Sunday, May 26, 2013

Location, Location, Location

It’s a truism in real estate that the 3 most important things in selling a property are location, location, location, because everything else can be fixed.  (And real estate is admittedly on my mind right now; we’re trying to sell our townhouse.  Don’t worry, this is an investment property, not our home; the sale isn’t indicative of any big changes going on in our cruising life).

Built into our character in the U.S., I think, is an underlying assumption that is so ingrained that we aren’t even aware of it.  We believe that your life can be improved if you just move to the right location.  Maybe it comes from being a nation of immigrants and second sons who crossed the ocean in search of adventure and opportunity.  The belief applies whether the move is on a local scale, just across town to a new house in a new neighborhood, or a major move across the country.  At its best, it gives us an attitude keeps us mobile, keeps us open to new ideas and new places, keeps us from getting complacent.  There’s a down side to this as well, I’ll get to that in a bit.

In our home marina, we have a nice slip on the outer row with easy access to take the boat out and go sailing, and a pleasant view from the cockpit when we’re in the slip. But when you live on a boat, this whole moving-for-a-better-life thing is even more so, because the moving is so easy.  No packing, no househunting, just up the anchor and go.  Find the new better place, drop anchor.  So it was with our boat slip.  We have been extremely happy with our specific spot.  Until, that is, our friends vacated their slip, just a few hundred feet away, same marina, same dock,  better view, but more exposed.  Would our lives get better if we moved over there? The ultimate local-scale move, about 150 feet further north.  Would this improve our lives? I was all for giving it a try; Dan had all kinds of concern about whether the geometry of the new slip would allow us to tie up securely against wind and storms.

With the tolerant permission of the dockmaster/slip administrator for our marina, we arranged to spend a weekend at the new location to check it out.  Friday afternoon we gathered some spare docklines and headed over.  It was a 5-minute trip that ended in a graceless docking debacle, fortunately with no witnesses, but a short time later we were tied up.  We were expecting some stronger winds on Sunday that would give us a real chance to test how well we’d resist the wind, so Dan spent what seemed like a couple of hours fine-tuning the docklines.  When he was satisfied we headed to the cockpit to unwind with a beer and check out our new, if possibly temporary, view.  It was indeed nicer than our old slip.  The friends who had been here before had said that it was so peaceful and private that it felt like they were anchored out even when they were in the slip.  The view out one direction was the anchorage; the other way was a carefully landscaped sloping hillside. In our old location, the window above the range gave a view of the side of the neighbor’s boat; here, it showed water and the boat traffic further downstream.  “So, what do you think?” I asked.  “It’s pr-r-r-etty nice,” Dan agreed.

We had an ordinary weekend planned, filled with minor errands, relaxation, some time with friends.  But every few hours we interrupted ourselves, asking each other whether on the whole, this location was better or worse than our last one, cataloguing the plusses and minuses.  For the big ones, view and exposure, we already knew what the tradeoffs were.  But there were lots of little subtleties.  Wifi speed? Plus one for the new slip.  Finger pier on the starboard side of the boat instead of port? Plus one for the old slip. It should have been a perfectly nice weekend, except we had this decision hanging over our heads, a decision that grew in importance until it became monumental and drained the pleasure out of everyday things.   Everything we did was examined and compared.  The walk to the car?  Shorter; plus one for the new slip.  Stern access for the winter? A bit worse; plus one for the old slip.  We were closer to the party pavilion: peoplewatching the guests?  Plus one for the new slip.  The guests walking the dock watching us? Plus one for the old slip. And we could better hear the music for the parties: that could be plus one for the new slip or the old one, depending on whether we liked the genre they were playing. We exulted in the new view and the light that reflected off the water and danced on the ceiling and cringed when the wind blew us toward the pilings or shifted a boat in the anchorage to come closer to our exposed side. We asked the friends that came to visit, and polled our Facebook page, for their opinions.  View? Or security? We walked back to the old slip and stood there for a while, gazing out to the creek.  Then walked back to the new one, and looked around.  Then back to the old one.  By Monday morning, we had to commit -- call and let the marina know, one way or the other, where we were going to stay for the rest of the season, and maybe longer.

What was weird, though, was that Dan and I had changed viewpoints.  Now he was the one who was enchanted by the view, and I was the one who felt vulnerable and exposed.  Now he wanted to stay and I wanted to go back.  File it under “things that make you go ‘hmmmm.’”

There’s a theory that our decision-making style has an effect on our happiness.  The theory says that there are two types of people, one who obsesses about making the best possible decision, the other wants to make a good-enough decision.  Say you are trying to decide where to live.  You could list your 3 or 4 most important priorities in a place to live, attributes like climate, recreational opportunities, job market, culture, cost of living, whatever matters to you, and the very first place that has those things, you make a good-enough decision and move there.   Then you stop spending energy on deciding, and go on to build your life there, and don’t look back. No what-ifs.  Or you could spend months looking for the very best possible combination of those things and many others, spending lots of time and energy to refine your choice, and even after you have made the choice, you always have this nagging concern, you are always second-guessing your call, that maybe if you had changed this one minor feature, your total happiness might be just a tiny bit more.  But meanwhile, and maybe forever, you spent a lot of time worrying.  The downside of being in a culture that believes that you can affect how good your life can be by choosing or changing your location, is that wherever you are, you are not content to simply enjoy it, you are always looking over your shoulder to see if there is an even better place you could be.  As my friend RoseAnn puts it, you miss the good thing you have right in front of you because you’re so busy looking for the next, better, thing -- because if you find an even better place, you will have an even  better life.

I began to fear that the great boat-moving experiment was going to be a bit like that obsessive second type of decisionmaking.  We were going to be in the same marina, same dock; all we were doing was moving 150 feet.  A lot of angst over a difference that really made little difference.  Both places were okay!  One had a little nicer view, the other was a little more protected.  And it’s a boat! It moves; that’s the whole point! Four months from now, we’d be taking the boat south for the winter and it would be all moot.  So why was this so hard?  Maybe because the differences were so minor? As another friend, Margo, asked, “If this opportunity hadn’t come up, would you have been unhappy enough where you were to consider moving, or were you satisfied there?”

Bingo! Thanx, Marg!  That answer was "no." We sent the email to the marina and moved back to our old slip after work on Monday.  Just the comfort of the familiar?  Maybe.  But then we realized what we had seen in the new slip, the one where first Dan, then I, was concerned about exposure to the north wind.  This photo shows the bumper on the piling at midships.  See the abrasion?  Granted that their boat was a different size and shape than ours so our results might not have been the same, but during at least one storm over the last couple of years, the former slipholders couldn’t quite keep the wind from pushing them onto the pilings.
Abraded dock bumper: this should have told  us that the problem of strong north wind was significant.
(Originally published in the Capital-Gazette on May 22, 2013)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Kind of Error Would You Rather Make?

Yep.  It's another anchoring post.  My last one is here.

The plan was to get a few boat friends together, pick up a Navy mooring in Weems Creek, raft together, then go out to Mexican Café on Saturday night to celebrate an early Cinco de Mayo.  If we had one too many margaritas, we only needed to walk/row back to the boats to sleep instead of driving home.  The weather report was encouraging, for warmth and some sunshine after a chilly spring that has seemed to go on forever.  We arrived at the planned meeting point at Weems Creek after a brief pleasant Friday afternoon sail to find … disappointment.  No moorings were available; they were occupied by a number of dilapidated, neglected or abandoned boats – one covered with a threadbare tarp, one without a mast, one trailing a deflated waterlogged dinghy. There was still some prime anchoring real estate available, so we set the hook and let out plenty of chain, and got our heads into weekend mode.

We spent a pleasant day chatting with other boats in the anchorage, old acquaintances who had returned to the Chesapeake for the summer.  We met some new folks who, drawn by our hailing port of Northport, Michigan, came over and introduced themselves as fellow Michiganders new to the Chesapeake.  And then our gang showed up, some by boat, and others came to the restaurant by land.  Much laughter ensued; later there were even fireworks we could watch from the cockpit.  The derelict boats spoiling the mood were reduced to a minor annoyance, grit under my fingernails or pebble in my shoe, but the irritation never completely went away.  As the boats themselves will never go away, which is of course the issue with abandoned boats – they cost tax dollars to remove.

There was a recent situation elsewhere in A.A. County that was diametrically opposite: a police launch came along side an anchored boat and very politely said that one of the shore residents had suggested perhaps that boat had stayed long enough and should be moving on.  The heavy irony here is that the boat in question was an extremely beautiful and well-maintained one; the owners, Evans Starzinger and Beth Leonard, long-distance sailors well-known in the cruising community, were aboard; and there was no chance of mistaking this for a dilapidated boat about to be abandoned.   (For Evans’ take on the incident, go to their blog  and scroll back to the post from 4/16/2013; another blogger's reaction to his post is here) In addition, there are no regulations prohibiting anchoring in the Chesapeake as long as the boat is properly lit and not blocking a channel or access, so I'm not sure which I find more disturbing, that a shore resident thought he/she had a right to control who anchored nearby, or that the local law enforcement did nothing to disabuse him/her of that notion.

The inconsistent, in fact contradictory way local authorities react to anchored boats in the county is confusing, or worse.   In one case, boats are allowed to sit unattended for long periods; in the other, a properly-anchored and attended boat was asked to move.

In statistics they call them Type 1 and Type 2 errors.  The technical definitions include lots of confusing phrases like “failing to reject the null hypothesis,” but it’s simpler to think of them as “false positives” or over-reacting, and “false negatives” or under-reacting.  See, in the real world, no matter how you make the decision rules, it is likely that there will be a few extremes or special cases that aren’t properly covered.  The trick is to define the rules in a way that minimizes harm from these errors.  In some cases it is very clear to see which type of error is the more dangerous.  If the rule, for example, is about a new cancer screening, then a false positive means some people will get unnecessary followup tests even though they don’t have cancer.  But a false negative means some early cancers will be missed until it is too late, and people could die.  So you skew your test to have very few false negatives, even if that means you might have more false positives – you over-react.  The Coast Guard does the same thing with “mayday” calls – they’d rather go out on a false alarm or multiple false alarms, than miss someone in danger that they could have helped.  In other cases, false positives are clearly the more dangerous error: for all its faults, our judicial system is skewed to minimize the chances of an innocent person being found guilty, even if that means that some guilty may go free.

There are other cases when it is not clear whether type 1 or type 2 errors are worse.  My favorite example of this is the rules for eligibility for public assistance.  No matter how we write the rules, some people just won’t fit in those boxes and their circumstances won’t be covered properly.  If we write the rules too broadly, there is a chance that some freeloaders will game the system.  But if we write the rules too strictly, there is a chance that some folks who really deserve help will fall through the cracks.  There’s no obvious right or wrong answer, but which type of error we are more tolerant of says a great deal about our values as a society.

Perhaps the case of abandoned boats in Weems Creek is a “Type 2” error, and the seaworthy boat asked to move along is “Type 1” error?  In writing public policy, it is hard to find a perfect balance.   Write the anchoring rules too lax, and you get derelict boats that we all (somehow) have to deal with.  Write the rules too stringently, and no one ever anchors out and learns to appreciate the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.  Right now, we’re making both types of errors; do we have the worst of both? Which error are we more concerned about? What do we value?
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A slightly different version of this post was first published in the Annapolis Capital-Gazette on May 11, 2013:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Call Me? Maybe???

 We've known for a while that "something" was a little bit off about our boat's electrical system.  I really am obsessed with monitoring our power consumption and recharge from our beloved solar panels, and I had noticed that one bank of batteries wasn't quite recharging all the way, maybe they were just a few percent low, but something was still NQR (Not Quite Right).

I'm so glad we hadn't known how close we were to potential disaster! (Photo from here)
That's when we learned how hard it was to schedule marine electricians.  We left a message with one, who never called us back.  The second one, we were able to get on his calendar in a few weeks to come and diagnose the problem.   He was very informative about many issues and new ideas and standards that had come into existence in the 33 years since our boat was built to then-code.  No specific answers to our mystery lack of charge, but he pointed out some things that definitely needed attention.  We paid him for his time, but when we tried to schedule the actual work, multiple phone messages and emails were met with ... silence.  So, disappointed that we would now have to pay someone else to familiarize himself with our systems before getting actual work done, we phoned a third electrician.  Who didn't call us back ...

Back when we had our kitchen design/remodel business, we had at one time a 6-month waiting list for new projects.  We had told one potential client this, and offered some other names that could get to her work sooner, and she said, "No, that's okay, I'll wait.  I heard you return phone calls."  That's it? I asked myself.  Not that we're creative, not that we have good attention to detail, not that our work is on budget and on time, but that we return phone calls?  That just didn't seem to me to be a prize-worthy achievement; it seemed more like the foundation stuff, the goes-without-saying stuff, that should be taken for granted.  But now that we were the clients instead of the providers, I learned how frustrating it was to be so dependent.  Meanwhile, I was looking suspiciously at our battery-selector switch, seriously, dangerously undersized by modern standards, more and more aware that something was going to have to be done sooner rather than later.
Just a look at our electric panel doesn't hint at the chaos behind,  but the hand-printed labels and multicolored breakers should be the first clue that this has evolved over time.  Four owners over 33 years had each added their personalization.

Aaaack!  This is what's inside!  The blue circle on the left side of the panel is the selector switch.  The wires leading up to it are the proper size, but the switch itself is small.  
 Enter Patrick and Rob from Marine Electric Systems.  We broke the project into two phases, partly due to the crowdedness of their work schedule, and partly due to the emptiness in our checkbook.  Phase 1 replaced the battery switch and rerouted the wiring.  The scariest thing they found wasn't the battery switch, though; it was that a few connections had vibrated over the years and were loose, as was one of the crimps on those big honking red battery cables.  I feel a lot better now!
After.  The negative wires (black, yellow, and gray) are grouped on  the back wall, and each  positive (red) is labeled.   The big heavy-duty wires that went to the battery switch have been re-routed to a new, larger switch right next to the batteries.  Shorter run of wire = a good thing.

Battery box "before."
Battery box "after." Big new fuses in the upper left corner, big new switch in upper right corner.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Is Wrong With This Picture? (Dinghy Etiquette)

Annapolis is really welcoming to cruisers; there is dinghy access at the end of every public street that ends at the water.  It is legal to tie up your dinghy there, and leave it while you go ashore. Some of these public access points have floating docks, but at minimum there are ladders.  There are courtesies that have evolved among boaters, ways to cooperate so that everyone can share this resource.  Here's the end of one street in Eastport, plenty of room for dinghies and a couple of ladders to come up to street level.

One courtesy that boaters observe at a dock like this is that after they come ashore, they move their dinghy out of the way so others can get to the ladder; the dinghy on the right in the photo above did this.  Otherwise, they tie their dinghy on long painter (the line that goes from the bow of the boat to a cleat on shore).  This keeps your dinghy secure, but allows a latecomer to move your dinghy out of the way to access the ladder or dock so they can also come ashore.  Here's a bit of a closer view of the less-courteous boat on another day, looking back from the land side, do you see what's wrong now?

It's going to be tough for anyone else to get to the ladder, since this person has chained their dinghy so close as to take up all the available room.  

There's another dinghy-dock courtesy that says that wherever tides and water depths allow, you don't leave your outboard halfway up with the prop out of the water.  The theory here is that you could bounce on a wake or a wave, and your prop could come down and cut someone else's rubber tubes.  But that's not the problem in this case, the dinghy in question doesn't have an outboard, apparently they row.  Here's an even closer shot of the problem, do you see it now?

 I get that this person is concerned about security and dinghy theft.  At the same time, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Great heavy chain here, two locks, secured at one end to the ladder mounted in concrete, and at the other end to ... ???