Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Miraculous Research Tool

Research is one of the key aspects of any project. Yet finding information has always been something of a headache if that information is not available in current publications. Researching before my walk along the Ganges river in India, I spent days in the university library in Calgary searching through volumes for titbits of information, anecdotes, histories and stories about the sacred river.

How the world has changed. Typing in "Labrador" to Google Books brought more than 2000 citations and restricting to "full text" brought more than 200 volumes -- from libraries in England and America. Very quickly I discovered a wonderful account of a sailing voyage in 1812 in which an Inuit elder took two Moravian missionaries from along the coast of northern Labrador and east to Ungava Bay so that they could make contact with Inuit communities there.

Soon afterwards, I had a copyproofed version of the story from the Gutenberg Project -- another wonderful resource that provides full text copies of out of copyright texts.

What this does is raise the standard of materials available to any writer, or anyone else. In the past there just was not enough time to search and collate items not of the first rank of important from libraries thousands of miles apart, despite the fact that the slightly-off-topic topics could often produce some of the most fascinating minor stories - nuggets of gold for any storyteller.

The Google Books interface is disappointing and not well thought out at all. But it's still a beta version, so hopefully hands-on users will correct all the omissions.

In the mean time, Season's Greetings in a Brave New World.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Figurehead of Kuan Yin

Traditionally, every ship should have a figurehead. Even "little ships" are good candidates if their design can support the embellishment. The same figurehead that graced Nelson's ship at Trafalgar would certainly look out of place on an uber stylish racing yacht, as well as adding unwanted windage.

My boat "Kuan Yin" is a classic design that I believe can support the addition of a figurehead. What better figure than a statue of the Kuan Yin, the boddhisattva of compassion. So last week I came back from a quick trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand searching for a carver who would be able to create a suitable figure.

There are important differences between a "statue" and a figurehead for a vessel. It's vital that the figurehead looks like she belongs to the ship, and is not taken from the shelf in someone's living room.

For practical reasons, I have had to move the location from the traditional place, at the bow of the ship, under the bowsprit, to before the main mast. Hopefully this will work and not add too much windage nor get in the way of sails and lines.

In addition, the posture and gaze of most figures of Kuan Yin, very popular in many parts of area, tend to be focused immediately in front of the figure. Obviously on a vessel, it's important to the wellbeing of the ship and to the people who greet her in harbours, that she is looking up and outward, offering compassion to the whole world, humans, whales, fishes and icebergs!

Monday Inspiration - Helen keller

"Life is either a great adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable." Helen Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, activist and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

sweet dreams

The first lines of the Dhammapada, a collection of some of the sermons of the Buddha, read, "You are what you think, having become what you thought." Simple words and within them an extraordinary insight and teaching. The recent film and book "The Secret" which propounds that we attract everything that happens to us is but a modern interpretation of the Buddha's ancient teaching.

And while this may be difficult for those people who are hyper rational; to my mind, there is no doubt that the converse of the Buddha's teaching is certainly true - if you cannot imagine (think) what you want to become, it can never be attained.

With this in mind - and the words of the Dhammapada that I have come to believe and accept - I lie down to sleep each night seeing myself at the tiller of Kuan Yin on the Labrador Sea or imagine that I am laying down in my berth on the boat, riding at anchor in the shelter of a rocky island. Several times already, I am on the boat in my dreams.

Whether or not I am actually creating the reality of this voyage by first imagining it, I do not know. But I am certain that seeing it first within myself if vital to making it the external reality. This may be "nothing more" than reaffirming my focus and commitment to the project every night. This voyage to Labrador carries enormous risks to someone like me with limited sailing experience and no experience in high latitudes. It is a "reach" but one I am determined to accomplish. This must be true of all great adventures.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Do you believe in synchronicity?

Whether or not you believe that certain things “are meant to be”, human beings are pattern seekers and there’s a strange sort of comfort in discovering links among apparently random occurrences. Who was it who said, “there are no coincidences?”

So make of this “coincidence” what you will:

One essential piece of equipment for the voyage to Labrador is a good camera. I decided to buy it now so that I can practise and get familiar using it before I get too busy while preparing “Kuan Yin” next spring or, heaven forbid, only open the instruction book once we’re underway.

The camera I chose is the Canon Rebel XTi. Highly recommended and the best I can afford. It’s wonderful. I managed to take a couple of shots of the Great Wall of China from 37,000 feet while flying from Vancouver to Beijing – see my November newsletter on my website at

My boat is named “Kuan Yin” after the Chinese goddess of compassion. She’s revered by Buddhists throughout Asia, especially by fishermen and seafarers for having mercy on them and bringing them safely home. What better protector could one wish for? The goddess, or more properly a bodhisattva, has slightly different names in different countries, for example Kwanseum Posal in Korea, Guan Im in Thailand, Quan Am in Vietnam. In Japan, she is called Kannon.

Imagine my amazement and a wondrous sense of connection when I read that Mr. Goro Yoshida, co-founder of the Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, named the camera he invented (the first 35mm focal-plane shutter camera in Japan) the Kwanon – later anglicised to Canon – in honour of the goddess Kuan Yin.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

and the winner is...

Getting any project "mapped out" - ie writing down all the elements that need to be taken care of - is essential if everything is to come together on departure day and beyond. One tool I've found quite useful is mind mapping software. Though I'm a writer, I'm also a very visual person - what's out of sight quickly becomes out of mind. So in order to keep all the elements of the Labrador project in mind it's been a useful exercise to map out everything that needs to be done. This way, hopefully, I won't become too obsessed with one part while completely forgetting about another.

At the same time, a mind map records my latest thoughts, research etc. about each aspect. For example, there's quite a lot of new equipment needed. Keeping the list displayed on the mind map allows me to keep in mind what needs to be acquired while at the same time letting me add whatever research I've been able to do. In this way, I can come back to something after a few weeks and not have to repeat all the deliberations I've already gone through (and forgotten about).

I tried various mind mapping programs. Freemind was good but seemed unstable - and I just can't take the risk of suddenly losing weeks of work. The best program I've found is Xmind - a really powerful, graphically-sharp and fairly easy to use software. It's not cheap (the pro is $200) but fortunately I was able to work out a deal to do some work for the developers in Beijing in change for a license key. If you're serious about using mind mapping, I can recommend Xmind. (No, they didn't pay me or insist I write a favourable review!)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Sleeping like a baby

The rain had stopped. The city streets were covered in fallen leaves but the wind had dropped, so that by the time I reached the channel where Kuan Yin was moored, I was fairly confident that everything would be okay. The boatyard was closed and locked for the night but I was quite ready to climb along the steel fence along the waterfront to reach my boat if I had to.

Fortunately, that was not necessary. She was laying happily, as if asleep, with only a lazy movement from side to side as if to indicate a desire for company. I watched her for a while, counting the eight mooring lines I'd put out in the morning, to make sure none had chafed through. Then I departed, confident that no harm would come to her.

To write of Kuan Yin in this way seems perfectly natural as I write these words. Yet I'm also aware that to speak of a steel boat as being somehow "alive" is odd, if not slightly bizarre. All sailors tend to speak of their vessels like this. It's more than just convention. Boats do seem to have a personality. May it's only the outward projection of the sailor's innermost thoughts. I don't know. What I do know is that to think or speak of a boat with the same detachment as a toaster, for example, would be even more bizarre.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Maybe not such a great day

The boat was due to come out of the water on Monday but once I arrived at the boatyard, the boss said they didn't have time to take down both masts and haul the boat out, as arranged, so "Kuan Yin" had to be left until Thursday. I tied her up behind a large steel barge for protection from westerly winds and waves. But not well enough.

This morning at 11.15 am I got a call from the boatyard that the wind had picked up, the waves were strong and that I might want to come down. I hurried down to discover she had already struck the steel barge in front of her, tearing the pulpit (the railing around the bowsprit) from the wooden bowsprit.

She was dancing up and down, up and down in the short waves - so much so that just to get aboard I had to watch the rhythm and then jump. An hour later, I'd doubled up all the lines and added another stern line to a tug boat moored behind.

Several lessons here. 1) don't accept what anyone else says or does, but always make my own appraisal of the situation (I'd thought she was tied too close to the barge in the beginning), 2) do everything that can be done and don't imagine that the worst can't happen, (I'd thought about doubling the lines but it seemed like overkill. 3) buy another 300 foot 5/8 inch line. 4) get a couple of big fenders, the marina fenders will be useless in a gale in Labrador. 5) The boat needs at least 10 leather strips to use as chafe guards.

All the time I was on the boat this morning, I kept thinking about conditions in Labrador and how I might deal with them. I don't have much experience with winds over 15-20 knots and I can expect a lot more than that in the Labrador.

Tonight, in Toronto, winds are forecast to gush up to 50 miles/hour until the morning. I'm going now to see that her lines are secure and haven't chafed through.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

What Aristotle said about purpose

In my August newsletter (see my website I wrote about the power of purpose; specifically what Viktor Frankl had to say about its effect in our lives. When an inmate in Nazi death camps, he observed that those without purpose quickly died and that those with purpose, however, small, could overcome extraordinary obstacles and hardships.

More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle was giving his own advice about purpose. He said:

“First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective.

Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods.

Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

Mine is voyaging up the coast of the Labrador. What's yours?

Monday, October 22, 2007

You are what you think (about)

Seen on the subway this morning "What you put time into -- you become."

That's pretty much the same as the Buddha said more than 2500 years ago, "You are what you think, having become what you thought." These are the first lines of the Dhammapada.

Or another way to say the same thing is that old maxim from the early days of computers - punch cards and the like in the early 70s. "Junk in, junk out."

Yiks! What are I thinking about?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fair winds or foul?

Two appointments to haul "Kuan Yin" out of the winter for the winter have so far had to be cancelled due to high winds. Last Saturday the wind from the west was so strong that it was difficult even rowing out to the boat - the dinghy was blown back at least half the distance of each stroke before I could get the oars in the water again. There's a metaphor for some of life's winds sometimes.

However, on "Kuan Yin" all was well -- there's something extraordinarily comforting being cocooned down below in a boat when the wind's howling and she's moving in response. (And knowing that one is securely anchored or moored!)

The main reason for the haulout is that I will be spending the winter months in Asia and want the boat secure on dry land throughout the months I'm away. It's also an opportunity to clean the bottom, apply new anti-foul paint next spring and do some work on the through-hulls - those holes in the bottom of a boat through which water is drawn to cool the engine, for example.

Two of the through-hulls on Kuan Yin are plastic, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense on a steel boat. They are definitely the point of weakness and need to be changed. (The reasons for using plastic are that 1) it's cheaper 2) plastic does not interact with steel, whereas bronze must be bonded not to be in contact with the steel. A complicated subject to do with corrosion. However, I don't think it makes any sense to have plastic through-hulls in a steel boat when there is some danger of icebergs and rocks. One good hit against either could sheer off the plastic and the boat would sink in minutes. When Kuan Yin is out of the water, the through-hulls can be changed.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Putting Up a Tent in a Hurricane

As I get into the planning and early practicalities of the voyage to Labrador, two images come to mind of what i think must be a common experience for anyone trying to get any project going. And sometimes this can signal defeat right at the outset.

The image is of trying to put up a tent in a hurrcane. The tent is the project, whatever it is; the hurricane is normal life. People with plans are usually people who are already busy people -- busy people were busy babies -- so trying to find space in the day, and the budget for the new project really can feel like holding up one tent pole while the wind blows away the other one. It's a phase that has to be met with persistence and patience. I woke the other night at 1 am and spent an hour mapping out the entire project, as so far conceived, using mind map software.

Mind map software is new to me - but the potential is alluring, especially if you're one of those people who tends to forget whatever's not immediately in front of them (I can forget food in a fridge!) The advantage of mind mapping is that the whole projects becomes visible - every part and the details under those parts. Each time I have a new idea I can add it to the correct "pod" and have an idea of where it fits into the whole.

I'm not sure mind mapping works well for budgetting - the FreeMind software I'm using doesn't even allow a $ icon next to items that require money. But maybe I just haven't learned the versatility of the program yet.

The second image of starting a significant project is that of trying to get a hot air balloon up into the air - safely, with a minimum of wasted effort and everything needed for thevoyage in the basket. It's a lot of work laying out the balloon on the ground, just as it is laying out the parameters of the project. The hot air is one's own efforts and the energy (physical, psychic and financial) needed to lift the project off the ground. As every ballooner can assest, the period as the balloon starts to fill, until it's upright is the most critical and potentially dangerous.

Easy to get defeated when the balloon's just unwrapped on the ground; easy for the fabric of the balloon to catch fire and the project hit the ground in flames if energy is misdirected. Yet nothing looks more magnificant than a balloon or project is floating in the air and underway. It looks so effortless. Ha!

in t

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

With commitment comes clarity

One of the advantages of committing to a project is the sense of clarity this can bring. Because I'm going to Labrador next year and my energies are directed towards that, so much else that I could be doing is excluded - so I don't have to think about it. There's just no time to do anything on the B list of "what might be nice or fun".

For any project, and any adventure or journey to succeed, a number of aspects need to come together all at the same time. It's rather like a barn raising in which heavy timbers must be raised in a certain order and brought together at the same time. So far, my major headings are finance, research, outfitting the boat and book & other works. This time I've decide to try using a mind map to keep on top of all the aspects. Hopefully, this will allow me to keep a good idea of how the project is developing overall as well as the thousand and one details on which success really depends. In the past, in my journeys in the Amazon for example, I either got so engrossed in the details of outfitting and planning that I lost sight of the overall purpose and scope; or my head was so far in the clouds as to what I might accomplish that I forgot to pack matches (a potentially life-threatening omission in the rainforest!).

Stage one is to brain-storm the whole project in all aspects and then pinpoint the holes. I'll post the mind map by the end of the week.

I've called the coast of Labrador "North America's forgotten coast" and I'm already having trouble even getting a map of Labrador! Every single map includes Newfoundland as well, with Labrador as an inset. What is necessary is a large map just of Labrador itself. For some reason cartographers and oceanographers don't need to talk to one another. Maps don't have details of the sea bed and charts rarely have any useful information about the shoreline. So maps (of land) and charts (of the water) are essential.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Another mad Englishman . . ."

My special thanks to Canadian novelist James Bacque for his insightful and hilarious comment on my adventure to Labrador. Soon after I posted the opening lines of this blog, he wrote, "Another mad Englishman mounts an unlikely expedition in a flimsy conveyance through an extreme environment." Well not quite, but the comment captures the spirit of the enterprise. Sane or crazy, I am going. "Kuan Yin" is a steel ketch (A Tahitiana 32) and far from flimsy but in the scale of the sea, iceberg and rocks, she is; and Labrador certainly is certainly an extreme environment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Making a Dream a Reality

Welcome! I'm starting this blog today because I'm at the start of a project that has got me truly excited, and more than a little afraid, for the first time in years.

By journaling how my dream becomes a reality, I hope to help other people to fulfill their dreams.

We all have dreams of how we want our lives to be or things we want to accomplish - some so daring and seemingly far-fetched that we either instantly dismiss them as "impossible" or feel butterflies in our stomach and daren't allow ourselves to imagine what life would be like if our dream came true. We get busy with the "here and now reality" and only years later look back and wonder "what if?". Sure there are bills to be paid, but if we are forever looking at the ground under our feet we're not going to go very far or have much fun.

What's my dream? To sail down the St. Lawrence river to the Atlantic Ocean and then explore the coast of Labrador in my small sailboat, to write a bestselling book about the adventure and to use my quest as a way to encourage other people to follow their dreams.

The coastline of Labrador can properly be called the forgotten coast of North America. Less than 15,000 people live on her shores in all 800 miles. The land area of Labrador is twice the size of New Zealand. The mountains are the highest east of the Rockies. Icebergs hazard navigation for all but a few months of the year. Its people -- Inuit, Innu and settlers -- have learned to adapt themselves to the often harsh yet stunningly beautiful and rich environment. The world's largest herd of wild animals -- 700,000 caribou -- roam Labrador and whales swim off her shores. The Vikings and the Basques came here more than 500 years ago. The northern part of Labrador has recently been declared a national park, yet there are no roads and access is by water, on foot or floatplane. What better way to explore at least the coast of Labrador than by sailboat? It's wild, challenging and I believe will be a rich experience and great adventure for both myself and all vicarious travellers reading the book and following online.

So that's the project. In the next six months, I plan to blog about three aspects:

1) planning, budget, research etc of the journey
2) the process of turning a dream of a book into a tangible reality in bookstores 3) life lessons learned

That sets out my stall, so that's enough for today. Also check out my website at and subscribe to my newsletter.