Friday, January 31, 2014

What You Seek
By Michael

This guy appears idle, but he's
actually hunting.
I imagine that for many, the allure of the cruising life is ease, not ease in the sense of push-button powered winches, but ease in the sense of idleness, of an empty hammock strung between palms.

Is that you? Are you stressed by pressure or mired in boredom, sitting behind your desk in a big-city building and dreaming of your life as a Corona beer commercial?

Stop. That’s not what you seek.

Consider Farley Mowat’s warning:

“Inaction will cause a man to sink into the slough of despond and vanish without a trace.”

Do you want to sink into the slough of despond?

I didn’t think so.

And don’t think you can side-step this fate by arming yourself with a dozen good books to read:

“When I have been idle without any purpose whatsoever, I have not been able to read—the immobility gave rise to agitation, and agitation does not much lend itself to making one’s way through Tolstoy, for instance.”

--Kevin Patterson

You see? And for you, denizen of the pressure-cooker life, agitation is the least of your worries; the idleness you crave is more likely a path to madness. You need something to tend to.

“A conclusion I’ve come to at the Idler is that it starts with retreating from work but it’s really about making work into something that isn’t drudgery…and then work and life can become one thing.”

― Tom Hodgkinson

So it’s good news I have for you today: this cruising life is only five—maybe ten—percent palm trees and trade winds, at best. If you’re fortunate, the rest of your time you’ll spend hauling water, doing laundry, and hunting for solutions to problems there is no point trying to imagine now.

And you know what? You’re going to love it.

I recently walked side-by-side out of a remote Mexican town with a 73-year-old Dutch guy, a fellow cruiser. We each pulled a small, food-laden cart behind us, headed down a long beach-front road to our dinghies. It wasn’t easy. The small wheels of our carts didn’t turn, they just plowed divots in the soft, sandy ground. The sun beat down on us.

“Ha! Before we left Holland 13 years ago, I had a nice, big house, a fancy car, and a secretary. Now I am pulling this cart of food two miles back to a rubber boat.” He smiled and winked to emphasize how great this was.

That doesn’t sound great to you? I’m not sure how best to explain it.

How about this: Just today I stomped on our dirty laundry in a five-gallon bucket on the foredeck.

Not appealing? Not part of your cruising plans?

Well, consider that it’s Thursday. The cool water felt good on my feet. Pelicans dive-bombed the anchorage all around me and I could see for miles in every direction in the warm, clear air. And as is the norm, this vista is only three weeks old to me, not yet faded into the dim opaqueness that the everyday—no matter how spectacular—assumes.

A whale shark-spotting panga raced by Del Viento. The camera-wielding tourists waved enthusiastically. I wondered if any of them could imagine that this laundry-stomping guy on the sailboat once lived in a nice house, with a top-of-the-line, high-efficiency washing machine of his very own. And I waved back, just to emphasize how happy I am, and how great this is.

It’s everything I wish for you.


On our way in to town, for the farmer's market. Turned out to be a bust,
too upscale for us, like the pricey organic fare offered at the La Cruz
farmer's market. 

Okay, so here is the 5-10% time--crashing the Magote condo pool.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Savior
By Michael

We love our dinghy, but now that I've
realized it's also a go-anywhere cutting
board, I'm happier than ever.
“Dad, there’s a guy in a panga outside.”

I scrambled up the companionway and into the cockpit to greet the stranger, “Hola! Buenos dias.”

I can’t recount the conversation here, but in the still, sunny morning, anchored several hundred yards offshore, we exchanged pleasantries and then got down to business. The long and short of it is that I understood his Spanish, he understood my broken Spanish, he waited while I darted back down to grab a couple tool bags, and then I jumped into his panga. He leaned forward for a hearty handshake and introductions before winding up the 40-horse Yamaha and driving us ashore.

Puerto Magdalena is a small fishing cooperative tucked into lovely, lovely Man O-War cove in Bahia Magdalena. It’s a little place that doesn’t get a lot of visitors, but that is plenty busy with the demands of fishing, housekeeping, and tending to the 30-or-so kids who call this place home. We’d been here over a week and no longer felt like strangers beaching our dinghy.

I wrote in an earlier post about how this community cleared out for the Christmas holiday, leaving us anchored off a ghost town. They’d raced across the bay in chock-full pangas, a thirty-minute run to the bigger city of San Carlos where relatives lived. Well, days had passed, they’d returned, and life had resumed. But there was a hustle and murmur between our new friends, a buzz throughout the community. New Years’ Eve was next and tradition held that all the same relatives they’d visited for Christmas, would now descend on Puerto Magdalena, en masse.

This is a big deal. Pangas full of giant amps, hundreds of white plastic chairs, and countless cases of Tecate had already begun landing and off-loading. Decorations were being carefully hung and arranged. Incrementally, the largest expanse of concrete in the pueblecito was groomed and transformed to serve as a dance floor.

But there was a problem, a problem I first learned about from the panga driver.

He told me he was the mayor, and the sheriff. It was his job to ride out and query the English-speaking men on the cruising boats: Did any of us know how to repair diesel engines? Standing in the cockpit and eager to be of help, my mind raced to my Nigel Calder books and the hours I’ve spent working on my first boat’s 11-H.P. Universal diesel auxiliary and Del Viento’s 55-H.P. turbocharged Yanmar. I wanted to tell him, “Yes, indeed I am a diesel mechanic.” But I’m not and I blurted out an enthusiastic, “Mas or menos!”—which means either “more or less, yes” or, “sort of, kind of.”

Finding a bag of Cheetos in Mexico is about
as hard as finding a tree in a forest. But this
bag, almost seven pounds, was a first. 
The town’s generator runs six hours a day and is the only source of electricity for the Puerto Magdalena residents. I stood before the engine, bolted to a concrete pad in a small tin-roofed shack on the side of a dirt hill. It was silent; it had stopped running the night before. The party was in 48 hours and power was absolutely necessary, everyone was anxious. At least ten men stood around, hopeful as I and two other cruisers stared at the hulking machine, our minds blank. It was at least thirty times the size of my Yanmar and didn’t look anything like it.

We checked the fuel filters and then, with the fuel pump on, the three of us turned a few bolts to try and bleed the beast. Tiny spurts of air erupted here and there, but all of us knew we were in over our heads and that we wouldn’t be saviors today. I was the only one who dared speak any Spanish, and so became the interpreter for our little incompetent crew. I made things worse by smiling and uttering hopeful reassurances every time we’d come up with something new to try.

Finally, our desperation and ineptitude were evident and we were pushed aside while the locals resumed their work with a crescent wrench, crudely lifting out injectors while they turned the motor over to see puffs of atomized diesel. We all watched amazed, you can do that?

But no progress was being made. Finally, one of us hailed Arnie, a guy we’d met days before and who was off on the small red boat anchored miles away. He’d told us he was a diesel mechanic. With credibility I could muster only from a desperate, out-of-options group, I announced in Spanish that we had a plan, a real-life mechanic was among us and we needed only a speedy ride to go retrieve him. Back in the panga I went.

It turned out Arnie was the real deal, a heavy-up diesel mechanic who’s seen it all. Standing beside the engine, I walked him through everything we three had done and translated his requests to turn on the fuel pump, turn over the engine, find a section of hose like so.

And in 15 minutes he’d found it, a tiny filter hidden up in the body of a water trap, clogged like you can’t imagine. The generator ran like a top. Joy and relief erupted. Arnie was the hero, but the men standing around directed their praise at me, the face of the cruisers, the communicator. While Arnie put away his tools, my back was slapped and I was urged to bring my whole family to the big party, assured I wouldn’t pay for a beer all night.

The girls on the bow of the panga as we sped out to pick up
Arnie. We're going about 25 knots.

So that's Arnie in the middle, hard at work. That's me
in the red shirt, watching.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Price Is Right
By Michael

Eleanor on a Mag Bay beach.
So I mentioned in my last post that we spent an average of $1,108 on food each month last year. This is a lot, but it includes every dollar spent at a grocery store (even vitamins, even vinegar for cleaning), restaurant, liquor store, coffee shop, ice cream store, etc.

But it’s still a lot, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing this number decline in 2014. You see, we spent about 80 percent of 2013 on British Columbia and Alaskan islands. Food is crazy expensive on British Columbia and Alaskan islands. We stopped putting our money where our mouth is and bought everything inorganic. We ate out less. We nearly stopped drinking alcohol (!).

But now we’re back in Mexico…

Yesterday the girls and I hiked to Chedraui, a large grocery store in La Paz. Here is a picture of some of what we bought:

Some of these things are priced like the States, but much
of it is priced for inexpensive living.
I paid with a credit card. A quick check online reveals that my bank did the peso-dollar conversion at 12.96 pesos per dollar. Armed with my receipt and that info, here’s a look at what this stuff cost us:
Haas Avocados (aguacates)—11 of them for 39.31 pesos, or $3.03
Basil (albahaca)—two large beautiful bunches for 8.80 pesos total, or 68 cents*
Mozzarella Cheese (queso mozzarela)—just over 3 pounds, for 170.8 pesos, or $13.18
Toilet Paper (papel higenico)—a package of four big rolls for 19.85 pesos, or $1.53
Cottage Cheese (queso cottage)—a tub for 29.70 pesos, or $2.29
Corn Tortillas (tortillas maiz)—about 40 still-warm wonders for 9.72 pesos, or 75 cents
Strawberries (fresas)—six standard baskets for 100 pesos, or $7.72
Leaf Lettuce (lechuga)—one bunch for 9 pesos, or 69 cents
Iceberg Lettuce (lechuga)—one head for 4.5 pesos, or 35 cents
Portabella Mushrooms (hongo portabellini)—two packaged for 12.5 pesos, or 96 cents
Pineapple (pina)—for 15.42 pesos, or $1.19
Pasta Shells (pasta)—two 400g bags, about 28 ounces for 15.80 pesos, or $1.22
And see that bag of delicious oranges on the shelf back there? We’ve already eaten several, so it’s just a partial bag. We paid 20 pesos for them all, or $1.54

So the total cost of everything pictured, in U.S. dollars? $35.13
La Paz is at the end of a 700-mile-long peninsula dominated by rock and cactus. Almost all of what’s consumed here is either trucked down or ferried across the 250-mile-wide Sea of Cortez. Curiously, this doesn’t seem to inflate the prices of most foods and goods, but if you’re hankering for Haagen-Dazs, be prepared to spend big, like $7.50 for a pint.


* The basil was cheap, maybe too cheap. On the shelf, it was piled high under a sign that read “epazote.” But epazote isn’t basil, it’s a whole different herb. But my receipt too says I bought epazote, so the cashier thinks that’s what it is. I’ll check this out in another store.

Here we're getting a bunch of Costco booty back to
Del Viento, anchored out in Port Angeles, WA.
(Courtesy Don Penfield)

I remember the drive-thru dairy store from when I was a kid.
Mexico's improved the concept. Are they trying to subliminally
invoke the idea that you're driving through pearly gates?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Year In Review
By Michael

Windy and Eleanor leap off the dunes
in Mag Bay.
We started 2013 in a slip, tied up in front of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. We didn’t move at all until May, when we explored the nearby San Juan Islands. The first week of June we left Victoria for good and headed north in earnest, on our way to Glacier Bay, at the top of Southeast Alaska. Mid-August, we began our southerly return from Sitka, Alaska, heading down the outside coast from there. After re-entering Canada, we continued down the outside of Vancouver Island before re-entering the U.S. in Port Angeles at the end of September. We again stopped to see family and friends all down the U.S. west coast, but our visits were shorter and our stops fewer than in 2012 because of the advancing season. Finally, the first week of December, we re-entered Mexico, checked in at Ensenada, stopped at Islas San Benitos, and spent the final weeks of the year anchored off a small, isolated fishing village called Puerto Magdelena, on a remote stretch of the Baja California coastline, about 160 miles northwest of Cabo San Lucas.

I’ve shared our past year throughout, in pictures and words, but following is a digest of stats and impressions.

Favorite Memory/Place:

Frances: I liked all of it. The orcas and the calving glaciers were amazing. I liked all the animals we met on the way like bears and dogs and the sea stars in the tide pools. I enjoyed spending time with my cousins and grandparents. I liked to meet other boats.

Frances with the dolphin skull the girls
found in Mag Bay.
Eleanor: Tracy Arm/Endicott Arm was the most beautiful place. My top animal experiences were the bald eagle encounter on the docks in Bella Bella, BC and the bear cubs we saw on the beach in Glacier Bay, Alaska. The most shocking experience was the glaciers, how huge they were, very cool.

Windy: Wildlife highlight was having an enormous orca as traveling companion in Endicott Arm and later identifying him by his flopped over fin as “Jack,” one of the oldest orcas in the region. Having my bro and nephew aboard for an incredible, sunny week in Glacier Bay. The sound of the glaciers calving was unforgettable. Negotiating the many narrows and rapids and bars was satisfying as well as a learning experience.

Michael: Discovering Tenakee Springs was a highlight, it’s such a unique, delightful place that really beckons—gave me reason to consider where and how our lives might be post-cruising. I really enjoyed learning about the history of Sitka, Alaska the Russian turnover that occurred there. Goddard Hot Springs just south of Sitka was a gem, so pretty a setting. I’m pleased to have gotten so closely acquainted with Victoria, BC and happy to have spent more time with family and friends moving down the coast.

Nights spent in slip: 197 (146 for the first half of the year in Victoria, 51 for the second half of the year)

Nights at anchor (or underway): 168 (only 20 nights underway because the logs in BC and Alaska don’t make for safe night passages)

Average monthly fuel cost: about $425 (we didn’t burn anything the first half of the year in our Victoria slip, but made lots of miles throughout BC and Alaska, and almost none of them under sail)

Average monthly food cost: $1,108

Total miles traveled: 4,800 nautical miles/more than 5,500 statute miles (zero from January through May)

Changes in latitude: 34 degrees, 28 minutes (from our northernmost point in Glacier Bay at 59 degrees 6 minutes to Bahia Magdalena, Mexico at 24 degrees, 38 minutes)

Change in water temperature: 30 degrees (from 40 degrees in Tracy Arm, Alaska to 70 degrees in Bahia Magdalena, Mexico)

Exploring Mag Bay.
The populated ports we visited:

--Victoria, BC
--Port Angeles, WA
--Friday Harbor, WA
--Roach Harbor, WA
--Bellingham, WA
--Lund, BC
--Pender Bay, BC
--Ganges, BC
--Nanaimo, BC
--Lasqueti, BC
--Bella Bella, BC
--Prince Rupert, BC
--Ketchikan, AK
--Thorne Bay, AK
--Petersburg, AK,
--Juneau, AK
--Auke Bay, AK
--Hoonah, AK
--Tenakee Springs, AK
--Sitka, AK
--Craig, AK
--Winter Harbour, BC
--Tofino, BC
--Astoria, OR
--Eureka, CA
--Bodega Bay, CA
--Tomales Bay, CA
--Half Moon Bay, CA
--Morro Bay, CA
--Oxnard, CA
--San Diego, CA
--Ensenada, Mexico
--Islas San Benitos, Mexico
--San Carlos, Mexico
--Puerto Magdalena, Mexico


Sunset at sea, second night out, en route to Bahia Frailes
San Carlos teeter-totter--Mexican playgrounds are not
for the faint of heart.
Girls with a whale skull on a deserted Mag Bay beach.
Eleanor and I just before midnight at the Puerto
Magdalena New Year's Eve party.
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