Saturday, January 31, 2015

Skipping Town
By Michael

The girls snorkeling on the northwestern
side of Isla Angel de la Guarda just
days before this summer's hurricane.
We plan to cross part of the Pacific Ocean this year. We’re gonna sail from the tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula and not stop until we reach Hiva Oa, Marquesas in French Polynesia. It sounds exotic to my ear and it’s exciting simply to type it, but thousands of other cruising boats have sailed to the South Pacific islands over the years and nearly as many have written about it.

At this point, a couple months before departure, we’re simply learning about what we need to know, finally addressing some deferred boat maintenance items, and making sure we have what we need. Though we’re not leaving from one of the big departure hubs (Panama and Puerto Vallarta) where there are seminars and parties this time of year for the outbound yachts, we feel sated by the amount of information we’ve found online.

I’m eager for the long sail. The lengthiest passage Windy and I have made to date is 8 days, aboard the previous Del Viento, from Columbia to Cuba. Aboard this Del Viento and with the girls, I don’t think we’ve gone longer than 3 nights/4 days. But from Mexico to French Polynesia, we’ll be at sea, underway at the speed of a jogger, day and night, for about three weeks. That will be an experience like few others.

I’m eager to cross the equator. I’ve spent my entire life in the northern hemisphere and though it’s only a difference in degrees of latitude, I’ve become familiar with the northern night sky over these past few years of cruising. It will be interesting to look up on a warm, tropical night and see something new.

I’m eager for more and more snorkeling. This past summer in the Sea of Cortez was snorkeling heaven, but the Sea is cold again and I miss jumping in and being amazed.

I’m eager to begin learning French (though I can’t be that eager because I’ve not started). I think I did okay in Paris a few years ago and feel I have an aptitude. I want to go deeper.

So that’s where I’m at. We plan to leave sometime around the beginning of April. Stay tuned.


This is a shrine or monument like we see on many of
the deserted Baja island beaches where fishermen
set up camp. Often they'll feature a Virgin de
Guadalupe figurine (same as the Virgin Mary).
This is a close-up of a portion of the same rock pile above.
I'll note that Windy relocated the small cross from a dark
rock to the light-colored shell for the picture.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Woman Went Up a Mast!
By Michael

Of course, this post begs a picture of
Eleanor up the mast, but I think when
that's happening, we're too focused
on her to pull out the camera. Here
she is scaling a rock outside a cave
on a hillside in Agua Verde.
I really enjoy Latitude 38 magazine. It’s a West Coast institution. It's available free along the Pacific waterfronts of the U.S. At far-flung anchorages around the world, cruisers with West Coast hailing ports still pass on copies to one another. Publisher Richard Spindler has a strong, charismatic editorial voice that is hard to find elsewhere.

When we moved to Washington, D.C. and lived for a decade without a boat, I maintained an annual subscription just to stay in the loop. Since we’ve been cruising, I mostly keep up via their online site, ‘Lectronic Latitude. And that’s where I recently read a story that rubbed me the wrong way.

The story in question is simple. Magazine publisher walks along the waterfront, spots a woman at the top of a mast, and his “interest is sparked.” He interviews her.

“How long were you up there for?”

“Had you been up a mast before?”

“Did you drop anything?”

“Do you have a fear of heights?”

“We’re impressed, do you know other women who have gone up the mast?”

Then Spindler offers a bit of sexual innuendo before soliciting responses from any women in his readership who might have gone up a mast in their lives. He says he wants to recognize them.

C’mon! Spindler’s been on the water for longer than I may ever be. He personally knows many sailing women who go up the mast. He knows this is not a news story. Yet he writes this piece like it is, like he witnessed a remarkable event. The interview reads like a parody—seriously, it’s hilarious when read from that perspective. And I hoped that it was written from that perspective, but it wasn’t.

So what’s the harm?

At the start of the his story, Spindler writes, “While it may not fit the progressive narrative about equality of the sexes, it appears there is something of a natural division of labor on sailboats. In the overwhelming number of cases, men do most of the sailing and the mechanical chores, while women do the cooking and cleaning. Blue jobs and pink jobs.

I agree with these sentences to the extent that in an overwhelming number of cases, aboard a boat it’s usually a man in the engine room and a woman in the galley. But unlike Spindler, I don’t think it’s this observation that’s contrary to the “progressive narrative.” I think posting a story on his magazine’s newsfeed, in which the entire point and focus is to announce that a woman allowed herself to be hauled to the top of her own mast to fix a broken windex, is both patronizing and contrary to the progressive narrative.

I’m raising two girls into women. It’s a big responsibility. In part it means forging a way for them in the world until they can do so for themselves. In the almost five years we’ve owned Del Viento, Eleanor has been up the mast a few times (Windy more). She’s light and easy to haul up (probably the reason a lot of female crew are pulled up the stick). She’s also my partner in crime when it’s time to change the engine oil or transmission fluid. I’m proud of her, but would never be comfortable seeing her recognized someday in a magazine or online newsfeed just for being a woman who ascends a mast or changes the engine oil. Because that kind of an article would serve only to keep the progressive narrative, from progressing.


Frances kayaking with a friend she made in Agua Verde.
And how do I know this is Frances with the goat? Because
nobody else wears a life jacket on land. We've been 30
minutes into a hike--or halfway through a town on the
way to the grocery store--when one of us realizes she's
still wearing her jacket. And does she then take it off?
No, she likes it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Customer Service
By Michael

Riding Del Viento's bow wave, or
just curious about us? We never get
tired of seeing them.
We’re coming up on our four-year anniversary of leaving D.C. to go voyaging with our kids. During that time, we’ve bought a whole lot of marine-related gear for our boat. Most of that gear has stood up to the rigors of daily use by four people living aboard and cruising full time. Some of that gear has failed to perform in some way and we’ve had to deal with the manufacturer to resolve issues. This post is about the latter.

This is my report, based only on our experience, of how each of the manufacturers we've had to contact have responded to our post-purchase complaints and inquiries. I think this is important because despite the systems redundancy we have aboard, it's always difficult to lose a piece of gear and challenging to coordinate shipping and such from out-of-country. In those cases, the service provided by a manufacturer can make all the difference. Take from my report what you will. The list is ordered alphabetically.
Alpenglow: Twice we’ve bought LED lights from this small, Montana-based manufacturer. We now have nine aboard and love them. For one purchase, we were out-of-country and Alpenglow willingly jumped through hoops to get them to us with minimal shipping and customs charges. On another occasion, they spent an inordinate amount of time emailing back and forth to help me brainstorm installation and configuration ideas. I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase from them again, but will note that the owners of this mom-and-pop company have since sold the business to go cruising.
Caframo: There were no cabin fans installed when we bought our boat. We did our due diligence before deciding on the Caframo Bora fans. On a couple occasions since buying them, the plastic base mounts they attach to have broken. The first time, I contacted Caframo via email and they sent a couple replacements at no charge. More recently, when another broke, I asked them to send me three and they again did so without question, at no charge.

Imtra: Our Lofrans Cayman horizontal windlass is circa 1970s. When we bought the boat, the previous owner reported that the chain would skip over the gypsy sometimes, whether deploying the anchor or retrieving. He was right, and it was plain to see why: the thing was mounted on deck, well below the height of the chain roller. This meant that the inside angle, measured from where the chain contacts the gypsy to where it rolls off it, was fewer than the 90 degrees specified by the manufacturer. I installed a 6-inch-high pad beneath the windlass and lowered our bow roller when we had a second one built. This helped, but only a bit. When I talked to Imtra (the U.S. rep for Lofrans), they forwarded pics to some of the old timers in Europe and helped us to identify our windlass and to solve the problem. They sent me a new gypsy to try (they weren’t sure it would fit our old model, nor that it was the problem) and that ended our problem (we paid for the gypsy, dearly). Imtra was unfailingly cooperative and helpful.

Polyform: This is a fender manufacturer. When ours died because of sun exposure, I contacted Polyform. I wasn't sure how old they were, but I wondered whether they offered a lifetime warranty. They asked for a bunch of photos of the UV-damaged fenders and told me they were more than 20 years old (I don't doubt this, they came with the boat). But they said they would ship us new ones for wholesale (huge
Portland Pudgy: This is the manufacturer of our exquisitely engineered combination polyethylene hard dinghy and life boat. When the lanyard eye on one of our access ports broke, this small Maine-based company sent us a new one at our request, at no charge.
Raymarine: When our handheld instrument repeater and autopilot remote failed out-of-the-blue, they asked us to send it in. After waiting for a long time and hearing nothing, I finally tried contacting them again. It took a lot of time and several emails for them to confirm they’d sent a replacement and to tell me when they sent it and who signed for it. I ultimately determined that they’d indeed sent us a replacement device, at no charge, but that our mail forwarding service provider (St. Brendan’s Isle) had misplaced it, never letting us know it was there. They weren’t the best communicators, but I can’t complain about the results.

Scepter: This is a Canadian manufacturer of plastic jerry cans. I contacted them via email when our flexible spouts began to fail. They asked for photos and then agreed to send us new ones free of charge. They were responsive and easy to deal with.
Farallon Electronics: This isn’t a manufacturer, but is a small, California-based rep for SCS, the German manufacturer of the PACTOR modem. The people in this tiny shop are PACTOR gurus and, like Imtra, have bent over backward to help us learn about and resolve issues with an old PACTOR II we bought from another cruiser.

Standard Horizon: Months before we left to go cruising, we bought direct from Standard Horizon their Matrix AIS-enabled VHF radio at the Annapolis boat show. It stayed packed away in the box for another year or so, when we finally installed it. It worked great. Then, in 2012, we bought the RAM3 remote mic for our cockpit. It worked great—until it didn’t. This past summer, the remote started to fail, acting weird. I talked to Standard Horizon and they said the problem was likely in our main radio, a non-owner-serviceable fuse. They’d seen this before. Then, before I could send it in (we’re in Mexico), the symptoms changed completely—the remote went dead as a doornail, and this despite my being able to measure voltage at the socket it plugs into. The house radio continued to work fine. At great expense and inconvenience, I decided to take a chance and send only the remote, so that we wouldn’t lose our house radio. Bingo, they got the remote, confirmed it was dead, fixed it at no charge, bench tested it, and sent it back. When I got it back, it was still completely inoperable.

“You must have a problem in your radio, send them both in.”

“Will you pay for shipping this time?”

They answered no. I sent both units in. They found a problem with the radio (the fuse and a transistor blown, apparently caused by connecting or disconnecting the remote while there is power going to the main radio).
They charged me to repair the radio (it was out of warranty, but I protested as the problem seems like a design defect and they lowered the repair charge from $65 to $35 and paid for the return shipping).

All along, communication was very good and very responsive.

Torqeedo: We love our German-made electric outboard. When it failed in Alaska, I contacted Torqeedo USA and they were great communicators. Based on my description of the problem, they offered right away that it was a manufacturing defect (a bearing case that was attached with glue that didn’t mate well with the solvent they used to clean the area first). They asked me to send it in. I asked if they would pay for shipping. They said no. I knew we’d arrive in Sitka in a couple weeks and could receive the package then. They told me when I’d have to get the motor to them in time for them to receive it, repair it, and get it to Sitka. I paid $95 dollars to send it to them. They confirmed receipt of the motor and then the communication withered until it died altogether. After a week in Sitka, walking to the post office every day and trying to reach Torqeedo, we sailed away without our outboard. Weeks later, when we got back in touch and got our outboard sent to us in Port Angeles, WA, it arrived with the plastic skeg busted off. They made me send pictures before they’d replace it, but they did send a replacement. The outboard has worked fine since. But in Mexico, when the Torqeedo-branded solar panel began to fail, I contacted them again. They were again excellent communicators, helping me to diagnose the likely problem. I sent in the panel and they sent a replacement, quickly and at no charge. The performance of the replacement panel makes it clear that the original was defective from day one.

This is a picture going back to our last week in San Diego
when we were returning to Mexico in December 2013, with
our broken boom. During that time we stopped to tour the
Taylor guitar factory and this was the bathroom door.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

By Michael

It was so dark and pretty before moonrise
out there. There is nothing like a desert
night sky. I mean, It's great at sea too, in
that you're also away from light,
but the fact that the water is reflective
means it doesn't feel quite as dark. And
the fact that you're moving doesn't lend
the stillness appropriate to a night sky.
Of course, I took this from shore, with
my 50mm prime and the shutter open
for about 20 seconds.
There are places I’ve been, years ago, that no longer exist, will never again exist. They’re now boarded up, over-run, paved over, or washed away. What I saw and experienced in these places can no longer be obtained or recreated. They weren’t necessarily special places in their own right, and nothing necessarily notable happened there. But now, because those places are no more, my memories of them as they were, are sacrosanct.

“How long have you been coming here?”


“Yeah, me too! So you remember how it used to be?”

“I do!”

“It’ll never be like that again.”


Exploring Baja this year, a place of my youth, I recently realized the extent to which I feel defined by past experiences, or maybe the extent to which I want to be defined by past experiences.

A couple months ago, we sailed into Bahia de Gonzaga, up in the Northern Sea. I imagined it would be little changed from how I remembered it from my last visit, about 15 years ago. Alfonsina’s Resort is in the northern part of the bay, just south of Punta Willard. It’s an isolated part of the world, accessible primarily to private pilots and off-road motorcyclists. Resort is a misnomer, as the place is little more than a road house for adventurers (minus the road) constructed of rough rock walls, sheets of tacked-on plywood, and tin and palm frond roofing. The floor is a mosaic of broken tiles and electricity comes at the expense of the drone of a small diesel generator. My fondest memories are of eating huevos rancheros on chipped plates and washing it down with a cold beer as they day began to heat up.

Alfonsina and her sons are a hearty cast, having made axel-breaking excursions down here since at least the 1960s. There is always cold beer and fresh tortillas available in the dining room. There is also fuel for sale, the lifeblood of the travelers who make it here.

Aboard Del Viento this summer, we dropped the hook in front of the tiny rock-and-cement structure I remember. It was immediately clear things had changed. Everything I remembered was there, but diminished by the structures built up around them. Resort no longer seemed like a misnomer.

We went ashore for huevos rancheros—they weren’t like I remembered them, and these plates weren’t chipped. I wore a 20-year-old Alfonsina's shirt I owned and when nobody commented, I pointed it out to the waiter.

“Estaba aqui viente-cinco anos pasado.” I said, letting him know that I know what’s what. He smiled politely, as if to indulge me. He said he’d worked here for three years.

“Como esta Alfonsina?” I asked, as though she and I were good friends, “Ella esta aqui?”

He told me she’d died a while back.

“Lo siento.” I inquired about her eldest son.

He wasn't here this month, the waiter told me. I could tell he was eager for us to order.

While we ate, I spotted a coyote less than fifty feet from where we sat. I pointed him out to Windy and the girls and we watched him forage tentatively. Then a full-sized Toyota Tundra pickup truck roared up and parked. The coyote fled. A clean older couple got out of the truck and took a table inside. They greeted us warmly as they passed. “Did you see that coyote?”

I grunted. Their clothes looked pressed, their hair was neat. This dining room used to seat only the hearty, the dusty, dirty adventurous souls who’d made it here. How did this good-smelling couple even get here?

After a breakfast that cost three times what it used to, we walked along the old runway, surveying the improvements to all the cabins people had built along the beach. Everything was too spiffy. Minutes later, the couple in the truck passed slowly by us, stopped, and backed up.

“Hey, we’re gonna take a drive down to Punta Final across the bay, you guys feel like going for a ride?”

It was the kind of invitation people in remote places extend to each other. I looked at Windy and the girls, “Sure, we’d love to,” I said.

“Climb in.”

Despite the many trips I’d made here over the years, I’d never been to the other side of the bay. I felt a bit guilty though, accepting this invitation from a stranger I’d just derided in my head. As we drove, I learned a shocking truth. Alfonsina’s was no longer the dusty outpost from my youth because a paved road had just been completed that connects it to San Felipe, to the north. A journey that used to take a dozen or more hours in an off-road vehicle, now could be done in less than two hours, in a Honda Civic. Where the road ended at Alfonsina’s, there was now a Pemex station and a grocery store. I felt depressed.

“This is how a lot of people drive roads like this,” said our clean companion behind the wheel. “But by speeding up like this…” I held on defensively to the seatback in front of me and looked over to notice whether the girls were buckled in. “….and take the corners like this…” Ooh—wait, that was nice, easy.

“Ivan’s done a lot of driving on these roads,” the coiffed woman in the passenger seat said.

Ivan dug through the center console as we raced down the rough dirt road. “Here, take one of these.”

He handed back a media sheet with dramatic photos and stats.

“You’re Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart? I’ve heard of you.”


Stewart’s won the Baja 1000 and several other desert races a bunch of times, he’s a legend in that circle. I relaxed my grip on the seatback.

“So you’ve been down here before, I mean, you know Alfonsina’s from before the road was built?”

He laughed. This was the only prompt needed to get the stories pouring out of Ivan.  He knows everyone, has a house up the road. He's been coming here since the 60s, loving it. It was a fast trip to Punta Final and back.

Things change down here and they’ll continue to change. But there remains much left to explore and memories to be made by new generations, like my daughters. I got out of Ivan’s big truck no longer feeling so badly about it all.

We waved goodbye, my girls’ first memories of this particular place taking root: coyotes, interesting characters, not-so-bad huevos rancheros, and flying down rough roads with grace and precision.

Windy and the girls with Ivan and Linda.
Another night sky pic. This I took shortly before
moonrise. The light is the navigation light on the
point. Check out the clouds with the stars. 
Frances looking out over Bahia Willard, Del Viento at anchor.

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