Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 


February 5:


     I have a new admiration for bald eagles since coming to Alaska.  Sure it's our nation's symbol and all, making a big comeback after nearly being wiped out by DDT...  Up until now they just seemed a bit too metaphoric.  Maybe I've just been saturated with chintzy patriotic prints of an eagle gazing confidently with the US flag in the background.  Call me a cynic, but I think one can be patriotic without having to put up with kitschy art.

      Juneau is blessed with a remarkable abundance of eagles, and watching them in real life never fails to fill my spirit with awe and pride and wonder in a way that artists and nature photographers never have.  It is truly a spectacle that interrupts our conversation every time they glide by our windows or soar overhead.  There's one eagle who spends every morning perched on a light pole over the highway on my way to work.  I have to admit, it's a real disappointment for me on those occasional days when he's not there looking down disdainfully at the commuters rushing by.  Later in the day, Kathleen keeps me up to date on the activities of the three or four bald eagles living around our house who spend their afternoons fishing on the waters out back.  Not that these scenes are always pretty.  For a while, we had a disembodied duck head hanging from a branch in our yard beneath an eagle's nest.  And the best place by far to see the eagles is near the Juneau landfill.  There are a couple of tall spruce trees nearby with several dozen eagles perched like Christmas ornaments at any given time.  One look at that tree leads me to believe that the City of Juneau has no problem controlling rodents at its landfill.

     So yesterday I had the afternoon off and was watching out the window as this enormous bald eagle was soaring in circles.  Soon he made his dive and I could see his target was a small duck floating alone out on the water.  Now this duck made him look like a fool.  Three or four times in a row whenever the eagle got within a few feet, the duck just, well, ducked...only to pop back up out of the water a few seconds later.  Well after this had been going on for a while, a second eagle joined in to see what the commotion was about.  This second eagle was clearly older and wiser, because he timed his dive just right so after the first eagle was once again made to look the fool, the duck popped back up right into the talons of the second eagle.  I've got Nat Geo live in my back yard!

     So now the eagle is splashing around on the surface, and several times he flaps a couple times like he's trying to get airborne again.  Only the duck's too heavy or something because he just stays there.  This progresses to the eagle just lolling about on the surface, looking like he's trying to dog paddle his way over to shore or something.  "This doesn't look right", I'm thinking, "Eagles don't swim."

     Five minutes go by and I'll admit that by now I've gone from curious to concerned.  The eagle is still floating there but I'm not seeing it's head above water.  The wings are still moving a bit...or is it just the waves.  Finally I can't take the suspense.  I throw on my boots and a jacket and figure that I'll just get in one of our sea kayaks and paddle over there to see what's going on.  I jog down the back steps in full Baywatch mode, grab a kayak and paddle and drag it down the shore.  After one last look at the dark smudge of eagle some 50 yards away, I step in and give a mighty shove.

    As soon as I'm 3 or 4 feet from shore, I discover that I'm in a rather awkward position:  I have my feet in the kayak, hands on the gunwales, facing backward.  To start paddling, I need to spin around and face forward.  But as soon as I move any one of my limbs, I discover just how tippy this little boat is.  Meanwhile, with my mighty shove, I'm gliding perilously fast into deeper and deeper water.  "Well, whatever's going to happen probably better happen sooner than later," I thought.  And a few seconds later, the kayak is tipping over and I'm fully immersed in the icy waters of Alaska.

     I thought of the eagle and how stupid this was and how Kathleen was on a plane to Seattle right now and how Emmett would be coming home from school in a few hours, and how the iPhone in my jacket pocket would not do well through all this.  It's amazing how many thoughts can go through your head in the half second from when you first feel that icy gray water on your skin and you realize that you can now stand up because it's only 4 or 5 feet deep.

    I dragged the sodden kayak back to shore and ran up the steps to the back door.  As I was peeling off my soaked clothes on the deck, I took one look back at the eagle, who was now revived and happily devouring his duck, perched on a stump that stuck out from the water.   My phone, sadly, was not revivable.  Though I may not be the biggest fan of bald eagle artwork, that doesn't reflect on the birds themselves.  I'd risk my life for them.   Though next time, I won't put my iPhone at that same risk.

   Bald Eagles out my window  

February 12:

      Way back in 2007 when we first started cruising, I bought myself a Washburn compact travel guitar and had the best of intentions of learning how to play it during all my free time.  Well, I managed to learn 3 or 4 chords and never really got beyond that so last year while we were in Colorado, I had the best of intentions to seek professional help.  Kathleen even offered to get me lessons for Christmas but for some reason I just never got around to it.  I think I underestimated the seductive powers of cable TV.

      Now in remote Alaska, I found myself in a home with no working TV, but a little guitar stashed in a corner, so I decided to try again.  I found my guru in a guy named Kevin who advertises lessons on the community bulletin boards at various shopping venues about town.  Kevin is a stickler for theory and technique, so even though I can't play "Stairway to Heaven" yet, I can rattle through a pentatonic scale now like a pro.  Kathleen and Emmett (who are forced to listen to my nightly practice sessions) have noticed definite improvement and don't even complain anymore about my guitar playing the way they did aboard Uliad.  Is this because I'm getting better, or is there just more room to flee in a big house?

      Anyway, Emmett started getting curious  about what I'm doing so I started trying to teach him a few chords.  But his body just hasn't quite grown into a full size guitar yet.  So a few weeks ago I pulled out a ukulele from the ample stash of musical instruments this house holds, and Googled "online ukulele lessons".  This little instrument has proven perfect for him.  Not only does it fit his hands better, but it's really easy to play, and the songs fit perfectly with our South Pacific lifestyle.  A ukulele might not get him into Julliard, but it does help me feel better about not buying him piano lessons as a kid.

     So now we just need to find an instrument for Kathleen and we'll soon be like the Partridge family up here in Alaska.  Suggestions anyone?



February 22:

     This weekend brought news that yet another yacht has been taken hostage by pirates in the Indian Ocean.  We were watching this story intently until this morning on my way to work, I heard that the entire crew was killed and the pirates--no longer having any bargaining position with the Navy, immediately surrendered.  Well, except for one guy who got in some sort of scuffle with the Navy SEALS who boarded Quest--he was promptly killed.  SEAL style with a knife.   "What about pirates?" is a question we get asked all the time. 

      My response to these questions has always been that the planet is kind of like any US city.  Most big cities are wonderful and interesting, but there's one or two bad neighborhoods where as an outsider, you probably just have no business going there.  Same with the oceans.  Almost everywhere people are generally good and welcoming...but there are a very few places where, to avoid trouble, you just shouldn't sail.  And the Somalia coast is tops on that short list. 

      Piracy to shipping has been a growing problem for a decade now, and one which the world's governments and shipping companies have addressed as a business complication.  When a ship is pirated, a ransom is negotiated like any other business deal and paid by a helicopter drop of cash.  What's a few million for a ship and cargo worth hundreds of millions?  The ship is released and goes on its merry way.  Of course the problem with that response is that for every time it works, another hoard of dirt-poor Somalis wants to become a pirate and get a piece of those million dollar ransoms.  And for every time it works, the pirate leaders use the loot to buy better guns, faster boats, etc.  So now these pirate operations can travel a thousand miles away from Somalia and capture ships far outside the safety corridor set up by the navy ships that patrol the entrance to the Red Sea.  A large portion of the entire Indian Ocean is now "pirate territory."  For a great map showing how widespread the piracy problem is getting, click here.  This had been primarily an issue for big ships, but lately the pirates seem to be taking an interest even in small yachts. 

       Which led to this weekend's capture of a US yacht "Quest" which is roughly similar in size to Uliad.  They were captured near Oman, which is a long way from Somalia.  Several years ago, a French yacht was captured in a similar manner.  The French navy came and stormed the yacht, killing all the pirates.  But in the brief firefight, the captain was killed right before the horrified eyes of his wife.  Perhaps this is why a few months later, when a British yacht was captured, the British navy stood by and watched as the captives were taken aboard a pirate mother ship at gunpoint and taken back to the mainland where they endured over 400 days of captivity, death threats, and near starvation until, presumably, their friends and family had enough and paid some sort of ransom for their safe release.

        And at this time, there is also the crew of a South African yacht being held for ransom in Somalia for four months now.   We don't know Quest personally, but world cruisers are a small but widespread community.  We have friends who do know them and our hearts go out to them.  At the same time, I know that these crimes will only get worse every time a ransom is paid.  Even when found, boats of armed Somalis are typically disarmed and sent on their merry way unless actually caught in the act .  For too long, Somalian piracy has been treated as a business deal, and as a result the pirates grow steadily bolder, better armed, and more violent.  This trend won't change until we start blowing pirate ships out of the water and forcibly taking back pirated vessels.

     This is a topic of constant discussion among sailors in the Western Pacific.  Somewhere around New Zealand or Australia or Singapore, every world cruiser now has to make a choice.  Does one risk pirates in the Red Sea?  Or the dangerous seas of the Cape of Good Hope south of Africa?  Or does one abandon the dream of sailing round the world and turn around to make a long and difficult trip back across the Pacific?  We keep putting off this decision as long as possible, but with the situation in all of the Northwest Indian Ocean getting decidedly worse, that's one neighborhood we'll be staying out of. 




                                                                                                                         created by Steve Erickson 2007-2012
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