A Smoko for Sweet Fanny Adams

A lot of things that we think matter a lot turn out to be worthless. During this pandemic I’ve spent substantial time reflecting on what holds value and what is just a Sweet Fanny Adams[1]. Another Fanny, this one from Broadway, sang, “people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.”  Those are the people who will always remember Spring 2020 as a bleak and lonely season. Regardless of the plight of humanity, the earth continued to spin on its axis, days grew longer, and boating season returned. People who need boats are the second luckiest people.

Joshua Slocum was a self-sufficient 19th century sailor who circumvented the globe alone. His life partner was his boat, Spray. He found people were like Sweet Fanny Adams, they were insignificant, except to buy his book. While Slocum was obsessed with single-handed sailing, I prefer Noah’s two by two plan for crew on the Ark. I can’t do with both hands what Slocum did with a pinky finger. Sometimes it takes four or six hands to keep Ex Libris afloat.

Forget Waldo, Where’s the Leak?

This past weekend I filled my tanks with fresh water and was startled to note that the head (bathroom) floor had quite a bit of water that seemed to be coming up from the shower drain. I wiped it up and found that it wasn’t a trickle of tinkle. The water was clear and odorless. The last time we found water dripping in the head was on a New Years Eve when our boat was taking on river water. This puddle did not resemble melted yellow snow.

Fully embracing the “many hands less work” theory, I hailed our good friend, a retired Naval engineer who spent his career working with nuclear submarine engines. I fretted that we could sink from the sink, after all water drains from the sink into the river so what’s to stop the reverse? Joe troubleshooted how sink water could appear on the floor of a different cabin. He taught me how to check sea cocks and blow out clogs from a drain. Heady stuff that appeared to quell the leak. We kept to our plan to socially distance our two boats overnight on a quiet slough off the Mississippi. I relaxed knowing a guy who spent most of his career under water wasn’t concerned about puddles in my head.

We dropped anchor. I sopped up another pint of water and tried to remember the first prayer on a rosary chain.  After a fine meal on deck, George went below to use the head and shortly called up, “I fixed the leak!” The submariner and I were baffled. George, who is a damn fine first mate is not noted for his acuity for fixing things at sea or on land. Beaming a broad smile, he tossed me a nearly empty gallon water jug kept in the bathroom on a low shelf that we use to flush the head. It was dented and had a small bottom crack. Only a couple of ounces of water remained at the bottom of the jug. He had fixed the leak.

The next day, George and the submariner took a smoko. That’s an old naval term for a taking a break from all seaman duties. They savored a couple of expensive cigars together (appropriately distanced) and spoke quietly about the many things men do at sea and with boats. Some, like engines that won’t kick over are serious. Others, such as distilled water jug floods are not. We were glad to be in the company of a Navy sailor on this Memorial Day weekend. He recalled another sailor who advised; the first thing to do on a boat is raise the flag. The last thing is to take it down, fold it respectfully, and store it until the next time. It’s good to honor our troops, past and present whose heroics big and small are never Sweet Fanny Adams. Life is more than luck. Few of us can make it single handed. We need people like them to keep people like us safe.   


[1] An old Royal Navy saying referring to the content of tinned meat rations that were considered worthless. It’s a twisted tale born of a tragedy but kept for something.

Hope Floats

Sink or Float is a simple game best played with young kids. I prefer playing it riverside or alongshore but it can be played in a bucket, a bowl, sink, or tub (skip the toilet). Just add water. Players gather up things, twigs, bits of asphalt, younger siblings to toss in the water. The object of the game is to guess whether each bit of stuff will sink or float. Stones can skip but then they sink. It’s an easy game unless you are new to the world, as children are, and the laws of gravity aren’t obvious. There are a lot of surprises in the realm of sinking and floating stuff.

And then there is hope. It can’t be seen on shore or picked up to toss in a pond, but it is real. Hope, by its nature, floats, like boats are built to do. There has been a lot of fuss during this pandemic over the question of whether or not we are all in the same boat. The answer is, no. First, the loosest of social gathering policies sets 10 as the top limit for touchable togetherness. Second, unless you’re escaping Cuba, a crew that big needs a decent size boat and a captain with a hefty wallet. This means an awful lot of people, and many who can’t swim, are struggling to stay afloat.

To swallow the anchor is to retire from the sea. Just the thought chokes me up.
Palisades. Alton Pool, Mississippi River
Photo by JAL

Anyone who has ever simply messed about in boats holds tightly to the notion that it’s better to float than to sink. Charles Dickens wrote that while hope may well float, it’s like a buoy that can’t be steered. You must keep wishing you’ll stay afloat while knowing that the wind and current may or may not bring you to where you want to be.

Unlike the game of Sink or Float, where science wins, wishing on a star and hoping for the best, is proof that our inner child still holds fast to the belief that life doesn’t play fair. That little kid who stays down deep within our aging bodies knows for sure that hope floats and wishes come true. In fact, they are as real as dreams and strong as boats that sail the seas. Hope floats because we believe it floats. Disbelief sinks our spirts to deep despair.

I’d rather have faith in hope than to swallow the anchor. To do the later would mean giving up the sea and retiring to a landlocked boat-less life. I’m using hope to keep my head above these turbulent seas where getting splashed can sink me to the bottom. So, if you come to our dock and ask for permission to come aboard, unless you’re willing to mask up and keep a safe distance, don’t be offended if we shake our heads but not your hands and sail off alone. I’m hoping that this talisman will protect you, me, and all we love until the tide changes and we cruise safer waters together.

Betwixt Wind and Water – Lambs and Lions

Somebody’s Little Red Boat. Wickford Cove, RI
Photo JAL

The month of March is gauged by the comings and goings of lions and lambs. Wild and domestic animals are metaphors for unpredictable weather that randomly doles out sleet and daffodils. March holds one of the two days of the year when day and night are able to achieve perfect balance during a moment of equity. One wouldn’t know this by tracking the daily temperatures or temperament of people right now. Lions and wildebeests seem to rule the world as we watch winter’s ebb and spring’s rise from the inside of our home windowpanes.

A dock can take you anywhere – once you get off it.
Wickford Cove.

Getting a little fresh air has been the universal antidote for many maladies. That’s not a do-able prescription for folks right now. Our world view has tipped far from its equinox. Shelter in place doesn’t mean “put your beach umbrella just above the tideline”. We can learn a bit from wooden ships and be healthy this spring.

Wooden ships are made to float and traverse the sea with the aid of fair and furious winds. But, the part of the ship that’s right above and just below the waterline is exposed to air and water as the ship rolls in the waves. That is the most vulnerable area in time of war and the worst possible area to get hit by a cannon ball. Being hit by just a single cannon ball can cause a world of hurt – serious damage to the ship and potential loss of ship mates.  

“Wooden Ships, on the water very free & easy”. CSNY. Museu Maritim de Barcelona. Photo JAL

Such are sea stories – a breath of fresh air can trigger an adventure where still air fouls a ship in the doldrums – and everyone goes mad. A tale begins on the tip of a butterfly’s wing that disrupts a drop of air. A benign flutter triggers the forces of chaos. An innocent bit of breeze is whipped into a hurricane that blows the man down.

Sometimes we have to avoid frightening tales and turn to comforting stories about things like wildebeests. When fighting invisible enemies we don’t want to stay awake at night worrying about getting sunk by cannon balls. Some stories seem scary at first. Just the word wildebeest looks ominous, but in reality, these are just gentle vegetarians related to antelopes. We don’t need fear to be entertained. Wildebeests aren’t central characters in sea yarns because, first of all, they can’t swim. Next, they aren’t predators. Still, there are lots of interesting stories about wildebeests. These placid African animals don’t know they aren’t swimmers until they try, by the thousands, to cross rivers. To the delight of other animals, they drown. Who gnu? Crocodiles who dine on freshly drowned wildebeests. To a whole bunch of animals this is a happy story of filled bellies during the flood season.

No Bad Gnus

Take a break from tragic adventures and sad gnus for a bit. Sailors depend on rope to adjust sails because the wind can’t be tamed. Sailors also know that ropes can only take a limited amount of strain over long periods of time. There aren’t any ropes that can bear heavy loads forever without apparent wear and tear. Sooner or later the fibers fray and loose ends dangle off the winches.  Danger strikes without warning when the rope (line) snaps. A sail can break loose, the booms swing free and crack skulls, crew get tangled and fall overboard.

This line has felt strain and is frayed. Now it’s coiled and at rest. Avoid strain on your lines.
Port of Barcelona. Photo by JAL



Let’s tend to our ropes and lines as we march towards April. Use the extra hour of day to balance our minds between panic and prudence, fears and confidence, common sense and unnecessary risk.  Set aside tales of shipwrecks and relax with calming stories that celebrate the simple things in life.   Ignore the gnus and the lions. Cuddle with your favorite lamb.

Ancient Mariners, Cranberries, and Scurvy Pirates

Statue of the Ancient Mariner. Somerset, England. Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons

“Water, water, every where/not any drop to drink”, is an oft quoted phrase from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, told by an old salt, tells the story of a long ago voyage. The sailor heedlessly killed the albatross that had led the ship safely out of raging Antarctic seas. The sea spirits retaliated and blew the ship to the becalmed doldrums where there was no wind, clean water, or fresh fruit and vegetables to be had. This makes for a great story for young kids to tell their Boomer grandparents who don’t appreciate kale smoothies. The Mariner’s crew credited their cursed luck on a sailor’s avian crime against nature. The punishment rendered was to wrap the dead albatross around his neck. Weeks passed as the crew’s teeth rotted, skins blistered, and souls withered.

There are a lot of takes on Coleridge’s poem including one that it’s a tale about scurvy. When Magellean and Cook explored the seas discovering new worlds that had always been, more sailors died of scurvy than all the soldiers who perished during the Civil War.

There’d be no Moby Dick if Ismael had listened to the Nantucketeer who warned, ““Go out with that crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.” More pirates died from disease than from cannon balls. Their breath reeked, necks rattled, bones crackled, and vivid nightmares purloined their sanity. Yet, none among them cried out “I’ll trade my silver, gems, and rum for an equal weight of cranberries, lemons, and brussel sprouts.”

We are sailing a turbulent time locked in the irons of a wind that is confounding life on land and sea.  Scurvy-stricken 18th century sailors felt better when they could smell land and feel the sold earth beneath their feet. This led to the healing strategy of “earth bathing”. It was a simple, pragmatic cure; get the stricken sailor home, relax him in a box of clean dirt, and feed him well. Folks believed that scurvy wasn’t really a seasickness is was homesickness. The stricken were believed to suffer from a deep longing to be safe, on dry land with their loved ones.  And lo, with the pleasures associated with warm beds, hot meals, and time to reconnect with family, health was restored.

Don’t Make Scurvy Great Again

Common sense holds true today as around the globe people are being asked to avoid crowded harbors and ships bound for distant ports via air and sea. Take Dr. Semmelweis’ 19th century life-changing advice to the medical world, “DOCTORS, FIRST WASH YOUR HANDS – THEN DO NO HARM!” He was the first physician to understand that fevers are contagious. One way to stop an illness from spreading to others is to wash your hands!

The second, similar bit of advice comes from the captains of sailing ships, swab your decks – keep them clean! And if you are sick, stay put for a bit. Being home sick is better than being homesick for a place you’ll never reach. Take an earth bath or at least wash your hands. If your body is blown from icy waters to scorching seas – don’t panic – be prudent. Don’t wait until the end of April to call in a May Day. Avoid scurvy too, stay home, put limes in your rum and read a good book.

Why should any of us defy the wisdom of the Ancient Mariner, a practical whaler, or brilliant Dr. Semmelweis? Who wants to take the chance of waking up next to a scurvy pirate with a bloody albatross around his neck? Not, I.

Trade My Booty for Your Fruit?

Bermuda High

RoseLighthouse

A Bermuda High is pumping sultry heat and stifling humidity into New England. It is a typical high-pressure summer weather pattern that forms in the western Atlantic. This bodes well for vacationers and the beach crowd – in fact the weather is breeding beach bums. We’ve got balmy water temps around 69 (note that’s about 30 degrees cooler than a healthy blood stream) with waves at 1 – 3 feet and the usual dose of SSW summer breezes. We’re having a 4th of July weekend sizzler.

ImageIt’s all-good if you’ve got sunscreen and access to either the Narrow River or Narragansett Bay. Then again, my dear Mom would declare the hot humid cocktail as “oppressive”. There is an unsettling aspect of Bermuda Highs. Comparable to the “good witch” and the wicked witch of Oz, this cyclone has a darker power. She steers the course of hurricanes. Bermuda Highs draw great strength from the oceanic atmospherics that generate humongous clockwise winds that give birth to storms that are pushed toward the eastern US seaboard.

Bermuda Highs interact with other wind and wave patterns, thus what lies ahead, weather-wise is difficult to predict. When the system shifts to the east or west it weakens or gains strength. We can bet on one thing – movement in either direction will spurn hurricanes – when they will be strong enough to wreak havoc and where they will land this season is anyone’s guess.

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Wicked

So it seems this sizzler of a weekend is a calm before the storm. Sooner or later the clouds will come, winds will batter the dunes and great waves will tear up the beaches. I’m not inclined to breakout my yellow slicker and fill the bathtub with water just yet.

Sometimes, our lives seem so perfect that we fear our happiness will be drenched. Looking at the weather map – that seems true. If you’re in Indian Rocks Beach or New Orleans today – you’re stuck in a low. It’s a far cry from my High but hold on, no pattern holds indefinitely in a world that spins through space on an axis. The way a multitude of factors in Earth’s atmosphere interact assures us that tomorrow can never be a perfect copy of a perfect today.

Why not treat today as one does during a Bermuda High in New England? Try to be comfortable and chill out. Tune into what you’ve got and stop worrying about what you may get or could lose tomorrow. Carpe Diem.

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Life is Good