Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fear of Sailing

A sight that used to fill me with dread and almost prevented me from ever sailing.

One day, about a month ago, while making passage from one port in the Dodecanese to another, our day was dominated by the weather depicted above.

Looking at that photograph it is hard to believe the day had started sunny and calm. We rounded a point just as the wind picked up and the sky overhead closed in from all sides. Off to the west, we saw a squall line move toward us like the front of an ancient army.

A squall line moves across the Aegean sky. This shot is taken looking aft from the boat.
The scene reminded me of a day some six years earlier, long before I had cast off on this voyage. It was in the time when the idea of this grand voyage was still new and filled with as much excitement as trepidation. I had fears back then which sometimes mounted to tall dark clouds of ambivalence. Could I face the immense and merciless forces of a tempestuous sea? Forget the brutality of ill weather, would I feel lost and small being so exposed and vulnerable to the elements?

Not being seen by freighters is a justifiable fear. Especially in really bad weather when they adjust the radar gain so waves don't clutter their radar screen.
I remember one evening coming home from the grocery store with my daughter Zoe. As we came out of the store, an impressive sunset presented itself to us. Over the buildings across the street, a base layer of dark gray clouds ran ragged up into the sky as if the Adirondacks had suddenly erupted in size. The cloud crests were wispy and stringy like a mad scientist’s hair. From below and behind, the clouds were illuminated: electric orange and red with sharp shards of horizontal yellow. The bloated dark blue-gray clouds and sunset-lit sky mixed in a Maxfield Parish type of unreal juxtaposition of threat and warmth. It was a scene as imposing as it was impressive.

“What a beautiful sunset,” I said to Zoe, but no sooner had the words mixed with the cool air that I felt punched right in my gut. A voice inside me asked, “And you want to be at sea with that kind of an immense and unforgiving sky to worry about as night falls?”

Some months later, I attended a two-day offshore sailing seminar. I was nervous as I stuck my nametag to my shirt. I worried about exposing myself as a novice. I was ambivalent about voicing my fears and being considered ridiculous. But quickly, I realized that all of the two- or three-dozen participants were more or less at the same point in their sailing development as I was. Some were experienced coastal cruisers, but none had done an ocean passage. One workshop was specifically dedicated to discussing our fears.

“Fear has got a bad reputation,” said Steve Black, the seminar’s founder. “But it’s an early warning system.”

If you have fear of something, he said, then you need to learn more about it. Learn how to prevent it. Learn how common the event is. Learn what causes it. Learn what to do once it occurs.

“There is nothing you fear that you can’t significantly change,” Steve reassured us.

It was instructive to hear what others feared.

“I worry I won’t be able to maintain concentration. I worry I’ll have to be paying attention and be fighting fatigue all the time,” one woman said.

As I listened to the woman, I found myself thinking, “What an unnecessary fear. Why, you can just heave to and get some rest. Or you could ask the next watch to take over a bit earlier.”

But with the same ease that I dismissed her fears, Steve dismissed mine about containers. My last remaining terrifying fear was hitting a partially submerged container. Steve acknowledged rare reports of boats hitting things in the water, but even in those cases, the objects almost never hole the boat. He reminded us that the stem is one the strongest hull points and things will glance off the boat as it slices through the water.

We talked about lightning and Steve offered the most amazing story: He had been in a lightning storm when he was the only boat around. The lightning was striking the water all around his boat, but he never got hit. To my surprise another skipper had a similar tale. Another spoke of getting hit, but having it do no further damage than blow out his electronics.

Then he gave us the warning I keep repeating to this very day: The dangers we face at sea are far more likely to be of our own making than weather and external conditions.

Poor navigation, over-reliance on charts and GPS accuracy, inattentive watches and the resulting rock we hit is a hundredfold more likely to put a hole in our boat than lightning or a container. Most neophytes worry about the things they can’t control whereas it is the small everyday activities that will almost certainly give every sailor an injury. Burns while cooking, for instance, are the most common cause of minor and serious injuries, but no one ever asked a question about or how to treat a burn wound, or the safest way to pour boiling water into a cup in a rocking boat.

Cuts from chopping food in choppy waters, getting fingers caught in a winch, pinches in the windlass, falling inside the cabin and knocking your head during rough weather. These are all common injuries that can often be prevented by not underestimating the caution needed at every moment with every movement on board.

We spend far too much energy worrying about the things which present the smallest actual threats to our boats and our lives.

There are two things every sailor should be concerned about above all others, Steve said. One is fatigue. The other is being beam-to in breaking seas. But once again, he reminded us, they are both within our control.

If I look deeper at what my fears were going into the conference, it was the fear that I was ignorant, a novice, a beginner. Yet isn’t that the silliest fear of all? By the end of the conference I realized that yes, I was just a beginner, I was just a novice, and I was still ignorant of many things this new life would be teaching me. That isn’t a fear. That is the most thrilling aspect of all.

It is precisely the unknown that makes adventure exciting. If it is known, it is not adventure. A part of adventure is that you are not always in control. You are not in control of the weather, you are not in control of lightning, you are not in control of submerged containers. But you can learn to be in control of how you react. You can learn to react to the circumstances. And when you do, it provides the most powerful feeling any human can experience. Because the immediate rush of sensation flushing through your body is, “I can gain control.”

As the squall line passed overhead, winds gusted up to 25 with shots of 30.
That day last month in the Dodecanese, I wasn’t afraid of the squall coming at us. I didn’t feel lost or small. I had seen squalls come and pass. I was curious to see the effects of this particular one. How quickly would the gusts arrive? How strong would they be? Would the wind direction change after the squall?

Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. ... We must do that which we think we cannot.”

Always nice to be heading for a bright horizon, however slim.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Magic of Myli Gorge, Crete

Like Hansel and Gretel, we got lost in a magical forest this past week.

Our boat neighbors, Berthold and Heidrun from Germany walked with us through the Myli Gorge near Rethmyno. It was an all-day affair. Once beyond the busy streets of the new town, we walked up a slooping road along the seven-mile gorge. From up here, we saw the typical Cretan landscape of orchard upon orchard of olive trees.

Olive trees outside Rethymno, Crete.
Then we descended in the gorge which you can see in the foreground of the above photograph.

Doesn't this trail through Myli Gorge look like something out of Arthur Rackham  illustration?
The long gorge used to be densely populated around 100 years ago. It had year-round water, which drove a slew of mills in the valley. The valley was so productive in milling that the Venetians stationed a tax collector right here in the gorge. No one lives in the gorge now. But there are still active olive and orange orchards. At the base of the trail, there is this one artist who appears to live here on a seasonal basis.

The Hippie of Myli?
Just up the trail from the artist's house is one of the many caves that may have been dwellings up until a few decades ago, and now serve for storage and in this case, a barn.

The mule of Myli?
The trail meanders along the creek which once was harnessed by the mills.

Jennifer makes her away across the brook.
The gorge runs north-south, so unfortunately some of these shots were directly into the sun. I like this one because of the pine trees and the old foundation on the right. It reminds of the scenes in Japanese paintings.

A serene scene.
There are at least three remaining churches in the gorge. They are still actively maintained and visited. One had a small graveyard with just a dozen graves, some as recently marked as 2010.

One of the churches in Myli Gorge.
With every turn, there was something new in this magical valley. Another old foundation, a small orchard, a church, a mill, a brook, a canopied path. We didn't just wander through a different world, but many different worlds.

Some of these ruins were hundreds of years old. Others appeared to have been built and maintained up through the last decades.

The path swayed back and forth between one ridge and the other. In the next shot, we had climbed up the west side and looked down on the church in the photograph above.

A few of the old mills were preserved just enough to provide an idea of how it all worked.

In the shot below you can see the aquaduct that connected all the mills in the valley with water. This one ends in a deep drain, dropping to the next funnel of the aquaduct.

And this one place seemed to be restored. It was one of the many special worlds.

The Myli Mill

This church was particularly unusual in that it just worked with the rock formations given, without trying to insist on the outer form of a church.

It took us several hours to hike all the way up the gorge. Every now and then we would be rewarded with great views of the progress we had made from sealevel to where we were.

In this shot, notice the caves dug into the mountain. I'm sure this valley was occupied for as long as humans have been living on Crete.
At the top of the gorge is a taverna rewarding those who hike here in summer during the season. We didn't get the culinary rewards but had the pleasure of solitude.
After reaching the road at the end of the gorge, we walked to a village and ate at a taverna. As is custom, we were offered free Raki for desert. And on the walk down, we came across families harvesting their olives.

For harvesting, large nets are spread on the ground. Rotary whackers are used to knock the fruit from the tree.
Bags of harvested olives.
Further down the road, we came a loud and raucous cookout and party. The men outside at the grill told us they were celebrating the first communion of the house's ten-year-old boy. And immediately, we were dragged into, plied with cooked meat and more raki. It was a wild whirlwind through yet another world. We stayed for about 20 minutes and then wandered down through the dusk to the sea shore.

The scene before us reminded me of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Afternoon On A Hill"

I will be the gladdest thing  
    Under the sun!  
I will touch a hundred flowers  
    And not pick one.  
I will look at cliffs and clouds
    With quiet eyes,  
Watch the wind bow down the grass,  
    And the grass rise.  
And when lights begin to show  
    Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,  
    And then start down!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Zorba The Greek

Call me Basil.

Basil is the character in the book (and subsequent movie) Zorba the Greek. Basil is a bookish type. When we meet him at the beginning of the story he wants to start reading Dante’s Divine Comedy but he is interrupted by Zorba, his opposite in so many ways. Though the story is intentionally vague on the exact place, it takes place somewhere close to where we are right here in Crete.

A few days after we arrived on Crete, I met Vasilis, a Zorba of sorts.

Vasilis with his son Peter. (From the internet.)
Vasilis told me this story:

Some decades ago, before WWII, a fisherman went out every night in his boat. If the catch was good, if the nets were full, he would scoop up a large kettle of seawater at dawn and motor back to the old Venetian harbor of Rethymno.

The old Venetian harbor of Rethymno, Crete. (From the internet.)
There, he would be greeted by Cretan farmers. The farmers would barter potatoes for fish. And then they would wait around while the seawater was heated, right there on the boat. (I’m vague on the details of how that happened.) The potatoes would be boiled, a few more ingredients would be added, the filleted fish thrown in, and voila: fish stew.

Surrounding the harbor wall is a row of buildings and inside one of those buildings, a young boy would wake up, look out his second story window, see his father making the fish stew and be so excited that he would run downstairs in his pajamas and bare feet, across the broad walkway and onto the boat to eat fish stew for breakfast.

During the war, the Cretans presented one of the strongest resistance movements to Germany. (Look up “Cretan Resistance” in Wikipedia.) And for that, they paid heavily with massacres and destruction of their cars and boats. Including the boats of the fishermen from Rethymno.

Following the war, the Americans stepped in and provided Rethymno’s fishermen with a boat. A large communal fishing boat and once again, they could go out and provision for themselves and make their famous fish stew.

That fish stew is made today in the building of that little boy who enjoyed it so much. It is made by the little boy who is now a man. That man who told this story is Vasilis. It was his father who taught him how to make fish stew. But these days, Vasilis told me, he has to add salt, because he doesn’t make it with seawater.

I met Vasilis because I was wandering around town looking for a space to use for writing. I’m writing a book about what role sailing has played in my life. I wrote some of it in 2005 and a large chunk of the book last winter while we lived in that old stone house in Bodrum, Turkey. I wandered by Vasilis’s restaurant in the old Venetian harbor.

“I was born in this house,” he said after we got to talking over coffee. “Upstairs.”

And then he proceeded to tell me the whole story I just told you. Half of it he told me while we at the harbor. The other half, he told over his shoulder, while I was on the back of his scooter on the way to the place he would offer me for writing.

I had been looking for a writing space all over town. I eyed the empty buildings and thought I could “squat.” But they were locked. I asked in some “rooms for let” places but they were too expensive. I asked someone I met in my search and she suggest I could write in a cafe. But she suggested I find a different cafe every day.

“Because if you go to same cafe every day, they will want to be friends and offer you Raki, and in Greece, it is very bad to refuse. So it will be hard to be writing if you are drinking Raki.”

When I first walked by the Cavo d’Oro, Vasilis’s restaurant, that is exactly what happened: He offered I write in his restaurant every day. I told him I start at 7:30 every morning.

“Oh no, that’s no good. We open maybe 11.”

So he told me to hop on the back of his scooter and we drove along the waterfront of the new town where the concrete buildings stand shoulder-to-shoulder with apartments above and restaurants and cafes on the first floor. Across the street is the sandy – and in summer -- tourist-laden beaches.

One of those buildings is the Palm Beach.

The Palm Beach Cafe in Rethymno, Crete.
He brought me into an empty cafe and extended his arm in a sweeping motion of the room and said,

“Here you write.”

My writing place.
It was a command more than anything else. I told him I would pay the same I would pay for one coffee at a cafe: Three Euros a day.

“Yes, that’s okay,” Vasilis said.

And so it has been. I wake up at six while it is still dark. Jennifer and I go to bed early enough that I wake up on my own sometime just before six. I sneak out of bed and try to be quiet while I make myself coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then I am off to my writing place: An empty cafe with a view of the Aegean.

The writer writing away by the muse of a young nymph wrapped ever so coincidentally modestly in flowery fabric.
Every now and then, I stand up and walk over to the plateglass windows and check to see what boats are coming and going into the harbor. 
When I say I am on a Greek island, writing a book in room with a view of the Aegean, it sounds so incredibly romantic. The details are more quirky but I still experience the romance of it all.

Since then, Vasilis has regaled me with stories of when he worked on ships taking immigrants to the Americas. He made enough money to come back in the late 1980s to Crete and start his restaurant in the old Venetian harbor in the same building he was born. A few years later, he was able to buy the building.

Jennifer and I have walked by Vasilis’s Cavo d’Oro in the evenings and he won’t let us pass without pulling us in, pouring glasses of wine and telling us more stories, introducing his children and discussing the ever-present topic in Greece these days: the economy.

My Dad introduced me to Zorba the Greek. One night while we were sitting in his den trying to decide what to watch on TV, he came across the black and white 1964 movie with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates.

“You’ve never seen Zorba the Greek?” he asked, astounded. “You have to see this. This movie made me cry,” he said in a rare admission of emotional vulnerability.

I remember the movie as a juxtaposition of two archetypes: the intellectual versus the visceral; the plodding versus the spontaneous; the tight versus the flexible.

The final scene of the movie is one of the most well-known. In it, Zorba teaches Basil how to dance.

Zorba the Greek teaches Basil how to dance.
It is a scene that greets me every morning. Is it a reminder to write more like Zorba than Basil?

Or to read the original story written by the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis and first published in 1946?