Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bay of the Dead

     Ensenada de los Muertos has a few surprises. After nearly a month in wild places with only a few stops in marinas it took us by surprise to stumble onto, of all things in this remote bay, a model train museum. The entire area is slated for development with a golf course and a hotel already established. There’s an open air restaurant on the opposite side of the harbor with a dingy dock nearby. The hotel is exquisitely designed with pools, artwork, fountains and the unexpected train museum on the mezzanine of the restaurant. The hotel and grounds are laid out with so much thought given to the details of comfort and beauty that it is simply stunning. Roads, lagoons, cliff side homes and shopping centers are planned, but for now it is economically stalled.
     With all this going on it would seem that something as simple as a dock for dinghies would be a somewhat stable affair. It is not. Assembled from large snap together plastic pieces it looks deceptively friendly, like a Playskol product. We tied the dingy up and jumped onto the platform which is when the fun began.  The innocuous plastic dock held an unexpected surprise. The surge sent it slamming it into the rock wall it was tied to, knocking us off our feet. The only safe way to traverse it was on all fours, which none of us were willing to do. We simply could not have successfully sailed down the notoriously difficult Baja coast only to discover the most difficult passage turned out to be fifteen feet of plastic gangway. Big tough sailors cannot exactly walk into a local bar with their heads up after crawling up a kiddy dock. We had merely a moment of warning, when the surge tugged the dock away from the wall, to prepare for the next jolt, arms flailing, knees bent, as it careened into the rock wall. A rubber fender or a few old tires would easily cure the problem, but in a billion dollar development complete with a mile of tiny trains and scads of marble water features it must be have been considered an unnecessary expense to ensure the safety of transient sailors. The surge swept the dock away from the stairs making the leap too far to risk between them. Timing was everything. Missing the chance required bracing for impact, then waiting for the next wave to shove the dock toward the wall, altogether quite challenging for a toy dock.
     The steep stairway leading to the path to the restaurant must have been constructed by the decedents of ancient pyramid builders or they were an afterthought chipped randomly out of the vertical wall. I love Mexico, this would not be allowed north of the border and it was actually quite amusing after the initial near dunking when the dock first revealed its crafty little secret. The molded plastic ladder attached to the end of the dock, a modest convenience for the people who have been launched into the water, proudly displayed the logo “EZ Dock”, which is insultingly oriented toward the person climbing it soaking wet.        
     And for all the people who have been sending advice about lures and how to use them, here is our latest attempt. We are now anchored in clear enough water to actually see the fish smirking at us.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Anything but stable

     After nearly a week of being holed up in a quiet bay, anchored below a mountain of rock and cactus off a lovely sandy beach we moved north to Ensenada de los Muertos, Cove of the Dead. As there is a restaurant and golf course here, it is much livelier than the last place despite its name to the contrary. At Bahia los Frailes I had only gone ashore twice, to walk on the beach, opting to stay on the boat while Steve and Peter took off during lulls in the wind to go exploring. Early yesterday morning the sea was calm enough to hoist the anchor. Motoring makes it easier to take pictures since the boat is more level than when beating into the wind and sails don’t block the view. Whales and dolphins visited us once again, but still, I have no photos that would prove anything other than a fin in the distance lost in the waves. A pair of whales dove under us and a huge school of dolphins leapt at the bow. Like fishing, it is a running joke. We always trail a line, with various lures attached, but nothing has been tempted to bite. The decks remain free of fish guts, which is meager consolation. To be able to fish it was required that we each buy a Mexican fishing license, which so far is a contribution to conservation, since our efforts have proved to be the case.
     There is something worth photographing that isn’t quite so frustrating. The ocean as a mirror of the sky, the water as a clear body revealing its depth over the varying ground beneath it, the shadows thrown from wind tossed waves, these are things that do not appear and disappear in a flash that is nearly impossible to capture. They simply require observation. Whoever gets those brilliant whale and dolphin photos I am convinced has never set foot onshore or lowered a camera from their face and receives regular telepathic messages from sea going mammals about the exact location of future breaches. 
      The ocean is so much more than blue, it is a complex range of light, shade and colors on its hypnotic, undulating surface.  When underway I rarely go below. Going ashore, while fun and interesting at times, does not hold a candle to the effect of the ocean on my senses. It is the reason to be here, to put up with the inconvenience of boat life, to risk, well, everything. Standing on the bow of a boat careening up and down over the deep ocean swells, with nothing but the horizon demarking the meeting of sea and sky, I lose the ability to indulge in woes and worries. The monkey mind chatter simply stops. Laughter from deep inside wells up and I only attempt to contain it if people nearby would fear for my sanity. Luckily my traveling companions either don’t notice or they understand from having the same appreciation for the mesmerizing effects of the undulating surface that the boat so willingly rides over. The boundary between self and everything that is not dissolves, a feeling of grand expansion from heart to horizon wells up and for those moments of exquisitely, intense joy I will bargain for nothing. They cannot be traded in for stability, a well ordered life, the compromises that form meaningful relationships or even for a secure future. I simply do not know how to find that feeling any other way. Drugs promise it, meditation may offer it to a more disciplined mind, love of a loyal pet maybe, but yesterday while underway, the magic was mine for hours at a time. It’s all relative though, for others it is merely a recipe for hurling.       


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Close quarters

     Traveling with people on boats requires sensibilities that do not often challenge us in our normally ordered American lives. This is not unlike living communally in a tropical village of open huts, where every sound our bodies utter, whether voluntary or the result of biological function, is heard by someone else. Living this way breaks the bonds of decorum we hold so dear when the luxury of privacy is available. There are other phenomena as well, closer to our former evolutionary status as cave dwellers, where we simply must care about each other for the sake of our own safety. It does not matter what we personally have in common, it depends little on if we like each other or that we will have forged enough compassion to continue friendships into the future. This part of the human psyche I had not experience before traveling on boats, but I’m sure it can be likened to other situations in life. Miners working deep underground, wilderness explorers, astronauts, people who must bond with each other around the common goal of survival. On the outside, it appears as friendship, but it feels more like a connection to strands of DNA not often exercised in modern life that are most certainly part of our common past. We look out for each other, worry a little when one is too long out of sight and hope for their safe return when we would not do so if they were simply our neighbors going off to work in their car.
     As a phenomenon it comes and goes with the perception of need. When we are no longer in wild places those bonds go as slack as the safety lines that we use when the boat is in in motion and stow when we are once again comfortably tied up in a marina.  Boundaries snap quickly back into place and that sense of caring takes its more usual back seat. I cannot imagine making jokes about bowel movements with people I have known for a short time in any other situation than on a boat where the thin walls of separation for the most private moments do little to ensure them. One can hope these odd circumstances forge friendships, but it does not guarantee it. Boat life is a crash course in what we usually learn to tolerate slowly about others and it helps to take a somewhat anthropological view, if possible, before nerves are frazzled from pushing personal limits. Platonic traveling in this situation on this trip has worked well and I certainly hope the women attached to these two men are not concerned in any regard about my intentions. I am relieved there is no spark of attraction between any of us because it would only add unnecessary tension. My good friends know, I simply love cruising on sailboats. There are good and bad things about both these guys, as with myself, but the presence or lack of those factors contribute purely to the enjoyment and safety of the trip. Traveling on boats with new people is a little like buying a car where you have only been allowed to view the internal workings of the engine from the greasy sludge in the oil pan to the whooshing exhaust from the internal combustion without ever once looking at the beautiful shiny exterior. It would be like forcing yourself to fall in love backwards and I doubt it happens very often. Girls, these boys are yours. And for all the lovers who are new to each other, there are many good reasons not to explore the trepidations first stages of love on a boat.    
p.s. Still unable to upload photos, still waiting out the wind in Bahia Los Frailes. I can get email so feel free to write;

Steve, the captain/owner of Si Bon also keeps a blog;

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

About envy

     Our good luck with the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind picked up before sunrise and didn’t let up, increasing as the day wore on. We planned to leave early for the next anchorage on our slow journey to La Paz, but when the fishing boats stayed ashore, a local guy that camps on the beach laughed when we said we were going and a boat that had left at dawn returned to re-anchor in the safety of the bay our plans changed and we stayed put. The chore of waiting out the weather began. It’s times like this that test a person’s capacity for tedium. The boat tugs on the anchor and rocks uncomfortably. Everything not solidly glued down flaps, taps and bangs. It’s the time when sailors in centuries passed picked oakum, wrote shanties about calmer days or spit downwind and turned three times, praying it would end. For anyone who has been envious, you should know about this part also. This blow is predicted to last for five days. The water smacking on the hull sounds like a big dog licking its balls, without end. Going ashore is impossible. Creak, squeak, moan. I think the moaning came from another person. This is only day one. By day three when nerves get worn thin care must be taken not to do anything stupid like accidently setting your hair on fire or snapping at other people. It will be interesting to see how the guys hold up. They were tired of this place and raring to go this morning before we were thwarted by the weather. So far they’re making a valiant effort to sleep through it, but getting chaffed in bed is an actual problem with the waves jerking the boat. We’ve retreated to our own corners to handle it in our own ways. I’m wedged into the short end my bunk just to be able to type. For people who wish for time with nothing better to do than laze around, this is not one of those days. It takes effort to stay still; I keep hitting the wrong keys when the boat jerks. Boredom isn’t a problem, there’s always something to do, but there is a point when it’s too difficult for even the simplest tasks. I’m glad I cleaned the head before it really got going or I’d have bruises on my face from the toilet ring. There’s nothing quite like the appliances launching themselves at you.  
     Winds like this often have names, maybe out of respect for their fortitude. Tehuantepecs, Santa Anas, Chinooks, Chubascos, I’m guessing the names mean The Big Blowhard, The Foul Windbag or possibly a Gale of Laughs, as it could eventually drive a person to cackling madness. This one might be a Screaming Blue Northerner, which is at least descriptive. Last night, before all this fun began, we sat on the stern and shone a spot light into the water as a huge school of fish surrounded the boat after another vibrant sunset and glowing red moon rise. Seals poked their heads up in the moon’s reflection. Sparkling phosphorescence twinkled in the dark water. When the beam of light caught the fish it made their eyes glow like hundreds of Christmas lights, there were so many of them. It helps to remember that now, but on these howling windy days you can be grateful you are not living the dream. 
This connection isn't strong enough to upload photos, but we'll be in La Paz in a week or so where services are better.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An altogether brilliant day with one exception

     Marina Puerto Los Cabos had everything the wealthy could wish for. The promenade around the marina hosted an art show with sculptures and paintings by Leonora Carrington. The endless showers were hot, the cafĂ© overlooking the marina a lovely place to spend time, but we sailed away anyway, choosing wilder places. I posted pictures of birds around the marina, feeling a little smug that we had stayed for four nights without being used as an overnight perch. Unfortunately on the fifth night, after we all went to bed, a flock of cormorants took up residence, most likely choosing Si Bon simply because she had not already been fouled (fowled?). They plastered Peter’s laundry hanging on the lifelines as well as the boat in the next slip. The foredeck looked like Jackson Pollack on a bender cut loose with a can of white paint and fish guts. I steeled myself for a morning with the hose and a scrub brush and tried not to inhale through my nose but it didn’t work. Just to say, I lost my appetite, which never happens, and the smell made my eyes tear up. Peter about wretched when he smelled his clothes. Cute little Cormorants do something to fish that is just unholy.
      The birds slowed us down a little, but we left as planned and motored toward Bahia Los Frailes on a calm sea. I was below when Peter hollered “Whale!” For the next four hours Humpback whales took to the air. Whole bodies, giant splashes, tails, babies and so often I couldn’t spin my head fast enough to see them all. I failed with the camera again. Unless whales decide to announce when they are going to jump I will never be able to focus on them. The last few hours as we rounded the tip of Baja and turned into the Sea Cortez we found wind and its attendant waves, bucking into the headwind until we reached the calm wind shadow behind the mountain we are anchored near.  
     Manta rays also leapt out of the water, with the added amusement of a backflip now and then. They belly flop like it should hurt. On the bow, ready to drop the anchor two jumped in front of the boat and several swam by flapping their wing tips above the surface. Their appearance in the anchorage was like receiving a letter of good news from a long lost friend.
     The sun set behind the dark silhouettes of jagged mountains surrounding the bay and the sky showed off with the colors of light, so brightly it was as if the entire spectrum from ultra violet to infrared were not nearly enough. Out to sea the full moon showed vermillion on the horizon, rising just as the sun disappeared. Their long arms of brilliant reflections touching for an instant at the gently rocking boat half way between them. For the second time in a day my eyes misted over, this time from pure gratitude over a rare moment of cosmic splendor, rather than what the Cormorants left behind.  

Friday, March 18, 2011

About fishing

     There is little to say about this since we didn’t catch anything. The line trailed behind the boat day after day. Correction, we caught a piece of seaweed, but it didn’t look edible so I threw it back. I love to reel fish in, don’t like killing them, can stomach cleaning them and would rather have a carne asada taco. It was probably a good thing nothing bit the hook. Yesterday I heard a familiar cry. An osprey swooped into the marina and deftly plucked a fish out of the water. It looked so easy. The bird took a victory lap then flew away screeching. I think it said “Right on, right ON, RIGHT ON” in bird of prey. Osprey’s have habituated to people in Baja. They sit patiently on the tops of the tallest masts taking a bead on fish lolling near the surface. There are various devices available to dissuade them from their perches, most of them expensive and often as effective as an umbrella in a sandstorm. Check out the useless bristles behind this comfortably perched osprey.
There are alternative solutions though. This low tech device cost a fraction of the official models.
Pelicans claim unattended boats by painting them white with horribly foul smelling excrement. Once they take over it’s time to abandon ship, a flame thrower is the only solution for cleaning a boat drenched in guano. Luckily they are too clumsy to land on the tops of masts.
Herons seem to prefer outboards and bimini covers.

Cormorants choose the spreaders in the evening, but paint the rocks at the harbor entrance white during the day. 

This is fishing done well, by a creature that thumbs its beak at anti bird devices, shrieking loudly, just like I would if I ever caught a fish.
And after envying the birds for a week, two boys showed up on the dock next to the boat and reeled in fish after fish. Their excitement was contagious. Every time they caught a new fish they called me over for a photo, we’re going to be friends on Facebook and I got some advice about lures from them. The boy in the background is reeling in a barracuda.

And this is the new definition of trash fish.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Arriving in Cabo San Lucas

    I've only just been able to look at the news. My prayers go to the people of Japan today. Thank you to everyone from Hawaii and California for sending news of what happened, life is so precious and we just never know what moments we have. The following was written a few days ago, we arrived yesterday and were able to reconnect with friends.  
     After reading about my last sailing trip across the South Pacific on a boat even the Ancient Mariner would have bitched about my friend Heidi asked, “Why would you ever want to go sailing again?” The list is endless; wing on wing downwind, a mild following sea, Jimmy Buffet on the stereo, the prow on the waypoint, a chipped sapphire tropical sea and destinations not yet experienced. Or as the ballad of the Minnow so aptly states “No phone, no lights, no motor cars…” Then out of the literal blue all this bliss was enhanced by a dolphin show. One school, I swear, escaped from Sea World. They shot out of the water leaping so high we had to look up at them.  And when they did it in pairs I was too elated to lift my camera, but when four jumped, twisted sideways and splashed down together I wondered who trained who. I wished for a bucket of fish to reward them, like the good humans at Sea World, but they were gone just as quickly.
     The sun came up as we rounded Cabo Falso, the lighthouse a welcome sight after several nights at sea. It never gets old, staring at the changing colors of the ocean, the stars traversing heaven, the moon’s silver streak across the wave tops. The challenging part of sailing is internal, when sleep is infrequent and the tedium of staring at the radar during the night watches insights involuntary yawns. Hours of checking reveals nothing, until suddenly a freighter is bearing down and those moments of anxiety while trying to determine their course are more effective than a whole pot of coffee. A few passed close enough to hear the giant rumbling engines. Plotting a course on a paper chart marks the hour and is something to look forward to. It was cold at night and work to stay warm. I paced and waved my arms. My warm clothes weren’t enough for the cold wind. Luckily most of the wind came out of the north and we made good time. We passed by Cabo San Lucas to stay at Marina Puerto Los Cabos, a modern facility full of giant power yachts and few cruising sailboats. Mostly the mega yachts go unused, except by birds and the people hired to clean the guano off them.
     This area has grown considerably since I sailed here fifteen years ago. Condo sprawl covers the desert hillsides. This is a country clearly not afraid of color, laid on thick in bright, garish combinations as if to challenge the dusty, muted tones of the landscape. The cemetery overlooking Bahia Tortugas quietly proclaimed; life is celebration, even after we are gone.     

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ensenada to Bahia de Tortugas

     Sailing from San Diego to Ensenada gave us time to adjust to leaving the land of big box stores. There's always a moment of trepidation when leaving familiar places, but it passed. Sailing with unfamiliar people to new places challenges more than just navigating skills. Privacy on a small boat is a figment of the imagination. I'm traveling with a couple of guys in a place the size of a large walk in closet. But something interesting happens when safety and comfort depend on the good will of others. Fortunately the petty nonsense, that would be irritating in other circumstances, takes a back seat. We don't have a lot in common, aside from wanting to sail to Mexico. But we each have valuable skills to contribute and they are the kind of people who will look out for me, which builds more trust than similarity might. That said, if we were all actually living in a closet, instead of a sailboat harbor hopping down an inhospitable coast, we'd probably shriek like howler monkeys after a week. As it is we're still having fun. 
     A school of dolphins escorted us out of Ensenada Harbor and a pair of gray whales met us at the entrance to Turtle Bay. In between (and I'll make an effort not to bore people silly with details of weather, sail changes and nautical miles logged) we saw some mighty fine sailing. The man who answered the VHF radio in Turtle Bay from his shack on the pier offered to sell us fuel. Turns out he's the Port Captain as well. The yapping dog that lives in an appropriately tiny dog house at the far end of the pier was introduced as el policia. His impressive under bite, the dog's not the man's, made his bark seem more like a plea to be taken seriously than a threat to keep people away. The town, a dusty treeless burg over a hundred miles by dirt road from the main highway, is rocking with Carnaval this week. Last night police cars with lights flashing lead a truck with a band playing loud fast music through town, followed by dancing revelers. Women dressed like men with painted beards and mustaches grabbed us for a dance in the street as the party swept by. I was sorely tempted to jump into the crowd of costumed fun loving folk and let the nachos fall where they may, but good sense prevailed. We returned to the boat and listened to wild music drifting across the bay. Just to say, places like Walnut Creek would be far more fun with the cut loose attitude we've seen at Carnaval, but I still marginally regret behaving like I grew up there by going to bed long before the party ended.
     To see more pictures and read Steve's blog (the boat owner and skipper) please visit sailblogs.com/member/sibon/, as usual I'm not in many pictures because I take most of them, but that's just fine with me.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Night and Day

Getting to and leaving San Diego was a big fat hit and run. There was barely time to get ready to leave, but that’s been a theme for a month now. I left my van at a friend’s and he made us dinner to go for the first night out on the boat, which made it very easy for me. (Thanks Rich!). And thanks for the sushi dinner. Deep fried shrimp heads are okay if you don’t look at the eyeballs too long. Next time I might ask what I'm ordering.   

     Sailing from San Diego to Ensenada in Mexico took about twelve hours, this time. This boat has up to date stuff, charts from this century, no major leaks and fun people. So far the only annoying thing (and I hope to get over it) is that I keep comparing this trip to the last time I sailed to Mexico. It isn’t fair, but unavoidable. Luckily my observations are all in favor of this trip. We arrived in Ensenada in daylight, with the boat intact. Way better than last time where we got pounded by Santa Ana winds and crazy high surf that filled the lockers with water when the deck leaked. Everything I own is not currently soaked with sea water. No one even raised their voice, well yet anyway. But the best part is that I have my own cabin. The diesel engine is under my bunk, so when we’re underway it’s like  sleeping on the hood of a car, but that’s not a complaint, it actually helps cure insomnia. And we’re in a marina near a hotel where we can use the showers so we don’t all smell like old laundry yet. The boat could be cleaner, but I’m out numbered. I’ve already heard “But we’re guys!” a few times so if they don’t notice I guess I won’t either.

      For people who have expressed concern about the problems in Mexico, there is no evidence of trouble in Ensenada, except for a lack of tourists. That does create hardships for businesses that depend on people driving here for the weekend, but Steve (the owner and captain) pointed out that it’s more fun to hang out in place that’s not overrun by gringos bent on tying one on. When we leave here in the morning internet access will be more sporadic, but I’ll keep writing and post when I can. We’re heading to La Paz, which is a few weeks away more or less with several stops in between if it seems like a good idea at the time.     


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Leaving Molokai

     It's always been bittersweet. There's the big brilliant unencumbered future full of promise and there are friends, with the ability to stay in one place, who I may not see again for a while. It keeps getting harder to say good-bye. Now I'm in San Diego hunkered in a bunk on a sailboat soon to leave for Mexico. The rain on the deck a foot overhead and halyards banging on the masts of boats nearby sound like mad four year olds beating on steel drums in dishwasher.
     The last painting went up at the airport the day before leaving Molokai. Paddy's shop is back to being a shop (thank you for everything!). I won't miss the scorpions lying in wait. Or the centipedes, or the negative side of island style wireless (read trash talk fueled by the fangs of boredom), or the price of gas or hoards of suicidal gnats that thrashed in the wet paint dying horribly. I was told I was pathetic in Georgia for putting bugs outside. Empathy for gnats, on the scale of wasted emotion, is right up there with worrying about idle gossip, but I do both anyway.
     The finest moments have always been with friends, even though I spent most of my time in the shop with the scorpions.  I got to the beach once when I stopped to say hello to neighbors and they waved me into their car. Five of us ended up sitting in the shade staring at the sea contemplating the waves. The husbands sat under one tree and us gals sat at a busted up picnic table under another. Rocks and beach junk held up the end with the missing legs. We sat for hours talking while inch worms magically appeared on us. Bright green worms wafted down on invisible threads in large batches, in the tropics bugs usually show off with mass displays. The newly hatched weird little creatures performed the classic inch worm stride across our hats, up our legs and into our bags. At first they seemed sweet, cartoonish, even unusual, but in the end even comic bugs were easily place kicked with a fore finger when their numbers hit maximum creepy. It was a testament to the power of girlfriends. We were so happy to yak we stoically tolerated worms raining down upon us. Kitty and Heidi, please keep in touch, it was great to reconnect. I'll go to worm infested beaches with you any day. At home there was one worm left, inching along the collar of my shirt, so I put it outside.
     Mickey, I'll miss laughing over breakfast, although I'm sorry I can't post the moment, we took turns closing our eyes in each of the photos. Flying to Oakland went by fast, I put my head on the window and never opened my eyes, but am glad no one took a photo of that.      
     All this moving around caused someone to ask what I'm running away from, but that implies the glass is half full. Running towards something is a much better concept. It denotes purpose rather than inability to cope. I didn't run away from Walnut Creek's weird piped in music on the street, or the facades with fake Roman flair or the atmosphere of sterile right wing sameness. I ran to a boat leaving the country with two fun people. The drive through the central valley, the rolling green hills topped with snow and blossoming trees in long straight rows flashing by were the frosting in the middle of the cake. Until I hit Grapevine and climbed over the pass in a white out blizzard. But it's not a long stretch of road and it had only begun to snow so the road was clear enough. It was over before I had time to complain.
     David met me in Walnut Creek for coffee before I left for San Diego. We have managed to see each other with enough irregularity to notice how age is creeping up on us. Twenty years ago the problems were all different. We worked at the same museum and had energy to spare and a lot of it went into maintaining the false front of being cool.  Behind the fragile charade, we cared very much about what we pretended didn't matter. It was fun to laugh about how it doesn't seem to mean so much anymore, it being success, or what that was going to look like. Seeing David brought the undoing of all those silly notions into focus. The future has arrived and it turned out to be two middle aged friends standing on a street in front of silly buildings with big false fronts, kind of like how we used to be. He climbs mountains now, the real kind and I have another chance to be where I feel most at peace, on a small boat on the big wide ocean.
     Si bon, the boat I'm on now, sails to Ensenada tomorrow at 3am.