Dancing with the Stars on the Shortest Day of the Longest Year

The Great Conjunction of Saturn & Jupiter Rising on December 21, 2020 . Photo JAL

Winter crossed the starting line last night. Shiver ye timbers – stoke up the hearth – we’ve set course to sail through the seas-on of very long nights.  Many folks think of winter as the doldrums of the year; a monotonous period of waiting for warm spring breezes to fill our sails.   That’s not the best approach to this Winter Solstice. We’ve been stuck in irons for far too long to diddle away the next dozen weeks.  

Photo courtesy nasa.gov

Time and distance are relative. It’s somehow fitting that the longest year in memory, not counting pregnancies and freshman classes, is a leap year. It’s been 800 years since Jupiter got close enough snag Saturn’s rings. Back then, here on Earth, Emperor Phillip founded the University of Paris to offer a liberal education while Genghis Kahn was tweaking the recipe for gunpower. Blue and red medieval pennants rallied rival troops with promises of eternal glory. If we jump back another 800 years we find ourselves marking the first Julian calendar. It too was a leap year (400 AD) when we could settle by the fire to read the Roman physician, Caelius Aurelianus’ best seller, Concerning Acute and Chronic Illness. The world was ripe with contradictions and possibilities for changing our ways.

Saturn by Ivan Akimov. Courtesy Wikipedia

The contrasting forces of nature are best explained through stories. Take for example the Roman myths behind the two seemingly merged bright spots in last night’s Solstice sky. Saturn and Jupiter were Greek/Roman gods who had eternity to wax and wane together. It’s no coincidence that their namesake planets never come closer than 456 million miles of each other while humming Cats in the Cradle. According to legend, so it’s probably not fake news, Saturn was exiled from Mount Olympus. Something about eating his own kids irked the people. Fortunately, most Romans lusted to be Greek-like. They welcomed the great god Saturn.  And so it came to be that Saturn wisely ruled the Roman Empire during an age of peace and prosperity. With no wars to fight or babies to eat he had plenty of time to dabble with viticulture, the art of grape production. It’s unlikely that Saturn ever shared a bottle of red with Genghis Kahn though because he was devoted to ridding Rome of barbaric customs like sacking and pillaging. Saturn had reset his moral compass, a millennium later he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities by the University of Paris.

Then, by Jove, along came Jupiter, Roman god of heavens and sky, ruler of laws and social order. Jupiter was an enormous god so it’s no surprise that the hugest planet in our solar system is his namesake. Jupiter’s mother saved him from his father’s heinous habit of devouring his sons at birth. Eventually, Jupiter overthrew his father, a gentle ruler but a down right scary pater familias, and reigned supreme over the universe. Who’s his Daddy?

Saturn. The son wanted to be just like his Dad who unfortunately was busy making wine and had no time to play. To this day their relationship ebbs and flows as young, mighty Jupiter briskly circles the sun once every 12 years and his old man shuffles along making the circumnavigation in 29 years. It’s hard for a kid to be that patient waiting to get together, so Jupiter makes off with his dozens of moons while Saturn lags behind and spins his rings. Every 800 years they have a family reunion and sample Saturn’s vintage wine.

As Harry Chapin asked, “When you coming home son?” The reply holds in many homes this season,
“I don’t know when, We’ll have a good time then.” Photo of Jupiter. Simple English Wickipedia.

If a Father who rules the sky with peace and his son, known for a jolly, optimistic world view, are able to spend eternity apart but together, we can endure a dark season of social distancing. This Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday – that’s Jupiter’s day when he makes a cheery toast to his father. Take a moment to raise a glass as the father and son climb the heavens.  It’s okay to call it the Christmas Star of 2020. Christmas is the day the Son will light the way for our next circle around the sun.  

Wishing you Merry and Healthy holidays.

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.

Water Always Wins


RIP S/v Starlight
Photo by JAL

Anything Mother Nature makes she can break and eventually wash it out to sea. The Earth’s maximum terminator is (drum roll please) water. Water can break down and dissolve everything given enough time. Water is patient – it’s been around for over four billion years – today and tomorrow – our lifetime aren’t even a tick of a clock. Over the course of a year enough people die from water related diseases to populate Los Angeles. Ten times more people who aren’t on boats die from un-intentional drowning than those who fall overboard or go down with the ship and drown. Ninety nine point nine, nine, nine percent of boaters never have near death experiences aboard boats. That’s why it’s a recreation – we make good times on, in, and with water.


Mast below dock, boat below mast, keel on river bottom.
Photo by JAL

According to lore, “what the sea wants, the sea will have.” Oversized egos make some people think the sea wants them more than life. They are terrified of drowning. There’s not a sailor who hasn’t had a white knuckled, green cheeked passenger who panicked every time the boat heeled or bucked a wave. I’ve never thought of reassuring such friends that they have a better chance of drowning on land than drowning while cruising. Besides, the adrenaline rush is part of the “90% boredom -10% sheer terror” sailing experience. As captain, my job is to project reassuring confidence as they cling to an extra PFD, and whisper the Hail Mary. Sometimes splitting the main brace is all they need to relax.


Bow to Water

Water is patient. One of the informal laws of nature is that anything Mother Nature makes she can darn well break. She often uses water as the Terminator of choice. Floods, dirty water, droughts, mudslides, tsunamis are weapons of mass destruction. Is it any surprise then, when a sailor fails to take care of the boat – water is going to make a stealth attack and claim the booty as Davy Jones’ very own?

Such was the recent fate of a boat in our harbor. It had been an eyesore for years, collecting wasps, rotting ropes and canvas, breeding mosquitoes, pleading for a restoration. The frozen river bludgeoned her brittle hull, icy tendrils of the silent current breached and violated her to the point of surrender – her anguish silenced as she sunk.

That is a sad boat story. There are happy tales that better capture the sense of why we love boating and savor time on the water. Underlying many of these yarns is a description of a “close call” in the balance between fun and fear. Which reminds me…


Dowry goats got us a whole new generation of sailors who love the sea!
San Diego, Photo by Marlene

We first met our son’s in laws for a day cruise aboard a rented sailboat in San Diego Harbor. Midway across the bay smoke started to billow from the engine compartment. I calmly suggested it was a great time to see how the life jackets fit and test the ship to shore radio by asking if anyone knew it was May Day. Peter, (the father in law) an experienced sailor and an engineer caught on immediately. He calmly opened the engine cover and examined the diesel engine while I grabbed a fire extinguisher (and George – oblivious to the situation – or perhaps because of – grabbed a beer). The problem was water – not fire – there was so much water in the bilge the heat of the engine was creating a plume of steam. He flipped on the bilge pump – George grabbed another beer and Linda snapped great pictures of the Coast Guard, Boat US and the harbor crew coming to the rescue. Water had it’s way into our boat – but we had a way off. We limped back to shore (with the automatic bilge pump cranking) – hopped on another bareboat, hoisted sails, cracked open a bottle of wine and negotiated the number of goats for the dowry.

Boats are symbolic – they represent hopes, dreams, power, and purpose. The boat that sunk in our harbor was a forgotten dream by a neglectful owner. Some among us, consider this to be a relief – they won’t lose sleep over it’s demise. The boat, all 40 plus feet of it, will be refloated, towed away and scrapped. Yet, peering at her topsides a yard beneath the murky surface was deeply disturbing. The river must have a millions of deep secrets. This is what happens when boaters forget to respect water and honor a boat. Water wins.

If you ever come aboard one of my boats – relax. Trust my boat – we take good care of each other. I’ll bring along a bit of sanity, a pocket or so of seamanship, and an intense love of playing on water just to convince you that there is simply nothing better than, well you know, just messing about in boats. It’s a win – win – win for boats, boaters, and water.


Deck Monkey Wanna Bees
San Diego, Photo by Marlene



Jeri’s Sunfish, Solstice
Mike’s Unskinable Boat Afloat
Narrow River, RI

New England fishermen are as effusive with conversation as Putin is with accolades for Ellen hosting the Oscars. The watermen have a word for things that are good and wonderful – “finest kind.”  I fished around for some of the finestkind things learned from simply messing with boats.


Sailboats in Bali made to make you Eat, Pray and Love
Photo by JAL

#1.  Water always wins. It doesn’t matter whether your vessel is a little plastic toy floating in the bathtub or the Titanic – water can sink it in a jiffy. The sea can mount a hostile takeover with a single wave that sweeps everything below without a trace.


Fair warning worth heeding. La Jolla
Photo by JAL

Water is sneakier than the brightest of rats. It has the patience of Job to stow away in the lowest, dankest point of the boat until it is joined by billions tiny moist molecules whose sheer volume outweighs the boat and takes her down. Wakes, waves, splashes, rain, snow, ice all leave welcoming instructions for the next form of H2O to come aboard.  The majority (57% – 70% – depending on how many tequila shots you downed last night or the number of hours recently spent skiing sand dunes in Dubai) of the human body is composed of water – but it’s not enough to trump the power of a body of water, whether it’s a puddle, pond, or ocean.


Baby Maggie on Board, ETA 36 hrs. w/Grandma
La Jolla, CA, 2012

Babies are nearly three fourths water which in fact makes them – as far as hydropower rules – even stronger than adults. Everyone of us was gifted a finestkind moment of triumph over liquids when we broke our mom’s water and were born wet into the world. That is why deer, the climate, and fish on the Georges Bank fear mankind – as a species – we’ve got a lot of water power to flaunt and minimal impulse control.


When the tide goes out the Bali lagoon is bone dry out to the horizon.
Photo by JAL

#2.  Beauty is a beastly thing to maintain. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a 12’ plastic kayak or a 34’ fiberglass sailboat, taking care of her means providing protection from the sun (much like slathering sunscreen so you’re not bothered by paparazzi mistaking you for Dame Maggie Smith on holiday by the sea), keeping her hull, topsides and cockpit clean and buff (think a mani & pedi in Brazil), and her working parts functional (throw in a full body massage – plus tip). The finestkind moment of spring commissioning is when a skipper finishes fixing, scrubbing, and polishing only to gaze at the boat, grin, gasp and fall in love for another season.

#3. Trust thy boat as thyself. Wise sailors learn to appreciate the rule of water and the physics that separate floating from sinking. If you’re going to own a boat, no matter how many safety rules you follow, you’re gonna make mistakes. Survival also depends on a metaphysical sense of trust between you and the vessel.  Respecting water doesn’t mean being terrified all of the time. Safety rules. You’ve got to know what you can (make a call on the Ship to Shore radio, reef the sails) and can’t (navigate in fog, sleep with rain streaming through the overhead hatch) do – and when the can’ts threaten the safety of the souls aboard – what to do next. If you are comfortable alone with your boat there’s a fair chance you’re also comfortable in your own skin. The finestkind of trust between people and boats floats comfy on competence and confidence – both are born of experience and mature into wisdom.

The finestkind sense of being boaters is buoyed by memories of past days afloat that warm our souls during these frosty months when water play is simply a soggy dream.


Artwork by Elle, Age 2 @
Camp Mimi, Riva Ave