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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Getting Down with the People

We've been in La Paz for five days now. Our friends Jamie and Kelly are down from Haines, and we're setting off tomorrow for a week-long joint sailing/kayaking trip. The passage to the Marquesas, French Polynesia, which we will begin in March, has also appeared on our planning horizon. Our five weeks of cruising the west coast and eastern cape region of Baja were very good, and one of the fun parts was being away from daily internet exposure. We didn't find out about Benazir Bhutto's assasination until a month after the fact, and the blog became sorely out of date. So, here are some more of our doings from last month.

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12/29 Bahia Tortugas

I was on the bow, fixing the running lights, when he waved to me. He was on a ketch, about forty feet long, that had anchored next to us the evening before. Hi, he shouted. It’s good to see you again. Glad you made it. It’s good to see you I shouted back. We met in San Diego, at the police dock he shouted. He then held up a radio and shouted what channel?

We talked for ten minutes or so on the radio, everyone else in the anchorage who had a radio handy doubtless listening in. I had a bad storm when I was anchored off Cedros he said. Thirty five knots, bent my anchor tray. Had to pull into the little harbor there, I was tied up along a lobster boat and oh! the smell. Anyway, it’ll only take me fifteen minutes to get the anchor tray off. I’m going to go in and see if I can find a little machine shop that can help me out.

He stopped by an hour later in his little grey inflatable. I liked the way he pulled right up to talk, without too many preliminaries. I was pretty sure that we hadn’t met in San Diego. Have you been into town he asked. Any idea where I might find a machine shop? I just need a big vise to straighten that three-sixteenths stainless. I thought about the dust streets in town and failed to picture a machine shop that had ever seen a piece of stainless. Still, a vice was all he needed and it didn’t matter how clean it was. Someone could help him out. He wore a new hat from a yacht supply store in San Diego, and a new sweatshirt from another yacht supply store in San Diego. His face had gone leathery in a way that suggested an age of fifties or early sixties. He had a trim little bottle brush mustache and a neatness around him that made me think of the epicene. No I didn’t see anything like that I said.

He buzzed off in his inflatable and I was surprised to see him buzzing back in ten minutes. Any luck I asked. No he said those guys at the fuel dock just wanted to know how much diesel I needed that’s all they were interested in. Maybe they just didn’t understand you I said people seem to be really helpful here. How’s your Spanish, do you know the word for vice. No Spanish he said. But I said el clampo three or four times and they didn’t get it. I think they were just embarrassed that they don’t speak English.

The delicious possibility that clampo might be the Spanish for some gynecological instrument came to mind. I pictured the poorly disguised alarm of the men on the dock at his inscrutable, one-word request, repeated several times, for a speculum that was urgently needed on his boat. God, I thought, I hope that’s what it means. He buzzed back to his boat and I went downstairs for the Spanish-English dictionary. A vice, I found out, is a tornillo de banco. And clampo, to my disappointment, was not there.

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As Christmas approached a trickle of yachts was filling into Bahia Tortugas, to the point where we had a little community of ten or so boats. Paul and Ann came over for dinner Christmas Eve and we had a great time, hearing among other things about the Dutch traditions of Black Peet and First and Second Christmas. The next morning we had a few presents to open, and I got to thinking about a get-together. “No one else is going to do it,” I said to Alisa. “Let’s invite a bunch of people over for a potluck.” So I rowed around the anchorage, leaning hard into the oars in the gusty winds, inviting the boats near us to come over. Everyone accepted, but when the appointed hour rolled around the wind had come up to gust in the high twenties. Pelagic shied one way and the other against the anchor chain in her mouth. The chafing gear on the snubbing line squealed against the anchor roller. The stars were bright. One by one people came up on the VHF to cancel.

Christmas morning on Pelagic, Bahia Tortugas.

Elias quickly learned about unwrapping.

Alisa with her new sweater, and the one it replaced, much darned but still full of holes.

Elias with his Christmas present.

The only person who did make it for Christmas night was the single-hander Grady, who paddled over in his inflatable kayak. We had a great time telling stories until 0100. Grady has a very modest boat, and told us that making it to Bahia Tortugas was a major milestone, that he wanted to kiss the ground when he got here. Looking at the boat, I believe it.

But, at the same time, it’s people like Grady and Ann and Paul, who bought their 39 foot ferrocement boat for less than $10k, who I find myself drawn to. What could possibly be more boring than someone describing the process that led them to choose between the twelve volt and engine-driven models of watermaker? The-I-spent-a-quarter-million-on-the-boat, sailing-magazine-inspired approach to cruising can be painfully short on the spirit of adventure. By far the more interesting stories come from the people who got a hold of a boat one way or another and are seeing how far south they can get it.


After our Christmas came and went we started to think about moving down the coast. “I’m getting tired of hearing the same boats on the radio,” Alisa said. Weather and wind vane repairs delayed us a day, and then we had a great day of sailing down to Bahia Asunción
in company with Free Spirit, their tanbark sails complementing the deep blue Pacific to starboard and the forever brown desert mountains to port.

The water in Bahia Asunción was more clear than that in Bahia Tortugas, and we could see the bottom clearly at dusk where we were anchored in twenty feet of water. It felt disconcerting in a way, as we could never see the bottom when we were anchored back home in Alaska. There were also two sheer mountains in view from the anchorage, far away across the plain on the south side of the bay, promising spectacular scenery to come.

Ann and Paul took off at noon the next day, planning on taking the two hundred mile trip to Bahia Magdalena in a single jump. They motored by close after pulling the hook, and we waved, knowing it was unlikely we'd see them again in Mexico, as they were going all the way to Panama and had to travel faster than us. Alisa and I waffled over our immediate plans – stay here, move on to Punta Abreojos or jump down to Bahia Santa Maria, just outside Magdalena? It was a classic travel moment – with any of the three equally possible, and nothing to really distinguish one course from another, it becomes difficult to decide.

We ended up staying. We rowed in after lunch, with a stiff breeze blowing off the beach. I wondered for a minute if I should give the dinghy a try before Alisa and Eli loaded up – we had lost one of our oars in Bahia Tortugas, and our replacement was the extra little aluminum oar that we had saved back from the inflatable that we sold to Free Spirit. We all piled in, though, and I had the briefest moment of fear when we cast off and I could not quite keep pace with the wind blowing us past Pelagic and towards the open Pacific. It all came good though, and although it was much more difficult to row with the mismatched oars, I could make progress.

A man and his nearly grown son helped us in through the gentle surf, keeping Alisa and Elias from getting wet, and then the boy helped me pull the dinghy up the beach. I was armed with the word for oar, remo, that I had gotten from the dictionary. The same book informed me also that remo also meant a hard job and the leg of a horse. No, the man and son informed me, no store in town that sells remos. The man who ran the tractor that pulled the big pangas, twenty or twenty five foot long fiberglass skiffs, up and down the beach, came up to talk. He concurred that there was not place to buy remos, but he did show us a hose to wash the sand off our feet.

Bahia Asunción proved to be much more of a town than Bahia Tortugas. Paved roads, street signs, and less of a contrast between flash motor vehicles and houses that were halfway to shanty. “This is more what I pictured a Mexican town to be,” said Alisa. While I was taking my turn at email Alisa wandered up the street with Eli to check out a report of a fishing supply store that might offer up a remo to ones such as us, in need. When I caught up with her she was having an animated chat with the couple who owned the store. She had pantomimed the need for an oar, been told that no, there were no oars for sale, and then had persisted, saying in her rudimentary Spanish, really, just one oar six or seven feet long, there’s nowhere in town we can find that? She asked three or four times, and then reached the pivotal moment just as I walked up. The man went in back of his store, back towards their house, and came back with a well-used blue oar, and a few minutes later, one shorter and rougher, but just as serviceable. No, he said in answer to my question, he wouldn’t think of taking payment. We had a fun chat for fifteen minutes, as well as we could with our terrible Spanish. Alisa found out that local women breastfeed until their children start to get molars, at about a year and a half old. We said goodbye, and a big thanks, and after I started to walk away with only the blue oar the man insisted that we take both.

“That was so nice,” said Alisa. “They were so nice. I wish we were staying here another day so I could bring them some fresh bread.” Alisa had been feeling the loss of the oar keenly, thinking it was her fault that the rolling hitch holding it in the oarlock had been loose. We had also lost a floating cushion in Bahia Tortugas, and she was hard on herself about the two items in the way that you can be hard on yourself about mistakes on a boat. When we got back to the dinghy, that the man had called our lanchita, it turned out that the blue oar was exactly the same length as our remaining wooden oar, a perfect match.

We let Elias run around on the beach and get his fill of the one-year-old’s joy of running free, although stray dogs and the flotsam of a town beach required close supervision. An American family with land outside of town had told us that a grocery store on the main drag would exchange dollars for us. As we trotted around the beach, keeping Elias out of trouble, I coached Alisa on some Spanish phrases for the transaction and a good approach for bargaining to a good rate. After a few minutes of this she suggested that I just do it. Which I did, buying a can of coffee and enquiring of the girl behind the counter if they could change one hundred dollars. When I tried to negotiate the rate, though, my Spanish took a sudden holiday and she thought that I was just having trouble understanding the numbers involved in the transaction. Which I kind of was. So, amidst some blushing and giggling on her part, we struck a deal right at the first number she had suggested. So much for bargaining, but it was also a classic travel situation where I was making an effort to save a buck fifty, where another day might see us blowing forty dollars on an unplanned dinner out. The great consolation, aside from the friendly laughter over my bad Spanish, was having the girl tell me that she was learning English, even though she didn’t venture to try any on me. I always imagine a bit of a contest when communicating with a Mexican with rudimentary English, as we quickly determine which language is easier to communicate in, and thus whose grasp of the other’s language is more sure.

Back at the beach, we gathered up a protesting Elias and set launched the dinghy back through the low waves. The wind was behind us for the ride back to Pelagic and the new blue oar gave us full power.

“What a great town!” Alisa said. We agreed that we were finally Getting Down with the People.

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Elias on the sail from Bahia Tortugas to Asunción: playing with the winch...

...pointing at birds...

...and busting a yoga move.

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