Velella's Drift

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

Archive for January, 2011

Tuba- ‘clock

Oh, it’s colorful and sunny and I’m really going to miss the avocados and dolphins when this is all through, but I feel guilty for not also telling you about the things I won’t miss about Mexico. It’s not all Coronas and Chicklets down here; some things just drive me nuts.

For one thing, when I ask for coffee at a restaurant, ever hopeful for “yum, Mexican coffee,” I often receive a cup of hot water and a can of coffee grounds and a spoon. Even instant coffee would work out better than just grounds and water. I don’t yet know how to communicate in Spanish, “Excuse me, I don’t care what culture this is because nowhere in the world does grounds + water = coffee. And Mexico, for your wonderful coffee reputation, you should be ashamed of the way you serve your own!”

Or how, in a quaint, otherwise quiet little towns of no more than 7 streets, trucks sporting enormous loudspeakers bungeed on to the roof troll the lanes, blaring announcements in Spanish that one would think must have to do with an emergency, but in fact are advertising “MANDARINA DULCE!!!!!! DELICIOSO!!!!!” over and over and over and over. I have never bought a sweet little mandarin orange from one of these trucks for the same reason that I’ve never competed for one of those huge stuffed animals at a fair. Both elicit my fight-or-flight reaction.

Or, is it just me that thinks this is odd? Mexicans apparently like to bury old people up to their necks in the sand on the beach–with all their clothes on. At a glance it’s not that strange to see someone buried in the sand—it’s fun, we’ve all done it. But here, it’s not little kids burying each other or burying their compliant mothers, it’s 40 year old women burying their 70 year old mothers—who are usually wearing soaking wet jeans and a shirt. The first time I saw this, I was like, huh. But the more I notice it, the itchier it makes me.

But as one cruising couple reminded us, Mexicans have a completely different idea of fun than we do—we sailors are truly the weird ones here. So we put up with their jet skis zooming around the anchorage using our boats as a slalom course and throwing up criss-crossing wakes that knock our house around like a toy in a bathtub. We know we’re the guests here, of course. But when we’re sitting at dinner and hear an enormous BANG on the side of the hull, and I run out into the cockpit yelling “what the—“ and see two kids in a kayak unabashedly T-boning our boat—I think my Spanglish was pretty clear. They fell out of the kayak and dragged it away swimming. (I honestly didn’t feel like that was culturally insensitive).

Right now we’re in the throes of “tuba -‘clock.” Defined on our boat as: The time of day (sometime around 2 or 3pm usually) when a lone tuba player strikes up his one-man-band on the beach. It doesn’t matter what beach—the tubist is absolutely everywhere up and down the coast. Perhaps he’s drunk, perhaps not, but his 10-note repertoire would suggest the former. His little ditty is comprised of scales, kind of, a couple arpeggios (remotely resembling), and a neverending repeat, beginning at “tuba- ‘clock” and ending well after we’re in bed. There’s no party—just a tuba carrying loudly across the water, every day. And if it isn’t a tuba, it’s a guy with a megaphone and a heartache. Sometimes a drum.

All I’m saying is, as it’s raining and snowing in the northern climes and you’re jealous as hell that we’re kicking it in Mexico, please go enjoy a great cup of coffee for me, put on a good album, take a bath, and have a laugh at our expense. If I come out of this experience with nothing else, I will have discovered a deep appreciation for my own wonderful home.

And to truly heighten the authentic armchair travel experience you’ve had with us today, please listen to the Macarena on repeat at least five times. Once this song is firmly and irrevocably stuck in your head, you will have joined us in spirit down in Mexico!


Cows in Low Latitudes

Santiago Bay is heavy with moisture, and today we crossed our fingers for rain. A downpour of freshwater would mean a bath for the boat as well as ourselves; our plan was to suds up and stand there, letting the rain rinse off all salt and sweat and soap. With the sun still fresh on our faces, it’s easy to believe in the restorative balm of thundery gloom. Prescott starts writing and I start getting crafty with fabric and ribbon. But the heavy shroud of air nuzzles the purple mountains, and a flock of pelicans flurrying in the dusky waterline, and no drops fall. The swell rolls slowly under a glass surface, broken only by a nearby sunken ship, half submerged, and the occasional jumping smelt. We’re just rocking here and reading about fishes and birds of Mexico, dueling each other in cribbage, fighting over games of Scrabble.

When we flip on the SSB radio and listen to the weather nets at night, our faithful forecaster Don Anderson says in his slight British accent that we’ve got a bit of a Pineapple Express on the Mexican Riviera, a system bringing warm, wet clouds from Hawaii. With the solar panels rendered useless by the persistent clouds, we no longer have the battery power to support our fridge, so we flipped it off and went to bed.

A lot of cruisers go without refrigeration–not to mention all the people around the world who live without it. But for a gallon-of-milk-a-week girl from the diary heartland, it’s taken quite a shift to force my provisioning habits to conform to room temperature. We’re lucky that so far, all the way from Seattle to Mexico, we’ve managed to keep cold milk onboard–a perfect bowl of cereal, a splash in coffee, a creamy pancake ingredient, an essential side to a garlicy pizza. As our last quart started to turn with a sharp rancid tinge, I realized I have no idea what people do who live with no refrigeration.

I went to the market with a weak plan, hoping that brilliance would strike. Powdered milk is gross no matter how you deal with it. Coffeemate tastes fake. I was almost ready to give in to black coffee forever when we stumbled on boxed milk. The picture is repulsive, showing a dopey looking cartoon cow smelling daises in a huge green field. But it’s sold on the shelves unrefrigerated, and I’ve seen it used in restaurants down here too. Lo and behold, it’s not a milk-like non-dairy product, it’s real cow’s milk, and it tastes like real cow’s milk! (It’s pasteurized in such a way that it doesn’t require refrigeration. Do we have this in the states? I wouldn’t know because I’ve never had reason to go looking in the dairy substitute aisle…) Of course, cold milk is nice. But room temp milk that’s not gone bad is completely fine!

After our week in Santiago impressed upon us how much we depend on our solar panels, we decided to head around the corner to a quiet, wild anchorage reputed to have great snorkeling. Plus, turning on the engine to motor out of the bay would mean we could also turn on the refrigerator again. But the morning we were scheduled to leave, I awoke to a buttery finger of sunlight stretching down through the open hatch to our white pillows. I laid there thinking about how the solar panels would already be drinking it in, and how we have fresh produce swinging in the bulging galley hammock, and how the sun and the fruit at my fingertips made me feel incredibly rich. The more we learn to go without, the more I realize how comfortable our lives really are.

The Work of Living

It’s no secret that cruising may be fun but it’s not all play. The tropics have an easy time ravaging all your hard work: peeling varnishes, blackening oils, and fading canvases, keeping your metals coated in a fine film of salt, and sprouting a five-o’clock algae shadow almost overnight on the hull. Basic tasks like laundry are a day-long event, beginning with gathering all possible fabrics into a body-bag-sized sack, hefting it over the lifelines and down into the rocking dinghy, rowing into the choppy wind, surfing to shore, and taking turns carrying the beast through the hot  streets to the nearest Lavanderia, which is usually not too near at all. Grocery shopping involves trips to multiple stores, a heavy dinghy-row back through the surf, and a ritual of washing every bit of the new food while still in the dinghy, using chlorinated water (a bleach and saltwater mixture), and then patting it all dry, before reorganizing the fridge in order to find space for it all. We spend at least 70% of our time engaged in these daily “chores” that maintain our lives.


Does it sound like I’m complaining? Because I’m not really. Before we left, I imagined cruising as a utopian place where things were always clean and food sort of appeared with cold beers on the side. (I know that sounds ridiculous, but how often do your daydreams really involve the grittier stuff?) But reality is relentless, and an excellent teacher; after two months of cruising in the tropics, I have grasped that life IS—on a boat or elsewhere—simply the work of living. Choosing to live on a boat is just choosing a different line of work, in a way. Whereas on shore, my life’s work was spent in an office, maintaining the car, and on a never-ending list of to-dos, on the boat, our life is much the same, just with different things on the list. Such as “catch fish for dinner.”

After spending over a week lounging in the Barra de Navidad lagoon for the holidays, Velella had a significant amount of green-black growth on the underside of the hull. With my trusty Marina del Rey dive service being several hundred miles away now, we decided it was time for us to dive and clean the hull ourselves. So here we are, moored alongside the stunning Moorish-inspired architecture of the Las Hadas resort in Manzanillo, jet skis surrounding us—and we are probably the only ones here swimming with sponges in hand. We swam along either side of the waterline, gently wiping away the algae to reveal the bright blue bottom paint, flicking off the tiny beginnings of barnacles, and sponging clear the dried salt splotches from the white gelcoat. It felt intimate somehow to run my hands over every inch of my boat’s hull—it reminded me of the feeling of brushing a horse: meticulously restoring her prideful sheen with a loving hand. Dare I say, the boat work has become FUN. When we were done washing Velella, we washed our own hair and did a couple somersaults in the water before rinsing off with hot fresh water on deck.

Any boater has heard the expression, “Cruising is doing boat work in exotic locations.” It’s often said ruefully, knowingly, and with a bit of warning to would-be cruisers. And that’s absolutely right—that is essentially what we’re doing in these exotic locations—a constant regiment of light boat work. But I have to admit, it’s a great place to work, and the benefits package is pretty awesome.