January 14, 2017

Thoughts from a Circumnavigation

Maia and I were asked to speak at the Women Who Sail meeting in La Cruz yesterday-which was a fantastic experience. Several of the women asked me if I’d post my speech—so here it is.

Cat asked me to talk a bit about what I’ve learned on this journey—and how my thoughts changed from the time I first set off to cross the Pacific to now. Well, that’s a biggie. And what I’ve learned has a lot to do with what’s happening around me. Right now I’m giddy—we’ve just completed our circumnavigation and not only that, it’s been months and months since anything broke on our boat. So right now I can tell you this life is way easier than you can imagine and everyone should go.


 But if you’d asked me the same question mid-passage between the Seychelles and Comoros, just after a wave washed away a portion of our slatted foredeck and Charlie the Cat and I were seasick and taking turns throwing up, I would have told you travelling by sailboat is really stupid and planes were invented for a reason. Sometimes this life is sublime and sometimes you should really get on that plane. 

But I’ll try to cover a few of my biggest lessons in between.

About me: I'm a sailor and mum, obviously—and I came to my love of sailing early: When I was a little girl my dad used to take us down to the docks in Comox harbour to look at boats. My sisters liked the colourful fish boats and my dad liked classic day sailors but one day I found a boat I liked even more: it was dark and sleek and had Hawaii as a hailing port, a place I’d only ever associated with holidays and pineapples. That’s when I learned it was possible for normal people to sail across oceans. 

My intrigue with sailing stuck—despite having no boat in the family, I spent my adolescence dinghy racing and taught sailing to little kids in the summers. My plan was to someday sail around the world. So after high school I went to sailing school to become a Coastal Cruising instructor. While there I met a cute boy who told me he also wanted to sail around the world. A few years later we decided we might as well make the trip together.

Evan and I’s first boat was a Fortune 30’, a heavy displacement cutter which was really 28’. Our budget was $500 a month. That trip lasted 3.5 years and we ended up as live aboards in Annapolis—where Evan worked as a yacht designer and I worked on boats and started forays into being a writer. A couple of years later, Maia joined our crew. Once she began toddling around we realized that between her and Travis the 30lb cat we’d grown out of the little boat. So we headed back to Vancouver—there we purchased our current boat and spent 5 years prepping her for sail.

There was a huge difference between prepping 20 years ago and then again ten years ago. Not only had the boat options and technology changed; but the first time round all the answers to our questions came from books, boat shows, sailing mags and a couple of seminars. Perhaps it was ignorance, or youth, or not being a mother yet—but it seemed like cruising was something that simply sorted itself out as we went. 

Because there was less information to sift through it was easier to trust ourselves—when Charlie’s Chart showed us where to anchor, there was no way to double check the way point against a satellite image and multiple blogs so we looked at the spot ourselves and followed our instincts. When we found another cruising boat—we befriended them. When deciding where to go next--it often came down to how we interpreted a daily weather fax and vague descriptions of places other people had been. 

Usually we didn’t have much of a plan at all.

This time round there were way more resources and at some point in our first year of this journey I was lucky enough to connect with Charlotte Kauffman, founder of WWS. A small group of us who all had kids and were in various stages of our cruising journeys all came together online. What Charlotte observed in our early conversations was were there were aspects of what we wanted to talk about that just didn’t fit on the male-oriented sailing boards. 

The questions we had for each other went beyond the mechanics of sailing (though many of us were interested in those too) but many of them were more subtle; how do we make a boat a home?  What would happen to our relationships when we were isolated from our families and friends? What if we’re afraid? How do we cope with burnout? What happens if one member of the family is unhappy?
For me—this was the first time I’d even articulated the questions. As our group exchanged ideas and experiences there was a sense of relief. 
After all, there’s simply no way can you tell a friend at home that you really need a break from sailing the world’s most beautiful tropical islands on your private yacht without getting a rude response, or worse. 

But when you’ve spent enough uncertain nights at anchor, wondering if you or your neighbour might drag. Or shopped in enough places where the only fresh food that’s familiar are eggs, green beans and withered onions (but oh, my goodness you would kill for spinach and don’t even talk to me about mushrooms…). Or you've once again bypassed a harbour you’ve been dreaming about for weeks because the weather was wrong. 

Sometimes you need an ear that gets it. 

That sounds like such a small thing.

But cruising is a life that’s often lived at the very edge of our comfort zones. And to cope, and to thrive… sometimes we need comfort.

Three days out of the Marquesas on our Pacific crossing we lost a rudder. Initially, after getting over the sense of disbelief and convincing Evan the loss of our rudder was real, and not an optical illusion: we did what was needed to balance the boat and alerted our SSB net and the authorities to the situation. Then, for me, the fear kicked in.

I’m not sure how the dynamic in your relationship goes, but in mine it’s a bit like this: I feel an emotion related to an event—often quite intensely. Evan, who usually experiences the same event a little differently, points out that my reaction might be an overreaction. In the case of our rudder loss he tried to give me information to combat my fear: we’re a cat so we had two rudders; our second rudder most likely wouldn’t break off too;  we were managing to do fine in current conditions; but if it all went to hell we’ll call for help. So I had nothing to worry about. 

Now I was terrified and annoyed.

Emailing friends at home didn’t help either. Even with Evan’s explanation—they were pretty sure the next place they’d be seeing us was on the evening news, after our rescue.

But other sailing women got it: One sent bad jokes and puns about being rudderless; one encouraged me to write out every worry I had, no matter how ridiculous; the sailing mums commiserated about the importance of keeping my fear in check so would Maia stay calm. One friend, who I met on our first voyage, reminded me of her own technique for managing fear.

She reminded me to take stock of our situation and look at exactly what was happening in that very moment that made me afraid. Not what could happen, not what had previously happened just what was occurring now? What was happening is we were fine—the boat was chugging along under reduced sail. The authorities were checking in with us regularly. We had our contingency plans in place.

Her reminder to stay in the moment is always a balm to my fears. And the advice and commiseration other women offered made me laugh and made being rudderless seem okay.

They gave the comfort I needed as we made our way in to Nuka Hiva. Then once we were safely in harbour they even understood the frustrations of being stuck in once place waiting for a new rudder, even though it was a really gorgeous place, when what I wanted to be doing was be out exploring different anchorages with our buddy boats. 

Evan pointed out I needed to get used to this uncertainty of cruising again and being frustrated wouldn’t help. My sister sailing women reminded me that even though the uncertainty would always exist—it would still sometimes suck.

The problem with that kind of comfort is it can be hard to let it go.

Hundreds of boats cross the Pacific each year and it can seem impossible to find a harbour of your own. But my cruising dreams were built on the classics—I read Slocum, and Smeeton, Roth and Pardey. I formed my ideas on their descriptions: I’d ghost into an unknown harbour at dawn, anchor off the beach, as the only boat in sight. Onshore I’d be greeted by children and they’d take me to the village elders.

Not long into our second journey I realized we’d given up this old-style of cruising for something more rally-like. Often 4-6 (or more) boats travelled in company and we’d arrive en mass in a little harbour. As a group we were enough to overwhelm a village. And in many ways we were self-contained. We’d shop together, hike together, snorkel together, have sundowners and potlucks together on the beach.

It was incredibly fun—but the places we were and locals we met had begun to feel a bit more like a backdrop to our journey—rather than the purpose of it.

Leaving the well-trodden path, especially with a child in tow, is more difficult. But we always found it was worth it. The moments when we struck out on our own, or with just one other boat, led us to some of the most compelling encounters of our journey. After a while the sundowners and potlucks blend together. But the time that we spent in places like Gunu village in Fiji is still crystalline.

Along with another kid boat we chose Gunu village in Fiji’s Yasawas because the bay wasn’t particularly pretty and it wasn’t written up in any of the blogs we’d found. Knowing nothing about the village we erred on the side of courtesy and assumed it might be a traditional sevu-sevu village. So we dressed in sulus, skirts and shirts that covered our shoulders and took our bundle of kava to shore.

Once there, we were greeted by children and then brought to the village elders. Sitting in a circle in their hut we spoke the Fijian words and asked permission to visit the village and swim and fish in their waters.

When you do the sevu-sevu ceremony in a traditional Fijian village you become family. And in Gunu we were quickly adopted. If we walked past a home—we were often brought in for a visit. If it was mealtime—the food was stretched to accommodate us. We tried to do our part in turn—bringing supplies for the school and then having what seemed like half the village kids aboard our boats for a breakfast of juice and muffins.

The highlight came when the village invited us to a lovo feast. We were encouraged to come to shore early to see the meal dug up from the earth where it had steamed all day. Then we were draped with flowers and brought into a home, which had been transformed into a feast hall.

As guests, we ate first—tucking into though rourou (taro leaves with coconut milk) pumpkin, chicken and fish. Then the men ate, then the children and finally the women who cooked for us. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of the cruising books I had read so long ago. 

And you know what? It was just as magical as I had imagined.

The dreams we’ve brought to this life are worth pursuing. They’re worth stepping out of our comfort zone and venturing off the well-known cruising path for. But my biggest lesson, the one that comes back over and over, is I can’t be too specific about my dreams. 

On our first journey we learned the value being adaptable. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrases that remind us we’re not in control: “Cruising plans are written in the sand at low tide; You can choose and port or a date, but not both; The most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar; DHL will always lose the most important boat part”. But the same focus and drive that got us to the point where we’ve shrugged off land life and moved on a boat is often confronted by the requirement we chill out and just let life happen. Among a few other things, this conflict can be frustrating.

All these years in and I still get wistful when weather or scheduling forces us bypass a port I wanted to visit. Or when something breaks and all our friends set off without us. To be a cruiser you need to be a both a focused type-A and an easygoing romantic. And sometimes, especially in the first year—but honestly it never really goes away—that combination of constant uncertainty and desire for control can lead to burnout.

The tricky part is I’ve yet to meet a crew where everyone hits that sense of being frustrated and overwhelmed at exactly the same moment. On our boat we’ve learned to see the signs in each other. Evan—rather than being the eternal optimist who can fix anything begins to catastrophize about all the ways the boat could break. He won’t sleep well and he gets grumpy. Maia withdraws and there’s a lot less singing and far fewer wry comments around the boat. 

Apparently I become short tempered.

These are the moments when we’ve learned we need to look out for each other. It’s easy to make mistakes when you just want to be somewhere else. We’ll speed through a repair, or risk the weather or decide this whole effort just isn’t worth it. We know some people who permanently and prematurely burned out.

The solutions are individual—but they come back to comfort. Sometimes a week in the marina helped us. Other times we took an inland trip where we banned boat talk. Sometimes just immersing in the familiar is enough. 

When we reached Bali we hadn’t been with other cruisers or encountered spoken English for months. When we went out for dinner we had a choice of delicious looking and affordable Indonesian food, or burgers and rootbeer floats at an A&W. The A&W won. It was in a mall—so we wandered through looking at all the glossy shops, slurping our floats.

It only took 5 or 6 visits before we realized our energy and enthusiasm were back and we all wanted to get back underway. We wanted to see what was next. We didn’t mind the uncertainty.

So—I’ll leave you with this. This is a remarkable way to live but it’s not always easy. So take comfort in each other—but also give each other courage. And keep honouring the dreams that brought you this far.

January 3, 2017

Where We're Meant to Be--Puerto Escondido

When I woke—I saw a fishing float right outside the window and realized I’d fallen asleep on watch. Panicking I tried to reach out for the autopilot to turn away from the float, but I was frozen in place. Then I woke up again and realized the float was a buoy and I was about to run up on land. Then things got really weird—the boat wouldn’t turn, it morphed into a kayak, and I paddled up some rapids to where I could see the boat at anchor. When I tried to I call Evan on the radio I realized the radio was broken.
Martin saved us the effort of setting up the dinghy for a surf landing while carting 100 litres of fuel
I recall getting exam anxiety dreams. But then the fear of showing up in the wrong room for the wrong test gradually gave way deadline anxiety dreams where I’d wake up realizing that four interviews and 1200 words were due yesterday. Navigation anxiety has been slow to seep into my dreamscape. But these days it seems there to stay. It might be the new seasickness medication I’m taking (my dreams are so crazy—but I’m vomiting less, so hey…) or it may simply be the fact we sailed a whole lot of miles this past year. Whatever the cause, making a safe landfall in both my dreams and in reality has become an even bigger cause for celebration.

gorgeous anchorage--in the right conditions--if it's not crowded
Our current landfall wasn’t on the list. This situation actually isn’t new to us. On our first boat we set out expecting we’d go to the South Pacific but then ended up in the Western Caribbean. On this voyage there’s been about a 50/50 chance we’d land in the port planned on the day planned.

My goodness we've missed 'neighbourhood' Mexican food
Long distance cruising is an ongoing exercise in giving up control. You can plan all you want—but the weather, the currents and random luck are all going to dictate what you'll actually experience.
the best beach life anywhere...

In this case, we set out from Puerto Chiapas with the plan to cross the Tehuantepec and then take on more fuel in Puerto Hautulco. But then the winds were lovely and the current was in our favour and it looked like we could skip the fuel and press on an additional 300 miles for Zihuatanejo.

It was a great plan.

But then we came into choppy seas, headwinds and 1-2.5 knots adverse current and we spent over 10 hours going 2-3 knots—with the odd dip down to 1 knot. The journey started to feel like Groundhog Day. Every time I started watch or ended watch I could see the same landmarks. So we thought maybe we’d stop for fuel in Acapulco. But then Evan did the calculations again and Puerto Escondido started to look good.

Gorgeous Zicatela beach--I think it's one of the prettiest we've ever visited
Puerto Escondido is a great town—with a terrible anchorage. But we knew there was a 40-50 foot patch somewhere in the bay—so we motored in circles until we found it (it’s at 15°51.39'N 097°03.85'W if you're interested). Then we called the awesome Martin Mora (mobile #954 103 2273)—who is actually a sport fishing guide—but he’s also more than happy to help cruisers get fuel, ferry you to shore, take you to his favourite neighbourhood taco stand and show you the sights.
our awesome hosts
We had a great day with Martin, his girlfriend Carmina and her son Carlos. We saw just enough of Escondido to make us wish we were staying longer—and enough to decide it will make a great destination for a future Mexican holiday. And we’re off again. This time I’m not going to declare a destination (somewhere north) or predict when we’ll arrive (hopefully before we run out of fuel).

It’s awfully pretty out there though. And when we’re not pounding into it, the miles are as dreamy as ever.

December 23, 2016

Chiapas—Mayan Ruins, Waterfalls and the Christmas Spirit

 Twenty years ago, our bus ride from the anchorage in Puerto Madero to the Chiapas town of Tapachula went through multiple military checkpoints. At each one, soldiers wearing black balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons would check ID papers, looking for rebels. The people were the poorest we’d seen in Mexico—the countryside was stunningly beautiful, but it barely provided subsistence-level living. The Zapatista rebels, who were pushing for social justice and improved rights for indigenous people, were active throughout the region. And thanks to a broken ceasefire the big billboard reading “1996 The Year of Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas” was filled with bullet and mortar fire holes.
pretty Comitan
Despite the unrest, I wished we could explore. This was the land where ancient Olmec, Toltec and Mayan peoples had built huge cities; a place of colonial cathedrals, soaring mountains, wild rain forests, jaguars, toucans and rivers and lakes of brilliant blue.

locals enjoying the square
By the time our visit finally rolled around, peace had thankfully taken hold but the magical places I once wanted to visit had become tourist attractions. Nothing’s wrong with a tourist attraction. But if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to explore the ancient avenues of a forgotten city by yourself, it’s hard to go back to sharing one with hawkers and tour groups.

The centre of the square came with a fairly creepy nativity scene

Even if they still had been my dream, we didn’t have quite enough time to head to San Cristóbal and then Palenque and do them justice. Palenque is 10 hours away on roads that cut through several mountain ranges—a gorgeous, but exhausting trip. So instead of following the now-standard gringo trail from Puerto Chiapas, I did some research: Five hours away, I found the mountain town of Comitan, a favourite with Mexican tourists because of its historic central square and the surrounding Mayan ruins, waterfalls and multi-hued blue lakes.

It’s also popular with locals because international tourists haven’t discovered it yet, so it’s affordable even by local standards: A nice hotel room was $30 USD. Dinner at one of the town’s best restaurant came to <$40 including artesian cocktails, appetizers and Comiteca-style main dishes, while a more typical restaurant meal of chicken mole and enchiladas (with margaritas and rompope) was <$20 for the three of us. The parks we visited ranged from free to $1.50 a person.

one of the new pedestrian bridges to the villages on the other side of the valley and beyond
The route to Comitan was a reminder of all that the Zapatistas had petitioned for. Chiapas, with its large indigenous population, has historically been underserved by the Mexican government. But now, the road that winds through mountains of jungles and coffee plantations is studded with signs pointing out new schools, road construction, rural health centers and pedestrian bridges, which span deep river valleys and replace old rickety suspension bridges.

high in the Sierra Madre Mountains
Despite the improvements, the road is still a challenging one. But we were happy to discover drivers seem to look out for each other. The vehicle ahead of us would frequently flash his tail lights to alert us to car-sized potholes, locals on horse back or one of the routes more than 300 topes (we counted)—the dreaded speed-bumps marked every Pueblo, school, bridge and store. Entrepreneurial locals take advantage of each traveler’s need to slow at a tope by setting up market stalls beside them—while stopped you could buy honey, coffee beans, mangers (for Christmas) as well as the standard drinks and snacks.

Looking across from one pyramid to the next in Tenam Puente
Comitan was a lovely surprise. Most of what I had found about it was written in Spanish and between my bumbling efforts and Google Translate—I didn’t know much more than that town was historic and did Christmas well. What I hadn’t expected was how pretty and how blessedly non-commercial it would be. The only vendors sold food, drinks and warm clothes or shawls. That’s it.

some of the waterfalls at El Chiflon

Instead there was music, children playing and families strolling through the lit up square. We watched the posada—a procession of kids carrying a statue of Mary and Joseph. Each night before Christmas Eve they search for lodging, only to be turned away. In one shop we tried several samples of Comiteca—the local agave brew that’s sweetened with cane syrup and flavoured with various herbs.

$7 for the zip line seemed like a bargain until Evan's abrupt landing sent us to the pharmacy for pain meds
From Comitan we visited El Chiflon. The cascades are the big tourist attraction in the area and Mexican families travel here to be awed by the huge waterfalls and to picnic along the river’s edge. Evan and Maia decided to give the zip line a whirl and rediscovered that adventure in Mexico lives up to its name: the zip line’s ‘brake’ was a manual wooden one, and when it began to smoke Evan knew he might land a little more firmly than hoped. In fact, he hit the platform and bounced off, traveling back up the zip line about 60 feet.

The hike up to the acropolis at Chinkultin offered up a few of the valley and lakes below
as well as way down to a sacrificial cenote
Even with a sore neck and few bruises he was still up for our visit to Tenam Puente—the first of the two Mayan ruins we visited. Located on the outer edges of the Mayan empire, both Tenam Puente and Chinkultic are only partially excavated and rebuilt. There are multiple mounds around the sites which make you realize just how much archaeological effort went into making the sites look like cites again.

Still, there was more than enough excavation to imagine how the cities would have appeared in the past. And they were large enough and uncrowded enough that we were free to stroll through the forested settings and daydream in peace.

Back at the boat, we’re now preparing for Christmas. I never found ‘a few more gifts’ on our trip (no vendors selling stuff means it’s tricky to buy stuff) but somehow a family adventure seems like it will last longer in our memories than any trinket would.

So from Ceilydh to you—we wish all of you the very best of this season.