Velella's Drift

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

Archive for Sea of Cortez

First Class Tickets

I was extremely tired from traveling as I walked into a Wal-Mart to pick up some cat food yesterday. I barely noticed the huge display of familiar Mexican food items in front of me: masa harina, pan tostadas, cane sugar bottled Cokes, Penginos, and other typical corner store stock. It slowly dawned on me that literally everyone around me was speaking Spanish too—and I almost asked “donde es la comida para gatos?”—when I realized with a start that what the heck was Mexico doing following me to Hood River Oregon?!?

We’ve come to Prescott’s parents home hear Hood River to “decompress” for a week while we wait for Velella to arrive by Yachtpath ship. We figured it would be good to come to this quiet country place first to alleviate the culture shock of returning to the US. But (despite the local Mexican population here that tricks my tired mind into feeling like we’re still in Baja), it’s still shocking to be home in the states.

Last week at this time we were in limbo in La Paz, waiting for our Yachtpath ship to arrive. By the middle of April the heat had become aggressive—not stiflingly humid, but a dry baking heat like being in a kiln. By the time the ship arrived I felt like I was going to melt to my grave, and was glad to leave Mexico for the temperate and beautiful Pacific Northwest summer. Of course as we approached the carrier ship at sunset, all the emotions of change came flooding over me. Pride for all the miles passed beneath our keel, futile longing to rewind the tape and play it again, fear for Velella as we left her in the care of other hands to make the long transit home.

The loading operations went smoothly, and before we knew it we were being zipped to shore by a panga as Velella was being hosted by crane onto the ship called the BBC Rhine.

As we headed to the airport and waited for our flights, I realized with some sadness that I hadn’t bought home a single “souvenir” from our time in Mexico. I’d been too busy living the whole adventure to even consider that someday we’d be looking back on it. I browsed the jewelry shops, thinking perhaps I’d take a keepsake to remind me of this time, but I knew that no token could capture it all. As our flight soared above the Sea of Cortez, we pointed out the islands we’d called home for the past couple of months, I realized that what we brought home were priceless memories and thousands of photographs and a changed way of being.

There’s nothing quite like the first time for anything, and it’s been bittersweet to close the book on this tropical sailing adventure. But we’ve no doubt that we’ll point our bow south again someday, and meanwhile we will be exploring the Pacific Northwest by sail.

The very day we arrived in Oregon the tulips blossomed, all lipstick red and lemon yellow in the mossy woods. We are taking hot baths and sitting by the woodstove and waiting for Velella—because where ever she is, we’re home.

Sea Monster

(A kitten collection, at the request of ASA fans!)

I blame Robin Graham for this. And Tania Abei too. Their descriptions of kitten-companions aboard their circumnavigating sailboats tore at my heart until I became obsessed with the idea of having a boat kitten too.

“But it doesn’t seem like the right environment for a cat.”

“How are you going to make sure she doesn’t fall in?”

“You know, cats HATE water.”

Given the severe overpopulation of homeless cats and kittens in the Los Angeles area, I was shocked that I couldn’t just go to a shelter and rescue one. Everyone seemed to disapprove. Each location made us fill out a huge interview describing the living arrangements, etc (as though whatever home it might go to could possibly be worse than a flea-ridden shelter cage). More often than not, people determined that a boat was an unfit home for a cat. (I mean, they hate water.) I felt ridiculous and exasperated explaining that the cat would not be living IN water. Our floating home is cozy and full of nooks and crannies and fresh fish! We were denied again and again. It was astonishing how people who knew so very little about boats and what it meant to live on one were so quick to condemn the unknown.

Ultimately, a non-profit called Kitten Rescue decided that we were fit parents for a little calico that I’d fallen in love with. The director visited the boat personally and decided to give us the kitten for free (with all shots and spaying paid for!) because she thought our boat was a wonderful home for her. So we named the little calico Nessie, after the  sea monster.

Now Nessie has been sailing with us for a year, and has thousands of sea miles under her whiskers. She has a fabulously glamorous life. She enjoys sashimi frequently, loves sleeping under the sunny warm dodger, tears around the boat chasing flies away for exercise, and meditatively watches the sunrise every morning. She even plays chess and has been known to help hoist sails.

So to all those of you who would eschew having a cat onboard, don’t be so quick to judge! If a kitten starts sailing young, she’ll be an old salt in no time. Who knows, she might even start swimming.

The World a Spare Room

He’s driving me completely nuts.

We’ve had a lovely “early honeymoon” this week, sinking into the solitude with each other (after a month of guests aboard) and exploring some of the most remote anchorages we’ve yet seen. As the sole boat in an enormous reef-fringed anchorage on an uninhabited island, you can hike up the cliff in the nude if you feel like it!-there’s nobody for miles but the scuttling crabs and soaring hawks. Yesterday I laid in bed for almost the entire day reading a book, which is a rare treat even when you’re on perma-vacation like we are now. We cook food, read to each other, play chess and cribbage, swim, sleep, you get the picture. It’s been beautiful, and all the more savory because we’ll be leaving Mexico in less than two weeks.

As our wedding date approaches and our sailing trip comes to a (temporary) end, we’ve been congratulating ourselves on the wisdom of heading “off the grid” during our engagement. We spent the last six months working really hard together, overcoming fears, facing a huge range of problems, and enjoying equally many spectacularly gratifying moments as well. Lots of “quality time.” Our guests (fellow cruisers and landlubbers alike) often remark that if you can get along with each other on a 35′ boat for this long, you’re well equipped for marriage.

If marriage is eternal tolerance, then yes, I would think we’re well equipped. I mean, I can’t imagine a point in my life where I will ever be MORE annoyed with this man on a daily basis. I’m so sick of hearing “can I squeeze past you?” (about 12 times per day), that I’ve started to just say, No more squeezing past! If I’m occupying our 1-foot-square galley, you can’t “squeeze in” too! There’s no room in our bedroom for both of us to get dressed at the same time! Now that I sat down to write you need something out of the quarter berth beneath me?! I’m sure he’s just as annoyed with me because, after all, we only have 35 feet, and that’s mighty little for two to share. But for the most part, we suppress these annoyances because, well, we chose to live in a tiny house.

Compounding the small space arrangements is the fact that absolutely everything we do is a decision to be made, which amounts to about 65 decisions we make TOGETHER per day: do we tack upwind to get to the cooler anchorage North of us or head around the corner to the South for a more comfortable sail? Should we reef the main now? Should we fly the staysail with that? How about trimming in, easing off, closing that thru-hull valve, anchoring in three fathoms or five, and oh I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things we decide on together. Naturally, both being well-educated and stubborn, we have a few differences of opinion on our forced and frequent collaborations. Just a few.

Having such confined space to cohabitate (and make so VERY many decisions within) is a struggle-I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t. We all need space to live. But while everybody else may have larger homes than ours, and rooms they can retreat to for peace and quiet and space from one another, nobody has the kind of backyard we have. It’s full of dolphins.

We have the whole navigable world to stretch out in-and it’s always a million-dollar view. You are all cordially invited to visit as guests to our expansive, skylight-lit spare room.

Entrance Exam

Last week, after over three months living on the lush tropical coast of mainland Mexico, it felt strange to be leaving it for good. We spent a couple of nights sleeping soundly in the gloriously still estuary at San Blas, surrounded by complete peace. When it was time to go, we exercised our cruisers’ freedom said, “nah, let’s stay one more night.”

After walking down the dusty road to San Blas and buying bags of fresh tomatoes, chilies, and plantains, we returned to Velella in the afternoon and filled her with the yeasty smell of rising bread and the pungent overtones of enchiladas simmering on the stovetop. We fried up fresh corn tortillas and cooked two loves of French bread in preparation for our passage across the Sea of Cortez. At sunset we explored the mangrove-lined beach and tideflats, split a bottle of wine over a game of Scrabble, then went to bed.

The morning of our departure was hazy; the water still as glass, broken only by pelicans. The sails hung like rags and we drifted. Finally, we decided to make some way by motor, and proceeded under power through the silent night, under a full moon reflected perfectly in the mirrorlike surface of the quiet ocean. We knew that strong north winds were coming, so we inched our way as far north along our course as possible, knowing that once the wind came up we could fall off on a starboard tack and have a better shot at making our northwesterly course across the Sea of Cortez.

Come morning, weather forecasts made it clear that we were going to get some substantial wind howling down the Sea, then it would let up for 48 hours, then howl through again. Instead of trying to hustle up across the 300 mile expanse before the wind arrived, we prudently slowed down, trying to pace ourselves so that we started crossing right when the wind let up.

Despite our best efforts, what might have been a three-day passage in good conditions turned into an almost six-day slog in less-than-good conditions. We had tried to maximize our best weather window, but the reality was that the window was a rather small moving target. So we buckled down, tucked in a couple reefs, and nosed our way into the heavy chop that often builds in the southern crossing of the Sea of Cortez.

The first days, much like those on any passage, were uncomfortable. We knocked around the cabin, spilled things as the boat lurched, felt thick in the head most of the time, and acutely queasy whenever we would go below. Forcing our bodies into a six-hour night watch rotation (mine began at 2am and lasted until 8am) made us perpetually tired.

It was almost comical how each day we calculated optimistically that we could close the rest of the distance by the next morning. Then the wind would veer or strengthen and put us just enough off course to really put the kibosh on those plans.

There wasn’t a lot of point in becoming demoralized about how long we had left to go, because there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. As we began to get over our early passage nausea, we began to make the most of our floating world. We had “dates” in the cockpit each night at sunset—cribbage and hot cocoa. We stopped miserably eating crackers and began to put together great hot meals underway: I would chop vegetables in the cockpit while Prescott simmered a broth for tortilla soup. We routinely stood longer than necessary watches while the other was asleep, and each morning felt surprisingly well rested.

Beneath us, the deep water foretold a dramatic change in scenery waiting for us on the other side. The water near the mainland was murky and moody, often affected by red tides that stained the entire coast blood red. But by the middle of the sea we’d left all that behind and cruised across deep clear blue, tinged with turquoise when the sun hit it at an afternoon slant. The closer we got to Baja, the more vibrant the water became, until finally one morning at sunrise the huge dry mountain ranges of Baja stood up in stark contrast to the drinkably clear Sea of Cortez lapping at its beaches.

Sighting landfall is always a cruel mind trick; you think “There it is! We’re so close to dropping the hook and sleeping for as long as we want!” But usually it takes almost another day or more to reach anchorage after sighting land from sea. And this passage was no different; we still had almost 24 grueling hours between us and our protected little bay.

That morning the sea had flattened out and the wind, though on the nose and fresh, was manageable. As we approached the coast, I eyed the notorious Cerralvo Channel on the chart warily. The 16-mile-long Isla Cerralvo lies parallel with the Baja shoreline; in order to reach La Paz, we would have to sail all the way up this channel, then turn left and head down into La Paz bay. The problem is, this channel is perfectly arranged to act as a wind tunnel for any prevailing wind. Pile a squeezed tidal current on top of the accelerated winds, and you have a nice recipe for a rough passage that could very well last all day.

As it turned out, we arrived at the mouth of the channel just after the afternoon winds had reliably built to their peak for the day, and on a strong opposing tide. Whereas any other day we may have scrapped it and pulled into an anchorage south of the channel to wait out more favorable conditions, we needed to make it into La Paz before the forecasted Norther was going to hit the following day; we had friends coming to visit and didn’t want to get stuck on the other side of the peninsula due to weather. We were between a rock and a hard place.

As we inched our way up the narrow mouth of the channel at a speed of 2 knots per hour, we were pleased by how well Velella was able to hold her course, and how well we feeling despite the extreme turbulence. I realized elatedly that I was even still able to read my book without getting sick: I had bona fide sea legs! So we bashed through steep chop, our bow rising and falling at 45-degree angles, and had a decent time of it. Later in the evening as the channel widened to the north, the chop subsided and I was able to sleep for a couple hours.

When I awoke, the moon had not yet risen and the night sky was deeply black. Large dark hulks of unlit land surrounded us, with no light loom anywhere in sight. We screamed along at 6 knots completely blinded by the night, headed for our ever-nearer anchorage waypoint. Finally at 1am, we reached the bay and could just make out a white sliver of beach running around its edge.

As we dropped the hook for the first time in a week, and the moon finally ascended like a big dripping slice of cantaloupe, I felt like we’d accomplished something. We’d never been sailing that long before—but if we can do one week here, we can do three weeks on the way to Hawaii. The Sea of Cortez just gave us a little entrance exam: we passed.