Velella's Drift

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

Archive for December, 2010

The Irresistible Horizon Line

I love it when those sayings about weather turn out to be true. Makes me feel like a real old salt.  Like how my last sight of the evening sky was this:

And this morning the lagoon is pure glass. White flocks of egrets’ wings flap across the still water along knotted mangrove forests, tufts of smoke hang in the dense hills, this sky is an almost colorless blue. For the first time in a week, the air has been scrubbed clean of hazy humidity, leaving the sensation that we’ve just showered clean without getting wet.

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.

I’ll be sorry to leave Barra de Navidad. When you anchor somewhere for over a week, it starts to feel like home. We know where the cheapest lavanderia is, which cafes make “real” coffee (as opposed to the ubiquitous cup of Nescafe) and have free internet, and I’ve even found a little hole-in-the-wall craft store. As I type this, I’m listening to the unusual accent of the French Baker on the radio, calling out to cruisers that he’s headed out to the lagoon. Each morning he dings his little bell and pulls alongside each boat with “Bonjour, French Baker this morning?” His canopied panga is lined with warm danishes, croissants, baguettes, fruit tarts, and cookies—the other day we bought cranberry oat cookies with sherry and orange zest. After endless huevos rancheros, a buttery chocolate croissant delivered practically to our bed is worth hanging around for.

For the first time since we started cruising, we’ve gotten to know a place, and it feels right. I was beginning to feel despondent about passing through Mexico like a skipping stone. Though we’ve been in the country for two months, our average time in a single anchorage is, sadly, only one day. My anxiety accelerated every time we picked up the hook again, because the trip—the slow, immersive travel we worked so hard to be able to do—was rushing by and we were missing way too much. The knowledge that the “end” of Mexico is right around the corner has put a hard knot in my stomach for weeks.

When sailors dream of cruising, we aren’t dreaming only of warm remote shores and a self-sustaining little home—though those things make up the stuff of our mental pictures. I believe that what most people seek when they choose to cruise is a certain pace of living. It is an adventurous pace to be sure, but it is also an exploratory one. I care as much about discovering the cultural pockets we find in tucked-away anchorages as I do about discovering a migrating pod of whales at sea.

Prescott put it eloquently in observing that there’s something irresistible that beckons sailors about a horizon. The landlubber’s equivalent is “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” That horizon always subconsciously represents warmer water, bigger fruit, more colorful flora. Perhaps south of where we are, we would find some of those things. But we are realizing that we could forever haul ourselves over horizon after horizon in search of what we have right here. What we would leave behind is the contented pace we went cruising to achieve.

So we’ve decided to rein in our galloping itinerary in favor of savoring Mexico. We’re enrolling in Spanish language classes, studying our birding books, and reading John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” aloud as we make our way North to the Sea of Cortez for spring sailing. We’re writing more, swimming more,  and reinstating the daily siesta. Because although we may have started out with vague intentions to land in New York City at the end of all this, we’re not ready to trade in this pace for that—not yet.

As last night’s firey sunset predicted, it’s time to sail. But this time, we’ve thrown the calendar overboard, and we’re sailing “by the wind.”


Blizzards in Minnesota

‘Twas the night before Christmas, but all through our house there are creatures a-stirring, which I’m quite sure are mice. They skitter around and chirp at night, but haven’t gotten into our cupboard. I harbor strangely kind feelings towards them — they’re a little family after all, and it’s Christmas. Above the floorboards, our 35-foot-long home feels large and empty since our family flew back to the States.  Prescott has been laid up with a fever pushing 103 for the last several days, and while he rests we’ve been living in near silence — but for the mice. After switching out Prescott’s cool compresses this morning, I set mouse traps with peanut butter rather half-heartedly.

For the first time since we arrived, the hot skies are grey over Barra de Navidad lagoon, darkening the murky, shallow pond full of cruisers and crocodiles. It’s not as if I’m baking a Christmas ham today, so we decided that, Christmas Eve or not, it was time to go see a doctor about this fever. No sooner do I get on the radio to hail a water taxi than we’re stepping out of our cockpit into a brightly painted, canopied panga. The panga’s 75 horses and macho driver get us to town in two racing flat minutes. We wind through the humid streets, past steaming tortillerias, and families gathered around huge bushels of cilantro, and rows of flip flops and sunglasses for sale. The beach is alive with Mexican tourists who have presumably arrived in Barra de Navidad for the holidays—and I wonder if they all subconsciously came to this town just because of its name. Under a swinging wooden sign with white lettering that reads “Doctor Maria Rubio,” we turn off the street and into a cool white hallway.

There are three chairs in the waiting room at the end of the hallway, and three magazines. One of them was Vanity Fair with Grace Kelly’s perfect image, the other two looked like the Spanish version of GQ, Ricky Martin on the cover of one and Enrique Inglesias on the other. I chose the only one I knew how to read. Prescott was soon called in by Dr. Maria, who had functioned as her own receptionist when we walked in. She had a doctor’s white coat over the back of her chair, but wore a blue-and-white striped polo shirt, a red cotton headband over her silky black hair, and stunningly large, teardrop-shaped ruby earrings that looked as if the previous owner might have worn them onboard the Titanic. Her English was heavily accented and grammatically perfect. After understanding Prescott’s symptoms and examining him, she prescribed an antibiotic as well as an anti-parasitic just in case, and sent us around to the pharmacy next door.

Waiting at the panga dock for the taxi back out to the lagoon, was hard to believe this is Christmas. For the first time in 27 years, I’m not drinking eggnog and looking through frosted windowpanes to the blank-white yard of my hometown in Minnesota. Instead, I’m looking at Christmas through a pane of palm fronds, being shared by another family in a wooden hut on stilts at the edge of the lagoon. There are three men sitting around a square table, chopping cilantro and drinking Negro Modelo. There is a tiny black puppy toddling about beneath them, pausing to sniff and lick discarded oyster shells. In the corner, a young girl sits in a rainbow hammock, absorbed in something she’s reading on a piece of paper. I look at the size of her huge silver hoop earrings and think that if she were in the States, she’d probably be texting someone. Two diapered kids play with something between them on the floor, and babble in better Spanish than I can understand. The edge of the roof is strung with light green seaweed like garland, interspersed with colored-foil spiral ornaments.

The scene next door was interrupted by the panga driver calling “vamanos.” We loaded in and zip back out to the lagoon, where it’s easier to persuade ourselves that today is just another day in paradise.




Wildlife Highway

We sailed into Chacala before sunset, escorted all the way in to our anchoring spot by the most enormous dolphins I’ve ever seen. The anchorage was small, lined with densely forested hills with colorful homes perched on the cliff sides. Dramatic black rocks framed the sinking sun, dark boughs hung over the surf, music from warm palapas drifted out over the water. We split a bottle of wine in the cockpit under a black night full of stars and watched the underwater light show performed by throngs of undulating phosphorescent jellyfish and darting neon schools of fish. Every so often one of our huge dolphins swam by, like an underwater rocket in the bioluminescence.

A couple days later, we spent the entire morning motor-sailing in the glassy, steamy water alongside an enormous pod of whales. We got so used to seeing them surface every few minutes that a flip of a 10-foot-wide tail no longer was something to ooooh-ahhh about. I snapped several shots of not one or two, but four whales spouting at the same time. An almost hourly distraction was spotting large sea turtles languishing in warm surface water. We could sail right up alongside of their leathery backs, they would raise a wrinkled head and sort of smile a soft hello in our direction, then flap a flipper and descend below the bow with a smooth unhurried breaststroke and bubbling exhalations. A new kind of dolphins (dark grey with golden spots running down their backs), huge kaleidoscopic jellyfish, spotted pufferfish, ocean sunfish—all joined us over a very short distance. We’ve entered a constant state of Sea-World wonder down here.

We were pleased with the blossoming of the marine wildlife in this area, because we were headed to pick up Prescott’s family for a week of cruising between La Cruz and Barra de Navidad. We had promised them great fishing and whale sightings and all sorts of other tropical attractions, and it appeared that we’d chosen the right spot to take them on as guests. But even with all the wildlife we’d seen, we had no idea about just how close we’d come to it.

We spent one beautiful evening overnight sailing—an experience in itself for our guests, who got to sit in the cockpit with us under the millions of stars and participate in our watch-keeping rotation. By morning, we were all a bit tired and ready to arrive at our anchorage. We had just sighted our landfall and started making our way in towards the coast when a pair of grey whales surfaced off our port bow, perhaps 500 yards off. We were running parallel with them, and watched quietly as they rose slow and majestically, blew powerful spouts of steam, slapped their tails with echoing booms across the water. Soon we realized that there were not only two, but several more in their company, and Prescott and I were on full alert as we began to suspect we were running very near an entire pod. We were motoring, but throttled down and tried to stay far away from where we thought they were.

Prescott gave a startled shout to look out to port, and we turned to see a white mass rising no more than 30 feet away from the rail. Nobody moved. A huge grey fin pushed through the surface, white barnacles clinging to its glistening, cloudy skin. Then it arched as if in slow motion, and we saw its light colored underbelly as it plunged below, lifting its tail then slipping beneath, taking our words with it. All that was left was a glossy patch on the surface amidst the wind waves, a trail of bubbles following it down.

I’ve always regarded close encounters with marine life a good omen, as if they’re welcoming us to their sea. On our very first sail on Velella, from Tacoma to Seattle Washington, several small black-and-white Dahl’s porpoises happily played in our bow wake—which I took to be better luck than any amount of good wine poured over the bowsprit. The enormous gentle presence of this whale touched me in the same way. Because sometimes in the middle of the night when the wind is really strong and the salty swell is conspiring to take all the life out of me, I have to wonder if all this is really such a good idea. But when a whale surfaces next to us as if we’re part of the pod, I feel like we’ve truly become creatures of the sea.

Port of Call

We’re currently anchored outside of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, watching the sunset and waiting for the Harvey family to arrive! Just thought we’d give the Harveys a preview of their port of call : )

Transition to the tropics

As we were pulling in to Ensenada de Matanchen bay, some 125 miles south of Mazatlan, the heavy smell of dusk in the tropics reached out over the purple water. It was too late to go ashore that night, but I imagined that the twinkling palapa restaurants along the beach were wrapping themselves in the savory smoke of dried coconut husks to ward off twilight insects. The bay was calm and warm—only a few fathoms deep out several miles—and we slept as though drugged in its still, 12-foot waters, nestled beneath the soft mountain ridges.

Was it only just over a week ago that we were surrounded by the piercing blue water and chalky landscape of Baja? We’ve had a gentle ride into an entirely different world since then. Warm breaths of air pushed us across the Sea of Cortez in the middle of the night to Mazatlan, where we were received with orange and blue butterflies 10 miles offshore and iridescent feathers floating by in the blood-red water. Staying at the marina in Mazatlan was like drinking a liqueur of luxury after having lived in the Baja dust and Pacific salt for so long—we spent days laying in the resort’s cobalt blue pool, watching the frigate birds and gulls hang like a slow gyrating mobile in the sky, sipping cool drinks from the springlike hottub, exploring the labyrinth of waterfalls and greeting occasional lime green iguana in Marina El Cid’s pools.

Mazatlan hit me with a pastiche of color. Whereas Cabo had been bright with artificiality, the mainland’s hues were ingrained and unstoppable. Rich, palm-fringed coastline dotted with moody looking islands, bursting tropical flowers, large and chatty birds, and a city drenched in the movement of daily life. We took the bus for $9 pesos in to Old Town to re-provision at the enormous two-story central market, and here the rainbow was intensified and laid out on wooden shelves for easy sampling with the sweep of an eye. We filled our bags with pineapple, mango, avocados, tomatoes coconut granola, and carrots so big that one of them could constitute a meal. We sampled all the queso frescos and settled on a variety of three. We bought plenty of fresh flaky tortillas, a bunch of fragrant cilantro, and a stack of little limes. We were transported home by way of a fringe-topped golf cart with no doors—and after spending a good month moving at no faster than 5mph, it was an exhilarating joyride at 35mph to say the least.

At 9:30 am it was steamy enough in Matanchen Bay yesterday that I asked Prescott if it was too early for a Pacifico from the fridge. He said yes, it probably was. So instead we put up all the canvas and awnings, making a shady paradise out of our cockpit, and spent the rest of the morning reading. Later, we surfed the dinghy to shore to sample the cervezas the civilized way (in hammock-hung palapas on the beach), making a detour first to the tiny town of San Blas. We accomplished next to nothing in town, since there was next to nothing to do, except have cold “real cane sugar” Cokes from glass bottles in the square. Then, we had a mouthwatering meal of marlin and chicken tacos for under $10 total.

I feel that we owe the world a complete album of photographs from this leg of the trip, because all we do all day is sense things—the changing colorful climate is endlessly captivating. But for now, all I can do is upload a couple due to the internet connection here, which is undeniably slow. Because that’s the way the tropics wants things to be.

Meditation on Teak

If you are inclined towards boats in the least, you fall into one party of thought or another. Those in the first party are drawn, often romantically or with “old school” sensibility, to boats bedecked in teak. The other party will perhaps tolerate a bit of brightwork, but other than the most minute amount, wants nothing to do with wood on their boat whatsoever. You’re one or the other. People can move from one camp to the other, but you’ve gotta be in one of them.

Perhaps I have not spent enough years pouring elbow grease into my teak decks yet, but I am still firmly stuck in the former camp. My boat is laden with teak inside and out, and I won’t lie about how much work it is. It’s such a large job that I have to tackle it in constant stages–one weekend caulking, another day replacing bungs, another weekend sanding the combings, another day bleaching, another couple days oiling, and on and on. By the time I finish the whole thing the deck seams need recaulking again. Velella is a traditional Taiwanese design very similar to the Hans Christians and Tayanas. Unlike most of the boats in our design family, though, our large teak bulwarks (which run around the entire outside of the boat for non-yachtistas) are not varnished or Cetoled–they’re oiled. Lovingly, constantly oiled. It’s a job which takes hours and days to do, and it must be done almost monthly in the tropics, where the sun is strong enough to oxidize the oil almost black in just a few weeks.

Why on earth would one want such a penance? (Well, I was raised Irish Catholic as a kid. But that’s not the issue.) For one thing, well cared-for teak is a stunning sight. It’s surface is deep warm, not unlike a violin. Oiled teak is soft and tactile; it’s rich and handsome next to a light glassy varnish. For me, owning a boat is not just about being able put up the sails and move with the wind; it’s an aesthetically pleasing thing, it’s design and balance achieved, it’s gracefulness in the ever-harsh environment of the sea. So I’m a slave to it’s beauty.

To the man who walks by on the dock and snorts “you shoulda bought a plastic boat!”, I say, “don’t you know pain is beauty?!?” Then I get back to work and think, it’s not just because it’s pretty that I do all this. Velella works awfully hard keeping us safe day and night, so the least I can do is take a loving hand to her. My eyes know all the cracks and crannies and I have a mental log of every spot that will next need caulking. It’s a great way to bond with the boat–doing teak work. Anyway, all that wood has brought us on an incredible journey. And the wood took an equally incredible journey of its own before I ever laid a brush on it.

In a book I have in our onboard library*, the author excerpts a small history of teak, which is fascinating. Teak trees are absolutely enormous–up to 40 feet around and 150 feet tall–and they don’t grow in groves, but are found individually within monsoon rainforests. The wood, which grows in India, Burma, Thailand, and Java, has unique properties that those cultures have long known about (it was only more recently that Western navigators realized its superior benefits). Teak is an extremely dense hardwood that actually sinks in water when freshly felled–in fact it’s so hard that you can’t drive a nail into it (which is why screw holes are pre-bored and fitted with wood plugs.) It’s much stronger than most woods, resistant to mildew, insect attack, fungal decay, and all sorts of other wood-plaguing maladies. The grain will swell when it becomes wet, effectively making it self-sealing. What’s most amazing to me is that the harvesting process for all this teak is done by elephants who are trained to haul the felled logs to the nearest waterway. They even lift and stack the logs using their trunks. I’m not making this up! Then, the timber is floated downstream, ending up in ports that ship to North America and Europe.

So to those of you in the second camp who say “to he$% with teak work, let’s go sailing already,” I can totally understand that. But for better or worse, I love the maintenance as much as I love the movement–the symphony of function and form that all come together to produce this little world that keeps us safe at sea. Sailing is an undeniably romantic art. So I leave you with a quote. Or perhaps a mantra.

“Art begins with resistance–at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.” –Andre Gide

*If you want to learn more about caring for teak from someone really in love with the fine practice of woodworking, read Brightwork: The Art of Finishing Wood by Rebecca Wittman. The photographs alone are worth it.