The Ultimate Cruiser

"Each man has only one destiny." ~ Don Corleone 

A Lesson from the Mountains

My brother and best friend did a lot of skiing in our high school years.  The three of us cut first, and some might say stupid, tracks on some of Alaska's most undeserving slopes.  

In the process, our confidence rose by degrees and, as our risk-taking lifted off, the rewards got bigger.  We had some glorious days under an ice hewn sun with the crystals flying under our rails, gravity suspended for the greatest of natural highs.

Then came a day of reckoning.  It started just like every other day.  The sky this day was a low overcast, the light was flat and the mountain topped with a compact wind-blown crust that could throw a ski tip off on a whim of its own.

The winds the night before had sculpted a wave of snow into a surfer's perfect roller, frozen in time.  We stopped well above the blue gray curl and were eyeing lines when a fourth skier materialized from the mist.  We knew most of the regulars on these slopes, but he was a stranger.  His gear was old and scarred.

Without saying a word, he slid down to the face and looked over the edge for what seemed like a little too long.  Perhaps he was just being dramatic.  Then, to our surprise, he took off his skies and started digging.  That's right, he was building a ramp, a jump, an additional pile of snow for extra air time.  We were bemused.  Was this guy nuts?   The lip was already looking off the roof of a two story house.

He grunted and packed and plowed in silence.   We meandered down and looked over the edge as well.  Was there something we were missing?   Nothing of importance seemed to jump out at us.  We were now parked at the edge as the foreigner finished his sweat-inducing work, his cheeks puffy and red, beads of sweat trickling down.  Not only was this guy nuts, he was 'old', a little overweight and not in particularly fine trim.  We smirked silently, our 17 year old physiques unbent and immortal.   His ramp was now the size of a wheelbarrow, turned upside down.  He clipped his skies back on and proceeded to walk wishbone style up the hill.  We waited.  This was going to be a show, for sure.

The stranger launched himself with a few vigorous pole thrusts as his considerable bulk built speed towards the most subtle of gray horizons.

Whoosh!   He rocketed past and took a 200 pound pigeon.   It was immediately clear that he had gotten his balance off, hands were spiralling frantically as he tried to control his roll to the left and backwards.  He was going to collid with the oncoming ground at an odd angle impacting mostly on his left backside cheek.  There was an audible "oof!" as he landed in the 6 feet of moderately packed snow and disappeared in an explosion of white out.

We chuckled under our breath.  Served him right.  The audacity of it all.   We started working our way back up the slope to pick our own line.  He was probably puttering off with his embarrassed tail between his legs.

We were just about to have our own go when a snowy cap emerged above the edge of the cornice's lip.  The tails of his skies rocked to and fro like a pendulum from behind his head as he drove his boots into the near vertical face, step by tiny step.   We were dumbfounded.   Did this guy have a learning disability?

He topped the edge and continued plodding on.  He acknowledged our wondering gaze, but trudged onward past us.  Well past us.  Way past us.  He was now 50 yards above his ramp.  From his angle and with the bad light the ramp would be reduced to a mere hazy, shadowy speck.  Getting the angle right would be even more difficult.    This was insane.

Then he was underway again.  This time with double the speed he whipped past us.  We could feel the whump of disturbed air hit our chests as he rocketed past.  He hit that jump going fast.  Really fast.  Far faster than we had ever gone off anything this big.  However, he hit his ramp square on, legs pushing down hard, leveraging all the lift that was possible.

He soared, up and up, arcing slowly into the gray mass of clouds and mist shrouding the lower slopes, his green coat a flying speck; a small green hummingbird searching for a nest in an unlit stadium.   He was airborne for what seemed like seconds on end.

The stranger landed square on his skis, legs poised perfectly then skied away, without even a knee buckle, as if he had just stepped off a ski lift with a drink in one hand.  He carved one long, fast turn the last 1,000 vertical feet to the lift and disappeared into the gloom as the chairs emerged above him; a green streak into a hazy fog.

We were speechless.  Jaws hanging down.  Who was this silent stranger?  He had reduced all our conquests to mere child's play in one single sweep.  This guy must have skied, and soared, in places and among people who would mock  with derision our juvenile victories.   If guys like this existed, why were we even here?  We may as well go home and take up knitting.

My brother finally stuttered out the question that was on all our minds:  "Did you see that?!"

A Lesson from the Water

After a few years aboard and several bits of boat drama, which involved large quantities of diesel fuel, epoxy, contorted body positions and complex troubleshooting, I had reached a point where I felt competent and able.   Cruising felt natural.  I had the tools and confidence to tackle most challenges that were common to the cruising life.   Being able to fix things yourself meant having the freedom to go where you want when you want, and isn't that what cruising is all about?

When I first met Leif on Cavello he was leaning over his stern rail offering to loan me a Bosch vibrating cutting tool.  We shook hands and talked a bit, but I left the tool behind.   It was 220v.

Then I started to hear rumors.  Leif had built his own watermaker using a high pressure water pump designed for use by multi-bay car washes.  It produced 500 liters of water an hour.  "Dis vater comes out like a garten hose," said another German acquaintance and mutual friend.  I had to see this for myself.   I invented some excuse to stop by and, sure enough, the Scandinavian hospitality factor kicked in and I was invited aboard.   After briefly alluding to the rumors I had heard, Leif gave me the grand tour.

Click to Enlarge

As sometimes happens, the truth was even more amazing than the fiction.  Leif had a robust machine shop aboard, extensive metal working tools, welders and ample supplies of stainless and aluminum stock on hand.   In addition to a watermaker, these had enabled him to design and build his own windlass which ran on 3-phase electric power and sported 2,000 kilos of continues torque pulling on his 16mm chain.  When I asked him where he had found a gypsy for such a unique windlass, he replied, "I just machined dis from a solid block of bronze."  His tone of voice implied that this was surely the obvious thing to do.

A solid bronze home made gypsy.  Click to Enlarge

It got even more incredible from there.   He had designed, crafted and installed a shaft-driven electrical generator using parts and pieces from old alternators and, of course, a custom milled pulley which fit on the his primary engine drive shaft.  This allowed him to make 60+ amps of 12 volt power by harnessing the water flowing over his main engine propeller while the engine is off and the boat is sailing.

Because Leif's boat is a heavy and large it has many blocks (pulleys).   "Nearly 40 ov these I tink.   And dey are very expenseve.   So I make my own."

What?   How?   What about bearings?  "I machined these from Delrin and some from Nylon," Leif replied matter-of-factly.  "I think the Nylon is just about as good.  The Delrin is stronger, but they absorb some vaters, so dey get stiff sooner."

I examined his stack of six newly-minted stainless and Delrin sailing blocks, each would retail at a chandlery for 80+ dollars.  And these where his own.  He knew them, he knew their weaknesses and he knew their worth.   If he needed another one, it didn't mean steamy taxi trip to town in some forsaken port or hassling with Customs' officials in a backwater bureacracy to accept receipt of a foreign shipment.   It meant a trip downstairs and a few hours of fiddling.

A set of home made stainless and Delrin blocks.   Click to Enlarge

"I enjoy dis work" Leif elaborated, "it's really just a hobby for me."

Leif and Lillis had finished a cruise up the Pacific coast of Chile and were now kicking around plans for the Pacific, which might include a tack to Hawaii and then another to Alaska.  These are passages that give the most seasoned sailor pause, including yours truly.   But why should Leif care one way or the other?   He is the ultimate cruiser, free to surf the oceans of the world with an easy freedom.   There is nothing on his families floating eco-system he can't create from whole cloth as needed. 

I thought of the ocean, and I thought of the exacting tolls she can demand.   I thought of the mountains, of snow, of gravity and old lessons and I realized knitting at home by the fire might be my true destiny after all.