One day he was simply a sailor, a cruiser, a "sail bum," worried about rigging, sail, and engine repairs. Then in what seemed like a blink of an eye, he was working for NASA. Just like that.
Every so often along our travels, we would find a good anchorage, stay put for a while, find some work, put the boys in school, take care of some major repairs, tend to medical issues, and put some money aside to continue on our voyage. Indeed, when it came time to find work, my husband, Michel, who is a licensed French architect, would literally pop into a phone booth, rip out the page with listings of local architects from the yellow pages, place a few phone calls, nab a meeting, then just like Superman, step out of the phone booth, and have a job within a day or two. Just like that. No fancy resumés, no suit and tie, no prepped interview, and even in most cases, no shoes—literally he would still be wearing his flip flops!
Shortly after we sailed into Port Canaveral in Central Florida, we settled in an anchorage in the nearby community of Indian Harbour Beach, at the southern tip of Merritt Island. The whole area almost seemed like a "company town"; most jobs seemed to be somehow connected to NASA and the Kennedy Space Center, either directly or indirectly through subcontractors. Michel's first initial employment opportunities with architectural firms entailed subcontract work for the Space Center, and then very quickly he worked for EG&G, one of the Space Center's major directly-contracted engineering firms. Where just months before Michel was charting the seas and scoping the sun to find our route, now he was working intimately on launch pad drawings, a newer future generation of the Space Shuttle, and a comprehensive building code for the entire Kennedy Space Center campus facilities. He even had a special security clearance, affording him the "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to be within "touching" distance of the Shuttle as he followed its snail-paced trip one whole night from the Vehicle Assembly Building (more commonly referred to as the VAB) on the exclusive "crawler" as it was transported to the launch pad for the projected launch in the days that followed.
We had first seen the Kennedy Space Center from quite a distance off the coast of Florida sailing up the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean. Just above the horizon we could see the form of a white pill box from far away. We saw it for a long time and found it curious because we couldn't figure out what it was. The proportions were too odd from such a distance.We were used to ships on the horizon, lighthouses, buoys, sails, but this "box" didn't register with our familiar point of references. Once we got much closer, and we could see the launch pads, we also saw that this was the Vehicle Assembly Building, a massive structure touted as the largest single-story building in the world.
This is where Space Shuttles and earlier Apollo rockets were stored and assembled. When a Shuttle launch was not imminent, the VAB was open to visitors on the Space Center's guided tour, and often the Shuttle's infamous solid rocket fuel tanks were visible hanging from the ceiling like large deli sausages. It is hard to comprehend the stature of this building, it is so massive. In fact, the interior volume is so vast that it even creates its own weather; rain clouds are known to form inside.
Our actual landfall in this port servicing Cape Canaveral wasn't ideal. Our engine had literally died the evening before we arrived, leaving us with little margin for maneuverability in entering the harbor channel since we could only maneuver by sail. Not keen on doing this in a harbor we weren't familiar with, we decided to raise the Coast Guard on the VHF radio for more information in order to assess the situation. They responded that the entry channel was pretty narrow and not ideal for maneuvering exclusively under sail. We agreed that we would initially enter the channel under our own sail power and then they would come alongside and tow us to a dock. This went flawlessly. We tied up to an arrival dock at the Cape Marina and for the next few days we were pretty busy with immigration and customs formalities.
Although I didn't know it at the time, this was to be my homecoming. I hadn't lived in the States for just over nine years and many things had changed. At the local convenience store, we found ourselves befuddled by a microwave oven. How to turn it on? How does it work? It was a fairly new gadget at the time, and we hadn't seen one yet! Politically things had drastically changed also. Ronald Reagan was now President, and I bemoaned the passing of the revolutionary 60s and 70s of my high school and college days. I was confounded as to this society harking back to "the good ole' days."
Originally we intended our landfall in Florida to last only for a few months: to take care of some health issues, a quick engine repair, some tourism, and be back on our way. This sojourn turned into a three year hiatus and it would be the first time Michel would live in this country.
Nevertheless coming back to the States was a somewhat sobering, almost bittersweet experience. We set about seeking out a semi-permanent berthing solution in order to deal with our engine repair. Port Canaveral was more an industrial and fishing harbor than a welcome refuge for passing cruisers, and at this time of the year in June 1985, the sun and humidity were relentless. We had known extreme heat in South America and along the Equator, but the trade winds always provided some relief. This wasn't the case in Florida and it surprised us. We couldn't stay in Port Canaveral. It would be too expensive at the marina, and the combination of dust, asphalt, the cement wharf, and heat were oppressive. It was no place for kids to play or spend their time. We needed a long-term place to stay so we could calmly decipher the engine problem and figure out our options. We targeted cities along the Intracoastal Waterway since there would be more pleasant and viable living conditions available.
However, finding a semi-permanent, inexpensive berthing solution was proving very difficult. We always avoided marinas due to the cost, and on top of that, "live-a-boards" were not allowed in most marinas, we learned. Finding a legal anchorage was also a challenge because most communities along the Intracoastal Waterway down the East Coast had instituted "no anchor" ordinances in recent years. "Cruising" was becoming more popular, and there was more and more "pleasure boat" traffic plying the Waterway on a consistent basis. As often happens, a few bad apples in the lot had spoiled things for everyone else, and cities along the waterway began banning anchoring to avoid problems of long-term anchored junk or abandoned boats, rowdy occupants, late night parties, pollution, etc.
Through word of mouth from some locals we met, and a quick reconnaissance of the larger surrounding area thanks to a car rental, we settled upon the Dragon Point anchorage, at the confluence of the southern tip of Merritt Island and Indian Harbour Beach, where the Banana River flows into the Intracoastal Waterway. Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center were located about 20 miles or so at the northern end of Merritt Island. Dragon Point was a rather farcical place, so christened for its famous huge cartoon-like sculpture of a 30-ft. "iguana" green-hued dragon, a notably visible and storied landmark in the area. Passing cruisers were tolerated here, and with a major grocery store, laundry mat, school, hardware store and more all within immediate walking distance, this seemed like a perfect oasis for us reassess our situation. But we had to get there, and without an engine, crossing from Port Canaveral to the Intracoastal Waterway via the Barge Canal and the lock, was a major hurdle to overcome. We needed a tow.
After our amazing experience in Argentina where generosity and genuine goodwill reigned the day, I found myself embarrassed to be an American here in Port Canaveral as we sought a reasonable solution to be towed the short five miles through this Barge Canal. We were reminded of certain places we had been in Africa where anything could be done or had—for a price. Likewise we had numerous proposals to be towed for a price: $100 or more. We were talking about a really short amount of time, maybe an hour or so, and we didn't need a large vessel. We were disgusted. Eventually, we happened upon Nick, a young local sailor, who offered to help with his Boston Whaler— free of charge. On the appointed Saturday, Nick and his girlfriend Eileen showed up and in no time flat, they towed us through the locks, and the swampy canal passage, and unleashed us in the Waterway, where Michel and I sailed the rest of the day down to Dragon Point.
The sail down was somewhat nerve-wracking and exhausting. Due to our 6 ft. keel draft, we had to stay within the narrow Waterway channel to avoid running aground. Not only that, the wind was coming out of the south, the direction we were heading, which meant we had to tack often (almost every five minutes) the whole day. We also had a quick introduction to the area's summer weather pattern whereby after the searing daytime heat, an incredibly violent thunderstorm whips up in no time at all. The wind roars and the rain pelts. Not being familiar with the impending signs of it, we were caught off guard, and suffered a "knockdown" in a 40 knot gust under full sail, ripping our Genoa sail in several places, and sending some unattached items on the deck into the water. Later on in our daily life in this area, we learned we could literally set our clocks by the regular arrival of the 5:00 evening thunderstorm throughout the summer season.
After settling into the anchorage, we found a spot where we could tie up the dinghy to go on land, contacted a mechanic to begin a diagnostic review of the engine, bought an old jalopy for transportation, and within just a week of looking for work, Michel had a job. Indeed, it never ceased to surprise us that my husband's profession as an architect proved to be a perfect ticket to ride. "Have architect will travel" and he did. From his original successful firm near Bordeaux, France, to Cayenne in French Guiana, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and ultimately in Sonoma County, in the San Francisco area, his training and expertise in design and construction—through both French and English—proved most valuable and flexible. He was never without work when he needed it. In fact today, just like Superman, he still does not have a resume—just a basic portfolio of completed projects that always seems to speak for itself.