February 28, 2011

Road Trip to Comala

 Although as we’ve lived in Mexico for more than a year now, most of our experiences have been coastal. And while we love the coast—there is a different feeling to the country when you get up into the mountains. The sultry air gives way to a softer, less pungent breeze, the locals are less travelled and more curious about visitors. And the nostalgic things: the colonial churches, the haciendas, and the musical traditions are still current things--thanks to the slower pace.
I love Mexico. I deeply, deeply love it here. And leaving, before knowing it more fully, is occasionally heart breaking. So as our goodbye kiss from Mexico we decided to splurge on a minivan, scoop up the Hotspur family, and head inland to one of Mexico’s Magic Cities—Comala.
 There is nothing flash about this little colonial city. It’s much like so many of the ones that dot Mexico’s interior. It’s a simple place where the focus is on family, friendship, faith and fiestas. It’s all painted white and in the afternoons mariachi bands stroll the square. We sat eating our tapas and listening to the old songs, drinking beer and talking about nothing in particular.
 The sun was warm, but not too hot. Venders stopped by, chatting and showing their wares. Nothing dramatic occurred. But it was perfect: Simple and small, uncomplicated and colourful.

February 26, 2011

Boat Projects

A small sampling of some of my recent composite projects.  I'm getting good at fiberglass work I think.

New carbon fiber/fiberglass tillers.  These replace some wooden ones that had ugly wooden blocks fiberglassed to them to lift the tiller cross bar higher. 

wave deflectors for cockpit drains.  When a big wave hits the underside of the bridgedeck, water shoots up the drains.  These should reduce the amount of salt water that gets in the cockpit.  Knock on wood but we've never had an actual wave end up in the cockpit.  I made a mold and I'm popping these out, one by one.

a side deck toerail.  There is a part of our deck that is slippery and Diane has nearly slid a foot over the side there.  So this is a little bit of foam and glass, glued to the deck with thickened epoxy.

Inland to the Ruins of El Chanal

 I’m a sucker for ruins. I can spend hours sitting in the rubble of forgotten civilizations imagining the past. What I love most is to wander slowly and silently, taking in different vantages. Sometimes when I close my eyes I swear I feel the echoes of the long ago people.

My biggest regret, when we changed our plans and decided not to go to the Galapagos, was we’d miss southern Mexico and Central America and not see the big ruins with Maia. So when we learned of the ruins outside of Comila (about 3 hours from Barra) I wanted to head inland. And when I shared our idea with Meri from Hotspur she told me she’d be all over that plan and her family would love to join us.

Colima actually has two sets of ruins: El Chanal and La Compana, and both are found on the northern outskirts of Colima. El Chanal is located in the residential area at the end of Venustiano Carranza street just north of the Tercer Anillo Periferico (3rd ring highway) and it’s really poorly signed so be prepared to ask for directions.
 The ruins themselves are modest and infrequently visited. A fact that meant we were the only ones there. But being the only people wandering through an ancient city is a magical experience. And as we climbed the pyramids and pondered the ball court my imagination flowed freely. I tried to see the site bustling with people and then tried to imagine the excitement of the first archaeologist who stumbled across the remains.
Very little is known about El Chanal, including who occupied it. Archeologists have figured out that the site was occupied from roughly1100 AD to 1400 AD, and it was mysteriously abandoned about 200 years before the Spanish arrived—probably because of warfare.
Maia and Carolyne being sacrificed
Today though the site is still and silent—a testament to a mysterious time when people thought dogs accompanied the soul through the dark of the underworld to a sunny afterlife and blood sacrifices kept the earth in balance...

There is this Place Called Friendship

We were ready to leave Barra. We, and our dear new friends on Hanacrew, had ‘done’ Barra and we both had reasons to be back to La Cruz. But then Jim, Meri, Tim and Carolyne on Hotspur pulled in, and ‘one more day’ stretched from nights out (which went far later than our children approved of), to inland travel (post to come) and on to the next event (now it’s Carnival!!) and our Wednesday departure came and went without us leaving.

This funny life is filled with unfulfilled friendships—the ones you never quite get to realize as you watch boats sail away, while feeling that dull pang of longing. But sometimes we’re lucky enough that our dreams and plans intersect for a few weeks, or more, and we get to find the kind of friends who will be in our lives for years.

This is something I know.

We want to get to La Cruz because not only are we within weeks of leaving for the South Pacific, we’re meeting old cruising friends there. Almost exactly 14-years-ago to the week--after too many late nights in Barra, an inland trip and long days of planning and sharing our dreams, we said a heart wrenching goodbye to our friends on Running Shoe--as we turned left (headed to Central America) and they turned right (for a break from cruising with a baby).
The Sea of Cortez with Running Shoe

And now we’re meeting them in La Cruz to celebrate their daughter, Coral’s 15th birthday.

Knowing that we can sail away from friends, but still be there for the challenges and changes life brings—makes it easier to say goodbye. But before we go, we’re hoarding experiences and filling every moment we can with friendship sustaining memories: tiny precious moments that make me smile.

February 19, 2011

A Monkey in the Moment

It seems like the getting-to-know-Barra phase has evolved into settling in. We have a standing order with the French Baker (I even got a rose on Valentine’s thanks to our regular patronage), a favourite beach, we know where to get great tacos, and where to find our groceries, and we’ve even figured out how to crash the local posh resort for a swim in the pool. In other words; it’s time to move on…
 I realized this yesterday at the beach. The kids were having a blast, body surfing and digging holes (what is it with kids and dogs that they have such a driving need to dig?). I was as relaxed as I get—sitting under my umbrella, pondering Captain Cook, occasionally laughing at the kid's crazy antics. Ann from Hanacrew was thumbing through my Lonely Planet Mexico guide, planning their next adventure (Morelia) while I was daydreaming about ours (Moorea).
 It’s becoming harder and harder to stay in this moment. Our thoughts are straying across the Pacific well ahead of our boat. And while the books I read and websites I visit are all about the South Pacific, we’re still here, in Barra. The thing is it becomes even more difficult to stay present once a place gets familiar. No matter how cool a spot it is, and how much it has to offer, it’s easy to get distracted and restless and dream only about getting gone.
 From the beach last night we headed to a fundraiser dinner the Sands Hotel. It’s the local cruiser’s hangout with a pool, cheap happy hour drinks, and, it turns out, an unusual mascot.

“Mum!! Dad!! The monkey stole my potato!!” Maia yelled as she raced up to us. I’m not sure how you react to stuff like this, but I just shrugged and told her she’d have to tell her unlikely story to the dinner’s organizers and ask for a new one. Evan, being the more imaginative parent, went to see who exactly had stolen her food and came face to face with a spider monkey.
 Somehow we’ve spent almost three weeks here and never noticed the monkey, despite the fact we walk past him every day. And somehow, this very simple realization reeled my thoughts back in from across the Pacific and planted them firmly back in Barra.

We’re not leaving Mexico for more than a month. And if I keep dreaming about being gone, I might miss the monkey. Literally.

February 18, 2011

Hello Blue Sky

“There’s a new kid boat in the anchorage,” I told Maia—pointing at a boat anchored a short distance from ours.
We had just got up. Hadn’t even had breakfast yet. But Maia’s friends on Hanacrew had left for a trip inland and Maia saw the potential to fill in her suddenly empty social calendar. So she and Evan heaved her kayak into the water and off she paddled.

I was marvelling at her cool confidence when she suddenly stopped, turned back for home, and then just drifted for a bit. But then I guess the lure of friends overcame her insecurity and off she went. Moments later I watched as the kids on the other boat popped out to greet her and then help her aboard. Then the three disappeared below for what I later discovered was a monopoly game.

It may seem weird to have your kid go visit people you’ve never even been introduced to--but thanks to blogs, radio nets and word of mouth we tend to know about the kid boats long before we meet them. And in the case of Blue Sky, who are minor celebrities in the cruising set, we’d actually been keeping casual tabs on their progress…

Blue Sky just finished sailing around the world. They left California five and a half years ago when their kids were five and seven. And I think I was as excited to hear about their experience as Maia was to be playing with Phoebe and Drake, “Mum! Phoebe just sailed around the world. She said it was really cool…”

Cruising families are a small enough minority out here—and to date we haven’t met one single other cruising family who has the goal of circumnavigating. But not only did Jim and Emma, Phoebe and Drake manage to do it—they did it in the time they set for themselves.

As we sat in their cockpit—basking in the thrill of their accomplishment--they shared their route, and reassured us that there would be plenty of kids and not too many pirates as we kept going.

Meeting them reminded me of when we first jumping off from Vancouver Island on little Ceilydh 15-years ago. Evan I were nervous and uncertain as we sat in our last harbour, but then a boat pulled in with a young couple who were just returning from the South Pacific. They had the same giddy energy as the Blue Sky family—the type of joy that only comes from fulfilling a dream. It’s a contagious type of joy—it makes all things seem possible.

Even sailing around the world…

February 15, 2011

Bumping and Dragging in Barra

 “Attention the fleet, there’s a powerboat dragging down on two sailboats on the north side of the anchorage.” The VHF squawked the message and we wandered outside to take a look. Indeed, there was a big trawler drifting downwind toward two sailboats.

“I guess I’ll go,” Evan said, hopping in our dingy and joining the small flotilla setting off on the day’s latest rescue. Once aboard the powerboat they discovered the windlass was turned off and there were no keys in the engine. So the guys hauled up the anchor by hand, used their dinghies to manoeuvre the boat (neither would have been possible in a big wind), then re-anchored the boat on the available chain (an amount that wasn’t quite adequate…)
note the boat in the back--showing her bottom
 I don’t want to sound blasé about a dragging boat. But today has been weird. Two boats dragged in very little wind, and three went aground (including the navy…) And while it’s not out of the ordinary boats to go aground in the shallow estuary—most of them do it while underway, not while anchored…

If I were the critical type, I’d point out that some cruisers anchor really badly. I’d suggest it’s a really good idea to know what’s going to be under your boat no matter which direction the wind comes from; I'd say that you should always let out enough scope for a blow and I'd argue that it’s an excellent idea to give your neighbours plenty of room. I’d also mention it’s really good practice to leave your windlass on and a key in the engine so good Samaritans can help you avoid the embarrassment of bowling through the fleet…

But the thing is--stuff happens. And sometimes it’s more fun to be bemused and good humoured about (5!! Before lunch!!) stupid boating moments than it is to be critical about them—especially when they happen to other people…

So I won’t criticize, nope, I won’t.

February 14, 2011

Small safety addition

Our rig is a "big genoa / small mainsail" - unlike most modern catamarans.  It's a good downwind rig because you can leave the mainsail down and just sail with the genoa and still get decent performance. But it also means that the big genoa is the sail likely to cause problems in a squall.  It's the sail I want to depower fast if required.  The capsize of an Atlantic 57 catamaran in a squall last year made us think about this topic a bit.

So one recent safety addition to the boat is a big cam cleat at each genoa winch.  Instead of leaving the genoa sheet in the jaws of the self tailer, you can put the sheet into the cam cleat instead.  You can flick the sheet out of the cam cleat much faster than unwinding it from a self tailing winch.  Those extra few seconds gained might make the difference someday.

Adventures in Messy Mexico

an evening performance

It’s easy to reach a point, when you don’t blog every day, where you end up with a backlog of pictures and stories. The impulse then is to do a long detailed ‘how I spent my summer vacation’ post that recounts surf landings and foredeck plays, dinners with friends and bus trips to other towns, drunk English barkeeps and meals served in sizzling molcajetes.
a molcajete

 But I’m terrible at making that sort of recitation interesting (although if you make it to Barra, head to Veleros and order a molcajete of mixed seafood—if you’re lucky it will be amazing…). And the other option—writing six separate stories, would probably keep me from having time to hang out on the beach and watch Maia play in the surf…
dinner aboard
 So I’ll just move on.

we saw the staircase and had to see where it led 
 Somehow my parent’s three-week holiday with us has sped by. I guess if there was a theme it was explore. Most days we met midday and went somewhere. Sometimes we went on foot, sometimes by bus, but typically we set out with only the mildest notion of where we were going.
an unexpected beach on the other side of the stairs
 The other day our plan was to walk across Isla Navidad to the outer beach. We had the same directions, and set off around the same time as our friends from Hanacrew, but somehow we ended up at different beaches. And one evening Evan and I went to a bar (thanks to babysitting grandparents)--we’d had it described several ways, by several different people, but none of what we were told resembled the cute boy band with its lead singer who struggled through English songs, his hand gestures and facial expressions coming a little out of sync with the words; or the mixed crowd of hard drinking expats, local tourism employees, and middle-aged holiday makers dancing urgently to ‘Pretty Women’...

“Not everyone can appreciate the unpredictable messiness of Mexico,” Estevan, the innkeeper at my parent’s hotel, told us after one outing that went unexpectedly but turned out happily. He and his wife run Hotel Delfin, a little inn that’s been in his family for 27 years, and we often turned to him for suggestions of what to do, or explanations of life in Mexico.
exploring the canals of Barra
He said that some people find it frustrating when they order the same dish, in the same restaurant, on different days and get two completely different meals--or when none of the things in the guide book are open, or even in the location indicated.

And I can see how this can be problematic. But if you have no (or limited) expectations and simply set off for a town you know nothing about, you can end up being thrilled with the banana plantations and mango orchards on the outskirts that you didn't know were there, or amazed by the skim boarders on a new stretch of beach rather than the being disappointed by not eating at the restaurant you just couldn’t find.
 And as our final weeks in Mexico are running out, I find myself embracing the oddities and unpredictability  of life here even more more. Before today I never knew that Valentines is a huge event, seemingly celebrated with roses, huge stuffed animals and sullen clowns who wander the streets foisting off balloon sculptures on  unsuspecting lovers. And I'm amazed by how much I love this new knowledge...

February 10, 2011

VHF Net Control Script

Okay--this is a bit dull. But as far as useful-stuff-cruisers-sometimes-need-to-put-their-hands-on a Net Control Script is one.

In almost any place cruisers congregate the morning net is an essential part of the day. It's a combination coffee klatch / radio show, which includes pertinent details including where to find stuff, what’s going on around town, and what day it is. Seriously, there have been many days where the “is it Monday or Wednesday?” argument has been settled by the morning net…

The radio nets are run by whoever is willing to volunteer—in places where there’s a long term community the role typically rotates through a regular group. But when you hit the more transient communities (such as Barra) it helps if everyone takes a swing at the job now and again. The problem is in knowing what to say. Evan winged it on his first go-round, but then I hunted down the ‘official’ script:

Net Controllers Cheat Sheet

    *  Good morning and welcome to the Gold Coast Cruisers’ Net covering Barra de Navidad, Melaque, and Tenacatita. Everyone please switch to high power as we listen for any emergency, medical or priority traffic …
    *  This is [your name] aboard the sailing vessel/motor vessel [boats name] along with [name of others aboard].  Today is [day of week, date].
    *  This net meets Monday through Saturday at 9 AM local time. This is a controlled net.  When you come to the net, please give your boat name only and wait to be recognized by net control.
    *  Do we have any new arrivals? Please tell us about yourself, give us the story: who’s on board, where are you from and a little bit about your plans.
    *  Do we have departures? Anyone leaving the area today or underway?
    *  All right let’s go ahead with check-ins, come with your boat name and I will repeat it you know you’ve been heard. Let’s start with [area].  [Tenacatita], [Barra lagoon], [Isla Navidad & Cabo Blanco Marinas], [Melaque].
    *  Any land based check-ins? Come now.
    *  Any other check-ins within the sound of my voice, come now    [Give a rough count of the total number of check-ins].
    *   Does anyone have the tides and weather this morning
    *   Mail Call. Are there any vessels holding mail for another vessel, or is there anyone who can carry flat stamped mail to Canada or the U.S.?
    *   Crew Positions. Anyone needing crew or is there anyone wanting find a crew position?
    *   Lost and Found. Anyone lose or find anything?
    *   Let’s move on the General announcements. 
    *   Local assistance wanted or offered.
    *   Treasures of the bilge. Anyone have anything to swap of trade?
    *    Is there anything I forgot or you would like to back up to?  Anything else for the net? That’s the end of the Cruisers net for today.  Please remember to switch back to low power. Thanks everyone and the will be [Boat’s Name] clear.

February 9, 2011

Crocodile Smile—the close-up version

 It took me a moment to see the first big American Crocodile. Not because it was obstructed or especially well camouflaged by the sun-dabbled background, but because it was so close, my fight-or-flight lizard brain refused to process the giant smiling threat.
 We had taken the bus to La Manzanilla with my parents and our friends from Hanacrew to visit the crocodile preserve. And after paying our 5 peso (50 cent) entry fee, we crossed a rickety bridge right into the heart of a swamp. Within a few minutes it was clear that the barrier between the crocodiles and us was token at best (and occasionally non-existent). We were relying on the fact that between a plentiful diet of fish and birds (and the occasional unfortunate dog), and the fact American crocodiles don’t attack people (that often) we’d be safe.

 Still, when you gaze at one of the huge still forms and it blandly stares back at you, it’s hard to decide whether to move closer (to see if it’s actually alive and breathing) or back up (to get out of range).
 The impulse is so strong that my step dad Frank actually reached his arm out toward one of the two-foot-long baby crocs—and then jumped two feet himself when the little croc exploded into motion and hurtled itself back into the water.
 Happily Frank still has a hand—but the lesson was observed and appreciated by the kids in our group.

February 7, 2011

Barra de Navidad

Barra de Navidad (Sandbar of Christmas) is bustling, folksy holiday town with a handful of streets and a smattering of seaside hotels, restaurants and shops. The downtown is located on narrow spit of land that creates a channel into a sheltered lagoon--a rare natural harbour that once housed a fleet of Spanish Galleons.

Sitting in a restaurant high above a steep beach filled with holiday makers, who ventured to the seaside for the weekend, we watched boats enter the harbour and pondered how the town got its name. “Maybe a Galleon entered the bay on Christmas day and found the harbour entry,” Evan suggested. On a coast with very few natural harbours, finding a secure anchorage would certainly have been good reason to celebrate.
 It turns out that the cheerful little town’s pleasant name has a more nefarious history: the first Viceroy of Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, disembarked here on Christmas Day 1540, to put down the rebellion that was raging against New Spain. His success lead to the deaths of thousands of natives. A generation later the town’s shipyards built vessels for the expedition of Miguel López de Legaspi and Father André de Urdaneta to the Philippines.
 Urdaneta returned by the newly discovered Northern Route a year later making him a hero. But by 1600 Barra’s time as a major centre was over. The Galleons were now traveling to and from Acapulco and Barra  faded into obscurity.
Obscurity isn’t such a terrible thing when it comes to charming seaside towns. Unlike almost every other town we’ve visited in Mexico, Barra hasn’t changed much in the past 14-years. There are a few more tourist shops hawking the same old stuff, supplanting the booths where local artisans used to sell their wares (although I understand the unique regional art is still around), and the number of seaside restaurants sporting identical menus has risen—but for the most part this is still the same quirky little town we found 14-years ago.
 Setting out into the narrow streets feels like an adventure and we can’t wait to keep rediscovering Barras charms…

February 6, 2011

The French Baker

 “Almond croissant. No, pan de chocolate…” We had just seen the French Baker’s small panga enter the lagoon anchorage at Barra de Navidad and Maia was trying to decide what she’d order.

She stood on the back deck watching his progress, leaping up and down each time he left a boat and got back underway. Then the bleak realization hit her: he was zigzagging from boat to boat, in order—and we were at the back of the fleet. Her excitement turned to apprehension as she wondered what, if anything, would be left after he made it through the dozens or so boats ahead of us.
 But then he neared and she reported his orange crates still had something in them.
 An apple pie for Maia, pan de chocolate for Evan, oat cookies for me and an order for a baguette for tomorrow. Ah, Barra, it’s nice to be back…