Friday, February 28, 2014

By Michael

Frances with Chloe pre-surgery.
I turned on the headlights and drove slowly out of the colonia on the outskirts of La Paz. It was after 10:00 p.m. and the previous eleven hours had taken their toll physically, but our aches and our hunger and our fatigue were inconsequential measured against the mental and emotional weight of our experience. At that time, it seemed like everything couldn’t possibly have happened the way it did.

The girls sat collapsed in the back seat. Windy sat next to me, sore and completely wiped out. All of us spoke quietly about where we’d stop for a very late dinner on our way back through town. We had to stop for food, we’d hardly eaten all day. Landmarks I noted as we drove out that morning disappeared in the darkness, but I soon found my way back to Highway 1.

Days like this one come at you in life, infrequently and wholly unexpected. But in hindsight, their origins are rarely a mystery. In this case, for this particular day, it can all be traced back to Frances.

You’ll recall I wrote about how her compassion two years ago led us to multiple encounters with an organization called Dogs of La Paz. Well, it’s now called Sociedad Humanitaria de La Paz (SHLP) and since returning to this city on the Sea, Frances has been eager to spend every moment she can at their facility, helping the people help the dogs. Availability of a friend’s car has nearly made that possible.

“Just come with us,” Windy said to me that morning, “they’re having a free spay-neuter clinic and I’m hoping maybe I can get a SHLP shirt for Frances for her birthday--it's only twenty minutes away.”

Within five minutes of walking up two flights of stairs to the open, top floor of the palm frond-roofed community center, I had a syringe in my hand and was injecting a milky antibiotic into the hind quarter of an anesthetized dog. It was the first time I’d ever stuck a needle in any living thing. I motioned for Windy to take a picture.

The makeshift clinic was in full-swing. A cue of pet owners formed a line in the stairwell, dogs and cats in their arms. At least forty crates of all sizes were stacked along the walls and there was at least one cat or dog in each. On a patio, a dozen dogs—chihuahuas, pit bulls, spaniels, dachshunds, and muts of every sort—were tied to posts awaiting their turn. Three veterinarians were operating on dogs and cats atop ironing boards draped in plastic and located under the fluorescent lights. On the veranda, fifteen dogs and cats were sprawled out on thin yoga mats, receiving post-op care. The incessant sound of dogs barking was a bit maddening and they were short on weekday volunteers: “Que tipo de ayuda necesita?”

At first we all stooped beneath the shade tarp and began learning to take care of the animals in post-op. On our knees, we calmed waking dogs and made sure all canine tongues were visible, hanging slack from parted jaws to ensure an open airway. Cats’ eyes don’t close under anesthesia and Frances diligently applied drops, working the lids to ensure coverage to protect them in the hot, dry air. Eleanor used gauze and hydrogen peroxide to clean the incision areas. Windy oversaw and assisted her two young volunteers.

I was eventually asked to help move the larger animals to and from the operating tables and then spent the rest of my day cleaning pee and poop and vomit from cages and concrete. I learned to shave cats and dogs ahead of surgery, hembras y machos.

Surgery. There were up to four
vets at a time operating throughout
the long day, all volunteers. In all,
an astounding 108 animals were
sterilized. The SHLP staff--all also
volunteers--worked tirelessly and
are worthy of your support.
Does it sound like hell? I’m not a dog person and definitely not a pee and poop and vomit person; it should have been hell. But it was rewarding and somehow magical.

At the restaurant that night—nearly midnight—my girls talked about all they’d learned and witnessed. Eleanor watched several surgeries from start to finish and related how she was squeamish at the start, but then keenly interested and even learning. Frances told me about how to best manage a waking dog as he stirred and then had questions about the litter that was aborted from one of the last cats to be sterilized.

This MASH-like environment was completely new and foreign to me—it was new and foreign to all of us. Together we were thrust into a challenging, stressful environment. To then watch Eleanor (whose exaggerated disgust at being asked to pick up her sister’s dirty clothes from the floor is worthy of an Academy Award) carefully lift and carry a dozen cats and small dogs from surgery to post-op, responding to only the simple nod of the veterinarian, cradling their limp bodies, never minding the pee and blood, is among the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. From across the room, I was unable to help her or even remind her to be careful, to do things this way or that, and I didn’t have to.

Just a day before her 8th birthday, Frances tirelessly attended to the animals in post-op for ten hours straight. Drops in the eyes, soothing words and strokes, wound care, cleaning up pee, turning over and moving animals, calling out numbers taped to collars; she never complained, just made sure that she tended to those in need. Her focus, determination, and desire to nurture are characteristic, but her stamina was noteworthy.

We live in such tight quarters, together almost all the time, I know my girls—yet I was surprised and impressed by them both. As a parent, I can’t ask for much more.


Eleanor cleaning a cat post-op. Later, as it cooled down in the
early evening, Windy and the girls began covering all the
anesthetized animals to keep them warm.

Me being instructed on my first feline injection.
(I think that's Yambe helping me.)

And about a week before the Day of Surgeries, Windy gathered
up fellow cruisers to visit the SHLP site on a Saturday and help
make benches out of lumber from donated pallets. Pictured with
the SHLP regulars are the crews of Dawn Treader, Slade Green,
Cinnabar, and Del Viento.

Here's Frances with a finished bench she is helping
to paint.

These are signs that we helped Frances to design for
the dog enclosures.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sex In The City
By Michael

The girls are taking tennis lessons
three nights a week while we're here.
Neither had ever held a racket
before, but it's fun to watch
the steady improvement.
On Friday’s morning VHF cruisers’ net, a guy in his sixties chimed in at the appropriate time to announce he was looking for something—I forget what that was. But this humor-challenged sailor then added that he also hoped to find—I’m paraphrasing—a concubine who can’t say no.


Now, some may generously label the joke sophomoric, maybe even not fault the guy, allowing him to be a bit dim ahead of his first cup of coffee. But other cruisers found it offensive and one gal in her late twenties made it a point to say so. She was on the radio in a heartbeat to denounce what we all heard.

Plain and simple, she said she was offended, saying that words have meaning and she didn’t appreciate this attempt at humor. She was assertive, direct, and polite. Before signing off, she labeled the joke, “close to rape humor.”


Now, I’ve got a sense of humor (very dry and often juvenile), but I know that humor demands context. I know that not only is expressing a need for a, “concubine who can’t say no,” not funny, but that it falls obscenely flat in the context of an open mic broadcasting to a very diverse group of mostly strangers. (Heck, in addition to my 10-year-old daughter, seventy-year-old solo circumnavigator Jeanne Socrates was here.)

When we were here in La Paz two years ago, there was enmity on the VHF. I found myself embarrassed for my fellow grown-ups—many of them small and petty behind microphones that emboldened them. Though we haven’t yet experienced that same radio behavior in these past several weeks, the net was terminated the other day when old feuds erupted in churlish comments and clicking (depressing the mic transmit button to interrupt a speaker).

This is just one of dozens of
beautiful sculptures on the
La Paz malecon.
It turns out this young vagabond, the bold harbinger of the coming generation who spoke up upon hearing humor that offended her, is a professional and a change agent. She taught sex education in middle schools and has extensive experience as a crisis counselor helping women in need. She announced her bio at the start of her own net that she began this morning, on sex education. She talked clearly about definitions, tolerance, and differences. She solicited questions and responses—it wasn’t all love that came her way. But she remained as poised, polite, and confident as I hope my daughters are someday.

La Paz, Mexico is a polarizing cruising city. I love La Paz, a lot of cruisers love La Paz. A lot of cruisers hate La Paz, many love to hate La Paz. There may be no other place like La Paz. The population of cruisers here is large, spread across seven marinas and an anchorage of more than 100 boats. Given this number, and the fact that so many of these folks have stayed aboard here for so long (years), more than a community has formed, there’s a culture, intimate and familiar among long-time La Paz cruisers. And like any relatively small sample, this culture can be seen as a microcosm of larger populations.

That’s how I like to look at it.

Now, some may accuse this young cruiser of being too sensitive (some have), an overactive member of the politically correct countries north of Mexico that many of these La Paz cruisers fled 10 years ago.

But I prefer to see change before my eyes, humanity civilizing—common decency emerging on VHF radios around La Paz.


Yes it is.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

No Longer Flaccid
By Michael

Boom with a view--HA! 
You may recall that Del Viento, in defiance of all the logic and common sense we solicited, sailed south from San Diego with a broken boom. It turned out there was not a suitable used boom available and the L.A.-based spar manufacturer that it seems everyone uses, couldn’t be bothered to repair our boom (“…don’t want to assume the liability…”).

The rigging shop I worked with argued strongly in favor of a new boom:

“…by the time we…you’re pretty close to the cost of a new boom…”

“…either way, realistically, you’re looking at about two grand…”

When we finally arrived in La Paz (after at least 500 miles of lovely broken-boom sailing) I removed the boom (I’m becoming good at this) and got in touch with Ernesto. Friends in La Paz had weeks before shown him pictures of my boom and he’d already quoted a rough price on fixing it. He’s got a machine shop a few miles from the marina and does a lot of aluminum fabrication—he’s repaired a couple broken booms in the past.

I met Ernesto at the dock and we loaded my boom onto the rack on his truck. In broken English and broken Spanish we talked about how he intended to fix the broken boom. We agreed on a sleeve about so long and so thick, rivets, no paint. I requested he stop work and call me after he cut it in two, just so we could review the plan again in-person, at his shop. Then I handed him 2,500 pesos (half down, about $192) and he drove off.

Three days later, Ernesto called me. He had a new plan. Could I meet him at the marina in 30 minutes?

He showed me photos on his phone. He’d straightened the boom and he was satisfied with how that went. Now, instead of cutting the spar in half to insert a single-piece sleeve, Ernesto proposed that we leave the boom intact, cut a panel out of one side only, and insert the sleeve in two halves.

About this time, we had the good
fortune of meeting the Dawn Treader
family. They're a super cool bunch, but
I mean good fortune in the sense that
they tool around in a 14-foot Porta-Bote
dingy that is purpose-built for moving
our 17-foot boom from the anchorage
to the dock.
What?! That wasn’t the plan.

Ernesto reminded me that he’s an engineer—ingeniero—and assured me that my boom would be stronger than if we proceeded as planned.

I hesitated and he offered to cut it and sleeve it the way we’d planned, if I preferred.

So let me invite you into my head:

I’m sitting on a hard, wooden bench outside the Marina de La Paz office, staring down at the pictures on Ernesto’s cell phone. But I’m staring blankly at them. I have no idea how to correctly respond to his suggestion—I’m not a rigger or engineer, I’m an English major. I think about how this is a fundamental piece of Del Viento’s sailing hardware, something big, important, and subject to significant forces. I start—I only start—to second-guess my rebellious sail out of San Diego, my leaving all the high-priced American experts in my wake and now out of reach. It occurs to me that this is where I should say, “Hang tight on the boom repair Ernesto, until I can learn more about this and get you an answer.”

But I didn’t.

Staring at a picture of my horizon-straight boom and the crease still on one side, I blurt out decisively, “Okay, esta bien! Call me when you cut the panel out so I can see.”

From there, things kind of went exactly as I’d hoped.

Days later I was in Ernesto’s machine shop, peering into the crude, gaping hole on one side of my boom. He showed me quarter-inch-thick aluminum plates, each about 18-inches long and flat to meet the tall, flat sides of my boom and curved at the top and bottom, like a sleeve cut laterally. We agreed that these sections would be riveted in place and that the hole would be patched and welded. And 48 hours later, Ernesto was back, my repaired boom on top of his truck. It looked good, I handed him another 2,500 pesos, we shook hands.

I know that the way things went—especially the uncertainty of it all—wouldn’t suit everyone. After all, I agreed to a repair approach only on the basis of it making sense to my lay perspective. Without the assurance of a licensed, bonded, professional American rigger—or an affirming chapter in a Don Casey book—I guess I’ll never be certain the boom is fixed appropriately. And that’s okay. Because remember, I also left San Diego uncertain that we were making the right choice. And years ago when we launched our five-year plan to leave the security we’d worked so hard to build, to sail off on a boat with our kids even though it runs counter to everything our culture proscribes, well…there’s uncertainty for you.

As trite as it may sound (and despite what some rally organizers promote) in this cruising venture, we’re all on our own. Sure, we support each other, but think about how unscripted, unregulated, un-everything this life is. There are no rules. There is no license or permit or exam prerequisite to sail your family across an ocean. And once you internalize that, really accept it, that all the decisions you make are on your shoulders, uncertainty kind of disappears. What is there to be uncertain about? That you didn’t use your best judgment, based on a lifetime of experiences? Of course you did.

And you’ve got to be comfortable with those decisions.


See what I mean about flaccid? Have you ever seen
a sailboat looking more sad?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Day 6
By Michael

For a long time I've meant to replace
the handle of this galley sink drain
thru-hull valve. I finally got to it, only to
have the bolt shear off when I tried
to loosen it. Now I'm going to replace
the entire valve--at anchor.
Long-time friends live full-time here in La Paz, on the Mogote. They’re in the States for twelve days and left us the keys to their home, the remote for their big-screen TV, and instructions for operating their golf cart. We loaded up our clothes and sundries and moved in.

And I’ve not been around to enjoy any of it.

Today is the end of my sixth day working myself to the bone aboard Del Viento, tackling two nagging, toxic, and disruptive jobs that can be done only when we aren’t living aboard:
  • To explore the consequences of a poorly-bedded galley sink
  • To paint the interior
I dove into both jobs with characteristic optimism. In fact, I thought the scope of these off-boat projects was narrow and kept a mental list of about ten additional things I’d get done in this time. Windy cautioned me not to think beyond these two projects.

The destruction phase of the first job went swimmingly, but revealed significant problems. Once all the rusted, impossible-to-reach wing nuts that held the sink in place gave up their grasp, a two-foot section of sodden, thirty-six-year-old plywood countertop fell away. Fortunately, the support structure underneath was soaked but remarkably sound, made of solid teak. Once it dried, I replaced the missing countertop with some scrap plywood that I epoxied in like nobody’s business. I used the regular West System stuff for adhesion and then all around the edges, thickened G-flex epoxy to create a flexible, impenetrable water barrier. Nobody will ever have to do this job again.

I also cleaned the sink until it shines like new, bought a replacement faucet, relocated our water tank vent, installed a new salt water tap, replaced hoses, sanded and re-varnished the soap dispenser, removed the remaining backsplash tiles, skim-coated the bulkhead behind the sink with epoxy, and painted the inside of this cabinet space the bilge below it.

Here where things were on Day 4: sink and
tiles removed, rotten wood removed, new
plywood partially epoxied in place, and
cabinet interior and bilge area underneath
covered in a first coat of paint.
All that is left for this job is three coats of polyurethane paint on the bulkhead and reassembly of everything—and we’ll nearly have a new galley.

The second job is a monster. Using an electric sander on the interior of your boat that’s filled with all your stuff requires the kind of logistical preparation that nations undertake before going to war. The dust is fine and will go anyplace that isn’t sealed and on everything that isn’t stowed and protected. So having relocated and sealed everything, I’ve spent all my days down below, breathing Darth Vader-like through my respirator and immersed in clouds of either sanding dust or fumes from single-part polyurethane paint or two-part epoxy.

The areas I’ve finished so far took three coats, and most were painted before. The bright white that’s replaced the dingy gray is startlingly pretty. But a few of the areas I’m painting have always been a dark teak finish and it was a bit nerve-wracking to commit paint to those surfaces—it can never be undone, what if it looks terrible? Fortunately, I can see already that this was a good choice. Our boat is heavy on the wood below—and we both like this—but the visual relief offered by these small, now-white areas, is welcome.

I’ll have more pictures when this work is done. I can see now that I’m going to need all six of my remaining days.


Here is the sodden portion of plywood counter top.
It had the rigidity of a wet sponge. 

This is a before shot of one of several such areas around
the port lights that I'm painting. This photo doesn't do
the drabness justice.

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