Monday, August 24, 2009

Local Knowledge

“WHY?” Max wanted to know. “WHY do you want to circumnavigate New Zealand?”

“Because it would be beautiful and poetic,” I replied, sounding like a total idiot.

He peered at me, not sure if I was pulling his leg. “But why not go up and down the East Coast? It’d be a damn sight warmer, for a start. All the good harbours are on the East Coast. There’s beautiful fishing.”

He made it sound tempting. And while I scoff at the concerns of people who don’t sail—namely, my mother—Max had already sailed around New Zealand. Alone. He knew what he was talking about, which was why we’d invited him to dinner, along with his partner Jen. We were spilling over with questions about safe harbours and potential itineraries, but first Max wanted to ascertain what the hell it was we thought we were doing.

“Let me put it this way.” He began folding his paper napkin between large, leathery palms. “What do you WANT from this trip? Do you want to have a nice, cruisy time? Because you’re not in California here. When it turns to shit, it turns to shit fast. It can be very bloody uncomfortable out there.”

“I want to write a book about New Zealand,” I told him, sloshing more Shiraz in our glasses. We were drinking a wine with the unfortunate name of Shipwreck Red. “I want to learn about the history, and see the country, and have adventures, and write about them.”

“You know Bill Bryson?” Peter joined in. “She’s going to be the next Bill Bryson.”

To his credit, Max did not visibly roll his eyes. Instead, he did his best to dissuade us.

“Stewart Island,” he began, “is the southernmost harbour in the world, apart from Cape Horn. They don’t even talk about swell down there. You get on the radio and listen to the fishermen, they’re all on about the lift.”

“Lift?” It sounded nice, like fluffy white clouds and magic carpet rides.

“Lift,” he repeated. “They’ll say ‘there’s a lift of twelve out there, can’t run the ferries.’”

“Twelve feet?” Peter smiled broadly. “But that’s no big deal, depending on the frequency of the waves. It’s if they’re breaking you’ve got a problem.” He leaned back in the forepeak, pleased with his command of nautical lore.

Max looked triumphant. “Twelve metres, boy. Swells of twelve metres. With a metre or two of chop, blowing off the top.”

Oh. Twelve metres is thirty-six feet. That’s the size of Sereia. I swallowed, the wine burning my throat.

Max drove his point home. “Why d’you think there’s so many Kiwis in all the great sailing races of the world? The whole country’s got the same population as Boston, and there’s a hell of a lot more Kiwis in the races than blokes from Boston.”

“Um. Because Kiwis like to sail?” I asked tentatively.

“NAH. Because it’s a prick, girl. It’s a prick out there.”

“So what are you saying, Max?” Peter wanted to know. “Are you saying we shouldn’t go? That it’s too dangerous?”

Max looked surprised, like we’d just bit him on the ankle. “NAH I’m not bloody saying that. I’m just saying be aware of what you’re dealing with. And listen to the weather. And take it seriously. Because it can bloody well smoke out there, and you don’t want to be caught in the shit.”

No. I certainly didn’t want to be caught in the shit. Certainly not with my baby on board. The mood of our happy little dinner party began to feel uncomfortably glum.

I tried to brighten things up. “So Max,” I asked, “after your trip, was there anything you wish you’d done differently? Anything you wish you’d seen, that you missed?”

He nodded, looking over at Jen. “I would have liked to have someone to share it with. Some of that scenery is so magnificent, you can’t believe what you’re seeing. You get punch drunk with the beauty of it. And when you finish,” he smiled fondly, “it is a magical sense of accomplishment. It would have been great if she’d come with me.”

Beside me, Jen burst out laughing. “Ha! Not me. I’m not stupid!”

Oh. I thought. Are we?

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Sereia is ready. Or rather, she’s as ready as she’s going to get without an additional two months and fifty thousand dollars to burn. I’ve shelved my hopes for a deep flight submarine, and there’s still no washer or dryer on board. But where we’re going, we won’t need to wash our clothes, and we won’t need to change them, either. Like medieval peasants of yore, we plan to sew ourselves into our foulies, then burn them at the changing of the seasons.

Because instead of sailing to Fiji, we’ve decided to stay close to land. We plan to learn about this new country we’ve adopted as our own. And that, of course, means one thing:

We’re cruising to Invercargill. The frozen asshole of the world.

I’ve hesitated to tell people our idea, for fear they will call us stupid and crazy. The southern tip of New Zealand, is, after all, where we lived last year, and we just recently escaped with our lives. They have horizontal ice storms down there. They have a perpetually overcast sky, bleak with the smoke of coal fires. I’m only just getting over the rash I acquired in Invercargill, a sort of scrofulous skin rot that confounded the doctors and can only be ascribed to a prolonged bout of spiritual malaise.

In short, we didn’t like it. At all.

And it’s not just us. People who don’t sail can’t imagine why we would rather stay in chilly old New Zealand, rather than voyage a mere ten days to the north, where the beaches are made of white powder and the snorkeling is clear as air.

Then there’s the sailors, the people who actually know what they’re talking about. Like Ken, for example, our Kiwi friend who’s built several boats and sailed them all round these waters. The other day we were sitting at his picnic table, quaffing homemade fruit wine and chatting.

“NOW,” Ken declared, slamming his glass on the table. “WHERE YA THINKIN’ A GOING IN THAT BOAT A YOURS.”

Peter, who is more forthcoming than me, and who was also more drunk, gave him a straight answer. “Circumnavigating New Zealand. We’re going to circumnavigate New Zealand.”

Ken peered at him. “DAHN’T BE BLOODY STUPID,” he roared. “Right the way round? With that kid? You’re CRAZY.”

“You think so?” asked Peter.

“THE WEST COAST IS BLOODY AWFUL,” Ken declared. “Nowhere to go in. You’d need local knowledge.”

“Perfect,” I slurred, with the confidence born of homemade fruit wine. “We’ll talk to the sailors. We’ll get to know people along the way.”

“You serious?” Ken asked, squinting at Peter. “Christ, you’re serious. Right then, you’d better talk to Max. He’s done it.”

“Great,” Peter concurred. “He’ll tell us all about it.”

“He’ll tell you you’re BLOODY STUPID and CRAZY, is what he’ll tell you,” Ken replied. “Go to Fiji. Go where it’s WARM, fer Chrissake.”

So we talked to Max. That man is an encyclopedia about New Zealand waters. And he didn’t try to dissuade us. In fact, he lit us up with excitement.

“I’ve traveled all round the Pacific,” he growled, “and everywhere I go, they ask me what my favorite Pacific island is. They think I’ll tell them some bloody sand dune with coconuts. Na,” he shook his head. “I tell them I live there! New Zealand, mate! You can live off the bloody ocean here! Everywhere you go, you can catch your dinner! Where else can you do that, I ask you?”

His eyes narrowed. “But that West Coast can be a bit rough. Why don’t you stay on the East Coast? It would be a lot easier.”

I fully planned to dodge his question, but Peter came right out with the truth. “Because Antonia’s going to write a book about New Zealand. And this would make a great story.”

I cringed. But Max didn’t tell us we were stupid. And he didn’t tell us we were crazy. Instead, he started telling us where the good anchorages were to take shelter.

“What about Fiordland?” Peter asked. “I hear it can get pretty nasty down there, with those katabatic winds. Where can we pull in there?”

“If it really starts to blow in the Sounds, mate, an old friend of mine, who’d sailed there for years, he told me there’s just three places to take shelter. Remember that. Just three places ye’ll be protected, from whatever comes at ye.”

“Where?” we asked, in unison. I pulled out my notebook to jot them down.

“Precipice Cove, Precipice Cove, and… Precipice Cove. Other than that, you’re on your own.”

There was a pause, while we took this in. I looked down at the baby, who was clutching my leg. I thought about katabatic winds.

“But it’s nice there, right?” Peter asked. “I mean, if we go there, it’s worth it, right?”

“Fiordland? It’s bloody magnificent, mate. It’s like nowhere else in the world.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Problems With Intentional Movement

We’ve been planning this trip all year. We quit our jobs, moved across the country, and invested two months of time and money into making Sereia seaworthy again. We splash this week, and we hope to move on board by Saturday.

There’s just one hitch. At nineteen months, Silas isn’t walking or talking yet.

He cruises around with great confidence, just barely holding on to something solid. He babbles incessantly, with rhythms and intonations that sound increasingly like speech. His eyes are bright and focused, he makes excellent eye contact and his hunger for books and music is insatiable.

But he doesn’t point to what he wants. He doesn’t wave “bye-bye.” He has no recognizable words. And he can’t yet walk on his own.

Peter and I have been through the full spectrum of emotions about all this, from breezy confidence (“Einstein didn’t talk until he was four years old!”), to despair (“Holy crap, what if he’s a ‘TARD?”). The journey has been all the more harrowing because we are alone out here, with no family or trusted friends to confide in. The people we know in New Zealand are new friends, the kind that say, “I’m sure everything will be just fine!” and then tactfully change the subject.

Recently, we determined to stop wasting time with fear and guesswork, and consult a specialist. We drove three hours to Auckland, so that Silas could play for an hour with a developmental speech therapist. Her verdict: he’s not a ‘tard. But his language is significantly delayed.

“Have you heard of dyspraxia?” she asked.

Limp with relief at the notion that I wouldn’t have to feed him with a spoon for the rest of my life, I barely heard what she was saying. But then she explained.

“I’m not saying this is a diagnosis—it’s too early to diagnose this, and I’d like you to see a pediatrician—but what I’m seeing is leading me to think of dyspraxia. Essentially, it’s a problem with executing intentional movement, so the late walking is related to the late speech. Think of speech as a very complicated dance between your tongue and your lips and your mouth. If the child has a hard time coordinating his legs, then you can imagine it would be a difficult to coordinate all the different muscles you need for speech.”

“But it’s not cognitive?” I asked again, my voice breaking.

“Not at all. From what I can see, Silas is a bright and curious little boy. But while other little children will pick up speech patterns automatically, Silas may need to be taught how to move his mouth, or point his finger.”

She pulled out a stack of handouts. “Here are some exercises you can do with him at home, to encourage him to point and talk.”

As she went through the materials with us, I scanned ahead. It was pretty small-scale stuff, like blowing bubbles and popping them with an index finger. Nothing you couldn’t do on a boat.

Because of course, now Peter and I are faced with a choice. Do we pursue our plans, go sailing, write articles, compile a travel book? Can we give Silas the help he needs while living on a sailboat? Or do we need to make a screeching U-turn, get jobs, move to Auckland, and save our pennies for speech therapy several times a week?

What, asks Darwin’s Puppet, is best for the baby?

Could it be, say… circumnavigating New Zealand? That way, we’ll be near the coast, and we can pull the plug at any time, move on land, and get specialized help if we need it. It would be a great chance to learn about our new country, and it should make a fantastic story. We can pop bubbles and do speech exercises as we sail. With periodic consultations, and the assistance of research libraries along the way, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to help Silas learn as we show him how to live an adventurous life.

First stop, Auckland. Silas has an appointment with a developmental pediatrician on August 27th. And we’ll arrive there in the most appropriate way. It is, after all, the City of Sail.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Stylites at Sea

Yesterday we gave notice at Silas’ preschool, a move which struck fear into my heart. Actually, they don’t call it “preschool” here in New Zealand, they call it “crèche,” which is a French word meaning “that which prevents Mom from going batshit crazy.” Whatever you choose to call it, this magnificent institution has given us two days per week of baby-free productivity and adult conversation, and I am extremely nervous to see it go.

“Two weeks more?” asked the nice receptionist lady. “You’re off on your sailing adventure, then are you?”

“Yes, we’re off,” I confirmed, heart pounding in my chest.

She must have smelled the fear oozing from my pores. “He’ll be fine,” she reassured me.

“IT’S NOT THE KID I’M WORRIED ABOUT,” I shrieked, then corrected my voice to a more respectable level. “He’ll be fine. As long as he’s got us, he’s fine.”

“Fine,” she repeated.

“It’s… me,” I squeaked. How to explain to this woman how nervous I was to move back on my yacht?

For all she knows, it’s the Maltese Falcon, with a staff of twenty and a deep flight submarine, although the fact that I wear the same raggedy jeans every day might tip her off. She doesn’t know that we clean our dishes in sea water, shower with a tea kettle, and get one shelf each for our clothes. She’d be surprised to learn how rarely the toilet functions, and if I told her about the maggots we’ve met in the tropics, she’d probably call the cops.

And why would she guess? Why would anyone volunteer to live on a leaky boat, forgoing such modern pleasures as washing machines and cold beer, and periodically getting tossed around the cabin like a dried bean in a maraca?

There is an ancient tradition of saints and pilgrims, who do loony things like stand on a pillar in the desert for forty years. I would like to cast Peter and myself as modern-day stylites, enlightened ascetics seeking wisdom on the high seas. Perhaps we could build ourselves twin platforms at the top of our masts, from which we would pray fervently, hand down blessings to our disciples, and mortify our flesh with whips made from halyards.

Unfortunately, that image is flawed. First of all, we are too silly to have disciples. Secondly, we are hedonists, and I don’t think saints are allowed to sail naked, knocking back the rum drinks and trolling for sushi. And thirdly, I’m only engaging in the most reluctant maritime asceticism. As soon as we can afford it, I’m getting a refrigerator. And a washing machine.

And maybe, depending on how things work out, a deep flight submarine.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Yesterday was a rainy day, so we stayed inside, watched a Harry Potter movie, and baked brownies. Then, because we are kind and generous parents, we gave Silas a little bit of brownie for dessert.

As it turns out, this was spectacularly ill-advised.

Feeding a decadent chocolate dessert to a toddler is like treating a mental patient with crack cocaine. At first, he took it well. Our little Silas continued banging his pots and pans together, and if he was smashing them so violently that ragged shards of metal were spraying the kitchen walls like shrapnel, it wasn’t so you’d notice. At eight thirty, he fell asleep, to all appearances like a normal human child.

I can only assume that for the next few hours, he entered his pupal stage. Silently, while we slept, he excreted a fibrous material out of specialized glands in his anus that served to shield him from the outside world. As metamorphic life forms are known to do, Silas spun himself into a cocoon.

And then, at two o’clock in the morning, he hatched.

The screams that detonated in our apartment like a nuclear bomb blast were not those of a human child. These were the half-strangled, guttural howls of a wild animal, a savage troll, a bug-eyed swamp thing from hell.

This was not my son. This was The Baby From Beyond The Grave.

We tried everything. We changed his diaper. We gave him something to drink. We brought him into bed with us, and tried to cuddle him to sleep, at which point he kicked me in the stomach and nearly castrated his father with his sharp little baby knees.

And here is where I really resent being a mother. Because while the calm and logical centers of my brain were saying things like, “Take the Devil Child and put it outside, in the car, where the sub-zero temperatures will make it sluggish and docile,” the brain-damaged Mommy centers of my brain were saying, “awwww, my poor little boopsie.” And then I was cuddling it. The screaming, shrieking, Baby from Beyond the Grave.

I have a theory about all this. As is common to many victims of prolonged torture, I am not the same person that I was before I became a mother. For example, I now cry when I watch Harry Potter, because it feels unbearably sad to me that Harry doesn’t have a mommy and a daddy. And whereas I used to find ghoulish delight in movies about violent death and dismemberment, I now have to turn them off. Because somehow, having a child has pried open my cold and dried-up little heart, wedging in a direct pipeline to the pain and joy of being alive.

It's terrible. No longer can I base my life decisions purely on irony and self-involvement. Now, despite my worst intentions, I am forced to feel.

How did this happen? It’s simple. Essentially, Nature employs the same techniques as religious cults and nefarious police forces everywhere. First, there is a long period of psychotropic drug use. For the Manson cult, it was LSD. For mothers-to-be around the world, it’s a potent cocktail of estrogen and progesterone, all the better to prepare the brain for complete annihilation and re-programming. Then, there is the experience of childbirth. This is a bloody and violent act, much worse than the comparatively refreshing “waterboarding” that has Amnesty International in such an uproar. And lastly, new mothers are subjected to at least six months of intense and continuous sleep deprivation. Repeatedly denying sleep to a captive is a powerful tool for torture and mind control, actively employed by secret agents from the KGB to the CIA. It is also used with great success by so-called “babies” who demand to be fed several times during the night, and who refuse to just eat a cheeseburger when they’re hungry like everybody else in the world.

Since my reprogramming, I can no longer think for myself. Every crazy plan, every selfish impulse, is forced through a filter which asks, “Is this what is best for the baby?” If it isn’t, the plan is rejected, even if it involved large quantities of good times, mixed drinks and tropical sunshine.

I am a puppet, with Darwin’s hand up my ass. He’s forcing me to protect my offspring and ensure the survival of the species. But he hasn’t said anything about earplugs. And I’m buying some. Today.