After a month of being on the move, we arrived in Portsmouth VA with the plan to spend the month in one place in order to get some things done. We could settle in a bit and not have to batten everything down daily, run through checklists, and the mental gymnastics of daily route planning. This next month ‘in port’ was to be used to chip away at the To Do list we had been creating during our ‘shakedown cruise’ up the ICW. We chose the marina in historic Portsmouth for convenience, access, and somewhere new to explore. And frankly, there’s a surprising paucity of marinas in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area that can take a 50’ boat. But we did now have the truck, having retrieved it from Dave’s brother Chuck’s house where we had shipped it when we left Florida. So we had great ambitions and a clear path to accomplish everything.
Then reality intervened and we learned two things: 1. it’s hard to find anyone available, and 2. put ‘marine’ in front of any technical field (marine electrician, marine mechanic, etc.) and automatically double the hourly rate. We had (erroneously) figured that the Norfolk area, being such a big maritime and boating center, would be a good place to find whatever we needed. But as with any of the skilled trades there is a low supply of professionals, and many are working for the big shipyards in the area that keep our Navy running. It takes days for people to even return calls, and they’re booked weeks out. Dave spent the first two days making lots of calls and sending emails, with little – okay, NO — response. Top of our list was figuring out our electrical issue, and he finally heard from a highly recommended electrician named Sparky. Yes, that was really his name; we didn’t have the nerve to inquire about the story behind it. Seemed to me it was like having a car mechanic named Crash or a dentist named Dr. Tartar. But Sparky said he’d try to get out in a couple weeks, with the emphasis on ‘try.’ Since we didn’t have any other options, all we could do was wait. At least our power was working just fine at this marina.
Dave also wanted to have some electronics and navigational equipment installed. But boat tech and electronics is also in high demand these days. Again, no success with multiple calls. One day, a guy walking along the dock struck up a conversation. He had actually recognized the boat as a Maine Cat, something we don’t encounter often, because he had been shopping for power cats himself about the same time we were and was the new owner of an Endeavor 44. Otis was recently retired and planning on doing The Loop, had a long gray beard and flowing hair, and spoke with a heavy southern drawl that brokered no question of his North Carolina roots. He happened to be moving his newly-purchased boat here to get some electronics work done himself. He gave Dave the name of the guy he was using, who had the generic name of Bob, and told him to mention his name. Dave called and the name Otis seemed to be the secret password, because the next week Bob was down on the boat. So there was at least one item now marked as ‘in progress.’
One of our first adventures we had on arrival in Portsmouth was some bad weather. It was just a typical summer storm, but made exceptional by coinciding with the full moon. On the face of it this would seem to be two random and unrelated events, but when you are surrounded by water they become related because of the extremes of tidal changes. We were at a fixed dock, which means what we are tied up to stays in place but the boat rises and falls with the tide. Floating docks, on the other hand, move up and down with the tides and the boat stays in the same place relative to the dock. So when tying the boat to a fixed dock, we need to be sure there is enough slack in the line so the boat CAN move up and down without pulling on the lines at the extremes of the tides. This was not a big storm but still the wind would be blowing toward the shore and pushing water inland, thus raising water levels an additional 10-12” higher than the predicted high tide of 3.5 ft – the ‘storm surge.’ Thus we found ourselves up at 1 am resetting lines and fenders, with the dock we were tied to under about 4” of water! Unoccupied boats nearby were leaning sideways if their lines were too short, and all we could do was hope that they didn’t pull the cleat off the dock and crash into anything nearby. Dave managed to get onto our dock, even though he was not able to see where the edge of the dock was and was wading through ankle deep water. I was on deck retying the lines as he loosened them where he could and trying to figure how I was going to retrieve him from the water if he fell in. As the tide went down a few hours later we had to reset lines again because we didn’t want them so loose at low tide that we were bouncing around the slip effectively untethered. Other than loss of sleep, we came out unscathed and learned how to better set lines in not- normal conditions. We also learned that we don’t like fixed docks.
Several other things on our To Do list fell into the Life Maintenance category. We were overdue for our dental checkups, Roxy needed her own checkup, and we needed to get established for medical care as we will be using Virginia as our yearly human tune up stop, being as close to a home port as we are going to get for the next few years. But as many of you probably know, all of the above require a lot of admin. My specialty – oh joy. Even though I started back in April getting insurance transferred, finding providers, etc. it still was a challenge to get appointments in June and in fact there are even a couple that won’t be until August. Apparently you are only allowed to be a new patient when you’re well and do not need any prescriptions, routine follow ups for anything, or referrals to see specialists. I needed an Otis of the healthcare world. Yes, I am in the profession and this alligator-filled moat separating me from patients in the name of appointment scheduling was one of the reasons I was ready to retire. Now I was just as frustrated being on the other side of the moat. But I felt like I couldn’t complain, because even if I could get past the bureaucratic firewalls and find the right person, I could not bring myself to make a fuss because I would have to give them my name.
And that’s the elephant in the cockpit: the fact that my name is Karen. It screams 1960s, having made the transition between Boomers and Gen X with a peak in popularity in 1965. But because of current cyberforces beyond my control (I’m looking at you, Social Media) I am prohibited from asking to speak to a manager because I feel I must be a goodwill ambassador for all the good Karens of my generation. Which makes it very difficult to be an advocate for myself or my family without feeding the stereotype. I’m not talking about Karins, Caryns, or Kah-RENs – you guys are 20+ years younger than us and are on your own. When I order anything at a counter and they ask for a name to put on the list, I now get the sudden glance and THE SMIRK and have to tell them that as a matter of fact that really is my name and I’m not being a Smart Alec. (Oh look! Another name with a bad rap!) I’ve actually met quite a few other Karens – Karen the name, not Karen The Stereotype – in our travels these past couple months. We all feel unjustly burdened with the defense of a perfectly good name, but alas! if we were to complain about it we would by definition then go from being Karen to being A Karen. I could go by my middle name, Rebecca, but that seems too glamorous and sophisticated for me to pull off and I have recently learned that the shortened nickname of Becky is second only to Karen as a pejorative meme. So I’m hosed. Perhaps I should change my name to Otis and see what happens, as that seems to be a very effective name.
The month in one place was not all work and no play, however. We took the ferry over to Norfolk. We explored Portsmouth, a town with a lot of both Revolutionary and Civil War history. Our Roxy walks took us past old homes and churches, over cobblestone streets, and by signs and markers explaining the significance of the site. Restrictions were just being lifted and things reopening, but it was still far quieter downtown in both Portsmouth and Norfolk than we remembered from the times we lived here. Hard to tell what was COVID related and what was the result of the retail decline that started long before. The large upscale MacArthur Center Mall was nearly deserted, with what seemed like half of the stores empty. Office buildings seemed only partially occupied, parking lots empty, and auto traffic eerily absent even during rush hour. But there did seem to be significant resources being brought to bear on revitalization, with quite a few ‘Coming Soon’ banners in storefront windows, which gave us hope.
A real treat was going to a movie theatre for the first time in over a year and we did it in style at the historic Commodore Theatre, which dates back to the golden age of Hollywood and had been restored to grandeur in the 80s. It had the old fashioned marquee and ticket booth, an elegant curtain over the screen, ginormous chandeliers and murals on the walls. We sat at small tables with little lamps on them, ordering dinner off a menu by using a 1990’s era office phone on each table, which seemed a bit incongruous with the theme. We saw Cruella there one Sunday evening, and returned a week later to see In The Heights (would recommend them both). The owner, who looked to be in his 70s and spoke with a Virginia southern drawl, manned the ticket booth. We noticed that he was openly carrying a gun on his hip and thought it highly likely it was a tragic accident waiting to happen as we watched him slowly counting out our change and writing down our table assignment; it was far more likely that an assailant would get that gun out of its holster long before he was able. He would probably be better off keeping it unloaded and throwing it at someone. Both times as we exited the movie theatre we were approached by Clarence, a smiling and energetic gentleman who obviously knew exactly what time the movie ended and waited outside to approach patrons. We are those people that always stay for the credits and so are the last people out, and Clarence greeted us on the sidewalk. Of course his bottom line was that he was asking for a handout, but he went about it with such an affable schtick that we couldn’t turn him down. He started with a comment on Dave’s U of MN hat, mentioning that he was a fellow Big 10 fan but of the Fighting Illini in a way reminiscent of our encounter with Alex in St. Augustine. He moved on to guessing how long we had been married. (He guessed 34 years, and at first I was a little insulted that he would think we looked that old until I realized that we WERE that old but had just gotten a late start. Dang!) He joked and kidded with us before getting to his ask, and the five minute conversation had been enjoyable enough that it was worth the two dollar bill we had received as change from the movie theatre. When he approached us the next week, we greeted him by name. He seemed a bit surprised and clearly didn’t remember us, but recovered quickly and launched into his schtick again. His hug and blessing was well worth the two dollar bill we again gave him. I was reminded of the Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life and listened for a bell to indicate he had received his wings.
I was also able to take advantage of the downtime and the confidence of being vaccinated to go to Southern California for a long weekend and see some of my family. I had not been out there in about 18 months, and it was a major step for me in feeling like things were really returning to a new normal. It felt sooooooo good to see them in person rather than on Zoom. And I was able to get a gardening fix by helping my sister in her backyard. We regularly saw Dave’s brother Chuck and his family in Virginia Beach, the timing of which was typically determined by how many Amazon packages were there to pick up. We reconnected with a few Navy friends who were still in the area, and have several others we’re hoping to catch later. I sewed washable slip covers for the settee cushions. (White upholstery and a red long-haired dog is not a good combination.) Dave had all kinds of little projects he worked on, taking on some that he would have preferred to hire out but since we couldn’t find anyone he did them himself. Oil and filters were changed in both engines and the generator, transmission fluids and filters, and various air filters. Belts replaced and fire suppression systems restored. Broken bolts and latches remedied. Spare parts inventoried and replaced. A WiFi system ordered and installed, with the big challenge of finding out that T-Mobile didn’t work on this system despite what the manufacturer’s tech support insisted (and ultimately threw up their hands on so he had to go figure it out himself.
But despite all this activity and fun and family, toward the end of the month we were getting restless. Apparently we are no longer suited for a life of routine or seeing the same view for more than a week. We had met several other cruisers at the marina, and I was feeling left out as they departed and we heard of their travel plans and places they were going to visit. The marina we were staying in turned out not to be one of our better ones beyond the fixed and underwater docks, and so we actually decided to leave a few days before our month was up. We have a course plotted to take us around the lower Chesapeake Bay for a few weeks. I’m looking forward to new stories, and new people with new names. While we’re traveling, we’ll have to work on finding another electrician, as Sparky was scheduled to be out the day before we left but called that morning to say he had blown out his knee and was out of commission. Maybe there’s a Voltar or Magneto out there who can pencil us in for August.