Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Gandhi, fertilizer, and farmers

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” --Mahatma Gandhi

My mom has given me a book to read, entitled Coming up for Air, by Margaret Becker, a onetime Christian musician. We’re out on the boat, again in Quissett Harbor, this time with my parents as houseguests. They’re out on the dinghy (which we have christened Tinkerbell, or, in my zanier moments, Dinkerbell) right now, rowing across to a little spit of land called the knob. I think they’re having a good time. After my mom left, I picked up her book, and that quote was the first thing I read. “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

I’ve read it a hundred times, but I don’t think it ever hit me as hard as it did today. My parents are missionaries, and this trip has been a way for me to both explain and justify what I’m doing to them. I have this feeling that they think I’m squandering my abilities just sailing around, that I’m wasting my education and my talent, that I could be changing the world.

But I must BE the change I wish to see in the world. We spent this weekend with my brother, Peter, who’s attending graduate school at Harvard this year. My sister’s in graduate school too, and it’s hard to compete with them—they’re the two good children, living responsible, sane lives, not throwing away perfectly respectable careers to hike trails and ride bikes and sail across oceans in thirty-year-old beat-up sailboats. My brother told me a story about the high rate of suicide of poor farmers in India, who are being marketed genetically engineered crops by American companies. The crops are allegedly pest-resistant, but they’re also infertile, meaning that the farmers are forced to purchase seeds every season from the companies instead of being able to produce their own seed from their crop. Before, even if they had a bad harvest, at least they could replant. Now, if they have a bad harvest, they’re left with nothing, not even what they need for the next year.

One farmer planted his fields three times. The first and second time, there was no rain. The third time it rained too hard, and all the seeds were washed away. He took his last seven dollars, bought a jug of pesticide, and committed suicide by drinking it. He had gone into so much debt to buy his seeds that he could see no way out.

That story is exactly what’s wrong with our world. I don’t know how to fix it. I want to be there, helping that farmer, saving him somehow. How much money do I have? How much would he need to replant his fields? I’m sure it would be nothing to me. I spend that much on dinner out. But there’s so many like him. Not just in India, but all over the world. And I’m the one investing in the company that sells him his seeds (I have mutual funds, and I have no idea what stock they own), I’m the one buying his crops at unfairly low prices, I’m the one putting greenhouse gases into the air so his weather patterns are utterly destroyed. How can I fix that?

I don’t know if cruising will fix anything. I feel like I should aspire to be Mother Teresa, the one feeding the babies, clothing the lepers, caring for the sick. But maybe it’s my calling to tell the stories. Maybe just by telling his story I can help some Americans understand how rich we are, how much we can do. All I can hope is to change myself. I’ll sell my mutual funds and buy canned goods for the boat. I’ll buy produce from local farmers at their own markets. I’ll use wind instead of fossil fuels to move me across the water. Maybe I can meet that farmer, or someone like him, and help him somehow, or encourage him. Or maybe I can inspire someone else to change, and maybe if enough of us become the change we see in the world, things will actually get better.

I have to have faith. I do believe that God is bringing all things to completion, but the world seems so ugly so often. There’s so much injustice, so much pain, so much evil. I can only follow the path I believe God has laid out for me, in faith, in hope, and with love.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Last-minute angst

Time progresses apace. I can’t believe we’re supposed to leave a week from today. I’m beginning to think that goal is unrealistic, both because of hurricane season and because of the amount of stuff that remains to be done. We still have the wrong name and hailing port on our boat. (It says “Top Seacret,” a name that both makes no sense and is far too cutesy—we changed it back to plain “Secret,” how the boat was registered when the previous owner bought it.) I’ve spent the whole week working on this website, trying to get it set up in such a way that it will be convenient for family and friends to follow our journey, but it’s been exhausting work. Who knew websites were so complicated? We still have to buy tons of food, not to mention cleaning supplies, and other miscellaneous perishables. We have to move all of our stuff onto the boat, something that will probably take a week by itself. Karl hasn’t set up my bookshelves, the head (bathroom) remains unvarnished, we don’t know how to use our staysail…

The list goes on. It’s a long list. I feel like we’re right on the precipice, that we could really leave at any moment, but our departure also feels so far away as to be impossible. One of these days we’ll just have to bite the bullet and do it, whether or not everything is done.

I’m on the train into Boston right now, heading in to visit my mom, who flew in this morning. She and my dad are supposed to join us for a multi-day excursion on the boat this week. I hope we don’t embarrass ourselves. The whole idea was to prove to them that we know what we’re doing, a plan that didn’t work so well when we took my brother out. My dad’s an experienced sailor too, but it’s been a long time. I just hope the weather’s fair.

My angst continues too. I’m ready for this preparation phase to be over. It’s lasted so long. I know that everything will change, in ways we can’t even begin to explain, as soon as we set sail south for the first time. We’ve pinned all our hopes, for the last year, on that fateful moment. I hope we’re not disappointed.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

White Mountains hike

We went hiking in the White Mountains, to scatter the ashes of a family friend on Mount Liberty. Here Karl casts them to the wind, with a view of Mount Washington in the distance.

My brother Peter accompanied us--the two of us smile for the camera.

Friday, September 08, 2006

More scares

The adventures have continued, without us even being able to take time to stop and take a breath. Every day is crammed full of working, buying stuff for the boat, cleaning the boat, getting stuff ready for the boat, even talking and thinking and reading about the boat. We have less than a month now before we actually cast off. Our goal is September 30 to leave.

Last week, after our wonderful zero day in Quissett Harbor, we decided to give ourselves a more rigorous challenge and go through Woods Hole for the first time. Woods Hole is the very difficult channel between Cape Cod and the Elizabethan Islands. The tide runs really strongly through there, and they recommend not going through at all at any other than slack tide. It worries me, in some ways, that we haven’t even been through it yet. We’ll have even rougher challenges ahead.

Anyway, my brother came out to sail with us for a couple of days on the boat, and we were going to head for Martha’s Vineyard, on the other side of Woods Hole. We had a beautiful day-sail, catching and losing a light five-knot breeze. We’re very stubborn about not turning on our engine, so we didn’t, instead floating along at barely a knot. Eventually we decided to swim off the boat in motion, jumping off the bow and letting the boat float by until we grabbed the swim ladder in the back and pulling ourselves onboard. It was a blast.

By the time we hit Woods Hole the wind had picked up, but we still left most of our sail up, figuring we’d try to sail as much as possible through the Hole. It’s a good thing, because after we had passed the first couple of buoys, the alternator belt (which also ran the cooling system, as it turned out) on our engine blew. We abandoned our plan to get through the Hole, and took a sharp turn into Hadley Harbor, right on the edge of the channel. Hadley is an extremely protected but shallow anchorage off the Elizabethans. It was gorgeous—mirror-still water, trees overhanging the edge, egrets in the eelgrass. We anchored in seven feet of water in an anchorage marked in our old guidebook. There was seven-eight feet of water marked on the chart, and we figured it was low tide, so we thought we would be fine, even though there were no boats on our side of the harbor.

We had a beautiful steak dinner on the grill, with baked potatoes, grilled zucchini, fresh from Sally’s garden, and wedges of onion, seared black on the edges. We went to bed, bellies full, only to wake up at a 45-degree angle. The boat was completely on its side. It was absolutely terrifying. I’ve never had to walk across a flat surface at that angle, and the angle kept increasing until you had to claw your way up the outside of the boat. Inside you pulled yourself from handhold to handhold. By the time I woke up, Karl had already rowed halfway across the harbor to see if he could set a second anchor to pull us off our first. My brother lolled, groggily, on the lee berth.

We tried to use a halyard to pull us toward our second, lighter anchor, but couldn’t figure it out in the exhaustion and confusion. Karl waded around the bottom of the boat to figure out what we could do, and discovered inches-mud and eelgrass. The boat didn’t seem in any immediate danger, so what could we do? We went back to sleep, wedging ourselves in corners so we could feel something like stability.

I was terrified. I was convinced, while sleeping, that we would land on a rock, puncture our side, and not only lose our boat but all of our savings to salvage it. And of all places, right off the Forbes estate. In the morning, our angle had only slightly improved. Some friendly neighbors with an outboard motored by to ask us if they could help us pull off. We decided to just wait for high tide.

Finally, at noon the next day, we set an anchor a hundred feet out, hoisted our mainsail, and sailed off the clump of mud we had evidently hit. We had to sail, because we still had a snapped alternator belt. We sailed off a little too early, though, hitting the Hole an hour before slack tide and trying to sail straight into the current. With all sail set, we were barely moving. Our only choice was to run the engine in short bursts, waiting until the overheating alarm went off. We finally powered out of the harbor and headed back towards Marion, egg on our faces yet again.

It feels like we keep running into these crazy problems. Maybe this is just par for the course for the crazy thing we’re doing, but I feel like we’re getting into more than our far share of scrapes. Still, though, things progress apace. Everything’s coming together. We bought ourselves brand spanking new anchor rode with forty feet of chain, plus a backup handheld GPS, RAM for our computer. We’ll spend more this month than we probably did the rest of the months put together. I’m just hoping it doesn’t cut too deeply into our cruising fund. We nearly tear each other’s heads off about every three days. There’s just too much stress with all we have to do. We can only hope that the decisions we made when we were saner were the right ones. Things will straighten themselves out when we’re at a perfect deserted anchorage for the third week in a row, with nothing to bother us but love and time. And maybe some fish.