course, but I was adamant that I was doing just what the chart indicated. I was like the lady on the phone who insists that you don’t exist because, “that’s what it says in the computer.”

So, I bet you can guess what happened. Yup. We ran aground, only a couple hundred yards from the boat whose beaching we had been admiring. With the keel on Valkyrie, we draw five feet below the waterline, which means we need at least that much depth to stay afloat. Our chart plotter said we should be in twelve feet of water even at low tide. Our depth sounder read “3.4 Ft.” You do the math.

Why do you need a keel for sailing? Well, when the wind fills up the sail that’s attached to your mast, that same force from the wind will tip your boat completely over if you don’t have something to counter balance it. Hence the keel. Generally, the bigger the boat, the deeper and weightier the keel. Other designs work off of the same principle, just using a different method. The traditional Hawaiian outriggers, for instance, or the modern catamaran. No keel down below, but pontoons to keep the boat from tipping over by buoying up the leeward side (away from the direction of the wind).

Hawaiian Outrigger Sailing Canoe

If we owned a catamaran, we would obviously be much less likely to run aground, particularly in the ICW. There are some other advantages as well, like more internal living space, and a less tippy ride, which appeals to the sea-sickness prone (me). But owners of these crafts tell us that the ride, while indeed less tippy, can be rather jolting and uncomfortable. We’ve also been told that the noise of the rigging while underway can be quite loud and grating. Not exactly the peaceful sailing experience we enjoy on Valkyrie. Plus from an aesthetic standpoint, at least in our opinion, monohulls have it all over cats. No, we’ll stick with what we have and risk the occasional grounding, thank you very much.

Wait - that's not a boat!!

When we ran aground this time, we were about an hour short of low tide. Mistral, the sailboat totally above the water ahead of us, had run up just south of high tide, a much more serious problem. After Rick set our extra anchor, a now familiar task in the ICW, he took off in the dinghy to visit our neighbors-in-distress, offering help if needed. 

David and Barbara were not happy campers, telling Rick about their episode with TowBoatUS earlier in the day. Apparently, the towboat had made the elementary error of attaching its towline to Mistral’s stern, and then trying to haul it off the sandbar sideways. The sailboat’s rudder was just as mired in the sand as her keel, and the predictable result was not only that they failed to free the boat from the shoal, but they also broke the rudder. Now, Dave and Barb are waiting for another towboat to come fetch them once the tide returns. They’ll need to be towed all the way to Savannah, where they will face costly repairs that may take weeks. Our predicament is certainly minor by comparison.

Valkyrie did rise above the water a bit at low tide, and we heeled over some, but it only took a few hours more to bring back the water, and off we floated. All we had to do then was to pull in on the anchor Rick had set hours earlier, and we were well clear of trouble. Unfortunately for Mistral however, their second towboat had not arrived, and the rising water and changing current threatened to strand them even higher up on the shoal. Once the water came back in force, they would have no steering without a rudder, and would be at the mercy of the currents. Rick helped David set his anchor so that at least they would be spared that disaster while they waited for the latest tow.

We finally headed out, hoping to use the last few hours of daylight to get a bit farther north before anchoring for the night. As we pulled past Mistral, David gave us a giant wave from his boat.

There but for the grace …