The countdown

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

“The Breaking Of A Wave Cannot Explain The Whole Sea” –Vladimir Nobokov

Looking back over the last 2 years, I really feel for old Vladimir’s sentiment.  Two years of planning and hard work have last week been realized when Southern Wind took to the air again.  She was lifted off the hard ground on the travel lift a few days ago and gently lowered back into the welcoming embrace of the ocean, her hull all repaired and sound, her bottom paint and hull shining fresh, her clean propellers eager to bite into the water and once again push her out of the safety of the harbor, into the deep blue and over the horizon to far shores under different stars.  A ship up on blocks in a marine yard always looks out of place somehow; stranded in a world alien to her needs and abilities like a fish dying on a dock, unable to understand why its swimming motions aren’t propelling it to safety, or like a water turtle turned on its back by some cruel tormentor and struggling futilely in the hot.  I especially hate to see ships whose owners get them up into the marine yard and then neglect them or give up on them, letting them molder until they have to be sold for scrap.  Ships aren’t made to die slowly on land, their repairs forgotten or given up; their purpose is not to rot away at their moorings.  Taking them to sea is a risk—every single time, but every time I see a beautiful ship tied like a forgotten pet, unused year after year, or a once-proud vessel that has seen wonders none of us will ever know shoved into a far corner of a marine yard with long grass growing under its keel, I remember an old quote that I often think of when I am faced with a risk (as most decisions of consequence in our lives always involve): “A ship in port is safe…but that’s not what ships are built for.”

Fresh, new and ready for the welcoming arms of the sea
Fresh, new and ready for the welcoming arms of the sea

At last, Southern Wind is returning where she belongs, and true to her namesake she will carry us south to new places and new people who do not yet know that soon a white sail and red hull will appear over the horizon and bring a team of people who have demonstrated time and again during this long process their commitment and courage to doing whatever it takes to bring aid and help wherever it is needed.

We are tied up at St. Augustine Marine Center’s dock, loading supplies onboard (figuring out where to store and balance 15,000 pounds of material, all for Haiti), bringing our systems online and testing them, and doing the thousand last-minute installations and refinements to our vessel.  It was so cold and windy, and intermittently rainy for weeks—it cost us days in delaying painting so we could drop back in the water, but finally the sun came out, we painted like demons and suddenly the boat was ready to put back in the water.  That was a great day.

Almost a year ago, getting ready to drive supplies cross country to Florida

Simultaneously, we have been packing up our house—Sky and Rachel and Tami (a final year medical student and old friend from Topanga; she was actually on one of the very first trips I organized over 10 years ago when I was taking people out to the Channel Islands off California to bring them in contact with the incredible ecology just offshore from L.A.) made a heroic push to do the final consolidation and packing up of our supplies.  So much material was donated for Haiti that once again last week I found myself packing a 26-foot Penske moving van with thousands of pounds of excess supplies that we are coming back to Florida to pick up after Haiti—this is our supply for Central America, and it is being stored in Raincatcher’s warehouse in Miami courtesy of Jack Rose (who also gave us 200 water filtration systems from Raincatcher that we can distribute in Haiti to provide clean water to families there).  It is so like the first loading back in Los Angeles with just me, my folks and Ryan McCormick less than a year ago…crazy déjà vu.

It feels like a thousand years have passed; so much had to happen in the past year for us to be sitting onboard, packing up to leave.  A lot of people along the way helped make it possible—most recently, Rotary made a donationto help cover fuel costs on a powered run to Haiti—normally we will use our sails to save diesel (and funds), but the need in Haiti makes me default to my normal priority:  people are more important that diesel, and the people in Haiti need help right now so we will run to Haiti with all sails up and engines pushing hard.

Southern wind is backed out of her slot and out onto the slipway

There was one major difference this time loading the van late at night before it had to be driven 5 hours to Miami—I had help.  It took my crew only a few hours to load nearly 10 tons of material into the truck—and this time, it was not me and Ryan but my sister Sky, Rachel, and Nick Larson (our newest crewmember) who drove that enormous truck through driving rain on an overnight turnaround to deliver our material to the warehouse, pick up the water filters, and pick up Wendy (a Canadian medical student joining us for Haiti, who we have sent ahead to Petit-Goave by plane to join Dr. Tania Desgrottes, our contact there) and Lona (a producer from Nitelite coordinating the documenting of our mission to Haiti) and return home.  Simultaneously, Rachel was reaching out to dentists and dental groups to find a dentist to come and get more toothpaste and supplies and sorting receipts for our tax return; Sky was coordinating with Nitelite, creating menu plans and food lists, trying to find a life raft, tracking the shipping of our watermaker from Sea Recovery and our Inmarsat Sabre-1 satellite terminal from Globalsat, directing the cooking back in Palm Coast via phone consult, coordinating the scheduling of some volunteers meeting us on the ground in Haiti, getting up-to-date info on the situation in Petit-Goave, arranging Giles’ and Tweek’s international health certificates, and probably a dozen more things I didn’t even know she had taken on.

People outside of Floating Doctors just cannot conceive of what it is like to be a part of this crew.  I have often heard the crew talking to friends and loved ones on the phone and getting exasperated trying to paint a picture of life here that can accurately convey what we face every day; it is impossible—even describing a thousand breaking waves in detail does not, as Vladimir says, explain the sea of incident in which all of us here are immersed daily.  What is a picture of the sea without the “smell and salt breeze and the yellow warmth when the fog lifts?”  The words that describe our experience here pale in comparison to actually being here, facing  each challenge (a new one every moment) and conquering it together with sheer will, and watching our dream literally take shape under our hands and the many hands that have reached out to help us.

I have the best crew since Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance

I used to read the stories of war veterans; in their descriptions of their training they all talked about how they trained together and worked together so closely and so hard that they became like a single unit—finishing each other’s sentences, anticipating each other’s moves and actions, etc.  That is my crew.  I love working with them, I love watching the thousand things that have to happen every day all being tackled and checked off by them—no job is too challenging to figure out, and the last year of rebuilding Southern Wind together has forged everyone into a tightly group that I would (and will be the moment we cast off the docklines to set sail) trust with my life.

This is the first blog I have written from within the boat itself—I am sitting in the bridge late at night, listening to the cold night breeze blowing on the water, the distant sound of a ship’s horn somewhere off on the Intracoastal Waterway, a gentle slapping of the rigging on the mast.  It is late (3 AM) and the moon is rising in the east…the tide is falling, flowing around the boat, down the channel to the Intracoastal and out into the sea…in a few days Southern Wind will follow the ebbing tide out into the Intracoastal, down to the sea, and east to the rising sun and new shores.  I can feel the tide pulling at Southern Wind, her docklines creaking gently as the tide tries to carry her away, pulling at me now, whispering to something deep inside me to follow.  And I will obey.

The Sea is never still

It pounds on the shore

Restless as a young heart,


The Sea speaks

And only the stormy hearts

Know what it says.

The Empty Hole In The Yard Where Southern Wind Had Been
The Empty Hole In The Yard Where Southern Wind Had Been

It is the face

Of a rough mother speaking.

The Sea is young.

One storm cleans all the hoar

And loosens the age of it.

I hear it laughing, reckless.

They love the sea,

Men who ride on it

And know they will die

Under the salt of it.

Let only the young come,

Says the Sea.

Let them kiss my face

And hear me.

I am the last word

And I tell

Where storms and stars come from.

–Carl Sandburg’s “Young Sea”