Category: Sailing

Outboard update, staying in the old slip, rowing my dinghy

Greg and I went down to the marina last weekend, to see what we could see. Our plan was to spin Elska around in her slip, bring her engine close to the dock, and remove the carburetor for a good cleaning. Seemed easy enough.

Years ago, probably 1996 or so, I bought my second dilapidated VW bus – my 4th Volkswagon in total (and my last). Sitting one afternoon in a Volkswagon IRC chatroom (ANYONE REMEMBER IRC?), a few of the guys inspired me to try doing a tune-up by myself. I was in the same position I am with my boat, unable to get the damn thing out of the driveway. I went to a local auto parts store and bought oil and spark plugs and a bunch of tools and other random stuff I don’t remember, and a few days later I got back in that chatroom, announced my intentions, and went to work. I alternated going out to the bus, and back in the house to my adorable orange iMac to tell them what I was doing and how it was going. They led me through an oil change and a tune-up, it was brilliant. And it worked. I drove her out of the driveway that afternoon, triumphant. I figured if I could pull that off, this little outboard wasn’t going to stymy me.

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Engine update, and the utter enticement of the Race to Alaska, and a snail.

Last night I went to a meeting of the Puget Sound Cruising Club, a group I’ve known about for a couple of years but just never got the chance to connect with. I happened to check their event schedule a couple weeks ago, and lo and behold: they were doing a talk on the Race to Alaska. A few days ago I posted a link to the R2AK on Facebook with a message that went something like, “Who’s crazy enough to do this with me?” I deleted it seven minutes later (there were no replies). I didn’t want to hear how crazy it was, nor did I want to project onto everyone my fear that any person in their right mind who knows me and knows the state of my health would laugh out loud at such a thought. This race to Alaska involves piloting an engineless craft, all the way from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska. People go in multihulls, monohulls, kayaks, rowboats, even tiny paddleboards. It’s  750 grueling miles through freezing, moody, and treacherous water, and you have to run the whole thing entirely by sailing, or pedaling (yes, pedaling), or rowing, or paddling, or some combination of these.

Check out this video. And yeah, that’s the gorgeous sound of a Maori Haka dance, and yep, they got permission to use it.

Me? Mostly sedentary, with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, around eighty pounds overweight, can’t walk a block without giving my lungs a pep talk. Yes, I’m in a yoga teacher training program, but that’s mostly so I can learn for myself. It’s impossible right now for me to teach an entire 90-minute class, even if I wasn’t doing all the poses myself. And then beyond that, even assuming I was healthy enough, I haven’t sailed enough. I’ve never anchored my boat, I’ve never gotten caught in a storm, I’ve only ever camped overnight on board twice. I’ve never been tested. The whole idea is irrational and foolish, and even dangerous.

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Outboard engine progress, part 2. (Thanks, Elaine!) Also, engines aren't so bad.

This is a follow-up to this post about my outboard not working right.

You know, I was a little too hard on my engine. Literally and figuratively. First I didn’t take good care of it, and then I used its inevitable malfunction as a demonstration of its insolence and made it an illustration of why engines are bad on general principle. Or, as I believe I put it, sucked. Okay now, I maintain that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and any steps I can take toward a Torqueedo are good ones, but my Honda outboard is not a bad person. It’s doing the best it can. And apparently, it was doing the best it could with old, crappy gasoline. My bad!

In the last post, in the comments, my friend Elaine said, “How old is the gas in there? If it’s been sitting for more than six months, the engine will be cranky.” This never occurred to me! Mostly because I asked someone (who shall remain nameless), whether old gas is a big deal. They said, “Nahhhhhh.” Turns out, it’s a very big deal. Elaine was right, thank you Elaine! If she hadn’t said that, then when I was calling shops this morning, I wouldn’t have thought to mention it, and so wouldn’t have heard them tell me how obviously it’s the ancient gas causing the problem.

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Tried to move Elska to her new slip, failed. See also: engines suck.

Moorage is one of the most expensive parts of owning a boat. It’s the biggest expense of owning my small boat, a Flicka 20. She’s only 20 feet long and 8 feet wide. And yet for some reason she’s been in a 30 foot slip at our marina, because I was told by someone (clearly the wrong someone) that there were no smaller slips, that 30 was as low as you can go. After mooring her there for a year and watching our rates increase, I called and asked again, are you sure you can’t shove my tiny little sailboat somewhere out of the way? Twenty feet! That’s like two kayaks and a mast! She barely draws 3 feet, that’s low tide right up against the wall.

This time, the person I talked to said, “Wait, you didn’t know about the 26 foot slips?”

“There are 26 foot slips? I had no idea! How much are they?”

“Let’s see…..they’re $100 less than you’re paying now. Would you like me to put you on the list for one?”

After I stopped banging my head against the table, I said yes, that would be great. Put me on the list! I called back a month later, which was a few days ago, to check in and see where I was on the list, and Dean, the very sweet uh….what is his job title? Let’s call him the marina god, said, “You know, I have these three slips and I keep emailing people on the list and they don’t get back to me.” I said that was ridiculous, who in their right mind wouldn’t RUN STRAIGHT DOWN THERE to pick out their slip? He agreed. And then he said, “You know what? I’m releasing these slips right now.” And he did! He sent me a map of the marina with these three spots marked, and said I could choose whichever spot I wanted. Hurrah! “I’m baking you cookies,” I told him.

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Yuloh gonna love this. Or, how I’m handling my first engine repair.

My first repair! It’s exciting, want to know why? Because she’s a wee little boat and this is not a big deal! This weekend I had my first cancelled outing. We went down to Elska, Greg and Jason and Miles and I, and we weren’t able to leave because the outboard wouldn’t start. From my outboard class, I knew that the bulb to prime the engine should be firm after you squeeze it a few times. But the bulb wouldn’t firm up, and it felt like no gas was flowing, despite our full tank.

We finally opened up the lazarette and looked inside, and discovered that – and here my complete lack of part-naming knowledge kicks into effect and you get to see my excellent mechanical vocabulary…..


The plate thingie where the transmission and throttle cables attached, had a smaller plate thingie that broke. This meant that the engine wasn’t truly in neutral when we were trying to turn it over, thus it wouldn’t start. How did this plate break? We’ve no idea. But now I get to say that I have a screw loose without irony.

Here’s a better photo of it:


I had brought my GoPro to film our great day on the water, but got this instead:

So what’s the good news? Well, it’s not good news really, but I have to say it was pretty great to have this happen and to not feel overwhelmed by it. I really am made for smaller boats. I cringe, I wince, I shudder at the thought of having to do repairs on diesels, AC units, refrigeration, and dozens of other systems that cruisers deal with all the time. It was awesome to go to Fisheries and spend a few bucks on a replacement plate. That’s it. That’s all I had to do. Well, and now I have to go install it, and that could be….challenging. We’ll see.

But the best part was when my hubby Greg heard me talking about how this was no big deal, I’d just fix it somehow, and he came over to me and said, “I love you! I love how you aren’t upset by this at all. Because this is exactly the kind of thing that would stress me out. I love how it’s your boat, and you don’t mind taking care of this stuff, and I can just sail with you.” Awww!

Yuloh gonna love what happened next…..

Hahaha! Ha! Heh. <cough>

I complain how Jason never laughs at my jokes. The other day, after I made a lame joke and he failed to laugh, he turned to our friend Clare (who laughed, I might add!) and said in his defense, “Well her jokes are usually just these weak puns, and I don’t find them that funny.” ANYWAY.

Having a boat without a working engine was a fat drag on Sunday afternoon, because it meant I couldn’t take the boys out for a sail. Miles was coming as a Mother’s Day present to me. He doesn’t like sailing, because it doesn’t involve screens or video games (maybe I should get a fancy radar system just so he has something to stare at that glows with little moving objects), and I was really looking forward to showing him how Elska moved so differently than the last boat.

But what really frustrated me was that, she’s so small, there’s no way we should ever be stuck at a dock in good weather. If I had oars, I could row her out! Or, make Miles row us out! (Put down that video game, son, and give me some hard labor – let me tell YOU about HARD LABOR, why I was in labor with you for 22 hours….).

Clearly what we need is a YULOH! What’s a yuloh? Here I go again with the technical jargon: it’s an oar with a bend in it. It goes at the stern end (the rear!) of your boat, and you stand in your cockpit and you wiggle that sucker through the water in a way that, through magic physics, you are propelled along at what I’m seeing reported is a good 1-2 knots upon flat water.

Like this guy! In a boat easily ten feet longer than mine…

Or one of my sailing heroes, Carol Hasse:

Or this guy in his little weekender:

This guy is using his yuloh on his canoe-multihull. The oar seems to be doubling as a rudder and tiller:

It was originally developed by the Chinese, the technology is centuries old. People write about seeing old women in China propelling these big boats along the water in their harbors, standing at the back using their yulohs. Now I see a lot of talk about using them as a way to propel small cruising boats without help from an engine. I’ve seen them in discussions of engine-less sailing, but also in conversations with people who would just like to use their engine less, or learn a way to propel their boat that can get them to or away from the dock in case of engine failure. They look very efficient!

I came home and was so exhausted from the trip to Fisheries (fibromyalgia + hating driving) that I spent most of the evening reading about yulohs. This morning I was trying to convince C. that she needed one for Bearish, and she said she ought to read up on them, so I offered to make a list of what I’ve found useful so far:

That’s enough for now. I’m still collecting resources. I want to get some plans together, and see if I can convince my woodworking and sailor friend Dave to help me build one. Elska has oarlocks, but why use oars when I could use a more efficient and more fun yuloh? PROJECT!


My dream to sail the canals of Europe

Looking out past the breakwater at my marina. Shilshole Bay Marina, Seattle WA.

I have this little very big and wonderful sailing dream. It’s ten years off, so there’s a lot of time to plan and figure out if I can how to do it, and what’s a sailor without cruising plans, right? But it’s hard to talk about. I have fibromyalgia, I’m not in any kind of decent physical shape. I don’t know how to solo sail yet. I get exhausted after a day sail, when the winds are fair and the weather is fine. Dreaming of anything further than a trip across the Sound, would seem very unrealistic at this time. But screw it, dreams are allowed to be unrealistic. Today I was talking to someone about this, and I said, “I feel like I need permission to dream,” and without missing a beat he whipped out a little notepad and wrote, “Dear Hollie, You have permission to dream.” Then he signed it, and handed it to me. I laughed, stared at it for awhile, then put it into my book for safekeeping.

Without further ado: I want to someday sail the canals of Europe with my friend C.

The “canals of Europe” are just what they sound like: a network of rivers and canals that meander through the cities and countrysides of most European countries. Here’s a map of Germany’s canals, for example. Apparently, so I have learned, people in Europe know all about these canals and treat them like interesting vacation ideas, much like we do the Grand Canyon or any other beautiful outdoor feature. Most Americans may not even realize these canals exist, or that one can travel upon them when in Europe. I first found out about them on some sailing blogs a few years ago, but didn’t realize how common it was to wander on them, until C and I started talking about it.

To me it sounds like the best kind of adventure. I’ve seen some of Paris and much of Ireland, but that was just a taste. Europe is filled with history, languages, cultures, and a thousand places I’ve read about in books but never seen. Despite how impressive (and it’s very impressive) the internet is these days in terms of letting us armchair travel, I want to visit again in person, and see a lot more this time. And I’d love to do it from my own boat. Her mast would have to come down, but her mast is stepped in a tabernacle designed for easy removal. Most sailboats that do the canals lay their mast down, on supports. Works fine.

And Elska would be up for the challenge. She was built with offshore cruising in mind, though she has an outboard, not a diesel, which I know goes against common wisdom for long offshore voyages. You’d think that the hardest part of a dream like this would be getting the vessel, so it’d seem like having the boat already would be a huge step forward. Well, it turns out, with this dream, the biggest obstacles are inexperience and poor health. I’m 41 years old, and I want to do this when I’m 52 or so, about ten years from now (I turn 42 in a couple months). A decade is a fair amount of time to acquire experience. It’s the health that’s really the issue. If I continue on my current trajectory of gaining around a pound a month and becoming incrementally more sedentary with each passing year, then I’m on track to sail to Europe (a word I’ve mistakenly written as “Alaska” three times – is my subconscious trying to tell me something?) with basically zero muscle tone, over a hundred extra pounds, and fibromyalgia. It’d be like sending a large, weak, very bruised rock to sea in a small boat. I wouldn’t last long.

If this dream is to have a chance of ever shaping up to be a real-life voyage, I need to eat better, and figure out how to get stronger even while having fibro. This is a big challenge, but the reward of a sailing adventure is more than worth the work. I know a lot of people who run 5Ks and marathons to keep themselves motivated to eat well and keep up an exercise routine. I really miss being able to run, and would love to know again that sensation of running fast, arms pounding and breath beating out of me, without feeling like an old jalopy that has parts rattling and falling to the wayside every few seconds. I have rolls of fat that jiggle so hard when I run that after a few seconds I’m actually in pain just from the flesh flying around. But running a 5K, pounding the pavement next to a sea of sweaty and overly-spandexed humanity isn’t the right motivator for my psyche. The biggest motivator isn’t running or even a hike, it’s raising my own sails and knowing that I can lift the outboard and put her down again, that I can handle a day of sailing on my own. That to me is sweeter than any race, and even sweeter than a hike through a forest. It’s the sweetest thing. There is nothing better than sailing.

The wonderful cosmic gift of meeting C. is one I’ve been meaning to write about. A few weeks ago, I got a message from a woman in Norway. She also has a chronic pain condition, and she also loves small boats. In fact, she lives on one! She blogs about her life here. She loves sailing, she loves the simplicity and self-reliance and adventure of a small vessel, and she copes with a lot of the same frustrations around feeling ill that I do. She read a couple of my blog posts and wrote to say she’d enjoyed them.

Thus began what has become a friendship I treasure. In an odd coincidence, over the last year I’d gotten into watching some Norwegian films (The Wave is my favorite), and decided I’d try to learn Norwegian. I use Duolingo and Mondly, both apps for the iPad. So when C. wrote me, it was so fun that she happened to be Norwegian, and we’ve had a great time talking about Norway. I also happen to live in Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle that filled with Scandinavian settlers in the 1850’s and has continued to be a haven for a large percentage of that population ever since.

It felt like such a magical thing, to have an interest in a country and its language, then to have someone from that place write me out of the blue to strike up a conversation. And then to find out we had so much in common! It felt meant to be, and I’m so grateful she took the time to make the connection.

And now we have this dream, to buddy boat Elska  and Bearish and explore the canals. Greg wants to come too, although he can only make it for the first couple months. Once safely in the canals, he’d probably fly home to work, and then return to help me get home later. In the interim, I’d be sailing solo (with C. on Bearish), and would have room open for family and friends to visit for a couple weeks at a time to share in the canal adventure. It’s a lovely dream. I have to stop myself from writing “crazy dream”. It isn’t crazy. On my end, it’s unlikely. It’s not easy. But it isn’t impossible, and that’s good enough for me.

Ten years is a good long time to prepare. And if I do prepare, and my preparations aren’t good enough, that’s okay; there are other ways to make this dream happen. I might get in shape, but never be able to reach the kind of fitness I would need for a passage. I might not feel experienced enough, even in ten years. A dozen things might happen that lead us to believe that an offshore passage isn’t a smart thing to do. In that case, we can ship Elska to Europe and fly to meet her. Or, alternately, C. could start the journey on her own, and I could meet up with her travel with her on Bearish for a few weeks. There are many versions of this dream, and they all come with differing levels of probability.

For now, I’m orienting myself to the tallest peak, that of sailing Elska there. It may not seem likely, but I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. Focus on your own dreams. What matters is how happy my dream makes me now. I asked Greg about this, one night. I asked if he thought it was foolish to have a dream that had so little chance of being possible, or that was so likely to change. He said that he believed that any future dream that kept a person focused on the future and missing life now, was a mistake in focus. But, he said, if the dream makes me happy now, and it motivates me to live life now in a way that makes me happy and inspires me to good things in honor of that future goal, than dream away. I married a good guy.

To get to the Atlantic in order to make a passage, Elska would need to be shipped to the east coast, which is fine. She’s very trailerable. Or it means putting my little boat on a very big boat and motoring across the Atlantic as cargo. Or using a UFO tractor beam, but the mothership hasn’t been returning my calls. Or sailing down past California, through the Panama Canal, and blah blah blah no no no. If I were going to do that, I’d want to spend a year or so exploring the islands and countries of that area, and that has no appeal at this time. My feelings might change (talk to me again in December), but for now the idea of sailing near the equator sounds like volunteering to sit on a pan of water in an oven turned up to four hundred degrees. With hungry mosquitoes. The only thing that tempts me about the tropics is the idea of standing on the gunwale and leaping off into warm water, but I will hopefully be able to do that in Desolation Sound someday, so for now, meh. I’d rather see Europe.

Maybe it will happen. Hopefully it will happen. I’m going to plan for it to happen, and see….what happens.

My first outboard class

A couple weeks ago I attended a class on outboard engine maintenance, and I’ve been meaning to write a post about it ever since, but I’ve forgotten so much of what I learned! Still, I want to write about the experience, especially for other women out there who may not have a lot of experience with engines and are thinking about taking a class.

To that I say, GO FOR IT! I admit, I felt intimidated, and with reason. I’ve been in technical classes before where sexism was not only present, but completely tolerated by the teachers and/or administrators. I was imagining a class of all guys, who all knew the basics of engines, and who would look at me like I was an alien, or worse, make jokes at my expense. I didn’t have the energy for it. That morning, I woke up, and my fibromyalgia was pretty bad, and I thought, “Maybe I just don’t go today.”

But then I checked my email, and I had the most wonderful message from a couple who I’d shared a lot of email with earlier this year, when I was looking to buy a Flicka. They have one for sale, and it’s a beautiful boat, but it was a little far from home. I wanted to see Dave and Sherrie’s boat first, which I ended up buying. But this couple just wanted me to know how they were happy for me, and now they were so excited because they’d met a new person who was buying their boat, and he was over the moon for her, and it had just all worked out so beautifully. I read this with a huge smile on my face, and that letter felt like a sign. Get my ass out of bed, go be the sailor I want to be. Don’t let niggly fears intimidate me. I have to learn how to take care of my boat!

It turns out, it was mostly guys (one other woman), and yeah, they did all know the basics of how engines work. But no, they didn’t look at me like I was an alien, they were very welcoming. The teacher, Stewart, treated me exactly like everyone else. And while there were a lot of jokes tossed around, it was all the usual sailor wise-ass humor that I know and love, and we were all laughing together. I had a great time.

Here’s where I’d love to demonstrate my knowledge, but alas, I don’t remember that much. I believe this is basically due to not having any sort of underlying mental framework for how engines work or are put together, so the information I learned that should have had that framework to hang on, didn’t have anything to adhere to.

My present goal is to break this down for myself, to teach myself about engines by understanding the gaps in my own knowledge (however huge those gaps are, and they are vast) and what information and concepts I need to learn. I don’t intend to do this solo – I intend to take classes, and avail myself of the bountiful fountains of technical knowledge that I have through friends in both my sailing community and my ham radio community.

First things first: this is an engine. I can at least identify that much. I have one hanging out the backside of my boat.

Also, I am able to label the following parts:

A. The main engine thing, with all the moving parts, that makes most of the noise.

B. The shaft. Metal rods run down this and turn the prop. If you remove the prop, and all those metal rods come out, and then your teacher says, “It’s a real bear to put this back in, you have to line up like seven things, and get them just right,” and then you think, “I’ve got beginner’s luck coming out the wazoo!” so you enthusiastically volunteer to put it back together in front of everyone… might have a good laugh. And so might the rest of the class. 

C. The prop. The fins of the fish, as it were. The tail of the whale?

Oh! And I also know what the zinc is! Don Casey helped me with that a few months ago through this excellent article on Boat US.

The first thing Stewart did was to take off the prop, and I got to do that! It was easy, just pull out a pin and unscrew some things. Taking off the prop is useful because…well, it lets you drain the oil. Also, you can replace the prop, or clean things. And….probably some other reasons I’m forgetting.

And then we drained some oil:


A. See! Another woman!

B. Grease. “Put grease on everything!” Stewart tells us. “EVERYTHING. IF IT MOVES, YOU GREASE IT. Now what’s the rule about grease?”


“That’s right.”

C. Oil! Coming out of the prop, after removing another bolt that I forgot to label.

And then we opened up the big engine part and we looked inside there:


A. Spark plug! I know what that is. I don’t know what it does. I mean I gather it’s a plug that sparks. I think it has something to do with the cycle of the engine. Like, there’s pressure from somewhere, and it builds up, and then a spark happens in this plug, and then power is released…..I might be thinking of a diesel. But gasoline engines still have spark plugs. ANYWAY.

B. This hose was something I helped remove. I have no idea what it does, but I got that sucker right off of there.

C. This is a metal plate thing, and you can feel if it’s too hot – that means something important that I’m forgetting (something more important than just, “the engine is too hot”).

D. You can fiddle with the screws over here to mess with the timing of your engine. I don’t know what that means – I get that it has to do with calibration, but what exactly I’m calibrating is fuzzy. Engine timing? But what’s being timed?

E. This is where the pull cord goes, and it’s also the carburetor I think? I’m not sure what a carburetor does, but thank God spell check knows how to spell it.

There was a lot more to it than that, but that’s about what I remember.

So! While that may all seem to illustrate how little I learned, in fact I learned a lot. I learned all the things I don’t know. I even have pictures of what I don’t know. I can now take these questions to friends who know more than I do, and to books and my engine manual, and I can say, “Can you help illuminate this?”

  • I also learned not to fear an outboard/mechanics class.
  • I also learned how to change the oil – I’m pretty sure I can do this on my own.
  • I learned how to take a prop off – I’m confident I could replace my own prop.
  • I gained confidence!
  • I learned that outboards aren’t perfect, but I still like them a lot better than diesels, and I know that for some of you that will make no sense, but as a sailor I am entitled to my opinion, no matter how strange.

I took my class through Sea Grant Washington although I can’t recall how I found out about them. If you live in the Pacific Northwest and want to learn more about these classes, email Sarah Fisken, I met her at the class, she’s great! She’ll put you on her list, and send you announcements of all the upcoming classes, on topics like marine technology, marine first aid, and lots of other things. Thanks, Sarah!

A note about note-taking:

I used this great app during my class, called Notability. It’s the first time I’ve used it for something other than doodling or taking idle notes. I was able to use my iPad to take photos (very easy to do in class), and then take notes on those photos – including being able to draw lines to connect photos to different notes, and to highlight areas of the photo that pertained to what I was trying to understand.

Here’s a screen shot:


I made my Tom Bihn Small Cafe Bag into boat storage


I know, I know, all you Tom Bihn fans out there are cringing. How could I have done this? How could I take a perfectly good plum/wasabi Small Cafe Bag (Vintage! It even has the old “Portable Culture” tag!) and cut off the shoulder strap and pound grommets into it? WHY, GOD, WHY?

Two reasons:

1.) I love my Tom Bihn bags (despite appearances to the contrary). I used to work at Tom Bihn, and I know firsthand how well they’re made and how great the company is. I have way too many TB bags however, more than I need, and yet I don’t want to sell any of them, because BAGS.  So, I have to find other ways to use them.

2.) My boat needs storage.


I haven’t entirely figured out how I’m going to hang it yet, but I know it will involve some paracord and maybe a couple of small cleats screwed into the wall. This bag is a test to see how well it works. A Flicka 20 is a very small boat, and Elska needs more storage. If I can find a way to harness the power of my many, many bags, in a creative way, then I’ll be golden.

I used a Lord & Hodge 1073A-0 Grommet Kit [Amazon link]:

It worked pretty well, except for the first step of using the cutter tool to cut a hole in the fabric. I whacked on that tool with the hammer for several straight minutes, and nothing. This just goes to show how durable Tom Bihn bags are. I finally broke out the sewing shears and ended up making two small holes that way.

Once the holes were in, the hammer was the only tool I needed to whack the grommets into place. It took longer, and required more strength than I thought it would, but that’s fine. At least it worked! I feared I might have made holes in my bag for nothing, but I think this will work great.

I could have left the shoulder strap on and just tucked it in, but there was no point really; I don’t use the Small Cafe Bags for much, I prefer the Medium and Large Cafe Bags.  I have two Smalls, and of the two, the purple is the less precious (the other one is a beloved Nordic/Solar, you TB fans know what I’m talking about).

Once I figure out how and where to hang it, I’ll make another post! I love the idea of seeing my beloved bags in the boat, working their storage magic. I think this will work really well.

(I have a new photo editing app. The futzing has begun.)

Oh, and in case the puzzle background is puzzling – those are foam puzzle pieces [Amazon link] you can buy for your kids’ playroom. I have a set down in my office for going yoga and other exercises on, and they’re also great for blocking knitting (far cheaper than the “blocking mats” that knitting stores often sell). I’ve discovered they’re also useful for whacking things with a hammer.