October 28, 2009

Getting to the source

barracuda for dinner

I remember when we made the deliberate choice to connect food we ate with the animal source it came from. Niall was three years old, and we were having rabbit for dinner. It would have been easy enough to tell him it was lapin or hasenpfeffer and pushed off the connection between our meal and the cute fluffy animal, but after a sharing a glance with Jamie we opted for frank honesty. Niall processed the information, then pronounced it delicious. I guess we shouldn't have worried!

In later years, we visited our friend Bruce of Lopez Island Farm, meeting the pigs and cows grazing before they became the pork and lamb on our dinner table. It drew the connection, but there was still a significant separation. We were watching happy animals in a charming location, doing whatever felt right. In the interest of giving our children a sense of respect for where their food comes from: a real creature, not a chilled, shrink-wrapped slab of something on polystyrene. It was closer yet, but still removed from the connection of an animal giving life for food.

Then we went cruising.

Suddenly, we're connected to our food in a whole new way. Foraging, before cruising, meant my seasonal forays to find nettles or mushrooms, blackberries or sea asparagus. Seeking them out as much for the soul as for the dinner plate. Now, fishing is a very real means of supplying protein in our diet. During the heat of late summer and early fall in Mexico, our options for keeping fresh stores of food on board have been limited by our refrigeration and remote location. The refrigeration was not reliable for storing many perishables, as it was overburdened in the heat- an issue hopefully resolved by today's wind generator installation. Our location was simply not near any meaningful population centers where we could reasonably acquire fresh food.

I have never understood the excitement people find in hunting and killing animals for sport, but it's impossible to deny that we have enjoyed fishing. We read in Steinbeck about the incredible bounty here during his journey in 1940. Although it has paled since then, the Sea of Cortez can still make anyone with a minimum of fishing gear feel like a pro. On one short dinghy ride a couple of weeks ago, every member of the Totem crew caught at least one fish in less than half an hour... and we were sharing one pole! Just this morning, I watched fishermen with hand lines on a pier bringing in everything from triggerfish to dorado (mahi mahi). We have been catching these, as well as sand bass, sierra, and barracuda.

Typically, our catch ends up in the next meal. It is hard to describe how delicious sushi is when the fish is just hours from the water. Fish tacos are another favorite on board. We stop fishing when we have enough to meet our near term needs, but love to keep enough to make jerky for a tasty, protein rich snack.

I'd love to be able to bring our vegetarian foraging back, but the Sonora desert doesn't have much to offer. There are a remarkable number of edibles (I recommend Gathering the Desert to anyone interested in learning more) but finding them is not practical.

That's fine. I'm ready for another plate of the Baja classic, fish tacos.

fresh Sierra fillets

October 25, 2009

At peace in placid waters

Sunrise at La Gringa
Originally uploaded by behang

We are happy to have been spared any action from hurricane Rick. The system sped up, then turned east and broke up much sooner than anyone expected. Mazatlan was still hit squarely, but at least by then it had been reduced to tropical storm force. Nothing to sniff at, but no longer the ugly hurricane Rick had become early on.

It was a quiet few days, as we waited and watched the weather from the hurricane hole where we took Totem. But now, instead of remembering being hunkered down in a stripped out boat watching the weather instruments and radar, we have been enjoying placid water and clear skies like these. I am incredibly grateful!

Will there be another storm like Rick near us this year? It's pretty unlikely. The hurricane season ends at different times depending on who you ask. Most insurance companies peg it at the end of October. Some people would say mid-November, others would put it at the end of the month to be outside any historical activity. We are staying above latitude 27N, a generally accepted safe line, until November. But dates and "safe zones" are really meaningless in the face of unpredictable natural forces. In the unusual event that another system does form and head this way, we will be in a good position to run for safe harbor again.

We've been surprised by the number of boats that headed south weeks before the earliest estimate for the end of hurricane season. I estimate that between the beginning of October and the emergence of Rick, about half the boats that were in the northern Sea had gone south. The departures from the safer area in northern part of the Sea of Cortez seemed to come in clumps. It is impossible not to associate a bit of unhealthy group "thinking" with this... what you might call a herd mentality. Some kind of safety in numbers, maybe? Or willingness to make a plainly risky choice, because another boat is doing it too? Some boats were driven by commitments to be in a certain place at a certain time. That sounds pretty suspect, too.

Even outside the spectre of a hurricane, there's no doubt we make conservative choices. When it comes to picking anchorages choosing passage timing, it's our first priority to be safe. Jamie likes to say "I don't need to prove I'm a man by picking an exposed anchorage when there's a forecast for 40 knots." Perhaps as a downside, there have been some passages we've motored more than we like because the winds were too light for sailing. If that's a tradeoff, I'll take it!

October 19, 2009

Hurricane Rick

It's ironic that our last post was about being flexible, and rolling with the plans that the weather gods send us, because here we are in Puerto Don Juan once again. This time, it's not just inclement conditions but a bona fide hurricane sending us once again to the protection of what is popularly considered the best hurricane hole in the northern Sea of Cortez.

These last few days, hurricane Rick was for some time among the worst hurricanes in Pacific Mexico's history. It rapidly cranked from being a named storm to a category 5 hurricane. We feel for the communities in Mexico who are just recovering from last month's hurricane Jimena, and facing the prospect of being battered again by severe weather.

Historically, hurricanes in in Pacific Mexico which make it our way lose most of their energy in southern Baja, and so the northern Sea of Cortez where we are has typically been spared. That's exactly why Totem, and a couple of dozen other boats, have been spending the hurricane season up here above 27 deg N. Like many others, we believe the best way to avoid a hurricane is to stay well outside historical tracks! It's why we're still in the northern Sea, and happy to be able to tuck into a good spot with almost a dozen other boats. It's really surprising how many boats had already started south, but that's fodder for another post. We don't have Internet access right now so it's impossible to include a photo with this post, but the picture in the prior post shows a pretty good view of the near 360 protection in this bay.

Things have changed quickly. When Rick was designated a hurricane a few days ago, it was projected to make landfall on the Pacific side of Baja around Thursday. Now, the eye is not even hitting the peninsula, and is expected instead to cross below the southern tip of Baja on Tuesday. At this writing, it has gone from beyond ugly (category 5) and moving fast (about 12 knots) to category 4, half the speed, and indications of beginning to break up. Trust me, there is a collective sigh of relief with the co-captains on Totem!

The various projection models currently seem to be in agreement on the track's path and rapid dissolution over the mainland, which gives us additional peace of mind. On the other hand, nobody can perfectly predict the weather. We'll stay put in this safe location until it's clear how Rick will spin out.

If you're interested in seeing the forecast cones and models, we think http://www.eebmike.com has a good collection of data and pictures. For Totem's current location, check our last SPOT signal at http://tinyurl.com/svtotem.

October 8, 2009

It's all about being flexible

Looking down at Totem
Our lives before we left to go cruising were very structured. Each day of the week had a de facto plan. Usually, it involved an alarm going off at an ungodly early hour, followed by marching through the steps toward school (kids) and offices (me and Jamie). How we spent our non-working days was often mapped out well in advance, to take make best use of their relative scarcity.

Embracing less structure is harder than it sounds. Cruising is not a vacation, although to our friends on shore, it may appear that way on the surface. It's not all surfing the Pacific breaks or landing mahi mahi, or sipping umbrella-topped drinks before an azure bay. Far from it! Our days are very full. We have key boat maintenance that must be performed at regular intervals, and have our children's voracious appetites for learning to keep up with. In addition to routine boat maintenance, there seems to be an endless list of bigger projects for us to tackle. Then there are the fundamentals of life: preparing meals, doing laundry, getting provisions - all of which generally require quite a bit more time and effort on the boat-as-homestead than they did back on the grid. At the same time, we often don't have our plans from one day to the next specifically mapped out. Adapting to this kind of flexible "what shall we do today?" schedule has taken time for this formerly super structured family.

The primary schedule on Totem is the broad-stroke path of our itinerary. We deliberately do not plan too far ahead, but there are seasonal weather patterns which make many of the decisions for us. They determine the general region we are in, or heading for, at any given time of year. At a more discrete and daily level, weather patterns and forecasts often take charge of the schedule and determine our location.

We've recently had excellent lessons in the importance of this day-to-day flexibility. We crossed from the east side to the west side of the Sea of Cortez about a week and a half ago, and have been based near the town of Bahia de los Angeles. Our location has bounced between a few different spots. Overwhelmingly, we've ended up in Puerto Don Juan. Let me just say it's a good thing we really like Puerto Don Juan, because we haven't had a lot of options. The reality of the weather has made the decision for us. Puerto Don Juan has such near 360 protection from waves that it's considered among the best hurricane holes in the northern Sea of Cortez. With projections this past week for near gale force winds from a variety of directions (depending upon the forecaster), it's been a logical place to stay put- whether we want to or not!

With more time than we expected, we've explored farther than we might have otherwise. We've been hanging out with our friends on s/v Don Quixote, sharing kid oversight and outings. With 6 kids between the 3 parents (DQ's dad is up in the states for a work stint), it's like a floating village! We've followed a highway of coyote tracks through the big wash that drains the surrounding mountains. Walking through middens adjacent to the anchorage, the children could see fire-cracked stones, find cutting tools, and even spot a couple of spear tips. We've fished off the mouth of the bay, and enjoyed the bounty of the rich sea around us. We've found stone meditation circles on the top of the ridge above the anchorage, and marveled at the view from the highest point... a view of the whitecaps of the churned up sea keeping us fixed in the bay.

Trapped... hardly! It may not have been our choice, and we can't wait to get to the islands nearby- but flexibility is giving us some great rewards right now.