Sailing, Chapter 2 -
29 March - 13 April, 2008 (San Diego, USA to Mazatlan, Mexico)
(maybe a book in progress / certainly an unedited manuscript)
Prelude (and the cliff-notes from Chapter 1)
We join our heroes, Mark and Amelie, in the northern portion of Baja, about 100 miles offshore.
The story so far; The preparations have been extensive; Mark has his new 100-ton captain's license and several pieces of equipment to buttress their well-used, 38' Ericson sailboat, The Blue Goose. With Amelie in France, Mark unceremoniously departs early one Wednesday morning. With many gripes about living in The United States swarming about his head, he makes his way out of Los Angeles' Marina del Rey, and heads 180 south, to Catalina Island. There he drops anchor, paddles the dinghy in to shore, and spends the night drinking with old friends, Blake and Emily. The next morning on the sea, in a deep fog, he finds himself suddenly lonely and missing his home, before, even, he has left it. Among other items he writes, "I have left the United States, and that is the greatest of freedoms this greatest of citizenships can offer." Despite losing his bearings in such sentimental mists, he continues south from Catalina to San Diego where he passes the evening as a guest at the San Diego Yacht Club. There he has dinner with the honorable Mr. Jack Suften, one of the great living strategists of the sailboat racing world. The next morning he sails out of San Diego. Submarines, helicopters and warships remind him of one of the reasons he left the US and so, freed of his new-found sentimentality, he sails past Coronado island and enters sunny Mexico. The following day, after a relatively simple sail south to Ensenada, The Blue Goose is hauled out and set on dry land to have the bottom resurfaced and final touch-ups done before the trip begins.
Amelie meets Mark in Ensenada, and after a week of repairs and fish tacos, they set sail with high hopes and fast winds, expecting a smooth tack south. But on their first night out "fresh airs" appear and our two sailors are blown faster and further from the shore than they had expected. However, with their sturdy ship well under sail they plan carefully, always navigating to the safe side. Our story joins them at sunset, at 29°45n / 115°46w, tired, and making progress.
29 March. Praying at the Pulpit.
We've had no real sleep for three days, its about midnight, the winds are at about 40 knots, the seas are at about three meters, the barometric pressure continues to plunge, and we've stopped laughing because we know that we can't, realistically, do anything other than go directly through this thing.
It's called "Weathering The Storm" and it is not pleasant.
A friend of mine who has a lot of anonymous sex in New York City once used the addage, in referring to dating, "Any port in a storm." This may be so in the world of sex in the city. But in the world of sailing in the sea, nothing is less true. Nothing is more dangerous to a boat than a to be near land. Nothing offers more risk to her tender belly than the sharp edges of the earth and anything that touches the delicate bottom of the boat is but a knife. The boat is a balloon-like flying creature, like a great fat shiny bird, who's natural home is with her wings spread far above the crass realities of sluggish unmoving land. She floats. She does not waddle. She glides. She does not step. For her, this big blue planet of ours is a different world than for you and I. For her the dangers are inverted. For her the wind and rain are her tea and biscuits, and waves and night are but table and salon.
Consider; if you decrease your depth you increase your risk. During a storm the last thing you want is a port. When the Coast Guard Auxillary - the guys that rescue people at sea - hear a hurricane warning broadcast on their radios, they don't keep their boats anchored in the harbor; they don't leave their boats where they would be crushed by the thick heels of waves marching down from the Alaskan wilderness; no, instead they point the bow to weather, cut boldly through the breaking surf, and leave the dangers at the taffrail. As Mellville says, the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind. But in the gale the port, and the land, is, the ship's direst jeopardy. "...one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through."
Second, if you come up to land you do it in broad daylight. The boat needs to be introduced to new land with the sun as chaperone. She needs to be welcomed with the warm, fatherly smile of the afternoon gaze still clear. One never knows what land may be trusted, what sharp beaks lurk beneath a calm surface. This daytime light is the only assurance that she's safe. It is not the collision with the wind that founders a yacht, but her collision with the hill. That usually happens at night.
And, so, late one afternoon, as the sun was setting, and we were dozing off, hoping to find a good night's sleep at anchor, we looked ahead and a veil of dread fell on our heads. We realized that we were not going to be reaching our next port before sunset. The barometric pressure was dropping like a hammer and when we noticed that the depth sensor had also decided, at just that hour, to stop sounding, and when we were forced to admit that we had no clue how the land was shaped, and when we looked at the chart and saw the words "DANGER ZONE" writ large just up ahead, and when we saw that there were rocks marked everywhere, and we would be arriving into them after the sun was down, well, dear reader, that was when we counted up our toenails and came to the obvious sum: we had to turn our small craft to sea and weather it out. Again. And that's when things went bad.
Here's what happened.
The weather is coming up fast, the seas are getting high and we know we're going to take it on the forehead. But it's safer to stay on the wing right now, safer to stay away from the ground. It means we'll again be up all night. Not an easy decision, but one we both know is right.
So at around 7pm, just as its getting dark, Amelie heads to sleep for a bit, to prepare for her watch at 23:00, about four hours from now.
I give her a nod and a kiss, wish her a good evening's sleep, or nap, as it were, and she disappears into the boat. "Watch out for the island," she says as she heads down the gangway.
Damn; It's windy, and moist and surprisingly cold. I pull the brim of my hat down to my nose, yank the collar of my jacket up to my ears, screw my unshaven chin into my sweater, and nest down with my book. Tashtego is being rescued from the head of the whale by kingly Quequeg, and I enjoy the thought that it is tropical, where they are, and day, but I wonder why Mr. Melville never talks about the violence of being at sea, of being banged around all the time; he never tells of how hard it is to pour a beer, fix some tea, or take a piss, all while the boat is bashing around like a drunk bull. Tashtego survives and we have more explanations of the whale and the dangers of the whale. I decide that dangers are relative, and that Tashtego and Quequeg and Melville had long ago graduated from concerns of tea and pee.
I flip off my headlamp for a second to let my eyes dilate.
The sun is down, the sky is still just vaguely light, and there's only a few stars since its motly clouds. The wind is holding at around 28 knots. To my right, along the dark horizon of the ocean I see a small lump. Off to starboard it is, I decide, that same island that Amelie mentioned and that I have not been watching out for, and it is on the wrong side of the boat, and it occurs to me that, for years now, she's given me the best advice of my life but I'm oafishly slow to follow it.
That island should be to port, not to starboard.
I spit, flip on my headlamp, and run downstairs into the dark wooden interior of The Goose to look at the chart, knowing full well what would be there on that piece of paper before I looked at it. I flip on my headlamp and take a GPS fix.
Geronimo Island. 29°45n / 115°46w .. notes from Charlie's Charts read, "The dreaded Arricefe Sacramento Reef lies about 1.5 miles south of Isla San Geronimo... several low barely visible rocks ... submerged rocks... harder to spot... The reef is in the red sector .. night passages in this area are NOT RECOMMENDED."
The barometric alarm on my watch goes off RIGHT as I'm reading this and my morale falls into my shoes and my stomach is in close chase, stopping at my knees, which feel weak. I clamber back up on deck in a mild panic and scan for the island. Yes its to starboard Yes I'm going south and Yes I'm headed directly into the goddam danger zone of rocks.
Ah, the joys of being a captainling.
I have to turn the boat out, away from land, further than I thought, so, yanking the wheel to the right, there's a half-second to take a fast fix on the compass as the sail cracks and whips across the mast, the boat comes about, waves peeling off the hull, and I crank in the starboard side genoa halyards, bring her upwind a bit, tail the winches, nest the winch handle in the sleeve near my ankle, gather my wits, and pause for a second to wonder how Amelie is sleeping with me bashing the house about.
The water hisses and rolls underneath and the boat lurches with the waves. With my hand on the wheel I look up to confirm the reefs in the mainsail are good. The reefs are ropes that, essentially, hold the main sail down closer to the boom, reducing the size and shape of the sail - and therefor the speed of the boat - is determined by them. The reefs make the mainsail into a smaller mainsail since in higher winds the last thing you want is a bigger sail. The boat is not made to heel to her side no more than is a bird. She not only starts to turn, but she goes slower, is less stable, and takes a certain amount of risk in flying at a queer angle.
But the reefs are solid, the sails are full of wind, not perfectly trimmed, but operationally well, and up above the rigging and the sails I look at the grey, brainy clouds that are churning and thinking up evil schemes, I'm sure, on what they will do with our little boat. I see rain, and fast-moving clusters that indicate a storm ahead. We've already got 30 knots of wind.
But then, alert as I was, something new comes. Like ash falling lightly upon my coat and hat, a sense of dread touches me, as if the hand of death had just gently touched on my shoulder. I look up at the rigging again. All is fine. Higher, up at the clouds, things seem strange and violent. But something is wrong. Very wrong. I feel a little sick, twisted up.
My intuition has saved me in war zones and fistfights, in drug deals and business deals, and I never overlook it. I stand there for a good 10 seconds, breathing. Its behind .. ?
Turning around to look, feeling quite small in my little boat, with my dear wife sleeping downstairs, I have an abstract twinge of dread, but this is nothing terribly unfamiliar to one, if one is spending one days with many miles between you and the nearest spit of land. Dread is a part of the sea, just as water is a part of life. One cannot escape it. But there are times when that dread is palpable and, as I said, touches one on the shoulder. And so perhaps it is no great surprise to me that, behind the boat, about 100 meters, I see two great spouts of mist that rise among the waves, barely visible in the falling light, barely audible in the growling wind About 100 meters behind me I can see their backs churning up the water, repeatedly, but the flukes do not show, only the backs and the spouts, again, after only a few seconds, and I can see that they are swimming towards the boat, and they are swimming hard, and their breathing shows it.
Before going on, I need to be fair and it should be repeated that I was reading Moby-Dick. This story of a whale smashing a boat is not unique in ocean legend, nor is it unique in contemporary sailing discussions. Melville knows where to draw the line between fact and fiction and you always draw it just shy of the strange; fiction is always mostly fact. There are the famous accounts. From 1821 we have one of Mellville's main inspirations for Moby-Dick, "Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex" and the same year Moby-Dick was published, in 1851, the whaling vessel Annu Alaxander, skippered by John S. Deblois, of New Bedford, was stove in and sunk but the captain returned to tell the tale. Most experienced sailors I've spoken with seem to agree that Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail around the world alone, had his boat smashed by a whale in 1909.
For myself, I've met three skippers that have had their boats rammed by whales. The men that I've spoken with (those who have been skillful and lucky enough to have passed the 10,000 mile mark) seem to have no interest in being near a pod of whales. Whalewatching is, for them, a great danger in a boat under 20 meters. Most tell me the same thing; "If I see a whale, much less a pod of them, I go the other way." Two sailors I've met, Buzz Cook and Jonathan Grell, himself a licensed captain, have been run into by whales in their sailboats. In Jonathan's account the whale bumped once, then left for thirty seconds, returned, bumped him harder, left again, and by the third knock Jonathan was getting nervous as the rigging was cracking. The whale left. I can neither verify nor deny the authenticity of these accounts, but I can verify that these thoughts stay with you.
My skull feels hot with these concerns, and as I stand there, facing backwards, my hand on the stern rail, I feel these thoughts steaming off my forehead, and trailing backwards behind the boat as I watch, the cold licking at my hat. They keep coming towards me. What else can I do but watch as these two submerged locomotives churn their way forward, plowing their intent into the water ahead of them with those great cold skulls of theirs.
A dread realization of my fragility enshrines my little dimly-lit and watery part of the world; Behind the boat are the whales. In front are the teeth of Geronimo island. Above is a troubled sky rumbling dark promises of high winds and heavy seas. And below us is the worst, and the most constant; the hundreds of fathoms of frigid water, an abyssal cold world of death and silence. We are kept alive by a tiny balcony, The Goose's hull, a foot or so of wood and fiberglass that is keeping my wife, my life, and my belongings from tumbling down into the black-green depths below. No, with such dangers on all sides I cannot feel terribly comfortable. But what can we do in life, save to grope ahead into the dark and hope to choose the weaker of the adversaries that surround us?
There's no fighting the whales; only flight. I take a couple of measurements to get a precise wind direction and speed, take a 'danger bearing' I have to hold the boat to in order to stay free of the island, and then start to work. First I glance up at the telltales flickering on the leech of the sail, and I adjust a line here, and crank a winch there, and then I check our speed. 7.8 knots. I touch up a few more details, then look again, 7.9 knots. And so topped out at 8 knots, a hearty good speed for the little boat, I turn the motor on, bring it up to a boil of 1500 RPMs, get a solid reading of 8.2 and return to my whale-gawking spot of fear and consideration at the aftermost part of The Blue Goose.
They are still there, still the same. No, this is not Flipper coming for fish-treats and an evening lolligag. I have seen enough whales, and have swum close enough to touch them, to be able to get at least an instinctive sense of intent. They want me out of the neighborhood. Hell, we all do.
But the top telltale is not as fully extended as he could be, and so I jog the slab reef out just another couple centimeters, squeeze just an extra breath of energy from the airs that moan in the rigging, tweak the traveler on the starboard deck, tighten in the genoa and clock 8.0 knots. No... so I re-adjust the genny ... 8.4.. perhaps The Goose can do better; I cannot.
She's is in full flight, wings out, water rumbling away, and I whisper, "Allez, petit bateau, allez.."
But, five minutes later the damned whales are still there, cutting the waters behind us.
A half hour passes and I try not to read Moby-Dick to pass the time. But I try not to look at the whales, either. Instead I concentrate on the minutes and the position of the wind and the island and the sky above and I smile a bit as the whales, slowly, begin to fall away. While The Goose can fly like this for hours and hours, they cannot. I don't know what the maximum conceptual speed of a whale's keel is, but evidently it is not as fast as The Goose's, or I, more likely, am not worthy of their continued efforts.
After another 20 minutes they're gone. But the island is not. The lee shore of the island is dark, and if the wind pushes us that way and I can't control the steerage, and we could run aground, and I have no idea where the rocks - the ones that lurk just below the surface - really are.
I steer clear, way clear, heading due west, and slacken the sails a bit (the wind is still coming up, and its putting intense pressure on the rig), and I cut even more west, as far as we can, leaving so much room for error you could build a village in there. Each 15 minutes I shoot a bearing, and each 15 minutes we move into safer, deeper water. And no whales.
Under the light of a swinging oil lamp, the wooden desk lit by my headlamp, I scrawl in the log book, "Barometric pressure continues to drop" noting down the GPS position, the bearing on a couple of stars, the hours, the minutes, the millibars, and after scratching in a few other notes in the margin that include less-than-professional though very salty language, I clamber back up into the wind. It's really starting to howl up here; the rigging is groaning and making noises like a cow. I'm glad Amelie is still asleep; I'll need the break when she wakes up. We've been at sea for days and I've been at the wheel for at least 6 hours.
Whales are off the back, the island is set behind, and that's good. But the air is now moving around us at over 35 knots and The Goose is heeling over some dangerous twenty-five, thirty degrees and the water is coming in over the gunwales partly because of the large waves, but also because the genoa is completely unfurled to the wind, pulling maximum air. My cetacean speed contest aft had left us open to the dangers fore and the wind has changed, now coming from abaft.
22:30, and it was time to reef again; we had too much canvas up.
We already had, as I said, the mainsail reefed (Amelie had done an excellent job of that), but with the wind continuing to climb I needed to reduce the total number of square feet we had up and this time from the front of the boat - that forward sail needed to come in. A power reduction was necessary or the boat could get pulled hard enough that something might break. What, exactly, will break is always the question when the clouds come down. Will the mast itself break? Will a sail tear? Will a cable, like a gun, pop, and fling metal everywhere? You never know what will snap, or when it will happen, and you never, somehow, stop thinking on it, but the thought that keeps clicking through my head is the worst; for the rigging to snap, for the mast to splash down into the water next to the boat, and for a real emergency to begin as the broken mast begins, in the waves, to stave holes in the boat's tender side.
Modern boats have a thing called a Roller Furler. The roller furler simply rolls the sail up into a cylinder around the headstay - that cable that goes from the top of the mast to the bow. After a few pulls with the rope the sail normally curls in and its neatly stowed. But of course, when you are tired and cold and you've been dodging whales and islands, these are the times when things break.
I try a second time, pulling on the furler, to bring the sail inside, and again, no luck.
Amelie comes up then, pulling her jacket around her shoulders, and looking around, the wind blowing her hair and picking it from her neck and ears, lifting it into the cold wind. Leaning against podium for stability in the rolling seas, she rubs her eyes and looks out to sea. She woke up because she got thrown against a wall. The angle of the boat was so steep that she'd rolled to the side of the bunk and into a wall and it got her out of the bunk, into her jacket, and onto the deck. She smiled and winked at me, then took the wheel while I gathered the lines, collecting them in my hand, my foot planted against the wind, and pulled hard to bring the front sail in against the wind. We didn't say a word; all was clear, and all was action. We were learning.
I try again to pull in the genoa.
Four times I try and I can't roll it in. It's thoroughly stuck.
With The Goose plunging down one wave and swinging up the face of another I'm on hands and knees. I make slow progress to the front, headlamp on, spray showering across the deck, and as my lamp illuminates the grey spinning water flashing underneath us as we make way through the seas, I reflect on the fact that if I fall, here, a good 50 kilometers offshore, that there will be no finding me. The waves are too big and though Amelie is capable and worthy, no amount of love or looking would find me out here.
I yank on my harness, more to reassure myself than anything, and as I put my hand down the water rushes over the deck and dozens of tiny, incandescent shrimp slide between my fingers, kicking with their tales, glowing matrix green and neon pink on the deck of the boat.
Stopping (What mystery! What magic! Incandescent shrimpies!) I try to pick one up, so tiny, so delicate, so far out here and I look close at his little body. Insect more than shrimp. He changes colors and something slams into me.
The wave punts me in the ribs, and pushes me back, but it is the sliding across the deck that really spooks me. I grab the handrail, toss little Mr Shrimp back into his wild world, and get my head together. Someone just threw a dumptruck of icy water on me. I'm soaked. This is going to suck, suck suck. That on't be the last wave I get, either.
Thirty seconds later I'm praying at the prow. On my hands and knees, trying to untangle the furler, the waves are springing from below, breaking from abaft, the wind is 35 knots, and water crashing everywhere like some eternal waterfall, but turned sideways. This sail has to roll in, it simply must come in. I try to untangle it, do most of the job, crawl back to the helm, try to roll it, can't, crawl up to the bow, waves shove me across an already slanted deck, and again I cannot untangle the damned thing. I'm starting to breath hard, I notice, and I'm cold and it's been about a half hour now, and no progress is being made. My body temperature is going down, but the wind is not.
Something has to be done.
I consider letting the entire sail off the boat. But that would be a mess of cables and wild-flying tackle and standing up is difficult. I consider going to the top of the mast with a knife, and sliding down, cutting the sail free. But that seems a hard choice as I don't like going up the mast when we're in a harbor, much less in situations that keep me on my hands and knees on the deck of the boat. The further up I go the less stable it will be, and while I might be able to pull myself up the mast with The Goose at this angle, a 30-degree incline, its not like thats anything close to a stable angle. It'd be like trying to crawl up the leg of a walking giant. Fine for a video game, but this is the real deal and I feel weak from all the fun. So I consider changing the direction of the boat, and that seems the best, but what if this wind doesn't let up? I consider these things, on my hands and knees, as the spray flies around my ears. I need the rest.
As I pray like this, another wave breaks and another little glowing shrimp slides across the deck and I trap him in the cup of my hand, and he glows, and only kicks a little, but in the wrong direction, and as another wave comes and washes him away, I sigh, and realize that this is the moment that I've prepared for. Well, that I've tried to prepare for. All of the captain's license stuff, all the books, all the conversations, all the certification and training and all the thinking, and purchasing, and installing, and checking and re-checking, and breaking and repairing and logging, ultimately, is about moments like these. You are, finally, tested. You do, finally, find your limit. And, perhaps, that is why we are here.
The wind roars at us like a giant lion, and the boom shudders and shakes under this rage, and I figure that we're probly in close to 40 knots of wind, maybe more. People have lived through 60, but not with their sails up. I squint into the darkness and spray flashes in my headlamp. I look down to think; panic is the enemy. All tragedy comes from a lack of time, and I will not rush, here.
Concentrating on my hands, I catch another glow shrimp that slides in with a wave, and he kicks hard, but in the right direction, and escapes my hand, and it then occurs to me:
-- Brute force in the right direction.
Off my elbows and knees, I dodge a small horse-sized wave that gallops across the deck then disappears aft. I step forward and feel a confidence and know that the problem needs to be solved now.
Pulling my knife out of my harness I pull a few meters out of the roller, cut off just enough for a tool, then slice the rest free from the pulley altogether, and push it over the side of the boat, where the ocean greedily pulls it away. I look up; no tears in the sail yet (not that I would hear them if they were there, but I can confirm with my headlamp that the sail's still sewn). And as I look up another, larger, wave bodyslams me and, like a cat on the hood of a careening car, I have to hold on to what I can to keep myself on the boat. Clawing back to my position I hold the loose line in my teeth, put my hands on the neck of the forestay furler mechanism, give it a twist, and find that I can roll it by hand. No, not by hand, but by back and shoulders and elbows and all of the muscles in the forearm, I muster there, on that forward pulpit, the spirit of Popeye and I turn this thing until my forearms are blazing and my fingers don't exist any more and there is red in my vision, and my blood feels like it will burst my heart, and I keep turning, using the rope, twisting the thing in manually, and slowly making progress. It seems forever. It seems hours of hardest physical labor. But the furler rolls, like a massive flock of birds coming to roost, and I tie it, tight and firm, at the base, and lean back to take a breath, just as another wave hits me.
I get back to the cockpit, and the boat's vertical again, though still banging around. Amelie's got good control of the boat and I'm as glad to see her as she is to see me, and I can tell from her smile I've won a HeroPoint or two (what else, in love, does a man truly need?) and I more fall than climb down into the boat, dripping, shivering, and muttering curses as I spit saltwater all over our kitchen and living room.
I shower, though there's no hot water (its been off to save energy). I change clothes. Pant, sweater, sock, rhythm of dress. Now I fix some soup. It is in the bowl, it is hot in my hand, I have some bread, and another hot soup, and I notice that my teeth are clattering on the spoon. I am still shivering, and shivering hard.
"Hypothermia," Sort of whisper it to myself
It is as this thought leaves my mouth that the boat lurches, and I'm slammed into the navigation table, and my soup goes everywhere.
Yes, this is cruising. That is what happened.
It's not easy turning away from shore when you havent slept for three days. Of course now, as I write, after it has all passed, it is peaceful. Now the sun is out, and my salty clothes, while smelling a little bitter, no longer smell like vomit. I washed four vomit stains off the boat this morning (a boat without vomit stains is a boat unloved). Now it is tranquil and we're at 28°50.92n / 114°26.46w cruising peacefully down the coast, and all is lovely. The reef has been shaken out of the sail, the furler is repaired, as is the traveler, the water is off the floor, the waves are gone, the killer whales are again submerged into their watery lairs, and all the last night is a memory, only.
Amelie is up above, her eye on the horizon, and her hair blowing as it does, now in warmer wind.
30 March: Refraction
That, dear reader, was our first real test. It was not pleasant. We shivered alot because the winds (30+ knots) and waves (3+ meters) were conspiring against us. We did not eat because we were too busy vomiting (note; last night was the first time in my life I've gotten movement-sickness). The waves were popping over the side. The downwind sail and waves worked together to cause our boom to bang.
About 4am the next morning, at 30°35.04N / 116°38.65W, I began to ponder, and I mean think really hard, what it means to put thousands of dollars into a wet box that gets blown around by the wind, leaks water, breaks easily, keeps you cold, gets you sick, and goes nowhere fast. Since I had the morning watch I considered, as the sun came up, being a professor, perhaps in Portugal. I would have a job stable, simple and dry. I would sign on to any office activity. That night, had the devil appeared and asked me to be his housewife, I would have signed on. I wanted a break. I wanted something that was warm, and simple, and easy, and that demanded nothing of my body would turn me into a walking patchwork of bruises and mumbling collection of scrapes.
But we were very glad to see the sun, and the fruit breakfast we had for breakfast was incredibly good, like the best meal we had ever eaten.
When you sail you are peeled open and exposed, and then you are cored and set aside, and then you see yourself for what you really are. Ultimately, this is the great value of sailing. I found myself afraid much more often than I used to be. Perhaps I am getting older, or perhaps it is having my wife with me when things get exciting. >
Before leaving I addressed this by buying things - by, as I told myself, "Equipping the boat." It's very easy to walk down to the hardware store and buy tools and bring those tools to your boat and open stuff up and convince yourself that you're being a good sailor by performing these somewhat simian tasks (through it is very true that today's skipper is mechanic more than navigator, and electrician more than sailor), but when you are out at sea, and the thing that you made, or bought, or installed.. breaks, well, then you are peeled open a bit, and like a banana your skin is pulled back and set apart from you, and you find out what's underneath all that purchasing power that you thought made you a good skipper.
Consumerism creates insecurity. I noticed that when I bought things for the boat that I did so to address some fear; better navigation to avoid the rocks, stronger canvas to hold the fresher airs, etc. But what I began to notice was that it was not the object that I was addressing when I bought something, it was my fear. One day, in Los Angeles, I was walking back after having bought some new pulley or monkey-in-a-can-or-other, and I saw a woman whose face was horribly disfigured from plastic surgery. She had the 'uncanny valley' look of a Christie's wax statuette. She, too, had been out shopping to address her fears. Most of our fears are social, and so most of our purchases are social, but in the end these things only introduce more fears because they cause us to dwell more on our fears. That woman with the plastic surgery surely knows she is horrific, and surely sees the problem as the only remaining solution. Much like me with my radar; the more things I bought for the boat, the more insecure I became, because then I was more attuned to the need to buy, and attuned to how little I had.
Instead we must tend to ourselves. The wind comes up. A wave comes up. The temperature comes up. And so things break. Things break, and this is a law. Your job, as a sailor, is to minimize these hits because if a big thing breaks, like the mast, or the hull, then you may not be able to make sure they don't break again, some other day. Yes, indeed, your reliance on your equipment is extreme. You are floating in an ocean of death; too cold, too salty, too fast-moving, and too undifferentiated to sustain your little life, and so you rely on your equipment as if it were your own body. But this is a balance; you only have so much space. Because whether you are on land or at sea, the less stuff you have the fewer problems you have, too. Ultimately, it is better to err on the side of having less.
But, ultimately, it is not at all about your equipment.
When things break and you fix them things change in you. First, the outer layers of sensitivity are peeled off and set to the side. If you want to stay alive you have to become continually alert to all signs. To stay alive you must become the rabbit on the highway, the fly in the spider cave, the roman who tip-toes among the sleeping lions, the little boat blown like a leaf across the face of the wind-chopped ocean. For example, if the barometric pressure drops a few points, or if the waves rise a meter, or if the wind moves a knot faster, or if the sky turns a shade whiter, all of these things may be the weak signals of something very, very important to come. A mere drop of water on your face means something different on a boat than it would in an apartment. So does stepping in a puddle. A creak, a groan, or a snap all have greater volumes at sea than on land. When the sun rises, where the moon sets, what direction the tide turns, or what speed the current and height the wind. These things all have meaning. This is why sailors are superstitious; they pay attention to all details, to all meaning. After all, in a world in which everything has import, the world becomes more valuable. And superstition is simple a means of measuring the value of the world.
Being so exposed makes you more sensitive. Sailing makes you conscious.
You become conscious of how many liters of water you consume in a day. If I watch it I can keep it down to two, shower, cooking, and drinking tallied up for the bottle. That's not much. Normally I use between 10 and 11.
You become conscious of the larger rhythms, longer periods, and the drumming that God makes. You start to note the great throb of the ocean, as if the moon's rotation were a heartbeat that shoved the capillaries of the world full of salt water, washing all clean, and slowly, and in such large scale that comprehending this requires math.
You become conscious of your skin. It becomes the interface with the world, telling you the direction of the wind, its speed, the humidity, the air saturation, Your skin becomes like eyes and mouth, folded into one and wrapped around you like a coat of shifting information.
You become conscious of the fact that you really NEED rest. Not want it, but need it, such that if you don't stop you will sleep, anyway, no matter how dire the circumstances. One afternoon I was asleep in the bunk, and I heard the traveler break on a gybe run that my wife had made, and the enormous splitting sound, this sickeningly loud crack, stirred me awake but a moment's sleep-saturated consideration convinced me it was more important to sleep than repair the damned thing.
There are other things that are not conscious thoughts, per se, but adaptations that sit in the back salon of your mind, and polish their nails and pick their teeth and then suddenly stand up, with their hand in the air, and make a statement, such as 'The boat is at too much of an angle, and should be attended to!' These adaptations turn you into something else that is more primitive, and can deal with more problems, of a wider variety, and faster.
You rest with the movement of the boat, as if you were in a little coach that was perched on the back of a great elephant, and that swaying and rocking motion, while not always rhythmic, was predictable enough that if there was a mis-step, or some urgency had appeared on the road in front of the elephant, the break in rhythm would be enough to alert you, snug in your little carriage up high on top of that slow beast. That is the feeling of the boat. So when there is a shift, you know it. Imagine that you have decided, as I sometimes have, to heave-to, and go downstairs for a while to occupy yourself with something less violent than screaming at the shrouds and hauling on the lines. And so set the sails and descend and do your simple things downstairs for a time. But when there is a shift in the rhythm of the boat, and you peep out (because, indeed, if you are inside baking bread or looking at a map or wiping salt water off of your computer screen then you are not conscious of how the boat is moving), and you see that the boat has shifted course, well that is because of the strange kind of consciousness that you adapt to while on the sea.
03 April. Sunset.
There were things to learn. The bunk, for example, became a padded cup in which we could sleep with the boat careening at all angles. Eventually one grows tired of being thrown against a wall while one sleeps, and so one contrives a kind of nest made out of spare sails and rope and old laundry. We learned how to minimize all unnecessary labor. Of course such social habits as shaving went out, for both of us, quickly, but it was the other things, like doing dishes, where you can save time. Dishes were tied off the back of the boat for a few hours, left to dangle in the waters of the Baja, and when we pulled them in we needed simply a wipe and some fresh water.
We learned how to navigate, by practice. Either of us could be dropped at any point on this planet's surface and we'd be able to move in the direction we wanted to go. Applying this knowledge is a great joy when all around you is but air and water.
And we learned how to properly enjoy the days. During the night, when things are calm, the water rolls by the boat, and after a few hours, you begin to hear voices. It is a very mysterious thing that all sailors report. They say only one or two syllables, these dryads and mermen, but they whisper the night along and remind you, from time to time, that death is just underfoot. During the nights all real sailors think about death from time to time, it is unavoidable, and surrounds you always, but then when the sun comes up you forget such things, and the day breaks into one of the most glorious sights you have ever seen. And each morning is like this, and each night; dread, joy, dread, joy.
We learned how to properly enjoy sunset. Last night, we had the Classe Internationalle, the proper yacht style all gringo'd uptighty-whitey, know. We had the cups of wine, and the cheese, and as headed south we had The Rolling Stones, and as Mick sang about another girl to take his pain away, we laughed and pointed at the nuclear clouds of final light, and spun around to the other side of the boat, to look behind us and gawk at the massive vertebrae of the Baja mountains, this great spine that runs into the Pacific like a giant godly snake, all lit in brass and gold in the setting angled light of the sun, so brilliant, and we stood there, in calm water, with fair winds, and a well-heeled boat, and good wine, and in love, and the world was perfect, and just.
Between the reading and the living and the talking you accumulate a little library of strange facts. Examples:
But some of these items are more important than others, such as
- Frying bacon is the leading cause of onboard class-b fires.
- Tropical storm warnings come on VHF channels 21 or 22, Hurricanes on SSB 2192
- Spearguns make a pretty good weapon (and they're legal).
- If the barometer gets to 1004 or so it makes sense to start south.
- "True Virgins Make Dull Company (+ Whiskey)"
(a mnemonic for correcting deviation and variation)
- Steering boards were mounted on the right side of the boat
- The other side was the lee-board, or lee side ("Lee" means opposite the wind)
(hence the word 'larboard')
- But 'larboard' was later changed to 'port' since it sounds too much like Starboard.
- Fishing is the most dangerous maritime activity. Second is towing.
- To find a leak: first check the port lights, then the toilet, then the stuffing box.
- Multiply the clock number by 30 to get the equivalent in degrees.
(3 o'clock times thirty is ninety degrees / 3*30=90)
- A compass made for the northern hemisphere won't work down under.
- Most boats can only stop in a minimum of 8 boat lengths.
- Tankers and Cruisers move at 25-30 knots.
- Tankers and Cruisers are a quarter of a mile long.
- Therefor, Tankers and Cruisers take about 2 miles to stop.
... consider, before we go on, these items. First, you have vessels that are small cities that split the water with wide bows, most of them traveling at the above-mentioned speeds and it takes them this incredible distance, engines screaming in reverse, to come to a halt. Now, if you are in The Goose, and you are as tall as me, and you do a little bit of trigonometry to calculate how far out you can see, then estimate the combined speeds of the two boats (the tanker and The Goose, head-on speeds) you will, like me, come to the conclusion that you only have between 30 and 40 minutes to see this boat before it blows you down. These ships are called "Heavy Metal" for a very fine reason and the skippers are hard men from far away, famously drunk, and they know that a law is only worth a witness. There is the old story of the first mate asking a heavy metal captain, "Skipper, what happens if we run over someone?" The Captain's response being, "Leave no survivors." Suffice it to say that I find them more dangerous and more frequent than whales.
We were just off the coast of Santa Margarita Island, up about 80 miles north of Los Cabos, our final night on the water before we got to our first destination. As usual, I was reading Moby-Dick (the final battle, the three fights with the whale), and I glanced up (because that, rather than read, is what one does at the watch) and I saw some lights on the horizon (and they were odd, and too close to shore).
With the lights at such distance, I figured that we'd be OK since boats are marked with a green light on their right side and a red light on their left, like planes, but as this boat came closer, and the 40 minutes mostly passed, I realized that it was a please cruiser - The "Pacific Princess" or something with a similarly glamorous, and buoyant Las Vegas sort of name - and, like Las Vegas itself, was so stacked with lights that there was no more chance of seeing red or green navigation lights on the side of the hull than you would have seeing a candle in the middle of The Strip. What a city! Though I could not see them on top of this monstrosity, surely they were there, on top of the top deck, as cars at a drive-in, lined up in their wheelchairs, slack-jawed blank-eyed, staring at a sky reflecting the lights from their own cruiser and mistaking it for the Aurora Borealis which they would then return home and inform their children they had seen near Mexico. I imagined that these people found themselves closer to something important, believing they were tasting some salt, and I imagined them all, nearly dead. But I did not imagine seeing a red or green navigation light on that .. thing.
The ship (if I may call such a floating collection of overheated neon fuses, greasy table-cloths, swimming pool slides, out-dated movie theater posters, and colostomy bag collection devices such), was within a half mile, and so I began to raise an eyebrow because - other than getting closer to us I could not tell what direction it was going. So I got on the VHF, on channel 9, and hailed the captain who was, probably sitting down, at that very moment, at his Alaskan King Crab and New York T-Bone Super Steak dinner with 30 or 40 aging gamblers.
Maritime law is a bother to learn, and I have learned enough to know when there is a right of way, and when not, and what we need to do between our boats to establish it. I did not want to get Mr Captain up from his Alaskan King Crab dinner, but I did not want to get dashed under his bow, either, and so I hailed the cruiser on the radio to determine their course. After some four of five hailings the gentleman that got on the horn had a nice, quite gentlemanly accent, English intonation, and we determined starboard-to-starboard and I sailed south and thought that was it.
During the night there were six other of these boats. That was our arrival in Los Cabos.
05 April. Away From the Big City.
My wife went to Morocco, where I'll meet her soon. I'm alone on the boat now.
Sitting in the harbor of San Lucas del Cabo, at the southern tip of the Baja, I flip on the Velvet Underground so I can drown out the announcers outside that are telling the American beach partiers that drinks are two-for-one. It's funny, though. The announcer tells couples to run to the sea, exchange their swimsuit bottoms - bikini bottoms for shorts, shorts for bikini bottoms - and run back in thirty seconds. If they get the job done fast enough they are rewarded with a free round of drinks for everyone. Sex and booze with a dash of heroism thrown in; A fine party concoction.
It's nice to have a stereo in the boat, and these little comforts count up and assemble into what I think of as Home, even though it is traveling with me. So I listen to the Velvet Underground and eventually that drug song comes on, and Lou sings, "I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas on a great big clipper ship going from this land into that, oh in a sailor's suit and cap. Away from the big city where a man cannot be free of all of the evils of this town."
I brought some of those evils with me, of course, but he's right, of course, and that was part of the pleasure of it all. Seeing the sun come up on a clear blue harbor where there is no sign of human existence one feels free, and independent, and alone, and confronted with the grim reality that death, like a shark, always circles your boat, is just inches away, and will wait for you, and can always wait for you, and that is the way of the world. And seeing these sun rises, so glorious and nuclear pink and orange keeps me alert to that. And as Lou says, "I thank god that I'm good as dead, and I thank God that I just don't know and I thank God that I just don't care."
And that's alright, feeling just like Jesus' son.
It is sunny, and calm and the water is as flat as piss on a plate. The Goose rests simple and anchored and I am able to clean her down, like a horse in a stable, wipe her off, wash off the blood and patch up the cuts, and generally make the boat a comfortable, habitable home again.
Its nice to stop, and I'm reminded that the boat spends more time over anchor than under sail.
7 April. Rich.
Though I have no money I'm quite rich.
Irvine Welsh, that great contemporary English Mark Twain, has said that when we are in our twenties we worry about whether we are beautiful, then in our thirties we are worried about whether we are interesting, then in our forties we worry about whether we are rich. I poorly paraphrase, but that is the idea. For myself, on the crusting cusp of forty, I can say that there is some truth in what he says. Money has become more important to me than looks or whether I'm interesting and it's linked to the fact that I can see my own death on the horizon and that storms have stepped on my head and now I think myself less strong than I once did. It's part of my job to think these things, half way through my day.
But, happily, sailing has reorganized these priorities for myself and others.
I'm still anchored in Los Cabos, at the tip of Baja. It is spring break in the United States and there are thousands of nubile college kids milling about. A few of them are, at least, beautiful.
I keep to myself, anchored about 50m off the beach. I can watch the white kids and locals slowly wander up and then down the beach, and the party boats full of pink tourists come screaming by, and there are the glass-bottom taxis that shoot wake and The Goose rocks back and forth and I have my little home here, just where I want. But it's a bit hectic.
I can anchor freely and move my little home to a different place, and leave it there. I can come and go as I please. I have great freedoms here. One cannot just drop anchor where one pleases in California, nay in the waterways as well; there are rules that must be followed and there, in the domestic United States, property is litiginous, and if I just drop anchor and float someone might get hurt and so I'm told to move, for my own safety.
Thus it gradually becomes illegal, at least in the United States, to take care of yourself.
Standing on the deck, watching the college kids with my binoculars, I hear a voice call out "Ahoy!" near my own boat. Behind me I see a happy-faced gringo floating in a little rowboat next to The Goose. He's holding his oar handles and has paused in mid-row, looking up at me with a sweet round puppy-face. His hair is long and blonde and, like his clothes and skin and even his way of moving, is a bit ruffled and jerky. He's wind-blown and he sports a soul-patch which gives him a passing touch of urban game. In his mid-thirties he's a nail on the head of the surfer-dude archetype. He even has the blue eyes.
"Hey, I'm John. I just caught a twenty pound white seabass. She broke my pole even! Anyway I've got more than I can eat. Want some?"
There are few defenses against honest friendliness, it was a fine opening line, and since I had some beer on board (but no fish) I invited him to come on up.
John had been living out of his boat for about twenty years. It was his sixth boat. I had a hard time understanding how he did it and still looked so soft. Surely, I pondered, he must have money in the bank. Surely, I chewed, he must have caught some stocks or bonds. Surely, I ruminated, there must be some hook he's got into the mouth of society, to simply sail and surf and eat fish all day, living like a vagabond traveling hippie. Surely there must be a catch.
But after nearly six hours of conversation, as many beers, and subtle probing that defied the barriers of sobriety I discovered that this man did not have any more money than I and in fact he probably had less. A couple of hundred dollars in the bank, with no prospects for the future.
But he had more white bass than he could eat. And now he had free beer.
How is it that a man with no money can be so rich?
But of course, these people that live so richly on boats are a smug crowd. After all, we all think we've got the system licked and we're always quite proud to tell others how good we have it, when we have it good, and when we suffer we are usually too far out to sea to moan to anyone but the waves.
Next time it's 2am and I'm on my hands and knees before the god of watery wrath, praying on the pulpit of my boat to a storm that is threatening to tear off my jib, I'll be sure to pay me tithings.
9 April. Penance.
This morning's breakfast was three cups of coffee and as many cigarettes. I was up all night, again, bringing the boat from Los Cabos around the point, and the problem was that the wind, as it so often is in life, was directly on the nose of my boat so I had to cross and make a series of zigzags as I outlined the coast in something that, on my chart, looks like a Jack Kirby explosion. I was only traveling north at about a mile an hour, making miserably slow headway up against a rhinoceros of a headwind.
Thinking that the trip would take about four or five hours, maybe ten at the outside, I'd left Los Cabos at 8am. The day was sprinkled with the usual pepperings of small events that make sailing interesting. In the morning I saw marlin jumping out of the water and so I threw a hook in behind the boat. About an hour later something snapped up my bait and bent my pole in half. It had to have been some hundred pounds. I've never felt a fish that big in my life. If it was a fish. I probably caught the Kraken. And it got away, of course. By the afternoon the wind had dropped to a mere knot or two and so the principle activity became watching the wake behind The Goose and reading Herodotus.
It was a lovely day and by about 15:00 it was clear that I would not be making it to Los Frailes by sundown, and so the soft flapping of the sails, fanned me to sleep at about 16:00. A half an hour later I woke up, a sinner that had lost the way, some few ticks south and actually back, the wind had picked up and pushed me backwards somehow. Or was it the current? I was sleeping, I wasnt watching, so I took a fix on my position, scrambled to the wheel, and started to strategise, knowing that I would pay penance for my little indiscretionary nap.
Then, at sunset, once I had the boat back on track, I saw whales leaping and prancing, happy as oversized porpoises, heaving their bulks high into the air and then falling in again, so large that they seemed to hover in the air like leviathan statues befor slowly falling back into the sea, displacing a lake as they do, and making little thunder when they return to the water. I watched them playing like this for about a half an hour as they faded away in the distance.
The wind and the current increased. The motor didn't do much good, really, and anyway I hate the motor, all stinking and vibrating and coughing as it does, a little city in the bowels of my boat, so I shut it off, for good, and just tacked it, back, then in, then out, then back, making four big triangles, each larger than the previous, each with their hypotenuse along the coast, with the other two lines thirty degrees off the wind, one to port, then to starboard. Then I would start the next triangle. The wind was following the coast, but I was leading the coast, and so we were at odds, the wind and I. It became a fight, a Jack Kirby bash-out, a battle for 15-miles, a ten-hour rodeo.
10 April. Determination.
The moon was up early. She was gaining size, but she was not bright enough to cast shadows. The sea was angry and agitated, obsidian, purple rolling waves of two or three meters trying to keep us back, and I was under that moon, suffering my way up the east coast of Baja. I was aglow myself, a porcupine of perseverance, watching the stars ahead, navigating by them, my white teeth biting a cigarette, the embers agitated by the wind coming from the front of the boat, my white knuckles clutching the silvery wheel of The Goose and we pounded our way up against the spray that arched over the bowsprit, tiny flecks of white that hovered in the air and seemed to become stars, themselves, or sisters of stars, for just a moment. These points of white in the dark night made a kind of mandala, a holy circle from high to low and back; moon, stars, eyes, teeth, knuckles, wheel, waves, stars, moon, et cetera.
I was sailing by stars, and by compass, and by sheer, white-hot grit.
It was war and I was fucking sick of it all.
Sailing is an act of determination. You make your decision and then the game is to see that nothing stops you. Sometimes your life depends on it. You just keep going even if a million dryads and nymphs and sirens crowd around you, all of them weeping and pleading for you to go back, but even if your hands are bleeding and your boat is breaking and you are so bloody exhausted that you are on the verge of vomiting, you still go forward. That is sailing. That is, I have decided today, the heart of cruising. Cruising is determination.
No one ever tells you about sailing, really sailing, in those cruising books you see. No, instead they say things like, "Oh we had great lobster in this port here!" or "Oh, we met the nicest locals there!" or "Oh, we saw a beautiful sunrise and had rum and coke and listened to Jimmy Buffet!"... but they never tell you about The Core. They never tell you about throwing up six times in an hour or the sound of the traveler as it splits the fiberglass in 50-knot winds just before midnight. No, they never tell you about getting a concussion or how hypothermia sets in faster than you might think, or how, despite being at home and having your warm bed a mere arm's reach away you may not use it and must, at all times, force yourself to stand on the porch of your little house, as it were, outside in the rain and the wind of a miserable night, by yourself, and determine to keep your home afloat.
There is, after all, no place to just pull over and stop.
All you have, finally, is the decision you have made, and the determination not to die.
And, perhaps, this is where much of its beauty lies. After all, maybe the only things in life that are truly valuable are the things that require determination. Perhaps this, in the end, is what spirit is all about.
11 April. The Thigh-High Moment.
Finally; Los Frailes.
Exhausted after this night of grim fighting, I was satisfied if only because I'd finished the battle. It was a costly victory however; 15 miles in ten hours. Two-thirds of a mile per hour. Yes, and all those riches won while standing in the spray of a dark night. Ah, the joys of cruising. At least it wasnt the crisp winds of the north. In fact, all things told, as the sun came up, I decided it wasnt so bad after all.
My penance was evidently paid. Happily, the wind died down to about 4 knots, I shook the reefs out of my sails, hoisted them to full heights, and slid with the breeze, finally, towards the little harbor of Los Frailes.
As I approached the bay I dropped my sails, flipped on the motor, smoked another cigarette, had another cup of coffee, and scoped out where I could drop an anchor. I was exhausted and looked forward to a nap, if not a solid night's sleep. There were two boats in this water. One was a small ketch, about 25' long, with no name. She was a humble, slightly banged-up little wooden schooner of a boat with a stained and lop-floated dinghy dangling off her transom. A tall ragged scarecrow of a man and his dog came out as I slowly motored by, my engines running softly. I took off my hat to him and gave him a nod for a morning hello.
"Where you comin from?" he shouts.
"Los Cabos. Took all night, so I'm glad to be joining you here."
"Ha,"" he growls. "Took me two days. Must be nice to have a motor."
I didn't reply. I didn't tell him I didn't use my motor. I didn't tell him it was possible to do in a night. And I didn't say what I thought which was, "Must be nice to have a chip on your shoulder." No, instead I quietly motored past as he and his dog got into their dinghy.
The other boat anchored there was "Prizm," a 34-foot Hans Christian. These are marvelous little vessels; rounded, sculpted really, into a kind of warm organic form. They are unique and beautiful boats and one that, for years, I had thought I would own. She looked a little chubby, however, compared to the knife-like lines of The Goose and I was reminded of the stereotypical German with rosy cheeks and leiderhosen. She was sleeping, and well anchored. The boat was clearly set up for cruising, solar panels and windvane and all a-cluster of equipment. Her home port was Seattle.
It seemed my head hit the pillow before the anchor hit the sand.
The wind had picked back up by noon. The white sandy beach was astir with four or five gringos that were under the watchful supervision of two Mexicans and a large white SUV. They had little palapas and umbrellas there on the beach. They were taking things out of the SUV. Behind them the scrubby sharp eyebrows of the Baja reminded me of the alps. They are so sharp, and new, and rugged. The scratchy bushes were lit orange by the high sharp sun and that Baja Contrast seemed in full swing. I untied the dingy, shoved her in the water, grabbed the oars, and rowed on to shore to go for a walk. There was no surf, just little lapping waves to gently brush me up onto shore. I left the dinghy and walked up into the scrubby trees. It felt good to be on ground and, when I stopped to notice, it felt like it was moving.
I walked for about three hours. I found a place where a condor brings fishes he finds. It was, in a way, his dining room.
Hiking up an arroyo and across to a ridge I followed it through cactus that cut at my legs and arms. I heard a motor and saw a white man in a white ascot on a four-wheeler blazing like Ghost Rider up the arroyo. I was far above him, looking down from a cliff, and he just kept going. Later I found the development areas.
And by the time I get back down to the beach, the wind is picking back up and the barometer is falling back down. I follow the surf up to where I can see the Blue Goose again, and I'm reassured, and my dumb little dinghy is sitting here, faithful, on the sand, out of the reach of the waves that are gasping up the beach, and it occurs to me that the gringos that had come down with the SUV and the umbrellas and the waiters are from some luxury hotel-resort spa up near where they're doing the build-outs.
They have the umbrellas and the beer cooler and the boogie boards. This is the ClubMed luxury setup. But the Baja is not the Med. The Baja is contrast and cactus, sharp, harsh, and bright; she's a mean mestizo mama, skeletons and jabanero, fish bones and high winds, sand and sin. The Baja is not, at least not in the half-dozen times I have visited her, spa rest and resort vacay. Baja is Mexico flipped on at full contrast.
So I decide to sit down on my dinghy, before hauling it into the surf, because the rubber is warm and soft, and, elbows on my knees, I watch the fat white woman carefully carry her new boogie board to the water. She is wearing a one-piece swimming suit, a baseball hat, and shoes. Her shoes are new, also, and dark against her white shins. She is being followed by the skinny white man. He has on swimming shorts, a baseball cap, and the same black shoes with the same white shins. He waves his metal detector over the sand and listens with his headphones (how many people have been at this beach, really, since metal was invented? A couple thousand? This is not, let's concentrate here, Coney Island.). Something seems a little dangerous, and I'm somehow worried for them. But I can't tell why. Maybe its just the wind coming up and I'm fucking traumatized from the trip down. But, no.
The wind is blowing, and she walks into the water, and he stands behind on the dry ground and waves his thing about and when she gets in deep enough that her inner thighs are getting wet she halts, grabs the bill of her hat, and turns around to look back at the man. She's cold. The water is cold. There are no waves. There's alot of wind. This is not the boogie-board moment of adrenal intoxication she had paid for. There is no background music of surf-beat boogie to nudge her into the warm vacation surf. The only audience is a condor in a tree, the two mexican waiters, and some weird guy sitting on an inflatable dingy with his elbows on his knees up the beach. This is not the dream she had been led to expect.
The man stops waving his instrument. He puts his hand in his hat, now, too.
They look at each other. The wind continues to increase.
This is the decisive moment. It all boils down to Now. They have purchased all of their equipment, they have made all their reservations, they have paid all their money, they have gone through all the travel, the toting, the talking, the trouble of arriving in this place so far from home where their dream was waiting for them to arrive and now that they have found that the dream is not what they had expected. From a photo, all would seem ideal. But here they are and, now, there are details that the wind has knocked out of place, and the feeling is a little different than what they'd bought.
It was the thigh-high moment; She had just felt the first touches of the real dream.
I sit there on my raft and I realize that I know this situation, and I have to send her something, and I think, "Ok, lady, now's your chance. You can play with this, and you can find love in it, and you can live what you have in front of you - the reality of the dream - or you can get out and pout and your treasure-hunting husband, or whoever he is, that is looking at you now, will know that the trip was a failure, and that the dream was not achieved, and next time more efforts and more expectations will be placed on the table and the stakes will be higher and harder to achieve. And it all hinges on you, now.""
A wave slaps her hip and pushes her a little towards the beach and she raises an arm, like you might hail a cab. Her balance is no good.
She and the man look at each other, and neither of them say a word, probably because it is too windy, and I can tell that they are both thinking about this DreamReality, and something strange happens. The wind stops growling, and the sand stops spraying, and the waves slow down, and they become tiny gelatinous wrinkles on the oily skin of the sea, and everything, even time, simply stops. And this woman and this man look at one another, and she blinks at him, and he blinks at her, and then she turns her back to him and throws her boogie-board out in front, and she belly-flops flat into the water, whAp, and waves radiate like radio signals, disturbing all the still unmoving water around her, and she kicks and splashes about like a little girl, and her neon-white ass is in the air, and with her second kick the world moves again, and the waves began to tuck and dip, and the wind starts sweeping the sand down the beach again, and the condor opens his wings and the wind picks him up over the trees, and the man looks down at his metal detector and moves his hand from his hat back to his headphones and continues to sweep his metal detector right and left, looking for Spanish dubloons.
I paddle back out to The Goose, happy to have shared the beach with these two victorious individuals and happy, myself, to know that soft dreams can be couched in hard realities.
11 April. Prizm.
Here we go again.
The wind outside is tearing at the rigging, whipping and screaming and thrashing about as if all the banshees of dead sailors have come for kamikaze runs and speed contests. The windicator tells me its up to 40 now. It is about 4 in the afternoon, and I'm anchored in a small inlet on a white, windblown beach. Los Frailes, Baja South.
There is a large bluff to my north that is sheltering me from the real wind that blows over the Sea of Cortez, which I have to cross, probably tomorrow, and I have to admit I have my misgivings about doing it alone. Especially if the winds today are 40 in this sheltered cove. I'll be double-reefed and pulling wheelies, hellbent for leather with my taffrails in the drink, the whole way. It'll be a nightmare, 36 hours of that. But I'll do it. I kind of have to.
The woman and the man have left, and they have taken the SUV and the umbrellas and the two Mexican men with them.
Mr No-Motor is still at anchor and his dinghy is again behind his yacht.
On the deck of Prizm I see a woman, about 50, maybe 60.
"Ahoy, Goose!" She yells. She waves at me.
A couple hours later I paddled over and brought along some bread I'd baked as a neighborly thing to do since I figured they'd have drinks and maybe food. And lo, beef stew was on the stove.
Joanie and Leon are married. They've had two kids. As the Prizm indicates, their home port is Seattle.
"Yeah, we got beat up, too, just off the coast of Punta Eugenia," she tells me, certifying what I've been suspecting all along, that cruising is no yacht club. The wrinkles around her eyes scrinch up and she takes on a happy-wise look.
"We just went all the way around Isla Cedros and kept going - never even went into Vizcaino Bay. Just wanted to get out of there."
Joanie and Leon used to work in education, now they're retired. They lived on their boat for five years, raised two kids on it, and then when the kids were in high school, and they lived in a house, a friend came to visit one night for dinner, and that friend said, Well, hell, five years on a boat! Hey, at least you tried," and Joanie stood up at the dinner table that night and replied, Tried; hell no. We DID it."
A few years later they bought Prizm, and now they're doing it again.
Joanie has white hair and quiet eyes. I'm fixating on her beautiful crow's feet around the outside of those big blue eyes, roots that run from what she's seen to what she thinks, spider webs that have caught great sights. She is quiet, but means what she says, and says what she means, and doesn't bandy about with things that aren't needed. Obviously, she has seen some miles. She grew up in the great state of Washington, a classic American girl.
"Hey, have you ever noticed how in those cruising stories they never tell you how hard it is? Have you ever noticed that?" I had to tell her that, yes I had, and we laughed about this and she dumped some more excellent beef stew into my bowl and we broke off some more bread to soak it up.
Leon used to be a high school football coach, another Classic American, but I found him affable despite that. He has silver hair, as well, and crow's feet, as well, and like most old couples the two of them take great pleasure in disagreeing over less than a degree's difference.
"That was 1994."
"No, it wasn't, it was 1995; We met Mike and Jenny that year, remember?"
We discussed liberalism and conservativism and how to repair solar panels and what it means to be a white male at the turn of the 21st century, and how best to use the roller furler and how the damned things break in high winds off the north coast of the Baja, and other such topics. Leon also prides himself on his lack of skill as a mechanic. They named the boat "Prizm" because it would serve as a lens to see through, and they have a little 'boat card' that says on it, "Still Having Fun!"
Dinner went on until around 11pm, and I paddled back to The Goose. I pulled up next to her as she hung patiently from her anchor, like a great magic horse, and I had my hand on the ladder, but stopped, and listened to the wind as it shivered the water and rattled the rigging, and seemed perched, like some invisible harpy, up on the spreaders, and hissed at me from the rigging, promising to kill me the next day.
13 April. Dreams on The Sea of Cortez.
My hands and arms ache. I open my eyes and see the moon staring through the night sky.
I'm in the middle of the sea, crossing to mainland Mexico and I'd just had a dream that I had entered, by sailing south, "The Dream Latitudes."
The autopilot buzzes and buzzes then pauses and buzzes again. The stars smile down. There is a gentle wind and the high speeds of the day have cooled off into a peaceful night. The moon is bright now, shedding white shadows on everything, and the mainsail is dowsed with only the genoa, beautiful curve moonlight bright white over the black water, pulling us silently ahead through the night.
The world is stark, and simple; clean moonlight and a single sail.
Clearly, these are the dream latitudes.
The sea, at night, when you are far away from land, is a sight that you can never forget. Imagine, please, a great desert of mercury, at night. Now, that desert begins to move, gentle, in thick metallic waves. All is calm energy. And above you is an ivory moon, so silent and so far away, but a goddess that touches everything and distills this infinitely complex world of waves into a sharp and simple sight. You rise and fall on a desert of lead, and all is black, and white, and blue.
Rubbing my face and covering my third eye with the headlamp, I stumble downstairs, inside, out of the moonlight, where it is damp and dark, like The Goose had wet bowels, and I am inside of her, to take a point, find out where I'm at. GPS readout tells me, 23°23.23 N. And it is midnight, to the minute. I find this a bit queer because these numbers are all in order, three twenty-threes, but there is no reason for any of it. I am also at 108°03.37 W. I'm not even half way over to the Mexican coast, yet.
Crawling back up onto the deck, I yank the headlight off so I can see again. I carefully scan the horizon for lights, for any boats. But no, there is no one. I am alone on this black liquid plane. Just the moonlight on the water, and the snickering stars. I flop down into the cushions, pull the coat around my hands, tuck my knees up, stick my chin into my jacket, close my eyes, and try to consolidate myself for more sleep.
What the hell's a 'dream latitude,' anyway?
I should read some GGMarquez.
There's no sleep. I'm too nervous about getting run down. I should read some GGMarquez and get a radar system. I should get money, first, I guess. Whatever. Sleep later.
23°19.02 N by 107°23.88 W .. the sun is up and hot and now the sea has become piano music. The rhythm pushes the boat, up and forward, rocking, slowly galloping with a melody that is both melancholic and merry, done in a key of Pacific Jade, a slow piano music, played at a cadence of 6am in the morning. The water rolls under the boat, fore and aft, and the light shines through the material of the earth, as if it were a huge crystal ball, and we the bugs that dumbly try to read into her dark blue secrets. All around me is water, only water, water, water and sunlight.
How lovely, the sea! How beautiful the solitude! What a thing, to wake, and look in all directions, and see nothing. What clarity! What grace! What peace!
Is there anything more beautiful than sunlight on water?
23°18.52 N by 107°00.44 W. Noon. I catch a rather large fish. He's a little tunny. Muscular and streamlined, he's grown up all rainbow blues and sharp green with a fat belly of cooled silver, and he's as beautiful as the sea. I will cut off his head, and then I will eat him.
16:00. 23°17.58 N by 106°27.28 W. Alone, on the boat, I jump up and down and yell "LAND ! Land Ho! Land Ho!" and decide to have rum to celebrate. But, since I have not yet eaten my fish, in fact since I have not eaten anything all day, and forget this in my excitement to yell LandHo and drink rum, I get thoroughly drunk in about 20 minutes and start to get concerned about the dock master smelling rum on my breath, or running aground, or simply passing out since I got very precious little sleep last night, and so I fix another glass of rum since the weather is fine, and gentle, and who the hell cares, anyway. I've been sober and kicked around for a damn fortnight, and here comes land, and I decide to cool my heels with some hot alcohol.
The city now firmly set out before me, I decide to concentrate on what I've left behind, so I look west, back across the little gulf I have just crossed. I'm proud of having done this by myself. A friend was going to come, but couldn't, and so I went alone, and I'm proud of that. And I'm drunk, too.
Classic pose; arm flopped over the back of the boat, my hat low over my nose, all I lack is drool on my chin, and I watch the water, like a flock of ghosts, fly out from behind The Goose as we speed along at solid 6 knots for Mazatlan.
Her wake is just another sheet of energy on an already rippling infinite field of other sheets of energy. The ocean is a massive sheet, a Champs-Elysee of visual songs, a grand field full of streams of data, each one coming from a different storm, or coast, or refraction point, or canyon. From far, far below the Coelocanths lick the sandy floor of the sea, and from far, far up above the Angels toss droplets of rain from the edges of clouds, and the distubances from under keel, and the disturbances from over-mast all cascade together to make a grid of wrinkles and waves, that is, if you look close, is infinite to behold. Watch, please, an ocean ripple closely. And if you look closely, really closely, you can see other ripples within it that lead it and follow it. And each of these have ripples inside of them, and all of them more so and in this way you begin to see something strange in the ocean; how can this be? If there is a wave, that has some height and depth to it, that describes a curve, and next to it is another, smaller, that does the same thing, and each next to that one does the same, like a fractal (which surely waves are), then how can the surface of the ocean be anything other than infinite? It is like the flight of the arrow that, divided in half, and then in half again, cannot complete the distance it has to fly. But this is not possible, because the ocean has a coast. It is bound, and trapped, and we can stand on the sand and point to our wet toes and say with certitude, The ocean stops here!" and we would be right. But perhaps the length of the coast is only determined by the length of the stick we use to measure it, and so perhaps the ocean's surface is, as its coast line, after all, infinite, but not in the dimension we first so confidently thought. These infinite spaces sit right between our eyes and right on our foreheads. It is simply that we giants are too big to notice such small ripples and rivers as infinity.
Yes, indeed, I am drunk as a Portuguese pirate.
I lick my lips and taste salt and rum and raise my eyes to look around and I am stunned at the size of the sky and suddenly I feel quite exposed as if I were a cockroach in the middle of a cafeteria floor, and one can never turn one's back on the sea, so I figure I should get my act together lest I get stomped upon by another one of these winds. So I my drunk self off the transom, fix a tall glass of water, ah water, with some lime in it (good cure for the scurvy, aye) and I choose to look instead at the hotel silhouettes of approaching Mazatlan. And there are some big islands here. They will be fun to explore. This is my new home. This is like being born, coming to a place where you will live.
I drop the sail and turned on the motor; I power easily through a narrow-shallow channel; past the sunbathing reader people sitting at poolside; past the fishermen with no poles (only line they wrap around wood blocks); past the gate; past the masts; I arrive in Mazatlan Marina proper, where our slip is waiting for us, and I am welcomed by cries of people sitting in their boats who raised their glasses and hollered, "Ahoy 'Goose!" and a man named Don, that had been here for 13 years, and his six friends, give me a large beer and welcome me with news and information about how to get around town by bus and how good the food is, and how living here is the best in the world.
I'm back in civilization and I stink like sweat and salt and probably rum, too, but they all think its great, these white-bearded, earring-wearers, these coastal nomads who live only to roam in the sun. They are all quite old and round and I dont understand how it is that all these cruisers are such. Not if they have lived the same journeys I have. How can people can live like this, on these seas, and with so little sleep, and continue to do this and be fat, or continue to do this and get old and much less both. But Don (who is skinny, and has something with his nose - replaced skin from too much sun, maybe, or not enough sunblock, probably) tells me about fishing and confirms that I probably had a marlin on the pole, and explains the way that tuna, the kinds we get in cans, are really caught. They use helicopters to catch the depleting tuna population, i'm told. At night the helicopters fly out over the ocean and find the schools of tuna that disturb the phosphorescence in the water. Then they radio the mega-boats who come with huge purses
Crossing The Sea of Cortez was but a dream, already.
The city, like a tide, arrives around me.
15 April. Ready.
It's good to be at dock and tally my winds and losses.
I added up my miles today, and the bow of the Blue Goose has plowed more than 1000 miles of waves. She's flown, in fact, through sun and storm, and I've nearly died, and we're doing, thank you very much, just fine.
Like myself, she seems a bit beat up after this first chapter of our voyage, slightly reduced, and while we have this rest, I need to keep working on her and repair the things that broke.. the traveler, the electrical system, the depth sensor, the running lights, the steaming light, etc. I don't know how I'll fix these things, but the important part is that I dive in and at see if I can't mess it up more than it already is. This is how sailboats are.
It was like this a few months ago, when I got some bad financial news, and bad work news, and really got my forehead into a knot I couldn't quite untangle.
Of course the moment arrived when I was convinced I shouldn't go. The boat wasn't ready, I wasn't ready, my life wasn't ship-shape. The boat had things that I needed to buy. There was work, there were responsibilities - colleagues and co-workers told me that it was not good timing, everyone insisted that I should wait. And then there was just the equipment itself, just the life-saving equipment, those things that would prevent us from taking that dreadful dark voyage which goes only down.
The boat's equipment! The radar! Everyone needs radar! What rocks hid in the foggy future, lurking with teeth sharpened just for my ship's tender hull? What monster trawled the darkness of an upcoming night, those lumbering leviathan ocean liners loaded with shipping containers, the ones that would never hear me squeak as I was dashed beneath their barnacl'd and steeley prow? They push ahead at 30 knots! You don't have time for one final breath before they plow you under. You Must Have Radar it was said, point blank to my face, Don't leave port without it.
And that was not all. The motor might break! The mounts to the bulwarks were fragile - it might shake loose and your entire transmission would fall apart. Don't use the motor until you have that fixed, a mechanic told me. But, but, I replied, it is critical since it is where I get my electricity since I haven't had the money to finish installing the solar panels since I put the money into insurance.
"You're going to install solar panels!?" someone else told me, "No, no, no you dummie you need a windlass and at least two more anchors! And look at this one bad link in your chain! The entire chain is no good now!! What will happen when you are at anchor and a storm comes!?"
Then there were the water tanks, the propane tanks, the holding tanks. All needed attention. There was the standing rigging - the cables that held the mast up - and the running rigging - the ropes that pulled the sails. There were the lifelines, which were loose, and the shaft assembly seemed leaky, and there was no lifeboat, and the backstay needed hydraulics, and the tri-color lights seemed temperamental, and even my infantile little life jackets, the old-school orange puffy ones, were stained and torn and didn't look like they could keep a piece of balsa wood afloat. The Goose was a wreck, already.
And, this goes without mentioning my bank account, which was in even worse shape than my boat. The bank account lacked not just life preservers, but wind, sail, and anchor, all. It floated, but it was not seaworthy. I had no savings. Should a real accident occur, some emergency collision I needed to pay for, my feeble credit rating would fall and sink directly to the bottom, and there it would stay to rust and corrode.
All these, and more, menaced. Surely I was not ready.
The fact is that you are never ready, and if, finally, you are, then it is too late.
I've met many people that have boats, and I think that all of them have told that me they want to go sailing, really want to go voyaging, but can't afford it.
What do you need, really? A little bit of food, a liter of fresh water, and a place where you can lie down for a few hours each night to sleep.
These things can be found. Especially in Central America, the Bahamas, and the South Pacific. Coconuts, conch, and fresh water can all be found with little effort, and I have done so myself. I have spent days collecting conch from the floor of small Costa Rican Bays, I have collected old fishing line from a Portuguese coast (complete with hooks), and I have plucked coconuts from trees in Sri Lanka. And these meals that I found were tastier, and probably better for me, than the meal I had at La Tour d'Argent, in Paris. You need less than you think.
These people that want to go, but cannot afford to, are wrong.
They cannot afford not to go. These are people that are in the process of breaking, sinking, and falling to the bottom. They are becoming buried beneath the previous decisions of debts to banks, timeshares to condos, daily workloads, and the incessant pursuit of gadgetry which allows them to forget the enslavement of their lives. They have bought - and continue to pay for - the non-dream. As they gather themselves to be ready the heartbeats roll by like waves, one after another, and these people grow older, and risk more. These are people who would be wise to sell all they have, all of it, and to buy a simple rowboat, and to push that little bark out into the nearest river, and begin to float downstream to see what is yon. These people would be wise to sell the ring from their finger and invest all of that in a pocket knife, a fishing hook, a couple of gallons of water, and a three meter sloop.
Perhaps it might be said that the more you have the less you live.
Here, in central Mexico, after having completed my first one thousand miles of this voyage, I can tell you that the boat will never be ready. I will never be ready. And if I am, and if I have all of the gear and all of the experience and all of the time and all of the resources, then what will happen? I will not be voyaging to foreign seas. I will have no adventure nor will I have freedom. I will be rich and secure and sit safe and stoic on a fat ass in a familiar space that leaves no risk, no chance, and no challenge. Surely with less we live more.
To any sailor who would shove off and haul sail: If your boat floats, you're ready.