Sunday, December 25, 2011
Rescuing the Christmas Spirit
It’s Christmas Day, the gale still blows, but it’s doing slightly more sighing than howling in the rigging now. Frigatebirds soared this morning, a hopeful sign—though now they’ve disappeared again, as the wind is back. A few pelicans were up riding the wind, too. We're covered in sand and grit, which happens when you anchor in a cove surrounded by desert.
Karen remembers watching the birds during Hurricane Hugo back in 1989, when she was in the British Virgin Islands anchored aboard the schooner Windsong, in Tortola’s Trellis Bay. The frigatebirds began having difficulty flying at around 25 knots of wind, and by 30 they had disappeared to wherever they took shelter. Gulls and terns were gone from the sky at wind speeds of 35 knots, Pelicans were still flying, but were having difficulty at 40 knots and disappeared altogether by 45. The only birds left flying above 45 knots were brown boobies, heavy-bodied divers (and cousins of the blue-footed species) who frolicked until the wind hit 60. Above that all birds were hunkered down somewhere. In that spectacular storm the winds in Trellis Bay reached 120-140 for a few hours, but 50 miles further west in Culebra, Puerto Rico (where Karen’s future friends Herb and Nancy Payson, and Cap’n Fatty Goodlander & family, were anchored) winds reached 200. With five big anchors out and the superb seamanship of Captain Colin Day, Windsong counted herself among 6 survivors of the 30 boats that had anchored in Trellis Bay. In Culebra, more than 200 boats were lost. While that was an unusual storm, sailors must take all weather very seriously, all the time, or pay the price. Sometimes there's a price to pay regardless of what you do.
Here's Luckness, a Pacific Seacraft 37, riding to her anchor in the gale at Ensenada de los Muertos, about 40 miles SE of La Paz as the cross flies. Craig told us it's like being on a perpetual rodeo bronco ride. That's dust you see in the distance. Luckness has come through just fine so far, as have all 4 boats anchored here.
So, while a gale of 35 knots in Mexico is not the way we’d planned to spend Christmas, it’s still okay. A few pelicans are flying and diving for fish in the lee of some sand dunes, and that’s entertainment enough in this enforced, guilt-free idleness. None of the 4 boats here has been able to do anything but ride the waves, but we’ve all chatted on the radio and will get together when weather allows.
Here's a photo taken from Luckness, of Sockdolager riding out the gale. Though we weren't very far from shore the waves and wind made getting off the boat impossible. And the grit mixed with salt, whew whatta mess.
Sometimes the Christmas spirit arrives when you decorate your tree with ornaments that recall memories… but we don’t have a tree this year. Sometimes the Christmas spirit arrives on the waft of a fragrant roast being cooked, or at the ring of the doorbell and the call of cheerful greetings. But we have neither roast nor doorbell.
We do, however, have the Christmas spirit. It arrived abruptly yesterday afternoon, in the form of a kitesurfer in trouble. We spotted him racing out from shore, an unbelievable feat of strength and skill in this wind. Karen took a photo, and the kitesurfer waved.
Wow, thought Karen, he's waving at us! I’ll shoot a movie of this and give it to him later! As the movie rolled, the kitesurfer raced past our stern going at least 30 mph. The next events happened very quickly.
“HELP!” he shouted.
“YOU NEED HELP?” we called back.
“YES! I can’t control this kite! Please let out your dinghy!” He swooped, managed to turn, and began racing back to shore, where we thought he might be able to get to a beach further down the coast. But the wind didn’t cooperate. He fell, then got up, and headed for Sockdolager, beyond which lay 200 miles of open sea.
Quickly we tied docklines together and lengthened the dinghy’s distance from the boat. Jim deployed our boarding ladder. The kitesurfer saw this and raced for the lifeline. He caught it, but the huge kite dragged him, the dinghy, AND our stern downwind, toward the open ocean. Grateful for our two well-set anchors, we knew it would be unlikely for Sockdolager to drag, but still, the 11-meter kite exerted tremendous force. It dropped into the water, and we managed to pull the kitesurfer closer as he hung onto the line. He disconnected the metal bar, with its half-dozen lines for controlling the kite, from his harness and handed it to Jim, shouting, “PLEASE! PULL IT IN!”
But a gust of wind caught the downed kite, and it rose out of the sea, pulling us downwind again. Jim barely managed to get one wrap of its cord on the primary winch, but it was slipping out of his grasp.
“Get a line on the end of this, I can’t hold it!” he said, and Karen tied a line and made it fast. The kite seemed steady, so we turned to the kitesurfer to get him aboard. Just as we did that, a strong gust swept the kite straight up, swooping wildly across our backstay, and down to sea again, on the other side of the boat. It threatened to pull off our solar panel and tangle in our rigging.
The kitesurfer screamed, “MIDDLE LINE! PULL ON THE MIDDLE LINE, THAT WILL COLLAPSE IT!” He was so frantic with worry about the kite that this became a distraction to safety as he repeatedly called Don’t let go of it! from the water. Karen pulled the middle line, but it was very thin cord, the kind that under pressure like this could easily sever or saw through a finger. She knew she could not pull it hard enough to collapse the kite in this wind. Turning to Jim, whose finger was bleeding, she said, “One of us could easily lose a finger or a hand on this, and it’s going to tangle in our rigging unless we let it go.”
Jim was still trying to hold the kite, but the line parted and off it sailed. The wetsuit-clad kitesurfer swam back down the line toward the dinghy, shouting, “I want to use your dinghy to go after the kite!” The fact that this guy thought he could row an inflatable in 35 knots of wind to rescue a huge wild kite and get back again shows how crazy these moments felt.
“NO!” we both shouted, yanking him and the dinghy closer to the boat, “YOU WILL COME ABOARD NOW!”
The poor guy looked exhausted. Jim helped him climb aboard, and got him settled under the shelter of our spray dodger. He kept looking at his kite disappearing downwind, so we called Luckness on the radio and asked Craig to try and snag it as it floated by (it was now mostly in the water.) Craig radioed a few minutes later, “It’s gone.”
The young man (in his mid twenties, we guessed) was due at work—he bartends at the local beach restaurant—so we let him use our radio to call ashore. He reached his employer, but nobody was available to come out in a panga and pick him up. Nor would anyone in their right mind try to, either. Karen looked at the young man, “The most important thing,” she pointed directly at him, “is that you are safe.” He began to shiver and look pale and abashed. “Are you alright?” we asked, looking for signs of shock and handing him a glass of water.
“Yes,” he said, drinking the water. “I’m realizing only now what a close call that was, and how that kite is the least important thing in my life.” We all introduced ourselves, and Armando thanked us for rescuing him. His English was excellent because he’d recently spent 8 months studying it at a Canadian university.
The gale continued unabated, and we appraised the wind and wave conditions, Jim said, “It could be awhile before we can get you ashore.” Armando accepted this with much grace—we could use our phones to call his family if it looked like we could not get him ashore—and we began to talk pleasantly.
We spent the next 4 hours talking of custom and culture in the US and Mexico, and Armando told us about growing up on this peninsula of land, about stories his grandfather told of pirate treasure, and stories of his family, including his wife and baby.
“I was foolish to go out in this wind,” he said, “My sister warned me not to. But I had never tried kitesurfing on this beach before. Over there,” he pointed, “where I started, the wind was not so fierce because the mountain was blocking it.”
“Perhaps this isn’t the best beach to kitesurf, because if you make a mistake you’ll get blown out to sea,” we suggested.
“Not only that,” he added, “but I was kitesurfing alone. I’ll never do that again.”
Once he recovered his composure, Armando proved to be delightful company, and accepted it when we told him he might be staying for dinner, and possibly for the night if weather conditions didn’t improve. He did not ask to be taken ashore. “Tell us about how Mexican families celebrate Christmas,” Jim asked.
Armando began with a description of his grandmother, whom he obviously loves. He told of how she loves to cook, and that she roasts two turkeys and a whole pig for the 40-member family celebration. He described his uncles and aunts, his sister and two brothers, and then, with a soft smile, his wife and baby. As we talked, the sound of the wind faded and a little glow of happiness surrounded us. Armando occasionally interjected into his stories, “My family—especially my wife and baby—nothing is more important than that.” We all smiled.
As Armando looked around the boat he became fascinated, and asked us how things work. We talked about sailing, and then, seeing him shiver in spite of the towel and jacket we’d loaned him, invited him to come below and warm up. After admiring the boat’s cozy cabin and asking a few questions, Armando said, “I must go up, the motion down here is making me dizzy.” Being so used to the motion that it barely registers anymore, we were surprised. We didn’t want Armando to become seasick, but if he had to stay overnight he’d have to sleep below, not in the cockpit where he could become hypothermic. We both realized this new wrinkle at once. Jim asked, “What time of day tomorrow will your family be celebrating Christmas?”
“Oh, not tomorrow,” said Armando, “our celebration dinner is tonight.”
“TONIGHT?” We looked at each other. The wind had lessened just a little—not much, but a little. The day was drawing to a close as mountain shadows lengthened over the water. Whitecaps still advanced toward us, and the wind was still strong, but not quite as strong as before.
Guessing what Jim was thinking, Karen said quietly, “It’s entirely your decision,” and speaking the obvious about Jim being the one doing the dinghy driving was unnecessary. The lull continued.
Jim looked at the setting sun. “It won’t be safe to do this after dark,” he said. As a just-in-case, we put the outboard on the dinghy, and Jim and Armando donned lifejackets. The wind grew harsh again. We waited in silence. Then another lull arrived, down to perhaps 20 knots. “Let’s go,” said Jim.
Crashing through the waves, the dinghy looked like one of those surf lifeboats, as spray flew high in the air. But they made it to shore, and a grateful Armando went off to spend Christmas with his family. Jim made it back to the boat just fine, and the wind resumed howling into the night.
We sat down to a dinner of Italian sausages and pasta, washed down with a bottle of fine Bordeaux that was presented to us by our friends John and Whitney in San Diego. “You know,” said Jim, “I’m feeling the Christmas spirit now.”
“Me too,” said Karen, “We don’t have a tree, presents, or even a roast for dinner, but this was a pretty good Christmas Eve anyway.”
Happy Christmas, everyone.