Bertie Journal: Sapphire

February 22, 2018

We weigh anchor at 1000 hours, to depart Puerto Angel, heading toward a more sheltered anchorage where we’ll be able to scrape the bottom. Heidi and I haul and flake the heavy ½” anchor chain. At least we don’t have to pull the anchor and chain up out of the ocean by hand- and back-strength alone. Peter’s scrounging in the Sausalito shipyards years ago helps us out today, since BERTIE’S foredeck is graced with a Nevins windlass from a WWII sub-chaser. This gives us some mechanical advantage. But we still have to crank the windlass by hand, and flake the chain onto the deck by hand, being careful not to crush fingers or toes, or to catch any lines underneath.


We greased the heavy-duty Nevins windlass before leaving our Acapulco mooring; gotta keep all of BERTIE’S parts running smoothly.

I climb out onto the bowsprit to remove the sail covers off the staysail, carefully stepping on the knots where the stirrups and footropes are joined. Meanwhile, Peter is steering and Heidi raises six of the seven panels of the junk mainsail, using the 2-ton winch, another gift from the shipyard. I’m not sure how we would raise the mainsail without it, but the winch is the one thing on the boat that scares the hell out of me. If it let loose and you were in the way, the rapidly spinning handle could take off an arm or a hand or your head. Plus, the boom and the mainsail would be crashing down at the same moment.


BERTIE’S WWII-era two-ton winch for the mainsail halyard. This winch (or similar) was the part that lowered the “front door” of landing craft personnel boats when they made beach landings in Normandy.

We are motor-sailing now, towards Huatulco. Peter and I each have a cold beer to celebrate our departure. Sadly, the beer will soon be gone, no mas until Galápagos…

While Peter is on deck, Heidi and I go below into the fo’c’sle and get busy re-doing the Ditch Bag. We unpack the old falling-apart one, take everything out, inventory it, and re-pack it all into a new dry bag. The Ditch Bag will go into the “life raft,” which is actually the usual dinghy that’s stored on deck. If, God forbid, something happened and we had to abandon ship while we’re on the crossing to the Galápagos, we’d be ready to hop into the dinghy with everything we’d need for survival. Heidi and I stock the Ditch Bag with water, high energy foods, a medical kit, a sewing kit, spare glasses, hats, sunblock, fishing kit, a radio, batteries… the list goes on and on. We check expiration dates, test the batteries, make sure everything works. I’m starting to regret that beer I had; for the first time on BERTIE, I’m feeling a bit seasick. But maybe it’s because we’ve been below deck all this time, in the stuffy fo’c’sle, while underway in the swell, reading fine print, with the engine running. Or maybe it’s the idea of the three of us floating around in a dinghy, somewhere between mainland South America and New Zealand. Scenes from adrift-at-sea movies (Life of Pi, All Is Lost, Kon-Tiki, Castaway, Unbroken) run through my head.

It’s a relief when we arrive in Bahia India and set our anchor, after motoring most of the way. Huatulco is just down the coast, but if we accomplish our hull-cleaning mission, we won’t need to go there at all. Bahia India is absolutely beautiful, totally undeveloped, with rocky outcrops and a long sandy beach. The intense sunshine mellows into late afternoon. But if anything the swell is worse here than it was in Puerto Angel. I am dreading the bottom-scraping task, as I think it’s possible we’ll get bashed to bits when BERTIE rolls on a big one.


Our only neighbor at Bahia India, S/V SAPPHIRE.

There’s another cruiser already here at anchor, SAPPHIRE from Bainbridge Island, Washington. After we get some of our chores done, we notice a swimmer approaching from that direction, and soon the Sapphires, Greg and Elina, are removing their swim fins and climbing aboard BERTIE. This is one of those moments when I have a reality check: how different my life is today than it would have been if I’d stayed home in Alaska. Swimming to the neighbors’! Greg and Elina drip-dry on deck in the Mexican sun, we have a drink and a very pleasant visit. Of course, they have friends in common with Peter and Heidi, since Port Townsend and Bainbridge Island are only a little over an hour’s drive (or a day-sail) apart. We are now more than 3,000 miles away from that neck of the woods, but somehow it isn’t surprising that we’ve ended up here together in the same little anchorage. The Sapphires and the Berties get along just fine, and in fact seem like old friends. Elina gives us each a hug and a kiss on the cheek before putting her fins back on, climbing over the rail, and jumping backwards into the water to swim home.

In the early evening, Heidi and I notice a disturbance in the water, which rapidly approaches BERTIE. The surface roils and splashes, a mass of something heading our way. “I think it’s a fish-boil,” says Heidi, but as the creatures approach we can see clearly through the water that they are not fish, but SNAKES. They are fortunately not the highly venomous yellow variety, but still. A seasnake-boil? I’ve never heard of such a thing. I am astounded — not for the first time — by the both the intricacies and the unknown wonders of this planet. How can it be such a small, close-knit world; at the same time so vast and uncharted? One ocean can hold not only our new/old friends the neighborly, swimming Sapphires — but also a seasnake-boil.


Sunrise at Bahia India.




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Bertie Journal: Puerto Angel

February 21, 2018 (Part 2)

A fleet of pangas is moored in the cove, at least 140 at a quick glance, and more are pulled up onto the beach. Puerto Angel, Mexico: palm trees, thatched roofs, people fishing from the rocky headland cliffs. A chapel painted white with blue trim matches the color scheme of many of the boats. Its white cross and bell tower stand out against the green vegetation, looking somehow Greek (rather than Mexican) to my untrained eye.

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A very quaint Puerto Angel, Mexico — especially in comparison to Acapulco.

Heidi showed me how to furl the headsails and put the sail covers on as we were coming into the anchorage. This involves clipping into the lifeline and climbing out onto the bowsprit; interesting and a bit scary, too. It made me feel very nautical. Heidi knows what she is doing, climbing around out there, and hauling the heavy anchor chain by hand. She’s a bad-ass. Peter got “captainy” after we were at anchor, solving a wee issue with the staysail sheet being caught under the anchor chain. We are all tired from our three-day passage with the four-on/four-off watch schedule.

A local guy in a panga went by just after we’d anchored, put his hand on his heart and said, “mi casa es su casa.” Showing up in a foreign harbor on the very distinctive BERTIE, I imagine we get quite a different reception than the typical bleach-bottle gin-and-tonic yachties!


Local fishermen heading out just before sunset.



I swabbed the decks, Heidi is cooking dinner, and Peter is in the cabin using the internet. The sun set a while ago, and dusk is fast overtaking Puerto Angel. Pangas are heading out to do some night fishing — without lights, as usual. Fifty-five pelicans just flew into town. A big kettle of Black and Turkey Vultures were circling earlier, in the heat of the afternoon. An evening chorus of songbirds calls out raucously from the palm thicket right above the beach. The light here is beautiful and the air is so much cleaner than it was in Acapulco. I wish I had a local guide and more than a few stray moments snatched away from chores so I could go ashore and do some serious birding, photography, and writing. Alas, this is a part of shipboard life. I feel a bit like Stephen Maturin, the naturalist/surgeon from Patrick O’Brian’s novels, gazing longingly at an inaccessible shore filled with unexplored, inestimable wonders.

We will leave here in the morning, heading further down the coast to Huatulco, in search of a more sheltered anchorage. BERTIE is rocking and rolling here due to a heavy swell, and wakes from the panga traffic. We’ll need to find a more sheltered spot for our bottom-cleaning task.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy a good night’s sleep at anchor, after our two nights on watch out at sea. I’m glad I’m not the captain or first mate, since they’ll have to keep one ear and one eye open all night, just in case the anchor drags, we get boarded by pirates, or any other emergencies crop up.


BERTIE at anchor in Puerto Angel.

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Times Change

A friend stopped by the garden yesterday afternoon, while I was thinning my carrots. “Did you grow up on a farm?” he asked. “No, not really… but we had a big garden when I was a kid, and my Aunt Sue and Uncle Rick had a dairy farm so I’d go and help them milk the cows and feed the chickens…” This led to his next question: “Have you ever plucked a chicken?” (I was starting to wonder where we were going with this.) “Um, yes, a couple of times…” I said. “It’s not my favorite thing to do…” His face showed his thoughts clearly, that plucking chickens probably isn’t anybody’s favorite thing to do.

Turns out an hour or two later I was helping him kill and pluck chickens. I got paid — with a chicken, which is now in a pot. Seldovia continues to surprise me. Such a variety of opportunities and experiences available!

I could feel the presence of my poor grandmother, who survived my decade-of-vegetarianism (and even custom-cooked dishes for me at family gatherings, using separate spoons and all), up there in heaven rolling her eyes.

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Five hundred years ago, people loved this place. We know this by the things they left behind: the bones and shells of halibut, salmon, chitons, clams, and mussels. We know they came here to the clifftops, and stood under the big trees – just like we do today. They gazed at the view, watched the volcanoes, saw the play of light and wind on the water – just like we do today. They felt the breeze blow in from the ocean, they smelled the spruce trees and salt air, they built fires and visited with friends – just like we do today.

Five hundred years, a thousand years, more. Through all this time, the eagles have watched. They look down from their perches, they make forays to the slough to catch ducks, they dance and fight in the air. They care for their young and defend their home. They call out in their jagged sharp squeaky voices. The nest is hard to see. Even after you have found it, even after you know where it is.

The path leads downhill, toward the sea. Water flows down, too, from the deep moss forest. We go with the flow, walking down, past the wild geraniums, past the chocolate lilies, past the beach greens. We pause there, and reach down… taste them. Bitter-green-fresh. At the base of the cliff, the creek runs to the sea, sweet water mixing with salt. Nori grows on the slippery rocks here; reach down… taste it. Sea-salt-fresh.

Pigeon Guillemots float on the surface of the ocean, bright black, white, and red, only the simplest colors. They whistle and call to each other in musical trills. They climb out onto the rocks; then they dive deep; return from hunting and in their bills hold fish, as though reluctant to give them up. Treasures, hard-won, they’ll give to their chicks, hidden in crevices in the cliffs.

A kingfisher’s staccato call draws our attention upward. He flies away from us, along the shoreline. Waiting until we look the other way, he returns, silently, back to the burrow. Concealed in the sandy bank at the very top of the cliff, the burrow is nestled into the roots of a spruce tree, but we can’t tell exactly where. We watch, eyes averted, waiting for movement. When the bird flies out of the hole, a thrill runs through us. We found the nest! It’s a moment worthy of a high-five, but instead we quietly look at each other, eyes wide with joy and wonder.

We feel like we’re the first to discover this place. We are the only ones who know it’s here, we are the only ones who know it so intimately.

Bones and seashells and artifacts spill out of an ancient midden, here, at this cliff. The midden proves that others came before us. Just like us, they found themselves in this sacred place. Just like us, they learned and lived and loved here.

A thousand years ago, and a thousand more.

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Tutka Backdoor Trail

Summer in Alaska is crazy. We’re not exactly farmers, so “making hay while the sun shines” doesn’t really apply, but it’s the same concept that I grew up with at 45 degrees north latitude, just to even more manic effect here at 60 degrees north. The sun barely sets, so the working and playing goes on and on and on. Everyone is trying to earn as much money as they can in a four-month period. One’s hourly “day jobs” take up a bunch of time, but at least offer a paycheck. Self-employment activities… well, hopefully they are given some priority. But fishing, planting the garden, and foraging for wild edibles to pickle, can, freeze, and turn into wine is so much fun. Hiking, camping, parties, beach walks, birding, botanizing, and photography fill in any leftover time. Oh, but then there’s fixing the boat, rigging the fishing gear, painting the house, entertaining house guests, going to community events, volunteering — even the wee hours of dusk from midnight to four AM often get taken up. Berry-picking season hasn’t even started yet. Who has time for dishes, housekeeping, laundry, or writing?  Maybe sometime this fall I’ll be able to pick up the thread on those abandoned Mexico and Galapagos storylines, and finish my Bertie Journals.

Yesterday, I was finally able to get out of town and take a break from this busy and hectic Seldovia lifestyle. If you’ve read this blog before, you may remember a very soggy story I posted last September, called “Rainforest,” in which we visited the new Tutka Backdoor Trail in Kachemak Bay State Park. This week I was able to make a return visit to the trail, thanks to Bret “Hig” Higman and Erin McKittrick’s continuing efforts to coordinate volunteer construction there. If you’d like more information about the Tutka Backdoor Trail, please visit Erin and Hig’s Groundtruth Trekking website. Click here for a link.

I wonder if there is an Alaskan saying that’s the equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines”? Because I’m so busy catching salmon while they run, I’m just going to post a bunch of photos and write captions, instead of taking the time to concentrate and write an actual story.


Coldwater Taxi transported us from the Jakolof Bay dock to the head of Tutka Bay. This particular boat had a double-decker pilot house, which offered excellent views from up high.


When we were kids, Damara and I both lived in Lake Orion, Michigan, but never met until 2013 in Seldovia. Small world!


Landing craft boats are nifty: they can take you right up to shore so you can step onto land without getting your feet wet. But even they have limits. If the approach is too shallow, you may still have to wade that last bit. So, as usual when hiking with Hig, I had no choice but to follow his advice to “embrace having wet feet.”


The section of trail we worked on today goes from a new landing point to the state park’s Upper Tutka Campsite, and then connects to the original Tutka Backdoor Trailhead. The new landing spot should provide a greater range of options for landing at varying tides. Chae was game when I asked him to go pose with this big Sitka spruce tree. The new trail section is an easy, beautiful hike through mature forest.


Groundtruth Trekking’s food and supply cache for a month of volunteer trail work. The electric bear fence got turned back on prematurely while we were still in camp and accidentally zapped Libby the dog — she won’t try THAT again!


Hig and Nikki talk logistics next to Erin and Hig’s tent. This is the view looking up the bay toward the original trailhead. The Tutka Backdoor Trail goes all the way through to Taylor Bay on the Gulf of Alaska side of the Kenai Peninsula.


Kachemak Bay State Park’s Upper Tutka Campsite is next to this lovely creek. If you want to connect through to the trail, this is a wet creek crossing. There are others along the way, too. Bring sandals or Crocs if you’re one of those picky people who like to keep your boots dry.


In addition to working on the trail, I had enough time to do some birding. This tiny Townsend’s Warbler was curious, which made it slow down enough for me to get a photo. See my complete bird list at There’s an eBird hotspot for the trail, so you can file checklists of your own.


These kids — Chae, Renn, Lituya, Ellis, and Katmai — are all very accomplished hikers, campers, fishermen, trail builders, boat operators, and general outdoors-people. (Also pictured: Damara and Libby the dog.)


A different Coldwater Taxi boat picked us up at 6:00 PM for the return trip. This one has a stairway/ladder at the bow. Very handy for beach landings!


Tutka Bay colors.


This is what a taxi ride looks like in my neck of the woods.


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Bertie Journal: Night Watch/Herd o’ Turtles

February 21, 2018

It’s 6:10 AM. I just finished my 02:00-06:00 watch, my sixth completed watch so far on this journey. The 4 on/4 off schedule is a bit brutal. I’m hoping to settle into the rhythm of it soon. Well, actually, as soon as I’m trained we will switch to 4 on/8 off, which will be a welcome relief.

Peter set the sails at 2:00 AM and then lay down for his remaining two hours. Close enough for me to call him with a softly-spoken word, if I needed help. I never had to touch the tiller. Bertie does just fine on her own.

Sailing at night, off-shore, in steady conditions. The boat is a living entity, the only other “being” who’s conscious right now, besides the sea creatures and birds. I’m along for the ride, trying to stay awake. I still need to watch for ships on the AIS (Automatic Identification System), and especially watch for ships that aren’t on the AIS. I need to pay attention to the compass course, and make sure we stay on it. I need to keep track of the wind and if anything changes be ready to make adjustments.

But it’s hard. It is so peaceful and quiet out here, so calm… my eyelids start to close, so I walk around the deck. I change positions. I check the lines. I look around, scanning the dark ocean – including the sea behind us (easy to forget). I move every few minutes to a new spot. I stretch and bend my knees and elbows. I empathize with every sailor and soldier throughout history who had to stay awake in the middle of the night. I pray for the sky and the sea and the animals to entertain me, give me something interesting to observe.

The water glows with bioluminescence, tiny sea creatures who light up when disturbed. Bertie’s wake shows a faint green light. The waxing crescent moon has already set, so the stars are free to shine, brilliant and strange. The Dipper hangs by its cup, then later hangs by its handle. Orion is directly above, in the center of the sky. If we go much farther south, he will be standing on his head. Some new constellations, southern ones down near the horizon, go un-named. A frigatebird circles the mast in the dark, thinking about landing. A school of fish swims by, bright shapes in the water as they brush against the tiny organisms, activating the bioluminescent glow. Pre-dawn, a small flock of birds wheels in the distance, just the flash of their wings, white, as they veer and turn as a group.

February 21, 9:05 AM. Still groggy, but it’s time for my mid-day watch in less than an hour. On this schedule it seems I am either on watch or asleep – hopefully not both at the same time. We are all looking forward to me being trained. I thought I was feeling ready, but then had a shift where Bertie wasn’t totally self-steering and I almost had a mental meltdown. Too much to keep track of: compass bearing, wind direction, watching the wind indicator at the top of the mast (slightly wonky and out of whack from having frigatebirds sit on it), which way to turn the tiller. I’m thinking too hard about it; if I just DO it, feel it, I am better. But I feel like I need to understand intellectually how it all works, before I’ll be able to let intuition take over.


Are we on course? Rocketing along at almost 5 knots.

February 21, 15:38 (3:38 PM – how is it possible that it’s still the same day?)

This afternoon’s watch, 10:00-14:00, was turtle heaven: I counted 102 in two and a half hours. It reminded me of when I was a kid and Dad would say, “herd o’ turtles!” on some backcountry road and then start turning the wheel back and forth as if he was steering around the turtles. But in this case I had to steer around real live sea turtles. We were motoring at the time, so it was easier to avoid them than if we’d been under sail. I was at the tiller, and when you’re motoring, steering is more of a hands-on activity. I couldn’t move away from the tiller, and didn’t have to pay as much attention to wind conditions (since there wasn’t any wind), so I had nothing else to do but count the turtles. I think they were Pacific green turtles. Off in the distance, on the coast, we could see a long sandy beach, where I imagine they nest. They seemed to be sleeping, mostly, just floating on the surface… until we got pretty close, when they’d startle, or dive, or stick their heads up to see what we were. Some of them slept right through. The shells of a few were dry on the top, as if they’d been sleeping in the sun a long time.

We’re heading into Puerto Angel to anchor for a couple of nights. We will scrape the bottom, clean and organize, and get ready for our crossing to the Galápagos!


A sleeping sea turtle, shell dried by the sun.

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This one woke up enough to lift its head and peer at us.

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Bertie Journal: Underway!

February 19, 2018

We slipped the mooring in Acapulco and got underway at 07:00! It’s 08:41 now.


Leaving Acapulco, headed for the Galápagos Islands.

I’ve helped raise the mainsail, loosened the vangs, coiled and stowed lines, and taken a turn at steering. I really was awful at that. Peter steered first, and after a while handed it over to me and said, “See if you can get the hang of it. Course one-five-five.” Then he walked away. I got totally confused. There are two compasses, which are oriented in opposite directions (as if one is upside down). The GPS shows our course (which should be 155°) but it has a fifteen- or twenty-second delay. So, if you steer by the GPS (“Never steer by the GPS!” says Peter), you’ll be zigzagging all over the place, the effects of over-correcting amplified by that delayed reaction time. Bertie has a tiller, of course, and I had the usual slight tiller dyslexia until I reminded myself that it’s just like steering an outboard. This boat is simply five times bigger than any outboard-powered Zodiac or rowboat I’ve driven.


Bertie’s cockpit.

I must have made some noise of dismay, because soon Heidi was there to help. She’s a natural, and has had enough practice steering Bertie that she can do it very well without even thinking about it. Bertie’s tiller has a jam cleat on top, and with a line strung from there to a cleat on the rail you can set her on auto-pilot, so to speak. Heidi got the line set just right, then showed me how to steer from the hip. Looking at the horizon helps. Using reference points on the boat, like the mast or the headsails, and watching to see if they move through the landscape, it’s easy to see if you are drifting to the right or the left off course. Or checking the compass to see if the course is getting off by a few degrees. You lean into the tiller with your hip till the boat comes back to center, then release it and let the tiller settle back in to the position set on the jam cleat. There’s also a springy elastic line you can connect to the tiller from the opposite side, in case there’s a bouncy swell, to keep the tiller from slamming around. This works whether we are motoring or under sail – but only if it’s a steady wind.


Bertie’s tiller, with a cue ball and a jam cleat.

The GPS track for my part would look like the path of a drunken sailor, varying from 180° to 130°. I was finally getting the hang of it, when Peter relieved me. I’ll be on watch from 10:00 to 14:00, overlapping with the last half of Peter’s watch, and the first half of Heidi’s watch. This is my training period. We will keep overlapping that way until I am comfortable doing a watch on my own. Then we can stop doing the four hours on/four hours off watch schedule, and switch to four on/eight off. So, today my first watch is 10:00 to 14:00, then again from 18:00 to 22:00, and 02:00 to 06:00.


Overlapping 4-hour watches, for my training period.


It’s 14:17 now and I’ve finished my first official four-hour watch on Bertie, from 10:00 to 14:00. We motored for a little over half of that time. Once we shut off the motor and got under sail, Bertie could steer herself – and she did a much better job if it than I did! Peter called our track while I was steering a “snake wake.” Every little puff of wind affected the course slightly; once I corrected, it was hard not to over-correct.

There’s lots of time for conversation while we’re sailing, and doubling up on our watches assures that we have company. Our stories unfurl as we move with the wind, sometimes circling around and collecting themselves into themes or patterns. The thought process is unhemmed, opened up as big as the far horizon.

I ask Peter, “Tell me one short story about your grandmother, Bertie. Tell me the first thing that pops into your head.”

He doesn’t even pause. “Hitting a rattlesnake with a shovel. Just like that – WHACK! – she cut off its head.”

“Wow, that gives me a strong first impression of your grandma.” I feel like I want to get to know her a bit, since the boat is named after her. Maybe I’ll ask Peter for more stories about Grandma Bertie later, as our trip moves along.


Peter’s grandmother, Bertie.

Later, he said, “I’ve been sailing since I was fifteen, and every single day there is still something new I don’t know, something to learn or figure out.”

“That’s what I love about birding and natural history,” I say. “I could NEVER know it all, and even if I did, then there’d be dragonflies or ferns or something else to learn.”

Peter said, “I wanted to be either an ornithologist or a herpetologist.” In seventh grade, he and a friend killed a California red diamondback rattlesnake. The friend cooked down the head and rearticulated the skull bones. Peter salted the skin and pinned it out on a board. They won first prize at the science fair.

While Peter and I have been sailing, Heidi has been busy making soup: shrimp stock, carrots, cabbage, rice noodles. So tasty and good, we can dip it out of the pressure cooker as we go. It’s easy to eat while you’re steering. “Some boats exist on Cup-a-Soup and saltines. This is so much better,” I tell her. “My Grandma Mom always had a pot of soup on the stove when my dad was a kid. Dad loved it – there was always something to eat. My dad and my uncle are both in their seventies now, but I’d never heard about the soup before. This winter they were talking about it. My uncle said, ‘I hated that soup, always there on the stove. I never eat soup now.’ Funny how they had such different reactions to it.”

I tell Heidi a story about my other grandmother, Grandma LaDuke. “There was a big pear tree in the backyard – what they called a postage-stamp sized yard in Harper Woods, Michigan. When the pears were ready, all the aunts and uncles and cousins would come over. The men would pick the pears, and all the women were in the kitchen, peeling and cutting up the pears and canning them. We would eat those pears all winter long. I remember my very last jar, after both of my grandparents were gone and the house had been sold. I saved that jar for a long time, then finally opened it and shared it with a friend. We sat in the front seat of my pickup truck, and passed the jar back and forth until the pears were gone. Then we drank the juice. It was strange and a bit sad, knowing I would never taste them again. But, oh, those pears were so good. It was better share them.”

Grandmothers. Snakes. Snake heads. Soup.

Bertie, Peter’s grandmother, sure was different than my grandmothers. But look at us now: their grandkids ended up out here together, sailing. They must have had something in common.


Bertie under sail. (Photographer unknown)

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