Sunday, March 30, 2014

Safety at Sea Seminar

Well this is a new one.  I've been working on this blog for over six months and learning as I go.  It's been super fun, and my brain has soaked up a ton of insight in the blogging realm -- a lovely addition to my generally useless academic skills.

A bunch of people have told me they tried to comment on posts but couldn't, so yesterday I did some googling to see if there was a solution.  I figured out the problem (so comment at will) but in the process somehow erased the entire content of this post.  Who'da thunk it was possible?  This problem became an opportunity when I discovered "cached pages" -- another modern miracle . . . just like salmon bacon or the mute button.

Hark, now hear the sailors cry,
smell the sea, and feel the sky
let your soul & spirit fly
into the mystic.
-- Van Morrison

I love boats.  I love being on the water.  Skimming along on a summer's day; muscling through waves on a gray ocean; floating quietly at anchor.

But I have a confession.  I'm afraid of water. Terrified of it.  Always have been -- always will be.  I like to tell myself it's a healthy terror; placed in my head by generations of sailors who met an unkind fate at the hands of the sea.  Like a terror of grizzly bears and tigers.  Like a fear of tailgating.  I know in my heart all the time I'm on a boat that Bad Things might happen.

To minimize both the possibility of these Bad Things happening, and my fear of them, I spent a perfectly lovely spring day in Newport -- not seeing the sights, but learning all the ways they might write our obituaries if the worst happens, and why the worst happens (so we can avoid them).  The Cruising Club of America held it's biennial Safety at Sea seminar, as preparation for the many sailors racing from Newport to Bermuda this year.  Now I have to say; some of the least safe experiences I've had on boats were with racing crews (there are some stories there!) so this is probably a much needed meeting for most of these sailors.  Damon and I aren't racing (we'll be hard at work on the island) but this was a useful meeting for us nonetheless.

This was a really useful seminar.  First off, they let us put our hands on lots of stuff.  Knives, inflatable lifevests, tethers, personal AIS units, etc.  Second, they brought in some of the top marine safety people around.  The range of expertise was impressive -- weather experts, medical experts, electronics experts.  (Unfortunately, the only gal they had speak was someone talking about clothing for about 5 minutes -- really?  Is that the best we can do in this day and age?  The Ocean Lover was not impressed by that.)  (Damon has pointed out I am completely wrong here, and as usual he has a point.  The first day, run by the Cruising Club of America, was man-centric.  The second day, run by a private company, featured Theresa O'Connor, who was badassity personified.  The photos below show her saving us from disaster time and again.)  This was all topped off by dozens of stories illustrating how to stay safe at sea.  We heard a lot about disasters (with analyses of why they occurred), a lot about outstanding leadership in the face of overwhelmingly difficult decisions, and a lot about mistakes and poor judgement.  We really did hear people's obituaries; a powerful lesson for the hundreds of optimistic sailors packing the lecture hall.  

Lessons learned:

I never, ever, want to see Damon in this position unless it's practicing in the pool:

This is the look on his face he would have when the rescue swimmer arrived.
It's worth it to get a boarding platform on your life raft.  Rope boarding ladders are worthless, especially while you are wearing a giant inflated king-sized pillow on your chest.

Attempting to board; this raft has a boarding platform and even so; it was very difficult to get in (imagine if there were waves!)

Learning to right a liferaft.  This one has the ballast bags removed.
Take seasickness pills.  Don't be a pansy about it.  Especially if you are in a liferaft; you will get seasick.

Before we went in the water -- nervous laughter abounds.

Seeing how long it takes our new friend to be rolled on his back by his inflatable.

Now we all try it.  Happy to say all the life vests inflated!
Electronics are probably the most important thing you can have in your ditch bag nowadays.  Invest wisely.

Demonstrating the best way to use a signal mirror.  Make a target sight with your fingers then get the light between them.  Ignore the directions on the mirror!

Learning which knives actually cut line.  Many did not; or only with great effort.

Looking at many tethers.
Try out your equipment before relying on it to save your life.  A great advantage of the seminar was having a bunch of items out for you to try -- like knives.  Some looked very useful -- until you tried to actually cut a line.  And that chintzy little whistle you have on your lifejacket -- it sucks.  Get a serious one -- and try it out before committing to it.

How to patch your life raft.  Patch kits suck; this thing rocked.  Damon knew what it was; no one else had a clue.
You can't have too many fire extinguishers.  You just can't.

Stuff you might want in your ditch bag.

Immersion suit.  I want one.
People have NO idea the difference between a Mayday situation and a Pan Pan.  Here's what I want you all to remember:  if I ever end up in the water, call a Mayday.  I can't tell you how many times I've had this conversation with people:  if there is any possibility I have a serious injury or may die, just call a Mayday.  Yes, I may die if I go overboard.  You can cancel it later if you recover me from the water or whatever injury I have proves to be minor.  Until then, don't waste my life on a Pan Pan; got it?

Inflating a life raft.  They hiss at first -- they're not leaking; they're stabilizing the amount of air for the local conditions.
Don't fall off the boat.  Don't fall off the boat.  Don't fall off the boat.

There it is, in a nutshell.  If you're a sailor, I can't recommend this seminar enough.  Get down there in 2016, find out about the Bad Things and how to avoid them, and I'll see you out on the water.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Out Like a Lion

Given the winter we've had, it's no surprise winter went out kicking and fighting this week.  Yesterday a nor'easter blew through the Gulf of Maine, and it was angry.  Though the Midcoast caught just a glancing blow, folks Downeast, and our neighbors in New Brunswick, took it on the chin.

Some people have to rubber neck as they drive by a car crash; that's the way I felt about this storm.  Sitting in my vacuum-packed cubicle yesterday, I couldn't even tell there was a storm passing by.  I had to keep heading to the window to see what was going on.  But that simply wasn't good enough.  I knew I could convince someone else that we had to go see the storm's fury, and my victim was the department's marine bio postdoc, Sarah.  She was a sucker and agreed to accompany me to Pemaquid Point, famous for it's waves, but I thought I'd try to tempt Damon away from his work.

"Damon," said I, "wouldn't you rather be outside than here at your desk?  With your honey?  And the dog?  And Sarah?"

Though he grumbled something about deadlines and grants and students and conferences, I was undeterred.  Time to break out the big guns.

"We'll go to Pemaquid . . . ."  I said alluringly.

"And we'll stop at the King Eider Pub on our way back," I added, whispering "where you can get a beer . . . ."

Who could resist that?

So off we went.  And it was worth it!  The waves were just what I wanted to see -- crashing, spume-producing, probably ripping the poor little barnacles right off their rocks (making room for the next generation!).  But it was cold, too -- bitter cold with that north wind.  So it was a quick trip.  Nature's fury was awesome, and so was the warmth of a good pub with friends.

Sarah -- can you tell it's cold?

Very gray light.

This was serious surf, although this is one of those things you can never portray in a photo!

Really!   The waves were giant!

The promise of sun the next day.  Or maybe next week.  Or maybe next month . . . .

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A little forecast for the Gulf of Maine

Five days from April…

 344 AM EDT WED MAR 26 2014


 NE 45 TO 60 KT. SEAS 5 TO 7 FT...BUILDING TO 14 TO 29 FT. SE
 TO 50 TO 70 KT. SEAS 6 TO 10 FT...BUILDING TO 25 TO 40 FT. SNOW.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who wants to be a marine biologist?

Wanna try your hand at science?  Help out a land trust (the Ocean Lover's favorite type of non-profit)? Spend a few hours outside?  What's that?  YOU want to do it?

Great!  Because despite current conditions and indications to the contrary, the earth is moving around the sun, our hemisphere is starting to get more direct radiation, and spring is about to arrive (gal-dangit, it better). With it will come some of the greatest migrations on earth -- whales (from as far as the Caribbean), sandpipers (passing through as they fly from South America to the Arctic tundra), and the anadromous fish that live in Maine's fresh waters for part of their lives.  This is National Geo worthy -- and you can have a front row seat.

The Kennebec Estuary Land Trust (KELT), has protected almost 1000 acres on the Midcoast, and they want you.  KELT worked with the Bath Water District starting in 2010 to restore the fish ladder from the Kennebec via Nequasset Brook to Nequasset Lake, prime spawning habitat for alewives. Later this year, the ladder is getting a major refit, expected to make passage for fish easier and maintenance of the ladder less labor intensive.  Every year, KELT recruits dozens of volunteers to count how many alewives climb the ladder.

Swimming upstream!  Gotta make me some babies!  Credit: Jerry Prezioso, NEFSC/NOAA
I'm psyched to help out.  Volunteering involves choosing a 2 hour shift, and within that 2 hours, doing two 10 minute counts of fish, as well as collecting associated data such as temperature and the presence of predators (if you're a bird watcher, this part will thrill you).

Alewives were part of the enormous biomass our ancestors found when they arrived in Maine.  Every river would have been jam-packed with alewives in spring, as they ran up the rivers to spawn.  Any number of species relied on this bolus of protein during the migration -- gulls, ospreys, and eagles; raccoon, fox and turtles; and marine predators like cod and even whales.  (Dogs?  Probably.)  People relied on the alewife run too -- smoked alewives were an important source of nutrition (especially for the poor), and they were commonly used as bait for lobstering.  Everything eats alewives.  Everything.

Unfortunately, most of the alewife runs in Maine are a shadow of their former self.  Dams have blocked passage of alewives (and many other anadromous fish) along almost all of Maine's rivers. But this is a new era.  Recent efforts to eliminate barriers to fish passage have succeeded in opening the St Croix watershed (where the alewife run was reduced to just 900 fish at one point) and much of the Kennebec, plus smaller watersheds around the state -- like the Nequasset Dam.  It's an exciting time to be an alewife!

I know you're chomping at the bit to sign up to volunteer -- aren't you?  How can you resist?  Go to the KELT website and follow the link for the 2014 Fish Count.  Mark it on your calendar and dream about being out in the spring sun cheering these small heroes on their way up the ladder.  Maybe I'll see you there.

*Want to see alewives but don't think you can volunteer?  There are two other great places to see them. The Damariscotta Mills fish ladder is probably the most amazing place (going to their Alewife Festival on Memorial Day weekend will make it even more fun), and you can check out the fish ladder at the Brunswick Hydro Dam (on the Androscoggin).  Alewives start running when the water reaches 57 degrees, so May is probably a good time to visit.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Something you probably don't want to see . . . .

Sorry, I couldn't resist that.  Last week we took a break from the cold and headed to South Carolina and Georgia to visit the Parental Units.  Amongst other things, I dragged them all over to see the beaches and marshes around them.  There is no escape from the Ocean Lover . . . .

The beach at Hilton Head.  Soft, white sand, gentle slope, minimal surf.  No wonder it's so crowded!

This poor old lady.  A huge horseshoe crab.  She obviously got rolled around in the surf; probably she was looking for a place to lay eggs.  Her parts were strewn along the beach for a ways. 

Checking her out.  I wonder how old she was?

Mermaid's purses.  Egg cases from a shark or ray.

"I'm not dead yet!"  I did my best to get him back to sea.

Fiddler crabs!  My favorite.
Stop complaining about the weather!  This cold is great for the Gulf of Maine.  Pass the blanket.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Bonus Year

This story begins with a phone call.  Not a phone call like -- "you're hired!" or "you've won a million dollars!"  More like a phone call when the phone rings in the middle of the night and your heart stops knowing bad news.  A call you never want to get.

Last March I was up at Mount Desert Island Bio Labs helping with a course over spring break.  It was winter's last gasp; I'd gone for a midday run as snow flurries fell and the thermometer dropped.  We'd had dinner, I'd hung out with our students for a little bit, played my uke for a while, and talked to Damon on the phone, and headed to bed.  I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone rang -- at 11:30, not a good thing.  I thought it must be Damon forgetting I went to bed earlier than him -- and it was indeed Damon.  He knew he was waking me up though, and he didn't have good news.

"I don't want to you drive home now," he said, very calmly, "but I'm in the hospital."

Damon hadn't been feeling well all week, it turns out.  And it turns out he was having a heart attack.  At 44.  He wasn't overweight.  We didn't eat terribly.  He exercised, walking to work religiously.  His genes betrayed him, though; early onset cardiac disease runs in his family.

As you can imagine, I drove back that night, despite his asking me not to.  Those snow flurries had transformed into a full-fledged snow storm, but there was no way I was going to be able to sleep.  I left a cryptic note for everyone at the lab, packed my uke, and stopped in Ellsworth for gas and some Red Bull -- just in case.  Then I slowly made my way south.  The last thing we needed was for me to get into a wreck.

By the time I got home, they'd moved him to Portland.  I found the house ablaze with lights and doors left open, plus a confused dog.  I got a couple of hours sleep, dropped Dory with a very helpful kennel staff, and headed to Maine Medical Center.  Damon was just going for a catheterization, but I caught him on his way out.  There was blockage; there was a stent; there were surprised looks on everyone's faces when they found a regular old 44-year old in the cardiac unit.  I didn't know quite what to think, but I knew what to say -- no matter what happened, I would be by Damon's side.  That "for better or worse thing" was meant for moments like this.

It's been a year since that day, and we are making the best of our second chance.  Modern medicine is amazing, and Damon is as good as new.  We believe it was the best thing that could have happened to us.

Ain't he a handsome bugger?
 What do you do when life gives you a pass?

1)  Don't blow it.  There's been a lot of change in our lives.  Diet, of course.  We're meat minimizers now. We still eat meat very occasionally, but when we do, it's lean meat and not very much.  You're more likely to see beans on our plates.  (I must say, I love Damon but yeah, he's become very gassy.  Don't tell him I said that.)  And veggies -- once just a side dish, now a central part of the meal.  Cheese?  Well, it's been a while since we saw that.  I don't miss it, especially since we discovered cashew cheese, my absolute favorite.  Eggs?  Sorry yolks, you're off the menu.  And Damon's gotten really, really serious about exercise.  He placed fourth in his age class at the National Snowshoe Racing Championship just a couple of weeks ago.  Not bad for a cardiac patient.

Sailing in Florida.  His natural element.
2)  Love your friends and family  I know, we say it all the time; friends and family are the really important things in life.  But it's easy to overlook them in the busy work world.  So; for all you people out there who've touched our lives -- thank you!  If I haven't said it enough; we love you.  Now, let's get together and have some fun; good conversation; and good (healthy of course) food and drink.

Okay, maybe THIS is his natural element instead!  Our friends Ken and Kathy in Rhode Island.
3)  Dream  You don't get any younger; only older.  So we're working on making dreams a reality.  What do a couple of marine biologists dream of?  Setting sail, of course; seeing the world; meeting more wonderful people; living simply as we travel.  We have a date in mind and we're starting to look at boats.  Pennies are being pinched and equipment acquired.  We call it "pretirement" and we're actively working to make it happen.  I'll write about it when it does!

A picnic at Wolfe Neck after a long day at work.  The bottle of wine is well hidden!
4)  Thank a scientist.  .  Back in the day, Damon would now be a crippled, cautious man, old before his time.  Or maybe I'd be a widow.  My own grandfather died a relatively young man (before I was born) of a heart attack.  But modern medicine has provided doctors with tools that allow heart patients to reduce damage to the heart during a heart attack, open blocked arteries, and reduce the chances of worsening blockage.  And there are a ton of exciting new ways to understand heart disease -- for example, maybe it's linked to bacteria in our gut that produce a compound called TMAO (linked with heart disease) when we eat meat.  Vegans don't have the bacteria, since it thrives on meat, so they have removed one path to cardiac disease.  I find the current distrust of scientists in America surprising, since they've given us so many tools for understanding our world and our bodies.  So THANK YOU, scientists.  Biomedical engineers, medical researchers, physiologists, and even you microbiologists.  Damon is still kicking around thanks to you.  We'll try to live up to your expectations.  (Now, get back to work.  There's so much more to do!)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Public Access Guides for Maine

The oceans are a public resource!  Awesome!  WE THE PEOPLE own them.

Unfortunately, getting to them can be a bit of a headache -- especially in Maine, where property laws differ from other coastal states.  Along with Massachusetts (which, if you recall your American history, Maine was part of for a long while), Maine's waterfront property owners possess land down to the low tide line -- in other words, they own the entire intertidal zone.  This isn't true in most states, where waterfront properties only extend to the high tide line, and the intertidal zone is a public resource.  That means "private beaches" really do exist in Maine, but are only a fantasy of the wealthy everywhere else -- even Malibu, Long Island, and Miami. 

Residents of Harpswell are fighting hard to prevent waterfront landowners from taking away their traditional easement to Cedar Beach.

My least favorite kind of sign.  (Kettle Cove)

THIS is why we should all be supporting our local land trusts! (Biddeford Pool)
So what's an ocean lover to do?  Well, you could pull out the old "fishing, fowling, or navigating" trick.  That's the exception to the private beach exclusion.  The law states anyone engaged in these activities can access the intertidal zone despite the howls of protest from the rich.  But really, is it worth it?  Probably not, since you'd have to explain yourself to the police more likely than not.  

The alternative is to get to know the many sites in the state that offer public access to coastal land.  And just our luck, the state's Coastal Program has just published some handy little guides to public access!  Again, our tax dollars at work!  I just picked mine up at my favorite independent book store, and I'm starting to make some lists of places to visit as the days grow longer and the ice melts here in the upper right hand corner of the country.  (It's going to happen soon.  I swear it will.  Spring WILL arrive.)

Not only do the books have over 700 sites to check out (with maps and directions), they highlight other cool stuff -- the Downeast Fisheries Trail, the geology of Maine's sand beaches, and how the state is protecting working waterfronts.  

Where shall we go this summer?  How about the Salt Bay Heritage Trail in Damariscotta?  The Huber Preserve on Vinalhaven?  Colony Beach in Kennebunkport?  The possibilities are endless!  (Warn Damon; get the dog ready; I'm making my list!)