Saturday, March 14, 2015

If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution

You can never go back.  You can never go home.  
Every day is a new experience, and that experience, being fresh in the mind, to some extent takes over in the memory department, overlaying things that happened the day, week, month, or year before.  If it involves a particular place or person, the new memory gets added in at the top of the list.   I’ve used this “overwriting” to ease unpleasant times in my life.  I had a tough time once in a particular Austin restaurant when a woman I’d fallen deeply in love with dumped me just after the waiter served our salads.  Some months later I made myself return to that same restaurant with a new love and that sweet experience helped cover up the memory of the post salad death spiral I’d had the previous year.  Like a layer of varnish, the new time laid a coat down over the old, coated I say, not covered.  All the old stuff is still there, still to be remembered, just dimmer than before.  Now when I recall that particular restaurant I recall good times with a little bit of sadness in the background.  A habit I’ve developed which I hope is not related is that I tend to eat my salad at the end of the meal now.

And so it is as you return to your home town after going off to make your way in the world.  Change is everywhere, startlingly apparent except to those who stayed behind.  Years ago when I returned home to pay homage to the parents I found they had aged.  The house had shrunk, the town had grown, and everything was a bit more worn than what I remembered.  Over the years, after many yearly visits, the memories of the place are multi-layered and the early memories have faded slowly.

As we travel we notice this when we return to familiar haunts.  It’s never quite the same.  Our first trip down the coast of Mexico was all wild and strange.  We had scary times and wonderful times.  The first time we anchored in Chacala the pacific rollers rocked the anchorage and we worried about our anchor holding in the soft mud as Connie and I hugged each other trying to get some sleep in the main cabin.  The next year, the rollers were not so big... but they were.. and the town was quite less mysterious.

Dinghy Dock at Marina La Cruz.  See our green one?

We’ve heard a lot of music in the last three years of cruising Mexico and one of the good places to hear live music in Banderas Bay is in the little town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle.   During our first visit three years ago the little restaurant next to the marina office had occasional live music.  One night as we walked up the gangway we heard the sounds of a sweet acoustical guitar drifting our way.  We found the venue and some friends and had our first glimpse of the band Luna Rumba:  Cheko on guitar and vocals, and Geo on guitar, violin, and mandolin with Carlos Mancilla doing percussion.  Within minutes the music brought us to our feet and we danced to the Latin sounds and lyrics.   From the smiles on the musician’s faces we knew they appreciated how we let their music carry our minds and bodies away.  Soon we had the dance floor full of couples swaying in their own particular ways.  Don’t you love seeing an older couple shuffle on to the dance floor and move together as one?

Again that year, we saw Luna Rumba and again we danced, breaking the ice so other couples would not have to brave being the first on the floor.  Year two, back in La Cruz we found the band playing at Philos Bar, a place known as THE place for the older cruising crowd to hear live music, eat ribs, drink beer and dance.  Cheko and Geo recognized us and said hello and they told us how they appreciate us moving to their music.  As a musician, Connie knows this feeling as when she performed with Ocho Pies or Obrador the band thought the musical experience was greatly enhanced whenever people danced. Audience participation; it makes musicians happy.  It’s funny how often it is that children will be the first to jump up and start dancing when they see and hear live music. Adults sometimes need a little time to get over their shyness.  Here’s a curious tidbit: In the African culture there is only one word for music and it means all three concepts:  drumming, singing, and dancing.   The European culture is one of the few to embrace the strange concept of sitting still while listening to musicians play. 

As you see, we’ve had lots of good memories of listening to great music in La Cruz and of dancing to the rhythms of the town.  Such memories set the scene for our arrival here in La Cruz for the third year in a row.   We walked the streets of town at night hearing scraps of live music.  We passed by Geko Rojo where a band was playing yet another rendition of “Hotel California.”  Philo’s was quiet for the night.  Around the corner from the closed up Octopus Garden we heard a little blues riff that brought us around the corner and up some stairs to Charlie’s Place where three guys were playing the blues.  We listened, we met, we made friends.  The next week Connie was joining them on percussion.

Luna Rumba was scheduled to play at Philo’s the next week so we got the last two tickets to the show.  Normally Philo doesn’t have a cover but as Luna Rumba had become very popular over the last few seasons they instituted a 100 peso cover and assigned seating.  We arrived a few minutes early and found our seats in the back near the bar.  Next to us was a threesome who Connie had met previously on the dock.  They owned a fancy racing sailboat and had a house in the hills.  The other day, as Connie had welcomed them to the dock the woman said, “No no. WE live here.”  The man was brusque and seemed in an ill temper.  Maybe they had a bad day sailing.   Sometimes we meet people who are just not our kind of folks.  If so, we just move on by.  I have to say, though, the huge majority of the boaters we meet on the docks and in the anchorage are very friendly and will be helpful in the extreme if help is needed.

So, back at Philo’s.  Oh great! We are sitting next to these grumps.   After the opening song, Connie and I gathered up our drinks and moved to an empty table closer to the stage with a much better view.  There were other open tables if someone else wanted to move closer to the stage.  Our grumpy neighbors stayed put in their assigned seats.

As the band played we noticed a four by four foot wooden platform on the dance floor.  We asked Geo’s wife who was running the door what that was about and she said Lilly Alcantara, a dancer,  would be coming out on occasion.  “But can we dance on the dance floor?”  “Of course.” was her answer.  Permission granted, Connie couldn’t stand still any longer and we jumped up and danced on one side of the little dance floor letting the music and the memories take us away.  A few songs later Lilly appeared, rushing out in a swoop and using lots of hand and arm movements with a fixed smile on her lips.  She had several costume changes and would leap onto the little wooden platform and swish around giving the crowd something else to look at besides the musicians.  We thought it a little strange to have this theatrical addition here at the old Philo’s Bar but evidently Lilly is now a permanent fixture in the band.  One time we got chased off the dance floor by the young dancer as she flung herself around in the spotlight.  OK, so it’s not the same, but we’re hearing good music and we are dancing to some of it. 

When we returned to our seats the old guy in front of me gave me the thumbs up.  “Good on ya.”  The next time we left the dance floor a whole table applauded us to our seats, this a little embarrassing to me but a good feeling overall.  As I’d catch people’s eye they’d smile.  We were all having a good time.  It was not the same as last year but it was good.

After the final song we were finishing our wine and waiting to pay our bill as the waiters rushed to and fro trying to wrap up the evening.  A man came up to me and bent low.  Clearly he had something to communicate to me.  “Are you totally self-absorbed, or just an asshole?”, he said and turned on his heal to go back to his seat.  These were next to the seats we originally had, yes, with the not so nice racing couple.  Not understanding what his meaning  was yet knowing it was nothing good I got up and went straight away across the room to their seats.  “What is it you mean by am I totally self-absorbed or just an asshole?  What is the problem here?”  He explained that our dancing got in the way of their viewing of the band.  I looked to the stage and sure enough, a couple dancing on the floor would somewhat block the view of the band.  But to say such a thing at the end of the night when there was nothing to be done for it otherwise was such a rude thing to do!  I told him so and we had a heated discussion. Connie joined the fray and was shocked at their smugness and attitude.  I got no apology.  Connie was livid.  The gals at the bar behind them spoke up saying that they had been told to be quiet by these same folks and they also felt they had been treated rudely.
Arrow points at special seating reserved for rude people.
Connie started to cry, the waiters tried to console, “What’s wrong?  What has happened?”  While Connie tried to pay the bill I visited the restroom and coming back out found myself quite unsatisfied with what had just happened.  I stood a table away and glared at the rude man who had quite ruined our evening.  He kept glancing up then looking away.  I then went around to the front of his table and stood there pointing at him, shaking my head back and forth.  Everyone around was watching me do this and had been watching the tears run down Connie’s cheeks.  I hoped to shame that rude man. 

It takes lots of processing to get over an encounter with a rude person.  Should I have asked him outside and thrown him to the ground?  No.  Not only would that be wrong but I might have got my butt kicked.  Could I have said some things better?  Yes.  By morning we both had it pretty well processed.  On the morning radio net we heard about another cruising acquaintance who had been assaulted by someone in a bar who was drunk and thought his wife had been kissed by this guy.  Wow, there was some bad karma floating around last night around closing time.  That news lowered our story in significance.  I’m glad I didn’t punch him.

Will we go to Philo’s again?  Probably so.  Will we see Luna Rumba again?  Maybe.  But it won’t be the same.  We now have a thick filmy layer crudely brushed over the sweet memories of years past.  In time it will recede and we’ll find new music in this town of music.  In fact, tonight Connie is joining a threesome playing at Anna Bananas and this time not only play percussion but she gets to sing! 

“If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution.”  

Emma Goldman, turn of the century political activist described by some as “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Passage Making - What's It Like?

Connie and Scott are today (February 23, 2015) in the quaint little sea side town of Chacala, Nayarit, Mexico.  Chacala is the town name, Nayarit is the state.  We are here along with nine other out of country boats, all cutters, sloops, or ketches, no powerboats.  Here in the south-facing bay seventeen fishing pangas are moored tightly together off a concrete landing and one little sport catamaran bounces off a buoy.   The foreign boats, all oceangoing vessels, are mostly anchored fore and aft with the bow pointing south towards the open Pacific Ocean, except for two boats which have only a bow anchor down and thus swing around during the night when the sea breeze switches to a land breeze.  Because the swell is constant from the south, south west these boats roll vigorously for a few hours during wind direction changes. 

This is something I'll get back to later at the end of this little story but for now I thought I'd describe for you land lubbers how we got here and more specifically what it is like to do a seven day transit down the Sea of Cortez.  The following description could be any multi-day transit on an ocean going sailing vessel.  Multiply the days in transit by four and you have an ocean crossing such as from Mexico to Hawaii, absent of course of the anchoring for the night part.

Many people think that sailing down a sea is a yachtsman's dream full of smooth seas, dolphins frolicking off the bow, cocktails on the poop deck, and crisp white sails snapping sharply in the wind and perhaps that is the case when you have a hired crew and a million dollar boat.  But for us, we are a crew of two and what must be done must be done by Connie or by Scott, mostly by Connie.

After months of pulling our hair out trying to get our dear Traveler's engine properly aligned we finally were able to "git er done" and leave town on a Monday.  We could have left on Friday when the job was finished but no sailor leaves port on a Friday. Nothing superstitious about that!  The marina office was closed on the weekend as Carnaval was wrapping up so we decided to stay until Monday pay our bill and turn in the gate key at the Fonatur Marina.  Monday morning we walked to town for some last minute provisions of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Then we unplugged the power cord and stowed it, wrapped up the water hose, removed the awning, put the rudder on the wind vane, and hoisted the dinghy on deck.  Everything below had to be stowed carefully so that violent motion could not set it free.  Having completed these chores we were free to leave.  It was just after noon.

Our friends Scott and Jared on Reisender escaped the Fonatur dock minutes before us so we followed them out of the bay passing the navy dock and the large ship moorings.  We motored into the south wind and set a course of 162 degrees for Isla Espiritu Santos 210 miles away.  Most people leaving Guaymas head west and cross over the Sea of Cortez doing an overnight trip to an anchorage on the east coast of the Baja Peninsula. This trip is about 85 nautical miles and can be done in one overnight segment. Then they work their way south hopping from bay to bay splitting the trip into day long segments so they can sleep at night securely anchored.  Being so late in the year, we wanted to get south fast, so we planned some long distance runs, the first being from Guaymas to Playa Bonanza on Espiritu Santos.  We also wanted to do some longer runs to get more experience with the routine as we are planning to cross the Pacific in April, a 22 to 30 day sailing.

Whenever we do an overnight crossing we rig jack lines that run from the bow of the boat down both the port and starboard decks to the stern.  At night, rule #1 is that nobody goes from down below to the cockpit without wearing a life vest and a harness that is attached via a tether to a secure point in the
cockpit.  Rule #2 is that (at night) nobody goes up on the side deck or forward without being clipped into the jack line and additionally does not go out of the cockpit without a second crew member looking on. 

In the daytime the conditions of the sea determine if we need to be wearing a vest or be clipped in for safety.  If it is flat, we don't worry.  If the boat is bouncing around then certainly, we put on the vest and clip in whenever we go outside of the cockpit.

Rule #3 is a rather unfortunate rule we have for overnight passages.  We don't drink alcohol for the duration of the trip.  Maybe on a longer passage with more than two crew members we could loosen up this rule but for now we have it.  For myself, I always notice that the first night out, right around sunset I have an urge to have a glass of wine and I find myself cursing Rule #3.  Habits are strong.

Throughout the first afternoon we varied the RPMs of the new engine so as to break it in properly.  On leaving Guaymas the engine hour meter read ten hours.  As soon as we got out of harbor we turned on the mechanical auto pilot to keep the boat on course.  We had warmed up leftovers for dinner then decided on the watch shifts.  I'd take the 10:00 to 02:00 shift and Connie would do the 02:00 to 06:00 shift. I napped a little after dinner then came on deck at 10:00.  Connie went below and tried to sleep up in the vee berth where the engine noise is not so loud.  Not being used to being awake after 10:00 I got out the Ipod and put in the ear buds so the music would keep me awake.  I placed cushions on the rear cockpit seat and covered them with some cotton Mexican blankets so I'd be comfortable.  Then with the music of Cuba in my ears I settled in for my four hour shift.  I set the alarm (my favorite alarm is a barking dog) for fifteen minutes.

Connie:  6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Scott:   10:00 PM - 02:00 AM
Connie 02:00 AM - 06:00 AM
Scott   06:00 AM -  10:00 AM

When the dog barked, I stood up in the cockpit and did a slow 360 degree examination of the horizon looking for boats and lights, thus following Rule #4. Every hour or so I went below and recorded our latitude and longitude and plotted our course on the chart.  The AIS readout tells me about nearby ships and if one was seen, I'd check to see how close we'd pass and keep an eye on it until it receded into the night. Four hours later I saw Connie rummaging around below making herself some hot tea.  She came on deck at 2:15 and I relinquished the watch to her, going below and climbing into the vee berth to try to sleep. 

For the next four hours Connie drank hot chocolate, ate a power bar, looked at the stars, did some stretches, thought about how much she loves her husband, watched the phosphorescence off the bow and listened to the music that is always playing in her head.  She also made regular notes on the chart and log and watched visually and via AIS for ships.  Connie says that if it is calm enough and if there is moon light she plays the ukulele and sings.  I slept a few hours after laying there for way too long listening to the engine and the drive train.  I woke up with the light and stumbled out of bed to see a sleepy Connie sitting upright in the cockpit watching the moon rise. She went below and I had the morning watch which I held until she got up and made breakfast. 

We were on day two now and both were slightly sleep deprived. Fortunately for us, the start of our transit was in fairly calm conditions so our bodies had a slow introduction to boat movement.  Eventually it got rougher and the boat started pitching, rolling, heeling, and yawing but by that time the risk of seasickness was slim as we had time to ease into it gradually.  I remember coming out of Mazatlan once after being relatively still for two weeks.  We headed right into monster swells with the boat pitching like crazy.  Everyone felt nauseous right off the bat.   Cookies were tossed.

Having no wind, we continued to motor and since the motor was running I decided to use that extra electricity and flush out the water maker and make some water.  This took a few hours as I had to de-pickle the system first because it had been in storage for the last six months.  Soon we had water filling the tanks. We took turns trying to nap and thankfully were able to hoist the Genoa at 3:30 PM when a northerly breeze finally filled in. Ahh, silence.  As the wind picked up I switched off the wheel mounted auto pilot and switched on the below deck autopilot and found that it would not keep a course.  Clearly there was a problem there that I'd have to figure out later.  We had enough wind for the wind vane to do the steering so we got that rigged and let it drive the boat until the wind died just after midnight when we had to roll up the sail, turn on the engine, and engage the auto pilot.  We switched shifts that second evening with Connie taking the 10:00 to 2:00 and me taking the 2:00 to 6:00.  Again, I heard the dog bark every fifteen minutes. There was very little traffic out there in the middle of the Sea of Cortez.  We were rummy and sleep deprived.

Scott:       6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Connie:   10:00 PM - 02:00 AM
Scott      02:00 AM - 06:00 AM
Connie   06:00 AM -  10:00 AM

We hoisted the jib and main at 07:30 AM and had light wind conditions that built throughout the day as we approached Isla Espiritu Santos.  By late afternoon we turned into the bay with a brisk breeze and four foot seas.  We dropped the main and furled the Genoa then slowed the boat as Connie prepared the anchor.  She dropped the hook and set it in 25 feet on a sandy bottom. By this time we were exhausted having had no more than four hours of sleep at a time.  Neither of us sleep well with the engine on or when the boat has lively action.  We made an easy dinner then went to bed, relishing the quiet.  It is so good to be in a calm boat with no engine running.

Fifty one hours of motoring and sailing had taken us from Guaymas to Isla Espiritu Santos, just east of La Paz on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez.   We covered 210 nautical miles averaging four knots.  Our first leg of the journey was over.  Geeze, how are we going to do this for 20 some days?

At sea, we get our weather information by tuning the single side band radio to 39680 for the Sonrisa net at 07:30.  One of the first things the net controller does is take reports from vessels underway.  Now that I have my general license I check in with my call sign, give my position and sea state and let our buddies know where we are.  It's great to listen to friends we've met over the years and know where they are in the 800 or so miles of the Pacific Mexico cruising grounds.   So I've added that to the to-do list: be up and listening every morning from 07:30 to 08:00. 

On the Sonrisa net, Gary the weatherman comes on at a quarter to the hour and gives a nicely detailed forecast for all the crossings and major anchorages.  So far, Gary had given us the green light to head south.  We'd find light to moderate conditions for the next couple of days.

Day three we got up with the first light and headed south.  Motoring through the first half of the day we found wind in the afternoon and hoisted the Genaker, a lightweight nylon sail.  The sail served us quite well as we headed down the Cerralvo Channel.  We read and played music until we reached Punta Arena de la Ventana where the wind and current were mixing it up creating a confused sea state.  With the boat bouncing around erratically the Genaker was trying to wrap itself around the forestay so we doused it successfully, turned on the engine and motored for a couple of hours into the protected bay at Muertos.  Hang on tight!

We'd been watching a sail in the distance gradually catching up to us for the last four hours and as we made our approach that sailboat was rapidly closing the distance.  Connie was on the bow with the anchor ready while I selected a spot I thought was a respectable distance from some fisherman mooring balls and yet still in the wind protection of a cliff face.   The nimrod in the other sailboat came in hot on our tail and cut us off, zooming ahead and dropping his anchor with a big splash right in the middle of all the mooring balls.  Connie looked over the mere 30 yards of water between us and him with her palms turned up saying, " What?... Really.  You are going to anchor there?"  We were the only two boats in the bay.  A quarter mile of anchorage stretched out to our port side.  Fuming, I turned Traveler around and moved down the beach to give us all some breathing room.  This has happened to me multiple times in my sailing career and still to this day I don't understand it.  The boat first in takes his mooring spot then the next boat in line takes his.. makes sense to me.

Once we got everything secured and had a glass of wine and cursed that bad sailboat captain some more boats came in and we watched them space themselves around the anchorage until we had six boats nestled in for the night.  A light quick dinner then a movie on the laptop did the trick and we slept deep and long.  Second leg completed and we were getting caught up on sleep.

Friday morning we left with the sun and watched the other boats disperse into the sea.  As we had 46 nautical miles to go that day we had to keep our speed up so we did the usual, motoring through the calm morning hours then catching some wind to finish out the day.  We arrived in Bahia Los Frailes just before sunset.  When doing day hops like this we don't keep any set watch schedule, we just swap times at the helm as it suits us, trying to take a nap during the day, do some reading, and cook meals.  It's an easy pattern, much easier than the overnight trips.

Saturday morning we had planned on staying over in Frailes for an extra day to take a break from sailing and motoring.  However after listening to the weather report on the single side band, we knew that we should get south and away from a strong north wind that was due the next day on this part of the coast.   Motoring out we set the course of 106 degrees into the autopilot and started our two night run to Isla Isabel.  We varied the engine speed and motored on throughout the day and night, taking our four hour shifts into the darkness until the dawn.

The next day, just before sundown we caught a nice northwest breeze and set the delicate genaker sail.  Connie got the wind vane pilot going and we breezed right along.  Checking the engine hours I realized that I should have done the initial engine oil and transmission fluid changes required after 50 hours so we set about changing out those fluids.  The sea was rolling and the sun was setting as we juggled hot oil and hand pumps and wrenches to get everything changed.  We didn't spill much and made a slight mess but felt proud that we completed it all without mishap while the genaker pulled us ever so nicely south.

Again we did four hour shifts with the barking dog, the exercises, the reading, charting, and horizon scanning.  At 4:00 AM Connie woke me up. We had arrived just off Isla Isabel, two hours before sunrise.  My bad planning had us there too early to find an anchoring spot.  Once I woke up I was able to use published way points on the GPS to get close to the island to have a look.  We saw multiple boats in the small anchorage and decided we'd better just press on as the seas were too active to just heave to for a couple of hours.  Connie went to bed and I took Traveler south into the rising sun waking her up at 10:00 with my shouts of "Fish On!"   We got the pacific bonito on board and I cut into it to check the meat thinking it might be a skip jack.  But it turned out to be some nice looking meat so we filleted the unfortunate being and turned the head and guts out to the sea birds.  All around us we could see the fishing fleet.

A few hours later we realized that Isla Isabel had given us some presents as we passed in the night.  We'd picked up thousands of gnats and mosquitoes.  We spent a couple of hours massacring the bugs, driving them out of the dark recesses of the cockpit and down below.  Now the fiberglass in the cockpit is dotted with death.  We made the turn into Chacala at 4:30 PM sailing slowly and found an anchoring spot among eight other boats. 

When first we came to Chacala two years ago we dropped only the bow anchor and had a very rough night of it and so a learning experience had ensued. Now we knew we'd need to have a hook down bow and stern.  Connie set the bow anchor well and I tried to back down on it towards the beach pointing the bow towards the incoming swell.  However, Traveler had a mind of her own and insisted on backing more westerly, perhaps because there was a current running across the beach.  We set the stern anchor and found that we'd not set the two far enough apart and the angle was all wrong.  Then the stern anchor rode got under the wind vane rudder threatening to snap it off.  We pulled both anchors up and tried again.  After the second set I still didn't like the angle so we launched the dinghy and I rowed out to the stern anchor, pulled it aboard and ferried it to a better position.  Sundown found us hot, sweaty and exhausted but successfully anchored at Chacala. That evening we watched as the two boats without stern anchors swung around with the dying wind and got beam on to the swell, their masts swinging wildly from side to side.

We'd made it to the Mexican Pacific coast, a seven day trip of 567 nautical miles.  Sleep deprived, tired, and hungry we celebrated with a bottle of wine and slept deeply to awaken in a paradise of palm trees, sandy beaches, and palapa restaurants lining the shore. 

As I publish this piece we are in La Cruz, a day's sail south from Chacala.  This is a good place to provision and take care of the ever present to-do list.