For me the sea has always been where I turn for inspiration, solace, and wonder. The night I was born I breathed thick salt air and first heard the sound of long Pacific swells rolling onto whispering sand, and from that day my life was held forever in the sea’s net of wonders. My mom and dad were living in a beach motel in Southern California while my dad did his medical residency, and my first steps were on the sand and behind my dad as he made hospital rounds and home visits to patients. I can never remember any time in my life when I wanted to be anything except a doctor and a marine naturalist, and thanks to my parents, extraordinary mentors and opportunities I became a marine biologist and a doctor and have had experiences in both fields that make me grateful to be alive just for one of those moments.
My favorite thing about the sea is that it is not lonely; in the sea I feel connected by the water to millions of people around the world. I imagine millions of people of a thousand colors and languages and religions and nations all floating together in the sea’s embrace and connected across thousands of miles by one continuous, unbroken sea. When we float in the vast sea, only a little of it is holding us up, but that small part is connected to an unimaginably vast and powerful body of water. In the same way, this is how a people are strong. When we say ‘a sea of humanity’ we acknowledge that humanity–all of us together–are as powerful as the sea, which is always waiting to show what it can do.
Like every wave, every life is unique and beautiful, something I have experienced time and again through this voyage. In 2011 we saw our
10,000th patient, and although I am very proud of how many people have received care through Floating Doctors, what I am most proud of in 2011 was that as we expanded our project, we always stayed committed to the individual patient. Time and again, this has ultimately led to our being able to do more for more people than we originally anticipated and I have faith that we will remain committed to the single, individual patient as continue our voyage.
Long before I was old enough to venture over the horizon the last lands and seas had long since been charted, but fortunately the frontiers of health and the sea of humanity offer an endless horizon. Looking out over the Pacific horizon so many years ago I never envisioned that my greatest loves would one day combine in a mobile medical relief team exploring frontiers of health across the living ocean that washes all shores equally. I had no idea HOW I would pursue these two passions, I only knew with certainty that if I did not have them both in my life, I would never be happy, and so I would look out over the water or read Jacques Cousteau or trail after my dad on rounds, and dream of adventures on distant seas and future patients I would see and help.
But all the time a voice was urging me to move forward, always there was another voice…darker, more ancient; a more primitive vocabulary but it didn’t need sophisticated words…it has raw fear, self-loathing, shame, narcissism, and petty angst and selfishness. This voice, all my life, has whispered under my dreams, telling me I will never become a doctor, and never see the seas I spent my childhood dreaming of. Sometimes it spoke with other people’s voices, like during the year we struggled to rebuild Southern Wind after she had been donated to us and some people scoffed and said we would never make it, and it would never work, and we would all be killed and waste all the support we gathered…but here we are. Sky and I lived with fear as a constant companion for the whole tenuous first year of our project, when so often it hung by a thread, but (especially with my sister beside me and many hands outstretched to help us keep going) we were able to move forward, one foot in front of the other, and now here we are…going on a mobile clinic in the morning, more than 600 mobile clinics into our voyage.
I know now that this pessimistic voice I’ve always had spoke from feeling not good enough somehow to deserve attaining my dreams, and although as I got older (and continue to get older) the voice got fainter and fainter (I pretty much ignore it on autopilot now…most of the time), it took many years before I could–as my wise sister says–”Allow myself to succeed” without it being a struggle. We are always our own harshest critics and unforgiving judges, but as they saying goes: ‘You never know if you can climb the mountain until you try (REALLY try).’ And as a wise man said, is it really that frightening to succeed, and is it really, in the grand scheme of things, so terrible to fail? And there is always the third option (my favorite): sometimes when you fall, you find out you can fly (or learn how really, really quickly)–especially if hands are outstretched to help you stay in the air, and your ego (and the dark voice inside us) allows you accept the help that is offered.
The kindness and generosity I have seen people show towards us and to others fills me with hope that the daunting
challenges of our time can be survived. I am immensely proud of what my crew, friends and family, and all our volunteers and supporters have made possible, and incredibly grateful to be able to be a part of this voyage and to have shared it with such extraordinary people.
Even with all its faults, earth is a beautiful planet, and humanity, despite its many, many faults, is heroic. There are heroes all around us; it has been a great honor to work alongside so many of them.
“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”
Check out these pictures; some of my favorite moments captured in 2011.
Please click on any of the photos to activate the slide viewer.
On Friday January 22nd, we moved Southern Wind from the dock where we have been working for months in Palm Coast, 30 miles north up the Intracoastal Waterway to St. Augustine for a haul-out and two weeks of yard work at St. Augustine Marine Center before we sail for Haiti. Haiti has always been our fist planned destination, and ever since the earthquake we have been frantically trying to finish our work on Southern Wind and set sail. The Rotary Club here has raised money for additional fuel–normally we would travel under sail as much as possible to avoid using too much fuel, but people are more important than diesel and when we depart, we will travel with all sails up and both engines pushing hard all the way to Haiti.
Our project is designed to deliver medical supplies where there are no ports, so the devastation in Haiti’s commercial ports will not deter us from going. Also, we originally planned to sail on from Haiti, but we are leaving some of our field gear here in Florida to make foom for additional supplies and volunteers. Our friend Veronica from Rotary has a bus that we can store our surplus gear in and collect when we return to Florida to drop off Volunteers and take on new arrivals before departing for Central America.
First, though, we had to get Southern Wind safely out of the canal where she has lain for ten years, over the 6-foot bar between our canal and the intracoastal, and safely up the intracoastal to the marine yard in St. Augustine for a haul out the next m0rning. Southern Wind is a BIG boat–70 tons, and this would be our first time feeling how she moves in the water. Captain Ryan Emberley, our friend from West Marine in Jacksonville, was aboard to pilot the ship safely on the maiden voyage of her rebirth after years of exposure to weather and slowly dying in her quiet canal.
We were to dock at St. Augustine Marine’s long dock on arrival, stay there the weekend, and haul Monday morning. We calculated that at 10 knots and no problems, the 30 mile run to St. Augustine could TECHNICALLY be made in 3 hours, but even though I think all of us figured there was no way things would go that smoothly, none of us anticipated the Three Hour Tour we would all experience over the next 72 hours.
Besides working so hard for so long, besides our desire to put our project into action, despite the earthquake in Haiti that has us chomping at the bit to set sail, we had one additional reason to want to move Southern Wind out of her canal–lots and lots of dead fish. A record cold snap (of course, right? While we were here in Palm Coast, we have had record floods, record cold…what’s next?) kept the temperature around or below freezing for days on end, and the canals got so cold that THOUSANDS of fish–mostly catfish, but also snook, jacks, mullet, needlefish–froze to death, and in the two slightly warmer days of preparation to move Southern Wind, all their rotting bodies floated onthe surface and the tides and wind brought ALL the canals’ dead fish down into our blind end canal.
July 2, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.SHARKS IN THE CANAL!!
You know, the story here keeps changing…when we got here, Sky and I took one look at the green, zero-visibility canal teeming with life and thought immediately, ‘Wow, what a bullsharky-looking place! And wow—the only shade anywhere around the canal for a big alligator to rest on the bottom during the heat of the day is under our boat and under our dock!’ However, everyone around here told us that sharks don’t come in here, and they have only seen an alligator once every few years during big storms. So last week, we saw a big 7-foot alligator idling around in the canal before it disappeared in the twilight, and today we saw a 5-foot shark (a bull or a blacktip) swim casually past the boat. It makes me a lot less happy about going back under the boat to clean the propellers! If I didn’t know better I’d think the neighbors were trying to encourage my demise, except that they have all been so nice to us—one of our neighbors, David, sent me a photo of the Southern Wind graphically altered against a nebula shot from the Hubble space telescope called ‘The Cosmic Voyager.’ Hopefully we’ll never be that far off course! Zero cross-track error is our goal!
A supporter of ours named Jonathan, an ER Nurse in L.A. (who is also an experienced transit captain, having spent years sailing the breadth of the Pacific) gave me great ‘rule-of-thumb’ advice about swimming in unknown waters. You never know if the seemingly calm, placid water you are about to dive into to survive the blistering heat has had 10 huge tiger sharks show up every afternoon at 5 PM for the last thousand years, so always seek local knowledge—but if none is available, never go in the water if you can’t see the bottom clearly from the deck of your boat! The dark, tannic waters of this canal looked sharky from the moment we saw it!
But that is the consequence of having a canal teeming with life. Now that we are living in Dennis and Jeannette’s old house (they moved across town and are letting us stay in their house where the boat is docked), we have taken to fishing off the boat in the evenings—after 6 PM, we are DONE working on the boat and we often take a break before dinner to fish, since a lot of the crew are just learning and we will have to provide a lot of our protein this way during our journey! Tonight we caught a stingray, which we let go right away—she was gravid (pregnant); you can see the large bulge in the middle of her body from the base of the tail forward—and I caught my first ever tarpon; which we also let go. Fascinating and Beautiful, respectively, but so far we have caught a lot of fish but none that are much good as food! We SEE them in the water, big red drums, but so far they seem to be mocking us!
June 5, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.
It is 2:00 AM in Palm Coast…all my crew that have arrived here in Palm Coast so far are passed out asleep after yet another brutal day getting our sailboat ready to sail south with all our medical supplies. We are so tired at the end of the day we rarely go out except to get something we need at Home Depot, WalMart, Publix supermarket, etc.We cook together in the house we have been sharing for the last few weeks (the boat isn’t ready to live in quite yet!), then nearly every night sit on the screened patio around our little table and talk (often about how to solve challenges we encounter during our daily re-build of our boat, often about what our voyage will be like, and often about nothing at all). Behind our house is nothing but marshland, so the night is filled with frogs, crickets, and other strange sub-tropical marsh sounds. So far we have seen armadillos (a big herd of them came trotting by last night while we were sitting outside), black racers snakes (lots of em’ but our friend Snoop, a fiberglass guy we found here who is helping us glass all the new stuff we built, says they are territorial and keep rattlesnakes away), tortoises, lizards, frogs, alligators (outside WalMart in the run-off pools), dolphins, manatee s, eagles, deer…and we haven’t even set off yet!
Nick’s guitar and acoustic bass arrived in the mail from home today, so we now have two guitars, a bass, and a harmonica! Music… what a fantastic way for us to develop connections with the people we are going to meet; playing music together has been a bonding experience among us as I hope it will be between us and those we encounter along our journey. After dinner, before I went off to go do email, we sat around for a while playing 12-bar blues—so far, we can rebuild a boat together and play music together; I can’t wait till we do our first clinic together! When they pulled me up the mast for the first time the other day when we were working on the rigging, from up there everyone on deck keeping me safe, raising and lowering gear and running lines like a maypole looked like one animal with many parts, moving as a team…adaptable yet adapting together.
Going up the mast was the very first activity that had required ALL of us on that task in different roles at the same time, with serious potential consequences, and watching everyone do everything needed with speed and purpose made me feel a surge of trust in everyone here. I really don’t know how I got so lucky in everyone here, except that many people here have survived at least one occurrence of Life Happening, and the kind of people who gravitate towards service to others when they have experienced pain (instead of turning inward and self pitying) are, I suppose, the kind of people who are kind, thoughtful of others, creative, self-motivated, compassionate, hardworking, and of course funny! My dad got to meet Mother Theresa when he worked in her Home for the Dying in Calcutta and said she has a terrific sense of humor; after all, if you can’t laugh at yourself or at life, you’ll be a very, very unhappy person!
Our house is in the canal system in Palm Coast, only couple of hundred feet down the road from our boat, and some of the houses have their own dock on the canal. Our boat, the Southern Wind, is at a dock behind the home of the previous owners, Dennis and Jeannette. They have allowed us to do major construction every day behind their house, let us use all their tools and extra equipment, told us how to do a lot of the repair (a lot of it was stuff we were doing for the first time! I can’t believe Sky knows how to frame, epoxy, fiberglass, paint acid on metal to prepare it for painting, and generally do boatbuilding!), driven me around for hours showing me where to find the marine yard, chandlery, welding shop, Home Depot and all the other places we need to find to get our boat ready!
All the neighbors have been very kind as well; only once have any of the neighbors asked us to desist—you see, we tend to forget what day it is (time has no meaning when you are working as hard as you can all day, every day) and one Sunday at 7:00 PM we were using (simultaneously) an electric planer, a circular saws and a chopsaw, 2 drills, and a metal grinding wheel. Did I mention that these folks have their backyard and dock directly across the canal entrance from us—about 100 feet away? Serious remorse was felt when he very politely reminded me what day and what time it was. We packed up our tools and took off!
The community itself has received us really well, too—my sister says she can’t get over how good the customer service is; we have also made a lot of friends down at the local Home Depot (since we go THERE about every other day). In fact, the radio interview Sky and I did here on WNZF on June 1st was due to Jon at Home Depot, who (after hearing about our project) put us in touch with David Ayres at WNZF who interviewed us on the air about Floating Doctors.
So I have a sturdy, large sailboat, all the medical supplies Direct Relief International provided, and an absolutely AMAZING crew of remarkable individuals who I not only like, but to whom I have already lite rally trusted my life more than once. I feel absolutely confident; everyone’s attitude is so positive, everyone pitches in to work SO hard all day every day…every hard or dirty job has no shortage of willing hands to tackle it. After almost exactly a year since we even started to organize this mission and gain support, we are making it happen! Everyone who comes to see the boat thinks we have been working on it for 6 months because so much has been accomplished in the 6 weeks we have been here! Every day the boat takes a huge stride forward towards being done!
It is getting pretty late and we have to be up in 6 hours to head down to the boat, so I’ll pick this up tomorrow. I was chatting with my mom earlier this evening (she has been our biggest supporter, she is even helping develop and manage our website at the moment!) I think Sky is making a frittata with all our leftover vegetables and she makes the BEST frittata! I need to find an 8-inch peeler log to make a conical plug to fit the raw seawater intake pipe underneath the boat (I’ll hammer it in with a mallet from underneath, good thing one scuba tank I brought happens to be full); then we can remove the frozen (open) valve on that pipe inside the engine room (without seawater flooding into the engine room) and weld a new valve and a filter in its place. Plus we have a list of about 30 job s we are tackling tomorrow. AND we have GOT to find out what keeps biting Ryan when he is sleeping! He is BATHING in insect repellent, none of us are using it, and he is just getting mauled by something!
Just another day!