Monday, March 29, 2010

Easy Owner Modification

Those of us with daysailers and/or weekenders browse the sailing magazines and boat shows with no small amount of envy. To have a real chart table, or a "nav station," well, that's just a pleasant dream. But in the meantime, we do the best that we can with what we have.

Like those on most small sailboats, our Seaward 26RK's table is small and it stows away neatly, but I couldn't figure out where to put my laptop everytime we need the table for something else. So, with a few scraps of 1" x 2" cedar, some 1/4" plywood, a couple of hinges, some 1/2" insulating foam, a piece of fishing line and a little stain, I built a simple "table-topper." Non-skid shelf covering, double-face taped to the table, keeps the computer from sliding around, and when the table is stowed, the lid is held firmly closed by the cabin headliner.

Overall construction is waterproof wood glue, and I drilled holes and glued in dowelling instead of using screws to secure the plywood to the cedar framing. We used a jigsaw to round off the square corners after the glued-in support wedges dried in place. We seldom create a custom wood shop look in our little garage bay, but those of us with physical disabilities, steeped in art of adaptation, generally lean toward function over form. This little modification functions quite well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

No Bananas Aboard

I recently finished reading Morgan’s Run, another great historic novel with sailboats aplenty. The myths and the superstitions surrounding seafarers are myriad, and it’s often hard to sort out those with true historical basis, from those spawned of alcohol consumption alone. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter . . . like this morning when my neighbor, Sandy, told me matter-of-factly that my friend, Gene, was a banana.

My prop-fouling disaster happened 50 yards off Sandy’s dock the other day, and I was telling her the story while she soaked my feet in salty water and ran an electrical current through the brine. (Ellie pays Sandy to do this to me, but I haven’t gotten up the courage to ask why. I just smile, try not to touch anything made of metal, and say “Thank you.”)

“Real sailors never take bananas on board ship,” she said earnestly, “and it sounds to me like Gene’s a banana.” I didn’t know which question to ask first, but fortunately I didn’t have to. Sandy went on: “Something about bugs or disease, I think, but maybe just really bad luck. Anyway, some people are definitely bananas, and you just can’t let them get on your boat. Gene’s definitely a banana.”

Well, that was that. You learn something new every day . . . and any day I leave Sandy’s without being electrocuted is a good day. I haven’t yet gotten around to telling Gene to stay in Miami if he wants to go boating again, but stranger things have happened. He did sink his buddy’s motorboat in Biscayne Bay a short while back, with eight hands on deck. He swore they were swamped by a passing cruise ship, but who’s to say that there weren’t bananas involved? (Or, at the very least, banana daiquiris?) According to Gene, there was a reality TV show film crew on the bay that day; apparently they filmed the sinking and interviewed all the wet folks. Gene says it’s going to be the season opener.

At my age, hindsight is 50/50, but I think, way back when we first met, Gene told me he was in a 911 type reality show once before, when he was a teenager, something about a swimming buddy breaking his neck while they were at the lake together. He said you can still find it on YouTube. I’m not saying Sandy’s right or anything, but Gene was at the wheel when my prop fouled the other day. In fact, he was blocking my view of the excess portside jib line all morning. No, I’m being silly. It was just an accident, that’s all. Accidents happen. (But why have I been hearing Jimmy Durante singing “Yes, we’ll have no bananas” in my head all day?)

Gotcha! Sounds

The world is full of gotcha! sounds. Every new (to you) house, car, motorcycle, power tool, and, yes, sailboat makes them. These intrusive noises are seldom harbingers of good news, and are almost always sorted out by accident. That is, nobody tells you in advance: “Mr. Foster, if you ever hear a loud CLANG, followed immediately by a metallic scraping noise and a shower of sparks, it probably means someone should have replaced those driveshaft bearings. Enjoy your hardly used Chevrolet!” Nope, it never happens like that; rather, you’re more likely to be driving along a winding, narrow, cliff-side road overlooking the Ohio River just outside Pittsburgh.

But I digress. My new sailboat’s first Gotcha! sound was actually nothing bad. Just a loud “thunk” when the retractable keel winch cable slips off an adjacent cable wrap just before I reach the “all up” position. Scary, but the boat’s designer assures me it’s nothing bad. Phew! Today’s Gotcha! sound, was also a “thunk,” but it was way louder, and followed by a pulse-stopping, metal-grinding, part-snarling moan. This terrible thunk/moan shut my 14HP diesel down, and even with my boundless lack of experience and/or expertise, I knew this sound couldn’t be as benign as its predecessor. We were dead in the water, a couple blocks from our neighbor’s dock, and drifting the wrong way. Thankfully, the massive ketch usually tied to the approaching pylons was on its way to the Panama Canal, so I assumed the owner wouldn’t mind if we tied off to ponder Life, the Universe, and Everything while we waited for a tow.

My first instinct upon hearing today’s Gotcha! sound had been to glance at the depth finder. I’ve now logged enough hours practicing motoring maneuvers in Lake Louise to not only have created layers upon layers of chart plotter etcha-sketch lines any kindergartener would be proud of, but also to know that I’d never seen a depth reading under ten and a half feet. But I had to look. Eleven feet deep . . . we didn’t hit bottom.

I couldn’t bear the thought that my brand new transmission had conked out, but since there wasn’t a lobster pot anywhere near Lake Louise, I was hard pressed to sort out the puzzle . . . until my roving eye passed around the deck for the hundredth time. Why did the self-tailing tang on my port jib winch look bent? And worse, why was the red line headed over the port rail instead of being tied neatly to the stern rails like its starboard twin? GOTCHA!

OK, bad stuff happens, and sailboat lines, like sound reinforcement cables, are the blessing and the bane of Life, the Universe, and Everything. They are like wayward children, prone to sneak off the reservation at the slightest provocation, and until I get someone to cut the last bit of line off my prop, I’ll not know the extent of the damage. Who said "bad luck is better than no luck at all?" I'd like a word with them……

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fits and Starts

This business of getting a 59-year-old quadriplegic back into sailing is far more complicated and time consuming an endeavor than any sane gimp might want to embark upon, but that’s what adaptation is all about: living and enjoying life . . . even if getting at the heart of it is usually more difficult. My new Seaward 26RK was delivered on the 18th of January, in the midst of the coldest, longest, stretch of real winter anybody in the Florida Keys can remember. Day after day, the highs have been in the 50’s/60’s, and the lows have been in the 40’s on far too many nights. Here in the tropics, where the average daily temp is 82, that’s a serious challenge to any local, let alone an arthritic old geezer like me, but that’s just one of many reasons I’ve had nothing to blog about ‘till now.

Fortunately, we got a lot accomplished in the past month or so, even if practicing our seapersonship wasn’t included in the list. The big deal was electrical independence. Since my dream has been to explore the Keys at my leisure, and since I suspected that I’d need to stop and rest more often than most, I wanted to be able to crank up the microwave and the laptop whenever I wished . . . without having to crank up the 14hp Yanmar diesel inboard to keep the batteries up. I planned on having a solar panel from the beginning, but it didn’t take much to talk me into adding a wind generator too. While they were at it, I had them double my battery banks, add a more detailed battery monitor and a DC “cigarette plug” outlet, and move a few electrical items to more accessible locations. “Up ‘till now,” said Mike the electrician from S.A.L.T. in Marathon, “this has been Hake’s boat. My job is to help you make it your boat.” And when he finished, Mike presented us with a complete electrical schematic of our boat!

The other issue keeping us on the shore has been dock height. Here on the ocean side, tides range two to three feet, and our neighbor’s seawall (they’ve been graciously letting us dock there!) is meant more for luxury yachts than for little daysailers like ours, so in order for my boom hoist to lift me out of my wheelchair, the tide needs to be up, along with the boat’s topping lift. We used a block and a couple of cable clamps to move Nick Hake’s adjustable topping lift device another 18 inches up the topping line (Nick offered us a shorter topping line, but that meant bringing the mast down or sending Ellie up in my bosun’s chair, so we respectfully declined!), so now we can crank the boom high enough to function on this (or almost any?) dock, but the more severe boom angle makes the swing onboard and off a bit more precarious. It’s nothing Ellie and I can’t handle, but I don’t think I could manage it alone. So we’ve located a marina on the gulfside, and secured a slip where the dock is almost two feet lower, and the tide range is halved . . . easier for everyone. Our next outing will be the 22-mile trip up through Channel #5, under the Long Key bridge, and back down on the other side.

Yesterday, even the tide and the cold winds couldn’t keep us off the Eleanor P, and so we loaded up and went to work on the most basic skill set necessary to turn us into sailors . . . motoring. It sounds strange, but learning how to handle your boat at or near the dock is where most newbies fail to do their homework. The result is a lot of damage to boats, docks, and people. We’ve watched some of the movie and YouTube boat crashing scenes and don’t want to add our clip to that particular wall of shame, so we spent two hours practicing on Lake Louise in forward, and in reverse, and doing dock approaches. I am so glad I spent a small fortune on bow thrusters, but I’m still going to need way more practice before I can bring the Eleanor P in alone. Thankfully, yesterday’s outing taught me that I will be able to do it eventually.

Before quitting for the day, and even though the cold wind was doing a number on my neck and shoulders, I just had to go out to sea. I’ve never skippered a boat in the ocean before. I have countless hours in the Intracoastal Waterway, thanks to my time in the crabbing business up in central Florida, but aside from being a passenger on cruise ships and party fishing boats, I’ve never taken the helm and gone to sea. As the Eleanor P slipped out of the causeway, though Hawk’s Channel, and out into open water, it was nearly impossible not to raise the sail, and had I not been cold to the bone, I probably would have done it. Next time, for sure!

Thursday, February 25, 2010


(Excerpted from Getting Real: the Road to Personal Remption by Dick Todd & Kevin Robinson)

There is a political correctness mantra going around today that, in myriad terminologies, suggests that it is bad to be judgmental. There are many truths involved at the core of this issue. “Judge not that ye be not judged” and “until you’ve walked in another man’s shoes” are but two sound pieces of historic admonition on the subject. And, for the most part, I am in hearty agreement with most societal warnings about being quick to “judge” the actions or character of another human being. But.

There is an important baby that often gets thrown out when that particular bath water is tossed. It’s the whole concept of personal discernment. Passing judgment and exercising discernment are, to my mind at least, two separate ideas. The first is often harmful to everyone involved, and the latter is an essential element of growing as an individual, a couple, a business, or a society. Judgment has the implicit weight of sentencing, punishment, and/or recrimination to it. There is the element of “now you’re going to get it” just under the surface. And, of course, in the world of law, when it comes to crimes against individuals and/or “society,” then there is a very appropriate place for judgment.

But in this book, Dick and I are trying to stay focused on how we, as individuals, can get real. And, in my opinion, it is impossible to get real without exercising personal discernment. We will never have perfect discernment, we will make mistakes which we must be prepared to acknowledge and make right, but we must find a way to consistently try to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, and fact from fiction. If we fail, the idea of getting real is moot. As we’ve discussed in the previous chapters, some people are our friends, but most are not. A few people might actually love us, but most never will. Millions of people experience a wedding without ever creating a marriage. It takes clear discernment to recognize the differences between what is real and what is not, in these areas, and in virtually every other area of our lives. And, sadly, it is often much easier to examine the lives of others than it is to be discerning about our own lives and or own truth.

I think it’s fair to say that judging others often has to do with a desire to condemn, and can be a means of venting anger or hostility of some sort. It can also be about trying to justify our feelings and/or actions in the eyes of others. Hence, this business of judgment can do far more harm than good on a personal and a corporate level. In my own life, I’ve observed a very disturbing pattern. First, my experience with a particular individual, or even just some gut-level “instinct,” tells me that I don’t want to proceed any farther with the relationship. Then, at some point, a third party or parties innocently invites me to participate in some activity with the individual who set off my internal warning buzzers. I have basically two choices at that point: (1) ignore my strange warning signals and go along, or (2) just say “No Thanks.”

Whether my reluctance is based on an actual negative encounter, or is based solely on “bad vibes,” going along is, in my experience, almost always a mistake. As far as “vibes” go, I have slowly learned to trust these feelings of ill ease that I get sometimes. I have no explanation for how or why I get them, but they are (whether I like it or not) part of my truth. So, for the sake of this example anyway, let’s jump to my second choice. And here’s where I get in trouble far more often than I like to admit. In most cases of this nature, a simple “no thanks” is usually followed directly by the question: “Why?” And that’s where I usually screw up. Some subconscious insecurity makes me feel like I have to justify my decision in the eyes of the questioner, so I shift automatically into “lawyer mode” and start laying out my case. In other words, I start passing judgment. Even if my reasons and my instincts are 100% correct (Not likely under the best of circumstances!), this course of action never produces a positive outcome. In the first place, whether I intend it to be or not, it’s an attack. In the second place, it’s a cowardly attack because I’m doing it behind the person’s back. In the third place, even if everything I say is true as it relates to my experience, it makes me look like the bad guy, a judgmental S.O.B. with a real bad attitude. . .especially if the person I’m talking to never experienced any of the stuff that set off my bells and whistles. (And if s/he has just invited me to pal around with the person I’m putting down, how likely is it that anyway?)

But let me suggest again that discernment, on the other hand, is very different. Discernment is about the lines we draw in the sand for ourselves. And I believe that it is a very healthy (even essential) exercise in creating appropriate boundaries around our own lives. Had I chosen discernment in the example above, I could have offered a polite refusal and left it at that. Part of being real, part of standing in one’s own truth, is growing out of the need to justify our every decision in the eyes of others. Why didn’t I go along? If I’m being judgmental, the answer has to do with a list of negative evaluations aimed and launched at someone else. And these words are usually accompanied by facial expressions and body language that automatically causes other people to recoil emotionally. . . if not physically. If I’m exercising discernment, however, it’s just because “I didn’t feel like it.” That’s it. Period. No attacks. No negative words. No unflattering images of me or of others left in the mind of the innocent third party. I am, after all, allowed to feel anything I, well, feel. That’s what feelings are all about. But nothing says I have to explain or justify my feelings to anyone.

I wrote the following poem for a young nurse who once took wonderful care of me. She is my daughter’s age and has my daughter’s emotional temperament. Her heart’s desire was to be seen as a “nice” person, and she was forever letting insensitive and unenlightened young men walk all over her feelings. She ignored every inner misgiving because she believed, on some warped level, that a “nice” person gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, looks the other way, if you will. And while she would fight like a protective mother to protect her friends, she deliberately chose not to exercise discernment about those individuals in a position to hurt her. She got hurt a lot. Emotionally and physically.


You can spend all your time riding fences
You can survey the borders all day
You can understand all of the boundaries
But that won’t keep intruders away
You can wish that the world would respect you
You can even behave as you should
You can honor the boundaries of others
But all that will do you no good
You can try to pretend that it’s okay
You can put your own needs on the shelf
You can wish there were troops on your borders
But you still have to guard them yourself
You’ve been trampled by folks who don’t like you
You’ve watched others who swear that they do
You’ve felt every backstabbing knife thrust
But you still can’t decide what to do
You want to be known as a nice guy
You don’t want to be seen as a rat
You just lie there in front of your doorway
But don’t know why they treat you like that
You ask me why I’m acting different
You see a new look on my face
You act like I’m one of the bad guys
But I’m only protecting my space
You know we’ve both let people hurt us
Your heart knows they hadn’t the right
You know that we should have just stopped them
But we just never had that much fight
You can go on taking punches
You’ll get used to abuse and neglect
You don’t have to stand up and oppose them
But I’m going to earn some respect

Earning respect requires discernment, as does every other aspect of personal growth. A desire to look, and a desire to see. Even if the stuff in the mirror, and the stuff all around us, isn’t very pleasant to look at. If you do not respect yourself enough to set up personal boundaries, and if you can’t make decisions based on how you really feel, you will live your life with a target on your back. For everybody’s sake, avoid being judgmental. But for your sake, and for the sake of everyone you love, learn to exercise discernment.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dead Weight

After sitting in on blues harp (harmonica) with most of the best Kansas City blues bands of the mid-90’s, I moved to New York and joined the Dallas Fisher Band. Besides Dallas, I was always the only original band member, and since dozens of players came and went during my tenure, I liked to think of myself as the band’s “anchor.” As with most ego-based, self-delusional behavior, the actual truth lies somewhat left-of-center. And, depending on whom you ask, the term “dead weight” pops up with uncomfortable frequency.

I was, in fact, often trundled around like just another beat up and ugly looking amplifier, and because most performance stages have no ramps, I had to accept the fact that my dignity would, from time-to-time, suffer at the hands of whomsoever’s hands were helping me “get to work.” The first major adjustment I had to make was reinstalling handles on my wheelchair.

In 1976, during my first visit to Craig Rehab Hospital in Denver, I was taking a leisurely spin down a sidewalk out in back, and some well-meaning therapist/aid/do-gooder/who knows? must have decided that I was going too fast for my own good. Without saying a word, she ran up behind my chair, grabbed my handles firmly, and stopped the old E&J on the proverbial dime. Of course I came to a stop several yards farther down the sidewalk, with more than a few concrete raspberries on my hands and arms. Onlookers were, to say the least, aghast. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in an office chair down in the basement shop, watching a maintenance guy hacksaw off my handles. (Nobody had ever mentioned how much easier it would be to put on shirts, jackets and/or coats!)

Twenty four years (and several new chairs) later, after a bass player and a guitar player nearly hurt themselves hauling me on stage at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock, NY, I dug out the handles that came with my Quickie and bolted them back on. (Don’t let anybody tell you I didn’t suffer for my art!) But even having handles doesn’t always help all that much. In the late 90’s, we performed at the Walden Days Festival, a street fest in the town where my grandparents lived some 30+ years before. The stage was set up in the town square, right in front of the building where I spent a summer answering to 60 female factory workers doing “piece work,” women who called me many names that had nothing whatsoever to do with my own.

There was this decorative lattice-work wall that zig-zagged at the rear of the stage, but only after being hauled up the back stairway did we realize that it was nailed and screwed into place. Neither the zigs nor the zags were ADA standard, and only by flying was I apt to get past them. Before I could ponder my options, our latest guitar player said “Give me this!” The “this” in question was my right rear wheel. I had barely time to hang on, and looking back, I suspect that stunt car driver, Joey Chitwood never performed a more hair-raising two-side-wheels maneuver.

It’s little wonder that our new guitar player was so cavalier about tossing me around; turned out he installed office safes in NYC during the day. What’s a 170 pound gimp in a 20 pound wheelchair? But I swear to you that a hush fell over the crowd that day. They held their collective breath while I teetered precariously around that stage set on my left wheels. Once they let out that collective breath with a collective sigh of relief, I could apparently do no wrong. In an hour’s time I went from being the guy nobody ever notices, to getting more applause and compliments than I’d gotten during my entire tenure with the band.

I was definitely onto something there. Unless you’re James Cotton or John Popper, harp players are largely dead weight anyway, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a van, and my publicity/promotion company supplied all the band’s posters and press kits, I would probably have been dropped long before. But suddenly I saw all that changing. Picture it: a red-white-and-blue sequined jumpsuit and a long silk scarf. Each entrance more dramatic than the one before. An ambulance standing by. Audience members wagering amongst themselves on whether or not I would live long enough to play my harps at all. I figured we could build ramps and jumps like the skateboarders and trick bike riders use. There could be thin cables and pulleys, and, well, you get the idea.

Okay, so my fifteen minutes of rock star fame probably came and went right there in front of the Civil War Memorial, on the otherwise quiet streets of Walden, NY. That’s not such a bad thing. And for an old gimp playing harmonica, I guess it was a little like flying: Any landing you roll away from is a good one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Same, Same

I met a very nice lady recently who is originally from Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, at the very northwestern edge of the former U.S.S.R. She was a teacher there, and we had an interesting conversation about cultural matters. Whenever something, good or bad, about our homelands was markedly similar, she would say: “Same, same.” There was something so profoundly black and white about this turn of phrase, it appealed to me immediately.

I’m a black and white kinda guy. I have a hard time with “gray areas.” Letting one’s “yea be yea, and nay be nay” has always seemed to me to be very much preferable to “spin.” I hate spin. The Jim Carey movie Liar, Liar is one of my favorites, and if I could make all the lawyers and politicians speak the truth, I would gladly endure the ensuing calamity! But it’s the day-to-day spin that affects us most directly, and the only way I’ve come up with to begin getting a handle on it is asking the question: “Is it same, same?” Apples, oranges, both, or neither?

From the politicians to the local dollar store, everybody’s selling something, and it’s seldom easy to be a smart shopper. From the get-go, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, and if there’s one way to keep consumers from being able to compare and contrast, I suspect there are thousands. Take your neighborhood home improvement store, for example. Simply by altering a product’s model number system from one retailer to the next, the sellers slow down our efforts to shop wisely. “Well, of course it’s cheaper at our competitor,” says the sales associate, “they sell the 607B, and it has far fewer features than the 607A that we sell.”

And even when something appears same, same, it ain’t necessarily so. An acquaintance in the lighting business tells me that although the lights for sale in his shop look identical to those in the big chain home improvement store, the manufacturer builds an entirely different grade/quality product in order to meet the low price target mandated by the big guys. Small shops like his, he assures me, carry only the top-of-the-line light fixtures. How would we ever know?

The internet adds a whole new dimension to the problem of determining same, same. There, we have a picture, essentially 1,000 words worth of evidence that we’re looking at what we want. Until it arrives. I bought a boat hook replacement for my docking pole recently, and it looked for-all-the world like every other boat hook, on every other docking pole in the Florida Keys. Until it arrived. Perhaps the Shriners do boat parades too, their boats built to the same scale as their little cars. Who knew?

Anyway, in the words of Mac McAnally, “it’s a crazy world, but I live here. And if you can hear me singin’, so do you.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re same, same.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Frosty crocus, losing focus, bursting toward the light
Might it have been the best idea to wait another night?
Go means go, but when we do, it's an easy second guess
Do we win the race and die, or is life enough success?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Dream Day, a Dose of Reality

As the Eleanor P, our new Seaward 26RK, slipped away from its temporary slip in Stuart last Wednesday, the gimpy old man at the helm was busy watching out for a harbor-full of holiday boaters, a string of unfamiliar channel markers, and a seemingly endless flotilla of UFO's (unidentified floating objects). What a beautiful morning for our first test run.

It reminded me of a morning back in the 70's, setting out our first string of crab traps in the ICW up in Melbourne, FL. I used to park my wheelchair under a palm tree at the Melbourne Marina, scoot down the dock on my butt, and transfer into the helm seat of the Seashell, my ancient wooden 20' Thompson. I was the pilot, and my friend, George did all the heavy lifting.

It wasn't until the main sail was hoisted that it suddenly dawned on me how very different this Intracoastal outing was going to be. I was sailing my own boat for the first time in over 40 years! Instead of a squat, red gaff-rigged main, it was a beautiful white Marconi tall-rig. Instead of a tiller, it was a wheel telling me that the Eleanor P wanted to ease windward. Then, as the Genoa unfurled, another first: I was flying two sails, and the pull of the wheel disappeared. It's one thing to read about the phenomena, and quite another to experience it!

With each passing second, the list of must-do tweaks grew by leaps and bounds: the traveling helm seat had to be redesigned so as not to lock down every time it swiveled, the main sheet remote control device had to be mounted on the console so that I didn't have to fish around for the lanyard with both gimpy hands, the race car seat belt rig w/double shoulder straps had to be readjusted and redesigned so it wouldn't keep falling off my left shoulder, etc., etc., etc. If a C6/C7 quadriplegic like myself was ever going to single-hand this amazing sloop, the devil was definitely in the details.

Having the boat's designer, Nick Hake, on board was a treat, and he was compiling the tweak list faster than I could. Who knows why he took my build so personally? But thank God he did!

It was over all too quickly. As the day wore on, I relived every second of that test trip a hundred times over. Even as I write this, three days and a New Year's celebration later, I still can't shut down the mental replay. It seems like just yesterday that they were rolling gelcoat into the hull mold, but now the tweaking's almost finished, delivery is imminent, and perhaps in the months ahead it will all seem rather hum-drum . . . but I don't think so!