Friday, April 29, 2016

Wildcard Racing - Man Overboard!

A few weeks ago, we had a situation aboard Wildcard and heard the words that all sailors dread.

The Big Daddy is one of the regattas we look forward to every spring. Usually the weather is mild and the winds light, but if it’s a stormy year – like this El Nino year has sometimes been – we can be in for some rain, or some big winds. This year, we had both.

Before we made the 3-1/2 hour drive “over the hill” from Gardnerville to Point Richmond, we checked the forecast and saw that it was going to be windy and raining. In the past, we would be skeptical of the “weatherman,” but now there are good programs – Mark uses and we also like the MyRadar weather app. They are pretty darn accurate.

We were planning to sail the smaller J70 Prime Number in the Saturday buoy racing, and then sail Wildcard in the Sunday pursuit race.

Come Saturday morning, it was windy, it was raining, and with just Mark, Peter, and me, we were one crew member short. In light winds, that can be a very good thing, but in heavy winds it’s a disadvantage because you don’t have enough weight to “hold the boat down,” to keep it from heeling over too much. If it heels too much, the keel can’t do its job as well and the boat slides sideways, making its progress upwind to the mark slower and requiring more tacks. All the other boats you’re racing against are guaranteed to beat you.

 We watched small boats leaving the yacht club marina, wind whipping. Some of them came back in, and one entire class, the little Wylie Wabbits, canceled. I guess they didn’t want to do this all day …

 My confidence was low. Besides not being competitive, what if something happened? For some reason, I envisioned all hell breaking loose and Mark ending up in the water.

Here’s a video of a “crash” on a J70, and then a quick recovery, in San Francisco Bay. This isn’t that big a deal, but the boat is even harder to control with only three people.

As I was trying to scrub these thoughts from my brain, Mark said, “If I fell overboard I’d probably have a heart attack or something.”
That was enough. I said, “I just don’t have a good feeling about this. It’s not worth it.” And as our friend and Wildcard crew Mike said, “Live to sail another day.”

We called Peter, told him we were bailing, and made plans to drive to Santa Cruz for lunch. It’s a really long drive from Point Richmond, but Mark wanted to go there and see the legendary Santa Cruz 70 downwind “sled” Merlin. It was something to do.

As we drove back north from Santa Cruz through San Francisco, it was raining like hell, and windy. I looked on Facebook, and people were posting photos of the carnage – like this torn sail.

Photo: Mark Howe

There were plenty of mishaps like this one, called a round-up or broach, where the wind gusts, the boat is overpowered, and heads up into the wind, out of control.

A worse case scenario is a round-down, when the boat rocks back and forth and wipes out on the other side, with the mainsail flopping over and the spinnaker pole in the water.  The photo below is from the Internet; it’s a classic round-down, just beginning, before the boat spins and the mainsail, attached to the deadly boom, swings over, prompting everyone to call out, “HEEAADS!!”

Round-ups are pretty easy to recover from; round-downs, you usually have to take the spinnaker down. In either case, the boat is pretty much stopped dead in the water. Hopefully everyone hangs on.

We had lined up a crew of seven for Sunday including our “secret weapon,” a big guy named Bob Carlson who would help hold the boat down, making up for the fact that we were one or two people short.  We decided to race, no matter what.

We recruited a guy at RYC that night, and a few more in the morning, including Joe, our regular bowman, who was going to sail this big ultralight catamaran called Adrenaline but with the weather, there was no way they were going out and breaking the boat.

Suddenly we had eleven.

We did a few practice tacks before the start, and I noticed that the deck was crowded and it was impossible for everyone to cross over the cabin top at once. Wildcard is wide in the stern and narrow in the bow, with a big panel over the cabin covering the halyards. It’s slick and there isn’t anything to grab onto as you cross onto the new “high side.”.

With the boat heeling, it’s a tricky maneuver, especially when it’s wet. You don’t want to cross too soon, or too late.

After a tack, I saw Bob slide across to the low side and almost go overboard. The feeling of foreboding returned. But all I could say is, “Stay on the boat!” and hope for the best.

The race was underway, the slower boats starting first. Finally we started, and headed into Raccoon Strait first. In this race, boats sail around both Angel Island and Alcatraz, in either direction. We were going counter-clockwise hoping for a big downwind push to the finish. We won it that way last year, albeit on Prime Number – and in a lot less wind.

It was gnarly out there, lots of wind and big seas. We clawed our way upwind through the Raccoon Strait between Tiburon and Angel Island, tacking within a few feet of the rocky point. I didn’t like being so close! Then we steamed across the Bay to Alcatraz, turned left, and put up the spinnaker. It was blowing about 18 knots, we were doing about 9, and talking about a gybe when, to my horror, I again saw Bob slide across the deck in front of me, feet first and out of control. He slowed down a little when he got to the lifelines but went right under them. He was now hanging off the side of the boat.

Wait, can he hang on? No, we were going too fast. A split second, and he was bobbing in the water behind the boat, getting smaller.

Brian, on the winch trimming the kite with me, called out, “MAAAN OVERBOOAARD!”

In that moment, I recalled another time I was on a boat when several people – including me, for a minute or two – overboard. It was a harrowing experience that I won’t recount here. Everyone survived, and I learned an important lesson. What do you do first?

“We have to STOP THE BOAT!” I said. “Joe!” He was already there. “Halyard! Ready? Kite down!”

Mark was starting the engine, but keeping it in neutral. We’d had an issue with lines overboard a few weeks earlier at the Corinthian Midwinters, and the spinnaker sheet had got caught in the prop – luckily, Mark was able to reverse and unwind it but that was sheer luck. Yes, Bob was getting further away, but taking those few seconds to check and be sure that you’re ready for every maneuver is imperative. You don’t want to start making mistakes. Mistakes can cost lives.

Bob was holding up his hand, indicating that he was OK. I knew he would be fine – both he and Peter are avid whitewater river boarders, used to being in cold, fast water. We had a crew member, Jamie, assigned to spot him – to maintain the visual at all times. If you get too far away, you hold your arm out to mark the direction where you last saw the MOB.

Kite down, we came about and motored upwind to pick Bob up. As we approached, Peter started squawking, “Bob! Don’t swim away!” Apparently it looked to Bob like we were going to run him over!

The hardest part was getting Bob back onto the boat. Fortunately, Wildcard has an open transom but still, it took about five guys to haul him up. Brackets on the transom for the swim ladder were catching on his life jacket. Would the swim ladder have helped? Probably not much, in those conditions. It would have been mostly in the way.

When we finally had him back on the boat, sailing home downwind under mainsail only (running the engine in gear disqualified us from the racing) and everybody had cracked open a beer, Bob said that it really wasn’t that bad. The water was 20 degrees warmer than the American River water he’d been in the weekend before, and he floated high because he’d elected to wear his whitewater life jacket instead of his lighter sailing PFD. But he did acknowledge that a person who wasn’t used to being in the water, and who wasn’t wearing as much flotation and couldn’t get his head above the waves, could panic and aspirate water. And would be harder to see.

Here’s a video of river boarding – Bob designs and manufactures the Carlson River boards. He’s quite famous in the river rat world.

Any time something happens, there are lessons to be learned. We have already removed the swim step brackets, we have a floating throw rope for rescue, and we have a little clip-on step that might help a person get a knee up to get on board. We are thinking about ways to make the cabin top safer – handles or jacklines to hold onto.

And I have been thinking about this: one reason we were able to execute such a smooth rescue was because it happened when the boat was under control, and everyone was calm and in position. That’s not always the case. I wonder how many overboard situations occur when all hell is breaking loose, versus how many happen because of a bit of carelessness. Bob was just – let’s be honest – not paying enough attention. He thought we were gybing. We weren’t. We were having a discussion, but we didn’t make the call. Which is another point. Always make sure your crew is prepared for a maneuver, and  the call is clear – every time.

Before we even hit the dock, Bob was groaning, “I’ll never live this down.” He’s right; he won’t. Name jokes aside, these stories do live on forever. But never mind, because Bob’s been making the best of it. The story is in the April Latitude 38 magazine, and Bob is autographing copies!
Cheers, thanks for reading, and stay safe.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Death Valley-Blooms, Ballet, and Blues

Our visit during the Death Valley bloom in late February left me feeling that we had hardly even been there. In twenty-four hours, all we did was buzz the main roads.  We saw a lot of yellow flowers, but what about all the others, that were yet to bloom? What about all those trails that we didn’t walk on? The views we didn’t take in?

About a week after we got back from that trip, Mark learned that his Reno-based BMW motorcycle group was going to Death Valley in March, and we were thinking that we should join them. But soon, that trip was canceled because all of the campsites and hotel rooms in and near Death Valley were booked. Word had gotten out that Death Valley was the place to be.

A little research led me to realize that only one campground at Furnace Creek takes reservations; all the others are first-come. Besides, there are plenty of places to camp just outside the park, on public land or in RV parks. We wanted to take another trip.

I said, “Believe it or not, I vote for going back to Death Valley. Now there are more flowers blooming at the higher elevations. Different flowers.  We could take a few days this time.”

Mark: “Okay. But let’s get into that good campground this time.” The Texas Springs campground at Furnace Creek, very close to the one we were at last time, but a huge step up in atmosphere.
We left home on Monday morning – it was painful to leave my beautiful daffodils, but I knew they would still be gorgeous when we returned – and headed south on 395.

The weather prediction was for high winds in the Eastern Sierra, and boy, they were not kidding. The wind was sweeping the salt flats at Mono Lake high into the air, the lenticular clouds looked like stacked spaceships, and our little trailer, with Mark’s motorcycle inside, was doing the shimmy.

When we arrived in Lone Pine, I was still hoping to camp despite the wind, but Mark seemed to have his heart set on getting a motel room. This happens. He didn’t like the wind, which aggravated his allergies, and he wanted a shower. I sulked, I’m not going to lie, but I eventually cheered up when we decided to have dinner at the Merry-Go-Round, a cleverly converted Chinese and American restaurant with surprisingly good food – which to me means freshly cooked, crispy veggies and not a lot of gooey sauce.

The next morning we left early, the wind still whipping, which it would until the next day. Even when it wasn’t that windy, there was sand drifting onto the road. It reminded us of the sandstorms in the Middle East!

Our strategy was to arrive at Texas Springs at nine or so, and snag a campsite as people were leaving. it worked perfectly. Every space was spoken for again by early afternoon. I have to say, the neighbors at that campground were extremely friendly. More on that later.

We settled in, and I took a little local hike while Mark napped. Can you spot him, right in the middle of the photo?

The Texas Springs topography is pretty dazzling, for a campground.  You’re surrounded by geologic formations created by volcanic eruptions and seismic upheaval, followed by erosion. Death Valley wasn’t always dry – about 4,000 years ago, there was a wetter period.  Even now, torrential rains can change the landscape overnight, and the winds that sweep across the shifting sands of the valley floor and up through the peaks are a constant force – like a sandblaster.

We were there to see the flowers, but first there were two sights on the must-see list.  We took the motorcycle first to Zabriskie Point, just up the road from Furnace Creek and an easy walk out to the viewpoint … 

… and rode the 13-mile road spur up to Dante’s View, which was a bit chilly at 5,475’ above sea level coming, as we were, from –100’ at Furnace Creek.  Death Valley is a land of extremes.

Looking down into Death Valley takes your breath away.

On the ride back down, we realized that we were riding through another spectacular bloom, similar to the one we’d seen a few weeks back – only this one, a couple thousand feet higher.  Because we had the sun in our eyes on the way up, we really couldn’t appreciate the color. But on the way down, with the sun shining into the flowers, not our eyes – wow.  

After Dante’s View, Mark wanted to ride more so we continued on Hwy 190 toward Death Valley Junction.  It was getting to be lunchtime, and I kept trying to convey to Mark that DVJ is all but a ghost town, with zero chance of finding a cafĂ©, a market, or even a convenience store but on we went, until we had arrived.

Death Valley Junction doesn’t have any of those things mentioned above, but what it does have is an opera house, and a ballet performance season. Yep, you read right. Just as we arrived, the receptionist at the Amargosa Hotel – the only visible sign of human activity in town – was opening the Amargosa Opera House to a small tour group – $5 a head for a look inside. We bought in.

From the outside of the building, you could never imagine what is inside. Ballerina Marta Beckett arrived in the 1960s, passing by with her (future ex) husband, saw the theater, and decided to stay and dance ballet. Permanently.

Sometimes lacking an audience, she painted one, populating the walls with all of the characters of a medieval kingdom. The result is enchanting.  Marta retired from dancing a few years ago, at age 85, but now another ballerina, Jenna McClintock, who at age 6 saw Marta dance and was inspired to become a ballerina, has left life in the city to step into Marta’s shoes.

The story of Marta, Jenna, and their impact on Death Valley Junction is too rich and compelling to go into detail about here. It’s a story that, today, is alive with new energy, and new people with hopes and dreams for the town. Please take the time to read this wonderful write-up by Nevada Public Radio - Dancer in the Sands. Perhaps the next time Mark and I visit DVJ the restaurant will be open and we’ll  take in dinner and the ballet. Meanwhile, we settled for a couple of still-cool beers what we’d brought along.

That evening, back at Texas Springs, we had cocktail hour with our neighbors, with whom we’d discovered we had something in common – sailing.  They’re cruisers who’ve “swallowed the anchor” and are now living the RV life.
“I cried for a year,” the wife, Mary, admitted when I asked if it was a hard transition, husband Paul nodding confirmation. “But now I love it.”

After dark, at another campsite nearby, two men took up guitars and sang the blues as the full moon came up. It just doesn’t get any better.

Next day, we decided to make the Titus Canyon drive – Mary and Paul had said it was spectacular. Since it was a dirt road, we opted for the truck, not the motorcycle, and it was a good thing. The NPS web page about Titus Canyon says you can do this drive in 2-3 hours, but I can’t imagine doing it in less than 3 hours. We had perfect weather and, yes, we did keep stopping to take photos. But we could have stopped much more; there are several hikes that sound tempting. It’s a rugged 27-mile drive, mostly one-way, over two passes and through two canyons.

We retraced our last month’s drive on the Beatty Cutoff to get to the Titus Canyon turnoff, just before Rhyolite, which can be seen in the distance as you approach. I was thrilled at the many displays of blooms on the Beavertail cactus, also known as Prickly Pear.

After a few miles of driving across the flat, dusty plateau, we came to Titanothere Canyon, named after a huge rhino-like fossil found there in 1933. I kept commanding Mark to “STOP!” so that I could jump out with my camera and take pictures of Desert Paintbrush framing the ruddy mountains in the background. I was thinking all flowers, but as we rose higher and higher toward Red Pass, I began to realize what a treat we were in for.This drive is truly spectacular, just for the mountains alone, and the flowers were the icing – and decoration – on the cake.


As we crested 5,250’ Red Pass, it was a little scary to look down at where we’d just been.

We descended into Leadfield and stopped for lunch. This ghost town is one of those “boom-and-bust” stories that makes you wonder – how could people think this was a promising place? Supremely isolated, almost impossible to get to without 4-wheel drive – did they have that in 1926-27? – 300 people came there to mine a lead deposit which turned out to be a dud.

They left behind some very picturesque buildings, including the one we lunched at. You can explore the shacks and the mines – although the latter comes with some risk – but we were satisfied with the view from afar. Something tells me we’ll be back through there again some day.

At last, we entered Titus Canyon – which becomes so narrow, I nicknamed it “Tightass Canyon” – down, down, down we went, past the spring and the petroglyphs, as the road closed in until we wondered if our truck would make it through.

We’d been in a similarly narrow canyon, or wadi, in Oman, and we recalled that day, when the walls rose up vertically around us, so high we couldn’t see the top. It also reminded me of the narrow siq you walk through to enter the mystical, magical city of Petra, in Jordan.

About three miles from the end, there’s a parking lot and the road becomes two-way. We knew we were getting close when we began to see people with cameras and day packs walking along the road. If you don’t have half a day to invest, this would be a good option for getting to see at least a portion of this part of Death Valley National Park.

We emerged at about 2:00 p.m. and it was another half hour to our campground We were tired and dusty. There is a beautiful pool at Furnace Creek Ranch, which is available to campers for just $5 and includes use of the shower, but there were two problems with that, for me. First I’d forgotten my bathing suit (IDIOT! NEVER AGAIN!!) and second, there was a line for the two showers. So we deployed our outdoor shower enclosure, and treated ourselves to our own hot shower. What HEAVEN!

Then, a little motorcycle ride over to the Furnace Creek Inn, for happy hour. I had a house special Prickly Pear Margarita, and it was one of the tastiest margaritas I’ve had outside Mexico.

The ride back to camp was just perfection – warm and soft like a cozy sweater, and golden. If we hadn’t had a cocktail, we would have ridden longer.

Back at the campground, I went over to tell our neighbors, the musicians, how much I’d enjoyed their music. Come to find out, yes, they were professionals. “Do you ever watch Ice Road Truckers? Deadliest Catch? That’s my music.” We were listening to composer Bruce Hanifan.

After dinner, we found ourselves gathered around their campfire while they once again played and sang under the full moon. As the night drew to a close, we sang an improvised “Death Valley Blues” which (as I vaguely remember) I ended with a verse about the “Titus Canyon Blues.” Something about mountains so high, and canyons so deep, we might not get out alive. But I gotta get back there somedayeeeeeee …

The talent agents have not called yet.
And, there is one last photo, below. For some reason, Blogger won't move it up no matter what I do.
Google is in control.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Death Valley Comes Alive

It’s spring in California, and this El Nino year has brought enough rain to produce Death Valley’s most spectacular bloom since 2005.

I’ve been to Death Valley many times back in the days when I hung out with geologists, but never during the spring bloom. It’s been on my bucket list.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I grabbed a little window of time on a sailing-free weekend, packed up the pop-up camper, and headed down Interstate 395, arguably one of the most beautiful highways in America.

When the desert is in bloom, you can’t just put it off for a couple of months. You gotta get there before it’s all gone.  Now, two weeks on, the yellow carpet we saw on the valley floor has faded, but the good news is that the higher elevations, where there’s more variety, are now in bloom. I might have to persuade Mark to make another trip …

Mark planned the trip: first night camping in the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine, second night camping in Death Valley, and the third night luxuriating at the Hotel Mizpah in Tonopah, NV. In this post, I’m focusing on Death Valley but, inshallah, I will find time to write about the other two places, which are also blog-worthy.

We entered Death Valley National Park – the last time I was there it was still a National Monument – from the west via Highway 136. We were so eager to get into the park that we didn’t bother to stop at the visitor center in Lone Pine. Maybe next time.

We did stop for lunch in Panamint Springs, which is owned by an old colleague of Mark’s named Tim Cassell. He wasn’t sure if they guy still owned it, but when we asked the waiter at the restaurant, he said, “Oh, yeah. He still flies in here every few weeks. Did you know he crashed his airplane about a year or so ago?" It’s an amazing story, which you can read here on the Panamint Springs Facebook page. BTW the pizza was good and the salads, which other people were eating, looked beautiful. No iceberg lettuce here.

The outdoor seating was full, but we were invited to join a couple from Tehachapi at their table. As I had suspected, they were among the many day trippers who were thronging the place on the weekend. They advised us that we would see lots of flowers just driving on the main roads.

It seems ironic, but it’s true, because many wildflowers (including those called by their other name, “weeds,”) grow well in the disturbed roadside soil – and in the washes, where the runoff carries soil and seeds.

Cars were parked along the roads everywhere, and people were out wandering in the Desert Gold fields.

We camped for the night at Furnace Creek. I recalled camping there one Easter when my kids were in grade school. There was a little motel with a pool, and a tiny store – that’s all I remember. Man, has that place changed! There are now several campgrounds, and a huge visitor complex. Our tax dollars did a nice job!

The beautiful 1920’s era Inn at Furnace Creek is still there, of course. I’m going to advocate for spending some time there on our next trip, even if it’s just for a cocktail.

In the morning, I persuaded Mark that we should go to Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level the lowest point in North America. The lowest point on Earth is the Dead Sea – I’ve been there, too!

It was great to get out of the car for a walk. Next time, I’m going to insist on some real hiking but this trip, we just didn’t have enough time.

A spectacular and fun detour is Artists Drive, with a stop at Artists Palette, where you can view splashes of color produced by the oxidation of metals in the volcanic rock. I can just imagine the explosions that occurred here!

It’s a fun road to drive, too. Don’t worry; it’s one-way.

We took the Beatty Cuttoff to the northeast, which took us to Highway 374 through the beautiful Amargosa Range, where we enjoyed more vistas with Desert Gold in the foreground and purple mountains’ majesty on the horizon.

Our next stop was the ghost town on Rhyolite – I love ghost towns! – but that’s another story.

If you want to get the latest on the bloom, click the link and check out the Wildflower Update.

Cheers, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Carnevale di Venezia

I’m reminded of this because it’s Carnival in Venice.

Back in 2009, we went to Italy in February. One of our stops was Venice, where we had a fabulous suite at the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal, overlooking the gondola dock right next to San Marco Square.

I was enchanted by the Murano glass chandeliers throughout the suite.

Being a not-very-seasoned world traveler at the time, I had no clue that it was Carnival until I saw the costumed people posing around San Marco Square. What a spectacle!


It was pretty surreal, walking among all the costumed, masked people who were out there posing for photos, never ever saying a word. I kept wondering – are they real people? It was almost creepy.

And February was not the best weather – it was rainy and very cold. I had to buy a leather coat and boots in Rome, just to have something warm to wear. Back then, I wasn’t sure about the stylishness of the boots – Mark said they were Gestapo boots. Now, everybody has them. But how many people can say they bought theirs in a little shop in Rome?

When we decided to live in the Middle East, we were determined to take a trip to Italy while we were over there – in our minds it was closer than it was in reality. Some time when the weather would be warmer, we thought, and things would be blooming. But it didn’t happen.

There is hope. We have our Italian sailing friends who we met in Abu Dhabi; they go back home to Italy – Marco is from Tuscany, Paolo from Torino, and Emiliano from Mantua – which is halfway between Milan and Venice. I’ll dream of reuniting with them in Italy.

Meanwhile, happy Fat Tuesday and Carnevale, wherever you may be. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Joy of Sailing

Last summer, Wildcard went back into the water after some rather extensive retrofitting, including structural strengthening of the keel box that allows the keel to lift for trailering, and a new, more efficient rudder (both designed by Rodger Martin.)

The carbon and fiberglass work was done by Tom Omohundro and crew at Solution Marine in Minden, Nevada. This was very handy because it’s only a few miles from our house, and Mark could be involved in every step. Plus, he became great friends with Tom and now he goes to hang out at “work” for a few hours every day, making little carbon doodads.

The refit took several months, after which Wildcard spent a couple of weeks getting new bottom paint at Bay Marine in Richmond, CA before finally splashing and returning to our old slip on C dock at Richmond Yacht Club. It was a long but important process, because we wanted to fix all potential problems before venturing out ocean racing.

We tuned up with a couple of club races, and our debut was the Jazz Cup over Labor Day weekend, a mostly downwind race that starts in San Francisco Bay near Treasure Island and, after a very short upwind leg, turns northward for a (usually) downwind run through San Pablo Bay, under Carquinez Bridge and into Carquinez Strait (gateway to the Delta,) finishing in front of the city of Benicia.

We sailed a good race despite a critical error at the beginning (we hoisted our “Big Red” spinnaker on the short hoist halyard), and took first in division and third overall. Part of the reason we did well was that, with the help of our guest tactician Jeff Thorpe, and regular tactician Peter Cameron, we managed to stay in the “good water” – aka shallower, with less current moving against us –  and off of the mud – unlike some of the other boats.

Unfortunately, San Francisco Bay is silting in. What used to be a shallow spot off of Pinole is quickly becoming a mud flat, and dredges are a common sight in the channels and marinas around the bay. Boat always go in into the shallow area trying to get out of the current and the ones with deeper keels get stuck. The boat on the left is trying everything to heel the boat over while moving forward into deeper water. They did get off, eventually.

In November, the midwinter series began. If we wanted to, between the J70 Prime Number and Wildcard, we could sail pretty much every weekend, both days. But then we would never get to be home in Nevada, and my bruises would never get a chance to heal. So we’re focusing on two series: the Manuel Fagundes Seaweed Soup Regatta, held the first Saturday of the month November through March at Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, and a two-weekend event in January and February at Corinthian Yacht Club in Tiburon.

Getting the crew together has been both a challenge and a joy. At first, after having been gone for four years, I was worried about whether we could find enough crew – and it is hard, getting eight or nine people and putting them into jobs on the boat. It seemed like we were always short handed for those first races. Mark isn’t great at reaching out, so it fell to me to think of people to contact. After scouting around our yacht club without much luck finding regular crew, I decided to contact some of my old “boyfriends” – the crew I used to sail with back in the day, before I met Mark.

Back in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, my friend Lori and I sailed with crews that was mostly if not entirely male, in our 30’s to early 40’s, and mostly if not entirely single. Back in those days the racing was close, and the regattas and the parties, as I remember them, were bigger, and man, I looked forward to those weekends on and off the water. Those were some good times, and those guys were my best friends. The times we had.

Now, some 20 years on, we are all married. All the guys married women who don’t sail, and their chances to go sailing have diminished. So, I thought, why not see if any of the old crew can come out and sail on Wildcard with us? So I asked a few who are still living in the area. They said yes!

And suddenly, here we are, sailing together again! We joke about getting old, we joke about how much we used to party, and we can still sail together like it’s been no time at all.

Which brings us to the first weekend of the Corinthian Midwinters, in January. The weather prediction was rainy with no wind, then some wind, maybe a lot of wind, and then back to no wind. We drove “over the hill” from Gardnerville to the boat at Richmond Yacht Club on Thursday, so we could get everything ready and deliver the boat to Corinthian on Friday and get a good space at the dock. We’ve gotten pretty good at sleeping on the boat, so we planned to stay for the weekend – but we booked a hotel for Saturday night because it’s no fun to sleep in the boat when everything is wet.

What a glorious one-hour cruise from Point Richmond to Tiburon! The sun was out, the sky was crystal blue …

… the herring were running in the bay, and birds were everywhere.

We went for a walk and came across this artist who was just packing up for the day. For a second, I thought we were in Europe! I was impressed with his painting of the San Francisco Yacht Club harbor. His name is Shpend and you can find him on Etsy at de Santis Fine Art.

The next day, Saturday, dawned gloomy as predicted. The race committee chose a long course – a “Bay Tour” that would take us to a mark off of Fort Point at the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge called Blackaller, then along the city front and around Alcatraz to a mark, then around a second mark, and back up toward Sausalito, around a mark in a notoriously windy place called Yellow Bluff, and finally back to the start/finish line at the entrance to Raccoon Strait, between Tiburon and Angel Island.

After a promising first leg, the wind went wacky. It was coming from the west, then no, the south, then no, east, wait, north, and all in pockets with spaces of nothing in between. We were sailing toward a the mark which was  just beyond Alcatraz, while other boats in our division were heading to Pier 39, and still others looked like they were trying to sail to the South Bay. Smaller, slower boats were coming up from behind with wind and catching us. The wind would die, and come up from another direction. We dropped our spinnaker, put up the jib, then switched sails again.

Sailboat racing in no wind can be amazing, interesting, fascinating and beautiful. We cracked open some beers and watched the entire fleet, with colorful spinnakers, converge on the third mark behind us. Boats of all sizes, somehow, ended up arriving at the same time.

There we were, too, trying to keep the boat moving, get around the mark, and get away.

An hour or so earlier, we had seen an orange pilot boat heading out toward the Golden Gate Bridge, so it was no surprise when we saw the bow of a huge ship on its way toward us. It was hugging the north side – our side, the side where all the racers were. That meant that it was headed for Richmond or beyond, not Oakland. The entire fleet was scattered in the shipping channel – in the ship’s path – except us. We were off to the left, south of where the ship would pass.

Usually boats under sail have right of way over boats under power, but according to maritime law, commercial traffic has the right of way over all other traffic. There have been several instances, over the years, of racers getting into trouble for sailing too close to ships. When a ship captain sees that there is traffic in his path, he issues five or more blasts as a warning that he doesn’t understand its intentions or that there is danger. In other words, “get out of my way.” These huge ships are not maneuverable; they turn slowly and take miles to come to a stop.

We waited for the blasts, but … silence. It was eerie There was very little wind – although the boats over there had more wind than we did – and we didn’t see how they could all get out of the way. But somehow, miraculously, this huge ship just passed through the entire fleet without incident and without a single blast.

Later, we heard that one of the skippers hailed the ship by radio and said, “Captain, what are your intentions?”

“I intend to hold my course.” He saw a narrow path as the sea of boats parted, and instead of carving a left turn, as he usually would, he waited until all the boats were clear. Nice.

Our advantage of being well above the ship evaporated as the wind coming through the Gate died, and a different wind came up from the north – to the advantage of the bulk of the fleet below us. We were stuck in the doldrums between the two. The 4:30 time limit was approaching and we had no chance of making it to the finish, even though they had moved it to the mark at Yellow Bluff. Sadly, we started the engine. At least we could be one of the first back to the dock – and the free beer.

And that’s the joy of sailing.

The ship cuts through the fleet, with Angel Island in the background

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wildcard travels–San Diego Bound



Let’s just pretend that it hasn’t been months and months since the last posting. Since then, we’ve been to Cyprus for vacation during the 10 weeks back in Abu Dhabi, and then we came home but soon we went to France – Paris and Strasbourg; Mark went on to spend a couple more weeks in Abu Dhabi while I stayed on for some “alone time” with Paris.


Claire and Lee Wedding 023


Then I went to Alabama, where I met up with my Abu Dhabi besties Donnette and Terry, and then on to Baltimore for my niece’s wedding – where I joined a girl band called the Temptresses with my sister Mary. Mark stayed home and worked on the boat.



South Lake Reunion 018

In July, Mark and I went on a road trip to Nashville and Memphis; we went camping in Montana, Wyoming, and Utah; we went to my 40th high school reunion in Michigan, (where a lot of people said they had read and enjoyed the blog!) and since then we’ve been traipsing back and forth to the San Francisco Bay Area as we finally got Wildcard back in the water.

Jeez, so far this sounds like a Christmas letter …

All of these trips had very blog-worthy moments, (we caught a Paris pickpocket with Mark’s wallet in his hand and ejected him from the train!) but I could not find enough  time to write and maintain the quality that I have come to demand of myself. I have a folder full of barely-started blog posts.

But not writing depresses me. So, I’m going to try something different: not so much editing, not so much scrutiny. Not so many photos. Not so many links. I’m going to try for shorter posts. Because, while I am writing for you, dear imaginary reader, I am also writing for myself – the older me, 35 or 40 years from now, who wants to remember all the cool stuff we did.

Wildcard refit 001So: Wildcard is back in the water!!! We spent a ton of time and money on her, and maybe someday Mark will grace us with a recap of the process. But suffice to say, all her problems are fixed and we have a jewel of a boat. Just as we were paying the final boatyard invoices to paint the bottom and launch the boat, Wildcard’s sister ship in Los Angeles, Celerity, was finishing first in the Transpac Race from San Diego to Hawaii. This was heartening, to say the least.


61766733-2015JazzCup-45We raced our first big race a couple of weeks ago. The Jazz Cup starts off of Treasure Island in SF Bay and finishes 26 miles later at Benicia, in the Carquinez Straits which is the gateway to the Sacramento Delta. We had our old friend and Quantum Sails pro, Jeff Thorpe, on board, along with a crew that was … well, we’re good but we were very rusty and our bowman was rather unfamiliar with our setup. First spinnaker set, the halyard was fouled and we couldn’t get a full hoist. But we recovered and, long story short, we won our division and placed 3rd overall in the 94-boat fleet!


Now, we’re preparing to drive down to San Diego with our OTHER sailboat, the “little” one, the J70 Prime Number that we own with our Aussie partner Peter (who appears in an early blog post when he came to visit us in Abu Dhabi.) When people’s eyebrows go up I say, “It’s not 70 feet, it’s 7.0 meters! About 22 feet.” We’re sailing in the J70 Nationals, and we were the 50th boat to enter the other day. We expect to be racing against some of the very best sailors in the USA, and probably the world. Olympic class guys (I use that term in a non-gender-specific way.) But that’s what we love about sailing – what other sport is there, where you can be out of shape, even drink during beer the competition, and go to awesome parties where you rub elbows with the best of the best?


Prime Number 001


So … stay tuned, because Wildcard – and her little sister, the J70 Prime Number – are back, and we are traveling.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Jordan Day 4–Ancient ruins of Jerash

Donnette’s and my last day of our girls’ road trip in Jordan.
The drive from Petra in southern Jordan to Jerash in the north – just north of Amman, Jordan’s capital -  was about four hours on Route 15, also known as the Desert Highway. It was a boring drive compared to the King’s Highway through the mountains from the Dead Sea to Petra, but after our intense day of driving to Petra, and the intense day of sightseeing there, Donnette and I  were ready for a little bit of boring. Further south, if we’d had time to go there, we would have driven through  the amazing desert landscape of Wadi Rum. But, alas,we had to head north.

The decision to go to Jerash, which is Jordan’s second-most popular tourist destination after Petra, was a bit spur-of-the-moment. We were booked at the Marriott in Amman for our last night, and when I looked at the map it seemed that the Syrian border was a bit too close to Jerash for comfort. But this was purely psychological,we felt really safe in Jordan, and we decided that at 48km (30 miles) north of Amman, and the same distance south of the border with Syria, a detour to Jerash was worthwhile. We could tour the Greco-Roman ruins and still be able to get to the hotel in time to check in at a decent hour, and have our cocktails, and  get some dinner.
DSC01532It was a very worthwhile detour. Ancient Gerasa, as it was first called, was founded around 300 BC –although the area had been inhabited since the Bronze Age - by Alexander the Great, or perhaps one of his generals, as a sort of retirement community for soldiers of the Macedonian army – gerasmenos meaning “aged person” in Greek. It was conquered by the Romans in 63 BC, growing and flourishing as a trading center under Roman rule until falling to the Persians in AD 614.

A  major earthquake destroyed most of the city in AD 749, although small settlements in the area remained. Subsequent earthquakes and wars caused further destruction, and the ruins of the ancient city lay buried until the arrival of German Orientalist Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806. Seetzen began excavations, and people returned to Jerash from the surrounding settlements. A  Muslim community, the Cirassians, emigrated to Jerash from the Caucasus in 1878, and more people came from Syria at the beginning of the 20th century.

DSC01539 As Donnette and I got out of the car, we were faced with the question of what to wear, both clothing and feet. It was November, but warm. We were still tired from traipsing through Petra, and I had the idea that, in comparison, this would be a “walk in the park.” I wanted to glide through the ruins in my long skirt and sandals, shaking the stones out like the people who lived there once did. The sandals that I had were really old –  I might have even owned them when I met Mark in 1997. They were flat and comfortable, if lightweight. I’d brought them sort of hoping that I could throw them away at the end of the trip. So I put them on and  grabbed my long-sleeved cardigan because we were, after all, in a conservative, largely Muslim country and it’s always best to have the option of covering one’s arms.


We paid our fee at  the souvenir marketplace at the south entrance, which was filled with merchandise that is now all too familiar to us both …

… and entered the ruined city through Hadrian’s Arch, a relatively late addition built to celebrate the Roman emperor's visit in AD 129-130. Hadrian, whose policy was to defend existing territory rather than conquer more, was named  one of the “Five Good Emperors” by Machiavelli.
The bones of the city are easy to see and interpret,  with well-placed panels giving just the right amount of information and interesting details.

The Hippodrome, or circus, was the stadium for horse racing and chariot racing. Performances called Roman Army and Chariot Experience are offered twice daily. 
Then we strolled the long promenade toward the Forum and the Cardo, a long colonnaded street that was the commercial heart of the city.
All along the way, we saw remains of what used to be workshops and stores …


… including the remains of an olive oil press.

Although it seemed like a pretty quiet day, there were the ubiquitous tour groups gathered in the Forum. We preferred to read the interpretive signs (that cute blonde is Donnette.).
We saw the grooves that the Roman chariots made, still visible in the stone, just to the right of Donnette.
Zeus Temple

We spent about three hours in Jerash, taking photos, soaking up the landscape, and blending into it. It was bigger than we’d anticipated, but we were able to make a pretty complete tour of the walled city which included temples to Zeus and Artemis, theatres, baths, more  temples, and churches. And the mosaics! I love the ancient mosaics.
From where we stood, Jerash seemed like two cities: the ancient city to the west, populated by visitors and ghosts, and the modern city to the east, which has benefitted from the growth of tourism and  the arrival of  waves Syrian immigrants and Palestinian refugees. Although it’s not on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, it seems like it should be, or maybe could be someday if they can meet the  strict criteria and management requirements.
And then, as we wound down, rested, and got ready for the trek back across the city to Hadrian’s arch and the parking lot, as the sun lowered in the sky, the call to prayer rose up out of the in the east. Muslim communities have mosques everywhere – they are supposed to be only a five-minute walk to pray. The same call was reaching our ears from near and far, so that it resonated, reverberated, and resounded upwards from the mosques dotted among whitewashed modern buildings, over the ancient walls and through the columns, bouncing off of the mosaics of the church where we were resting. It was a sound we hear each and every day in the UAE. But here, it was a gorgeous, timeless, and riveting sound. Without speaking, we both knew that we needed to sit, and listen. And reflect.

This was Donnette’s and my fourth day of traveling together, and I had noticed several things. First, we were really bonding. Not that we talked a lot, but we just  … got each other. We had so many things in common – born in Michigan the same year, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, but was getting spooky … I was kind of feeling like we were soul sisters. If  Donnette and I  were in high school together, we would still be friends. We told each other some stories about our lives, which at our age means there is a lot to choose from. I was thinking, wow, this is really a great girls’ trip, and what an opportunity to get to know Donnette. Maybe we were lucky that we didn’t get on each other’s nerves (at least not that I know of) but the message is, if you get a similar opportunity to travel with someone, take it.
But what I really noticed was that we stayed together. Now, that may seem an obvious thing to do, but it struck me because Mark and I have developed a bad habit of NOT staying together. We wander away from each other; somehow, we have both emerged as the Pack Leader. But then, I find myself spending half my time looking for him (right, girls?) With Donnette and me, that didn’t happen. Why? I think because we were being friends, and it isn’t nice to ditch your friend. And sometimes, married people who have been together for a long time forget these things. Sometimes you just take each other for granted. It’s that simple. When you travel with a friend, especially a new one, you are more considerate.
Trekking back, we noticed some ongoing excavation sites,had a great view of the Forum from the hillside …
… and stopped in at the south theater to hear some Arabic bagpipe music. Bagpipes are believed to have been invented in the Middle East. Not Scotland.
Then we decided to document the day with  a timed-release selfie together. I set up my tripod, dashed over, and  we posed together on the ruins of a wall, while a small group of Jordanian men passing by noticed us.

Oh, dear. One of them came over and insisted on taking our picture for us with my camera. I tried to tell him we didn’t need him, we have a tripod, but he would not be deterred. So we posed for one more, but I figured I needed to cut this short, or we would have trouble shaking the guy off. He then started trying to direct us, so that he could keep taking photos. “One more! Smile!” “No, no, we have to go now!”


I had to run up and literally grab the camera –nicely – away from him, thanking him profusely. Yes, we did notice that the men behaved a bit differently here than in Abu Dhabi. They’re a lot more … friendly.
It was on the final push back through the south entrance to Hadrian’s arch that the old glue gave out and my sandal finally came apart. Yes! Perfect timing. Now I could finally throw them away.

The Marriott in Amman was the nicest of the three, and the busiest, bustling with business suits and military uniforms. We had the benefit of the executive lounge, with its free drinks and snacks, so we headed up there. We got the last free table, but soon a group of four men came in, and Donnette suggested we ask a pair of young women (the only other women in the room, or almost) if we could join them, and free up our table which was greatly appreciated by the group of men. The women were American, and they seemed a little take aback when we joined them, (who are these middle aged mom/grandma types moving in on us?) but we were soon exchanging names and stories. It turned out that they were American, based in Washington DC, and working for the US Citizenship & Immigration Services, interviewing refugees. How interesting! I pictured them going into the refugee tent camps that I’d been thinking I was seeing in the desert, but they said, no, they usually see people in their homes or apartments. Oh. Really.
Then I realized that I had been making a broad and erroneous assumption, visualizing refugees fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and living in tent camps. This may be true some of the time, maybe a lot of the time, I don’t know; but many refugees have education, skills, and money when they leave. And the tents we saw as we traveled through the country were probably Bedouin camps. It was yet another lesson in how superficial my knowledge of the places we visit is. You cannot really know a place unless you have lived there.
Visiting Jordan has fueled my interest in the this land and its stories, its history: of religions, conquest, and never ending turmoil. It’s a fascinating place.
Thanks for reading.