Warm beer woes: how we came to live without our refrigerator in the tropics

In our final months of preparation for this trip, before eventual shove off, Jeff somehow managed to fry our refrigerator during a tinkering session. I took this as a sign. 

Let's try to live without the fridge. I seem to recall proposing to Jeff enthusiastically.

Since I'm generally the go-to person for food, Jeff was willing to defer this decision to me. Okay. If you think we can do it. He responded, with some hesitation.

Thus commenced my ill fated attempt to live without a refrigerator, at a marina, with a readily available ice machine (which really should have made it a gimme).

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Two truths and a lie: brief notes from solitude

Caves and deserts are important features in hermit myths. They represent an interior space, surrounded by desolation, which echoes the surroundings of the vessel of our minds, evoking an experience of being alone inside your thoughts. As a person who knows what it is to multitask too far and stretch one's mind until sheer, I have fantasized about eliminating extraneous thought and reducing the voices in my head (let's not get excited, you have them too. right?) to one, perhaps even none.

Being on this trip with my partner has approximated this experience, but one cannot ignore the burning nova of being with whom they share their cave, the complex dance of gravity that results from a mutual orbit, or the nebula of energy shared back and forth in a small contained space. A single voice is hard to come by. 

But here was the surprise: left finally free to focus my consciousness on a single, consuming pursuit or to let it dissipate into the ether, what does it do? It starts to multitask! There's a kink in replicating the hermit experience of contemplation via boat: not only do you always bring your distractions with you wherever you go (though some, like the Internet thank God, can be temporarily escaped), but now that you're alone you can finally release your clutter into a full blown mess. 

Spareness is a virtue we have pursued on this trip almost out of necessity. True, there are many people of our generation who, like us, wish for and value simplification and in the words of mountain man naturalist Jack Turner: "close living", with our noses as connected to the ground (or the water) as possible. Harmony coined the phrase "Starving Homesteaders", and I think that's a pretty apt description of our version of cruising. We don't grow our own food, and we're pretty crap at fishing. A lack is what we tend to have in abundance, and this brings with it a different kind of focus. That might be a tangent, sorry. 

We humans have evolved an enduring mutual society that has taught us to use tools for the purposes of snatching success. Without them, we might languish in idle plotting between meal times. Accomplishment requires clutter. Clutter allows a profusion of tools to remain at the ready for a myriad of different projects. The ability to clutter your space allows you to juggle activities as each cylinder fires in your mind.  An infant brain grows faster surrounded by toys, and a spartan mentality is allowed to grow more complex with some goofy sh*t on the walls. I had built up months of little and big tasks that only lacked the appropriate time and space to spread out to said project's natural physical and temporal shape. All flat surfaces on the boat became loaded with something that would be of immediate use to satisfy one of a number of situations that may strike at any moment. I had only to sit in the middle and listen.

At times the use of tools becomes uninteresting, and the bright world beckons. This is where the boat hermit scores points on his desert doppelganger, because look at the scenery. Look at the inviting pool right outside the door. Imagine the wild place inside the treeline. Discover the animals that share the world. There is abundance here, but I was not the only one to know this. 

Local fishermen troll the waters and place lucky-strike net lines around the islands to harvest the abundance of tuna and mackerel, which remain the source of life for for whales, dolphins, communities, and supermarkets via profit-motivated intermediaries. At the end of the day, they anchor their crowded boats off the sandy beach and settle down to rest before the next outing. There is no going home.

Tourist boats bring visitors to taste the image of paradise that we up north have been given by advertisers to believe is the best representation available on Earth. It's kind of a "Most Photographed Barn in America" thing, reimagined as the quintessential Corona ad. All you have to do to become part of the image is to be the only person or group there that particular afternoon, and for that time a desert island is yours alone. Pay no attention to the Panamanian who drove you here - he's texting on his cell phone in the shade of his boat. Shoot, you don't even have to be the only people there, so long as you can be alone in a picture frame. We have seen dozens make this pilgrimage - hundreds - and we ourselves must admit that we are sometimes here to pay the same reverence. 

The local family living on the island go out every day to catch lobster with their hands and collect a fish for dinner every sunset before returning to their homestead. The day after I arrived on Isla Parida, they dropped by at sunset to say hello. We have been engaged in what I can only describe as a series of escalating gift giving over the past eight months, which I guess is like saying we're friends. They offered me cooked lobster, which I accepted gratefully. Anticipating their arrival, I had previously rummaged through the boat and uncovered various useful gear such as a snorkel mask, fishing implements, an unused headlamp, and good old-fashioned rope, which they accepted with stoic eagerness. 

"What have you been up to?" I asked.

They looked at each other. "Fishing."

I asked if it had been good, and they made a kind of so-so affirmative response. The paterfamilias had followed the aquatic migration onto a fishing boat in the Bay of Panama for rainy season, and was away earning a significant portion of their annual family wage. I tried again to spur a discussion. "What else do you do for fun out here?" They seemed confused by the question. "Fishing. Diving. Catching lobster." Maybe I'm using the wrong word for fun?

Okay, fishing conversation it is then. Good, I know most of those words.  While we discuss the patterns of the ocean and the seasons and the differences this El Niño year, I don't know how to warn them that their way of life is threatened: the land buyers are coming, and they have developed ways of removing people. The rest of the world's recreational fishermen have learned about the Hannibal Bank, which is something that had previously been nameless plenty.

The next day, our friend Carlos from last spring came by with two more live lobsters. Tack was ecstatic. I kept the lobsters in water in one of our soft buckets through the afternoon, and he perched over them in the cockpit occasionally batting at a spiny feeler that poked up in the air. See for yourself how he responded when I brought the cooked lobster in off the stove, that much closer to his food plate. He helped me eat the parts I wasn't that enthusiastic about, then tried his best to clean out the carcasses without poking himself but eventually was intimidated into disinterest. A happy camper.  

But I was talking about solitude. I guess you can see that it's not that easy to come by in a beautiful place, at least not in an uninterrupted way. Regardless, many was the time I searched my surroundings and found not a soul as far as I could see or hear. Many were the nights the stars and growing moon revealed themselves for howling communion. 

Harmony and I love feeling like we have the whole world outside our back door. We willingly trade this experience for something we had never before given up: total privacy. Wait, what? That's not the right trade is it? I thought you go out to sea for privacy. We were surprised to discover this: we forgot about each other! What we did not realize before this trip, we now know: privacy is a tangible force and an expression unto itself. On the boat, the only barrier we can erect between us is the bathroom door; otherwise, there is the inside/outside divide or the separation of onboard vs. ashore. The size of one's presence is therefore something about which in our desire to support one another we become extremely aware. 

If we spread out our clutter of living for the day, will it take over the space? What activity can I do that will coincide with the activities of my partner? This is especially difficult to solve when one person wants to unfold the table and spread out 100 greeting cards, and the other person wants to take off the stairs to work on the engine with a dozen arrayed tools.  We make it work, but productivity sometimes suffers. All activities must stop to clear a path for cooking when the time strikes. All sensitive equipment and hung clothing must be retrieved from outside before it rains. My side stays on my side and your side stays on yours. Within this fluid expansion and contraction of the divided space, shared bubbles can be created. Alternately, when we each sit on our respective sides, deep into something elsewhere, a momentary gulf opens between our shrinking shells of solitude that makes our boat feel luxury sized. I never would have believed the cabin could feel so enormous, but we have both remarked upon it. As soon as either of us moves, the spell is broken. Our bubbles rub together and dissolve. 

It is a constant dance. Every sunset is shared. We love the life music we make together, but we also like to vary the tune from time to time. Here now was a lone song. A wordless whistle, for what's the point of words? He said on a long ass blog post. 

How do you reconcile these conflicting forces of boat versus workshop, versus office, versus home, versus sanctuary, versus launchpad to the unknown? The same way you reconcile spouse vs. sail mate, vs. travel companion, vs. co-homemaker, vs. surrogate for the community still at home. You balance. You divide. You trade favors. You laugh. You vary. You enjoy breathers. 

This was the first time I've been alone on the boat for more than a day since May of 2012. Before that time, I was a much more common fixture on the boat than Harmony, so my clutter dominated the space. Creating the shared space wasn't terribly hard to adjust to, because I love the person I share it with, but over time you begin to feel that you haven't had a good full body stretch in a while. 

Now that I have fully occupied the space, however, I start to see things. Why does Harmony always do something a certain way? Now that I have done it myself uninterrupted for a long enough period of time, I see how it is connected to something else down the road. I didn't think we had too many of these activities left that did not overlap, and I was surprised by the mystery behind some key components in my life that I had taken as naturally uncomplicated (i.e., for granted). This isn't a new story. It happens to everyone, but it's an exercise that I believe it's important to repeat from time to time, especially if you live in close quarters.      

When you do finally have solitude, you get a gift with purchase: a stretch of total privacy. You can live louder than ever, and the nova expands. I'd love to tell you all about what I did and all the discoveries I made, but of course you understand, it's private.

All hermits come back from the desert, however. Thoreau walked home from Walden twice a week carting a load of laundry to have dinner with his mother and sister. I think there's a reason it's not meant to last. Society is as necessary to our being as the use of tools, and sunsets are so clearly meant to be shared. 

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And the Liebster award goes to...

And the Liebster award goes to...

When I got back to the boat we had a friendly message from Jody and Peter at Where the Coconuts Grow announcing our nomination for the LIEBSTER AWARDS! What are the Liebster Awards? I didn't know either. Some equate it to a chain letter (are we bringing those back in style?) while others equate it to the participant ribbon of the blogosphere. Congratulations! You have a blog! And someone actually reads it? Huzzah!

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One year on the hook: life at anchor in Central America

One year on the hook: life at anchor in Central America

We recently celebrated one year of living at anchor. It was a lifestyle we were both eager to try out, though we certainly weren't without concern. This lifestyle transition was made partly by choice, but mostly by necessity. Marinas down in Central America (Costa Rica in particular) are far too costly. They tend to prefer the sports fishing crowd whose money reverberates even in their absence. If you listen closely, very closely, you might be able to hear the ever so subtle ping of our money dispersing into the community. 

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The hard way: changing a cutless bearing underwater

The hard way: changing a cutless bearing underwater

After my adventure in anxiety out at the Ladrones, I dropped my anchor in a small sandy cove on Isla Parida and set up camp, prepared to stay until the food ran out. Ahead of me lay unwatched days without time, place, or distraction. My list of personal ambitions was extensive, but as always, the boat comes first. I laid out the entirety of my tool supply on Harmony's settee almost immediately and began what I hoped to be my final return to operating on our engine's drivetrain - the place where our propeller shaft exits the bottom of the boat. Nautical proctology, if you like. 

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Log from the solo sail - Part 3

Log from the solo sail - Part 3

There I was in the middle of nowhere in the Ladrones cluster of islands, heading further out to sea towards my ultimate desert island destination. It was morning and I had just hauled anchor and put up my sails, drinking my coffee and listening to tunes through the cabin speakers, when I heard an airplane buzz. That's weird, I thought, I haven't seen an airplane in months. Suddenly I see it: a small, maybe 10-person twin prop airplane painted drab gray green. It reminded me of something old fashioned. It makes a pass over the island chain, and as I watch it, in my imagination the seabirds in the sky just increased in number by one. I try to follow this phantom bird, but it's lost in a mirage.

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Log from the solo sail - Part 2

Harmony left on Monday, and I intended to raise anchor on Tuesday. Today was Friday. Such it is with trying to leave on boats.

On the morning I was set to leave Boca Chica, I went to secure the loose articles on deck and was struck dumb. It seems some idiot forgot to screw down the cap for the diesel deck fill on our main fuel tank (the one we put back into commission last year in Chiapas) before leaving the boat for two days to take Harmony to the bus. It rained hard both days. Our side decks have proven to be excellent rain catchers. 

Son of a motherless --

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Log from the solo sail - Part 1

Log from the solo sail - Part 1

Harmony's off in the states for four weeks! All the space is mine! I report now only to Tack. 

With Harmony and our friends Mary and Perry all out of town at the same time, our English afterschool program at the school is going on hiatus. Not that I couldn't manage a room of 30 rowdy kids spanning from Kinder to Grade 8, without a coherent lesson plan, but -- actually I probably couldn't manage that. Plus, even down here a person needs to think about liability when children are in your care. So everything's shut down and I'm here all by my lonesome. What kind of trouble can I get into? I do have this boat . .

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We have the best neighbors (most of the time)

We have the best neighbors (most of the time)

I love our neighbors when we're out to sea.

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See life

See life

The water was finally warm enough to snorkel when we reached the tip of the Baja Peninsula. Jeff was excited, I was uncertain. Waves swept into the small cove, lifting Serenity and the two other boats at anchor as they passed beneath us and crashed onto the shore. Our neighbor on SV Splendid Isolation had reeled in several fish for dinner and a report from our other neighbors on SV Sweet Dreams confirmed that there were fish to be seen in and among the rocks that lined the cove.

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I wasn't born with fins on my feet

I wasn't born with fins on my feet

If you told my ten year old self that I would love snorkeling as an adult, I'm not sure she would have believed you. I've always loved water and swimming, but when taking a dip in a Pacific Northwestern river or a Midwestern lake I painted an underwater picture absolutely devoid of life.  The second I started thinking about the critters beneath me, a low grade panic would roll in and settle somewhere in my gut. For me, looking underwater was akin to turning on the lights in a dark room only to discover the walls are crawling with strange, foreign creatures, some of whom might bite you if given half the chance. Blissful ignorance was the greatest weapon against my fear. I'll take it pitch black, thank you very much.

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June 2014: month in review

June 2014: month in review

The highlight of June was our quick trip out to Isla Gamez to romp around and see our friends at Isla Parida as well as a body surfing, beer drinking, shell collecting session over at Playa Grande. The lowlight of June was going to Costa Rica (to renew my visa and to put Jeff on a plane) and getting our stuff stolen while we swam (rookie mistake!). Jeff wrapped up June with a quick trip back home to see family and play on a very different coastline with threateningly cold water. I held down the fort in Boca Chica cleaning every nook and cranny on our boat and making some less than pleasant discoveries in the bug department (I'll spare you the details). 

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Passage notes: Puerto Mutis to Boca Chica, Panama (via Isla Leones, Isla Uva, Islas Secas and Isla Gamez)

Passage notes: Puerto Mutis to Boca Chica, Panama (via Isla Leones, Isla Uva, Islas Secas and Isla Gamez)

On the 10th of May we picked up our final stowaway for the season, our friend Michael. As a professor of Classics at a new university in a new city, his school year had been full and fast-paced and he was ready to kick of summer break with some very intense relaxation. When asked what kind of trip he wanted, he responded with a set of very easy-going requests: 1) not too much travel, 2) a slow, easygoing pace, 3) lots of reading, 4) preferably in hammocks on the beach, 5) lots of swimming, 6) no internet, 7) games, 8) cold beer. Keeping the beer cold was our biggest challenge. 

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The pantry challenge

The pantry challenge

It's nice to consistently have a pantry full of stuff because it provides the reassurance that you won't starve to death on the ocean. Over time, however, things get buried and you come to discover that you have eight cans of corn...and four jars of mayonnaise...and enough rice to feed a small village. In addition to a surplus of provisions, there are so many good intentions stashed away in those cupboards.

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Stories from a stowaway: Michael

Stories from a stowaway: Michael

I expect that the majority of visitors to this blog come looking for a glimpse into a dream – a dream that two intrepid souls are living out daily on a sailboat as they cruise between Portland and Panama. Because these two souls belong to two of my dearest friends in the world (and because they are fantastically generous people) I had the opportunity to get an even closer look at their dream during a glorious two week stay aboard the Serenity.

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Season's end and a new beginning

Season's end and a new beginning

From the point we reached Panama City, the long season begun in October of last year had caught up with us. Every frozen bolt, frayed line, and failed outboard start caused an eruption of, "Get me off this boat!" Wind and waves that before had been merely inconvenient were now an active waste of our lives. During that long, horrible, uphill last leg from the Perlas to the city, Tack tucked himself so deeply and miserably into my lap [he is not a lap cat] that I could not stand to move a muscle and take away his last sanctuary. Our canary in the coal mine had croaked.

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Living in a small space: organizing the "head" (aka the bathroom)

Living in a small space: organizing the "head" (aka the bathroom)

Living in a small space necessitates strategic optimization of every available horizontal and vertical surface. On a boat you must also take into account that your home moves and anything not properly secured will become animated. What was a great idea at anchor may prove to be a disastrous idea at sea. Even if your boat is blessed with ample storage, there is always a need for creative solutions to maintain comfort and livability. Since sailboats aren't square, you must literally think outside the box and design systems that fit the (more likely than not) awkwardly shaped spaces. Every time we visit other boats we catalogue ideas that we can export and adapt to our boat.

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Oh h#!! h#!! nos

Oh h#!! h#!! nos

The arrival of rainy season is accompanied by the proliferation of bugs...especially the biting variety. We're up the Rio San Pedro right now, enjoying the calm outside of Puerto Mutis, awaiting the arrival of our friend Michael. I could stay here a lot longer if it wasn't for the bugs.

My alarm clock this morning was dozens of pin prick bites on any area of my bare body that did not happen to be covered by the sheets. Jejenes, no-see-ums or biting midges, as we know them in the US, are flocking to the boat from the nearby mangroves. Nearly invisible clouds of invaders ready to devour us. And devour is not an understatement. We are on the menu this morning and we are apparently very delicious.

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May 2014: month in review

May 2014: month in review

May was all about getting back into a groove. The Gulf of Panama had definitely thrown us off of our game, but we were determined to get back to Western Panama, to the waters we know we love. Things started looking up pretty much as soon as we exited the Gulf. Was this all in our heads? Maybe. Either way, we were eager to make our way back to what has become our home away from home - Boca Chica and the Gulf of Chiriqui. 

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