silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: September 2010

Urban Ecologies

i) In the fourth most dangerous city in America, I rinse the deck of the boat with fresh water at the gas dock. The container ships and their stork-like loading cranes rise out of the heat half a mile down the canal behind us. The colourful containers are stacked for miles like a giant’s orderly game of Lego.

Next to the dock, a man leans on a railing and watches us fill and rinse. In a solid path down the centre of his smooth-shaven head blooms an avenue of dark tattoo trees. We chat about the heat and his work on the container ships.

“How is it?” I ask, “Where will you go now?”

“I just got a job today on a ship going up to Valdez,” he laughs, “I don’t want to go up to the cold though, but there you go. We leave tomorrow”.

He tells me it’s a bit like jail but the money’s good.

“You have to go places you don’t want to go, with people you don’t want to go with, doing things you don’t really want to do away from home and the people you care about”, he says with a smile.

The heat is unyielding as I untie the lines from the dock and push the bow out into the canal, but as soon as we’re past the container ships and out into the bay the wind has come and with it the cool air from further out, beyond the golden gates of this city.

ii) I spend my second hour at the yarn store sitting on the couch reading about knitting techniques. I haven’t done enough knitting yet to actually understand the craft apart from the way it unfolds before me on my needles. Like blueprints to someone who has never built a house, these patterns mean almost nothing to me. But like the man who sits on cleared land and sees angles and archways where none yet stand, I finger the skeins of wool and cotton and easily imagine warm toes and ears.

I lie; I only read sock patterns in between watching people enter the small store and approach the salesgirl. Mostly, I’m watching. The book is a prop.

“Excuse me? Do you know how this wool blocks out as lace? It’s a project for donation, and I want to make sure it works out even in the hands of someone who doesn’t know anything about good wool. We’re raising money, you see”. She’s small and Asian and moves through this space like she is familiar with its layout.

“You know, I’m not totally sure about that “. It’s clearly not the first time the salesgirl has fielded questions from this particular customer. The Asian woman nods knowingly (these things are hard to know, I gather).

“Maybe I’d be best with the machine washable wool then”. I turn the page in my book of toe-up sock patterns.

“Is there any brown wool?” The salesgirl turns from organising one of the tall, narrow shelves to look down at a small, dark haired girl dressed all in black. She’s unsure of how to start her answer.

“Are you looking for any particular weight or material?” She’s impressively accommodating. The girl shrugs and doesn’t make eye contact. It’s a challenging retail moment, to be sure. The salesgirl looks around, then reaches up and holds out a skein of brown cotton yarn. It is received with both hands and carried silently away to the cashier in the other room.

“Lots of projects on the go then?” The salesgirl looks down at my basket full of different colours, weights and fibres. I survey my collection as well.

“There are just too many good colours to get two of the same,” I say, trying to explain the physical pull  that deep purples and bright blues have on me. She nods and smiles, still looking at my basket.

“Anyway, at the end of the day, stripes aren’t so bad, right?” I haven’t graduated to stripes yet, but I nod and we both sit looking at the jumble of blues and purples and yellows until the tinkle of the doorbell ushers another crafty customer across the threshold.

iii) For less than four dollars each, Steve and I have plates of heaping Chinese food in front of us. There is only one sign in English on the wall. The last menu item is Sparerib and Peanut Porridge. While I’m not completely sure I could name the ingredients in the selections on my plate, I’m fairly sure I gave that one a miss. We move through the ten or twelve other eating customers to take our seat at the back. To my left, a woman is in the middle of her own plate.

“How much?” She points to our plates. Steve tells her.

“Good,” she says, “they gave you much. Good price”. To my right, a young chinese mother feeds a baby rice while a small girl beside her works on her own bowl. As she eats, she studies a sticker on the table next to her bowl.

Es bueno ser sano, it tells her.

Two Keels to Two Wheels

As soon as I’m on land, I’m eyeing every passing cyclist with jealousy. The speed! The grace! The freedom! I bundle my laundry into a machine at the Coin Laundry in Sausalito and spend my thirty nine minute cycle lurking on a street corner two blocks away stealing someone’s wireless on my iPod. On September fifteenth alone, there were more than three hundred bicycle ads posted on craigslist San Francisco. With a three inch screen the process is pretty tedious, but I fire off three hopeful emails before I have to go back and shift things over to the dryer.

Via email, I arrange to meet Ric the next day in the Mission to check out his yellow “vintage” Peugot. I try to keep my hopes down, but it’s such a long way to go that I’m not hopeful that I’ll be able to remain practically ruthless as soon as the bike (any bike) is actually sitting in front of me. (The brakes don’t work? No problem. There’s no seat? I can get one).

We have coffee on board the Mia II with Paul and Julie on the morning before my mission to the Mission. Someone spontaneously lent them two bikes for the weeks they will spend in Sausalito. I understate my jealousy and nod encouragingly as we chat about their plans to tour around the bay area.

“You should ask around the docks here before you go all the way into the city,” Julie suggests, “there are derelict bikes everywhere here. Someone will know of a bike needing a home”.

She’s right, but I’ve recently begun to suspect that I’m not one of those people who seem to acquire things easily and freely wherever they go whenever they are needed. Opportunities happen to me: hospitality, advice, directions, connections. In my life so far though, things just seem to require cash.

Whatever truth my suspicions might hold, I’m not ready to resign myself to them. I cancel my plans with Ric and his Peugot, and head down the block to the live-aboard docks. Unlike what you’d find in a normal Marina, here plants line the docks, the boats are minimally functional (as boats) but brightly painted and there are bikes everywhere.  I find Ted on the back deck of a boat that looks a bit like a miniature Noah’s ark.

“It’s gonna rain tomorrow,” he tells me, “gotta make sure she doesn’t leak”. He’s caulking around the windows, but he’s happy to take a break to chat.

“A bike, huh?” He scratches his neck and does a scan. “I don’t know, man, I mean, everybody has bikes, you know?”

I nod encouragingly and repeat the fact that I’m willing to rent and or buy. He sets down the caulking gun and jumps down onto the dock.

“You know, the person who we should talk to is Rob,” he’s already five metres down the dock. We stop at the next boathouse down and he knocks on the door. A small, wiry man blinks at us in the brightness from the gloom of his own floating arc. He and Ted chat for a few minutes about the general abundance of bicycles around the place. They wonder about a rackful of bikes at the top of the dock’s driveway.

“You could probably just, you know, take one from there. There’s been a red mountain bike just, like, sitting upside down there for, like ever. It’s basically in the way”. Ted nods in agreement but I’m not so keen.

“I’d love to have someone officially endorse that – I don’t want to make anyone angry, you know?” They both agree.

“Well, let’s go take a look”, and with that all three of us are traipsing up the dock towards the parking lot. We take stock of the bikes jumbled in the bike rack but they’re all either clearly used or unusable. There’s a bit of a gathering on a bench a few metres away and pretty soon Ted and Rob are consulting the crew there. If I’d just been passing by, I have to admit that it probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind to stop and ask this particular group for a free or near free bike. All of them are ‘live aboards’, either at the docks, or anchored out. It’s a marginal scene alongside all of the other scenes where people live in ways that most other people don’t and won’t – it’s inconvenient, logistically complicated, and questionably legal, but it’s a cheap, independent lifestyle and that’s the goal for these folks.

Eventually everyone is in agreement; there are no bikes that can be thought of, but there’s a cool spot up in San Rafael that sells beaters for cheap.

“Twenty five bucks, I heard” one woman repeats this a few times. I twiddle out the bus route on my iPod and climb aboard the next number ten.

When I transfer to the number seventy, the only seat left is right at the back next to the window. The guy next to me asks if I have seventy five cents to spare. I explain that I have no change.

“How about a dollar, then”?

“I’m not going to give you a dollar,” I tell him. He nods. We sit quietly through Corte Madera and Larkspur. He turns to me again.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” A logical progression, I suppose.

The “Recyclery” is in an old house that sits on one corner of a city block. The rest of the block is, ironically, a parking lot. Overhead, the US 101 thunders south into the city. The side door takes me into the basement workshop where three guys are working on bikes and three girls are leaning against various walls. They all look at me as I enter.

“I’m looking for a bike,” I announce, knowing that I sound like a total moron. There’s a frustrating familiarity with bike shops. I want in the club, but it’s not as easy as Safeway. I may be overly sensitive (I am overly sensitive), but I suspect that at bike shop worker school, right after teaching you to use all the different sizes of alan key, they tell you to treat everyone who walks in the door as if they’ve never even seen a bike, let alone spent a few months living on one. I’m jealous.

“Ooooh. Too bad, cause we totally just had a huge sale, and even then, most of our cheap bikes got picked up before that by people going to Burning Man. What is with that, huh? People buying bikes just to go and wreck them in the desert? Weird.” I nod.

“Is there anything under a hundred dollars?” I persist. They give me a Walmart red mountain bike to ride around the parking lot. I bring it back in less than three minutes.

“What’s wrong with it?” they want to know, “It will totally get you point A to point B”. I hum and haw while trying to figure out how to say I want something faster and cooler and prettier without actually saying so.

I was more thinking of something a little more roadie, you know?” The whole process is not going very well, and I’m starting the feel seriously intimidated.

“Well, there are the bikes out front that start at one fifty, but I’m not really getting what you’re looking for”. I nod, stand my ground, and we ‘re all just silent for a minute. The girls are gone and the guys keep fixing the bikes.

One guy puts down his wrench and walks out to the back again. I follow him, unsure. We walk up and down the rows of bikes.

“How about this one?” he asks, “I could give it to you for sixty. It’s a blue Nishiki Custom Sport ten speed. There are spider webs between the spokes and the tires are flat.

“It’s perfect,” I tell him.

Less than a year ago, I rode this exact route. Early that November morning, Alex and I woke up in a park not far north of the city, packed up our gear and began to pick our way through the endless suburbs. We had no map and no real sense of direction. It took us most of the day to ride twenty or thirty miles. We felt lost most of the time and we backtracked at least twice. It was only after four or five sets of directions and a serious regroup at the Strawberry Village Safeway did we finally find ourselves on the bike path that leads directly along the water to Sausalito. That day was one of so many in a row that started with packing, ended with pasta and had a whole lot of great cycling in between.

This day was different. Ten miles south of San Rafael, I turned and followed Paradise Road as it wound its way along the coast between Larkspur and Tiburon (the road we should have taken) and before I knew it I was back at the Strawberry Village Safeway. The speed! The grace! The freedom! As I turned onto the bike path that leads into Sausalito past docks of float houses and fields of kids playing soccer, I closed my eyes (for just a second) and could see all the way home, stretched out before me.

Dinner Cruising

“I’m thinking of making something warm, to put lots of butter on, you know? Like biscuits, maybe.” Steve stands in the galley as I steer in the cockpit. Our little autopilot, an ever fickle friend, decided at some point in the wee hours that going straight and staying straight was sooo yesterday. So we’re steering. Or rather, every five or ten minutes I make minute adjustments to the knot in the rope lashing the tiller ever so slightly to port. It’s a delicate system.
The morning is calm, grey and damp and biscuits sound really good. Especially after yesterday, when the wind blew twenty five knots and the sun shone and we rocked along at six knots all day. Sure enough, when they come out of the oven an hour later and we eat them, slathered in butter and dipped in chicken noodle soup, they “hit the spot”, as they say.
I think that when I tell people about my plans to spend a while doing some offshore sailing, the image that generally comes to mind involves lots of big, breaking waves, lots of strong, howling wind, and lots of frantic hand over hand rope pulling. To be sure, this is a possibility. But it is by no means a day to day reality. Rather, we spend most of our time at sea trying to figure out which tasty morsel is required to “hit the spot”. Sailing, my friends, is actually about eating.

Twelve years ago, I spent a whole summer with Steve, Barb, Gavin and Susie on the boat. Over the course of a month or so we made our way from Bella Coola to Victoria. I remember the rock where Alexander McKenzie scrawled his mark and the goose group whose sand was so soft that we sank into it up to our shins. I remember how hard it rained on Hakai beach and how hard it blew rounding Cape Cook. I remember the cold water of Bull Harbour and the warmth at Hotsprings Cove.
Clearer still, however, after all these years, are other memories: the smell of cinnamon buns baking while we spent two days waiting for the rain to abate in Hakai Pass; the neon of the single can of Orange Crush we carefully decanted each evening into three glasses, lined up on the table side by side to ensure equality down to the millimetre; and the guilty rainbow of fruitloops we were permitted (until the box was gone) and which we relished even though we had to use skim milk powder and water in place of real milk. Somehow, the food rules from home didn’t apply here. Pop was for parties only and fruit loops were never found in the cupboards of either family home. And yet, there we were in the middle of nowhere on the BC coast, and forbidden goods had become regular provisions.

We’re eighty miles off the coast of California now, and the fruit and veggies are starting to come to the ends of their lives. On day four or five, I created coleslaw with the remaining cabbage and now all that’s left are a few apples, a sad head of cauliflower, a bunch of oranges, a few peppers, lots of onions and potatoes and more carrots than we know what to do with. John spearheads dinner tonight. He starts the daily brainstorm from his usual jump-off point.
“How about Stagg Chilli and potatoes,” he thinks it’s a no-brainer. It’s hard though, and I wonder how to explain to him the matrix of making decisions about dinner. It’s hard to articulate exactly, but if pressed, the numerical expression for the answer, “what should we have for dinner” might look something like this: weather conditions + amount and type of fresh food that needs to be used + sea state +handiness of stowage + energy level = what’s for dinner.
“We still have that whole head of Cauliflower to use, eh? I was thinking of something that might include that. You mentioned curry a few days ago?”
Even though I know a lot of people who eat curry like I eat fajitas (every few days), I’ve never taken to the dish. It’s just never made the roster. An hour later though, as we spoon flavour -bursting mouthfuls of cauliflower and carrot into our mouths as the sun goes down over the starboard horizon, I’m mentally re-entering curry into the running for weekly meal rotation.

A few years ago Susie and Steve and I went back up to the central coast for six weeks with three kayaks on board and no route plan. Understandably and unsurprisingly, Susie didn’t really want to be there. She was fifteen and her friends at home were volunteering at Musicfest and swimming in the river every day. We weren’t going anywhere anyone had ever heard of, and the company on board left much to be desired; her dad, Steve (for universally unredeemable reasons), and me, smugly fresh off a year of travelling through South America and annoyingly keen after just having completed my sea kayak guide training. We dragged her over big swell on the outside of Goose Island and through fast flowing narrows into wide, calm lagoons. To her credit, Susie came around with characteristic stoicism. A few weeks in, Susie and I were paddling along Hakai Beach in the late, grey afternoon and we watched a wolf pick its way for a few moments over the rocks of a headland before turning back up into the trees.
A couple of days later, we were tied up at a friend’s dock in Shearwater. As I kneaded the dough for pizza in the galley, Susie sat writing in the cockpit. She closed her notebook and I nested the dough in Steve’s sleeping bag in the aft cabin to rise. When I come back out, Susie says something to me from the top of the companionway but the Dixie Chicks, on repeat for the fortieth time, drown her out. “What was that?” I turn down the stereo.
“Oh, you know, this hasn’t been all as bad as I thought it would be”.

We’re less than thirty miles from Point Reyes, California. The auto pilot still isn’t working (we’re giving it a rest below), and the wind still hasn’t blown today. We’ll be in Drake’s Bay by ten or eleven, but for now it’s dinner time and the topic hasn’t been raised. It’s been a long, grey day, and we’re all ready to get where we’re going. “How about some of that Chilli”? I laugh.
“I thought you’d vetoed the Chilli,” says John, shaking his head, “but you know me, I’m always up for Stagg”.


“There is something in the first grey streaks stretching along the eastern horizon, and throwing an indistinct light upon the face of the deep, which combines with the boundlessness and unknown depths of the sea around, and gives of a feeling of loneliness, of dread, and of meloncholy foreboding, which nothing else in nature can. This gradually passees as the light grows brighter, and when the sun comes up the ordinary monotonous sea day begins.” Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast (1840)

September 6, 2010
Neah Bay, WA

Until just a few minutes ago the clouds hadn’t lifted more than a few metres off the water. There had been no indication that the sun was even known to this place until the very moment it broke through and bathed a small patch of dripping world in gold. Whatever strength it had is spent now though, as already the grey fades back into place and the clouds exhale slowly down the hills towards the beach.

Earlier, a woman from another sailboat came down the dock with a plate of smoked fish, still warm from the alder smoker in a house along the road. Further along on the beach I can see the red and white of a big carved canoe pulled up on the beach. The life of this place stretches millenia pastwards, but a paddle by the docks earlier revealed that at least its recent history differs little from most other small coastal towns in this part of the world. Only a few of the fishboats still go out, and even some of them are but shells of their once glorious past. Most look like they haven’t left the dock in years.

Less than a hundred metres from where we are anchored sits the New Washington. You can tell from the teal trim that someone once cared to make her seem bright and buoyant against this unerring pallette of greens and greys. Today though, rust coloured streaks mar the white hull and torn blue tarps wave lazily from the cabin top. Surely somebody’s story, but one doubts there is pride in the telling.

Tomorrow we leave for the open water, a move that is at once offhand and intensely calculated; too much or too little, decisions made on the basis of small lines on maps sent through the radio (nothing short of magic). It is only we who know, not the boat, how close by or far away waits the nearest shore.

September 8, 2010
60 miles off the coast of central Washington

There is something expeptional about a day that has only one colour in it: grey. Early this morning the dawn arrived while I watched a freighter pass a couple of miles to our left, it’s green starboard running light playing hide and seek with me amidst the swell. I looked away from the blinking lights and suddenly the world had changed from black to grey. The sea reflects the sky perfectly in places like this where nothing can get in between to ruin the mirror; what the sky does well the sea does better.

Twice today ahead of us I could see small dots of sun being thrown down onto the water, but by the time we were there (or at least close to where there had seemed to be), the sky had closed once again and there was no sign that there had ever been anything but grey.

These first few days at sea are funny; your body feels restless and tired simultaneously – so much motion but so little of it premeditated. Eventually we will not notice the lurch and push of every swell, we will move with anticipation of the sway instead of this awkward leaning around we do now. In spite of my intentions for business I find myself sitting with my knitting in hand just looking out at the waves as they rise and fall over the windward rail. I’ll knit another round tomorrow.

soon has come

It’s actually really simple, Moira tells me as she lifts the jars of brilliant red tomatoes off the counter and places them in the pressure canner on the stove. Follow the instructions, she says, and you can make anything last forever.
As I butter a slice of bread (fresh from the oven thanks to a new no-knead, cast iron technique), she explains the different steps involved in basic home canning: bring up to temperature, close valve and let pressure build, achieve desired poundage, hold steady, turn off and wait.
Plus, doesn’t everything just look better in glass jars?

Four thirty pm on Tuesday, August 31st and, after smelling Moira’s pickles mid-fermentation, I can’t believe I haven’t thought about taking up fermentation myself. However, in less than twenty four hours I will leave on a small sailboat with two uncles for a year, maybe two. Not an excuse for my neglect of fermentation, by any means, but perhaps an explanation.

Where are we going, you might ask? Very simply, we’re going south. All the way south. Around the bottom of the world south. Into the other side south. That’s the big answer though, the easy answer. The smaller, harder answer skips along the pacific coast of North America; it jumps away from the west coast of Canada and lands for the first time in California. A few more short hops: Mexico. From there, it’s one bigger leap to the Galapagos, a long eastward jaunt to French Polynesia and another back in again to Chile. I too, had always pictured southern South America as a rounded continent – smooth right down the coast and around the point (don’t feel bad, is what I am saying). However, about halfway down that slender country, the coastline begins to fracture until it eventually disintegrates into a series of infinite islas and canales. And it remains one of the hardest places to get to on earth (without a boat). But a boat we have (they have, and I have them as uncles) and so there we will go.

And why am I going?
For many, this may seem like a silly question; indeed
how could I not? However, more often than otherwise I wish no one would ask because the truth is that the answer is hard to pin down. Obviously, I go because I can (and because I could not not), and for this I am fortunate. I have the opportunity, the means, the time, the health, and nothing to tell me to stay. But ability and will are different beasts altogether, and it is the will behind the act that must be articulated if we are to understand the why.
I am going

because I want to explore the world by many and varied means and modes.
because I want to be creative with the idea of documentation: see, hear, listen, show, tell, watch.
because I want to learn to knit, to can my own fresh-caught tuna, to navigate, to say ‘anchor’ in spanish, to see weather change, to watch land rise and fall on the horizon, to hike up mountains and along empty beaches, to sit in crowded city squares on market days, to take photographs of small birds and remote shorelines.

It sounds better in my head (remote shores? really?).
From journeys not so recently past, I am aware (perhaps too much so) of how difficult/boring/underwhelming/tiring/emotionally overwhelming travel can be; of romantic notions I feel I have few. However, I also surprise myself with the small pearl of excitement I feel when my mind wanders to a morning months far from now where I sit on deck with a mug of tea in my hand, freshly knit socks on my feet, snugly canned goodies in the hold, a cheerful uncle or two at the helm and an orange sun casting its first hazy glow over yet another oh so remote shore.

The hardest part of canning is making sure it stays at the right pressure. I go outside just for a second to pick some basil or whatever and before I know it I am weeding or watering and I’m nowhere near the kitchen. When I’m canning I feel like I should be chained to the stove. Moira laughs.
I guess that won’t really be a problem on the boat, eh?

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