Velella's Drift

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

Archive for February, 2011

The Great Ocean

“Millions upon millions of years ago when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific. . . . How utterly vast it was! How it surges modified the very balance of the earth! How completely lonely it was, hidden in the darkness of night or burning in the dazzling power of a younger sun than ours. . . . Master of life, guardian of shorelines, regulator of temperatures and heaving sculptor of mountains, the great ocean existed.”

So begins Michener’s Hawaii, an enormous brick of a book that I first saw sitting under our Christmas tree in 1997. I was 14 , and had rarely traveled outside of the Midwest at that point in my life; I could hardly imagine what it would feel like, on our family vacation, to reach those lush little islands that stood defiantly in the middle of a mapful of blue. Sitting in our cozy snow-piled living room in Minnesota, nothing could have seemed more fun and far away.

When my parents visited us in Banderas Bay last week, they brought me our old yellowed copy of Hawaii, which I’d since forgotten about completely. The printed dedication reads, “To all the people who came to Hawaii,” below which was added in my dad’s familiar handwriting, “including the crew of the good ship Velella—just in case you decide to turn westward. An amazing waypoint, and a novel that will enlighten your journey.”

At the end of the first chapter, I came near to tears because I know this immense watery road stands before us now. The chapter concludes, “If you are willing to work until the swimming head and the aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance to this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires. On these harsh terms the islands waited.” And that is what the prospect of sailing to Hawaii feels like: it is an adventure both completely thrilling and utterly terrifying. . . a dichotomy I fully expect to remain  in my psyche all 2600 miles across the Pacific. But Hawaii is an epic, and a place only reached by a sailor’s epic rite of passage—crossing the rolling, windswept Pacific Ocean.

Although it torments me to think of the long and seemingly endless days and nights spent at sea because I fear I’ll mentally crack, I don’t fear much physical danger in sailing to Hawaii and back. Velella is a stout little oceangoing cruiser designed to handle exactly this kind of passage.  We have all the safety gear on the market and then some. We have a comfortable sea berth,  two pairs of capable hands, and a Monitor self-steering vane that works for us round the clock without complaint. Really, all we have to do is cook our meals, reef our sails when the weather calls for it, and keep ourselves occupied.

In between working out our own passage preparations lately, I’ve been devouring Michener’s Hawaii; reading about the horrific passages of the peoples who originally emigrated to the islands makes our trip seem all the more benign and fun. Way back in the 9th century, an exiled group of Bora-Borans came a roundabout 6,000 miles to Hawaii in a large canoe sewn together with twine at the joints, with only the lines of an ancient fable to guide their navigation to islands rumored to lie somewhere to the north. A group of missionary New Englanders in the early 1800s spent six horrible months cramped into a communal hold in the belly of a tiny brig named Thetis that sailed from Boston first to the Azores (off the coast of Africa), then around Cape Horn, then finally across the Pacific to Hawaii. Newly-recruited Chinese laborers later in the century endured harsh, most inhumane treatment on the Carthaginian, and dozens of sailors since then have braved the Pacific alone in small craft, during the wrong times of the year, or with many other hurdles we will not have to face. In contrast, sailing out to Hawaii from the Pacific Coast, during the fair spring season, is often referred to by sailors as “the happy tack.”

As we sailed out of the calm waters of Banderas Bay last week to make our way north again, I noticed that we both started to say “when” rather than “if” we go to Hawaii—without ever sitting down and deciding on it. We also tacitly regarded our mini-passage up to La Paz as a shakedown for Hawaii, and on the eve of my first night watch I thought about how I’d feel if I was 1200 miles from land instead of 30. I decided I’d probably feel much the same. When Prescott woke me in the middle of the night for my watch, I was shocked that it was 2:30 already, when he should have woken me at 1am. Incredulously I asked him why he let me sleep so long—he’d been on watch for over 7 hours when we had agreed to do shifts of 6! He said he wanted to give me one less hour of dark on my watch, and he didn’t mind staying up on such a beautiful night. With a mate like that and a boat full of love for one another, I thought in the middle of the swaying night, we can definitely do this.

We reached toward Mazatlan under a hot sunset this evening, sea birds dove from dozens of feet aloft and plunged into the water. A pair of whales blew clouds of breath and curved their great backs out of the water off to our port, and our rail dipped into that same salty sea with each gust. We’re headed up to the Sea of Cortez now to explore some awesomely remote anchorages that we breezed by on the way down.  But by April we’ll be back out in this big Pacific, headed directly for that setting sun.

 

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The Grand Detour

It’s spring, and our wedding is less than 5 months away! We’ve loved slowing down on the Mexican coast, and this cruising pace has allowed us to host many family members and close friends—visits that afford us amazing quality time with the people we love. What a perfect way to spend our engagement. (Though I have to admit, craft shopping for wedding stuff at Quincenera shops is SUBPAR. But anyway.)

Visiting with family in this “removed” little disarming sphere of Velella’s world convinces us even more that the decision to move home to Portland is the right one. As we start our married lives together, proximity to our close friends and family makes a lot of sense to us.

There’s just one small hurdle.

 

There are three ways to get a boat back to the Pacific Northwest from Mexico:

1.       Sail straight back up the coast the way we came down. This is the thought most often suggested by our well-meaning non-sailorly friends and family, but it’s the option that is most out of the question. Heading north from here means bucking both the strong steady Northwesterly trade winds AND the south-setting California current for a couple thousand miles. The same reason why coming down was such a nice run is precisely why heading back up the same way would be going uphill against the wind. There are very popular books written about the notorious “Baja Bash,” and couples are cautioned to read these before embarking on such a trip, because many instances have ended in divorce. No joke. Not the way to prepare for our wedding.

2.       Put Velella on a ship or truck in Mexico and fly home to meet her in Portland. This is a good option for several reasons, not the least of which is that it would be easiest on the crew! It would involve a lot of work “decommissioning” the boat for trucking (i.e. taking off all gear on deck—including having the mast pulled and laid alongside her), but most importantly it would involve a huge layout of cash we don’t really have. How much is the ease and convenience of having the boat trucked home worth to us? We choked when we received quotes for $9,000.

3.       Take the Grand Detour. Otherwise known as “the happy tack,” the third viable return option is sailing from La Paz out to Hawaii, then back to the Pacific Northwest. There’s this wonderful high pressure system called the North Pacific High that sits somewhere in the middle of the ocean (it moves around a bit with the seasons); the consistency of this high pressure system is what produces the reliable trade winds. Think of a big circular high sitting in the ocean: Along the Pacific Coast all the way down to where we are now, the trade winds come out from the high from the northwest. Sailing AROUND this circular high allows you to basically have a downwind run the entire time, all the way back to the Pacific Northwest. Plus, there’s this great stopover in the middle called the Hawaiian Islands. Counter-intuitively, sailing the Grand Detour to Hawaii and back is a far more preferable option than the Baja Bash—both for wear and tear on the boat and the crew.

So, having ruled out the Baja Bash from day one, we are left with two options. A truckful of debt heading into our marriage, or the intrepid Grand Detour. If we did the detour, we would probably spend the month of April on passage to Hawaii. When we got there in early May, we’d fly home for the wedding, and return to the islands in early July. After “honeymooning” on our own boat in and around the Hawaiian Islands, we’d stock up and sail back to the Pacific Northwest during the month of August. We’d be home just in time to enjoy cruising a bit in the colorful autumn colors of the Columbia River with mugs of cider and flannel blankets.

It’s easy to sit at home and say “do the Grand Detour, duh!” and it’s easy for us to think that sometimes too. But there are heavy factors to weigh for the ocean passage route home as well. The risks are relatively low, but a lot higher than having the boat trucked home. Being isolated from one another (by our watch rotation) for almost two months would be awful. Is it totally crazy to spend the month before your wedding completely out of touch with the world and with each other on an emotional rollercoaster in the middle of the ocean? Yes. And then go back and do it again  during the first few months of your marriage? Absolutely. But from where we’re standing right now, right here, it seems like this crazy red oversized clown shoe might fit us. So we might be sporting some FUNKY kicks when you see us in June.

We are so close to settling down and eagerly getting back to our careers. We’re excited to “nest.” We’re talking about buying land and saving up to build our own home. The thought of sailing to Hawaii and back makes me want to go straight to bed instead. But we both find it hard to turn our backs on the irresistible pull of life’s awesome challenges. It’s a crippling decision. But it’s one that we’re turning over slowly in our minds.

We sure would like to get coffee and bounce pros and cons with you all, but pen pal style email advice will have to suffice. Email us your thoughts—we’d love to hear from you on this big decision . . . seriously, what would you do? velella.sv@gmail.com

 

Lessons from La Cruz

We’ve been living at anchor in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, hanging out between visitors to beautiful Banderas Bay. The water is flat here and the winds are consistently great for sailing, kind of like the Mexican equivalent of San Francisco minus the fog. Despite the good sailing here, anchoring options are scant, with La Cruz being the only place that’s really protected from prevailing winds and swell, both in Banderas Bay and 30 miles on either side of the entrance. Luckily, La Cruz has an enormous anchorage, and as I write this, we are one of perhaps 55 boats seeking shelter from a howling norther coming out of the Sea of Cortez.

Northers are a common weather pattern in the Sea in the winter, and the strong ones can affect us even way down here. Southern Californians will can commiserate; the Santa Anas that howl over the Pacific there from an easterly direction are a result of the same high pressure system that produces northers in the Sea of Cortez. When there’s a huge high sitting over the Four Corners area, and low, low pressure outside of it, the dramatic pressure gradient causes a rush of winds that reach well over what you’d want to be out sailing in-they reach East over California, and South to the Sea of Cortez. The Sea also has the nice feature of basically being a 600-mile wind tunnel. So we got that going down here.

Down on the Mexican Riviera where we are right now, Northers rarely reach. But today, we’re having a honker. By noon, the clouds marched in and piled up and it feels just like home in the Pacific Northwest. The wind is screaming down our dorade vents and we put hot chocolate on the stove, and we thought about lighting the propane furnace (but then decided that we’ve gone soft and refused to be that wimpy. We put pants on instead). All 55 boats here are hard-back on their anchors, and you can see people out on their decks checking for snubber chafe frequently. We snapped the sail covers closed so they wouldn’t flap, and turned on the GPS anchor alarm to alert us right away if we pulled the hook. No sooner had we done that than we hear on the radio “La Cruz anchorage: There’s a boat on the run.”

We turned up the handset and recognized our friend Will’s voice responding “Can you describe where the boat is that’s dragging and I’ll come help you get a hold of it?”

“It’s the Melinda, the pretty little schooner, she’s on the run and headed past the green boat in the middle of the anchorage.”

At first she was difficult to spot from our vantage point, because she was headed almost straight for us. When people started to realize which boat it was, several dinghys zipped over to help. The first tactic when dragging anchor-whether in your boat or on someone else’s-is to let out more scope on the chain, which is exactly what they did. Letting out more scope changes the ratio of water depth to horizontal pull on the anchor (and the more horizontal pull, the better chance the anchor has of digging in). But it was soon clear that letting out more scope would not stop this boat from dragging because she’d already gained too much speed. And she was dragging her hook right across a row of boats, threatening to pull out their anchors too.

She was headed fast towards a neighboring boat who we happened to know was engineless. If Melinda pulled our neighbor’s hook out, he’d have to raise sail and maneuver out of that forest of boats fast-and in high winds. So Prescott rowed our dinghy over to our neighbor’s boat to lend a hand on deck. We decided I should stay onboard Velella because we were also in the wayward boat’s path-I wanted to be able to fend her off if need be.

Meanwhile, the people rescuing Melinda were having a hard time because the owner had not left the keys in the ignition when he left the boat. While it’s counterintuitive to leave the keys in the ignition when you go ashore, it’s definitely a good idea for this very reason. The community of cruisers is a tight one, and people are always looking out for each other’s boats when people go ashore. It’s a good idea to leave your keys in the ignition in the event that someone has to jump on your boat and help you out!

As it was, there was no way to turn on the engine of the dragging schooner. With a small fleet of four dinghys acting as tugs alongside, and a guy at the tiller of the schooner steering her, they were able to push the bow this way and that as she drifted through the anchorage, keeping her clear of all other boats. When they reached a large clear spot, they dropped the hook again and let out plenty of scope, letting the strong wind help set her back on the hook.

 

 

 

 

The captain of the wayward boat came back just as they were getting the hook set again. To his credit, he got on the radio and gave a gracious apology and thank you to everyone who had helped. The responses were “Well said,” and “Don’t worry about it, it happens to everybody,” and “we’re all here to take care of each other,” and a series of microphone clicks on the VHF (a sailor’s substitute for a round of applause).

Morals of the story: 1. It’s always, always better to have too much scope than too little when anchoring. 2. Leave your keys in the ignition when you go ashore so other cruisers can more easily help you out if there are problems while you’re gone! 3. Most importantly, being gracious about your mistakes is an excellent way to make friends, both in sailing and in life.

A Little Midwinter HEAT

Today is the twenty-fifth of January, yet we’re enjoying the distinct pleasure of perfectly ripe avocados garnishing our fresh ceviche for lunch! We love making ceviche onboard Velella, not only because it’s delicious, but because it’s a way to keep fresh fish around for a day or two longer than normal cooking methods allow. Yesterday, we picked up a kilo of fresh shrimp from the market, made a half of it into shrimp tacos for dinner, and marinated the rest into “Aguachile” ceviche to enjoy underway for lunch today.

Aguachile is a Mexican ceviche recipe popular in all ports along the mainland’s Riviera. We see it on menus everywhere; I found a recipe and decided to give it a try. It’s super simple and truly delicious, so whip up a batch and enjoy a midwinter culinary escape to the tropics.

Ingredients:

1 pound fresh shrimp (or cubed fresh fish of your choice)

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro

2-4 finely chopped Serrano chiles

1 red onion

1 cucumber

1 ripe avocado

Preparation:

Mexican Aguachile is simple to prepare onboard, and even simpler to prepare before you haul anchor (or at home before you head to the boat).

Butterfly and devein the shrimp, remove shells, and rinse cleaned seafood in fresh water.

Combine lime juice, cilantro, and Serrano chiles (you can puree this mixture if you have a blender; if not, chopping finely and stirring together works well too). Caution: Serrano chiles are hot hot hot—two give a nice mild spiciness to the dish, use four if you want to sweat.

Pour the lime juice mixture over the shrimp, covering completely, and refrigerate overnight or until the shrimp are fully “cooked” by the citric acid.

Garnish with sliced cucumber, red onion, and avocado. Serve with tortilla chips, tostadas, or simple cheese quesadillas on the side—and for an authentic experience, a cold Negro Modelo!