Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Working in the wet wedge

Funny how your expectations sometime pile up in a collision with reality.  For years I looked forward to retirement so I could spend 10 or 12 hours a day doing only what I wanted, instead of that endless grind of making a living and putting food on the table.  Ambition plans stacked up in front of me -- expand the barn, build a forge, put up a new game fence, plant a field and then a whole hillside of apple trees. Consolidate the blueberry patches, make a dozen or more raised beds for the vegetables, build a new garden shed before the old house where we store garden stuff down in the field just gives up and collapses on itself.

So, nearly two years into retirement I've managed to expand the barn and build eight raised beds. That's it.   All the other projects are in various stages of their beginnings, and it ain't nobody's fault. On the good days, I've too often been gone, running down the mountain for this meeting or that appointment or to keep up with old friends somewhere down the road.  On the bad days, I've been looking out the window, fuming.

So today I'm blaming the weather. When it gets wet up here, even when it's not raining, it keeps on staying wet for days on end. Zach Robinson, the estimable Virginia Tech senior and weather blogger who hopes for a career in broadcast meteorology, provides insight as he subs for Kevin Myatt, the Roanoke Times copy editor who everybody in the Middle Atlantic and Southern Appalachians turns to for weather explanations that you can understand:

Robinson writes: If you are not familiar with Southwest Virginia weather, you may be a little curious as to what exactly my blog title is referring to. If you are a bit more familiar, you should know all too well the consequences of an onshore flow. At its most basic level, when the surface winds blow from the East, they bring moisture off the Atlantic and bank it up against the mountains. This is known also as a “wedge” or a “dam.” The pattern is frequent enough to be a significant player, but rare enough for us to take note when it sets up.

The Blue Ridge plays a key role in the setup, allowing for the air at the surface to get trapped along and east of the Appalachians. The high ridges act as a dam for the cool moist air. The result is what you are seeing now (coupled with a shortwave trough digging through): Days of fog/drizzle and on-again, off-again rain. This pattern is similar to the primary pattern in the Pacific Northwest. The prevailing westerly flow brings in Pacific moisture, dams it up against The Cascades, and causes the wet weather that region is known for.

This happened around here in 2003, the year I started building stuff in the woods, starting with a story-and-a-half privy.  It either rained or fogged or gloomed so much that the woods didn't dry out until July 1, yet Jim Newlin and I were out there in the forest in April, getting wetter by the moment, starting on the outhouse and eventually moving on to the workshop.  Same kind of thing this spring. Every time I go out to do some work, it either rains, or fog closes in and drapes a layer of wet clingy invisible moss over everything, including me, or it just stays soggy and you can feel 67-year-old knees and elbows starting to rust and lock up.

And thus: The walls are framed for the new shed, but nothing else.  The old farrior's forge stands in the barn, awaiting its shack.  The fence posts and rool of game fencing lie in the fast-growing grass, disappearing from view a little more each day.  I managed to augur out 10 of the 22 holes before the last of my shear pins gave their short lives for the cause.  Lumber for more raised beds lies in my wood shed. Mulch for the blueberry patches continues to settle in moldering clumps around the edge of the fields.

And I would say that my well of patience continues to dwindle, except I never had any patience to begin with, and the well is dry.  And today's forecast? More of what Zach Robinson describes as "fog/drizzle and on-again, off-again rain," looks like.  About the only thing I know to do is follow the advice of a good friend: Pour a short one, get out a good thick book and lie down for awhile.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Credits in the box

During my impecunious boat-owning days a wise man told me about a theory that he felt helped keep him and his vessel safe: The credit in the box.  This theory held that the more credits you put in the box -- replacing worn dock lines, changing the oil on the engine, replacing the fuel filters, updating the through-hull valves, downloading the latest chart information, upgrading the VHF radio antenna, greasing the steering cables and a million more chores -- the more likely you were to be able deal with an emergency out on the water and the less likely you were to find yourself in a life-threatening position.

It's a good theory for getting through life, too, I imagine, but at the time I was just trying to keep up with the challenge of keeping an old tub afloat and in reasonable repair so I could get back into the slip without (A) breaking anything or (B) hurting anyone.  So I spent a lot of time putting credits in the box against the day that might come when all hell broke loose and I needed enough readiness and good luck to survive.

Those days came a couple of times down on the Lower Neuse just off Pamlico Sound, a treacherous body of water not because it's deep, but because it's shallow -- and the bathtub effect from raging winds in a bad storm made it supremely difficult to steer on a slow boat.  We got hit twice with white squalls -- storms so sudden and so violent that it was impossible even to see the bow of our 37-foot sailboat.  In both instances we relied on the trackback feature of a new GPS so that we could follow our digital path back the way we had come, and a newly replaced antenna (the old one was water-soaked, crusty and corroded and would fade after a few seconds of broadcasting) that allowed us to contact nearby shrimp boats and warn them where we were. Those unseen shrimp boats would put down their outriggers during a storm, giving them more stability but also vastly widening their profiles -- and we worried about running into them in the whiteout conditions.  Nervous times, but we came through -- although after one storm I never again found the horseshoe life preserver we kept tied to the stern rail. Blew away so fast I didn't even see or hear it go. One moment it was there by my elbow, the next it was somewhere over, I don't know, Whortonsville or Hoboken.

Putting credits in the box also meant keeping spares for every essential part on the boat -- spare fuel filters, spare float switches for the bilge pumps, spare bilge pumps, spare fuses, spare cotter pins, spare stainless steel split-rings and machine screws and wood screws and grommet maker and wire connectors and nylon-center nuts and 12-volt cable and deck cleats and scores of other small parts.  They went into a big red box -- the boat box, full of theoretical credits and actual screws, washers, nuts, bolts, wire strippers, clamps, gizmos, widgets, thingamajigs and whatzits, not to mention a pair of left-handed round tuits, that sort of thing.

The boat is long gone -- sold to a sailor who took off for Central America and got within a mile of it before the packing gland of the main shaft floated out and the boat began to take on water.  He got in before the boat went down and managed to save the day -- but I hung onto that red box. It resides atop a stack of Southern yellow pine in my shop, and it keeps on saving my day.  Yesterday I went to it twice -- once for a half-inch ovalheaded machine screw and nut to replace a lost set on a six-foot long circular saw guide, and again for short stainless screws to fasten the wobbly heads on a couple of garden cultivators.

That boat box has bailed me out more times than I can recall, and every time I look in it I find something else that still may be useful one day.  A single-pole, single-throw line switch. A pocket hacksaw with blade.  A pair of U-bolts the next time I plan to put up a stern-pulpit UHF antenna. A small tube of a sticky adhesive caulk that sailors call White Death, because once you use a little of it, you manage to track it around the boat. It never comes up and it never dies off.

All this makes me a pack rat, of course.  I hardly ever throw anything out.  I still have raised panels from a door in a Greensboro house where William Sidney Porter -- O. Henry in his writing days -- played as a child.  There's a half of a fancy stylized brick from walkway around the building that once housed the N.C. Supreme Court. A piece of granite, somewhere, from the foundation of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  And somewhere, if I can ever find it, there's a limb section from a tree where Mosby's Rangers were reputed to have hung some Yankees in retaliation for the hanging of some Rangers during the Civil War.

And so I hang on to old pairs of pliers that no longer ply, rusty lag screws and chewed up carriage bolts that no longer fasten and an ancient sawtooth setter that may come in real handy one day.  As they say Down East, you just don't never know.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Up a lazy river -- Parkway to the Waterway

So the phone rings a few weeks ago. It's a friend calling from down south.  She and her husband own a lovely Krogen 42 trawler and they've wintered over in the Bahamas, before he stepped off a dock, landed badly and shattered his ankle.  Could we possibly come help move the trawler back to North Carolina from Florida?

For 40 some years the answer would have been no. Jobs, kids, obligations. But for decades I've wanted to run the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway down to Florida -- maybe all the way around to the Gulf and as far as Brownsville Texas.  My college roomie's father-in-law and mother-in- law took such a trip on his retirement. And now that we're retired, it took me this long to say yes: "Lemme think about it OK we'll go."

A few days later we were in not-quite-sunny Vero Beach City Marina, loading up four dock carts worth of groceries, whiskey, clothes, wine, dogs, foul weather gear and old salts and heading up the Waterway.  I once wrote a story for the Charlotte Observer about the two grand routes flanking North Carolina and much of the East Coast -- the Blue Ridge Parkway to the west, running from Tennessee through North Carolina and Virginia and linking up with national parks at either end, and the ICW, linking Norfolk to Florida as part of a longer route of protected shipping routes that you could take from New England to Texas, if you knew how.

I've long known the Parkway was a magnificent thing to see. I had traveled the ICW only from above Belhaven N.C. to Little River S.C.  But over nearly three weeks in a trawler whose top speed with the wind and the tides was about 9 m.p.h., and whose slowest cruising speed against wind and tide was maybe 2.5 m.p.h., I saw wonderful things -- manatees and dolphins in the water and osprey and hawks and herons on the wing, snowy egrets in the shallows and armadillos in the sawgrass and wild horses and not-so-wild people along the way.  We anchored in Walter Cronkite's favorite anchorage not far from Brookgreen Island, toured R.J. "Dick" Reynolds' fabulous mansion on Sapelo Island, saw the remains of the Carnegie family's "Dungeness" mansion (on a site where Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, namesake of my hometown Greensboro, had his own place first),  toured Brookgreen Gardens for the first time since boyhood days and found a suitable dive (Salty Mike's concrete-floored barroom) in Charleston to watch a little basketball while a gale and rainstorm blew itself out.

We crossed bouncy inlets in Port Royal Sound and Winyah Bay and slid up smooth waters along the Indian River and the lower Waccamaw, where we saw ruined rice fields and miles upon miles of rotting and decaying wooden bulkheads and watergates used to flood and drain the fields in that long-ago era.  We saw lighthouses and an a quaint brick toll booth in the middle of nowhere and elegant old bascule bridgehouses in the law country.  We watched sunsets in places of almost indescribable peace and ran aground so briefly in one inlet that it could only be described as a touch-and-go.  The lesson was a good one: If you're going to go aground, do it on an incoming tide.  That way you won't be there long.

It's more work handling a boat at an average speed of 7.5 m.p.h. over a 700-mile fetch of the ICW than driving a car at an average of 45 m.p.h. down the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway -- more dock lines to tie off and springlines to warp in and dinghies to hoist and currents to fight, not to mention wind gusts that can make you break out in cold sweats in tricky channels barely wider than the boat. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I was good to feel the rise and fall of the deck in a choppy shipping lane, hear the slap of a changing tide at anchor in the full moonlight and feel the lift when an incoming tide speeds you on your way home again.

John Masefield wasn't writing about a diesel-powered trawler when he wrote his poem "Sea-Fever," but as an old sailor I appreciate his sentiment:

"I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking."

p.s.: I know.  For some reason Masefield omitted some form of the verb "go" in the third word of that poem, and I have often seen it printed with "go" inserted ("I must go down....etc.).  Wikipedia, if it is correct, preserves Masefield's use of "down" as the verb.  It's a curiosity, and one I like.  If a writer can't break the rules now and again, where's the fun of it all?  JB