Irrational Actors



Some 16 years ago, Carol and I began to noodle over two ideas that would totally reshape our lives.   At the time they did not appear to be completely radical or outside the norm of what other people were doing.   However, in retrospect, perhaps I was mistaken.

In the field of traditional economics there is a convenient little assumption that greatly simplified the development of the elegant mathematical models that have formed the basis of quantitative economic theory for many years.   The gist of it is that we humans act in a completely logical and rational manner.

In this model all of the decisions we make throughout our lives are based upon a perfect knowledge of the infinite array of options, outcomes, costs and benefits available to us. With this information we apply a cold mathematical calculus resulting in choices that maximize our own net present value and well being.  Over the long term each of us acting in this manner creates an overall optimum result for society.

Free market zealots  can now  genuflect toward the University of Chicago.

However, as time has passed, some very smart people began to poke at that shiny little analytical construct, birthing an entirely new field of economics. Based in large part on the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, behavioral economics is reshaping our view of ourselves and how we move through our short stay on this little orb we call home.   If you have not read “Thinking Fast and Slow”  or “The Undoing Project” I would suggest that you head for Amazon immediately and do so.

Kahneman explored and documented the fact that we  don’t really act as logical decision making automatons.  We are creatures with biases and emotions that crave experiences and relationships that are not in any way, shape or form either completely logical or rational.  This now brings me back to the opening paragraph of this little parable starring Carol and yours truly. 

Many you know, through prior installments of this blog, that our barging lives began as guests of good friends  on their Chalk Penelope’s Ark.   We were already a family of sailors but after several years of summer holidays on the canals, the barging seed was planted, germinated and slowly grew into what is our life today .

Around the same time, after many decades of apparent sanity, I once again fell victim to an old condition from my childhood that I thought had long been cured; the need to have a dog.

I had grown up with dogs, both house pets and hunting dogs, but when I went off to university and started my life as an “adult” that need seemed to fade away.  It all made perfect sense, freedom, flexibility, no poop to clean up.   But, in spite of all of those advantages, soon after our son departed for college the thin facade of logic that had covered my little “problem” cracked and fell away.  After a surprisingly short discussion,  Carol and I trundled up to Brooksville FL and gathered up a small ball of fur and energy known to many of you as our Nikki.

So, in the cold hard light of day neither of these decisions passes the “rational actor” sniff test.  The activity of barging  appears to make no sense either economically or emotionally.   There are at least a million ways to see Europe that do not involve the logistics and sweat of a floating apartment that takes a bit of work to maintain.

Pet ownership, while not a niche affliction like barging, surely cannot be justified by pencil whipping a set of numbers.  But, in spite of this, hundreds of millions of us willingly take on the expense and total responsibility for another creature’s life knowing that we all will have to eventually make, as we recently did, the heartbreaking decision to say goodby to a loving and loyal friend.

How do we reconcile these two desperate ideas?   Homo Sapiens as all-knowing, logical, decision-making machines, with that of us as giddy creatures floating together through space and time experiencing the world through the eyes of vagabond travelers with dog in tow.   When we figure that out, we will let you know.

The journey continues!


The Briare aquaduct, longest in France




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Strike the Flag

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There is a long tradition in the navy’s of the world that when a flag officer leaves a ship the pennant signifying their presence is lowered.   Today we struck the flag of our amazing dog Nikki.   Admiral Nikki had been a part of our lives for over 15 years and a crew member on Vivante from the beginning.  I cannot yet think about how much we will miss her.

Carol and I thought that it would be appropriate to share with you the most popular episode of this blog we have ever had. It was written, of course, by Admiral Nikki.


Shush, Don’t tell them!

It has come to my attention that some of you have asked how I am doing.  My people mentioned it earlier in the week and made a halfhearted attempt to fill some of you in.  So, it is time for me to put paw to keyboard and give everyone the straight skinny.

I must admit the flight over was not something that any dog should have to endure.  Even though they tried their best to make it the shortest flight with no layovers, it was a real drag.  I was trapped in the hold with two other yapping dogs that would just not shut up.

However, once established on the big black thing, I immediately began to retrain my people to accommodate my every wish.  While I could easily negotiate the 6 feet of steep stairs to the wheelhouse, I feigned a bit of limp and once took a little tumble in front of Mom so from then on, I am whisked up and down whenever I wish.

At around 5:15, I make my first spin through their nest to let Dad know that I am up and about.   I gave up on Mom as she appears to be in a deep coma each morning and does not respond to my best whimpers and grunts.  Dad, however, is much more attentive and, at least by 6:30, I have been walked and fed and am back on the couch for my morning nap.

On those days that the big black thing moves, my signal to arise is the whirr, whirr,  thump, thump noise from behind the stairs.  Up to the lookout point I go and am strapped in and assume my navigator’s position keeping a sharp eye out for baddies and other threats during our journey.

2013 07 05 (16L) Givet to Chateau Thierry

We usually go up and down in big elevators of some sort, much bigger than those in the condo.  These are better because when I am riding them, sometimes I get to get off the big black thing and go potty while we wait to start down.

Usually, the whirr, whirr, thump, thump stops just after my healthy snack (table droppings) from Dad.  Once the giant leashes are tied on the shore to keep the big black thing from moving any more, it is off to explore.

2013 07 04 (08L) Givet to Chateau Thierry

Sometimes we go to a place where Mom and Dad get some glasses of red stuff and I get some water in a big bowl.  We have had some pretty wild times and once I went a little too far and conked out while Mom and Dad kept getting more glasses of red stuff.

2013 06 03 (013C) Toul to Givet Nikki relaxing

All in all, this is not too bad.  Much more attention from my people and lots of little people who don’t seem to know my name.  They all think my name is Chien.   And sometimes I do something that I never get to do in the tall house, I get to RUN!

2013 07 01 (64C) Givet to Chateau Thierry

And after another exhausting day of sleeping, eating, pooping, sniffing, napping, eating, more napping, it is time for bed.

2013 07 04 (13L) Givet to Chateau Thierry

Maybe this big black thing is not so bad.


Thank you Nikki, your complete love and affection have affected our lives in ways we will never understand.   Goodbye old girl.

Mom and Dad


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85 degrees of Storage

As we approach our departure, two niggling issues lightly tap us on the back of our heads every so often just to remind us that we do not have as much control of things as we would like to believe.

As our departure this year is a bit later than is usual we are nervously watching the temperatures in the afternoons.   One of the lesser known realms of the “Friendly Skies” involves getting our beloved dog Nikki on the aircraft.

After a rash of animals meeting their demise while waiting in a hot hangar or baggage area to be loaded in the cargo bay of their flight a few years ago, the airlines set 85 degrees as the maximum temperature forecast anywhere along the route for flying an animal.  Over that, no-go and you are simply out of luck.

Our flight departs Miami at 7:30 in the evening and after studying the historical weather data for the airport there, we are right on the cusp of getting out of town.  After some spirited discussion,  our plan, if we lose the weather lottery, is for me to jet away with the majority of the baggage while Carol and Nikki cool their heels in Miami waiting for the weather to improve.   I am sure the Red roof Inn at the airport will be ecstatic to welcome them back for another night.   I, on the other hand, will have to hire some Tibetan Sherpas to assist in moving me through the Paris Airport to the TGV terminal.

We are not thinking about the added cost of such an eventuality but at least we kind of understand the strategy.

My other mental gymnastic effort involves the storage of our personal belongings.   The “cone of uncertainty” has come down significantly as we finalized the renters for our place.  Initially I was covering everything from totally unfurnished to what we ended up with; fully furnished with a lot of the day to day household stuff remaining in place.   So seemingly there should be no problem.

However, looking to save cost where ever possible, I have been executing 3 dimensional jujitsu to try to predict the final mix of boxes, bins, bikes and other odds and ends that must be crammed into a varying array of storage options.  The ever patient staff at the Lock Up has shown me just about every size storage locker in existence as I mull over the best options.

The other day, as I stood ruminating in front of the 5 x 8 unit for about 10 minutes as the manager stood tapping her toe in expectation of some sort of decision, my mind drifted away into the the recollection of George Carlin’s famous riff on “Stuff”

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Off Soundings

For those of us who aspire to the mantle of “sailor”, the arcane term that stands as the title of this post  literally means crossing the invisible  boundary  in the ocean where the depth of the water exceeds your capability to measure it.  For modern sailors who seek a true blue water experience it is a milestone and a right of passage.

In olden days, as explorers moved away from familiar shores this was a literal step into the unknown where past experience provided little guidance as to the way forward.   In modern times, we suffer under the allusion that our understanding of the physical world makes that condition rare.

However, considered within a more metaphysical framework, being “off soundings” has never been more relevant.  Today, it is our internal reference points  and psychic landmarks that are shifting, the ability to navigate through our own existence more uncertain.  It is from this strange position that Carol and I prepare to embark on our 2017 cruise.

As we enter our 6th season on Vivante a little idea that had inhabited the shadowy nether regions of our minds since we began this adventure is finally to be realized.    We will not be returning to our home base in Florida this fall but will remain off soundings, spending the winter in Europe before once again becoming Vivante travelers in the spring of 2018.

During our extended sojourn we will move into terres inconnues both physically and emotionally.    Carol has the unique ability to tease extraordinary experiences from places and people that elude many who plot the same course.   While they may see the same vistas and villages, their frames of reference  remain unaffected by the journey.

It seems certain that when we return to what is our home here in the fall of next year, things will be different both in the world and within ourselves.   It is simply unclear, at this point at  least, what those differences will be.   That  for us, is the joy of travel.

See you out there.


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Relativity and Resilience (Part 2)


To say that our summer plans shifted a bit could be added to the pantheon of understatements beside “Other than that, how was the play, Ms. Lincoln?”   and the Bridge officer on the Titanic commenting: “Seems to be a bit of ice ahead”

As we settled on the scope of work to be completed on Vivante, the realization that a substantial part of our cruising plans would have to be scrapped sank in.   So, there began a long series of discussions and “negotiations” as to how we deal with a massively different situation.

First and foremost was the arrival of guests in a few weeks.   Our original plans involved a bit of a cruise from Dijon up the Burgundy canal returning them to Dijon.   As we sat in the dry dock with no idea of when the work would begin on Vivante, the nightmare scenario of welcoming our guests to the scream of an angle grinder and the dust of a sandblasting machine loomed.

Fortunately, the yard was so far behind schedule, they decided to boot us out of the dry dock for a couple of weeks while they sorted their immediate scheduling issues allowing us to get to Dijon in advance of our guests and giving them a nice visit with the added experience of re-entering the cale seche with us as we returned to Saint Jean to begin the work.

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After their departure, alone again, we began the long journey through a summer at the shipyard.  The trials and tribulations experienced as we moved through the steps of the process;  sandblasting, grinding, cutting off plating with a torch, hammering, welding and painting whilst living on board are too numerous to discuss in detail.   However, here are a few from the highlight reel.

Sandblasting is perhaps the dirtiest, noisiest and frustrating part of the process.  We wisely left town during Vivante’s week long blasting adventure to hike the Alps at Annecy.

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Upon our return the amount of grit and grime that had been deposited in every nook and cranny of the barge was simply amazing.  I am still finding granules of the media around the deck.   It was like having everything you owned covered in sand paper.   The effect on my beautiful paint job on the top deck was pretty nasty.

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Once the re-plating began, it was actually, for me, a fascinating process.   The way the crew took 6mm steel plate and molded it like rubber around the complex curves of our hull was pretty amazing.  Using hydraulic jacks and some rather large hammers, they made it look easy.   Day by day they slowly transformed the 105 year old bottom of Vivante into a completely new hull.

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One of the unavoidable side effects of this work is the risk of fire.   Welding and cutting metal involves temperatures over 2000 degrees F.   On Vivante, our construction minimized the problem when the workers were welding and other than a little smoke and scorched paint on the interior we were good to go.   Cutting off old plating with a torch was another matter however.

As the torch melts the old welds around the plating, occasionally  flames break through the plating and create a jet of flames that erupt into the interior of the barge.  As a result, someone (that would be me) must be on watch to extinguish any lingering flames.


Goggles, respirator, gloves, full jump suit and a garden sprayer were my standard kit when the cutting torch was deployed.   Hanging upside down through the access hatches in the floor, watching the cherry red blob of molten metal move across the hull I patiently am waiting for the plume of flames to appear.

Spraying the hot spots with water made quick work of most of the eruptions.  Only once or twice did a full-on fire hose need to be engaged.   Luckily, we had an industrial blower deployed that would suck out the inevitable smoke so it was simply just another part of the adventure.

There are likely some of you who have the impression that the French are wonderful people who really don’t work very hard.   Based on my experience, I would like to offer you another perspective.

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Gilles, the foreman for Vivante was one of the yards most senior employees.  In his mid 60’s with the build of a bulldog, there was not much Gilles had not seen before.  At 6:30 he was already at the yard setting up for the day’s work.   By 7:00, Gilles and his apprentice Damelle were underway for the day.  They worked steadily until 12:00 when the traditional one and a half hour French lunch began.  At 1:30 work re-commenced and did not let up until 5:30 or 6:00.   Some days we had only two men working, some days as many as 8.  Gilles and Damelle normally  also worked a half day on Saturday. This was not namby-pamby stuff either.  Cutting, placing and welding 6mm steel plates is not for the faint of heart.   I got tired just watching them work.

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I will say however, that the work processes they used were  not what I would consider the most efficient.  Despite several attempts to propose what I considered to be logical improvements (I used to get paid to do such work) using excel charts and a lot of hand waving, I did not make a dent in the “French way”.  C’est la vie!

As the work progressed, we fell into a rhythm of sorts.   Carol and I had our work list that we pursued, trying not to get in the way of the plating team.   In the mornings, we would deliver espresso to Giles and Damelle and whoever else turned up for the early start time.   On Wednesdays, a large plate of croissants appeared on the break room table.  As work wound down in the late afternoon, particularly on the hot days,  cold Kronenbourg beers would magically appear for each of the remaining crew.  While we were not sure how much this helped our cause, it certainly did not hurt getting a pretty long list of work done “off the books” by Gilles.


As the work effort approached completion, both on our side and the yard’s, scrambling for work position and ladders became a daily dance.  Welders were added to support the last nasty bits of curved plates and final welding under the hull.   We worked above the welding crews on ladders adding additional coats of primer and paint above the waterline.  Hoping not to spatter said welders with too much paint.

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Only once did a major a incident occur.  Fortunately, the only injuries were to Damelle’s ego and Gilles stomach muscles from laughing too much.   Vivante is equipped with a sump pump for our aft shower.   This allows water to drain into a holding tank and when full, the pump automatically comes on to empty the tank.   This is what is called “grey water”,  soapy but far from noxious.

We were very careful not to shower or use the sink when workers were around.   They live in constant fear getting doused whilst they are working below.  So we really tried not to cause them any grief.   However one of the idiosyncrasies of this system is that as the day warms up, the air in the tank expands and will occasionally cause the pump to cycle at odd times.

Unfortunately, Damelle was welding under the shower sump drain when said pump decided to start up one warm afternoon.   I was below working when a loud yelp sounded, followed  by a boatload of salty French language  and howling laughter in that order.  As I reached the deck and peered below fearing the worst, there stood Damelle fairly well drenched with soapy water and Gilles doubled over in laughter.

After much apologizing and a beer or two, all was well.   However, I was very happy  that it was not Gilles that got the dousing as he may not have seen the humor quite as quickly and we may yet still be in the yard waiting for work to be finished.

After 2 1/2 months of these fun and games the last bit of paint was applied and the last anode welded on, the water finally began to rise around us in the cale seche for the last time.


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As we began the two week journey back home on the Centre canal, all of those days of grinding and fire fighting began to slip into the back of our memories replaced by the pleasures experienced on the canal reminding us why we do this and how much we were looking forward to next year’s cruise.

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Thanks for your patience.   We are heading to Paris in 2017 so keep your eyes open for our opening post of the new year!


Tom and Carol

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Relativity and Resilience [Part 1]

September, 2016

Hello to you few remaining readers of this blog.   No, we have not dropped off the face of the earth, although at some points this summer, it did appear that we had reached the center of the earth based on the heat, flames and other devilish incarnations we experienced.

The text below was begun in the middle of June as a delayed update on the progress of our summer so far.  Little did we know that the somewhat foreboding tone was only the beginning of what was to be a very testing few months.

I write this from the comfort of our home port in Roanne on a rainy afternoon.   So, no suspense as to whether we  survived the travails detailed below.   Therefore, with no further adieu,  I will once again take up the tale of the summer of 2016 on Vivante.


June, 2016

It has been a bit of a different summer so far.   Our plans for a low-key lazy cruise around the Burgundy region have so far not exactly worked out as expected.

Until recently, the weather has not been our friend.  The rain that began in December did not subside until last week.   The entire country has been underwater at one time or another this spring with anyplace along a river really having a bad time.  You know, places like a little town you may have heard of; Paris.

Our initial journey to St. Jean de Losne for a planned survey and week or so of work on Vivante became a game of cat and mouse with the Saone and its tributaries.   As the rain continued to tumble down from the heavens, our daily routine began, after of course tending to Nikki’s morning walk and feeding, with a quick trip to the Weatherunderground site to assure ourselves that the  forecasters in France are just as bad as the ones in the states.

This was immediately followed by a check of the Vigicrues website which monitors and reports river levels and flows.  It was like watching a slow motion roller coaster rising and falling, lagging the rain volume by about a week.

Almost like clockwork when this daily ritual was completed, the deluge began.   I am not talking about tinky winky  summertime showers.  I am talking about a no-kidding big-boy low-pressure system that seemed to have set up permanent residence over western Europe.  Massive swatches of rain pelting down on the watershed of the Saone/Rhone rivers, and us.

Luckily, the canals are generally not affected by rains due to their design.  Unless of course the saturated banks collapse, or the locks are damaged by debris, which happened in other areas disrupting pretty much everyone’s plans across France.

As Vivante trundled down the Canal de Centre towards Chalon sur Saone and the 62km trip upstream on the river to St Jean, this nasty weather was for us simply an annoyance.  [When I say us, by the way, I am speaking about me who as you know is positioned in the nice dry wheelhouse during our moving days.   For Carol, stationed at the bows of the barge, heaving wet lines in a driving rain for 8 hours a day would likely not be classified as an annoyance.]

But, as we approached our last stop on the canal before joining the river, the rains became a real headache.   That stop is Fragne, a tiny village with the best Port Capitaine in France.  Celine is simply amazing and always takes very good care of us.  During my working days, I was always plotting how to stuff her in my luggage and get her into my company.  As usual, were not disappointed as we pulled into the harbor and spied the police tape with our name on it marking our parking spot.

Our idea was to stay for two days then jump onto the river and up to St. Jean.   That plan quickly submerged along with most of the banks on the river which was quickly rising as the last wave of rain had completely saturated the landscape, which you hydrology buffs will know means that every drop that comes down simply runs off into the streams and into  mother Saone.

After a quick bike ride to a nearby town on the river to find a solitary yacht floating perilously above the submerged quai tied on quivering floating dock, pelted by massive tree trunks and the very nervous owner trapped on board, I realized we were not going anywhere.

Our two day stay morphed into a week of waiting and watching.   All was not lost however, as we celebrated our 39th anniversary at wonderful dinner at the port restaurant.The river began to recede and we made our break for it.   Finally, we arrived in St. Jean with three days to spare before our scheduled dry docking.

The next morning I walked over to the shipyard to discuss the details of the process only to find out that the yard was way behind schedule and would not be able to get us in the dry dock on time.  I was stunned, stunned I say.

After a few days luxuriating on the quai at St. Jean, our Expert from the Netherlands turned up to do our TRIWV certification renewal and insurance survey.   All was going smoothly until we got a call from the shipyard that we must get to the dry dock immediately to be moved in and get work underway.  So, with our surveyor still on board we pulled away from the quai, through the lock, only to find that they were not ready for us quite yet.

By the afternoon, our bottom (Vivante’s bottom, that is) had been pressure washed, removing 5 years of growth and a fair crop of mussels that had taken up residence there.  At this point, the fabric of our summer plans really began to unravel as the management of the shipyard informed us of the true extent of their scheduling challenges and I determined the scope of work that I wanted completed on Vivante.


But that is another story altogether………..







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