Oh good grief, I’ve done it again. All those good intentions to blog frequently, and it’s been seven months since my last post! But I have a good excuse, and it has something to do with the Microship that I spent a decade building, ignored for a decade, then launched last summer. That, and chronic back pain… along with a few other profoundly life-changing things that add up to Nomadness looking for a new home (lots of tech details at that link).
It’s a lot to cram in, but first, here’s a bit of fun from those mini-voyages.
I had a pas de deux with Spike Africa one September afternoon, after turning my back on pressing projects and taking the boatlet on an impromptu sanity sail to the northwest corner of Shaw Island. North of Parks Bay, I heard a rushing noise and looked over my shoulder to see this lovely 80′ schooner gaining fast, doing a fly-by. As they passed close to leeward, all the guests called in unison: “Hi, Steven!” I hollered back, “Careful! You are in my wind shadow!” Laughter all around, a sweet moment. They did a broad tack around me and headed back south to Friday Harbor, the salvo of grins delivered, mission accomplished.
It was a treat to take the boatlet on micro-voyages, a welcome “return on investment” after the decade of development that ended 12 years ago. There were a few burps, of course, but that’s to be expected… this is, after all, just a long-delayed beta test, and it didn’t take long to start a to-do list that included a design flaw in the rudder hydraulics, power system refinements, comfort issues, and a few other things. Still, the stress level was low, since I was just doing day trips (not gearing up for a 12,000-mile expedition as I was in this video from the construction phase). I got to know the local waters fairly well, and by fall I was fantasizing about a Mothership that would let me explore farther afield… dropping anchor, deploying the boatlet, and heading off to explore while streaming a datawake of telemetry. “Scaled Technomadics,” I called it one day, sailing across the San Juan Channel, savoring the moment.
This was pretty much the languid flavor of the whole summer, although rudder hydraulic leakage eventually became enough of a problem that I lost a few weeks doing a fiddly on-water Amsteel bridle retrofit, taking the dinghy between Nomadness and Microship for every little step in the process. The to-do list was growing… but seeds had been planted! As the days shortened, I decided to get ready for haulout and moved her from the port to a slip near Nomadness where she lay for a couple of weeks, the occasional focus of a show ‘n tell, putting off the physical challenge until I was prodded by a nasty northerly that lashed the exposed marina for over 24 hours. I still shudder at the memory of bronco-busting the walkway in 60 knot gusts and breaking seas after midnight, trying to add fenders to stop the starboard ama from diving under the dock, and running a line to the next finger in the hope of saving the rudder. The boat was being vigorously thrashed, the mast swinging through a fore-aft arc of about 80 degrees. Scary… but the extra line held and no damage was done (and thanks to Dan Ward for helping in the peak of the storm).
It was the end of October and clearly time to get this baby out of the water for the winter. The following day, a stalwart crew of assistants (my pal Rebecca, plus Paul and Seth from s/v Phoenix) met me down at Shipyard Cove, and after a bit of fiddling with the creaky landing gear we hauled her up the ramp. The barnacle-encrusted slimy bottom was evidence that I should have applied some proper anti-fouling paint over the original gelcoat, but this was the first time she had ever spent a season in the water. We wrestled her into the mobile-lab trailer and parked beside my building, then Rebecca and I got busy with hull-scraping, squirming in a pile of redolent biology under the boat, working overhead with numb hands long into the freezing night. Ah, boats…
She (Microship Wordplay, not Rebecca!) has been folded in the mobile-lab trailer ever since, but the experience of having the boatlet afloat, at first just a playful distraction from Nomadness projects, turned out to be pivotal. There are a few jobs that must be done for it to be reliable, but they are of human scale and are on a deeply familiar substrate. I often forget that a decade of my life went into this little ship…
More to the point, there is something about this that was like coming home. Some parts may be absurd, and others need fine-tuning, but there was a startling familiarity in the mini-adventures… heading out on a home-built high-tech gadget, attracting interesting passers-by, cruising along while brainstorming hacks and additions, and dreaming of more. Like the bike, it’s a deeply personal bit of geekery.
Of course, it is impractical, and only carries one person. Gear stowage is inconvenient, it’s wet, going forward underway requires gymnastics, and dancing between cockpit and dock is dangerous enough that I’m surprised I didn’t end up falling between the hulls and dying of hypothermia (got damn close one stormy night, slipping on wet fiberglass in the dark while foolishly trying to rig a boom tent to reduce the next day’s bailing). Serviceability is a pain, she makes too much leeway under sail, the pedal drive unit is broken, and I never finished the solar array that would give the electric drive more range. But it’s home, in a twisted sense. I spent ten obsessed years building this, and the term “return on investment” isn’t just about money.
I started gazing at Nomadness and brainstorming. How could I incorporate little Wordplay into a technomadic lifestyle? An open-ended camping expedition would be too hard… and I shudder at the idea of creaking into my dotage with an annual ritual of trailering to the same dock from a dusty garage, making little crossings and dreaming of the Epic Circumnavigation of Lopez Island (E. Coli). If only she could fit onto the dinghy davits at the stern of Nomadness… but no, the scale is wrong.
Noodling around local waters last summer, I conjured an updated technomadic fantasy consistent with the realities of chronic back pain, relationship changes, and other personal issues (subjects I have resisted discussing in this public forum, but which have become increasingly significant in recent years). Imagine a spacious Mothership that can deploy the Microship via hydraulic crane from an upper deck, allowing a lifestyle of slowly exploring coastal and inland waters with occasional forays via micro-trimaran. From a purely practical standpoint, this could be done with a dinghy and a couple of kayaks, but a big part of this is that quirky blend of art and engineering about which I love to rhapsodize… I’m not ready to give up the passion that drove that project.
Such a vessel would have to be largish… 12×20 feet of clear deck space with a crane isn’t easy to find, and the ship would probably be in the 60-70 foot range. Large power boats, in general, have never turned my head, and my budget would limit me to older ones with potential hull or mechanical gotchas (not to mention fuel costs that quickly become prohibitive)… so I am being extremely careful researching unfamiliar territory. But it’s an interesting line of reasoning, and not entirely absurd. A side benefit is that anything of this scale would have considerably more space aboard for a lab, consoles, office, room to relax, and an adjustable bed that I could step around. That last item has become a bit of a problem while living aboard for the past two years. I’m in pain all the time, and it’s exhausting.
This will only work if it’s big enough to get me completely out of building rental for shop and other tonnage. That has been a financial nightmare these past two years, paying way too much for a huge expensive mausoleum with no heat or bathroom. The lease is up on May 1… and I’m moving to a smaller temporary space over the next few weeks. The plan is to compress my machine shop into the mobile lab trailer, put a Probotix CNC router and other fab tools into a big honkin’ Mothership, integrate a capable electronics lab using the existing 19″ rack gear I’ve been developing for Nomadness, stuff a piano somewhere, and live aboard full time with a Microship perched on the roof amidst a thicket of antennas like a geeky caricature of a megayacht with a helipad. Hey, why not?
After something like 8 months of agonizing, I have a decision. My beloved Amazon 44 needs to find a new home before I can do likewise, and I have moved off to clear the personal clutter and let me focus on a few jobs that have to happen before I hand over the keys.
It’s important to admit that this is excruciating, as I’ve been pouring all available resources into the project for years… dreaming of open-ended voyaging. But my creaky body has other ideas, and I’ve painted myself into a corner with no room for crew. The alternatives were looking like defeat, but I’m getting that old excitement back with this Mothership vision.
A Quick Footnote on Publishing
From April 2011 until January 2013, I published 22 issues of the Nomadness Report, an elaborate magazine-style production that detailed the project as it unfolded (these are now collected into a single eBook of about 200 pages that you can order by clicking the cover image at right). When I wound this down last year, partly because of all this noodling about major life changes, I started putting out a less-formal email newsletter to my subscribers. The last one of those was in September, and there were 9 issues (plus one more that will deal with business matters, pointing to this and other recent news).
The new model is much simpler. Project narratives will be here on the blog. Finished designs and how-to material will take the form of either stand-alone articles (free, like the little music stand piece) or more technically detailed eBooks. There are a few of these on the immediate horizon, in addition to the Nomadness Report collection, and I’ll announce them here as they become available. The most substantial one details the complete ship power system including battery management, shore power, grounding, AC & DC distribution, and console fabrication.
Also, I have finally started a project I’ve been talking about for, um, 20 years… a combined volume of the whole bike epoch including Computing Across America, Miles with Maggie, and tons of detailed tech info collected from all the paper files and postings from 1983 to 1991. The first step was slicing up a copy of the book and running it through my scan/OCR process to create a text file, so now it’s just a matter of editing. It is going well, and you can sign up to be notified when it is available.
So. Changes are in the air… not the ones I was expecting, but life is a twisted journey, hopefully a long one, and we have to roll with it. Last year it became obvious that some kind of course correction was going to be necessary, and it took ages to figure out what that should be… and then more ages to get up the nerve to discuss it publicly.
Fair winds, and I look forward to sharing the next steps, whatever they may be!