Thursday, February 26, 2009

Encountering Authority

Author's Note: I had pictures. I had a whole roll. They "disappeared." Let's just pretend I've got pictures of big guys dressed in black with guns.
Getting stopped by the authorities at any time is a nerve jangling experience. We have all been there. The pleasant highway patrol dude pulls up behind us, our palms start to sweat, our breath hitches and a tightness forms in the pit of the belly. We haven’t done anything wrong -- and in fact at that particular moment, the speedometer reads a mere two miles above the speed limit. On the other hand, we know that at some point, some where, at some time in the not so distant past, we were bad. If you haven’t gone 40 in a 25 at some time in your life, you are not living life to its fullest.

Multiply this nervousness by four when stopped on the water, because inevitably the folks doing the stopping are armed to the teeth. The scariest guys by far on the seas we have traveled are the United States Coast Guard. USCG boats are highly efficient craft designed to play hoppy jumpy fun and rompy in the Potato Patch outside the Golden Gate. They come equipped with very large, automatic bazooka things mounted to the front. The men and women of the USCG take their job very seriously, the bull horns are loud, and they do not respond well to small talk. Last summer, we heard stories about the USCG stopping boats crossing over the US-Canada border that were spine tinglingly icky... enough so that the proprietors in harbors along the south coast of Vancouver Island said the USCG was scaring all their customers away.

Double the fear factor again when stopped by the floating military of another country -- though it appears unnecessarily so. Our first encounter with the flotilla of a foreign power was when we were waved down by the Canadian Coast Guard near Winter Harbor. While I’m frantically trying to find our paperwork, passports, and spare PFDs to demonstrate our legal permission to be drifting around in Canadian waters, DrC handled the formalities on the bridge:

“Hoy there! Y’all doing well?” asked the Canadian on the deck.

“Um... Yeah, yes, we’re doing well,” responded the ever glib and talkative DrC, “um... uh... and uh... you?”

“Oh yeah. Doin’ well here. You want some fish, eh?”

“Fish?” DrC was now utterly baffled.

The Coastie gave a friendly nod and held up two fish, “Oh yeah. We got ourselves a real nice catch here, and it needs eating. Your family would enjoy some rockies, eh?” During our Canadian Coast Guard boarding, we learned that the Canadian system of coastal service is a little confuzzling to the non-native as it combines their fisheries service with the more traditional defend and protect responsibilities customarily associated with flagged, armed boats. Apparently, these guys wanted to off load some by-catch of their research efforts before it went bad. Good eating, eh?

The Mexican Armada is considerably less glib albeit -- believe it or not -- even more polite than their Canadian counterparts. Just last night, we were politely hailed and then politely told we were going to be boarded for a “routine inspection... routine inspection, okay?” “Si. Okay,” because how else was Capitain Cone-her supposed to reply to a very large, extremely well armed military vessel. In very broken English, the radio operator invested a lot of effort in explaining to us precisely what was going to happen, when, how, and for what purpose. This gave us enough time to put on clean shirts and a skirt, stow dirty laundry, wipe off the salon table, and get water started for coffee. We couldn’t find the Coast Guard cookies so the girls made due with icing on graham crackers.

The sunlight was nearly gone when the larger vessel finally dropped a little patrol boat which sped towards us at high speed to conduct the “routine inspection.” Every single individual we interacted with -- from the patrol boat bristling with armature to the hand gun toting radio guy to his two rifle toting guards -- repeated this phrase “routine inspection.” It must say somewhere in the Mexican armada manual, “When approaching an American yachtista, do not scare the shit out of them.”

Or... it just occurred to me... maybe they were worried we would pull out our own guns. Because they asked.

You have any guns? No No. We do not have guns.

Do you have any drugs? Medicines, yes... drugs no.

Do you have papers? Yes. Can we see them? Of course.

How many people? How old is the captain? What was your last port? Where are you going? Can we do anything to help you?


How can we help you?

Um. Well, yeah. We were -trying- to get to Maruata before dark, but now because you stopped us it is pitch black. Do you have better charts than this piece of crap we got from C-Map?

OF COURSE! Come on back to our really big boat with the scary weapons all over the front. We’ll just whip out several copies of the chart of the coastline. And don’t worry, we’ll escort you all the way to Maruata which is just around the corner. We’ll make sure the locals here don’t feel any notion to rob you. It’ll be just fine. It’s all okay. There are no scary armed men here. It’s all just a “routine inspection.” Okay? And by the way, would you please take this little survey about your satisfaction with your routine inspection experience. How did you find our service personnel? Was everyone courteous? Did it take a long time? Did you get all your questions answered? How can we improve our boarding operations in the future?

I am not kidding you. It was like having dinner at Applebee’s. They wouldn’t let us leave until we let them know we were fully satisfied with our boarding opportunity and released them from liability for any damage taken during the process. We even have papers to prove that we have already “had our boarding” and don’t need another one. It was a complete This Is Mexico (TIM) moment... also known as WTF?

I admit, there was something very comforting about the large military craft that dogged our heels all the way into our anchorage. We let them know when we had safely dropped anchor. They were most solicitous, asking about the quality and set of the anchor and whether there were any pangas disturbing us. It was like getting put to bed by an overly solicitous parent.The captain then wished us good night’s sleep and a successful voyage before he motored off to protect, defend, and conduct polite and satisfactory boardings of other vessels plying the Michoaloan coastline.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cooking Tip - Better Jar Sauce

Better Jar Sauce - Fixin's
Better Jar Sauce - Fixin's
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Look, sometimes you just want to make spaghetti. It’s easy. Throw pasta into a pot. Boil it. Upend a jar of sauce on top. Toss it in front of the animals in your salon. Walk away. Then at other times you’re more willing to make a beautiful, Martha Stewartian homelife for your family.

Even the Perfect Housewife, however, can still throw jar sauce on the table with a little bit of extra work. My mother calls this “freshening” the sauce. I think of it as just using the jar sauce as the tomato foundation of a really good meal.

Better Jar Sauce
1 jar of spaghetti sauce, try to get a brand without too much sugar
4 - 6 italian hot sausage links or ~ 1 pound hot sausage
1 lg chopped onion
2 tbs garlic
1 tbs chopped fresh basil -- dried if you’re not growing a plant in your salon
1 lb diced vegie -- my favorite is zucchini but green peppers and egg plant are also popular with our crew

Better Jar Sauce - More Basil
Better Jar Sauce - More Basil
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Sautee the onions, garlic and sausage meat. If you have links, you have the choice of squeezing the meat out of the tube or slicing the meat after the links cook. Both methods taste good. Your family doesn’t really care. When everything is nicely soft and cooked, dump in the sauce, basil, and vegie. Slap a lid on and simmer for a few minutes. You can turn this off and set aside if you need the burner for pasta water. Serve over a pound of cooked pasta, any variety.

Note: If you are not already making multiple use of your pasta water, now is the time to start. While boiling pasta, you can hard boil eggs or boil root vegetables for the next day’s meals. You can also pour off used pasta water to use in poaching or steaming fish and vegies.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Radio Protocol

The Girls on the Net
The Girls on the Net
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The VHF is hooked to my backpack strap, volume low but the speaker only about eight inches from my ear. This is a compromise; I can listen for the girls while not disturbing the people at the market as I do the morning shopping. I am surrounded in fast talking, short older Mexican women who are haggling with the produce seller, waving pieces of fruit and bunches of carrots as they argue over quality, price, or the weather. I have no idea; They all speak Spanish.

“Don Quixote Mobile, Don Quixote Mobile, this is Don Quixote Niñas.” Aeron is on the VHF, her voice so very young and high and -- let’s face it -- girly. The mamas pay no attention, sorting multicolored peppers using criteria I find completely unfathomable.

With the ease of much practice, I reach up to my shoulder and key on, “Don Quixote Niñas, this is Don Quixote Mobile.”

“One seven?” the small voice asks.

“One seven,” I agree. This is a favorite channel and preprogrammed into the handheld so I switch in two clicks. “Don Quixote Mobile on 17.”

“Don Quixote Niñas on 17. Can we spend the afternoon doing play practice on Kamaya?” A whispered conference then, “And maybe a sleep over?”

For the girls, staying in an anchorage for any length of time is a license to move on to other boats. Jaime disappears with the ten to tween crowd, Mera and Aeron generally stick to the elementary set. Out of a sense of obligation, I routinely attempt to get them to bring the kids back to our boat. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. “School checks all done?”

There is a dramatic sigh on the other end of the radio and more urgent consultation. “Mera says she has one check left, and I finished everything except my math.” Aeron’s voice changes to a plea for understanding and generosity which she knows will not be forthcoming. Yet, nevertheless she will try. My girls are not quitters. “Mom... we can do an extra check tomorrow. Please?”

Silence. I don’t even bother to key in to sigh. There is no point.


It’s easier to just let her hang there while I proceed to select fruit from the large produce display in front of me. The Mercado Municipale is a busy, noisy place. My conversation with the girls is largely going unheeded by the locals, though I suspect DrC may be paying closer attention. I also suspect the woman in front of me is impugning the ancestry or manhood of our produce vendor. He doesn’t look happy.

“Okay,” comes the resigned voice. “We will finish our checks.”

At this point, Don Quixote Jaime pipes in, “Break break! Info!” At the sound of Jaime’s voice, DrC cocks an eyebrow, his attention drawn from the display of tomatoes and cilantro he is picking through.

“Don Quixote Jaime, go ahead,” I say.

Jaime reminds us, “You said we could watch Blue Planet as a science check tonight. I’ve got to babysit on Love Song this afternoon.”

I don’t remember saying this. I don’t remember much of the morning at all. Did I say that? I ask DrC with a look. He shrugs. I might have. He can’t remember either. The morning is a blur. It was at least two hours ago. In cruiser time, this might as well be infinity ago. Crap. Executive decision time. Bottom line, do we want the afternoon to ourselves messing around with the sewing machine and water maker, or do we want to do something responsible like take the kids on an expedition to the local museum.

“Right. Go ahead.” I’m a lightening fast decision maker. The avocados, a cabbage, and a hicama drop bang bang bang into my plastic shopping bowl as I start to demonstrate the program management authority for which I used to get paid the big bucks. With a sharp shake of my head, I reject DrC’s attempt to include a watermelon. Who the hell wants to carry that back to the dinghy dock? “Check in...”

I’m interrupted as the girls burst out, “Don Quixote Niñas clear to 22 alpha.” “Don Quixote Big Girl back to two two.” DrC throws me a disgusted look as I mumble, “Clear to 22,” and fumble with the VHF. While the marketing is going well -- our vendor happily taking money from the argumentative old women and then reaching for my selections -- I could perhaps have been a bit more thorough in establishing the location and plans of my offspring before signing out.

Give Em Sh* Mom!
Give Em Sh* Mom!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“That’s if you can get them back,” DrC warns as he reluctantly releases the melon. My children are free spirited wild animals wafting through the marina, the old town and the anchorage. They’ve been adopted by fifty pairs of cruising grandparents, sworn oaths of lifelong friendship with children on boats we haven’t even met. They earn money baby sitting and scrubbing bottoms; they help Meercat prepare finger foods for a potluck, ferry guests to a party on Vltava, and attend jam sessions around campfires with Hipnautical. Our control over them is remote and dicey at best.

Faced with another childless afternoon, DrC hands me a bag of limes and asks, “Internet or sex?” Suddenly, it appears that everyone in the produce section knows English after all and activity pauses for a moment while the group of shoppers awaits my executive decision.

The mamas nod approvingly and the vendor laughs as I reprimand my husband, “You know, Dean. This is how we got into this trouble in the first place.”

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Buddy Boat

His is Cleaner
His is Cleaner
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
s/v Beach Access pulled into La Ropa two mornings after DrC left us to plump the cruising kitty in Seattle. The girls and I were a bit lonely, a tiny bit nervous about our three weeks alone on the hook, and more than a bit ready for diversion. We could see one scruffy looking gentleman moving around on the deck. He looked tired – which was not a bit surprising. The only way to pull into La Ropa at 9:00 AM is if you have done an overnight from the nearest anchorage up north. He'd been single-handing all night. Our neighbor to the west s/v Sky apparently knew Beach Access and told him to park between the two boats so that we could keep an eye on him while the captain caught a much needed nap.

The most striking thing about Beach Access, of course, is that she's a Lagoon 380 catamaran. There are only a half dozen of these boats on the entire western Pacific coastline, so we were excited! We'd seen one up in Bellingham, another in charter in Neuvo Vallarta. But now we had a sister ship clearly in our model range dropping hook not 50 feet off our starboard.

The girls did what the girls always do. They visited. They charmed. They sweet talked. It was a foregone conclusion that within a matter of hours, Glen would be wrapped around their fast talking, swift moving little fingers. They swam over and chatted him up, swarmed over his boat comparing customizations, and drew out every little bit of his story. There was little I could do to stop them. Within a few days, Glen of Beach Access was as much a part of the Don Quixote family as Dulcinea or myself. Within two weeks, Glen was awarded a highly coveted title of “honorary Uncle.”

Now the girls have a few honorary uncles. These are men that the girls love unreservedly and essentially adopt -- for whatever rhythm or reason motivates them. Their taste is excellent, but even if it were not, DrC and I would just have to roll with it. All three of the girls insist that continued, constant contact with honorary uncles is a minimum requirement for cruising or they will jump ship. It is more important than books, more critical than school friends.

The first and most important honorary Uncle is Noey of Seattle. I worked with him for many years at a computer development firm. He's smart, good looking, and in my humble opinion a great photographer. For nearly a year and a half, we had Noey over for Sunday dinner or spent Sunday at his house. The girls consistently cite leaving Noey behind as one of the hardest parts of leaving Seattle. Probably next in the honorary Uncle line is Greg. Another computer geek, we lived with Greg for about 6 months when he and his family rented our upstairs unit. Greg can cook. Greg has a cool cat. Greg is another smart, good looking geek. There appears to be a theme.

With Glen, the girls have broken their pattern a bit. Glen is a lot more like their father except a few years older and with more surfing experience. He's a carpenter/contractor by trade, likes Led Zeppelin and Wachowski brothers movies, and has a passion for his boat. We ladies knew within a short period of time that Glen was a great fit for our family. He sincerely enjoys spending time with the girls, and he is great company in the evenings drinking wine with Mom. But more importantly, we knew we had finally found a boat with a guy on it that DrC would relate to instantly.

When DrC came home, we celebrated by having Glen over for dinner. The next day, we gave Daddy permission to escape the Don Quixote estrogen fest by visiting Beach Access. The two disappeared for hours. In the late afternoon, we got a drunken call on the VHF, “Don Quixote Don Quixote, Beach Access.”

“Beach Access go ahead.”

“When are you women feeding us?”

It's a match made in trail magic heaven.

On Saturday, the family – including Glen – are going to get our teeth cleaned. Then we will pull up all four hooks on our two catamarans and start heading north. I don't think this is a matter of us crossing paths on the trip. I suspect that these two Lagoon 380s – hulls #60 and #61 – will buddy our way all the way into the Sea of Cortez. So if you pull into a Mexican anchorage this spring only to find two essentially identical cats anchored close enough to pass the PouPon, you'll know you've found us.

Ours is the one with the Picasso graphic. His is the clean one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Still Here!

I haven't completely broken down and fallen off, though it sometimes feels like it. Thank you to everyone who has sent comments, emails and support. However, all those well wishes are falling on deaf and dumb muscles, bones and nerves which are NOT cooperating. Sorry 'bout that.

DrC arrived back on the boat on February 4 to find us almost as dirty, unprovisioned, and ill equipped to continue as when he had left. All the work we'd done in the first two weeks dissolved during the last few days when I couldn't move. The girls were extremely happy to see their father. I couldn't actually see him through the haze of muscle relaxants.

A few days ago, DrC completely gave up on the idea of my back healing without stronger intervention and stuck me on steroids. These are not very good for you but they do a damn fine job on fixing your back. Things started looking up, I started moving around, and I actually was able to complete a session of mild, modified pilates.

Then the head cold hit. As head colds go, this one is pretty tame. Slight post nasal drip, itchy eyes, slight headache. Mera blew through it in three days, Aeron just got started. The problem is the itchy nose makes me sneeze. And every time I sneeze, my back seizes up. I'll feel great when I wake up from a nap or in the morning, I'll work through the first three or four sneezes with bracing and heavy breathing, and then >pop< a sneeze blasts through the system and throws us back to square one on the back.

Then there are my clients. They apparently finally remembered that I was planning on hanging around Zihua for a few weeks and promised to work. One of them just released a code base to me that I've been waiting for since mid-September. Happy day, I love the work, but between the muscle relaxants and now the anti-histamines, I'm about as functional as a frat boy on the third day of pledge week. As Aeron so brightly put it, "Every time we give Mom a pill, we end up stuck in Zihua another day."

So here we sit in paradise with the barnacles growing a foot deep on the hulls. Everyone else is starting to drift north or prepare for the puddle jump. Our departure is gated on my retaining sufficient brain cells for 40 hours in a row to finish my contract. Then we'll start heading north ourselves... hopefully before the weather starts to heat up or our anchor becomes a permanent addition to the floor of Zihua Bay.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Incapacitated in Paradise

Typical End of Day
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
My worst nightmare what-if scenarios regarding cruising on a sailboat with three children, a cat and the Apocalyptic Horsemen was never a big storm, sinking, or sharks. Crocodiles on the dock eating my cat was a concern, but it didn't really turn me off. I scoffed at the notion of pirates, and I'm afraid I somewhat openly sneer at those afraid to drink the water or eat the food. Oddly, my worst nightmare involved sending DrC to Seattle and then having my back go out.

Ain't life funny?

Here we are in paradise, the girls are healthy and happy, the boat is clean for the first time in months, we're well stocked on food and water, and we've made great friends in Zihuatanejo. We're working madly on SailFest and the girls are rotating turns at the morning cruisers net. We spend our days on school and chores, errands, palapa sits, swimming, kayaking, and trips to the local bars and restaurants. The weather is absolutely perfect.

I, however, can't move.

In one of my very first posts -- over two years ago now -- I describe a moment during which I lose all dignity and slide like a greased pig down the icy transom into the frigid waters of the Puget Sound. The article was amusing, the situation fraught with danger and lessons for myself, my children and my readers. What I failed to mention was that during the process, I badly injured my back. I think it's like an ankle or knee injury. A small bit of key tissue in the lower spinal cord ripped away from the bone. With time and a great deal of drugs, it gradually heals and stops hurting and I can function normally. However, the injured area is never the same. And like a turned ankle, you can just walk along and suddenly you're back to square one with the ankle. For years.

This is my back. I have been fine for months. Oh yeah, I bitch about the bed. I think our next attempt to fix the bed, by the way, is to buy a mattress. There's got to be something useful about our catamaran using standard queen size beds for the aft cabins. No, this isn't a problem with the bed. Somewhere, somehow I managed to "turn the ankle" of my lower back during the past week. Now I'm immobilized.

The pain is phenomenal in ways that only someone experienced with back pain can relate to. You're either a back pain virgin, or you've popped your back pain cherry and know precisely what I'm talking about. The worst part of a back injury, in my opinion, is that your body attempts to prevent the spasms by clenching all the muscles around the injured area. So instead of having a nice, localized bit of pain, you end up hurting from the mid back all the way down to your knees.

I'm on a really spectacular pharmacopoeia of drugs. DrC knew this would happen and stocked up. Between the muscle relaxers and the ibuprofen, I'm barely present. I've tried walking and swimming, stretching and pilates, and really the only thing that is helping is more drugs. To that end, the "dinghy boy" here in Zihua -- Nathaniel is 56 and one of the nicest men you'll meet -- turned me on to a topical analgesic which is doing wonders. You can literally buy anything over the counter in Mexico. For all I know this stuff is made of ground turtle flippers and cocaine. It works pretty well so I'm not going to pull out the Spanish-English dictionary.

There is no help but to simply ride it out. The girls are stepping up to the plate, feeding themselves, keeping the boat straightened, not falling overboard and drowning like rats. However, I'm not getting anything substantive done. My Zihua list is at a standstill; My clients must think I've fallen off the planet. In fact, the latest dose of muscle relaxer is taking effect, and I'm about to collapse into bed again.

DrC comes home in three days. I think I might rent a room when he gets here. Something just for me with endless hot showers, an air conditioner, and a nice firm bed. Maybe room service. Thanks to the kindness of Beach Access, Sky, and Precious Metal, we'll be okay till the big guy arrives. I think.

Nothing like facing down your worst nightmore.