Saturday, July 28, 2012

For The Birds
By Michael

"Caw, caw, caw..."
During the days we are underway, out at sea, heading north along the U.S. West Coast, we are not alone. When the seas are steep and we’re bashing into them under power, we are not alone. In long pants, socks, and fleece, steeling ourselves against the cold drizzle of a Northern California coastal summer, we are not alone. Out there we’re accompanied by the desperate calls and answering peeps of the auks.

Now I’m not the naturalist aboard Del Viento. To me a whale is a whale, a bird is a bird, and a tree is a tree. To Windy and the girls, every living thing must be identified from phylum to species. Once identified, the three of them then take interest in most everything else that is known about the creature. The iPad is opened and the offline Wikipedia app* is referenced again. I feign disinterest, but I’m secretly glad someone aboard is taking this role—the world is a much more interesting place the more you learn about it.

So we’ve been seeing these birds en route. They're small, black and white, and they bob on the choppy sea, a few miles off shore. Windy thinks they are Common Murres (a.k.a. Thin-Billed Murres), a type of auk. She has learned all about them. They are fascinating.
Adult pairs make no nest, but lay and incubate a single egg on a cliff face. Less than a month after hatching, before they can even fly, downy chicks leap off the cliff face into the ocean below, using their wings to break their fall. We’ve seen some at sea, miles from shore, still molting their fluffy down chick feathers. They jump off the cliff because their dad tells them too. Once in the ocean, they venture far with their fathers, learning to hunt and care for themselves.

So these birds have become our little companions (babies are the size of my fist, dads are about three times that size) out at sea. We'll come across these birds all day without more than a few minutes passing without a sighting, fifty miles of Murres and more the next leg.

It is their behavior that makes these little guys so endearing. Ninety percent of the time, we see a father paired up with a chick. Because they disappear quickly behind even small swells, we often hear them before we see them—calling to each other.
Imagine the sound of a crow or black bird, that “caw-caw-caw.” Yeah? Okay, now imagine that sound more high-pitched and desperate. That is the sound of the father Murre calling to his baby. But it’s not a cute sound and nor does it lack emotion. No, this caw-caw-caw has all the gravity and emotional punch of a mother calling out after losing her child in a train station. It’s a call that stays with you.

Next imagine the chirp and peep of a newly hatched chick. Turn up the volume on that sound and that's it exactly, the sound of the tiny Common Murre answering its pappa.

Out there we hear and see these pairs calling and responding over and over: caw, caw, caw….peep, peep, peep. Sometimes we’ll see two birds, separated only by a couple of wavelengths of three-foot chop, calling and answering, but seemingly unable to connect across the comparatively mountainous seas, sometimes swimming in paths that don’t converge. We'll pass, left wondering if they ever find each other. The little dramas play out in very short spans and have given our crew new jobs.

“Oh, there’s the dad!”
“I see the baby.”

“C’mon….oh…yes, he found him!”

We've read they're good flyers, but we rarely see them take wing. Instead, they hang out on the surface like ducks or dive, either to hunt small fish or to evade us, using their wings underwater like fins. So in addition to cawing and peeping in a bid to find each other, they instinctively duck just their heads underwater to look for each other. 
Sometimes we see only a dad or only a chick, cawing or peeping away, checking underwater, but nobody in sight. Poor things. Sometimes our autopilot, Shaun, will steer through groups of birds and divide pairs on either side of the hull, leaving us to watch our wake, hopeful for successful reunions. As they disappear behind a swell or fade into our wake, we're soon distracted by the plight of another pair, and then another. 

* Wiki Offline is an iTunes app that is the full text of all Wikipedia articles compressed to 3.5GB (no pictures or graphics are included). We downloaded this thing onto our iPad for $9.99 and use it frequently when we don't have internet connectivity and want to look something up. Awesome.

We pass by a pair of Murres, upper left. 
These aren't auks, but harbor seals that greeted us as we
arrived in Half Moon Bay.
We berthed in the commercial fishing area of Half Moon Bay.
Here is Frances on the bow as we arrrived. Note the houseboat
hair salon behind her, used by the local fishermen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Whales Ahoy!
By Michael

Eleanor watches (and holds on) as three
Humpbacks frolick and feed while
circling Del Viento in Monterey Bay.
On our first cruise years ago, Windy and I enjoyed very few whale sightings. Fortunately, one was a spectacular encounter that left an indelible impression on us. We were motoring across Mexico's Sea of Cortez in February 1997, from the islands off Baja's La Paz to Mazatlan on the mainland. From horizon to horizon, the Sea was dead calm, like a swimming pool. Early on our second day, I called Windy topsides to check out what appeared to be logs floating ahead.

As we approached, we realized the logs were seven or eight Sperm whales, lined up side-by-side like cars in a parking lot. We motored up to within about 25 feet, shut down the engine, and drifted with them for a while, amazed. As the distance between Del Viento and the whales grew, we took turns rowing out to them in the dinghy. Windy reported starring at one, eye-to-eye, three feet away.

Skip to the summer of 2011, again in Mexico and aboard a second Del Viento, this time with kids. We hoped for a repeat of our 1997 Sperm whale encounter, but knew it was unlikely and didn't otherwise expect to see many whales. That's what we told the girls, expectations were low.

Of course, how we receive experiences is often a product of our expectations. So imagine our delight when leaving La Cruz, Mexico last December, joyously watching one Humpback whale after another breach, twist, and crash back into the water. Big splashes erupted. The girls shrieked. The show lasted 15 minutes. I wrote about it in this post.

A week later, in what turned out to be the mother of all whale encounters, we nearly ran over a Humpback tangled in a fishing net several miles off Isla Isabel. When I was unable to free him by cutting net away from the dinghy, I jumped in and swam to him, cutting where a could. It was an eerie, powerful experience I'll never forget. With the aid of other cruisers, we saved the whale the following day. I wrote about this in three posts, beginning here.

By springtime, we were in La Paz on Mexico's Baja Penninsula and whale sightings were common. It's not that we were jaded, but we no longer called the girls topsides every time we saw a whale. And then Windy spotted the Blues. The Blue whale is the largest living thing ever known to have existed. They are fast, solitary, and distinctly silvery-blue...and big. They are magnificent to see in person. We saw ten Blue whales (or maybe the same Blue whale ten times) in one day while making our way up the Sea of Cortez in March. I mentioned it in this post.

Coming up the California coast, whale sightings haven't ceased, but neither have they been remarkable, until last week.

On our approach to Monterey Bay, we came across a pod of humpback whales in what appeared to be a feeding frenzy. Three whales (two adults and one baby) circled our boat as we all sat mesmerized. They moved fast, pushing a lot of water, swimming in ways we'd not seen. They would roll over on their sides and open their mouths allowing their throat grooves to expand like an accordian, collecting a ton of water they would then push back through their baleen to filter. They stayed near the surface and were active, moving around our boat through several rotations, like they were corralling us. Windy remarked how graceful and tranquil they seemed. It was almost like a water ballet as the three of them were often synchronized. They came very close to us and we repeatedly urged the girls (and ourselves) to hang on to something, concerned we'd get bumped and jostled by one of these animals. But we soon relaxed and enjoyed the half-hour show. When they finally sounded, we continued on to our anchorage, excitedly describing to each other what we'd seen.


It's difficult to see one whale or two in this picture, but
the throat grooves are clear.

This is a pectoral fin of one whale on its side at the
top left. On the bottom right I think are the upper and
lower jaws of a whale spread wide, creating
an opening that appeared 15-feet across.

At times, they were like synchronized swimmers. Here
all three display a pectoral fin while Windy and the
girls watch from the cabin top.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Chaos & Tranquility
By Michael

This is what school looks like for
the girls. Here Eleanor takes
notes in the Hearst Castle exhibit.
Anchored off the Santa Cruz, CA Beach Boardwalk, it was never easy to forget where we were. We dropped the hook in the crook between the pier and beach and spent three days and nights living in the midst of the hustle and bustle of people recreating around us. Thanks to beautiful weather and the resulting crowds, the shrill screams of people on drop towers, roller coasters, and pendulum rides became the backdrop to our lives. Between the screams was the hum of thousands of beach voices, the thumping of nightly concerts, and the booming barks of sea lions echoing under the wood pier.

So imagine when this cacophony became background to sounds much closer: a whoosh of air, a rush of turbulent water, and thumping on the hull. I sprinted up from the galley and out the companionway and my jaw dropped.

“Wow! Guys, get up here, quick!”

The water around the boat was boiling and hundreds—thousands!—of cormorants streamed from under Del Viento and erupted near our waterline. Even when I didn’t think there could possibly be any more birds, they continued bursting from the water like penguins onto ice. Just twenty feet from our hull, dozens of pelicans dive-bombed from above, one after another—Splash! Splash-splash! Splash!—into the mob of cormorants. Amidst the chaos, the sky filled with hundreds of gulls. We could no longer hear the rides and people ashore.

The girls tackle a
climbing wall at
the Santa Cruz
Beach Boardwalk.
For two-or-three minutes, we watched and laughed in amazement at the feeding frenzy until the unseen school that caused the disturbance wised up and dove deep. Slowly, the wildlife dispersed. Ten minutes later, only pelicans who had their fill remained, floating calmly, sated.

Lively Santa Cruz was very different than sedate San Simeon, our first stop north of Morro Bay. In San Simeon, a few tourists lounged on the beach that William Randolph Hearst left behind. Windy felt under the weather, so the girls and I trekked ashore alone. We landed in the surf unscathed (but not dry) and chained the dinghy to a pier piling. After playing on the beach, we wandered up to the road to Sebastian’s Store, a deli and San Simeon fixture for more than 100 years. Besides the post office, that is all there is, really. In fact, they are one.

Each time we pulled up
to this dock, we displaced
sea lions from one end.
Each time, onlookers
gasped and snapped


         So we journeyed further and Frances found an old tractor to climb on while Eleanor ate all of the wild blackberries she could pick. Up to Highway 1 and I realized how rare it is to be a pedestrian here, a place where nobody lives and with nothing to walk to. The girls kept close to me as we scurried along the shoulder for a quarter-mile with cars whizzing past at freeway speeds. When we got to the turnoff for Hearst Castle, we walked up past a Disneyland-sized lot of cars to the visitors’ center where we spent the day learning about Hearst’s life, his empire, and how the castle came to be. I told the girls they would get more out of an expensive tour of the Castle when they are a year older and I promised to plan a stop on our way south.

After a couple days, Windy felt better and we motored into the light prevailing winds and currents for another day before taking shelter under the cliffs of Big Sur. The ocean-side perspective on this place is distinct from the Big Sur I know from land. Yet features in common include the dramatic topography, the twisted, wind-tortured cypress, and other elements of her beauty that hint at conditions that are often inhospitable—but not always. In the lee of Pfeiffer Point, we opened a bottle of red wine. Together in Del Viento’s main salon, Windy helped Eleanor with her writing, Frances drew quietly, and I chopped celery, carrots, onion, and garlic for a soup. When the meal was over, the talking was done, the dishes put away, and the sun had long ago set, we settled in for a quiet night.


What with all the time the girls are spending on the beach,
they're becoming quite the sand artists.

Eleanor and three of her second cousins who met us in Santa Cruz.
The girls had a great time with the kids.
The girls and I explore the San Simeon anchorage.

The sun setting behind Pfeiffer Point, Big Sur.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Morro Mooring
By Michael

Windy sailing the Portland Pudgy through
the mooring field in front of Morro Rock.
At only 581 feet, it may be an unfair
comparison, but I think of this as the
Gibralter of the West Coast.
When we sailed into Morro Bay, the anchorage was crowded and shallow. We need to haul out and install our transducer before our new depth sounder is working, so I wasn’t comfortable trying to shoehorn a spot for us. Combine that with tidal currents that rival the La Paz waltz, and our best option was the Morro Bay Yacht Club dock or moorings.

Yikes! A yacht club?! I concede a prejudice based on Hollywood stereotypes: snooty members in a sea of white pants and silly captain’s hats. Remember Ted Knight inCaddyshack? That’s as close to a yacht club as I’ve been. On the docks, I’ve heard the oft-repeated assertion that yacht clubs are for people who spend more time socializing than boating. And I know that most of these characterizations are outdated and ridiculous, but still.

I tried hailing them on the VHF.

“It’s a volunteer club, usually hard to reach anyone on the radio, just tie up to their dock if there’s room or pick up one of the moorings in front of the club.” We thanked the Harbor Patrol officer and Windy leaned over the bow to thread the needle on an MBYC mooring with our snubber line.

For the next two days, we wandered ashore looking for someone representing the club who could tell us how much we owed for use of the mooring and whether we could use the club’s showers. By day three, I found the sign-in sheet, list of rates, and dropped my check in the slot. Still unbathed, I ran into Lynn coming off her large wooden, John Alden-designed schooner. A huge smile broke across her weathered face, “Can I help you?” She was dressed like a cruiser.

Without even a glance at our I.D., USCG documentation, or proof of insurance, Lynn gave us one of the warmest welcomes we’ve received to date and showed us where all of the facilities are and handed us a key. Bathrooms, showers, laundry, and a dinghy dock were at our disposal. The cost for our mooring and the services? Just $15 a day.  

“And don’t forget tonight is burger night!”

Indeed. The club fired up the barbecue on their patio and opened up their bar and clubhouse. Veggie burgers, vegan burgers, salmon burgers, and hamburgers were all offered with various salads and ice cream for $6. Dress was casual and everyone was friendly and helpful.

“This is a cruiser’s paradise,” I said to Windy. “We should look into joining this yacht club; it probably isn’t that expensive.”


I reminded her that since starting our voyage, and especially since we began our trek north, several cruisers have touted the primary benefit of their yacht club memberships: reciprocal privileges. When cruising where yacht clubs are prevalent, this is a handy benefit indeed as it allows a member to tie up for a few nights, without cost, in front of other yacht clubs they come across.

I thought back to San Diego, how a yacht club membership would have saved us the $78 we spent for two nights at the police dock. In Dana Point, we could have avoided the dinghy debacle and saved the $200 impound fee we paid to the sheriff. In Marina del Rey, we’d have saved $40 a night and Windy would not have had to scoot past nefarious characters in the park on her way to the shower.

I imagined all of the use we could get out of reciprical privileges in the Bay Area. "I’m going to look into it,” I said to Windy.

And I did.

Membership in the Morro Bay Yacht Club is easy and very affordable,” I read. Yes, we can do this, I thought.

Applicants for membership must have two sponsors who know them well (for a minimum of 6 months)." Hmmm. Lynn seemed to really like us, maybe she already felt like she knew us well. And what is time anyway?

Windy noted the cost. “Membership fees include a one-time only initiation fee of $750.00 per family, and annual dues of only $275.00 per year.” Wow, affordable is relative.

The social obligations were the nail in the coffin: “applicants are asked to participate in at least four activities (e.g., sailboat racing, work day, fun float, bay cruise, summer sailing lessons)… activities and maintenance are done with the volunteer labor of club members.

I blushed. We were interlopers, seeking to join a flock not so that we could join their social order, but so that we could fly their burgee and reap the benefits of affiliation. What was I thinking? The cruisers we’ve met who enjoy the reciprocal privileges of their yacht club membership were likely connected with their clubs before they left and probably intend to return, probably to host clubhouse slide show presentations about their transient adventure. This wasn’t us.

It’s ironic that we want a yacht club membership for the benefit it offers us as transients. Yet, as transients, we are unable to offer what the club wants in return for those benefits: social participation. I’m reminded again that very few things in life are free, but a mooring ball in front of the friendly Morro Bay Yacht Club is pretty darn close.


The girls delighted on the dunes bounding Morro Bay.
The girls exploring the banks of Morro Bay.

Eleanor goofing around downtown.
My mom at the helm, white knuckled, looking for her buoy as
she steers us back into the Bay after a day sail. My folks
live in nearby Templeton and the girls enjoyed their
time with Grandma and Grandpa.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Leaving SoCal
By Michael

Windy and the girls shopped for sunglasses
on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Frances
didn't end up making this purchase.
Southern California is what most people around the world think of when they imagine the Golden State: Disneyland, Hollywood, Malibu, LA, Beverly Hills, Orange County, Venice Beach, and the Mojave Desert. It is one of the most densely populated regions on the planet and home to sixty-percent (or 22 million) of the state’s residents.

But California is a big state with a very long coastline (the East Coast equivalent is the span from Savannah, Georgia to Providence, Rhode Island). And like that East Coast span, changes in latitude also bring changes in culture and weather. California is characterized by three geographic regions: Southern, Central, and Northern.

Geographically, the Southern California coastline begins at the Mexican border and runs up to Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara. On a map, the area looks like a bite taken out of the bottom of the state. This bite is the reason for the coastal Mediterranean climate that is a magnet for people. In essence, this 250-mile concave coastline is a giant bay, protected from the prevailing wind and swell of the cold North Pacific Ocean. The NOAA marine weather broadcast we pick up on our VHF always delivers a distinct forecast for the area of, “Point Conception to the Mexican border and out sixty nautical miles…

We bought Eleanor
her first skate-
board in Venice.
We recently sailed north of Point Conception and left Southern California behind…
Getting around Point Conception is often difficult for mariners. Like southern Baja’s Cabo Falso, the cape effect here can be stunning. Like Cabo Falso, nearly every likely climatic condition and sea state favors a southbound route. Like most boats heading north around Conception, we tucked into the lonely Cojo anchorage just below the cape to wait for favorable weather.

The area around the anchorage is uninhabited and the anchorage itself is marked by the adjacent railroad culvert. We anchored between the surf line and the kelp beds in about 30 feet of water. The wind howled, but there was little fetch and we only rolled slowly in the budding ground swell. Ashore we could see the wrecks of two sailboats. We laid out 200 feet of chain with our 66-pound Bruce.
The light was poor, but
this is one of the two
boats we saw wrecked
at Cojo.
After a feast of homemade lentil and kale soup and a warm baguette, we retired. We had our weather window that night and I set the alarm on an old iPhone for 2:30 a.m. Sometimes Windy wakes early and gets us started on a passage, sometimes I do. This day was my turn.

It’s really only the waking I mind. Once up and dressed warmly, I welcome the peace and quiet and stars. It’s a thrill to step into the dark cockpit and be reminded of where we are by the sound of the waves breaking ashore. I know the girls are snug in the cabin below the cockpit and will hardly stir when I turn the key and start the diesel engine of our 26,000-pound home. I hope Windy is able to sleep through the sound of the ground tackle coming aboard.
In the moonlight of Cojo, I could see several small boats anchored around us, likely abalone dive boats. I estimated one of the boats to be sitting over our anchor. As I pulled the Bruce up, we drew within 20 feet of her before we were clear of the bottom. Her crew never stirred and I rushed back to the cockpit to back us away before we drifted closer.

Southern California is an
artsy place, especially
around Venice Beach.
Once I poked our bow out around the protection of the Point, it was clear why she has her reputation. The wind had calmed to only 10 knots (on the nose), but the sea state was confused and turbulent. I worried that these conditions would persist all of our 60-mile journey up to Morro Bay, but within two hours, the seas were relatively calm and we pitched gently over large swells that rolled down the coast.
Everything changes now. It’s colder. The water is rougher. The weather can be more severe and change quickly. From Point Concepcion north to Alaska, the coastline is largely uninhabited. From San Francisco to the Canadian border, there are no large coastal cities, just a very few small towns (with 27,000 inhabitants, Eureka, California is almost twice as large as any other).

Even in July, it is cold and drizzly along this coastline. We have all taken to wearing pants and long sleeves. We pulled the jackets out of storage and we wear them daily. We now wear hats for warmth as much as for sun protection. It is only a matter of time before I post a picture of me wearing snow ski gloves at the helm.
Oh boy, I’m missing Mexico.


Southern California sailors are fortunate to have several mostly
uninhabited islands, featuring beautiful and superb anchorages,
just 15 to 30 miles offshore. Here we are enjoying French Toast
in Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz Island.

Also in Venice Beach, Frances got a henna tatoo. They
take 20 minutes to dry--14 minutes too long in our case.

Art, everywhere.

This is a small part of a larger mosaic mural on the side of
the public restrooms.

The girls in the Venice board shop where they
picked up their new ride.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Successful Reentry
By Michael

Frances showing off the gap from her
first tooth lost. I guess that was her
response to reenty.
When Windy and I sailed in to Key West from Cuba back in 1997, we’d been out of the U.S. for only seven months, yet my culture reentry shock was profound. We arrived at dusk and I remember leaving the boat that night eager to wander Key West streets in search of pizza and beer. Both were easy to come by within a few blocks--summertime blocks filled with drunk college kids and strewn with seemingly obnoxious tourists. As silly as it seems now, I had some kind of a breakdown right then and returned to the boat.

Things seemed relatively normal the next day and I’ve since learned from others that my reentry experience is not all that unique. In 1997 I was both overwhelmed by the social-cultural disparity shock and jubilant at having completed a voyage that was very significant to me. I may also have had a delayed reaction—a kind of release—following our difficult passage from Columbia to Cuba.  I’ll never be sure.
So I was pleased my return to the U.S. this spring, having been south of the border for ten months, didn’t trigger the same emotions. I think that traveling in our twenties, our youthful perspectives made it easy to lose ourselves—figuratively—in the places we visited. It was easy to sink into the rhythm of the respective cultures and be more deeply affected by our experiences. Our travels seem much less profound this time around (and yet maybe more interesting?).

Am I weary? Jaded? Maybe just older. I sailed off this time with more realistic expectations. And kids ground you too. To Eleanor and Frances, there is nothing terribly important or exotic about what we are doing; we’re just living our family life. They have needs, we’re meeting them, and we’re trying to throw in some interesting experiences along the way. Whether that is happening in Mexico, Timbuktu, or Washington, D.C. doesn’t seem to make any difference to them.

At 12, Captain Ryan is the girls' oldest cousin. He's an ace
water polo player and eager to head out for an overnight
trip to the islands with us. I don't think those are
his beers pictured.
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