The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

April 29, 2011

Living the Slightly Glamorous Life of an International Yacht Racer on St. Maarten

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:22 am

After having spent much of the morning on St. Maarten wandering around what passes for a downtown in Phillipsburg and pretending to shop for items pretending to be luxurious designer goods, we made a brief return to the ship to prepare for the afternoon’s activity.  While much of our group was busy wandering around to the various parts of the island and finding new and exciting ways to get themselves stuck in traffic, me, my Dad and my brother would soon be heading out into Great Bay to go on a sailing excursion.  This particular sailing trip would be far from a pleasure cruise though:  Instead of a lazy sail around the bay, we would be racing.  And our sailboats (and challengers, as it would turn out) would be some of the most famous racing yachts in the world.

These days, for most people, the America’s Cup is one of those things that happens to show up on the sports page every so often.  To most people, it’s some thing where a few boats go run around and chase after an old trophy or something like that.  But back in 1987, the America’s Cup was a big deal.  In 1983, The New York Yacht Club, sailing with Dennis Conner at the helm of the 12-meter yacht Liberty, managed to lose the America’s Cup to the Royal Perth Yacht Club in Australia  for the first time in 132 years and 26 defenses of the cup.  Bringing the America’s Cup back to America quickly became a matter of national pride, and by the time the 1987 Cup came around, which would turn out to be the final America’s Cup for the 12-metre class boats that had challenged for the Cup since 1958.  The yacht that Dennis Conner would be sailing on behalf of the San Diego Yacht Club, Stars and Stripes 87, represented the pinnacle of 12-metre yacht technology, and easily bested the Kookaburra III  to return the America’s Cup to America.  Back in 1987 I was only nine years old, but I do seem to recall vague memories of watching the final race of the 1987 America’s Cup on TV, and also seem to have a memory of Dennis Conner jumping off the boat and swimming to shore to reclaim the cup that he had previously lost after the final race was won.  I could be making this all up for all I know, but all this happened 23 years ago, so I apologize if my memory might be a bit faulty on all this.  Little did I know at the time that at some point in the distant future, I would one day be racing against that very boat off the shores of St. Maarten.

The excursion started off on the cruise docks with several groups of people from the various ships gathering together in one spot prior to being led out to a dock where we would be boarding a tender boat to go out to the yachts.  While we were awaiting our ride, we were given a summary of some of the history of the America’s Cup, with a particular emphasis on the 1983 and 1987 races.  Docked near the pier we were waiting on was the Katara, a massive megayacht (in fact, it is currently the tenth largest in the world)  believed to be owned by the Royal Family of Qatar.  Just in case you were wondering where the money you’ve been spending on gas was going…  During this time, the sailors for this race were separated into their respective groups and assigned to their yachts.  Normally, selection of challengers for an America’s Cup race is done through a series known as the Louis Vuitton Cup that pits a number of yacht clubs from many nations against each other for the right to challenge the Cup’s current holder.  Lacking the resources generally available to a yachting syndicate, we opted for Rock Paper Scissors.  The group we went with was assigned to Canada II, a boat that competed in preliminary races for the America’s Cup in both 1983 (as Canada I) and 1987,) and although it never competed for the Cup itself, it is still considered one of the fastest 12 Metre boats in the world for light wind conditions.  Which, we were assured, would be the conditions we could expect today.  Somehow, the whitecaps seemed to suggest otherwise.

After the tenders arrived, the racers for Stars and Stripes and Canada II boarded one tender, and the racers for True North boarded another.  Following a leisurely ride into the bay, we first arrived at the Stars and Stripes, where the yacht’s previous crew was offloaded to return to shore, and the new crew boarded the boat and received their roles for the race.  Canada II was next, and we went through the same routine, each person being assigned a role ranging from the sedate (handing out the beer and soda, timing) to the downright grueling (in particular, the primary grinders looked like they were getting a good workout.)  I happened to be assigned the role of backstay grinder, which basically involved sitting at the transom and  quickly tightening a winch when required to ensure that the mast remains well supported.  This would be a task that would be required frequently (especially during tacking operations,) as the two backstays would often need to be loosened and tightened to ensure that the sail could be positioned properly to catch the wind.

After all the yachts had been boarded and everyone had been given some time to familiarize themselves with their roles, it was time to race.  Even starting the race involves a degree of strategy, as it is necessary to be at a certain place as close to a certain time as possible without arriving early (which would result in a penalty.) To be honest, much of the race was a blur, as there was a lot going on aboard our yacht.  There were a number of close encounters during the race with the other two yachts we were racing against, during which I may or may not have made a bad Bob and Doug McKenzie impersonation or two (“You know, you hosers should, like, learn to sail eh?”) 

And although the race did keep us fairly busy, there were still some opportunities to take a few more photos of the ships in the harbor (as if I didn’t have enough of those already.)  The Ruby Princess is the one in the back here.

Although it was somewhat difficult figuring out who was leading at any given time and who was where, were told on several occasions that we were ahead of the other two, but ultimately on the final leg of the race, True North (pictured here) managed to out-tack the other two yachts to take the win, followed closely by Canada II in second, and Stars and Stripes a close third. 

In the end, I don’t think anyone was taking the race TOO seriously (after all, how seriously can you take a race when you’ve got a designated beer dispenser on board?) but I’d say it was a bit more thrilling than a lazy jaunt through the bay would have been anyway.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m the one in the back with the shirt suspiciously similar in color to the Kool-Aid Blue water found around St. Maarten.

After disembarking the yacht and taking the tender back to shore, we were dropped off at the gift shop where we all enjoyed complimentary rum punch (in my case minus the rum of course) and the opportunity to buy various memorabilia from the sail.  I considered parking my dinghy here, but I thought better of it.  Either that, or I realized that I don’t currently own a dinghy, and even if I did I forgot to pack it in my suitcase for this trip.

After this, me and my brother spent a bit more time wandering around Phillipsburg (shockingly, I didn’t find a knockoff Louis Vuitton Cup anywhere) before returning to the ship shortly before it was due to depart.  By the time we got back to the ship and got ready for our 6pm dinnertime, the Oasis of the Seas had already departed, and the Carnival Magic was just getting ready to depart as well.  I lingered for a little while on the Promenade and watched as the Magic pulled out of port, before retiring to the dining room for the latest in a series of meals which seemed to have an ongoing theme of Way Too Much Freakin’ Food.  It sure sounded like there was a party going on up on their Lido deck as they were pulling out of the harbor.  Perhaps the fresh restock of booze the ship received while in port had something to do with this, but maybe they were just excited to be on a cruise in the first place.  The visit to St. Maarten didn’t allow enough time to see much of the island, but that just provides a convenient excuse to come back at some point, right?

  • Additional information on the 12 Metre Regatta in St. Maarten may be found here.

April 25, 2011

The Luxury of Time

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 1:16 am

Image credit: Flickr user Jamiesrabbits

First of all, I should probably apologize to anyone out there who thinks I’ve been blathering on about all this cruise stuff for just a bit too long.  I think I probably have one or two more posts I’d like to do from the cruise, and maybe one from the day spent ashore in Fort Lauderdale and Miami after disembarking prior to flying out, but in the meantime I should probably try to get back to some of the usual stuff as well.  I’ve been meaning to do a post on some of the signs of Spring we’ve got popping up here in Downtown Bellevue (I will say that the weather certainly doesn’t seem to qualify for this one) and will probably get that out in the next week or two.  To be honest, aside from an occasional bout of globetrotting or two, I’ve actually been kind of boring lately. 

Anyway, for those of you who many have been reading this Blog for a while, you might recall some of the drama that occurred back around last November when I found myself having to make a choice between a two very good job offers on very short notice.  If you happened to miss the original post, you can find it here, but to make a long story short, the choice was between a job in Downtown Bellevue with good pay, good benefits and  the ability to easily walk to work each day, or a job with significantly higher pay and a rather significant signing bonus (two words that, given my work history, I never thought I’d ever hear outside of an ESPN article,) but less paid time off annually, and a commute to Seattle that would amount to at least an hour and a half spent on a bus each day.  Both of these were very good opportunities (in fact, far better than anything I had ever been offered before,) and I’m sure that I could have been happy with either of the two job offers but the circumstances under which this occurred gave me roughly 24 hours to make a choice between the two.  As you might know, I ultimately made the choice to take the job in Downtown Bellevue, and in the process left a great deal of money on the table. 

In the end, the factor that perhaps contributed most to my decision to take the decidedly non-intuitive route in this case was the extra time I would be able gain by taking the closer job.  By not having to commute across the lake twice a day, I gained at least an hour and a half that I would otherwise be spending sitting on a bus.  But while all that extra time is certainly nice to have, ultimately it comes at a rather steep price, at least in terms of opportunity cost.  The pay difference between the job I took and the one I passed up was rather large (so much so, in fact, that I imagine that very few people would have made the same decision that I made if they were placed in the same situation that I was.)  But really, in the end it doesn’t matter what I did and didn’t do, it’s all theoretical until I actually act upon something.  Try as I might, I can’t help but occasionally find myself pondering the inevitable what-if scenario that something like this brings, and thinking about how things would have been different if I had gone in the other direction.  If I had to guess, most likely it wouldn’t be too much different from the way things are now, except for the fact that I’d have a lovely little low-mileage Porsche sitting down in the parking garage that I’d be too busy to ever use.  Well OK, maybe a Porsche would be pushing it (but not so much that I don’t have one somewhere near the top of my unwritten “Potentially attainable delusions of grandeur” list in the even that I ever get to the point where I can afford a mid-life crisis) but I could probably go for at least an Audi.   Well, actually I’m pretty sure I’d just be sticking with the car I already have (but I’d have it paid off, something I’m getting really close to doing anyway,) but we’re talking hypothetical scenarios anyway, so I might as well go for the gusto, right?  But really, when I think about it, I’m just not sure that the extra money would really change anything.  I’d be living in the same place, I’d probably have all the same stuff, and I’d probably be doing a lot of the same things, albeit maybe not as much of them due to the smaller amount of free time.

And even if you don’t take all the what-ifs and could-have-beens into consideration, there’s also the fact that even now, I’m finding that convenience comes at a rather steep price.  Downtown Bellevue is far from a cheap place to live, and apartment rents (some of the highest you’re going to find around here, rivaled perhaps only by some of the fancier places in Downtown Seattle)  seem to be headed upward even in spite of the recession.  Granted, the market for condos is still pretty crummy around here (The Bravern has just given up on selling condos now in favor of leasing, and Bellevue Towers has already seen ownership revert back to the financing bank as a result of poor sales) but even with that in mind, prices are still high, and I am far from being able to afford to buy anything bigger than a broom closet in the Downtown area.  That said, I do quite like the place I’m living now, and in spite of somewhat high utility costs (well, water gas and sewer anyway, I’ve actually been quite surprised at how cheap the electrical bills over the Winter months have been here) it’s still about as good a deal as I’m going to find around here.  And when all is said and done, I do also drive my car only about half as much as I used to when I was commuting daily, into Downtown Seattle,  which does offset (in part at least) some of the extra costs, and also get an extra $30 a month from my employer for not driving to work.  I was taking the bus when I was working at Teleca, but I was also driving from Redmond to the Eastgate Park and Ride because the quick ride across on the 212 bus was a lot quicker than the shambling pile of misery that was the 545, and I was also typically just driving in once or twice a week as well.  But even with those cost offsets, I’m paying quite a bit more to live where I do than I would to live somewhere nearby, but requiring daily commuting by car. 

So when it all boils down, the biggest luxury that I find myself paying for these days is that of time.  And at least for the time being, it certainly doesn’t come cheap.

April 20, 2011

Ya Wanna’ Buy a Watch? A Visit to St. Maarten

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:07 am

No matter what cruise line you happen to be traveling on, there is a good chance that if you are taking a trip to the Eastern Caribbean your itinerary is going to include a stop at either St. Thomas, St. Maarten, or both.  During the Caribbean cruising season, these islands can have tens of thousands of people a day arriving and subsequently departing on any number of ships.  This particular island has a history that has seen control of the island change hands repeatedly between the Dutch, the French, Spanish and the British between the island’s discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1493 up until the early 19th century.  As a result of all this, the island is divided between two nations:  The north side of the island is a French territory, and is known as Saint-Martin, and the south side is a Dutch territory known as Sint Maarten. 

The island boasts a number of well-known beaches, including Orient Beach, which is considered to be one of the best beaches in the Caribbean (and is also noted as being one of the world’s most popular clothing-optional beaches) and Maho Beach, notable for its  location directly behind the runway at Princess Juliana Airport.  As is the case with many Caribbean islands, there is also plenty of shopping to be found, assuming that what you happen to be shopping for is jewelry and/or liquor.  Oh, and there’s also plenty of tourist kitsch to be found, but one thing you notice after having been on a number of islands is that a lot of it is the same stuff on each island, just with an added sticker showing where it came from (other than China, that is.) 

Unfortunately, the short visit we paid to St. Maarten didn’t allow enough time to get much beyond the town of Phillipsburg on the Dutch side of the island, but even in this short time there was still plenty to see, and also time to go out for a rather interesting sailing trip.  After the jump, more on our visit to St. Maarten.

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April 12, 2011

Wandering Off the Beaten Path at Princess Cays

Filed under: travel, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 11:51 pm

 

For most people, the first things that comes to mind when they think of the Caribbean are the beaches.  I’m sure that some people (mostly the ones who haven’t ever actually been to the Caribbean) seem to have the misguided impression that entire islands are surrounded completely by pristine white sand beaches.  While it is true that there are some very nice beaches to be found on many Caribbean islands, the reality is that these beaches make up only a relatively small portion of the shorelines of many Caribbean islands.  Granted, most people traveling in this part of the world aren’t going to have any trouble finding the nice beaches on the various islands, but many of the cruise lines that operate in the Caribbean have their own private beaches (or, if you believe what’s in the brochures, private islands) that they include in their itineraries.  For Princess ships (as well as P&O ships, and even an occasional Cunard or Costa ship when they’re in the area) this beach stop is Princess Cays, a beach near the southern tip of the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. 

Geographically, Eleuthera is a bit of an oddity, being nearly 110 miles long from tip to tip, but only about a mile wide for most of that distance.  This means that many of the island’s visitors
(at least the ones coming by cruise ship) will never see more than a tiny fragment of the island’s southern tip during their visit.  At least the part they do see comes with a nice white sand beach and plenty of things to do while you’re there.  Granted, many people will quite likely find a nicer beach elsewhere on their cruises (I happen to like Coki Beach in St. Thomas myself)  but if there’s one particularly nice thing about the beach at Princess Cays, it’s the fact that your visit comes with no obligations.  One thing you quickly learn while on a cruise is that the port calls are often rather short, meaning that you’ll barely have time to scratch the surface of many of the islands you will visit.  Sure, a beach day at one of the popular cruise ship port calls like St. Thomas or St. Maarten sounds nice, and you certainly have that option if you wish, but with all the other shore excursions, tours and other activities being offered, not to mention all the shopping there is to be found on these islands, there’s only so much you’re going to be able to get done during the short time you’ll have on the various islands, so in most cases you’re going to have to pick and choose.  On the other hand, when you’re at Princess Cays, you’re guaranteed a day on the beach if you want it, with little else competing for your time ashore.  Sure, there’s options here as well (there are plenty of watersports on offer during your visit, and there are snorkel areas along the beach with lots of fish to see) but most people are just going to just spend the day relaxing in the sun.  But for those who are willing to get up out of their beach chair and explore a little, Princess Cays does have a hidden secret to be found.  You will find more information after the jump.

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April 6, 2011

On An Island in the Sun

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 11:27 pm
Coki Beach, St. Thomas

A couple of nights ago as I prepared to go to sleep in my own bed for the first time in ten days, I noted with some minor degree of distress that the mint on my pillow that I had become accustomed to over the past week or so seems to have gone missing.  It took a minute or two for me to remember that things like that tend to be rather rare in the real world.  Oh, and all that stuff I wrote about how tough it is to get away from it all anymore?  Forget I wrote any of that.  Aside from a couple of hours in St. Thomas where I had service on my phone and threw together the quick Blog post you see below, I spent virtually the entire cruise completely offline and only vaguely aware of the existence of the outside world, much less what might have been going on there at the time.  Yes, there was Internet on the ship, but having to pay 75 cents a minute in order to use it tends to provide more than adequate incentive to just not bother with it at all.  And if that’s not enough incentive to keep you offline, I’m sure on a ship like the one I was on most people will have no problem finding some other perfectly valid reason to forget about just about everything.

 After returning home from the trip on Monday night, today was the inevitable crash back to cold hard reality that always seems to ensue following a vacation, especially a vacation as long as this one.  In total I was only out-of-town for about nine days (plus a travel day at the end) but I can’t recall the last time I had a vacation that felt as long as this one did.  Then again, with my work situation over the past few years I’ve been hard pressed to get away for much more than a long weekend here and there, so being able to take a whole week off for vacation and not feel guilty about doing so is a relatively new experience for me.  And what a vacation it was.  The weather was almost perfect the whole time, with only the slightest hint of rain on the morning of the final day at sea en route to disembarkation at Fort Lauderdale, and most of the week marked by copious amounts of sunshine and temperatures in the eighties. 

I suppose it is ridiculously unrealistic of me to expect weather like that in Seattle during early Spring, but after a week of Caribbean sunshine returning home to the usual Seattle mix of overcast and rain with temperatures in the mid Forties and just enough wind to make it nice and cold outside isn’t much fun.  There have even been reports of scattered snow in the area this morning, just to make it really clear that the weather still sucks around here.  Sure, it’s pretty much the same stuff we’ve been slogging through for the past four or five months, and most people will eventually realize that  if they can just make it to July 5th or so there might even be some weather that it’s safe to  go outside in, but spending a week in the Caribbean certainly doesn’t  much to make it any better.  About all you can do is get away from it for a while.  Weather is patient;  It’ll wait for you to get back.  Much to my chagrin, I found this out firsthand on my Disney World trip in 2008 where the drive to the airport was made on an inch of solid ice on the roads, and the return trip home was on three inches.

I intend to write more about the trip itself in detail once I get settled back into the usual routine a little bit more and have some time to sort through my photos, but overall it was a very nice trip.  Aside from the minor glitch with my checked bag on the flight down that I mentioned earlier and accidentally triggering fraud protection on my debit card by using it to buy gas for the rental car in Fort Lauderdale, pretty much everything went without a hitch.  Oh, and there was that little sunburn I managed to pick up on Princess Cays even with about half a gallon of sunscreen on, but that’s pretty much a standard occupational hazard for wandering around that part of the world.  And the $40 I blew on Bingo, of all things.  Which is particularly annoying, since I’m pretty sure that I’m about 30 years too young to be playing Bingo.  And yet, for as nice as it is to be able to get away from everything for a while, I do have to say that four-course dinners every night gets to be a bit much after a while.  That’s not to say that the food was bad (some nights were distinctly better than others for dinner though) but there’s only so much food you can take at once.  And that was before everyone started meeting up in the Horizon Court at 10:30 for what was deemed “Second Dinner”.  Still busy trying to sort out the first dinner at that point, thank you very much.  In fact, I’d say that cruising with a group of 14 family members probably had a more significant impact on the overall experience of the cruise than I would have expected it to.  I seriously doubt I would have gone to half the scheduled activities I went to if I was on my own, and I also don’t think I would have done some of the shore excursions I went on either. 

I don’t think I’m going to do a comprehensive blow-by-blow trip report on this one like I’ve done on some of my previous trips, but I do intend to cover some of the highlights of the trip, with a focus on a few particular days and activities.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of days on the trip (the first day in Fort Lauderdale prior to boarding the ship, and the second-to-last day of the cruise on Grand Turk) in which I got caught without a camera by various circumstances, so I don’t have much in the way of photos for those.  I do have plenty of photos from the rest of the trip though, and as soon as I sort these out (and find some of the photos other people I was with took along the way) I’ll be posting some of these here, along with some general notes. 

All in all, it was quite a nice vacation.  In fact, I think I’ll take another cruise (well, a short one anyway) next month.

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