August 31, 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.

August 30, 2010

Women and Cruising

Check it out- we're featured on the "Women and Cruising" Blog!

The site supports and inspires women cruisers, and they've recently started a feature on cruising families. We're one of twelve different families are answering a set of questions about our experiences cruising with children: what are our biggest challenges in going cruising? What's a typical day? How do we handle education?

They're adding a different family every week, and the Ceilydh crew was introduced this past weekend. The Totem crew was featured a few weeks ago too.

You can link to our story, and all the others, from here:

Kathy Parsons is the force behind the site. She did a great job of coming up with interesting questions and finding a good cross section of cruising families to feature.  I hope you enjoy it.

August 28, 2010

Teach Your Children

The geological history of Baja California is a complex one. In the Mesozoic era the North American plate collided with the Pacific plate causing the mountains to rise. The North American continental plate was thicker so the Pacific plate went under it and formed a subduction zone, complete with lava spewing volcanoes.
If your eyes are beginning to roll back into your head, and you catch yourself snoring, I don’t really blame you. Except for a special few, geology isn’t that sexy a read. But we’ve discovered something while sailing through our giant classroom; if you get out into the environment, you get curious. When you get curious, you ask questions. And the answers, which might seem dry and uninteresting if you’re given them before you ever get a chance to be inquisitive, well, they become fascinating.
It was with this in mind that we woke all the kids early this morning and marched them into the desert. As they shook the sleep cobwebs from their heads, Evan told them how the Pacific plate (which the Baja and all land west of the San Andreas fault are part of) began to slowly drift north and tore the Baja peninsula off of the Mexican mainland. Then about how 5 million years ago the sea rushed in and the Sea of Cortez was born. And then, when the last ice age ended, the sea rose dramatically and the islands, including the one we were hiking across, were formed.
Maia and the kids from Hotspur and Third Day learn how the rock they are sitting on was formed
Last year we used a BC correspondence program for Maia. It was flexible and comprehensive, and it gave us enough structure that we didn’t have to think about what to teach while we were still sorting out the boat. The downfall of the program was it required us to mail back large work packages every month (a detail that became more and more difficult) and it also required that Maia get online for a certain portion of her work.
This year, we’re going with geography based education. This means, when you’re in the desert, you learn about the desert (while still learning math and English on the side). Learning this way also lends well to group field trips and multi-age learning. The little kids learn to distinguish igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks and get a brief overview of plate tectonics, while the older kids can go more in depth.
Carolyne was full of questions and interesting facts (although she didn't need to raise her hand...)
The key, for us, when we’re reinventing the educational wheel, is to make good use of every resource we can. We love it when other cruisers offer to teach skills (be it slacklining or marine biology). And I’m always on the hunt for exceptional books and websites such as this one:, which is all about the Sea of Cortez.
The result, we hope, will be a broad and exciting education that teaches Maia to think critically and to work hard at what she does. The unexpected by-product looks like it’s going to be my own enhanced education.
 Who knew that Baja California and the part of California that’s west of the San Andreas fault is eventually going to tear off the continent and become a very long island? That should make for some pretty awesome cruising…

August 27, 2010


A month or so ago our friend Meri from Hotspur mentioned she had bought spare snake bite kits, just in case she encountered cruisers who didn’t have them. Evan and I were slightly surprised by the offer because, unlike Meri, we haven’t really run into many snakes here, actually any snakes... But as Meri shared tale, after tale of snake encounters and near misses, I listened and then bought one of her spare kits.

There’s something vaguely disconcerting about hiking in a region that has 15 different species of rattlesnakes, plus another 30, or so, other types of snakes of varying levels of deadliness (although some have cheerfully alliterative names like the Espiritu Santo Sandsnake or the Partida Norte Nightsnake so as not to worry you.) But if, like me, you come from a place that doesn’t have much in the way of poisonous snakes, it’s hard to know how afraid to be.

When I think of rattlesnakes, I think of old John Wayne movies: The lovely damsel riding through a peaceful arroyo, only to be struck down by a rattler the size of an anaconda. Not even their name helps dispell the image of death. The Baja California Rattlesnake (the most common species around here) is Crotalus enyo in Latin. Crotalus comes from the Greek crotalon, meaning a rattle or little bell. The name enyo refers to the Greek mother of war. So basically the snake is showing up for war, with bells on. And the Crotalus atrox, or Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which is what our snake sort of looks like, ranks as one of the most dangerous snakes in the world (uhg)...

Like every scary animal that can kill us, rattlers have an image problem. They are easy to wipe out and several species are verging on extinction. But there are very few people who are interested in saving a snake.
I knew all of this, vaguely, when Meri, Lori (Third Day) and I went for a hike this morning. We decided to beat the sun and headed into a San Marcos arroyo for a pre-coffee hike.

There was no trail. But we made our way into the island's interior, marveling at the changing geology and and the stunning vistas. On the return trip we saw it all in reverse, but were as fascinated as we were on the way in. We saw humming bird nests and more lizards than we could count. We admired the rugged, gnarled trees and watched the light play on the rich red rock. We were making a plan to bring our kids back to see it all, when I just missed stepping on a rattlesnake.

Lori saw it though, and screamed. Then she made her way past it. Then we all looked at the snake, which looked back at us and Meri tried to sort out how to get past it.
“Will it chase us?” I asked, as it began to uncoil itself. The answer, it turns out, is no. Rattlers are shy and non-aggressive (except for maybe good old C. atrox...). And it seemed our rattler had finished sunning himself and simply wanted to move to a shady spot. “You should be taking pictures!” Meri told me as I backed away. Her suggestion snapped me out of my moment of fear and I became fascinated by the beautiful creature.

We watched him, for a while and discussed that this would have been a good time to be carrying our snake bite kits, and then we carried on.

August 26, 2010

Hurricane Frank

So here's the deal. If you follow Frank's track north, you'll pretty much run into us, which means that if Frank sticks to his current projected path that he will also run into us.

If you've ever been run into by a hurricane, or a tropical storm for that matter, you'll know it's not a recommended activity. High wind, heavy rain and storm surge are all bad for boats. And bad for the people who are on the boats.

So this is where it gets interesting. If you look at Frank’s probable track, most of the models have him turning a bit more back to the west and then starting to dissipate. But the thing with hurricanes is they don't necessarily follow the models. Sometimes they do the unexpected and the unforecast. The models can only predict so much. After that it’s just an educated guessing game.

So our plan is to keep monitoring Frank and high tail it north as soon as he starts to worry us. You might wonder why we don’t just go north now, but we’ve arranged to have some of our travel vaccination boosters in Santa Rosalia next week, so our plan was to stick around for those. Also, Rich from Third Day is up in San Diego and is bringing us back a few things—so we’re waiting for him to get back. And because Maia is turning nine in two weeks and we don’t want to get separated from the kid boats before her birthday…

But if Frank continues to make for us, we’ll need to reevaluate. Chances are that even if he did show up, he would be no more that a tropical depression. But hurricanes have been known to do some unexpected things. So we wait and watch, and fit in a little snorkeling and a few boat chores around the edges.

August 24, 2010

Year One

I have to admit, if I spend more than a week or two in a harbour I start to get restless. I become convinced that we never go anywhere or do anything. The fact that half my friends are either long distance sailors or travel writers probably makes this worse. But, just to reassure myself that we have done something this year. I put together a video recap...

August 22, 2010

If it Ain’t Broke…


Paint it.

An average cruising boat (at least in the circles we hang out in) has a to-do list that runs into pages. There are those occasional people who somehow put together a cruise-ready boat, and then pay someone else to maintain it. But for the rest of us, life revolves around repairing stuff when it breaks, fixing stuff so it won’t break, or installing new stuff after something breaks. 
In roughly that order.

 There are times though when nothing is actively broken, needing installed, or needing beefing up. When this happens, we move out of survival mode and into beautifying the boat. Actually, most of the time we go read a book, but this is why after living aboard for over a year the boat’s interior still needs painting.

When we first bought this boat six years ago, Evan told me it would take a year (or so) to build the cabin and get Ceilydh cruise ready, and then another few months to get her looking cosmetically good. The only stipulation I made was that I didn’t want to cruise on a half-finished boat. The boat ended up taking five years to get cruise ready and while it was more than half-finished when we finally left, it wasn’t finished, finished.
needs two more coats, then we'll do the white areas and the varnish...
 The parts of this boat that aren’t between 1-4 years old, are 23 years old. And I’m pretty sure the last time the wooden trim saw a lick of paint or varnish was roughly 23 years ago. I don’t know if it’s a man-woman thing, or a blind-not blind thing, but the all that old peeling varnish and battered paint makes me a bit crazy. Evan insists it’s not that noticeable and after all what’s more important to me, two functioning water tanks, or fresh paint. I kind of think it shouldn’t be an either, or situation. I should get to have a pretty boat and clean drinking water…

Although the water tanks are still a work in progress (we had a leak when we recently tested the first tank Ev rebuilt) but painting seems to be a job that is better suited to a hot Baja summer. So before we left La Paz we stocked up on paint, tape, and sand paper. The plan for the summer is that between more pressing repairs, we’ll paint. And varnish. And paint some more.

Today’s task is the galley. Goodbye, ugly, old water-stained wood. Hello, whatever colour the paint guy made us.

August 20, 2010

Afternoon Adventures

Add two more anchored boats and you have how the anchorage looked during our blow
We’re hanging out in the Santa Rosalia area, enjoying the town and the internet. After we leave here we understand there’s one pay-(a lot)-as-you-go internet cafĂ© in Bay of LA and that’s it. And considering I have a couple of research-heavy stories in the works, being in Santa Rosalia (or out at Isla Marcos where we can swim, fish and get Banda Anchas 3G service) is pretty much the best option as long as nothing too untoward is brewing in the south.

The problem with Santa Rosalia is it has a small, crowded, busy and very old (as in 140-years-old) harbour that has a bottom consistency of Jell-o. And not just your standard Jell-o; it’s more like that nasty Jell-o salad stuff, with chunks. So sometimes you hook a chunk (which could be anything from the wreck of a 19th century schooner to an old car) and sometimes your anchor simply drifts around in the Jell-o.

If all goes well, the boats at anchor (which are all crowded in a back corner) all drift around together and no one's the worse for it. But yesterday our flat calm, slight overcast day brought an afternoon blow that added some excitement to the place.

Big winds typically come at night; when people are home. But yesterday’s breeze picked up when half the folks were off their boats. And as the wind hit and we all pulled back into the sludge, some of us moved, and some of us didn’t. The first boat to start the slow drift was just upwind of us. We watched Francis Lee (whose owner Jesse was on shore) head straight between our bows, threatening to make us a trimaran.

As Francis Lee closed on us, we slipped out rode, until we were within a boat length of Third Day. But Third Day had nowhere to go because although Lori was aboard she couldn’t get the windless to work (and she also had a solid wall behind her). Meanwhile Hotspur was also on the move and was closing in on Third Day's port side. But Jim was aboard with 10-year-old Carolyne (who got a crash course in driving the boat in high winds and became a hero for the day).

Fortunately it’s a small town and Jesse got back to Frances Lee before she made any structural modifications to our hull. He picked up his anchor and moved. Jim picked up his and moved. Then for good measure we picked up ours to give Third Day a little space. While moving though we got garbage caught on our prop (the harbour is full of stuff…) and lost propulsion, which forced us to anchor a bit sooner than planned.

The fact it was daylight and the wind never got above 30 knots was our saving grace. That and the fact no one dragged quickly. The lesson though is this is not the place to be in bad weather. It’s a terrible harbour. Nice town, good internet, but a terrible harbour.

August 19, 2010

Scaring the Bejesus Out of Myself

I’ve begun daydreaming about the South Pacific. It isn’t that I’m not utterly enjoying where we are; I am. But as I read the letters and blogs from all the friends and the people we know who are cruising through the storied isles of Oceania, that particular adventure seems less like a someday-fantasy and more like an oh-yeah-that’s-where-we’ll-be-next-year scenario. The Tuamotos, Fiji and Tonga seem less like mystical fairy lands and more like our next destination.

I think this is the time where I should be researching. You know, actually pulling out a chart and a few guidebooks, and thinking about where we want to go and what we want to do in the six short months we’ll have in the region.

But I seem to be having a different reaction.
I can tell you how many cruising boats sank in the South Pacific this year: three. How many went up on reefs: four. How many capsized: one cat (their blog), two monohulls. How many lost masts: one.
I don’t think this is healthy. It’s not as though I’m afraid to go to the South Pacific. Okay, I am. But I’m always a bit afraid.
It’s more that I’m kind of morbid.

I was always the kid who would wander through graveyards, and read the grave stones, “The Lord Give and Take But this Time the Lord Taketh too Much” and develop elaborate stories for myself about how the people died. When I was pregnant with Maia, I obsessively read horrible outcome birth stories and convinced myself she wouldn’t see her first birthday. So it almost makes sense that rather than imagining Ceilydh anchored inside a pristine coral reef I tend to imagine her sitting, in pieces, on top of one.

The thing is, anticipation is half the fun in life. And if my anticipation of getting to those magical islands is tinged with so much anxiety I develop an ulcer, I’m really selling the experience short. So from now on I’m skipping the disaster stories. Going cold turkey. If a headline says “Cruising Boat Catastrophe in Ceva-i-Ra” I’m deleting it and moving on to the happy stories.
 Yup, that's what I'm going to do.

August 17, 2010


Maia, Carolyne and Amy enjoying their reunion
We had just returned to the boats after snorkelling with the folks on Hotspur when we saw the boat. Actually we heard it first. A frantic (no, it was enthusiastic) air horn blasting away, over and over.
Then as the monster boat got close, with laundry flapping from every line, we saw kids up on the bow waving and cheering.
Third Day! Aka S/V Hugeness.
Lori and Rich  toast their return to the cruising life with the only cold beer I had.

We haven’t seen Lori, Rich, Jason and Amy since we were in La Cruz together--and all our South Seas bound friends were departing. Since then they’ve headed to Mazatlan, bought a new boat in San Diego, travelled up to San Diego to retrieve it, sailed it back down the Baja to Mazatlan, transferred their gear from old Third Day to new Third Day, and then sailed non-stop from Mazatlan to here. Hotspur saw them more recently— when they also were in Mazatlan getting their own mid-cruise-boat-swap new boat set up.

Switching boats mid-cruise is more common than you might think. We’ve known several people who have done it. Most seem to do what Evan and I did—cruise for a while then stop to earn more money for the next boat and the next leg. But for growing families, who set out on one boat and discover they really enjoy cruising, and suddenly have large children rather than the little ones they left with, the overwhelming need for more space can come on rather quickly.

I know some people will argue for having the right boat, right off the bat. But for many people having the right boat seems to equal having a perfect boat. And honestly, those perfect boats never seem to leave the dock. There is always one more thing to do, or one more payment to make.

The other side of the ‘right boat’ argument is you can’t really know what you need until you are out here. No matter how many books you read, and how many seminars you attend, perfect boats aren’t created when you have a West Marine down the street and a reference book in your hand. They happen gradually, as you put on miles, and sort out your real needs and wants from all the theoretical ones that you thought made sense.

We have old friends (who are still cruising after 20+ years and who did their own mid-cruise-boat-swap about four years ago) who offered us this advice when it came to outfitting and choosing boats: Go with the simplest, least expensive version of whatever it is you need. If it doesn’t work, you can upgrade. But if it does work, and often it does, you’ve saved money and you’ve done something the easy way.

I guess the point I’m getting at is the same one that cruisers make over and over, don’t wait until its perfect, just go. You may end up needing a bigger boat, or a smaller boat (or one with more hulls) than the one you started off with.
these guys care less about the boat and more about the life
 But this isn’t a lesson you can learn at the dock.

August 16, 2010

Far From Home

Maia and Ann, taken on our visit home last month shortly before we learned her cancer had returned.
 I stood on deck last night with the cell phone pressed to my ear. The sky was glowing pink and red in the sunset and the mobulas were leaping free of the sea, in near flight.
“She’s gone,” my sister told me.
The sky seemed to grow brighter through my tears and a flurry of thoughts went through my mind, not the smallest of which was, 'I shouldn’t be here.'

By being here, where ever ‘here’ is for cruisers and nomads, means we can’t always be there, where ever that might be. For me, right now, ‘there’ is where my father and sisters are. It’s where my stepmother Ann quickly faded to a cancer we thought she beat three years ago. It’s where hushed voices recall a vibrant woman, where tears spill freely and people hug with grief.

When I hung up the phone I thought about how it was that I wasn’t there. The reasons are all sensible and sound. Things happened very quickly with my stepmum and by the time I knew I should go, a potential hurricane was forming. By the time that threat was gone and we knew it would be okay for me to leave, she had faded away.
I wouldn’t have arrived until today.

Grief doesn’t understand sensible and sound though. My arms want to hug my dad, who’s lost his best friend and partner in adventure. My tears want to mix with my sisters’ as we tell each other stories about the woman who took on three unruly little girls, with truly no clue about what she’d gotten herself in to. I want to walk in the garden she loved, and pick a flower or two...

I’ve often talked about the mixed blessings of this life—the wonders and the difficulties. This is one of them. By taking ourselves to the remote places in the world and seeing the sights and having the experiences that few get to have—we have to give something up. It’s like a fairy tale: the old sorceress gives us a life of magic and wonder, but in exchange we get to hold the grief and guilt that comes from not being there when we should be.

Good-bye, Ann.

August 13, 2010

Where We Are Now—Santa Rosalia

The sun is getting lower in the sky and we’re rocking and rolling. It’s not a late afternoon breeze—instead panga after panga is speeding out of the habour and into the Sea for an evening of squid fishing.

It’s a nightly event here.
The old mine looms over the town

This old square harbour, with its sheer stone walls that the waves bounce and refract off of, was built by a French company called El Boleo in 1884 when they opened a copper mine. The harbour was once filled with steamers and schooners—but now its crumbling walls are lined with fishing pangas and sailboats, like us.
Government building

Santa Rosalia is nestled in an arroyo. Its three main streets head inland from the water and contain an odd assortment of shops—most of them selling kids backpacks and costume jewellery. It’s a town that the term ‘faded glory’ was created for. A town of regal wooden buildings that are half-empty and have peeling paint, and a church that is thought to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel himself.
a detail from Eiffel's church

It’s also an industrial town; old locomotives, mining equipment and machinery line the streets or are cast aside. Steinbeck said that unlike most Baja towns which seem to grow in place, Santa Rosalia is the only town which feels built.

Strangely, or maybe not so unexpectedly, Santa Rosalia tends to be a town that cruisers love. It’s beyond hot. And there is no tourist infrastructure here. It is a local’s town. It’s basic and friendly. People notice when you arrive and greet you when they see you. There isn’t much to see or do, but sometimes you get lucky and the veggie truck comes while you’re here.
And then you get broccoli and maybe even asparagus.

August 12, 2010

Tis the Season

Hurricane season that is.
From about mid-August through mid-October conditions in the eastern Pacific are conducive for tropical cyclone (aka hurricane) formation. Tropical cyclones are often described as engines that are driven by warm, moist air. For a hurricane to form, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says several factors need to be in place:
  1. 80 degree, or warmer, water temperature, which is at least 150 feet deep.
  2. A low pressure area with wind disturbance.
  3. A lack of stability in the air, which allows clouds to develop.
  4. A centrifugal force, known as a Coriolis Force, stemming from the earth's rotation.
  5. Moist air, i.e., a thunderstorm, in the lower portion of the atmosphere.
  6. Low values (less than about 10 m/s [20 kts 23 mph]) of vertical wind shear between the surface and the upper troposphere. 

Once all these conditions are in place you get a weather report that looks like this:

today's weather report...
 The chance of this particular disturbance becoming more organized is 60%. And if that happens we switch from monitoring it twice a day, to watching it a bit more obsessively, waiting to see if it becomes a hurricane.
If it does become a hurricane we begin to watch its track. Hurricanes move at 10-20 miles an hour; which is quite a bit faster than our 6 knot motoring speed. So our objective is to predict its path and then get the heck out of the way.

Unfortunately hurricanes aren’t that predictable. So if we have any doubt at all about where a storm is going our plan is to move closer to one of the ‘hurricane holes’ in the northern Sea of Cortez. These are natural harbours that are small (to limit wave fetch) and have very small openings. The most popular tends to be Puerto Don Juan--the place where we sat out hurricane Fausto in 1996. But the very fact that it’s popular (despite its isolation) also means it can get really crowded. And being in a crowded harbour during a storm offers its own dangers…

Puerto Don Juan with a handful of boats--during a hurricane, it's packed
For now we are in wait and see mode. I'm trying to make a quick trip back to Vancouver between storm formations--but we never know which formation might have our name on it, so we watch and wait.

August 9, 2010

Flying Free from the Sea

Smack! Without warning, a mobula emerges from below the water near our boat, its long flat body glistens in the sunrise. Flap, flap, maybe a somersault or two, and then smack! It happens all around us. Elegant flips. Comical belly flops. Choreographed group leaps. I see one mobula leap a few times in a row; while others leap only once and then disappear. Then the school moves away; wing tips at the surface, they fly on.
 Both mantas and mobulas are members of the Family Mobulidae, a group of fish that we know very little about. I recently learned that we weren't the first to mistake mobulas for small mantas. Many people use the names interchangeably. With the locals, there is no distinction; any of the four species of mobulas in the Sea of Cortez (tarapacana, thurstoni, munkiana, and japanica) go by a single name: cubana or manta.
  In this anchorage, today, we have hundreds around our boat. It sounds like gun fire as they leap and tumble. There is no shortage of explanations for why they jump. Some researchers think it is to dislodge parasites. Others think it might be a crazy way of keeping fit or simply playing. Others believe the sound of the slap immobilizes krill—which makes it easier for them to feed. Maia believes they just want to fly—just like she does.
 It is hard to imagine, but this fish, which we know so little about, is under pressure. As the food fishery in the sea continues to fail, local fishermen are turning to the cubana. The meat is said to be stringy and strong tasting. And it barely earns the fishermen enough to pay for gas. But when there is not much left to eat you catch what you can.

 While we watch them leaping free from the sea it is hard not to feel shame. In John Steinbeck's memoir Log from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck wrote of a sea that was “ferocious with life.” “There was food everywhere. Everything ate everything else with a furious exuberance.” We are warned against anthropomorphizing the motives and emotions of the animals we encounter. But with creatures of the sea—which are so foreign and fantastical, it's hard not to imagine what they feel. Steinbeck called it “joyful survival”.

There are moments though when I encounter a reef, which should be thick with life, but it is nearly deserted that I long to see joyful survival. But then, the mobulas come. Few people have ever seen a school of rays glide by underwater. It's truly a thing of wonder, the salt water thick with strange and wonderful creatures as they fly past, living a life we barely understand.
 Once they go, I worry for them. They are easy prey for fishermen and there numbers are dwindling. But still they live with such exuberance. Explain those spectacular leaps however you will. To me it looks like joyful survival.

August 6, 2010

A Chubasco on Training Wheels

A classic thunderhead--and right in our way. we detoured around this one.
It's Chubasco season. This means on unpredictable nights, at some point after we're peacefully asleep, we'll suddenly wake to a violent thunder squall. The way to prepare for a Chubasco is to keep the boat ready to head to sea and have an escape route programmed into the GPS, just in case that pleasant anchorage turns into a gnarly lee shore.
We know this. But after a couple of months of peaceful nights, it's easy to get lax. Last night we left the laundry out, the awnings up and the dingy down. It was almost like we were taunting the wind gods.
So they slapped us, gently.
I woke first. At 2am I felt a strong gust-when I popped my head out the hatch I saw a massive lightning squall in the distance. The steps; awnings down, laundry in, dingy up, engine, depth sounder and radar on, were automatic. While we worked, the wind ramped up, the seas built, my hands shook and my mouth went dry.
We've been through squalls like these numerous times. In Florida and on the rest of the East Coast they were simply part of summer, but usually they happened in the afternoon and we saw them coming. Somehow though it wasn't the Florida or even the past Baja storms I thought of, as I watched the squall squat malevolently on the ridge across from us. I thought of the La Cruz storm.
Rather ironically, I've just sold a story about lessons learned from the La Cruz to Cruising World (slated for the safety at sea issue this winter). Even more ironically we ignored the lessons we learned. If the Chubasco had been a fast moving one that came toward us rapidly, while packing the typical 50-60 knot gusts, we would have maybe gotten as far as getting the awnings down. The dingy and laundry would have had to fend for themselves.
Instead the storm was pretty much stationary for two and a half hours. It sat several miles away and gave us plenty of time to think about our transgressions.
Lightning Grounding:
The one thing that did give me some piece of mind is Evan finished up a long planned lightning grounding system. Our boat contains a lot of carbon fibre; including the chain plates, so giving the lightning an easy way out of the boat is pretty vital. Our solution is relatively low tech: he attached a #1 gauge copper cable to the mast and attached it to a copper pipe which we lower into the water during a lightning storm.
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Life at Baja Speed

Maia demonstrating how to get through the Baja summer
When the water is 32 C (that's 90F for those who speak American…) and the air temp is hovering around 39 C (102F), and the humidity is high, and there is no wind, it's best to take life at a languid pace. This means, at most, you should only ever try to accomplish one task a day.
We know this. Mostly we embrace it. But today seemed like a good day to get stuff done. There was a boat to clean, garbage to burn, our stinky clothes were piling up and we're virtually out of beer and fresh food.
So after a beach run to burn stuff (Maia never even asked for a marshmallow to roast, oddly enough), we upped anchor and headed deeper into Bahia Conception. We had a vague plan of hitching a ride into Mulege, where there are stores. But after toiling over our mound of laundry (although the darks can wait, who wants to wear dark right now anyway…) we revised our plan. Standing beside a hot highway in the vain hope someone might take pity on us and drive us to Mulege, then reversing the trip, just so we could have food, seemed foolish.
Evan demonstrates the wrong way to spend a Baja day...
 We decided to see if the local tienda had much in stock. And after dropping $10 we are now reprovisioned to the tune of a dozen eggs, three onions, two tomatoes, a long life milk and beer. The rest of our shopping list was probably superfluous anyhow.
After shopping, we stopped in at Bertha's restaurant--the only one in the area and the first restaurant we've been in since our visit to Vancouver. We decided after all our hard work (basically laundry, garbage and shopping) that we best take the rest of the day off and eat our meals there. Especially because we only have a dozen eggs, three onions and two tomatoes to keep us going until we give in and go to town.
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August 4, 2010

Solar Panels

On our boat we use solar panels for generating 90% of the electricity we use aboard. When we are motoring the engine alternator provides a lot of power, but we are anchored a lot more than we are motoring.

We use a lot of electricity. The big consumers are the refrigeration system (especially when we are cooling many litres of water each day), the watermaker, and our main computer. So we have a lot of solar panels. Unlike most boats we don’t have a nice matched set – rather we have a 50 Watt panel from the old boat, 2 x 75 Watts that some nice friends donated to us, and a 85 W and a 90 W that were bought on Craigslist. Total power is 375 Watts which always seemed about enough (except in Southern California around Christmas time with lots of clouds and very short days).

Our friend Jim on Hotspur who has a similar amount of panels said that HE was getting as much as 25 Amps on sunny days. We were getting 15 A. (o.k. our 50 W panel is wired differently to the others and doesn’t show up on the ammeter, but still we should be getting more power). Out came the multimeter to determine if the panels were producing. All seemed to be producing their rated voltage. Hmmm. I threw a towel over the panels, one at a time. Di was inside checking the amperage. When we covered one panel, the amperage did not change. Clearly we had found the offending panel.

Our panels have individual wiring running to a common junction box, and then one large set of cables to the solar panel controller. I checked the wiring to the junction box but there was good continuity there. It was only when I wiggled the terminal strip inside the solar panel’s own junction box that the voltage dropped. The terminal strip was badly soldered to a circuit board. A little soldering and we were back in business. Another 2.5 Amps suddenly showed up on the ammeter.

We realized we have been operating with about 300 Watts of solar power the past year. What a bonus to gain that additional power! It’s going to be useful this summer as the refrigeration runs overtime in the very high heat (~35C during the day, 28C at night) we are experiencing. Overall we are very pleased with this amount of solar panels. We never have to run the engine to charge the batteries except around Christmas as I noted.

Technical note:
We use a Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000E controller. Works fine, but noisy on the SSB. We just open the breaker to the solar panels when we want to use the radio. The Nova Kool refrigerator controller and some cabin fans are also electrically noisy and have to be shut down when using the SSB.
the solar panels are fitted to our rather unorthodox but surprisingly light and affordable stern arch
once painted, you can barely tell that it's a fibreglass ladder supported by windsurfer masts

You Can’t Take it (All) With You

We have several containers of shells, and rocks, and other treasures aboard. There are pieces of rough jade and fossils from BC, western nassas and purple olives from Oregon, dog mouths and spotted unicorns from California, and coweries, trivia’s and stingray barbs from Mexico. Our collection is lovely. And growing. And some of the best shelling opportunities are still to come.

We’ve tried to limit what comes aboard—suggesting Maia only choose the best sample of each shell, or that she can’t have it until she can identify it. I’ve tried to come up with art projects that include shells--preferably the kind that can be given as gifts… But no matter what limits we have in place, it’s hard to say no to an 8-year-old when her hands are filled with treasure and her face is lit up with joy.
 Our cruiser’s guide said the beach at Punta Santa Domingo is a good shelling beach. And when Maia and I went for a walk on it yesterday her hands, pockets and the fold of her shirt were soon crammed with, “such beautiful and perfect shells!!” I thought we may finally sink the boat.

Then we found a large pink heart made of shells—public art on the beach. Someone else’s solution to the fact there are just too many shells to keep.
 Within moments Maia’s perfect shells were part of the collaboration. For a half-hour she added to the design and planned future beach art exhibitions. Perhaps we could have an entire gallery of beach art, she suggested. Maybe her friends would help her create pictures.
 Her shells stayed on the beach yesterday. And maybe tomorrow, or next week, someone else will walk down that quiet beach, see the art and find a place for their own handfuls of shells.