October 29, 2010

Mom's away

So what is a kid to do?  Go camping in the cockpit:

And create art about her impending trip to an Arizona dude ranch.  
Where we will be riding horses, not dudes.

October 26, 2010

Cross-Border Shopping—What do Mexico-based Cruisers Buy in the US?

 We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to get almost everything you need in Mexico. There’s so much more available now than 14-years-ago--especially in the the bigger cities with their Costcos and Walmarts. The stuff that’s still hard to get are the specialty items—brand name shoes, marine electronics, good chocolate, affordable wine... That’s the stuff you need to bring down with you—or do without.

Like just about every other sailboat we know, we keep a running list of ‘stuff we want’. The idea is that whenever someone is coming down (or someone from down here is doing a trip up) we can put in an order and stock back up.

This time it’s us doing the border run. I’m off to Arizona for a work conference and Maia and Evan will be picking me up. So for the past two weeks we’ve been ordering up a storm. First on the list is a VHF radio with an AIS receiver. An Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a tracking system that identifies big ships and gives their course and speed. We have a black box AIS receiver we never hooked up thorough our computer—but the simple VHF version has been getting such rave reviews (and it takes a few levels of complexity out of the process) that we’ve decided to go with one.

Next on our list are a couple of spare high power adapters for amplifying shore-based wi-fi signals. We’re not sure if we’re simply really hard on the little adapters (they’re not marinized and the components tend to rust despite having sealed the unit in a watertight box) but we’ve gone through two in the past year. So we’re ordering two more.

We’re also getting a new prop for our outboard engine. Although the goal is to avoid whacking the prop, we’ve clearly hit bottom with it one too many times. We had it welded and pounded back into shape in La Paz—but the distorted prop is taking its toll on our speed and fuel consumption.

While we’re up there we’re also going to stock up on other items where quality is an issue: sunscreen (US sunscreen has better active ingredients than Mexican versions of the same brands), shoes for Evan and Maia, chocolate (of course…), vitamins (because we drink RO water our diet is lacking in trace minerals so vitamins are important) and favourite food items. We’re also planning to pick-up loose-leaf paper and three-ring binders for Maia—for whatever both are nearly impossible to find here.

The key though is that list. It’s all too easy in the land of consuming to get a bit carried away. Purchases that seem perfectly reasonable in the store end up eating up our cruising budget and sinking our water line…

October 24, 2010

Travelling through Childhood

Despite the fact that some of the oldest archeological evidence of pumpkins were found in Mexico--the gourds aren't that common here.
 There are moments when I wonder if travelling fulltime is unfair to Maia. Typically these moments pop up around holidays. She has great memories of our Thanksgivings, Halloweens and birthdays with family and friends—and somehow, despite our best efforts, the ones that happen out here don’t always live up to the hype.

It may just be her age. Maia’s old enough to remember her life before living aboard quite clearly, but she’s young enough that those memories are a bit rose-tinted.

But despite what may or may not be happening developmentally for her—the result is the same: As we explore deserts and estuaries, see dolphins fly and sea lions play—Maia’s worried about pumpkins, and Halloween costumes, and whether or not she’ll even get to trick-or-treat. And forget that there’s Day of the Dead here—my girl just wants candy.

In these moments I have to wonder if she’ll someday rebel against the life we’re showing her and end up living in one place for her entire adulthood—with a dozen cats. No doubt in a house that during the holidays becomes the most highly decorated in the neighbourhood…

While I try to convince myself what we’re doing is not just good for the adults in the family, but also good for Maia, I’m drawn to anecdotal evidence that travel benefits kids. We’ve met dozens of adults who were dragged around the globe at various points in their childhoods and none seems damaged. In fact most seem like happy, well-adjusted members of society. And all of them have continued to travel.

But considering I have journalistic inclinations, anecdotal evidence doesn’t always cut it for me—which is why I was thrilled to discover a survey by the Student Youth & Travel Association (SYTA) that tells us, “traveling at a young age supports school performance, leads to successful careers and increases the likelihood of continued travel throughout one's life.”

Yup all that anecdotal stuff about well-travelled kids being successful in later life seems to be true. They do well in school, they develop compassion and understanding of unique cultures, and they don’t seem to hold the occasional missed holiday against their parents…

October 23, 2010

Captive Dolphins and Saving Wetlands

Tetakawi seen from Estereo del Soldado

Today we continued our exploring. San Carlos is turning out to be one of those places where the more we experience, the more we like it.
there was some effort to explain natural dolphin behaviour throughout the show
 Our first stop was Delfinario Sonora. I have to admit I’m not that interested in captive dolphin shows—we’ve seen (and heard) so many amazing things in the wild that heading to see performing animals doesn’t hold much appeal. The difference here though is the Delfinario’s main purpose is Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) a rather out-there (but massively popular) therapy for children with central nervous system disorders.

I’m reserving judgement on the therapy, but I have to say that watching a dolphin show with a hundred or so Mexicans who have never seen the creatures before was electrifying. The faces of the people around us made it clear that they were in awe. The show itself was fine—the dolphins seemed healthy and content, the staff was excellent and the facility was gorgeous. It’s just, well, you know—when you’ve been woken at dawn by high pitched squeals and come out on deck to witness your very own Sea World—it’s hard to go back…
I haven't actually seen this happen in the wild though
 Our next stop was Estereo del Soldado, an important migratory bird wetland that contains Mexico’s northmost mangroves. Director Mauricio Cervantes gave us a tour, and I have to admit it only took me about 10 minutes to fall in love with the soft spoken man's spirit.

 I think he warmed to me when he realized I actually care that the modest 300 hectare marsh contains three of Mexico’s four (some say five, but that’s controversial) mangrove species (red, white and black). And by the time the first three White Pelicans in several years arrived, and we both lost track of what we were talking about to gaze at them in wonder, it was clear we were kindred spirits.

Cervantes though has done something I would never have the capacity to do: he’s waded through years of bureaucracy and his legacy includes not just the preservation of Estereo del Soldado but also the recent preservation of the 200 million hectare Marismas Nacionales in Nayarit http://www.whsrn.org/site-profile/marismas-nacionales.

Saving something in Mexico though is not the same though as having the ability to protect it. It was clear after just a few minutes that Cervantes is given nothing to work with. He has a cement shell of a building that he someday hopes will be a visitor centre. His greenhouse—where he once grew native species in the hope of rehabilitating a landscape that was heavily abused by locals (Cervantes hauled 2 tons of garbage off the site when it was first protected)—blew away in a hurricane over two years ago.

His dream (after re-establishing the mangroves and letting some of the most damaged land come back) is to offer interpretive kayak tours through the estuary and have labelled pathways where visitors can learn about the unique eco-system. For now though he’s content with the thousand or so student who take workshops at the wetland each year (including the local eco-tourism students).
Cervantes and his tree
 We finished our tour at a tree he told us he likes to visit—whenever the difficulties of wetland conservation overwhelm him. It’s a very old tree and it grows in a heavily damaged area of the wetland, its entire trunk is scarred with names and initials, some of its branches were hacked off. But yet it grows.

He told me the tree is symbolic, a reminder, that despite the damage we have wrought, life continues.

And so it does. Last year there were no White Pelicans in the wetland but this year, so far, there are three.

October 22, 2010

Cruiser with a (real) Cortez Pearl Pendant

Cortez Pearls
It’s hard for me to let go of a story. Our friend Monica on S/V Savannah commented on this. She said when I find something I’m curious about I research it until I have the answers. But when she finds something she’s curious about she says, ‘interesting,’ and then kicks back and relaxes.

I’m sure she’s exaggerating, but I do get a bit obsessive, which is how we found ourselves at Perlas del Mar de Cortez talking to one of the owners and founders, Douglas McLaurin about black pearls in the Sea of Cortez. You may recall the story about the pearls Meri and I found in Santa Rosalia. Well, we dispatched with that mystery rather easily: A quick look under a long wave ultraviolet light proved they weren’t Cortez Pearls (Sea of Cortez pearls contain porphyrins which make them glow), a few other simple checks and it was confirmed--we own freshwater pearls from China, dyed using dubious methods and sold around the world…

The good news is McLaurin broke this bad news in the middle of a showroom that contains some of the most beautiful gems I’ve ever seen. And as he told us story of how the pearl showroom came to be, it was almost hard to concentrate on his words (I think I'm part magpie...).

a mabe pearl in a designer setting (they also have pearls in simple silver settings for people who don't have designer budgets...)
The story of Cortez Pearls almost sounds like a fairytale. In the 1990's Mclaurin and his partners Enrique Arizmendi and Manuel Nava Romo were graduate aquaculture students at Tec de Monterrey. They were instructed to create an aquaculture business that could be developed in a real life setting. Because their business would be on paper only—they decided to dream big: They would revive the mythical Sea of Cortez Pearl industry using a near-extinct native species and modern culturing methods.
A gem-quality cultivated pearl
The three students received a C- on their paper. They were told the species they wanted to grow, the Pteria Sterna had never been successfully cultivated, saltwater cultivation had never occurred successfully in North America and their business would fail.

The students decided that the only way they could respond to their poor grade was to prove their teachers wrong. With no resources and only a limited idea of what they were doing they began a research project—which to everyone’s shock yielded pearls.

The three continued to farm: learning by trial and error, one year loosing 90% of the farm to a hurricane.
Cortez Pearls employs 18 people, including several Yaqui--the original pearlers
The thing that struck me most (when I could take my eyes of the pearls) is the commitment the three men have to creating an ethical business--the pearls are the first in the world to be fair trade certified and the farm has helped reseed the once abundant bay with wild oysters.

The truth in this fairytale is the pearls themselves: During harvest in July and August the farmers open the oysters which have been growing for four years. Just a fraction contain pearls. Of that number only a fraction are gem quality (the rest are returned to the sea). And of those gems, once in a while one comes along that makes Mclaurin (who by now has seen more pearls than he can count) forget every other pearl he’s ever seen.

**I don’t normally make a pitch for a place this way, but this is a truly unique farm run by some very special people. If you have an attachment to the Sea and want to support what these guys are doing now is the time to buy a keepsake. Between the drug war cutting off tourists and the economic downturn, they are hurting. http://www.perlasshop.com/

October 20, 2010

Nacapule Canyon Hike

In the language of the Yaqui people nacapule (pronounced knock-ah-poo-lay) means earlobe. It’s also the name given to a rare fig tree that has generous knees like a Cypress tree and to a canyon that I read about in a tourist brochure.

Places that we read about in tourist brochures are often out of reach for us—for two reasons: they are either too far to get to by foot, or bus, from our boat, or they cost too much for our non-tourist budget. Then there is the fact that wild places that are populated by tourists sometimes have the magic scrubbed out of them—they’ve been made so accessible that the essence that made them captivating is gone.

But because I’m doing a story on San Carlos and need to see the things that tourists see I pay attention to the tourist brochure. And this morning we found ourselves following roads north out of San Carlos. Our guides Fernando and Miguel drive us through the suburbs, then across an arroyo and through familiar desert. Ahead of us is the Sierra Aguaje Mountain range, a string of rugged volcanic formations, where black, red, and rust-hued strata fold over each other in graceful tucks and pleats.

As we grow closer to the mountains our destination becomes clear: a deep ocher-coloured cleft carved into the cliffs. We park and Fernando leads us along the trail to the canyon, pointing out ironwood and jasmine, chichinoco squirrels and swallowtail butterflies. Miguel explains how rare and fragile the sub-tropical ecosystem of the canyon is as he leads us deeper into the desert oasis.

Along the way we pass a bit of graffiti and a few burned palms and Miguel explains that locals are only beginning to have reverence for the canyon. He explains that for the Yaqui people the canyon was sacred—that between the year-round springs-for water, plentiful wildlife-for food, large trees and obsidian rock-for tools, the ancient people found all they needed here.

We continue to make our way up the canyon, following a trickle which gives way to deep tea-coloured pools filled with rare frogs and swimming snakes. The air (which can be unbearably humid in the summer) is comfortable and cool. We scramble over blood-red rocks, through palmetto thickets and up a small cliff—until we find ourselves in the heart of the canyon where the graceful Nacapule fig grows, its bark wrinkled like elephant's but silky to the touch.

It’s hard not to fall in love with a place like this—a place so mystically beautiful I want to keep going long after the trail turns more rugged than we’re comfortable with. So we sit for a while and soak it all in. Then we head back down the trail, leaving nothing behind and collecting the small bits of garbage along the way so the next hikers might understand that this a cared-for canyon, a sacred place that can provide us with everything we truly need to thrive.

October 18, 2010

Where We Are Now—San Carlos/ Guaymas

The landscape changed when we reached Isla Tiburon—the desert became lush and green, completely different then the harsh environment we’ve grown used to. When we reached the mainland it just got greener—a sign of both a wet rainy season and the change we’d made in climatic zones. Pulling into San Carlos, with its soaring Tetakawi Hill covered in palm trees and flowering greenery, I felt like we’d come much further than 170 miles or so from the other side.
the pool where Maia has made Mexican friends and plays for hours and where it seems we might be crashing weddings...
This isn’t our first visit to San Carlos—we were here 14 years ago as well. Back then the town was barely under construction and there was no resort and pool (which we may, or may not, be crashing on a daily basis), no restaurants with waitresses who call you ‘hon’ and offer endless ice tea refills and no strip of shops and services lining the road into Guaymas.

San Carlos was built on an old cattle ranch known as the Baviso de Navarro. In the 1950s Rafael T. Caballero had a vision of developing a tourist resort and over the next 60-years his idea slowly came to fruition. Located on the edge of Guaymas, San Carlos caters to Americans and Canadians in the winter—but this time of year the majority of the town’s tourists are Mexican.
there's not much to see in Guaymas--but there is a nice church
 Down the road from San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas is the city of Guaymas—named for the Guaymas tribes who dominated the area pre-contact. The European version of the town was founded with a mission in 1610. The Seri people weren’t keen on having Spaniards as neighbours though and fought them off until 1769. After that Guaymas gradually became the industrial town and shrimp-fishing port it is today.
I have a weird love of fishing boats--and these are very similar to the ones we find at home, except for the sunken one...
 As far as a place to be on a boat—San Carlos is an easy one. There is a French word: d├ępaysement, that I was taught when I was last in Quebec. I was told it doesn’t easily translate to English but it refers to that sense of disorientation you feel when you’re not in your own country, that sense of not quite being part of a place. Mostly when we travel we seek that feeling—the goal is to put ourselves a little off balance. But there are some places where the feeling goes away—and the effort of travel recedes. In San Carlos with its green hills and cool breezes; easy shopping and plentiful stores; and its friendly easy going people--there are no challenges. There is no d├ępaysement.
we never went inside, but the Woolworth's sign was enough to make us feel at home. the brand lives on in Mexico
For a little while we’re in a place where the green hills trick us into thinking we’re close to home, the routines seem familiar and the town’s easy-going acceptance feels just right.

October 17, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances

My last hair cut was under a palapa not far from the beach. A cow-head skeleton looked down from one of the support poles as my split ends were sheered off. Whenever the wind blew my cut risked becoming uneven. The fact my hairdresser was drinking beer while she trimmed didn’t really increase my confidence.

Afterward I surreptitiously met with another cruiser in a washroom outside a restaurant in order to repair the ‘Aging Malibu Barbie Blond’ colour that my hair takes on after a few months in the sun. I didn’t want to risk running the chemicals down our boat’s drains, because who knows what that would do to the fish.

Mexico doesn’t have hair dye for hair my colour, but before we left I found a bunch of dye that looked roughly my shade on sale for $2.50 a box. I stocked up. When we finished rinsing my hair in the bathroom sink we agreed it was probably just the dim lighting that gave my hair a green cast.

But for better or worse I was beautified and ready to head north for work.

Cruisers aren’t known for their beauty routines. It’s pretty typical for men to sport scraggy ponytails while women favour salt and pepper buzz cuts. The goal is low maintenance. But if you’re not ready to embrace the minimalist look—or occasionally need to be seen in circles outside the flip-flop set, you need to figure out a way to stay groomed.

We had a big haircutting day on our boat a few weeks ago and both Evan and Maia offered to return the favour and give me a trim. But I’ve seen Maia’s work with scissors and I know how the one cut Evan gave me turned out. So I declined their kind offer and stuck my hair back under a hat. The problem though is in exactly 10-days I have to go north and impress people enough that they’ll keep giving me work. And as much as I think I should be hired based on my way with words (spelling and grammar errors be dammed) appearance still plays a role.

Fortunately we’re in a city. And Mexican women love their hair salons. Unfortunately my Spanish still sucks. I can order beer fine but I haven’t a clue how to describe how I’d like my hair cut. Which means when I went to the beauty salon to be beautified I was at the mercy of my hairdresser. Which, when you think about it, is the same in any language. Afterward, when the deed was done, Maia pronounced me ‘fluffy’ and informed me she liked my hair better before I had it cut.

“You mean when it was under my hat?” I asked. She nodded yes…

October 16, 2010

Life at Walking Speed

We’ve been slowly reacclimatizing to city life. On our first day here we sat by a resort pool with the folks from Savannah and Robin from Katydid and drank beer. The next day we sorted out our Internet and I filed stories. Today we’re taking a bus into Guaymas.

A bus.

I was planning what I needed to bring with me when I realized that I haven’t ridden in a motorized land vehicle since we were in Escondido—in July. That’s two and a half months where anything we did on land was done at walking speed. And almost everywhere we travelled on the water was also at walking speed (with the odd little jog thrown in).

The thing with living life slowly is we tend to be out of synch with the rest of the world. We're living a life that’s dictated by weather and seasons and where 60 miles is a long day’s journey. When the ground it takes us months to cover by boat can be flown over in a few hours, it’s no wonder that friends and family don’t understand why we’re still in Mexico and why we can’t just sail to Australia whenever we want to.

There are moments when I wish we could just jet away and get through a passage or out of a harbour more quickly—but those moments pass (usually too slowly) and then we’re good with meandering along again. But occasionally it’s sort of fun to rush and join the fast moving world.
But when life starts speeding by in a blur it's nice knowing we’re just brief visitors there now.

October 14, 2010

Aground in a Desert

This is a bit out of order--but I haven't been able to load pictures for a bit and this post needed pictures...

There is something endlessly cool about being able to drive our boat up onto a beach. It’s such a fun feature that rather than just putting up with the lousy bottom job we got in La Paz, we decided to remedy it.
 Puerto Don Juan has a beach which is simply known as the careening beach. The name goes back to the earliest guide book I’ve found on the area, so my guess the beach, and its use, is a historical one.
 These days it’s pretty much only the catamarans that careen. But back in the days before travel lifts monohulls used to do the same, painting one side of the hull on one tide and the other side on the next. (We do much the same—except it’s one hull per tide)
 The concern with careening right on the beach is an environmental one. Despite our best efforts it’s hard to ensure nothing toxic makes it into the sand.
 But the fun—of walking around your boat and seeing it from every angle, almost makes up for the effort. And if that doesn’t make you feel good, the lack of a $1000 haul out bill definitely does.

Among Whales

This one's beside us and several more are straight ahead, and a few more are on our other side...

I think there are five whales in this shot--more than you really want in front of you.
The moment when I suggested that Maia should back away from the edge of the boat
They were hunted to near extinction and even today no one's certain just how many sperm whales are out there. They used to be known to travel in pods of up to 50 whales, with still other groups within their vocalization distancce (about 10km). But after they were hunted and their numbers diminished they were seldom seen in groups larger than twelve.

We really don't know how may we travelled through--at one point I counted 26, and that was after sailing through three distinct pods over four hours. But what we learned is sperm whales won't move out of our way. They are pretty unconcerned about where we are going and what we are doing. They seem to exist somewhere else. Maybe in an older version of the world where they ruled the seas.

We tacked through them though and did our best to keep clear. The punishment for getting too close was a strong wiff of rank whale breath. But the reward, ah, the reward...

October 13, 2010


I'm not going to tell you how many pics of pelicans I've taken while trying to get *this* shot...
 I heard there's a Walmart in Guaymas. And a McDonalds, and a hardware store, and high speed Internet. And I can probably buy green vegetables again. And real chocolate. And wine. Both kinds: red and white. And I can catch up on 2 months of world news, and talk to family and friends on Skype.
I could be there now.

But we're not. We're still anchored in a pretty cove on Isla Tiburon. The desert is green here. I've missed seeing green. And the sunset was so pretty last night that I sat out and watched the horizon change colour as the pelicans fished. Today I kept a vigilant eye out for turtles and sharks. And I felt the difference in the breeze--from when it blew warm over the desert versus when it blew moist across the sea.
We spent weeks thinking about what we'd need for a summer away from civilization. We made lists. We talked with friends. We scoured stores shelves and stocked up the boat. We set up communication plans, and back-up plans. We imagined being away from it all--and how we would cope.
But we almost rushed headlong back into civilization without giving it a second thought.
And honestly, it's way easier to leave than it is to return.
Last time, when we hit the US after two years in Central America and the Caribbean we hadn't expected re-entry to be such a shock. It was the pickles in the grocery store that got us. Do you know how hard it is to choose a jar of pickles when you have dozens to select between, after not seeing a single pickle for more than two years?

So we're not rushing. We still have food. My deadlines don't hit until the end of the week. I need a day or two to imagine the sounds of traffic and visualize the rush. I need to remind myself that staring out at the ocean, watching it change, isn't really a pastime and that sunsets are not events.
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October 11, 2010

Leave if You Can

Last night while our Thanksgiving dinner cooked in the oven I sat on deck and watched the sunset. Around us seabirds dove into the water catching the little schooling fish. A sea lion and dolphin came through the anchorage-their breath loud against the calm. The moon glowed against the red sky and as the light faded phosphorescence began to twinkle in the water beneath us.
We were anchored at Isla Salsipuedes-"Leave if You Can" Island. It's a rugged rocky island that tends to be off the beaten path. But after a day of magical whale encounters and lovely sailing its stark beauty seemed like the perfect place to say goodbye to the northern sea.
There is often a transition for me-an instant between the moment when I am leaving one place and the one where I head somewhere new. It's the time when I stop looking backward with wistfulness and prepare to look ahead with excitement. And as we set out from Salsipuedes today I stared hard at the island and the Baja--willing the shapes and textures into my memory; inhaling that unique aroma of desert spice mingled with ocean brine.
We unrolled our sails soon after and began a gentle upwind (both stupid forecasts called for downwind) beat to Isla Tiburon. Almost on schedule we passed through a school of big sharks. Soon after their blue tipped fins were out of sight we saw flying fish and boobie birds in the distance and then we caught two dorado, including a big bull which will show up for several meals this week.
By the time I finally looked aft again, Salsipuedes had grown hazy and indistinct.
We had left.
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October 10, 2010

Giving Thanks

I woke to a cool Thanksgiving morning. The blanket that found its way on to our bed last week and the onset of the northerly winds make it clear that summer is over. With the lightest hurricane season in recorded history almost over (and the water temps becoming too cool to sustain any that may still form) I realized there's nothing still holding us in the northern sea.

Of course there are the anchorages we never made it too, and the people we never really got to know, but there will always be those things. More than any other departure so far, this is the easiest. The summer did what we needed it too. We rested up after the years of getting the boat ready, we tackled some of the niggling chores (still loads to do though) and most of all we found our rhythm of cruising as a family.

Last year for Thanksgiving we had just arrived in San Francisco. Our dear friends Mark and Val came to spend the chilly weekend with us, but we couldn't take them sailing. The boat was battered (the mast was waiting to be re-rigged) I was unsure about whether I even wanted to go cruising and Evan was just trying to make it all work.

All of that seems like a lifetime ago now.
Maia has changed the most this year. I thought about this while she helped prepare the boat for getting underway this morning and then went below to cook breakfast while Evan and I pulled up the anchor and headed out. All children grow up. And maybe it's simply the kids I'm spending time with, but cruising kids seem to grow into themselves quite gracefully out here.

We're sailing toward our last Baja-side anchorage. We've been dodging pods of whales almost constantly for the past four hours. The last was a mixed pod of about 30 adult and juvenile sperm whales. I've been trying to make Maia understand the wonder of this. But in the past year of her life she's seen more whales than we can count. There have been orcas, humpbacks, greys, fins, pilots, sperm and minkes-often only a boat length or two from our boat.

The last sperm whale we passed exhaled rank whale breath all over our boat before diving.
Maia failed to see the magic in the moment. But maybe, just maybe, having to tack and change course over and over, just to work our way through an ocean thick with whales will be one of the stores that carries her to adulthood and beyond.

We're sailing slowly, in light wind, under a cloudless sky. We have a special Thanksgiving dinner planned for our anchorage and a final bottle of wine chilling in the fridge. Maia has decorated cookies and is busy making a centrepiece for the table. Evan has given himself a day off from boat chores. We each, in our own way, are celebrating today:
A departure
A voyage
A year of wonder and beauty
The strengthening of our family
The widening of our circle of friends
All we have done
All we are yet to do
The beautifully oppressive smell of decaying fish

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October 8, 2010


We saw a few Whale Sharks swimming out of the Bahia de Los Angeles the other day. They are starting their mysterious migration. We think some will end up near La Paz, but scientists are still not sure if it's the BLA Whale Sharks that head to La Paz or a different group entirely. I like to imagine that the whale sharks have options, and they choose where to go next on a whim.

It's the season for migrations. On the evening net we're hearing of northern boats making their way south-they're checking in from places in California and Oregon, all are eager to make their way into Mexican waters and really begin their new lives.

Meanwhile the 40 or so boats that summered up here are dropping in number each day as they head south. Gambling that hurricane season is done and hoping to get ahead of the winter northerlies. Every time we share an anchorage with someone the questions are the same. "When will you leave? Where next?" The answers are dictated by tomorrow's weather and the seasons, but also by desire, interest and finances. So the answers vary.

Some are getting ready to cross the South Pacific-either from Mexico or the Galapagos. Others will head through the canal to the Caribbean. Still others are heading back up north. While another group will stay in Mexico-having made this their home.

The funny thing is how many boats just don't know yet. Our options for migration aren't dictated by biological need, so unlike the Whales Sharks who are probably programmed to head out of BLA and turn south for a destination only they are privy to, we turn south and human nature kicks in.

And the adventure begins.

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October 4, 2010

Power, Power

Since it's a topic of interest to many cruisers and would be cruisers, I (Evan) thought I'd do a post on electricity generation and consumption aboard.

Electrical Generation and Storage

Our last boat had one computer, no SSB, no watermaker, no refrigeration, radar, etc. etc. This one has 3 computers, a SSB + Pactor modem, refrigeration, radar, a watermaker.

On little Ceilydh (our old 30' monohull) we could get by quite fine with a 50 W solar panel and 220 A.hrs of batteries.  The new Ceilydh has 375 W of solar panels and 450 A.hrs of batteries (4 x 6V golf cart batteries). Both amounts of battery and solar panels seem to be about right, with the big Ceilydh having more margin in real world conditions for cloudy days. Multiple cloudy days in a row means we might have to cut back on computer time. But so far we have only had to run the engine for power a few times last Christmas during rainy, short December days. Peak power we have seen from the solar panels is 23 Amps, but typical mid day output is around 19A for a few hours, dropping off to 5 or 6A at the end and beginning of the day.  On a sunny day in summer, where we have many sunny days in a row we'll be charged by mid morning.

With all the equipment on new Ceilydh we needed serious solar panel capacity; running an engine driven alternator an hour or more a day, having a wind generator in a windy anchorage, a separate generator or some combination of these. We like solar panels because they are quiet, low drag, long warranty periods and minimal maintenance (dusting is about all you do to them). We have a stock 55A alternator on our engine.

Electric refrigeration aboard might take 50 A.hrs a day (more on really hot days of 35C where we are adding many litres of drinking water to cool down). When I built our fridge, I used 6" of insulation everywhere except the door (3" there). I also kept the box size down. It's about 3 cubic feet.

Our stripped down Spectra watermaker runs at 8 Amps, for about 3 or 4 hours, but not every day, usually every 4 or so days. It's not that big a consumer overall.

Our desktop computer almost deserves a whole posting on it's own. Diane is a freelance writer and on the days she is sitting in front of the computer for 8 hours, we do notice the power drain. It's a small case desktop that I built using a lot of research to keep the power down. Here's what makes it tick, and what we save power on:

  • Intel P8400 Core 2 Duo CPU. This is a low voltage laptop chip that is actually quite powerful. I can use it for Autocad and Rhino 3D work and also processing photos using Lightroom. If you are choosing a chip, look up the maximum TDP wattage; ours uses 25W running flat out but many other are 35W.
  • a mini ITX motherboard that actually supports this mobile type of chip(hard to find). We used an industrial type with lots of serial and USB ports. MSI brand, model IM-GM45
  • A 12V power supply that directly gives the clean 12/5/3 V that motherboards require. It's about 90-95% efficient. Ours snaps directly onto the motherboard power supply connector
  • a 2.5" laptop hard drive. Uses lots less power than standard 3.5" hard drives
  • slim DVD writer (like that found in a laptop); again less power than standard DVD drive
  • 15" LCD monitor - that uses 12V directly. These are getting harder to find. Most LCD monitors have built in 120V power supplies these days instead of 120V/12VDC "wall warts" but newer larger monitors are lower in power. [update - in 2013 we now have a 21" LED backlit monitor that uses less power than the old one]
What's the bottom line on the computer power consumption? About 3.5A, including the monitor. Better than many laptops these days!

On a passage we're not using the computer that much (checking weather only via SSB; no electronic charting), but our autopilot is the big user of power. It's a Raymarine ST4000+ tiller pilot. I'm not sure about the consumption because it varies so much with conditions, but I can say the rate gyro in the control head makes a big difference in how much the ram operates (more operation of the ram but maybe the boat doesn't get as off course as a dumber pilot).

We have a masthead LED tricolour that sips electricity when sailing. Steaming and side lights that we use under power use incandescent bulbs - no need to save power when motoring.

Most of our interior lights are LED and these use almost no power. We have fluorescent lights in the galley but these are only on for about 1 or 2 hours at most. Bathroom lights are incandescent because they are only on for 5 or 10 minutes and the higher cost of LED lights do not make sense with lights that are seldom on. Our anchor light is also LED and it is around 0.1A.

Fans on boats in the tropics can run 24 hours a day (that's why it is important to get the ones rated for 5000 hrs!). Here's my take on the fans we have:
Hella Turbo 0.5A on full, somewhat noisy, but move a reasonable amount of air. One in the galley which can blow out the portlight for exhausting hot air or right at the cook. Another one at Maia's bed.
Caframo "Bora" uses a piddly 0.25A on full, reasonably quiet, moves 90% of the air flow compared to the Turbo. Our current top choice for fan that is on for many hours (like over the bed). One on our bed, two in the saloon
Caframo 747. Uses a hefty 0.59A on full, but moves a ton of air. Open blades are easy to clean but we keep whacking ourselves on them. Integral blade guard prevents injuries. This one sits beside the computer and is used on really hot days for people working on the computer for hours or sitting at the settee. A good choice for this application
Caframo $25 cheap fan that I am too lazy to look up the model name. Noisy, moves neglible air. We have this on the guest bed :)
(if you have a limited fan budget then consider getting a few fans and equipping them with 3.5mm stereo plugs and have a number of 12V DC stereo plugs around the boat to plug them into. These are much cheaper, smaller, and more secure than 12V cigarette lighter plugs).

So the essence of a happy electrical system is generation of sufficient power to meet your needs - and make sure your electrical demands are kept in check by careful equipment selection.
Questions? Please leave a comment!
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October 3, 2010

An Octopus's Garden

"I can see the bottom," Evan told us as we pulled into Los Rocas and anchored in 30 feet. The clear water, and the fact the air temperature was already 33 C, was enough to make us jump in and snorkel over to the nearby reef. But as we neared the rocky outcropping a Mexican panga arrived. A diver with a Hookah rig went over the side. We swam closer to the reef and ran into another snorkelling cruiser, she'd learned from the diver they were after octopus.
Los Rocas is in a park. And as far as we understand fishing here, and for that matter anywhere with a Hookah rig, is not legal. The octopus, which the other cruiser told us were present, but not abundant, didn't have a chance.
We were suddenly confronted by the quandary that all cruisers in the Sea are being faced with. There are some cruisers and a few organizations that see us as the potential police of the Sea. Mexico has decent conservation laws, but there is no funding to enforce them. The argument is that because cruisers are in the region in high numbers, we can confront and educate fishermen about their own laws. Or we can call authorities on the radio (if there are any in the area, which is rare) and turn in the offenders.

In theory this makes sense. But in practice there are problems. Sailors and fishermen in the Sea used to have a pretty good relationship. Even the cruisers who were here last year talked about how easy it was to trade with fishermen and how the fishermen never hesitated to come to cruisers if they needed help. This year the trades aren't happening and a slight wariness is replacing friendliness.
The reality is we need to learn to conserve. Simply sailing through this Sea-which is one of the most abundant nursery waters in the world--is ample proof we are in real trouble. The analogy is we are clear-cutting the ocean and not replanting more than a few token trees. But conservation is proving to be almost impossible to enforce: As evironmental edicts imposed on poor, or hungry people fail again, and again. And if cruisers start turning in all the fishermen we see breaking laws (which frankly, includes ourselves) we'll not only fail to make progress, we'll stop being welcomed.
Conservation is always most effective when it's a grassroots effort. When local fishermen and tourism providers understand that the only way their livelihood is going to survive is by protecting the stocks, they tend to make strides. Government can help, but not simply with laws, we need to demand funding for education and alternatives. People need to be paid not to over fish. And consumers need to demand fish that has been carefully caught. Or, to put it another way, we have to learn to pay for the real cost of fish, which includes the cost of replacement and protection.
That clam, oyster, or lovely Mahi-Mahi steak needs to be valuable enough (and expensive enough) that the fishermen who caught it can earn a living, while taking the time needed to avoid by-catch and actively protect the place it came from.

"They are getting closer to the octopus's lair," the other cruiser told us as we swam. "Maybe if we swim over there and stay right in front of it, the diver will go away."
We swam toward it. But the diver didn't slow his methodical hunt. So many things went through my mind as we hovered over that octopus's barely hidden lair: My long ago memory of linking arms in front of big old growth trees, trying to stop loggers; Late night discussions about how finding a way to get people to care about their environment; The more recent memory of walking down Dead Beach with Maia.
I looked at my daughter. Busy somersaulting underwater; she was oblivious to the octopus's plight. Glancing back at the approaching diver, who was likely earning a wage that I couldn't fathom living on, we slowly swam her away from that beautiful little lair.
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White Sand Beaches

In my old 'some-day we'll be cruising again' day-dreams we were always anchored off a white sand beach with gin-clear blue water below us and a sun setting astern. In the mornings we'd wake-up and stroll on the beach, burying our toes in the warm powdery sand-and then look out and admire our boat as she bobbed cheerfully against the endless shimmering blue.
The reality is we rarely anchor off white sand beaches. Sand beaches mean wind and swell. Sandy beaches are created by the prevailing seas which pound against the shore until it submits and disintegrates into dust. This is why surfers flock to sand beaches and why boats typically tuck away in rocky coves. Sometimes though conditions are just right and the calm water off a long white beach is so inviting we can't help ourselves.
Alcatraz was one of those beaches. When we arrived the three remaining kid boats and Katydid were already there, looking like a pretty advertisement for a retirement savings plan. We spent the afternoon diving on a near-by reef, and the evening on shore roasting nasty Mexican marshmallows at a bonfire. The next day was more of the same, until the prevailing northerly wind kicked in. First it was just an irritating swell on our beam. Then the wind came. It wasn't strong, but the fetch was miles, so the seas piled up until they were steep, and close, and really quite uncomfortable.
Dusk had hit at this point, and the option was to grin and bear it, or head in through the dark to a more protected anchorage. Then the weather report promised continued northerlies in the morning. Because we weren't in danger and conditions were relatively benign we could have gone either way. But being fans of a good-nights sleep, we decided to practice our night time navigation skills and head the 10 miles south to a wide open anchorage with good northerly protection.
It was an exhilarating sail south. We knew the route and Evan kept a careful eye on the radar and our previous GPS track. Maia was disappointed we were leaving her friends behind-but I really liked being out at night. There's something wonderful about sailing under the stars, through phosphorescent waves. There's more room for introspection at night, somehow daytime sights crowd out my thoughts.
When we pulled into La Gringa about an hour and a half later, the seas were flat and the wind calm. We dropped the hook and settled in for a long silent night. This morning we moved again--to a rock-ringed anchorage far from sandy beaches: My new cruising fantasy.
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October 1, 2010

If at First You Don't Succeed-Isla La Ventana

The first time we went cruising one of the most common questions we were asked (along with, "What about pirates?" and "How do you afford it?") was, "Have you been in any storms?" People love hearing about storms. I think it reassures them that their life (as safe and ordinary as it might seem some days) is far more sensible than one where you could dashed to death on rocks, or swept away by huge seas.

The Elefante at La Ventana was one of the storm stories we used to tell. Isla La Ventana is a small island that's surrounded by even smaller ones. At the western end is a one boat anchorage, a cosy spot with reefs for snorkelling and hiking trails for exploring. All our friends had been-and raved about it. So we headed there one afternoon. When we pulled in, I saw the reefs through the clear water and a hiking trail snaking inland. I was midway through baking bread and making dinner, so we decided to save our exploring for the next day.

You know what comes next.

Somewhere around 3am the wind gave a gentle warm puff and then all hell broke loose. Within 5 minutes we had a steady 50 knots from the west-the anchorage's only exposed opening. Evan had programmed our escape route into the GPS, but somehow in switching it off he'd lost it. Now we were in a tight rocky anchorage with reefs all around us, a dangerous lee shore astern and no idea how to get to safety. We tried to shine a light to see our way past the rocks-but the spray, which reached as high as our boom, made it impossible to see more than a few feet.

We made our way out at full speed (the only way to progress against the wind and seas) and through luck and happenstance we tucked in behind a rock where we waited out the two-day blow (which was occasionally strong enough to lift and flip our dinghy). When the wind decreased we hoisted our anchor, and discovered that when we dropped it our bow sprit had only been a few feet from the rock's face, which meant we had narrowly missed ploughing into it.

So you can see why we were anxious to return to La Ventana.
We had a score to settle.

Fourteen years ago weather forecasting in the Sea was pretty undeveloped. There were no satellite convection images to let us know about Chubascos, and Elefantes were winds of mystery. Early on in this trip though I read that Elefantes had a straightforward cause-when it was calm in the Sea and calm on the Pacific side Elefantes were more likely to occur.

The thing with reading a detail like this, is it's easy to mess it up and get it backwards. So yesterday when we heard the weather report: calm in the Sea and calm in the Pacific, I thought it would be the prefect time to head to La Ventana.

It was just the way I remembered: stark and beautiful; cosy in a way that only someone who loves the desert can appreciate. We snorkeled and had fresh seafood chowder for dinner, then we watched a movie and planned an early morning hike.

I fell asleep.

I was woken by a warm puff of air and a rising wind from the west. We turned on the radar and planned our escape. Evan double checked the cause of Elefantes and, as we waited for all hell to break loose, we discovered my error.

Luckily the wind stayed manageable and we never needed to escape. And this morning we got up early and hiked across the island. In an hour or so though, we're leaving. We're off to find an Elefante-free anchorage.

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