The Sea of Cortez is unique in the world (Cousteau himself said so), and we have enjoyed a little corner of it. Because of strong north winds we didn’t get as far north as we would have liked. Ironically, the wind turned south when it was time to sail back, giving us headwinds and calms for the return to La Paz, where we've just arrived. But our time in the islands was memorable and good. The desert islands of Espiritu Santo, Partida and San Francisco, fronted by the towering, Grand Canyon-like Sierra Giganta mountains to the west, left indelible images in our minds. Since most of you are still in the grip of a northern winter, we hope these photos warm you up.
Best. Sunset. Ever. Karen actually saw a tiny green flash as the sun set over the mountains. Taken in Los Lobos, north of La Paz.
It’s been awhile since we last wrote, and in that time we did a little sailing, a little snorkeling, hiking and beachcombing, some socializing, a few projects, a lot of thinking, and lots of organizing. To be honest, we’re a little preoccupied with this Big Magilla of a passage just ahead. So mostly we worked (and fished) and thought (and fished) and talked (and ate fish) about the upcoming passage and plans for voyaging for the rest of this year. There’s a lot of preparation. Fishing, of course, is part of the preparation—one’s mind must be calm, weedhoppahs. Nor could one ignore the scenery, which is mind-blowingly spectacular. Sailing, hiking, snorkeling and beachcombing also place one in the zenlike state needed to undertake an endeavor of this magnitude. Whoa, did I just say, “undertake an endeavor of this magnitude?” Fifty lashes with a writer’s worst reject pages.
This is a calm watercolor sunrise in Caleta Partida.
This pelican enjoyed the sunrise, too. Now we’re back on our final visit to this favorite city of La Paz, preparing for the crossing of the Pacific.
Hikes in the desert: Where else in the world can you go on a 6-mile desert hike that ends on an ocean beach?
Water-laden berries in a desert about to burst into bloom.
We hiked up the hill with Craig. What views! Sockdolager is visible among the anchored boats. And did we mention snorkeling? It was excellent, albeit a little cold.
The contrast with preparing for a voyage in La Paz is big; we’re surrounded by long-distance cruising boats (all much larger than Sockdolager) including at least a dozen or more in a vortex of preparation, discussion, and information sharing. Plus, the weather’s terrific. But here we also feel the “Vortex” more, because quiet preparation and concentration are less easy, due to unfamiliarity with where to get stuff, constant need to translate everything from Spanish to English, and the not insignificant level of stress we feel in making sure we don’t run out of water or food at sea for a whole month. The other day we agreed that whether it's the lost/stolen wallet or trying to trace a lost package or even trying to accomplish everything on the list, whenever we begin to feel stressed we should remember: we're on an Excellent Adventure! And it’s so good to have so many like-minded sailors around us.
Did I just say like-minded? Of course, not ALL sailors are as like-minded. Loads of mega-yachts with enough water and food to supply a small city came and went in the beautiful anchorages between Espiritu Santo and Isla San Francisco, and most were good neighbors. The huge green one, which had no name on its transom, had a large matching helicopter on deck that took off and landed several times as it ferried its guests to and fro. A very few big yachts behaved like nincompoops with jet skis, loud music and big wakes, but they were having so much fun it was actually kind of fun to watch them.
We spent a very pleasant evening aboard the exceptional 65-foot Grand Banks Aleutian named Kodiak, hosted by Ron and Carol. Nine people, all like-minded in their enjoyment of life, enjoyed good conversation spiced with lots of laughter.
And of course there were more parties aboard the old Sockdolager. Here's Ben (wife Ellie not pictured) from China Girl, along with Tom and Jean from Eagle, for a potluck dinner in the sheltered La Raza anchorage on Espiritu Santo.
Here are Kathy and Carolyn of S/V Shannon, from Maple Bay in Canada, and below are Craig McPheeters of Luckness and Jim, looking mighty pleased about Pizza Night on the old Sockdolager.
May as well show you what we probably ought to start calling "culinary porn," because seriously folks, wait'll you see the fish that started all this feasting.
We were tempted to do what all fishermen do--that is, lie--and say something like, yawn, just another lousy fishin' day in paradise, oh yeah TAKE NOTE MARTY FROM PRINCE RUPERT, but actually, we got this fish (a pargo, or dogtooth snapper) from another cruiser named James of the ketch Pyxis, who'd gone spearfishing by free diving to 40 feet. Come to think of it, YO! TAKE NOTE, MARTY. 40 feet, dude. James stopped by to say, "Wow! look at this fish!" As soon as we finished gasping, he said, "You want it?" More gasps. We fed several families that night, and also had the best batch of beer-battered fish and chips Karen ever made.
Back to the Vortex: We’re getting used to the amount of time it takes to find supplies in unfamiliar surroundings. For example, take shopping for food. Here’s how yesterday went for Karen: Hop on the marina’s free 9:00 am shuttle into town and walk 1 mile to the Mega supermarket, which three weeks ago had a good supply of those 12-oz cans of chicken that will help make meals easy underway, because we don’t have a freezer aboard. No luck, the store was out of them. Walk ½ mile to Chedraui, another supermarket, which also once had them. They’re out. Get a load of groceries anyway, stuff them into the backpack and canvas bags, taxi back to the marina, wondering what to substitute for chicken in those offshore meals. Express disappointment to Livia and Carol on Estrellita, who are docked next to us and are also about to cross the Pacific. Livia says she heard there’s another store that has them, but to ask Mary on Sea Story exactly where it is. Walk down the dock, learn the location of the other store from Mary, run back to the boat, grab backpack and tell Jim “I’m off to the store!” Take another taxi, which delivers you to the wrong market, but you discover the best farmer's market in town as a result; re-explain to taxi driver where you need to go; arrive at “Farmacarama” store, walk past bicycles, childrens’ toys, pots and pans, and in the back of the store find the motherlode: 2 ½ dozen cans of Kirkland canned chicken. Restrain urge to shout hooray, buy 14 cans, get back in the taxi, and return to the marina. Cross canned chicken off list. Next...
We absolutely love it when food manufacturers make things this obvious for us gringos.
Here's the vegetable stand at one of the supermarkets. Those are peppers and avocados in the foreground. Wonderful produce here in Mexico, and the farmers markets are even better.
You can buy all kinds of interesting veggies. Here's a lady shaving the little micro-spines off prickly pear cactus. Think we'll hafta try some.
Jim climbs the rigging on the way to Isla San Francisco. We both climbed to practice for when we enter a lagoon studded with coral heads.
Karen and Craig (who's solo-sailing Luckness to Hawaii around the same time we leave for the Marquesas) practice their celestial navigation. She finally figured out how to make the little Celesticomp calculator work (thank you Don and Karla Marken!) and enjoyed a break from electronics with the hand-bearing compass from Herb and Nancy Payson, that they took across the Pacific in the 1970s. We're so happy to have these old reliables aboard! GPS is good, but having a backup is better.
There were a few fiddly bit projects, too. Jim made some rigging improvements (new preventers and a set of soft shackles), spent time underwater scrubbing the boat’s bottom, worked on a recalcitrant GPS, and, of course, caught a few fish. Karen made a yellow cover for the water containers on deck, plus a belt to hold the cook in the galley, plus a canvas table fitting for eating or using a computer while underway, and two new awnings that are basic multipurpose squares known as fothering cloths, along with a water-catching funnel that velcros to them. We don't have room for a sewing machine, so all were sewn by hand, but it's actually a lot of fun to hand-sew stuff because you can design and alter it as you go.
When your hat won't fit anymore because your hair's in a ponytail, just cut a hole in the hat, sew the edges and viola!
Mexico in the news: We have not once felt unsafe in Mexico, nor have any Mexicans been anything but kind and generous, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we ignored the news. The State Department's recent travel advisory includes 14 states, up from last year's 10, and Baja is one of those. The warning is about violence between competing drug cartels, and below is some stark evidence we saw floating in the water a few miles south of Isla San Francisco: seven of these "square groupers," or bales of something white and probably quite dangerous. We steered around them.
Preparing to Puddle Jump: We’ve hired an agent in French Polynesia to help with Customs and Immigration clearance, and filled out a bunch of paperwork that we emailed to her. Clearance costs into Mexico were about $250, which included Mexican liability insurance (a must-have, because every panga that runs full-tilt at night does so without running lights), and fees for the import permit, fishing licenses, etc. Clearance fees for French Polynesia (now called Tahiti Nui, by the way) which include the services of an agent, are $238. By joining the list of “Pacific Puddle Jumpers” under the aegis of Latitude 38 magazine, we will be able to avoid posting a bond of about $1800 each, or plane tickets home. The bond is refundable when we leave Tahiti Nui/French Polynesia, minus a few charges, but it’s better to give them our passport and insurance info well in advance so that they know we’re not indigents landing on their shores, thus obviating the need to bond. And this time we will be tracking Zarpes like a couple of bloodhounds.
An inventory of every scrap of food on the boat is complete, and now if you ask where the jar of hoisin sauce is, either one of us can find it in 10 seconds flat. This will make cooking at sea easier, as well as re-provisioning later. Just in case you think it’s all Margaritas all the time down here, this is how cruising sailors work on income taxes. Receipts--ugh.
Together we pored over charts and books and other information, spent a day deep in discussion, and made some decisions about our route based on seasons and the amount of time we’ll be allowed to stay in each place. For now we can say that it’ll take roughly a month to sail from Cabo San Lucas to the Marquesas, that we’ll be allowed to stay in French Polynesia (including the Tuamotus and Society Islands) for 90 days, at which time we need to continue on, keeping in mind the need to be out of the area during the southern cyclone season, which runs November to May. We discussed heading north to somewhere near the Equator, where cyclones don’t strike. After much reading we’re not sure that’s the best option for our first year out. We could instead sail to Tonga via Suwarrow and Samoa (north route,) or via Rarotonga and Niue (southern route.) We like what we’ve read about Rarotonga, so will probably take the southern route, all downwind trade-wind sailing! But that’s many months away, and we’ll stay flexible.
After many whale sightings in the Pacific we’ve seen very few in the Sea of Cortez, though others have seen them, including blue whales and humpbacks. Locals say this has been an extra-cold winter in the Sea of Cortez, so perhaps the whales have stayed a bit more south in waters that match what they’re used to this time of year. Or maybe there’s something else at work. This news article suggests that unusual movement is taking place in whale populations in the Pacific. It doesn’t make sense that a whale, especially a female in need of food for nursing a calf, would expend the energy to cross an ocean for fun (unlike us humans.) Perhaps if the food supply on the normal feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island is being disrupted by oil exploration, the whales may be going elsewhere. If that’s the case it would be very sad, and a further indictment against supporting activities that contribute to climate change and extinction of species.
The Long Sail: “The first rule of life is living.” John Steinbeck said that. But c’mon, crossing an ocean in a 24-foot boat? Isn’t an endeavor of that magnitude a little crazy? Well, maybe… Yet there is no atavistic urge in either of us to seek danger. We’re not into stunts. We go with enough skills, equipment, food and water, and with enough respect, we hope, for the sea to have reasonable expectations of a safe and mostly pleasant crossing in our sturdy little boat. It’s a calculated risk. But as Steinbeck said so well in Log of the Sea of Cortez, “In time of peace in the modern world, if one is thoughtful and careful, it is rather more difficult to be killed or maimed in the outland places of the globe than it is in the streets of our great cities.” He also said, “An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.”
So what are those oceanic dangers and monsters? Let’s make a list: Collisions with floating objects. Storms. Lightning. Big ships. Currents. Big waves. Whirlpools. Sharks. Pirates. War. Illness. Injury. Running out of food or water. Faulty navigation. Overconfidence. Fear. Actually, that’s a pretty good list.
Sharing an anchorage with a fishing boat made the view even better.
But consider the dangers where most of us live (no sense listing them all.) Pretty good list there, too.
What are we willing to allow as acceptable stress in return for the payoffs from our choices? Part of the reason for writing this blog, besides having fun and keeping in touch with friends and family, is to show how one particular set of choices is playing out in making two lives richer and more interesting. It’s not to say what choices are right or wrong; it’s to say there are so many of them that no one is limited if they don’t want to be. Quitting jobs in the prime of one’s earning years is a choice (scary, too.) Opting out of a consumer lifestyle is another. Not owning a car is a real joy right now... except when we wish we had one. Those changes and choices, are part of how we got here. It felt at first like bungee-jumping off a cliff, but with careful living and spending on a small boat, we achieved more self-reliance than we’d had ashore. Along with that comes the responsibility for keeping our own boat afloat. Now we’re about to sail 3000 miles across the Pacific, completely on our own, which may have triggered these philosophical thoughts.
Two of the anchorages at Isla San Francisco; Sockdolager is in the middle. Photo by Craig McPheeters
Not long ago an article in Cruising World magazine analyzed the number of long-range cruising boats out there, the ones who are actively taking a global voyage. There are about 10,000 of us—a tiny sliver of the population of 6 billion, but the cargo of dreams carried by each boat must be huge. It really is a privilege to be out here. Twice in the last week friends told us they were “living vicariously” via our blog, and would we please write more often. We’ll try, but you’ll also have to agree to not worry too much if we don’t post a lot from mid-ocean. We can only send short text messages to the blog from the Ham radio, but if it stops working we'll just keep sailing and holler at you when we get there.
This Pacific cruise wasn’t an impulsive choice, but like many things, it started with a dream. Beyond the dream there was a ton of work to make it happen. You have to be dedicated to a goal like that, because this is not easy in spite of what boat salesmen say. Nor is the ocean a friendly place for the unwary. So don’t let those photos of languid tropical lagoons with sailboats at anchor fool you; probably every one of those boats worked their way there, and most continue to work every day on maintenance, repairs, all kinds of things that get done without the conveniences we used to take for granted. When doing a load of laundry or shopping for food can take a whole day, cruisers know they’ve traded one set of inconveniences for another, with the difference being we are more in control of our lives than we were when we lived ashore.
Hmm, did I just say more in control of our lives? Fifty lashes with all the little wires we’d love to tear out of our cellphones, which decided to take a holiday from working. Oh well, we really ought to get used to doing without the conveniences we've worked so hard to escape from.
Small Boat Zen: This brings us to the next subject, a treatment of the less, shall we say, appetizing aspects of life on a small boat into which everything you need for the next umpty-ump years is squeezed. This is the seamier side of cruising, assuredly not for the squeamish. It requires a degree of philosophical patience when managing the many items we need for daily life, such as the spelunking required to retrieve an item again some day. Remember months ago when we said, “How lost can something get? This is a 24-foot boat!” Ha-ha-ha! Steve and Lulu aboard Siempre Sabado, a Westsail 28, wrote to say, between guffaws, what a cockamamie idea this was. They were right. Call it Small Boat Zen. You are now entering the Zone…
First Law of Small-Boat Storage: The patience of saints is required to retrieve any desired item from the top-loading refrigerator. Be prepared to remove all of its contents. Every time. (At this juncture we would like to bestow the fridge with our highest compliments in case it hears the keyboard typing this and goes into a snit. It’s bad luck to be superstitious, but one can’t be too careful.)
1st Corollary: Just because you had the butter ten minutes ago, it does not mean you know where it is now.
2rd Corollary: The expired foodstuff causing a terrible smell will always be at the bottom of the fridge.
Second Law of Small-Boat Storage: While useful, a good memory should not be solely relied upon for navigating a boat’s lockers.
1st Corollary: Contents will seek their own equilibrium according to the immutable law of every boat locker being its own anti-universe.
2nd Corollary: The item you most urgently need is on the bottom (see First Law.)
Third Law of Small-Boat Storage: Any item can disappear from any locker at any time, and will not be found even with a thorough search of the boat.
1st Corollary: Size of the boat does not matter. A dustpan and a pot holder can be lost for weeks on a 24-footer.
2nd Corollary: The lost items will reappear immediately upon the purchase of replacements.
Fourth Law of Small-Boat Storage: The worth of any project is inversely proportional to the ease of access to its needed parts, and directly proportional to the risks of disturbing a writer at work.
Corollary: When Jim wants to do a project and the locker under Karen’s settee contains all the needed parts, Karen will be sitting there writing furiously.
We'll try to do one more post before we take off. Thanks for the wonderful emails!