Swell’s genoa luffs noisily, struggling to catch the light following breeze. “Today is the day, Snaggs,” I say to Shannon. “It’s time to attempt to set the spinnaker pole.” Between swells and new crew, we continued to hop south through the polluted ports and charming bays of mainland Mexico. We’re halfway down the coast of Mainland Mexico now, sailing toward the famous surf break at Zicatela, Puerto Escondido.
“You mean that big pole on the side of the mast?”
“Yep,” I nod. Marty the rigger had talked me through the process before I left, but I hadn’t found the courage to try until now. Setting up this long pole perpendicular to the mast will give the corner of the genoa a firm point of attachment to allow it to catch more wind. We need to go faster in order to make Puerto Escondido before dark.
I drag out the designated lines and talk myself though the steps. I remember he said something about “triangulating with three lines so that the beast of a pole can’t get out of control.” That means one line going forward, another going aft, and a halyard to hold it up.
It takes me several tries to get the lines positioned correctly. The halyards are tangled, then I route the fore and aft lines wrong. Shannon braces herself against the cabintop, steadying the pole while I jump around getting the lines right.
Finally, I crank on the winch, and the pole rises into place while Shannon holds the lines, bridling it fore and aft. We tie them off when it’s reached the right place and haul the genoa out again. The pole holds it out perfectly, and with the full mainsail to port, Swell’s sea wings are spread wide open.
“We did it!” Shannon cheers.
“Yea! And we’ve gained almost two knots!” I exclaim. Snaggs goes down to make sandwiches, while I make an entry in the logblog to recount the momentous event. After lunch Shannon takes the watch and I lay back and doze off, head in the clouds.
5 Best Places to Visit in Mexico Photo Gallery
Day by day, I am learning to captain Swell more proficiently. I’m constantly reading equipment manuals and finally figured out how to use the SSB radio to download weather forecasts. Between planning and prepping for passages, we explore for waves, try local restaurants, and meet new friends. We sure get a lot of attention as two young women. Most of it is positive dinner invites, special tours, questions, and curiosity both from locals ashore and people on other sailboats in the anchorages.
“Cruisers” is the accepted title given to people living and traveling on small boats for extended periods of time. Some have taken a sabbatical from work; for others, it’s a permanent lifestyle. We see the same faces often, as most boats are heading south and share the same window of time to get to safe hurricane-season destinations. Most cruisers are much older than Shannon and me, seeing as it takes resources to buy and maintain a boat. There are occasional “in-betweeners,” in their thirties and forties, often with kids aboard, and a few male “single handers” here and there. But the majority of cruisers are retired, salt-of-the-earth couples who never intend to return to land and know every trick in the cruising blog from covering their eggs in Vaseline to make them stay fresh longer, to pirating the latest electronic charts, and knowing which clothespins actually hold drying clothes on the lifelines. He’ll always have advice about fixing things and she can sew curtains and cushions and whip a delicacy out of a few simple ingredients.
People go cruising for various reasons. Some relish the everyday “sunset happy hour” that starts at 5 pm on one or more of the boats in a harbor. There is usually an open invite as long as you bring your own booze. Others, like the scuba divers and shell collectors, or surfers like us, do it to enjoy their watersports or hobbies. Many just love sailing and the ocean, and living free and disconnected from society. They all have stories to tell, some louder than others. At almost every bay, a cruising wife likely dying to talk to someone other than her husband organizes a potluck get-together, spreading the word via the VHF radio. Whether the potlucks are on the beach or on one of the boats, these eclectic events are the social fabric of cruising life. As diverse as they come, cruisers are almost always helpful, good-willed, and frugal. There is one golden rule always do your best to help another cruiser in need because inevitably at some point, you’ll need help too.
I feel lucky to have Shannon aboard; she’s straightforward, ready for anything, and laughs at my jokes. Sailing with others means being together twenty-four hours a day without many comforts and with lots to accomplish. You quickly learn each other’s personal habits (for better or worse), and must seek compromise between everyone’s different needs and wishes. Boat life lacks immediacy and privacy, so hangups, quirks, and weaknesses are rapidly exposed. An “elephant in the room” can sink the ship. There’s no TV, no Internet, no picking up some take-out when you’re hungry. But Shannon and I inhabit this space well together. There’s a forward cabin with a v-shaped berth, a tiny head with a hand pump toilet, a central cabin area with a narrow bunk, nav table, and galley, and then two aft crawl-in berths the smaller serving as storage and the bigger as Shannon’s bunk. Three or four aboard can be fun for a stint, but two feels a bit more spacious.
On passages, we now trade watch duties with a simple nod. On watch, vigilance for boat traffic, weather changes, fishing buoys, and equipment issues is obligatory. While off watch, we read, listen to music, spot sea life, snooze in our bunks, make food, fix things, or take photos. Shannon steers Swell while I get the anchor up or down, and helps furl the sails as we come into harbor. We’re reading Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us aloud at night and discuss the coastal pollution, development, and other environmental issues we observe.
Swell’s little galley stove boils tea and oatmeal in the mornings, and cooks up rice and fish, curry, or quesadillas in the evening. Opposite the stove and sink, the rectangular lid of the fridge doubles as a countertop, making every foray within an act of juggling halfmade sandwiches or chopped veggies above while scavenging for perishables piled randomly below. While it seems things would be so easy to access in such a small space, it quite often requires some bodily contortion and patience. Each storage compartment becomes its own little universe, and the extraction of one simple item, like a tool or pan for cooking, can require taking everything else out too.
Even with our little watermaker functioning, freshwater use is strictly limited. Using the device requires constant filter changes, cleaning, and energy. So we wash dishes with salt water pumped by foot in the galley sink. To bathe, we leap off Swell, climb into the dinghy to soap up, rinse off in the sea, and can usually afford a brief freshwater rinse under the little shower spigot on the aft deck.
Making calls on the satellite phone is crazy expensive, so unless there’s an emergency, contacting home at sea happens via short text emails we can send and receive through Swell’s SSB radio. The bulk of our communication happens in port. We spend hours in Internet cafes calling home, sending emails and photos, and networking to sell photos or articles. Barry and I are mostly in touch via email, because the ham radio he installed at home has grounding issues. He’s been forced to purchase his first computer, in spite of his “incurable allergy to electronic devices.” I enjoy writing him about the voyage happenings about twice a month. Then I edit these letters to use as updates on my website. It’s great to see how people are enjoying them. A surf forecasting website is even reposting them! And now Patagonia, the clothing company, is interested in sponsoring me with gear!
When we arrive at a port, we’re required to check in with the local officials and then we usually provision for food, fuel, and the propane used for cooking, plus make necessary repairs. We do laundry, too, when the opportunity arises. If we’re lucky, it’s at a new friend’s house or a Laundromat, but more often we stomp and scrub it clean in buckets when freshwater is available ashore. So “dirty,” as applied to our clothes, has become a relative term. Practical is much more valuable in this lifestyle than stylish, so you wear things until you can’t stand the smell or sight of them.
New surf spots, language barriers, and local bureaucracy are intimidating at times, but we’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the warm-hearted Mexican people. Not only have we been given rides and offered fresh fish, but people are always happy to help. The general manana sentiment means the locals are not too hurried to talk with us. They walk us down the street to make sure we find our destination, and repeat their words slowly enough that we can understand. Although to us, the disparities between rich and poor seem great, families are tight and work hard to support each other. They cheerfully accommodate our gringo needs, even when it has nothing to do with earning them any money.
On the way into Puerto Escondido at sundown, Shannon and I wrestle the spinnaker pole back into its cradle. Once the anchor is down, we decide the only reasonable thing to do is go ashore for ice cream. Luckily the bay is calm enough to beach the dinghy. This isn’t always the case. Our participation in nightlife has become selective since it often means anchoring the dinghy off the beach and swimming in through the surfline to get to shore. We’ll show up to dinner invites or discotecas salty and sandy, with a dripping dry bag in tow.
We walk the length of the town to stretch our legs, winding along sidewalks packed with vendors selling corn on the cob, tacos, traditional woven goods, whirling plastic doodads, portrait sketches, and mini wood carvings. Upon spotting an ice cream shop, we duck inside. Snaggs and I are easy to please ice cream, some surf, a few cute guys to flirt with, and a decently calm anchorage. In that order.
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