Velella's Drift

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

Archive for Cabo to Acapulco

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

 

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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!

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.

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.”