September 30, 2010

Swimming Through the Stars

Maia leapt off the bow and into the water. All around her galaxies exploded. "Look!" she said, pulling her arm through the silky warm water, "a meteor shower." We've been waiting for a night like this: a moonless sky, a calm anchorage and enough bioluminescence that the ocean shimmers all on its own.

We grew still, floating without moving, letting the stars grow dim. Below me I could see the glowing outline of a needle fish. I watched, fascinated as it swam away. "Okay, go!" Maia let us know we needed to kick and wave our arms as fast as we could. We were lit with enough luminescence we could see each others faces. Evan and Maia looked struck with awe. It reminded me of how I felt when I first saw a firefly.

Diatoms are the primary producers of energy in the ocean food chain and many produce bioluminescence. These complex one-celled organisms show traits of both animals and plants--they're claimed by zoologists as protozoans and by botanists as algae. In our life they are simply a thing of wonder: tiny stars that cling to our skin when we climb from the boat and that make Maia's ponytail twinkle until she leaps back in again, diving far under us like the gleaming magical mermaid we know her to be.

She surfaced near my face, her smile bright in the glow. We floated quietly again, letting the blackness fill back in. Then we made star angels, searched for constellations and splashed comets at each other.

We were reluctant to leave our solar system, and leave behind something that felt as close to enchantment as I've ever felt. As we climbed up the ladder we dripped sparkles. On deck we stood in the night and watched the sea grow calm and dark while the illumination faded away.

----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 28, 2010

Of Movies, Mayhem and Chance German Tourists

There are days when I wake up and all of this seems utterly inconvenient. Friends I'd like to talk to aren't reachable, food I'd like to eat isn't obtainable and mosquitoes I'd like dead have bitten me in that low place between my shoulder blades that is really hard to reach. In these moments a home, a proper home with a bathtub and a front door that leads to something other than water, is all I really want.
But other people, lots of other people, want what I have. And sometimes the only way to see how amazing our life is, is to watch someone else's face when they experience it for the first time.
Tina and Ulle are traveling from Alaska to Argentina on the BMW motorcycle they brought from Germany. We learned this when we sat next to them at one of BLA's three sit-down restaurants. We were struck by the fact that tourists had actually meandered into our little village, and they were struck by how romantic our life seems. Over dinner conversation it came up that Tina had never sailed before and Ullie had only windsurfed. So we invited them for a sail.
We set off in the mid-afternoon breeze. As we sailed Ulle and Tina couldn't stop congratulation each other on their fine luck. Ulle informed us he was now going to sell his bike and buy a sailboat, Tina said she was going to take sailing lessons. Inviting random strangers aboard has been one of the cooler aspects of cruising. We've made friends with all sorts of people this way and in turn been invited into their lives. But more than that, we've vicariously experienced the same joy we felt when we first conceived our life. When this happens the inconvenience recedes and even things like that new tear in our mainsail and the mosquitoes that just won't die just seem like part of it.
When we got back to the anchorage we sent Maia off for a movie and pizza party on Adios 3 along with the five other kids in the anchorage. Then we headed out for dinner with Tina and Ulle. During dinner we watched a big thunderhead build across the Sea. But the locals in the restaurant assured us that the storm was far away and wouldn't bother us. So we ordered another margarita.
As the storm built we started to think about heading back to the boat. There was another big party of cruisers in the restaurant and Meri and Jim from Hotspur had arrived to take advantage of the date night that came with the movie party-reassuring us there was no rush. But when the first gust hit we said our good byes and started racing for the dinghy. By the time we were underway, the waves were breaking over the bow and the sky was bright with lightening.
We decided that with the chaos of the storm and the danger posed by a dinghy trip in rough seas, when dozens of fishermen were rushing back into harbour under navy escort, that the kids were all safer on Adios 3. So we pulled up the dinghy and hunkered down for the blow.
There were moments when it seemed even more than inconvenient: Our daughter was out of reach; A big power boat was dragging toward us; The navy boat was zooming back and forth to escort in the fishermen, who themselves were seeking a safe place to go when there wasn't one; We were too close to one boat when the wind was gusting from one direction and too close to another when it shifted.
But through it all I heard Ulle's voice, "You are not so isolated from life, the way you live. Which is good." As the Chubasco blew the force of the wind stung my cheeks. The seas heaved and spray coated the boat. As it rained the desert took on a heavy sweet smell. And lightening made the sky brightly dramatic as thunder rumbled from a reassuring distance.
There was no way to separate ourselves from the weather and I briefly envied Tina and Ulle their solid, secure hotel. But the storm passed and when Maia could finally return home her hug felt sweeter and tighter than ever. "It's like I'm back from a long journey," she told me as I tucked her into her still rocking bed. "I'm glad I'm home."
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 26, 2010

How to Lose 1,200 Pounds - Cruising World

I'm pretty sure it wasn't my shoe collection that forced our waterline to become, well, an underwaterline. But it was my shoes that made my husband, Evan Gatehouse, insist that our boat needed to go on a diet. We'd been outfitting Ceilydh, our Woods-designed 40-foot catamaran, for offshore cruising. The boat's waterline, which had seemed more than generous when we'd first painted it, was pretty much a dim memory by the time I started bringing clothes aboard.

How to Lose 1,200 Pounds

I don't typically post my magazine articles here, but this one fits with the cruising theme

Full Moon Party



the full moon party started in the afternoon with a floatie parade through the lagoon
Cruiser parties have become more formal in the years since we first cruised. In the past they just seemed to happen—word would spread, fancy food would be prepared, musical instruments came out and the night would be spent in song and conversation.


Organized parties that are planned weeks in advance and have a schedule of events are new to us. But there is something special about gathering with a group of people (many who we only have met on the radio) and celebrating the life we've all chosen for ourselves.

The cliques that seem to form--based on cruising plans, boat type and who's aboard--tend to disolve a bit at these parties. After all, it's hard not to become friends with someone once you've howled at the moon with them.

September 23, 2010

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I attended a wedding. The couple, who everyone thought was way too young to be getting married, also had a terribly unrealistic plan for their future. They were going to skip the whole house and mini-van routine, and buy a boat and head out to sea.
While it seemed pretty certain that the marriage was doomed, I had a pretty good time dancing at that wedding. And a really great time on the honeymoon. I also continued to enjoy the past twenty years (give or take a few sucky months here and there…). It turns out that despite being a bit young and inexperienced, I chose a wonderful partner: a man who's accompanied me on some really great adventures, and who's been a good friend through the roughs and the calms.
If I've learned anything about marriage during the past twenty years, it's that there's no magic formula for a good one. It's kind of like cruising boats-one person's dream boat is another person's fixer upper. The wonder of this though is there are no rules-and that there is all kinds of beautiful when it comes to both boats, and marriage. And, at the risk of abusing the analogy, there's no way of really knowing for sure which boat, or marriage, will go the distance. There are a lot of dangerous reefs and storms out there. And sometimes the crew just loses heart.
We spent our twentieth anniversary rolling in the seas that were churned up by Georgette. But beyond the swell, a bit of gusty wind and some receding clouds that was pretty much it for the storm up here. But we were prepared. And we were content to have it pass us by without a smack.
So tonight we'll celebrate twenty years of marriage, two boats, one child and a world filled with amazing friends and family with a Key Lime pie and some ice wine from home. And we'll congratulate that young couple from so long ago; the kids who were too inexperienced and naive to realize that the risks they took in getting married and going for their dreams were crazy ones.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 22, 2010

Dodging Georgette

"Mum, can I have a sleep over?"
There are lots of reasons to turn down Maia's sleepover requests: She's still tired from the last one; her dad and I want a quiet night; just because… But the current reason-that a tropical cyclone has popped up out of nowhere and is supposed to show up within our area tomorrow morning-is one of the better ones. There are moments when cruising life and family life intersect in slightly surreal ways. Saying no to a sleepover because we're going to have a tropical storm, is just one example.

Most of us in the Northern Sea have grown complacent this year. It's been such a strong La Nina year (which cools tropical waters to the degree that very few hurricanes can form) that several cruising boats recently declared hurricane season over and headed back south. I'm betting they are regretting it. Just. About. Now.

Hurricane season isn't over until all the conditions that make hurricanes possible are gone:

-80 degree, or warmer, water tempature.
-A low pressure area with wind disturbance.
-A lack of stability in the air, which allows clouds to develop.
-A centrifugal force, known as a Coriolis Force, stemming from the earth's rotation.
-Moist air, i.e., a thunderstorm, in the lower portion of the atmosphere.

As it stands those conditions are weakened, but not gone. And as much as we'd love to pronounce hurricane season over and get on with the next stage of cruising, as the saying goes, it ain't over 'til it's over…

Georgette's current forecasted track have her crossing the Baja Peninsula from Cabo and coming out near Santa Rosalia-a prediction that doesn't put us in danger of much more than a good boat wash. But tropical storms and hurricanes are unpredictable things. So as we watch the full moon disappear behind Goergette's leading clouds and wait for the wind to veer, we're preparing the boat for a blow and cancelling all sleepovers until the weather report is benign again.

So in answer to Maia's inevitable, "Why not?" the answer is, "Because Georgette might be coming for a visit instead…"

----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

Boat of Refuge

Reader alert: most of our posts are nice travel, or living aboard stories suitable for friends, family and arm chair travellers. But we also have a fair number of soon-to-be cruisers who read the blog and they are always in search of tips and info, stuff that's not as interesting to people like my mum… This is one of those blog posts.
We are many different things to the animals in the Sea: shade for sealions; a roost for birds; a potential mate to nearsighted whales; an object of interest for dolphins. What we didn't expect to be was a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Maia and I have been complaining for weeks about being bit. But Evan, because he wasn't being bit, was convinced we were imagining the welts that were appearing on us. At first I blamed the rain storm in Santa Rosalia-assuming the rains had left just enough standing water for the mosquito population to explode. But then we left Santa Rosalia behind and our mosquito problem stayed with us.
I just assumed there were mosquitoes on shore every place we went, but when no one else was getting bit, and when all our bites seemed to be happening on the boat, I started to wonder if Charlie had some how gotten fleas.
Charlie was flea free, but our mosquito population was growing by the day. This was when I started hunting for standing water. We're had problems with our water tanks-and one leaked in to another compartment, so we got that bone dry and wiped it down with bleach. It didn't make a difference-our mosquito population was clearly, and visibly, growing. So Evan went on a hunt through every locker, mopping up any spills and disinfecting every surface. Afterward we had a larger cloud of mosquitoes than before.
At sunset last night I went to get repellent for Maia, and I and saw a mosquito fly out of the shower drain. We've been showering in the cockpit almost exclusively, for months. While we normally clean out the shower sump regularly, I couldn't recall the last time we'd even used it. So Evan went down and discovered the sump was providing refuge for a good-sized mosquito colony, which he exterminated.
But it was one of those things we had never thought of…
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 20, 2010

Race Day


At the startline
 The saying goes that when you have more than one sailboat going the same direction you have a race.
Unless you’re talking about cruising sailboats.
As a rule cruising sailors don’t race—it would mean we’d have to put crap away and use a bunch of sails and stuff, which is work.
After we popped our spinnikar
 But today there were five boats heading the same way and Rich from Third Day proposed a race. After a bit of guilt tripping, peer pressure and bribery everyone signed on and a race time of 11:30 am was decided on (mostly to take advantage of the fact it was shaping up to be an unprecedented downwind run and we didn’t want to miss out on the easy sailing.)
watching Just a Minute cross the finish
 The next few hours were spent getting the boats race ready—I noticed Just a Minute storing away a bicycle and we wondered if we should do something with the huge water totter we have on the foredeck.
Maia was pleased to have an excuse to use her sailing gloves
 On the stroke of roughly 11:30 we all were almost ready to cross the line. We decided to fly the spinnaker (we have a go-fast image to live up to…) but it took us about five minutes to get the twist out. Fortunately that didn’t lose us too much time and when it finally popped out we accelerated ahead of the crowd.
Five miles later we were crowned the winners.

By a few minutes anyway.
Hotspur crosses the line.
One of the fun aspects of the sail was for most of the boats it was their first race ever. And even those who swore they weren't competitive gave it their all. It was pretty cool to see boats with *all* their sails flying. Most of us get a bit lazy and sail with the fewest number of sails needed to get where we’re going and still leave our awnings up and the bicycles out…
after we got the wrap out of the spinnaker --photo by S/VThird Day

The Photo Shoot-AKA Marital Miscommunication

It seems like we're in the midst of the cruiser's birthday season. Maybe it's just the way the odds work out, but five of the current eight kids and several of their parents all have birthdays in the span of time we're up here. (And those who don't have birthdays have anniversaries…)
Right now the six kid boats are anchored in La Gringa to celebrate Amy from Third Day's 13th birthday (Jake from Savannah's 5th, Jack from Just a Minute's 13th, Maia's 9t and Caroline's 11th…) But while we were planning for Amy's birthday we (as in, I, it turned out…) realized Meri from Hotspur also has her birthday in just a couple of days.
As I mentioned in a previous post, birthday gifts are the do-it yourself type around here. The kid birthdays are pretty straightforward (Maia made Amy a beautiful journal) but the adult birthdays are a bit tougher. Last time we were out, we hit on the perfect gift-Evan, being a fine naval architect, is able to do an excellent line drawing of just about any boat. His drawing, combined with a portrait of the person on their boat (when we were able to develop them) turned out to be a huge hit with all the recipients.

These days he's not drawing as much, but we still find boat pictures, or even better, SAILING pictures are really well received. I also know Meri really wants a picture of Hotspur under sail. So sometime back when we were in Escondido we all made a loose plan to photograph each other under sail. The problem with loose cruiser plans is they rely a lot on serendipity, which is not always forthcoming especially when you have husbands in the picture...
 So here we are two days from Meri's birthday and we haven't a single picture of them under sail. I mentioned to Evan that the trip to get to Amy's party would be the perfect time to get a sailing picture. Then I asked Jim to sail their boat to our destination (we were only moving 5 miles in light wind) and said we'd follow them out and take a photo or two.
When it came time to leave Evan didn't seem to realize I meant right then, and began making lunch. By the time I made my goal clear, Hotspur was 20 minutes ahead and almost half-way to our destination. While we hurried to catch up, our windless switch packed it in, again. As soon as we sorted that out, we got the anchor up and throttled ahead. Then I wrapped the dinghy painter around the prop and sliced it in half--setting the dinghy free while we drifted with no engine. Once we got the dinghy back and the prop cleared Hotspur had gained a half hour on us. So we left BLA at full throttle and started the chase.
Hotspur was clearly going to win.

So Evan proposed he pursue them in the dinghy: An idea that seemed fine until he actually got out into the current and nearly became airborne in the short, steep chop. While he negotiated the waves with Maia, I tried to turn on the auto pilot to get the big boat sorted out. The auto pilot refused to work-so I watched him from the wheel and made running dashes to take down awnings and get the charts out-just narrowly avoiding putting us on the sand bar....
 Eventually it was clear that because of the messy seas Hotspur would reach the anchorage long before Evan and Maia would catch them-so I called Jim and hinted to the fact we were really, really trying to get their picture. Right. Then. He took pity on Evan and tacked back toward the dinghy. Evan shot off frame after frame and the photo shoot finally happened.

When Evan got back to Ceilydh he and Maia made a great mid-ocean transfer back onboard and then we promptly lost the dinghy. After making the second dinghy recovery of the day we were back underway. No doubt the four boats we were travelling in company with were wondering what the heck we were up to (you can't explain a mission like this over the radio because everyone listens in…)
A few minutes later we pulled into La Gringa, where our anchor wouldn't set on the first go. Because the windless switch is broken.
The photos are really nice though.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 18, 2010

Yogurt and Granola Bars

I've mentioned before that one of my regular writing gigs is a green living column for a Canadian magazine. The ironic thing about the column is I rarely write about life on the boat. The main reason is it's a hyper-local urban magazine, so I'm sort of pretending to be in Vancouver for most of my columns (my editor knows though;). Another reason is when you live in a city, or anywhere near civilization, you have access to all sorts of fancy products that help you to be a more eco-aware consumer. Just try to find a pen made out of compostable cellulose that writes with soy ink in BLA…
The funny thing, when you don't live in a place that lets you purchase a green-conscious, is you simply have to make due. I don't recall the last time I was able to buy an organic anything, let alone a hand-made, net-zero impact toy… But, despite this, I think we're probably as green as we've ever been.
The reason goes beyond the fact there is nothing to buy (although that does help…) Cruising gives us time to experiment a bit. I'm learning to make things I've never tried before. Some of it is out of simple necessity: We all had stomach aches and were missing our daily yogurt. BLA only has yogurt drinks for sale, which are not only high in sugar, but come in small plastic bottles (something we really try to avoid). So I pulled out a yogurt recipe (got to love my Laurel's Kitchen cookbook-it's our favourite out here) and discovered I could take one bottle of that nasty sugary stuff, mix it with three cups of powdered milk (heated to 110 F), leave it in a glass container kept at about 90 F (really not hard to do in the desert) for about 5 hours and voila: yogurt. (After that initial yogurt I've just saved a ¼ cup from each batch as starter for the next one.) It may not be organic, but it's free of added chemicals and doesn't come in a container we end up tossing away.
We also stumbled across the world's easiest granola bar recipe when I couldn't find anydecent looking ones  to buy. Again, not organic, but they are easy to make from the ingredients available here: One can of sweetened condensed milk, 3 cups of oatmeal and 4 cups of assorted trail-mix stuff all mixed together and smooshed into the bottom of a 9x11 pan and baked at 350F for 20 minutes. No wrappers to toss and we get to use up all the bits of stuff hanging out in the cupboard…
I love that I'm part of a community where making due is a skill we all take pride in. When it comes to birthdays we all make each other little gifts from the items we have aboard. When it comes to potlucks, there's no running to Costco for a fancy tray, instead it's perfectly okay to experiment, and even imperfect hors d'oeuvres are always appreciated.
There are moments when I miss being able to visit my favourite organic grocery store and stock up on fair trade chocolate (especially when I'm contemplating the Mexican option) or organic wine (see previous comment) but the satisfaction that comes with doing it ourselves is pretty amazing.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 17, 2010

El Grito

At just before dawn on the 16th of September 1810 a Roman Catholic priest called Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla called for an uprising, encouraging the people of Mexico to throw off their Spanish oppressors and revolt, “My children: Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen by three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? Tierra y libertad!”


Although independence from Spain still took a decade of fighting to obtain, September the 16th is Mexican Independence Day. And considering this is the 200-year anniversary of the revolution (although independence wasn’t actually granted until September 27, 1821) even the tiny village of Bahia Los Angeles is having a shindig.

 



We’ve noticed that Mexicans will celebrate just about anything. It’s hard to keep the revolutions straight (Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexican Army over the French in 1862, and then there are the festivals from the 1910 revolution, when Panch Villa became a folk hero…)

We headed to the little town square around 8pm. Not long after we got there the performances began. We think that every child in the area (plus a few that were passing through) was given a costume and pressed into service. The kids danced their way through a narrated tale of Mexico’s history and across the country’s landscape—we heard about pirates, and revolutions, and a whole list of heroes.

 


While we watched the dancing, we ate and drank, and the kids explored—they headed to a decrepit bouncy castle and then discovered a pony that was offering rides. I joked with Ethan (from Eyoni http://eyoni.blogspot.com/) that no doubt one of our girls would be on the pony when the fireworks started. He said it would be five-year-old Zada, because they had just had an extreme fireworks encounter at a 4th of July party.

As the formal part of the celebration wound down and the flag was raised and the Grito made:

Mexicans!
Long Live the Heroes that gave us our Fatherland!
Long Live Hidalgo!
Long Live Morelos!
Long Live Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez!
Long Live Allende!
Long Live Aldama and Matamoros!
Long Live National Independence!
Long Live the Independence Bicentennial!
Long Live the Centennial of the Revolution!
Long Live Mexico!
Long Live Mexico!
Long Live Mexico!


Then the fireworks started. There weren’t a lot of them, but the pony didn’t like the explosions. He reared, and Zada--who was clinging to his back, and Maia--who was beside her on the ground, began to scream. In the chaos Zada was rescued and Maia ended up in my arms.

The fireworks continued to light up the sky. Music blared. Tequila flowed.

 
 ¡Viva México!

September 16, 2010

Sperm Whales

I have to admit--we didn't realize we were seeing Sperm Whales when we were in the midst of the pod. Sperm Whales aren't noted as a common species in the Sea of Cortez and I've never seen them before. So when we sighted the pod--I just thought it was a group of ugly fin whales.
But it turns out the huge toothed whales are in the Sea to catch the giant squid--which are also here right now. In retrospect it is a bit disconcerting to realize how close we were to the huge creatures. They are known to be aggressive animals and have the distinction as being the only whale to ever sink a whaling ship.

Our encounter though was peaceful, and memorable.

September 14, 2010

Whale Sharks-3rd time lucky

You could say we've been tracking the truck-sized fish-albeit badly. First we arrived in La Paz a day after they began their northern migration. Then we heard they were in Escondido, but also missed them there. When we arrived in BLA I thought we might be in for the same results. Everyone we asked said they had been practically tripping over the mammoth sharks right up until the day before we arrived.
whale shark fin on the surface
 Locating a school of fish, where each is the size of our boat, is trickier than you might think. But I asked a lot of questions and learned we needed to be on the lookout for a fin and tail on the surface. I also discovered that the whale sharks tend to cruise in schools through the shallow water in the south bay-from the village of BLA down toward La Mona, a distance of five miles. Narrowing my search down to a 5-mile swath seemed simple, after all, we'd already come 350 miles in our search for them.
This morning, before I even had my morning coffee, I was out on deck with the binoculars pressed to my eyes. Almost immediately I spotted a fin not far from the boat. I watched as it drifted lazily, thinking it was moving at the right speed, but seemed a bit small. Maybe it was a sea lion with a deformed flipper… Despite my doubt I rounded Evan and Maia up. We grabbed our snorkeling gear and piled into the dinghy. I directed Evan to where I had seen the fin--and saw nothing. We motored around for another 10 minutes then called it quits. Finding the world's biggest fish was going to be trickier than I hoped.
there is something wonderful about the fact that the world's largest shark is not only gentle, but has yellow polka dots...
 I spent the morning in a dejected state. Occasionally I checked the water but it wasn't until I recalled that in La Paz Mike and Hyo from Io had followed a tour boat out to the sharks that I had hope. This isn't a tourist Mecca but I scanned the south bay for pangas and actually found one sitting in a quiet cove. We loaded back into the dinghy and sped toward it.
Sharks!

It was clear as soon as we arrived in the little cove we'd found the sharks. I saw the fins on the surface (exactly like the one I'd seen earlier in the morning, and far smaller than I would have expected.) Three or four of the huge filter feeders swam around us-first fins, then yellow spots and stripes suddenly appearing out of the murky green. Maia thought twice about jumping in after a particularly large shark cruised under the dinghy, dwarfing us, but she dove in soon after Evan did.
Evan encounters a little juvenile
 The whale sharks seemed unbothered by visitors and were potentially even curious about us. They'd circle around us, swimming closely enough for us to touch them (while I back paddled and emitted high-pitched squeals.) Their size and bulk wasn't intimidating though-they swam slowly and moved with gentle full body swishes. It was more the way they kept surprising us that made me squeak. After doing a circle or two the sharks would dive and disappear. But just when we gave up on seeing them again they'd reappear, swimming at us head on.
Having a huge shark (which despite its cheery polka dots, still looks like a shark) swim directly for you is, umm, invigorating. But the only real hazard is being hit by the massive tail. The sharks only reach a whopping 5 km/hour in speed but their big tail swings through a large powerful arc. We tried to keep our bodies between Maia and the shark-to keep her clear of the tail. But at one point a particularly intrusive shark separated us and Maia, in her need to be by my side, levitated over the shark's broad back to get to me.
The experience was a phenomenal one. We wished the water was clearer and that we brought our better camera-but that hour long swim is locked in our memories.
Check out the great pictures by Andy on the blog Savanah.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 13, 2010

Setting Sun


We promised Maia that we'd take a few special photos to commemorate her 9th birthday in the Sea of Cortez. The setting sun decided to play a part in the moment. We wish for our sweet, adventurous girl a lifetime of beauty.

Unwanted Wildlife in Our Rice

Our rice has bugs. I noticed them the other night. I rinsed the rice and little black bugs floated to the surface. I thought briefly about tossing it—but there are no stores here. So while I dream about living in a place where I can throw away buggy food I get to embrace the 'waste nothing' lifestyle and add rice to the list of flour, polenta and pasta as things that need to be rinsed or sifted before use.

We're really careful when it comes to bugs—we don't bring cardboard aboard, we don't wear shoes inside(cockroach eggs) we try to freeze or refrigerate questionable grains (it kills some of the critters or at least slows their growth...), we transfer everything from the store bags to solid containers and, when needed, we banish buggy food to its own space. This all helps, but it doesn't make us immune.

The first time we went cruising I thought that having bugs was like having a social disease. We were expecting friends for dinner and the pasta I had purchased had little brown bugs. I was confident that I rinsed them away—but I couldn't decide about disclosure. Do you tell your dinner guests that there was unwanted protein running around in their food just an hour ago? Evan voted no (which probably won't surprise people who know him...) but I couldn't lie.

While watching our new friends as they lifted a forkful of pasta into their mouths I blurted, 'there were bugs in that.'

Our friends calmly chewed the pasta and one pointed with her fork at the fresh bread they'd brought, which was in my hand, slathered with butter and half consumed, "there were weevils in there."

Bugs are one of the less glamorous aspects of cruising. And people try not to talk about them. Just like rotting eggs, moldy fruit and flooding water tanks (which we also have) bugs don't really fit with the image of carefree tropical living. But keeping food edible (always choose the freshest unrefrigerated eggs you can find—fresh eggs will be bumpy at the ends, smooth eggs with faint dark spots are older and when you bring produce aboard rinse everything in a mild bleach and water solution then dry thoroughly before packing it away) is an ongoing effort. Especially as we get further and further from places that have stores.

The good news is nobody seems to be squeamish on our boat—although all of us do draw the line at anything that has reached the larvae stage...

----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 12, 2010

All in a Name--Canal de Ballenas


Most of the places we visit in the Sea of Cortez are named for saints or explorers—occasionally some places are named for their features or use. But like most things that were named long ago those names don't mean that much anymore.

Neptune must have been smiling on us today though (or he appreciated the little fish rescue of this morning) because as we journeyed up Canal de Salsipuedes (Leave if You Can Channel) and into Cannel de Ballenas (Whale Channel) we saw a big pod of dolphins, then a pod of 5-6 pilot whales and then a pod of 8-10 fin back whales. By now we thought we had reached our whale quota for the week, or month, and as we compared our photos against the identification guides we savoured the experience.

Whales are pretty easy to sight in the distance—especially on a calm day. And when I headed back out to my favourite lookout chair, I saw the unmistakable spouting of more whales in the distance. As the pod traveled south and we headed north we realized it was another pod of pilot whales—with their big fins and bulbous black heads they are easy to identify. This pod was much larger than the first and they stretched across our bows toward the shore and seemed as interested as us as we were in them. Just behind the pilot whales I realized there were much larger spoutings that had to come from a fourth pod. Within minutes we were amongst a pod of sperm whales. This was also a large pod and we watched the long sleek whales glide torpedo-like along the surface, before easing themselves under. It was good that we didn't learn until later that they are known to be aggressive to boats...

I don't think I can convey what it's like to travel through four pods of whales over the course of a few hours—but it's breath taking. We seem to work so hard to separate ourselves from the natural world, but when we stumble right into the midst of it, when we see how huge the creatures are and watch them interact with each other (and when we're lucky, with us), it's both humbling and magical.

Canal de Ballenas was probably given its name almost 300 years ago. And as I watched the final whale fade into the distance I wondered if the name will still be relevant 300 years from now.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

Engine Troubles

We've been enjoying the serenity of Cala San Francisquito; hiking, swimming, diving, reading, relaxing and recovering from colds but Bay of LA is still calling me. I really want a chance to see the whale sharks before they migrate again (we've just missed them twice). So despite the forecasted light northerlies, we had an early breakfast and caught the flood tide north.
We were just heading out the narrow entry when Evan noticed we had no cooling water coming out from the exhaust. Then he made a quick check of the engine and saw there was no water in the cooling water strainer. I throttled back and got the second engine going (we have an outboard for manoeuvring). Once we were clear of the rocky entry channel we shut down the diesel and made our way back into the anchorage by outboard alone.
After dropping the hook, Evan began checking for the obvious problems: the impeller looked fine, the pump belt was fine, and the strainer was clear. The next step was to head over the side and check for a blockage in the thruhull. We've been getting a lot of barnacle growth in these nutrient rich waters—so we guessed the thruhull might be blocked by growth.
Evan jumped over the side in his snorkel gear and began prodding at the fitting with a screw driver. To his surprise, rather than finding barnacles he discovered a small, disoriented fish. The fish had been subject to a fair amount of discomfort in his new home, but he swam off and seemed no worse for wear. When we fired the engine back up the cooling water did what it was supposed to.
So after saying a second goodbye to the other boat in the anchorage we pulled the anchor back up and headed back out. Our early start was now a late start—which is par for the course with us... The light northerlies (that we tried to avoid with an early start) had filled in and the current we hoped to ride was diminishing.
But we're underway and our fish is in search of a new home.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 9, 2010

San Francisquito

it's easy to ignore bad weather when this is the view...
Once you leave Santa Rosalia it's almost 80 miles to Cala San Francisquito, the next good anchorage. Making it either an overnight, or a very long day passage. The other detail that you need to factor in, is the further north into the Sea you get--the weirder the winds, the stronger the currents and the higher the tides. We pretty much ignored this detail, and when the boat hit 12 knots while sailing upwind in current riled seas that had 30 knots blowing across them, I started to wonder if a big heavy monohull might be the more comfortable way travel in conditions that changed seemingly every few minutes.
A few hours later, when we should have been sailing downwind at 6+ knots, but were crabbing across a channel at just under 3 knots, I found out from the folks on Hotspur that they had, had just as wet and uncomfortable a ride as we had. Strangely it made me happy to know none of us were terribly comfortable on the beautiful trip..
Today though—I've pretty much forgotten any discomfort that came with getting here. We're tucked into the calm little inner bay with Hotspur and two other boats. The air temp is a few degrees cooler than Rosalia and the water is clear and blue. On the night we arrived, which was Maia's birthday, there were fireworks on shore. We ate cake and drank Sangria while the sky lit up.
You could pass days in a place like this and lose track of the hours and then the weeks. This morning Meri and I set off on one of the dusty roads past the three or four buildings that make up the settlement and walked until we hit a long exposed beach with crashing surf. On the way back we passed a pile of oyster shells—and admired the mother of pearl interiors and wondered about the black pearls they may have contained. Later in the day Evan and I set off for a dive with Terry and Dawn from Manta and learned to recognize black coral and how to negotiate a strong current. Tomorrow I plan to hike along the ridge that borders the anchorage until I reach an old stone fence that had been a mystery to me until Dawn told me what it was for.
the stone fence looks close to the anchorage--but it took almost an hour of hot hiking to get to it
I think this cow didn't make it
 The fence is strange and out of place. Built painstakingly on the side of a steep hill it was once a cattle enclosure. In the early days of the settlement, before there were roads, they raised cattle around here. Boats would come for the cows, but they were too big to make it very far into the bay. So the farmers would drive the cattle along the ridge and down into the fenced pen, and from the stone pen they somehow were driven straight downhill another 30 or so feet and into the water—there the waiting boat would lift them by slings into its hold.

My guess is the cows didn't like it. But the old stone fence is still beautiful.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 8, 2010

Mahi Mahi for Me

I have to say, I'm awesome at hooking fish. Pretty much every time I toss a line out something (mostly mahi mahi or dorado, these days) takes my lure. The problem tends to come with actually getting to eat the dorado. The first few dorado I hooked threw my lure—but then I switched to barbed hooks and worked on perfecting my 'getting them to the boat technique'.
Once I had a way to keep the fish on the line, it was time to learn to play them. I find hand lines easier than rods to use and like the control of pulling in hand, over hand—while trying to keep the fish on the surface. This has worked perfectly for about the past 5 fishes. The first time I sorted it out was with a female dorado. Once I got her to the boat I simply pulled her aboard. Once I got her on deck the fish was tired, I was triumphant and Evan was off in a locker... Somehow we had miscommunicated what it was that I was doing, and he went to find a glove to hold the fish. The fish and I looked at each other for a moment or two, then she heaved herself off the deck and swam away.
The next efforts had a similar outcome. I'd get the fish to the boat and we'd try one technique or another to land it and then the fish would swim away. Other cruisers began to feel sorry for us and just give us fish—because while some fish stocks are low, there's no lack of dorado these days and everyone (but us) is eating plenty of it.
Jim on Hotspur finally took pity on our situation and walked us through baby step, by baby step what to do when we hooked a fish. Then today—while making the long passage from Santa Rosalia to San Fransiquito (Yes! We've headed north.) we got to put his tips (and the gaff Hotspur gave us) into action. I played the big bull dorado for a bit while Evan got the gaff, and Maia and Carolyne grabbed the towel of death, a knife and a bucket. Then I pulled the fish alongside the boat (but not out of the water) and Ev gaffed him (simpler to write than to do), then Even brought him to the deck and we covered his head with the towel (which soothed him), while he relaxed Ev tied a line to his tail (overkill but...), then we lowered him headfirst (towel and all) into the bucket and Ev lifted the towel enough to see and slice his gills.
Okay, fishing is gruesome.
But with Maia a newly declared vegetarian it's the only meat she will consider eating. And it's her birthday today so this means rather than the spaghetti and veg sauce she had settled on (after every other option got ruled out due to lack of ingredients) she gets to have fresh grilled mahi mahi.
Maia got fish, fireworks and a b-day cake for her 9th b-day
and a trapeze from dad:)
 For our next post we'll write about our 80 mile sail. Evan figures he reefed and unreefed both sails 7-8 times through the early morning hours. Our peak speed was 12 knots (which was when we put the double reef in the main) and our lowest speed was two knots (we shook the reefs out for that one). Suffice to say it's going to be a low key b-day celebration. But we're all thrilled to finally be close to our planned 'summer' destination...
Fishing info: We use two 60' polypro hand lines to fish (one from each hull). One has a pink squid the other has a cedar plug. Fish like both lures pretty much the same. Although tuna tend to lean toward the plug and dorado seem to prefer the squid.
----------
radio email processed by SailMail
for information see: http://www.sailmail.com

September 5, 2010

Chubasco—the anatomy of a storm

This is what a storm looks like when it's breaking down. When it's pumping you don't turn on the computer and take a screen shot...

Last night we got the weather we’ve been hoping to avoid. When we pulled down the satellite images of the Sea of Cortez there were massive areas of convection on the mainland side, which were moving our way. After making our own forecast of, ‘we’re going to get smacked’ we checked Stan’s Chubasco forecast by SSB: 

“Tonight on the Mainland there is almost continuous convection on the beach from Mazatlan north to Kino. All of this convection is expanding and moving to the west. I don't think the convection will survive the trip across the Sea, but it might. So I would say there is a chance of a Chubasco all along the Baja peninsula. If it were me, I would go to bed early and get up at 1am local time and see what it looks like.”

Stan seemed a bit more optimistic than we felt, but we prepared the boat for a blow and I headed to bed. Just before Evan joined me we got a call by VHF from a boat anchored across the Sea in Guaymas—he let us know they had just been nailed by a Chubasco and that it was coming our way.

Around 11pm we were woken by chilly rain drops that felt as big as robin’s eggs. When a storm is strong enough, it blows out big rain drops, not the little ones associated with a typical approaching rain. Evan popped his head out the forward hatch and discovered that not only was the sky bright with lightning but a wall of rain was headed our way.

We both jumped up and went through the motions of preparing for a storm—I turned on the motor to relieve stress on the anchor in the gusts. And Evan closed hatches, got our instruments on, and lowered our lightening grounding system. Then he took over the wheel and I put as many of our electronics as would fit into the oven and then put the overflow into the pressure cooker—basically creating a low-tech Faraday Cage. (Check out this great article on lightning protection for tips and ideas.)

By now we had a steady 25-30 knots of wind. By Chubasco standards this was a small blow. What we had though was a lot of nearby lightning and cracking thunder. I took solace in the fact there are some tall mining structures near us (and a very tall mast on S/V Third Day), making it unlikely we’d take a direct hit. As the wind let up, the heavy rain continued—it looked like all that would happen in this blow is we’d get a good boat clean.
video
post-chubasco lightning--not as dramatic as mid-chubasco lightning, but we were busy then
 
After an hour, conditions eased and the storm seemed to have passed. But we were still seeing lots of lightning out to sea. When we fired up the computer, we discovered all we experienced was a very small cell that had broken off the main one—and that the huge area of convection that stretched from the mainland and ¾ of the way across the sea was still to come. Our guess was if that cell didn’t break down, we would be hit much harder within the hour.

I called the other boats in the anchorage to let them know the bad news (so they wouldn’t be caught off guard by a second storm). Then we waited, and waited. I dozed off and Evan later fell asleep while reading. The storm dissipated and as much as, ‘and nothing happened next’ doesn’t make for good story telling, it does make for good cruising…

September 3, 2010

New Camera

 Evan
We have been enjoying using our new Canon 7D DSLR. Much better autofocus than our aging 20D, a bigger viewfinder and other treats.

One aspect that is still a bit hard to grasp is the high ISO capabilities. The picture below was taken at night, hand-held, in very dark conditions. 12,800 ISO. To somebody coming from a film background, where 3200 was the highest speed film I ever used (once) and 800 was really high speed, this offers unprecedented ability to take pics when it's darker than you can easily see...



Old copper mining equipment on the waterfront, Santa Rosalia

In Control



If you read anything about cruising, one of the terms that tends to come up over and over is “radio net” or just “the net”. The term refers to the short and long-range radio programs that happen on VHF, SSB or Ham radio. The nets are designed to help cruisers share relevant and interesting information. In the case of the VHF nets, the focus is on orienting cruisers to a new town, while the long range SSB and Ham nets keep us up to date on weather and let us keep track of our friends.

The cool thing about all of the nets is they are run by volunteers. This is a pretty impressive feat when you consider that a cruising region may have as much as an 80% turnover in boaters from one year to the next. The only way this can work is if everyone who can, takes an active role.

Last night Evan jumped into the net control position on the Southbound Net. We’ve been planning to participate in one of the SSB nets for a while—but it wasn’t until Meri, from Hotspur told us that the Net Control party was well-worth attending (and only people who have done net control get to go) that Evan made the leap.

Basically the role of net controller is a host position. The net control facilitates the agenda and makes sure only one boat is talking at a time. I might be biased but I think Evan did an awesome job for his first effort (and based on her Dad’s good showing Maia is eager to give it a try at some point.)

While we don’t tune in to the net every evening we have found they can be a a great social outlet if we've been on our own for a bit—we’ve first ‘met’ several boats over the radio and began building friendships before even meeting each other IRL--in real life (as they say online).

Nets change times and frequencies every so often but fairly current information on which nets are going on in Mexico can be found here: http://www.docksideradio.com/west_coast.htm

The Southbound SSB net is currently:
Time: 0055  UTC
Frequency: 8122 kHz Upper Side band; then switch to 4054 kHz at 0115  UTC
Weather Briefing: at 0100  at 8122 kHz with Don Anderson,  except for Sunday night

September 2, 2010

The 8am Whale

This isn't Ocho, she arrives before coffee and I'm too slow with the camera. It's a minke whale in the St Lawrence that I saw in July. Ocho is about the same size.
The first time I heard the heavy puff I was barely awake. I was standing on deck taking in the rising sun, the calm water and the leaping mobulas. The puff, I thought, must be a sea lion breathing, or waves hitting the rocks. Then the puff came again.

The sound of a whale breathing is hard to mistake. To breathe a whale expels water and air from their blowhole(s) then inhales air into its lungs. On the surface they breathe every 2 minutes or so. A dive can take them underwater for anywhere up to an hour, depending on the species. My puff came at regular intervals: one every 1-2 minutes for three puffs, then a five minute break. Then it repeated itself.

It seems obvious, now, that I should have been looking for a whale. But when you’re anchored in a quiet cove you don’t expect one of the world’s largest mammals to pop in for a visit. But this is what Ocho did, every morning at about 8am she would swim past the anchored boats at Isla San Carlos. Sometimes Ocho would surface only three or four times and then disappear, while other times she’d do a few laps and keep us guessing as to where she’d surface next.

I started drinking my coffee out on deck, trying to get a good view of the whale. Unlike a grey whale or an orca, Ocho only surfaced briefly to breathe. Her dorsal is small and well back along her body. She isn’t very big. My guess initial guess, based on her size, was she’s a minke. But minkes often travel in pods and Ocho seemed to be on her own.
A full grown finback is a stunningly huge creature. They tend to keep to the same habits, which makes me think Ocho might be a young finback.

On our last morning out at Sweet Pea I decided to try for a better look. Before the first telltale puff I headed out in the kayak. Ocho showed up right on schedule, a few hundred meters away from me. This time when she came up and I saw where her small dorsal was placed on her long back, I decided she must be a juvenile finback (there’s a resident pod in the Sea of Cortez). I watched her surface and dive a few more times as she moved away from me, then continued my paddle, satisfied I knew what I was seeing.

An hour or so later I was swimming with the girls off our boat when the puff came again. It was louder this time and echoed off our hull. When we looked for Ocho we saw her surface nearby. The girls squealed in amazement and delight. But I just stared hard at her fin. I was undecided about her species again. “I wish I knew what she is,” I told Maia.
“I know,” Maia told me, “She’s magic.”

September 1, 2010

Cruiser With a (Cortez??) Pearl Earring


The glass case was dusty, its contents looked half forgotten, but the shop keeper pulled out several of the pearl earrings for Meri and I to inspect. The pearls were black and iridescent, and based on the shape and texture they seemed real enough. The jewellery, the shop keeper told us, was made by prisoners in the Santa Rosalia jail. The pearls, he said, came from the Sea of Cortez.

The pearl is part of the Sea’s almost forgotten history. From 1500 to 1800 Mexico was the world's main source of black pearls. Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette both sported jewels that came from the Sea of Cortez. For almost 300 years ships came from Spain, England, Holland and Russia to trade for the jewels and in response native divers dove for the oysters, killing over a hundred of the creatures just to obtain 3-4 quality pearls.

‘Pearl fever’ outstripped the ability of the “Sea of Pearls” to naturally produce. And as supply dwindled, diving for pearls became progressively more dangerous. The divers forced themselves to go further and deeper, and they returned with fewer and fewer rewards. By 1800, or so, the industry had all but collapsed.

In 1893, the world’s first commercial cultivated pearl oyster farm was started on Isla Espiritu Santo, near La Paz. At its peak, the farm grew 10-million black-lipped pearl oysters and employed over a thousand workers. Compania Criadora de Concha y Perla was mainly in the business of producing mother of pearl—but a surprising by-product was discovered when it turned out that over 12% of the oysters also produced good-quality black pearls.

When the Mexican revolution came, the pearl farm was destroyed. In the decades that followed there were a few poorly executed efforts to rekindle the pearl industry. But for the most part Cortez pearls were forgotten. The oyster beds became extinct and the fabled black pearls of Tahiti (which are not as luminous or colourful as Cortez pearls) took their place in the market.

Knowing this history made me question what I was seeing in that half-empty Santa Rosalia shop that also sold discount flip fops, faded pool toys, and clothes pins. The pearls were imperfect, their shapes irregular and the colours ranged from grey-green to charcoal—but all had the same kind of glowing opalescence that once entranced royalty.

After checking online for pictures of the Cortez pearl, it seemed as though Meri and I had stumbled across something a bit mysterious. We questioned the shop keeper carefully—but all he knew, or could tell us, was that the pearls were local. Who harvested them and whether they were natural or cultivated, we never learned.

A few fishermen still find natural pearls, though not in the numbers they once did. Rumour is they guard their secret oyster beds and the best pearls quickly find their way to dealers of rare gems. Cultivated pearls are grown in two locations; there is a very small government facility near La Paz—with a production that’s said to be fairly poor--and there’s a larger commercial facility, Perlas del Mar de Cortez, near Guaymas (a ferry ride from Santa Rosalia). Perlas del Mar has been producing pearls commercially from rainbow-lipped Pteria sterna oysters for about 10 years. The farm only produces between 4000-5000 pearls a year, and most of the gems go to dealers and collectors.

The Santa Rosalia pearls though, they remain a mystery. They cost a fraction of the cultivated Perlas del Mar pearls and are not nearly as perfect. It also seems unlikely that they are natural pearls, there are too many of them. So we have no idea where they are actually coming from. 

**The update is we were taken. The pearls are your standard issue Chinese freshwater pearl which are dyed using a variety of nasty techniques to look black.