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by Dan and Jan Ahart


Chapter Eight


Since our stay in Marathon, Florida extended beyond our original intent because of justifiable delays, such as studying for and finally earning our HAM radio licenses, we had ample opportunity to reflect on our situation and other erstwhile observations. For example, learning morse code for a HAM radio license is a singularly frustrating experience because it cannot be rushed. It is like muscle building - so I am told. It will only happen so fast. Of course we didn't do ourselves any favors either. While waiting for our training tapes to arrive we cleverly made flash cards of the 26 letters and ten numbers. It really isn't hard to memorize 36 combinations of dashes and dots. All sorts of silly associations can be employed to assist in the recognition of the symbols of letters and numbers - some of them repeatable in polite company. In two days we had it down cold. Then the training tapes arrived. The first instruction was to NOT try to remember dashes and dots. Oh great! seems that even at only five words a minute, which is the minimum speed required to pass the test, there is no time to mentally visualize dashes and dots. Instead, the rhythm and tune of the tones, if you will, must be memorized. So, we had to try to not visualize something we had spent two days visualizing.

Being tone deaf didn't help either. To paraphrase Mary Ann Evans Cross, nee George Eliot, in her classic novel, Adam Bede, "They sound so uncommon alike." I suppose the average person can recognize a favorite tune by listening to only the first three to five notes, which is really all morse code is, but that ability must be repeatable for 43 different combinations, which is the total of 26 letters of the alphabet, 10 numbers and 7 punctuation codes, which we didn't realize were included when we made our flash cards. Five words a minute is only 125 characters in five minutes, but it is like trying to keep up with an assembly line that is going too fast or taking notes in a class where the professor never slows down to take a breath, or drinking from a fire hydrant. The damn dashes and dots just keep coming. There is no time to think about what was just sent before the next code arrives. A grown man can be reduced to tears in seconds. It's an ugly thing. Omar Khayyam, the famous 11th century Persian poet, had it right:

The moving finger writes and having written
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it
There's no way to fake it, no way to talk your way out of it and no way to hide incompetence. The transcription is there on your paper for the world to see. All the indecipherable pseudo letters and the gaping blanks that document shortcomings of the highest magnitude. The examiner picks up the sweaty crumpled paper and in a loud voice so all other contestants in the room can hear, "I see we haven't quite grasped the subject yet." "Perhaps you'd like to try again during our next session next month?"

Were those teeth I heard grinding or some murmur about how'd you like to try grasping this subject? A tattooed "F" on the forehead would be less embarrassing. Everyone in the room smiles a condescending smile in recognition of your pathetic effort. Egad, these rights of passage are for the young, not the mature. It is so tempting to say in a most sophisticated voice, "Isn't it rather anachronistic to require morse code of those who never intend to use it?" But somehow that would probably be misinterpreted as less than respectful of the rules of the club. So we slink away to fight again another day. On the brighter side, the written part of the test was typical government multiple guess. Most of the time it is easy to rule out the two stupid answers and at least narrow the odds to 50/50.

Observations around town include overhearing a patron at a curio shop ask if the seashells were still alive. There was also the person at the filling station, who asked which way was Key West. There being only one highway in Marathon, the famous U.S. 1, upon which the patron had just arrived from the East, the question had its intriguing qualities. Or the sailor, who having run his boat aground, asked how shallow the water was. At least one can feel superior to others sometimes.

Walking on a sailboat has revealed that being pigeon toed is an advantage if the walker is barefoot. Walking like a duck, on the other hand, is guaranteed to result in an injured tiny toe. Many things on boats, such as shackles, pulleys (blocks in sailor lingo), and fittings of various sizes and shapes are designed to entrap an undisciplined appendage in painful tugs of war and challenges to the laws of physics. Toes never win. Opportunities to increase one's vocabulary abound around sailors. It is also axiomatic that any article of clothing, extension cord, belt, length of line, or key chain otherwise well behaved in any other environment, will automatically attach itself to any available protuberance on a boat. Which will in turn render rips and gouges in material, flesh and tempers.

It is also absolutely and positively without a doubt certain that whatever line is laid aside will be hopelessly entangled when it is next needed. The urgency of the need is directly proportional to the degree of tangle. It is a further certainty that indispensable tools, books, glasses, keys, and other sundry items will voluntarily leap overboard to lighten the load at every opportunity. Backup items are therefore an absolute necessity. We witnessed an extreme case where a sailboat propeller jumped ship just as the crew was trying to set the anchor. Apparently, the retaining nut and locking pin had been the first to leave and as long as the boat was moving forward, with the propeller pushing against the boat it stayed attached. But when the captain backed the boat to set the anchor, the propeller must have spun right off on its own recognizance. Many blessings were bestowed upon all boats, engines, and especially the errant propeller specifically by the captain, much to the edification of all other boaters within earshot. To make matters worse, the skipper hired a diver to look for the propeller, but to no avail. My guess is that the prop is still spinning its merry way to some undisclosed destination where all missing valuables meet and celebrate their freedom - probably somewhere in the fourth dimension. Why else can they never be found?

A harbor such as Boot Key is a microcosm of society in general. Although a common love of boats and the water is prevalent in all its residents, there is still the occasional individual or couple who reside at the fringe of the bell curve. Quite by accident the nudists were stumbled upon one bright sunny day. Life on the water is a little different than life in the typical neighborhood. One of the differences is much more freedom to indulge one's appetites. On the occasion of discovery, the couple exhibited zero inhibitions, waving to all passersby. We later learned that they have been residents of the harbor for years and none of the locals pay any attention to them. We certainly accepted that at face value. The operator of the water taxi, who for $3.00 per head will take you anywhere in the harbor, stated that he deliberately cruises by the nudists or avoids them depending upon the age and general attitude of his passengers. After all, one must think of repeat business. Normally, we are eager to introduce ourselves to new acquaintances, and ready as I was, my crew unanimously vetoed any possible engagement. I haven't given up yet and when a suitable opportunity arises, I shall present my card, as any gentleman would. Personal cards are becoming quite common among boaters. The cards usually have the name of the boat, sometimes a picture, the names of the crew, telephone, and or email numbers and if the crew are HAMs, their call signs. It's a very nice way to exchange essential information with new acquaintances without appearing to be pushy. So far we haven't collected very many cards, but we hope more and more boaters use them. For one thing, it is nice to be able to look up pertinent facts if a boat is seen again in a different location.

As an almost suitable consolation to exchanging cards with the nudists, we had a potluck supper on our boat with some fellow nearby boaters. Some of the travels and tales they related were most interesting. One couple had built their own boat over a seven-year period and had lived aboard for seven years. Their boat was wood and was junk rigged, which is a Chinese type sail arrangement, not a statement on the condition of their boat. They were semi-retired and worked only occasionally to replenish their traveling fund. The other couple had been retired for a number of years and had sailed across the Atlantic twice, as well as many trips around the Caribbean. Learning from other sailors is a real joy. Most are well experienced and some are also master craftsmen, some being experts at engine maintenance or rigging or radio operation. Self-sufficiency is a highly respected ability among boaters.its time to close this chapter and get on with planning our next destination, which we are sure, will be fun and interesting with lots of new things to talk about. Stay tuned.


Dates: ,
Locations: Marathon, FL
Keywords: Khayyam quote, Morse Code




The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.