It Takes All Day

By Douglas Bernon
January 26, 2001

I picked up my emails the other day and was thrilled to find a note from my dear friend and colleague of many years, Jaine Darwin, a devout non-sailor. "I read your log every week like an atheist trying to make sense out of Catholics who've found the Pope. But I still have a question. What is it that you actually do all day?" This is a reasonable question, posed by someone who — and not so long ago this was true of me, too — has her calendar fully booked, hour by hour, for at least the next six months. I can recall conversations with Jaine in which one of us would say, "let's get together for lunch," and between the two of us, the first available date might be more than a full moon away. The temporal changes in my life were brought home to me again last week when I realized I'd not yet purchased a new calendar for 2001, which means in some sense I'm already behind, and wasn't even aware of it — probably a good omen.

In recent years I had to have a calendar that was broken into 15-minute increments, and my computer was on 24 hours a day, with a built in reminder system that leaped up each morning, grabbed me by the lapels and shouted what it was I HAD to get done that day. I sometimes had a nightmare that the computer crashed and I lost my date book and didn't have the slightest idea where to go, what to do, or whom to see. In light of that, it's worth remembering Freud's suggestion that the wish and the fear are never far apart.

Professionally, I prided myself (in retrospect, perhaps overly so) on starting and ending my sessions pretty much on the dot. While initially maddening to some, in the fullness of time, this structure seemed reassuring to both my patients and to me. Now, most days I couldn't tell you if it's Wednesday or Saturday, which reminds me of a patient I once had, a little boy, too young to tell time, who posed a brilliant question:

"Is it tomorrow yet?"

"No," I told him. "But tell me what you're thinking."

"I'm thinking," he said, "that I don't like today very much. So, is it tomorrow yet?"

"No," I replied. "But almost." He taught me that mañana is a complicated concept. But then, so is living today.

Some days onboard the boat, it's important that we get a grip, and know both the date and the time (mostly because of currents and tides), but if tidal or navigational considerations are not relevant that day, chronological order and precision are relatively useless. And because I don't have anybody or anything to schedule anymore—anybody who'd listen, anyway — the computer gets turned on only when we write these logs and send e-mail.

Everything to do with cruising takes a boatload of time, and it's not just a case of terminal slothfulissitude. If we're going someplace, either under sail or with engine or some combination of the two, chances are we're not exactly burning rubber on the highway. We'll average somewhere around five or six miles an hour on a good day, so it's not like we're getting from A to B all that quickly. In other words, don't expect us anywhere too soon. Just going around the corner, a few miles from one anchorage to another, what on land would amount to driving from one neighborhood to the next, eats up most of a day.

Assuming we're not traveling on a given day, and most days we're not in fact going anywhere at all, there's a reasonably good chance we're trying to fix something. The most basic of projects, something for which one might have anticipated spending 30 minutes (spending is really the perfect verb, as time seems to be one of the finite riches in life) actually takes some loony multiple of that figure, and that assumes you get the project done at all. Most of the time, there are no Home Depots or West Marines close at hand, so either we're already carrying the needed spare part, or we're attempting to fashion some lame substitute out of chewing gum, epoxy and odds and ends we've been squirreling away.

Here's a typical example of how an ordinary job that didn't involve electricity, danger, or the well-being of the vessel — in other words, a low-anxiety, simple task—consumed a major portion of one day.

We wanted to attach an eight-foot-long piece of lumber, a two by four, between two of the stanchion posts that hold up the lifelines. I needed to secure it at both ends, perpendicular to the posts and roughly parallel to the deck. We wanted a board in this position to provide a secure place where we could lash down large plastic jerry cans holding extra diesel fuel and gasoline. This is by no means a difficult task and, in fact, the only tools needed are a drill and a wrench.

First, I had to get a 2 by 4. This would be no problem if we had some sort of motorized, land-based conveyance. But we don't. We're living on a sailboat that's anchored about a third of a mile from shore. I drive the rubber duck dinghy from the boat to shore, lock it up at a dock, try to get a cab, find none, hitchhike to a tiny lumber store, paw through a slew of warped 2 by 4s until I find a relatively straight one, stalk the aisles looking for some other things that have been on my hardware-store list, stand in line, pay for it all, and then lug this cumbersome stick two miles down the side of the road, (no-one picks up hitchhikers wielding potentially dangerous weapons), get it into the dinghy and motor back to the boat. This takes just over two and a quarter hours.

So now, I've got the thing back on the boat, and I'm grateful I remembered to buy the right size "U" shaped bolts to fit around our particular stanchions, and that at least I won't have to make a return trip — my usual pattern. I'm also pleased I bought several extra nuts and washers, because I promptly spill a couple into the water.

Next, I need to tie the board onto the stanchions to see where exactly to drill the holes for the U-bolts. Bernadette is running other errands today, so I balance the board on my foot at one end after having secured it with mankind's greatest invention — duct tape — at the other. Getting both ends taped, tied and somewhat level takes about 30 minutes. (If you are counting, we are now at 2.75 hours.)

Photo of ocean waves Water into which all things must fall.

Now, it's time to drill, but the drill is not an everyday tool like wrenches and screw-drivers. In addition, it's bulky and oddly shaped, so it doesn't claim prime, easily-accessible, real estate for stowage. Rather, it lives in the starboard aft cabin in one of the storage compartments under the double berth. Covering these compartments are the foam cushions, and on top of them are the man-overboard ditch kit, two plastic laundry baskets full of heavy canned goods, an extra sail, two large plastic storage containers filled with paint and mechanical supplies, a bag of laundry, an electric-supplies/tool kit, and several other bags of heavy stuff I don't think I've ever seen before. To get my drill requires moving all of these, one by one, into the main cabin and digging through the locker. Because I had to pile everything in our central living area, it's now total chaos, and I'm hoping to return the boat to normalcy before Bernadette sees the mess.

Finding anything on a boat is akin to going on an archeological dig, complete with false leads, broken shards and trails that lead back upon themselves. And always in the middle of every search one finds a loose hose clamp that demands to be tightened or a hose that's weeping or an electrical connection that's corroded or loose and must be attended to or I'll never remember to do it later. Such tasks always require the use of other tools that are stored in the main cabin, under all the places where you've just piled all the stuff from the aft cabin, and you can count on moving it all at least once more, adding an hour to your elapsed time. We've now crossed the four-hour threshold, but in my mind, I'm figuring (hoping?) we're more than half way home.

I was happy to see the drill, a wonderful cordless unit that Bernadette gave me for Christmas a few years back. When using it on deck I carefully tie a line to the handle and fasten the other end to something permanent on the boat. This precaution reduces (but does not eliminate) the chances of my sending it to where I already sent half the bolts, and to where I've dispatched so many screw drivers and wrenches before. Because this is a cordless drill, it uses batteries. Because I haven't touched it in three weeks, I find that the battery is pretty much kaput. It takes an hour to charge it up, but it would be unfair to count a full 60 minutes in this tally, because I had to eat lunch anyway. Let's just add 30 here instead. We're up to four and a half hours.

Ok, I've eaten lunch. The battery is charged, the drill is humming; the board is taped and tied into place. The holes are marked. I need some scrap wood to build a platform on which to drill so as not to perforate the deck. Our scraps of lumber are currently stored under the forward V-berth, so getting that also means tearing apart the one space on the boat — our cabin — that I hadn't yet messed up. Or I could use a cutting board from the galley. Tough call, but I don't want to face My Personal Commodore if I put a hole through our only cutting board, so I go for the V-berth. We're up to five hours now.

Photo of a boatload of stuff A boatload of stuff.

Suddenly I realize the time. I need to hustle to get the dinghy back to shore to pick up The Commodore, who's been on a major provisioning excursion. I can't leave everything out, so I secure things, put some stuff back down below, lock up, head back into shore, pick up Bernadette and what seems like 450 bags of groceries she's assembled, and all the way back to the boat wonder where all this is going to go in the midst of the chaos I've created. Add 45 minutes for the whole wife pick-up, loading, and unloading. (We're nosing toward six hours.)

I leave Bernadette, who's stunned speechless at the sight of the main cabin that awaits her, to the task of reorganizing, and get right back on my project before I lose daylight. Temporarily re-positioning the board on the stanchions, inserting the U-bolts, tightening the washers and nuts, removing the rope and tape that was holding it up, and tying on the plastic canisters required 45 minutes. Putting the drill away, returning everything from the main salon to the aft cabin and the forward cabin required just 20 minutes because Bernadette was now devoted to the cleanup as well. The total time spent to accomplish a task that on land would take an hour, took a hair more than 7 hours, and in fact I wasn't really done because I still have to get a rasp and take off the sharp edges of the board, but I was too tired to do that then and just wanted a beer.

A couple of days ago I related this sequence to our friend Harold, a very can-do fix-it kind of guy, who's been cruising for eight years. He told me that last month, to replace a single burnt-out light bulb halfway up his mast took him six hours. And, he said, that was way quicker than the time when his wife Diane winched him aloft, after which the main halyard from which he was suspended jammed, and he twirled 50 feet up in the air for an extra three hours while she summoned help from a couple of neighboring boats — doubtless interrupting their projects and adding hours to their days as well.

So Jaine, that's the kind of thing I do all day. God help me when we add a language barrier.