Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for November, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

23 17.47’N
107 44.22’W

We waited in Cabo San Lucas for several days, somehow avoiding for four days in a row the tarrif to anchor in the large bay, and then decided we’d best scoot before our luck ran out. Eager to get to Mazatlan, and also eager to beat out the Norther predicted in the Sea of Cortez, we departed at about 9am on Thanksgiving to cross the Sea to the mainland.

After getting out of the peninsula’s shadow, we were confronted with winds that had a much stronger easterly component than we would have liked, and putting our nose into it with a steep fetch on our beam felt unsustainable. So we decided to be true “by the wind sailors” and wait for more favorable wind. At about 8pm we turned the boat North towards Los Frailes anchorage, 20 miles distant.

The problem with going to Frailes was that, although we didn’t have far to go, it was rather ugly getting there. Huge steep wind waves that had 600 miles of Sea of Cortez to build confronted us head-on. The boat felt like a hobby horse, turning on a horizontal axel nose to stern, nose to stern, then a violent heel to the side as a wave grabs the keel. In the dark with that kind of motion, it didn’t take long for me to get sick (for the first time on this trip), which is probably the most exhausting scenario I can put together. Prescott took the helm and at one point I think he said “now you HAVE to marry me.”

The dark hulk of land loomed ahead, representing shelter, peace, and sleep. We clawed our way toward it, bucking the wind and a fierce current, making a frustrating 2 knots per hour, sometimes less. It’s dark on that stretch of coast with few lights to mark promontories, so instead of hugging the coast to gain shelter from the lee as we would have during daylight, we stayed at least 5 miles off of where we understood land was. I say “understood” because at this point, we were sailing INLAND according to the chart plotter. Mexican charts are not accurate, so if you’re a chart plotter navigator, forget sailing Mexican waters. Things are up to two miles off in places–including the entire southern tip of Baja. It’s pretty unnerving to look at the plotter and see your GPS blinking that you’re ON land, especially in the middle of the night. However, we have other tools–radar, depth sounders, and our eyes.

So, with the chart plotter showing we were well over land as we approached Frailes, we were left to blindly sound our way in, understanding where we were only by following depth fathom lines and watching our position on the shifting black-and-white radar. We may not have chosen to make this landfall except that we knew of several boats anchored in Frailes, so as we drew near, sure enough, we could see a small grove of masthead lights twinkling in the dark cove. The bay stretched its arm around them like a mother duck gathering chicks to her soft sandy breast. We made our way in as silence thankfully replaced the cacophony raging outside.

It’s continually amazing how much difference 24 hours can make on the water. We spent a day in Los Frailes catching up on sleep, and left this morning at first light. As the sun came up over the Sea of Cortez, we could see what looked like large swell silhouetted against it, so I took a double dose of Stugeron. It was forecast that by Sunday it would lay down to dead calm (the other end of the worst case scenario spectrum). Still, we had 48 hours to get 160 miles to Mazatlan before another strong and ugly Norther hit, so we took our window, even if it meant using the good ole “iron genny.”

After spending the day on a beautiful beam reach, making 6-7 knots under a double reefed main and staysail only, the wind eased, just as predicted, and we shook out all sail. Then it died completely. We wallowed about for a couple hours, hoping. Finally, after hearing the weatherman stress again that anyone left out there Monday afternoon would be in for “some gooood honkin stuff” we started the engine a little after sunset, prepared to motor all the way to Mazatlan if we had to.

When I woke up for my watch though, I could feel a breeze on my face coming through the portholes. We throttled down, and sure enough, a midnight gift of 8 knots angled perfectly on our beam with no swell. The moon is half full, tipped right side up like a bowl full of electric cream, and I can hear our gurgling wake leaving the Sea of Cortez behind 5 knots at a time. Nessie is chasing the moonlight over the decks. My light wool hat has grown too hot, and we no longer need a sleeping bag, hand warmers, or tea to keep warm at night. It’s painfully beautiful–I only wish my camera could capture it.

So there you have it. Two nights ago was ugly, tonight is good. Overall, it’s not too bad.

Happy Thanksgiving

22 53.65′ N
109 53.16’W

Cabo beach

We put on Christmas music yesterday and I was reminded of being snowed in to Prescott’s apartment in Seattle a couple years ago. I held that chilly, cozy thought in my mind as I savored a tart slice of grapefruit in the blinding sun. It’s hard to believe that today is Thanksgiving, because being from “up North”, I associate this day with piles of snow and hot cider and pumpkin bread bounty. This year though, our Thanksgiving will be celebrated with a swim and snorkel in the 75-degree “pool,” fresh guacamole, and bright yellow cans of Pacifico Clara. There is no sign of Thanksgiving in the sweeping blue bay at Cabo San Lucas, but I have a long list of things I am thankful for.

Numerous times on the way down the coast, I decided to become the voluntary spokeswoman for several pieces of gear we have on Velella. I even tried to write a couple odes (I’m not kidding.) It’s no secret that cruising is seriously hard work–so our gear choices have become hugely important to me on a daily and hourly basis. Let me give you an example.

Poled out to make room for sky

Because we’re downwind sailing almost all of the time in relatively light air, our foresail tends to collapse and snap full when we’re rolling over the swell. It’s hard on the rig and irritating, and most often requires us to douse the sail altogether and sail on just the main (a slow way to go). So, I am extremely thankful for our brand new whisker pole, compliments of Forespar, which is rigged on a sliding track on the front of the mast. The pole telescopes and holds the foot of the foresail out on the opposite side of the main (to windward), allowing the sail to fill with air unobstructed by the main and steadying it from collapse. We spent 48 hours recently running wing on wing with the whisker pole making 6.5 knots instead of 4–a HUGE improvement in speed for us. The whisker pole turned what could have been a passage of two nights and three days into only one and a half days. Which means more time lounging around at anchor, reading and snorkeling in the sun–and that’s the point of all this, right?

We also upgraded Velella with a SSB transiver and Pactor Modem, a combination of radio equipment which allows us to receive daily weather forecast files on our computer and connect with huge nets of sailors headed in our same direction. Every day, we listen to Don Anderson from Santa Barbara give detailed voice forecasts for our specific locations–it’s like having a professional weather router for free. And, the modem allows us to send and receive email from home. On a journey filled with empty sea and time alone, the ability to connect over long distances with other sailors and with our family is a crucial component of our morale.

Monitor steering, Prescott & Nessie on watch

Perhaps the biggest boon has been the Monitor self-steering wind vane. I can’t say enough about this ingenious framework of stainless steel mounted quietly on our stern. Not only does it draw zero energy, deriving all of its power from the wind and leverage from mechanical gears, it steers the boat flawlessly and efficiently. The Monitor has taught us to be better sailors, because in order for it to work, the sails need to be perfectly balanced. It’s been the best teacher of the fine art of sail trim I’ve ever had. It steers the boat 98% of the time–freeing the former helmsman up to view dolphins from the bow, go below to make a quick sandwich, or curl up under the dodger with a book at night. It is such an integral part of our lives that we even gave it a name (a common thing for cruisers to do actually). In our logbook when we notate the running position, barometric reading, conditions, etc., under “At the Helm” we now put “SG” more often than not. Samwise Gamgee at the helm. Prescott named it Sam after the Lord of the Rings character–when I asked him why that name, he replied, “because when Frodo was too weak to make it up the mountain with the Ring, Sam was the one who carried him.”

Oh, and the list goes on. Our hot black sun shower, shady sun awning, powerful array of solar panels, etc. etc. They all come together in a fantastic symphony working together to make the trip safe, comfortable, and so much fun. So I am extremely thankful this Thanksgiving that we have gear that acts as a silent crew, helping us with the heavy lifting of such an undertaking.

Addendum to “statiscally speaking”

Number of fish caught: 1.

Nessie watching Prescott fish


Fish #1! Black Skipjack




Velella’s Drift, statistically speaking

Statistics from Los Angeles, CA to Magdalena Bay, Baja Peninsula.

Days since departure: 17

Miles traveled: 736

Torn Sails: 2. One small rip in the genoa that Meg sewed by hand and one huge tear across the main. It happened during a nightwatch but luckily the weather wasn’t too bad. We motored into an anchorage and Meg found some cruisers who had a sewing machine, which she used to do an EXCELLENT job repairing the main.

Nights at anchor: 7

Nights at sea: 10

Longest time spent at sea: 4 days, 3 nights.

Sea turtles spotted: 2. One by myself, one by Meg. I’m not sure what kind, but they would make their land-lubbin’ cousins proud. They make their way across the ocean with meticulous speed, giving no notice as Velella cruises by.

Squid sightings: 1, on Meg’s night watch. Had I not been roused from sleep by her screams, I would have had the presence of mind to put it in a sandwich bag and stick it in the fridge. I hear they make good trolling bait.

Whales watched: 3. We saw one unidentified whale about a week ago. All that was visible was a shiny grey back that briefly surfaced about 200 feet from our boat. Probably it was a grey whale. Today we saw two Killer Whales. Meg and I were talking in the cockpit this morning, when to our surprise the whales breached not 40 feet from our boat. It looked to be a mother and a calf. The whales were on the small side, and we think that maybe there’s a different species down here, or maybe it was a pseudo-Orca. Just yesterday we were speculating about how far South Killer Whales migrate. We don’t have google, and we neglected to find a good whale book, so we’ll have to wait until next June to find out.

Fish caught: 0, excluding the tuna Andrew caught up in Washington. I already lost one hook and a crab pot to a kelp bed. I have wasabi, soy sauce and rice at the ready. Any suggestions, fishermen readers?

Flying fish almost caught: 3. We must have crossed an invisible line yesterday because suddenly these odd creatures are everywhere. I’d heard we would encounter them, but actually seeing them is bizarre. They buzz the boat going twenty miles per hour, then flutter another quarter of a mile before dipping back into the ocean. They move like giant hummingbirds… but they’re fish. I’m looking forward to one landing on the boat so I can examine it more closely, and then possibly eat it.

Cat overboards: 0, although she gets closer every day. She’s fond of lying out on the solar panels, which we scold her for whenever we catch her. Recently she’s taken to “tightroping” the bar between the solar panels. Meg and I watch white knuckled, afraid to move lest we disrupt her concentration. The boat pitches and sways, but she stays on. Yesterday she tried to dismount onto a rope and nearly went in. I explain to her that a black cat who swims on a moonless nightwatch is unrecoverable. She doesn’t listen.

Bouts of full-on, vomiting sea sickness: 0

Days until we return: 194

A Surprise Guest

25 31.32’N
113 37.03’W

The last couple of nights have been drenched with dew. When the sun comes up in the morning I see a dry cocoon of blankets and pillows that my body has kept warm against the wet–like how the base of a pine tree melts the snow. I grumble when the wind shifts, because it requires me to take one slippered step onto the wet cushions to reach the airvane course control line, one wet elbow as I lean on the combing to pull the line, and one wet hand as I grasp the slick, cold binnacle to pull myself back toward my dry nest. Though it’s not very cold, the dampness makes a chill, so I tuck both hands under the blankets and grasp little carbon-filled handwarmers to help encourage my body to continue producing heat.

Not six hours on either side of this scene I can be found on deck in a swimsuit, dipping my toe over the side because the sun is so hot. There’s plenty of evidence that we’ve made our way almost 600 miles towards the equator in the last 3 weeks. We’re beginning to see sea life that didn’t appear up north: funny flocks of tiny unfamiliar birds, an enormous sea turtle plodding slowly by, as if he were moving through honey instead of saltwater. Large waving forests of “Turkish towels” flourish in the warmer water–their heavy leaves sound like fish flopping as the breeze lifts them from the surface and slaps each one back down again. They throw tiny spray and move with humanlike languidness, like an old Turkish woman snapping her wet dishtowel at the flies. The clouds have vanished almost permanently from the achingly blue, 360-degree horizon, and the sun now sets as an unfettered fireball silently extinguished in the deep indigo sea. Coins of bright green phosphorescence glitter in Velella’s wake at night, and occasionally, a pair of dolphins give us a twisting neon underwater light show as they dart beneath the boat. What I was completely unprepared for, however, was the surprise guest I received at 2:45am last night.

I was mid-grumble because the wind had shifted again, and I had to uncurl and step out into the wet to adjust our course. I quickly flipped on my headlamp to illuminate the masthead tell-tale, then glanced back toward the wind vane on the stern, when something unusually shiny caught my eye in the cockpit. I stifled a scream when I realize that what caught my eye was an EYE, a big round glazed eye belonging to a squid in my cockpit! It lay there staring at me with its one disarming eye, breathing a little bit, and both of us wishing it werent there. I wanted very much to pick it up and throw it overboard, but every time I steeled myself to touch it, I got chills all the way down my spine and involuntarily made what is best described as the “heebie-jeebie” noise. I kind of paced back and forth, willing Prescott to wake up and save me from having to deal with this thing. Finally, I settled on grabbing a plastic spatula to deal with the squid, but touching it with that spatula elicited a scream audible enough to wake Prescott apparently. He came up and was manly about it and just picked it up with his hands without hesitating.

And all this is why, at almost 9am, I am still alone in the cockpit when my watch ended at 7, because I’m letting Prescott sleep in. Because on a boat, tiny heroisms feel big.

Hola, Mexico!

We entered Mexican waters over a week ago, but it wasn’t until yesterday that we actually set foot on shore in Bahia de Tortugas for our first $1 cervezas on the beach.* Offshore, there was little to distinguish the coast from that of southern California, although night watches have gotten progressively warmer (or perhaps that’s only psychological, it’s hard to tell.) Groups of islands that look remarkably similar to California’s Channel Islands have appeared every hundred miles or so; the Coronados, Islas de Todos Santos, and Isla Cedros and surrounding islets. The arid coastline has been marked by deep arroyos, scrubby sage-colored vegetation, and pods of dolphins and spouting whales. Pacific sunsets each night are spectacular, and sunrises even more so after twelve hours under the stars. The most marked difference in Mexican water so far has been the red, white, and green courtesy flag flying from our starboard spreader—each time I trim the sails I’m reminded that we’re guests here.

After over a week of lonely voyaging (with one stop in a desolate anchorage where we didn’t go ashore), we pulled in yesterday morning to Bahia de Tortugas, or Turtle Bay, a favorite all-weather port for cruisers making passage down the Baja coast. For days, I had looked forward to arriving at the small village our guidebook reported as having a café, hospital, grocery store, hotel, etc. We could top off our diminishing water supply, re-provision, send emails and photos to family from the internet café, and do laundry—the ultimate luxury! Pulling in to the bay, though, I was dubious that we’d find any of that, as the village appeared to be no more than a few deserted shacks on shore. But there was a large sign painted on a concrete seawall in black lettering that said “Bienvenidos a Bahia Tortugas.” We must be in the right place.

After a fabulously revitalizing sun-shower in the cockpit and a much-deserved three-hour nap, we decided to get the dinghy down and row to shore on a reconnaissance mission. On our way towards shore, we passed a panga moored some way off the beach that was filled to the brim with pelicans — so far, the only sign of life in Bahia de Tortugas . We were pleased to find a floating dinghy dock extending out from the pier though, a nice alternative to surfing the dinghy up to the beach. We tied up next to a handful of other cruisers’ tenders, climbed the suspect staircase up to the pier, and met Pedro and Enrique, the dock attendants.

Though they spoke little English and we little Espanol, we determined that they not only had purified water, they would deliver it to our anchored boat and fill our tanks for less than $15 (the alternative would be a tricky “med-moor” to the pier with heavy surge, no thank you). They showed us the laundry lady’s home next to the beach—she does all your laundry and returns it to you folded. Then Pedro walked us all the way to the mercado grande, and on the way back showed us where showers and the wifi cafés were.

It amazes me that in a sleepy town that’s half-finished or torn-town structures are all covered in windblown desert dust, and where there appears to be no more than a couple dozen people living, there are not one but TWO free wifi cafes.

We were quickly introduced to the circle of gringo cruisers sitting along the beach with cervezas, and we made friends with several couples instantly. After all, it’s a very small community, and we have quite a bit in common. The cruising community is a strong one, in part because it’s small, and in large part due to the lack of constant access to the internet. Going cruising is like stepping back in time—no longer can you look up the NOAA weather forecast online, or the phone number or directions to the nearest repair shop, or where to get a good hot meal in a given city. Cruisers keep a wealth of information alive for each other by sharing bits of information constantly on shore and over the radios. It would be tiring if you had to find your way around a new town every other day, but as soon as you drop the hook, a chat with your first cruising neighbor reveals not only where the port captain and grocery store is, but also where to find fresh bread baked daily, or where locals will trade you five live lobster for two of your beers.

I’m on shore today to buy some yeast so I can bake bread for one of our sailing neighbors, who is lent me her sewing machine so I could fix a tear in our mainsail. We all check in daily to several cruising nets on the SSB radio, to hear weather forecasts tailored specifically to those of us “on the net;” to take down each other’s passage plans and positions, to relay messages between friends over thousands of miles of ocean.

Our newfound cruising community gives us a great sense of security. Until now, we’ve been alone and offshore, and seeing a ship’s lights on the horizon at night (or even more unnerving, an unlit ship on the radar) sends chills down my spine sometimes. But since we’ve arrived at Bahia de Tortugas and met more cruisers, we look forward to checking in with them daily on the nets and swapping red peppers for beer or gum for fresh shrimp. Ironically, we’re strengthening our human community by venturing farther off the grid than ever before.

Until the next check-in, this is Velella, WDF4539, clear and on the side!

( *We actually did spend four and a half hours on Mexican soil a week ago clearing in to Ensenada, but I maintain that you haven’t truly arrived in Mexico until you’re having a cerveza on the beach! )

Daylight Savings

31 10.23’N, 117 06.38’W

Cruise ship off to port near Oceanside, 1am

“Dark as night” gets to deeper levels when you’re 50 miles offshore at 3am. The absence of the moon makes the blackness complete, since the stars shed no light, but merely leave a pointillist reminder of what light was like in the sky.

I awoke for watch at 2am this morning; Prescott had been on since 8pm. We’re doing 6-hour night watches this time around, because 4 on 4 off is just too exhausting on too little sleep for us. If the weather is good, 6 hours passes painlessly, even in when it’s pitch black. Still, you have to count the hours.

We wake each other up for watch with a hot cup of black tea. Once I get settled in to the cockpit (position and course understood, sails and autopilot tuned how I want them), I clip in and curl up under the dodger with several pillows, a fleece blanket, and my warm mug. For the first hour, I let my mind go totally blank for as long as I can. I don’t know why I do this-probably in part because I’m just waking up, and in part because I’m trying to save all my thoughts and activities for later in the watch when I’m bored. Surprisingly, my first blank hour sails by quickly.

By the second hour, my boiling hot tea is finally cool enough for me to drink. So I turn on my iPod and listen to music while I enjoy it. For an hour. The third hour is when I start writing in my head. I consider several possible stories and detail them at length in my mind. The fourth hour is when I get out my computer and actually start typing. By the fifth hour I’m hungry, so I consider at length what kind of breakfast I should make when Prescott gets up. This decision takes into account the sea state, the temperature, what’s on top of the fridge, and how strong my stomach is feeling.

Kitten watching the sunrise

Just when I’ve decided on pancakes and coffee and start feeling sick because I haven’t seen the horizon for so long, the darkness begins to lift, just a little bit, in the East. Like a heavy blanket it’s pushed up by a light grey arc, which becomes purple, then pink, then orange, then glorious light blue as the sun lifts swiftly over the horizon and thaws my fingers. Nessie often wakes up in time for the sunrise and watches it with me from the cockpit. As I write this, a lone tern has found Velella and is circling and dive-bombing us-an activity which Nessie finds endlessly amusing.

We are currently making way southward toward Turtle Bay, about halfway down the Baja peninsula and clipping along at close to 7 knots. Since we’ve left Los Angeles, the weather has been warm and welcoming. Yesterday, we spent less than 24 hours on a brief stop in Ensenada to clear in to Mexico-an onerous task which took no less than five of those hours, after which we slept for twelve.

I’ve read and heard that Pacific Baja is like the husk surrounding the fruit of the Sea of Cortez. But with weather like we’ve been having offshore, and the hot southern sun rising over my shoulder right now, I rather like the husk! At this rate, we may be in Turtle bay by the end of the day tomorrow-which means only one more yawning night before we can curl our toes on the beach and relax. Meanwhile, you can follow our live track (see “Where’s Velella Now?” in the Pages column to the right).