Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gettin' down & dirty

First, get your minds out of the gutter! This is about my boat. No pictures, but you are allowed to laugh as you read (if I am able to make this funny).

About a month ago I took delivery of my sailboat--a Bristol 29.9 sailboat. It had a good survey, meaning it was in good shape, only a few things that really needed to be done, other than "cosmetic". John Wiggins and I had a glorious sail from Galesville to Annapolis, where she will live. Right now, her name is "Carpe Aurum" (seize the gold), but I will be changing it. Rhonda and I tried to go sailing the week after I took delivery but the gale force winds all day long prohibited it. A couple weekends ago, Sid (from whom I am subleasing the slip for now) spent the day with me teaching me how to dock and practicing anchoring. All of this was on the motor--no sailing. She ran perfectly.

This past Saturday, Rhonda and I planned to go sailing. I got to the boat, checked the oil, opened the seacocks so the water would cool the engine as it is supposed to, took the sail cover off in anticipation of getting on the Bay and actually sailing!

Checking the oil on a sailboat is exactly like checking it in a car. Except you are on your knees looking blindly into a darkened engine only able to see the curled end of the dipstick. The reason you can only see the curled end of the dipstick is because there is an engine block in front, a hose directly in front of the dipstick, and a hose directly behind where you are supposed to pull it out. It's not so bad pulling it out, as long as you pull it straight out, because that hose behind it blocks your hand if you don't get it juuuusssst riiigghht. And getting it back in is a lesson in how blind people navigate crowded city streets. By now, of course, my hand has some oil on it just from touching the engine block, it is hot and my hand is sweaty, I can't see the damn place where the dipstick is supposed to go back in, so I try to feel it with my fingers, drop the dipstick, have to feel around for it, push, push, SHIT, it's the wrong spot! Finally, after literally minutes of trying, I get it back in, but have to pull it back out to actually check the level. Go thru steps 1-4 again (or whatever) , and finally. Other than that, just like checking it in your car.

So, Rhonda and I are ready to sail. John Wiggins, whose boat is next to mine, and Jean show up at their boat, and I invite them to come with us. John can't, gotta work on his, but Jean does decide to come. Great! An all girl crew! I am a low-to-moderately experienced sailor, but Rhonda and Jean are a little more experienced, so we will be fine.

Getting the boat out of the slip is a bit of a trick, as there is another pier directly in front of where my boat comes out. There is a bit of wind off the port side so we unloosen the starboard side first and start to go. Unfortunately, I had a bit too much throttle and slam (gently) into one of my pilings--no harm, quick reverse, stabilize, and we're off!

Down the cove, into Martin's Creek, we are doing great! About 15 minutes out, just before we get to the markers and S-turn out, momentum stops. The engine is running, gears seem to be engaging, no movement. Thank goodness for cell phones--we call John, who walks us through some trouble shooting (after telling us to drop anchor; well, I did want to practice that some more! Altho, it was really Rhonda and Jean who were doing that). Now, I know NOTHING about engines. The only thing I know about mine is you can get to the front of it thru the salon by taking off the steps down from the cockpit, and you can only fully get to the engine thru the lazarrette (the area under the cockpit seats).

We have to take everything out of the storage area (the lazarrette) and crawl down in there to examine, oh, propeller shafts and couplings (what the hell is that?!) and other things. Now the space down there is small. Really small. I am almost 6' tall, the length of this area is about 4' (at best); the width is perhaps a butt-cheek of a small person. I'm not a small person, so call it one of my butt-cheeks (maybe). And, then when you are down there, the hull of the boat is curving, so you have to conform to that too. Oh, and you have to take the panels off that separate the engine from the storage space and of course they won;'t fit up thru the opening so they remain down there with me, taking up space. Oh, and when you finally get your full body down there, you then have to work on the engine from the side of your body. So my almost 6' body has my knees up to my boobs, my shoulders trying to fit in this small space, my whole butt trying to fit into a half-butt area, and trying to turn so my hands can actually get to things! My next career will be as a contortionist. Oh, and it was about 95 degrees outside temp, probably over 100 down in that small space.

The highlight of this episode was trying to check the transmission fluid to see if I had just run out and to add more. I took the cap off what I thought was the transmission fluid--big cap, on top of the engine (as it turned out), it was dry. So, we added about 2 quarts of transmission fluid. Turns out, that was the oil fill! Long story short--ended up having to call for a tow.

Back to the slip. John comes on board to help figure this thing out. Down he goes to examine things, but this is my big chance to start learning about my engine--my boat, I'm responsible, gotta learn one day. And, boy did I learn! I spent the rest of the afternoon down that tiny, dark lazarette trying to figure things out with John pointing out parts and telling me what to do.

Because I had put transmission fluid into the oil fill, there was waaay too much fluid and it had spewed out onto the engine and area surrounding. So, no matter where I touched, there was oil. And I was sweating like a longshoreman as well as cursing like one: why the **!#@% does that hose have to be there so I can't get to whatever part. Finally figured out (thank you John) where the real transmission fluid was supposed to go in--that cap that says "Transmission fluid only", except that it is buried in the bowels behind the engine block with 47 hoses or wires or something in front of it. I know now.

AND, you can't just screw off the lid of the transmission fluid dipstick. NO, you need a wrench. Thank goodness I had a crescent wrench. But the space is small and those *&%**!!! hoses and wires are in the way. So, in tiny increments, covered with grease and sweat all of which is sliding down onto the crescent wrench (which never screws the right way for tightening!), I work the dipstick out. Literally, this took about 7-10 minutes, maybe more. At some point, John gets his socket wrench, which I have never used, and, after several minutes of instruction and questions almost figured out. So, we got that off and it appeared to be very low on trans fluid. But, the fluid is so light colored you can hardly see it. Appears low, but we had poured all of the fluid into the oil, so could not refill. Done for the day.

Sunday: I go buy oil (lots) but could not find an oil filter. Since I put trans fluid into the oil, we have to drain the oil twice, put in a new oil filter and re-fill. Actually, draining the oil isn't so bad, because John has an "oil sucker-upper" that goes right into where the dipstick is and sucks it out with a vacuum. But for some reason, I could not get that damn dipstick back in--can't see it, trying to feel for it doesn't seem to work, it just wouldn't go in!! After a while, John came down and got it. But I am in the lazarette most of the day, trying to get that **&##@! trans fluid dipstick out to check again. John had trans fluid so we used that. Got the oil drained, ran the engine a few minutes, drained it again. Now, I can't get the dipstick back in. Now it is raining--hard. I'm still in the lazarette covered with oil, and sweat, and now rain. It's time to take the oil filter out.

John has a "tool" to help take the oil filter out because it is so tight and I am so sweaty and greasy it will not budge. This tool requires 2 hands to get it on the oil filter and tighten it in place. Keep in mind that as I am in the lazarette trying to figure out where to put my legs and butt and arms and shoulder, that my head is to the stern (back) of the boat and the oil filter is somewhere up near where my feet are. So I have to try to stretch over my entire body, over my feet, one of which is splayed forward and the other somewhere to the side between hoses, wires, and other stuff, and reach this damn thing with two hands, and it is off to my side, and try to put some torque on it to move it. Couldn't. I looked at John, up in the cockpit, and said "I'm done". My learning curve just took a dive. Couldn't to it anymore. John was awesome: asked if I wanted him to try to loosen it with the "tool", which he did, then I went back down and actually took it off by hand, spilling oil everywhere, but he gave me a grocery bag to put it in.

So I took Wed off work to finish up. Tuesday night, I woke up in the middle of the night: DAMN! I couldn't get the oil dipstick back in because there is another depression just forward of the oil dipstick spot that FEELS like the oil dipstick spot, but isn't! Sure enough, Wed morning, on the boat--two depressions, one of which is NOT the oil dipstick spot, which is what I had been trying to put the dipstick into. Whew! Hopefully, I have that down pat now.

Wed: go to Bayshore Marine, get the oil filter, some trans fluid, I am ready to rock! Get to the boat, John isn;t there, but that's OK, I know what I am doing now (sort of; at least I know where some important engine parts are, the ones that I need to work with). Down into the lazarette--thank goodness the weather is overcast and 65 degrees. I use that oil filter looosening "tool" like a pro (yeah, right) , get the new oil filter on!! Get my hand-dandy crescent wrench to take the trans fluid dipstick out--no. I work and work at it, that crescent wrench is loosening it a little bit, but it has so many turns and it is such a small space (damn those hoses and wires that it keeps getting tangled in!) that I am 10 mins into it when John shows up and offers the socket wrench. A minute later and it is off! Now I can see the fluid level better (I think because it is overcast the light color just shows up better than in the bright sun we had on Sat and partly on Sun) and it is TOO full. So, I take the handy dandy "oil sucker upper" down in the lazarette with me, contort (I am a master at this by now) myself into an appropriate position and start sucking it out. Finally get it to an appropriate level. Put the rest of the oil in the proper place and we are good to go.

Start the engine, runs like a dream (not that the engine was a problem). Put it in gear--nothing, still no movement, prop shaft still not turning. We're done.

Call the mechanic.

Aaahhh, the joys of boat ownership. But I sure learned about my engine!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yee-Haa! Welcome to Texas!

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit Lauren in Dallas. After a year and a half in Amsterdam, a few months unemployment here in Maryland, she landed back on her feet, in Dallas of all places! Now, I've long had an aversion to Texas--any State that adored #43, just didn't seem like it could be my cup of tea (although I did always like #41 and Barbara). Combined with my stereotype of big blonde (or blue) haired Republicans at their country clubs or gaudy mansions [thinking oil money] (hey,we all have our stereotypes, some of which aren't so attractive) I never had a desire to visit. But, of course, one of the points of travel is to open your eyes, experience a different culture and, just maybe, change your view. This trip did change my view but also, somewhat, enforced it.

Lauren lives in an older neighborhood with lots of trees. She has a cute 2-bedroom cottage, representative of most of the houses on her street. But, in her neighborhood were also a lot of HUGE, and I mean ridiculously HUGE mansions in any style you could imagine. Thinking of a French chateau? Down the street. A Tudor-style mansion--couple blocks over. Something Frank Lloyd Wrightish? Near the Tudor. How about a mansion on a few acres with water slides in front? Yup, that too. Fortunately, because of the abundance of trees, shrubbery (and the gated home or two), even though some of these houses are WAY too big for the lots, for the most part they don;t seem to be on top of each other.

We went to a local restaurant for dinner--Suze, which is apparently owned and run by a couple who appear on Food TV (or one of those foodie shows). That was the place where I first observed LOTS of blondes (and I continued to be struck by the number of blond women throughout my 2 days there) and the elegance and polish of certain patrons that says "monied". But, it was also where I first encountered the friendliest, nicest people you could ever hope to meet.

Friday we went to the arboretum. In the rain. Lots of rain. And, it being spring, they had lots and lots and lots of tulips. It being near Easter, lots of them were pastels, to the point of being cloying sometimes. But who doesn't like tulips and other colorful flowers?
The house of the original owner of the grounds was open for visiting, so we walked thru that. My favorite room was the library which had wall to ceiling shelves (which they had filled with law books because they look elegant). The docent in the library pointed out a couple of hidden rooms in the library, the interesting vents near the bay windows, which direct the air toward the windows to dissipate the condensation. One question to the docent and she was off! She talked and talked and talked. Now, being an east coast, big-city girl for the last 30 years, I am used to asking a question, having it answered, and you're done. This woman talked to us about all sorts of things for easily half an hour, as we continued walking thru the house. She just seemed to love her job and her city so much, combined with what I am going to call Texas charm, that she wanted to share it.

From the arboretum we went to Ft Worth for the stockyards. Ate at a restaurant there that had the best BBQ brisket I think I have ever put in my mouth! We went into a building with animal stalls and encountered a number of longhorns in pens, one of which kept eyeing us and, we thought, was going to try to attack us--we were grateful for the fence separating us from him!

We went into the visitor's center while waiting for the longhorn drive/parade to start and encountered a married couple working the desk. Asked a couple of questions and they were OFF! The man spent probably half an hour talking about the history of Ft Worth, cattle-droves, Indians, you name it; when they found out Lauren had just moved to Dallas, the wife started putting together a package of materials for Lauren to have--all sorts of brochures about Texas, Dallas/Ft. Worth and other areas. Again, that Texas charm, combined with just loving their city so much they wanted to share.

Then, finally, the longhorn parade with real cowboys!

OK, there were only about 10 longhorns, but they were still cool. Next stop in Ft. Worth: a restaurant where Lauren insisted I try the local delicacy: fried pickles. Honest. Sort of like fried zucchini or mushrooms, but with dill pickles. Not bad, especially with a beer:

As it got toward evening, we had to kill a bit of time, because the rodeo didn't start until 8:00, so we just wandered the streets, noting the fashionable people. Fashion (and, I am mostly going to talk about women) requires cowboy boots. And we saw some gorgeous ones in the stores: bright colors, tooled leather, pointy toes. Which is why I won't wear them (if you already have big feet, pointy toes don't help). Most of the young women who were out for the evening and wanting to show off were what I would call "semi-slutty" dresses: really short, clingy, leaving little to the imagination; Daisy-dukes were also popular. Whichever they wore, the cowboy boots were a must. There were fewer cowboy hats on the men than I expected, until we hit the rodeo, and then they all had hats.

The highlight of the rodeo was the calf-chase and sheep-chase. They bring out the little kids, let a calf go and whichever kid gets the calf (or the sheep, for the younger kids) wins. That sheep could really run, too! Who knew?

Afterward, we went to Billy Bob's which bills itself as the largest honky-tonk (100K square feet) in the world. But, I think you have to be small and dark and smoky to be a honky tonk and this wasn't. Still, it was interesting. We started talking to some men who had worked the rodeo that night and learned that (a) you can start learning to ride bulls when you are tiny, tiny, like 5 y.o. (b) that Texas kids are as polite as can be; one of the persons was a 16 y.o. bull-rider who kept saying "Yes, ma'am" (c) Texas men may have several kinds of hats depending on if they are going to the rodeo, church, or just every-day, and they can cost A LOT!; (d) you can take bull-riding lessons at church!

Next day, we hit the farmer's market. This was a true farmer's market, with fresh fruit and vegetables shipped in from west Texas. Many of the vendors were giving samples, so we just ate out way thru: juicy, dripping, sun-warmed tomatoes, crunchy sweet cucumbers, lavender-geranium sorbet, peaches that taste like the real thing. And everything was cheap, dirt cheap: a basket of fresh tomatoes for about $5.

No trip to Dallas would be complete without a visit to that most famous of Dallas places: Southfork! On the TV show, it looked huge! In reality, it's probably a 3500 (maybe less) square foot ranch house. The pool (that JR, Pam and the rest always swam in, seeming to be Olympic sized) is a normal sized backyard pool. They explained all the tricks that were done to make it seem larger, such as the camera lenses, putting the actors in harnesses so they just swam in place, etc.

We drove to downtown Dallas, where there really isn't much (except the JFK museum, which we did not have time to visit), but I managed to make a couple friends there:

We finished our day with dinner on the patio at Lauren's. It was a totally Texas dinner, with all the stuff we had bought at the farmer's market: Texas wine (who'd a thunk! it was pretty good), organic grass-fed Texas steaks, and those lucious tomatoes!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Snow Place Like Home

It's been a while since I've blogged, so I hope I can remember how to do it!

When I signed up for this job a couple years ago, it was for assignments that would let me travel. So when my boss told me I would be working on a project locally, I said "Geez, when I signed up to travel, I didn't mean to Greenbelt!" (15 miles from home). So, trying to put my best face on it, I figured, why not try to look at Maryland as if I was new to it. And there were some advantages to being home: seeing friends, sleeping in my own bed, having Evan buy my wine at a major discount, enjoying (?) the snowmageddons in December, and the 2 in February.

Each day, I got to commute to lovely Greenbelt: along major travelled highways with lots of traffic:

(BWI Parkway on a light traffic day!)

(Powder Mill Rd @ Edmonston, before I turn left onto Edmonston)

So, while the traffic wasn't so great, there was one compensation. Every day, I got to drive thru the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, a bucolic swatch of agricultural bliss (including, as the weather got warmer, the smells associated with livestock):

These two photos don't do it justice, but it's hard to take photos from your moving vehicle! Driving thru the area is about 4 miles of serenity: rolling hills, grazing cows, the occasional hawk, deer in the evening. With a little jazz playing on the radio, it was easy to imagine (when necessary) a ride in the countryside.

And then came Snowmageddon I & II: February 5-12. Thinking we were going to get about 15-18 inches of snow that Friday, and we could dig out over the weekend, I invited a friend from work to spend the weekend. Instead of being in her lonely apt in DC, she could spend the weekend in the 'burbs, we'd drink, watch movies, dig a little snow, get her home on Sunday so she could watch the SuperBowl at her local bar. Sure, Friday night worked out that way, but I got up Sat morning and could not open the front door! The snow was drifted up against the door some 8 or 10 inches and I had to work the door open enough to get the shovel thru to push it away to actually open the door! So, we shovelled all day, in turns. Roads impassable, until, finally, Monday I could get her to the train station, but on roads that were still like country roads. On the 2 mile ride to the train station, we actually saw stranded tractor-trailers--too much snow on the roads for them!

And, then on Tuesday night, more snow! Another 18 inches or so on top of the 2 feet we had already got. While it made for pretty pictures, it was a lot of work and took 3-4 weeks for everything to melt. But, enjoy the pictures:

(night photo as Snowmageddon II begins)

(parking lot, Snowmageddon I)

(parking lot, Snowmageddon II, I think)

(back deck as Snowmageddon II begins)

(maybe Snowmageddon II?)

(tunnelled sidewalk after Snowmageddon I)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cue the Island Music (Dominican Holidays)

Aaahhhh... the Dominican Republic in the winter: no snow, no ice, warm weather, beaches, rum, sun. I'd been planning this since early summer, so what could possibly go wrong, right? Right! It was perfect (well, my daughter Leslie might disagree since the mosquitoes seemed to love her so, but a dip in the ocean seemed to help alleviate the itch).

I rented a 4 bedroom villa on the north coast near Puerto Plata; it even came with a housekeeper, Paulina (who only speaks Spanish; this proved a great end to my Spanish country travel this year!) Leslie, Evan, and my sister Ellen came for 9 glorious days of hanging out on the beach, lazing in a hammock, reading books, drinking rum, and eating Dominican food. We went on a couple of tours so we didn't get too lazy.

(note hammock on left)

Paulina cooked breakfast for us each morning and dinner each afternoon (which she usually put in the oven so we could heat up). Breakfast consisted of fresh tropical fruit: pineapple, banana (local), papaya, tangerines. Dominican coffee made the Dominican way (not in a Mr. Coffee, made in a pot similar to a camping percolator). Once we made it to the mercado (like a farmer's market only WAAAY smellier), we had fresh squeezed orange juice--at 20 pesos/dozen (exchange rate was 36 pesos/dollar) lots of oranges was irresisti
ble! In addition to the fruit and coffee, Paulina usually made scrambled eggs with cheese or with ham and cheese, and often with vegetables in it. Enough to keep us happy until dinnertime. Dinner would consist of rice & beans (usually red, but once rice w/lentils), fried plaintains, and a meat: chicken, beef, fish or goat (called chivo; figuring that one out took a little imagination. Paulina said it was "Baaah" which I thought at first was lamb). She also made flan a couple of times. Not like your restaurant flan--more coarse and with a subtle vanilla/cinnamon flavor. Yummy! Many afternoons I would come in and smell the aromas wafting thru the kitchen and say "Yummy, yummy!" followed by Paulina smiling and saying "Bueno, bueno!" By the end of the week, I was saying "bueno" and she was saying "yummy!"

I was always the first one up and would go for a 30 minute or so power walk thru the neighborhood, which primarily consisted of villas and condos. The really pricey villas, as well as the nearby resort were guarded by Dominicans with shotguns, some in military-type uniforms. They would smile at me each morning and we would exchange an "Hola!" or "Buenos dias!" (often said by them as something like "buendi"). Once they got used to seeing me, they might mimic exercise particularly as I was huffing up the hill. One time my knee was bothering me and one of the guards, in Spanish, asked me about it. Although I didn;t know the word for "hurt", I did know the word for ill, so was able to say "infirme poco" and the guard nodded knowingly. After my walk and a shower I would lay in the hammock reading a book until everyone got up and Paulina served breakfast. Then, off to the beach:

(Evan enjoying (?) the surf)

There were lots of kids at the beach, especially on New Year's Day, and some wanted their picture taken (Not sure why, it's not like I was gonna e-mail it back to them!):

You could shop at the beach:

And, for us Americans, no trip would be complete without:

(Dear Wal-Mart: While we are appreciative of your efforts to assist economically struggling countries, as well as your efforts to blend architecturally with the community, we were disappointed in the merchandise selection).

We went on a couple of tours, the best of which was the Jeep safari tour. After travelling thru the countryside we came to a little village where they roast coffee and make cigars:

(Evan grooving to the island beat, grinding coffee the old-fashioned way)
(Leslie enjoying a hand-rolled)

Once we had lunch at a Dominican open-air restaurant, we came to a national park with a waterfall experience. We hiked about a mile to a series of 7 waterfalls and then hiked up the falls. Through the coursing water. Up the slippery rock. With my bad knee. Pulled up & assisted by the ridiculously strong Dominican guides. But sliding back down each of the falls was exhilirating! I felt like a kid again. At the end, you have to jump about 10' into a pool. As I am standing at the edge, the guide says "Wait, wait". No way, I'm here, I'm jumping and with a giant scream, over the edge I went! Unfortunately, there are no pictures of this; we had to buy the video.

On my birthday, we went on a catamaran snorkeling tour. Not the best snorkeling, as the bottom was stirred up from storms that had been thru a couple days before. The ocean was stirred up, too, with huge swells; I'm guessing an easy 6-8', maybe more at times. Just ask all the people who were throwing up (none of us; all iron stomachs!). We all enjoyed being on the water:

(Leslie & Evan pre-snorkelling)

(Ellen post-snorkelling; maybe post-rum punch?)

And no trip to the Dominican Republic would be complete without a visit to the rum factory:

(this was pre-free rum samples; note hot Dominican tour guide!)

All in all, a great vacation: nothing went wrong, the weather was warm, we lived in shorts & flip-flops, ate well, and brought back great souvenirs (amber and rum!):