Tuesday, March 31, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Monday, March 30, 2009, Day 8
12 noon, Pacific Daylight Savings Time
14 degrees, 57 minutes N, 121 degrees, 33 minutes W
Nautical Miles traveled: 845

"…And we went on living day by day in accordance with the abnormal conventions of the dream-world: anything can happen and whatever happens the dreamer accepts it." Roberto BalaƱo, By Night in Chile.

At night sometimes we turn off the running lights and sail through the dark, by the light of stars and bioluminescence. The moon was a waning sliver when we left and has just reappeared. It's nice to know it will be waxing as we travel closer and closer to our destination. On my watch I stand at the wheel and stare at the green discs of the instrument panel. At first I had to concentrate hard, now I can unconsciously nudge the wheel to keep the boat on course, and let my thoughts wander. This oversupply of thinking time takes some getting used to. It must have been the way people lived for thousands of years-long periods of repetitive activity in which the mind was unengaged.
I think about my past. I spend time in my thoughts with people I have missed recently. I think about my father's father, who grew up in Shetland and went to sea at fifteen. In 1921 he spent almost three weeks in a lifeboat with ten other men, on this sea. They eventually rowed and sailed 950 miles back to the continent, to be picked up off San Francisco. I try to imagine what it was like to be in a small open boat in the middle of this expanse, what he thought and felt. He died before I was born; I wish I could have met him.
I make plans for the future (though I try to be in the present) but this is not a journey which can be hurried even if we wanted to. We have had generally light winds, with intervals of 8-13 knots, when we can put up the blue spinnaker and make about 6-7 knots. It's not a fast way to travel, but it adds up…

Saturday, March 28, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Friday, March 27
12:00 noon Mountain time, 11:00am PST
Position: 17 degrees, 48 minutes N, 116 degrees, 31minutes W
Nautical Miles travelled: 510
Many thanks to my friend Michael (www.fisheggs.blogspot.com) for posting these blog entries, which we are sending via single side-band radio.

Our fifth day. And now the sea resembles nothing so much as a wilderness, a vast blue desert. Life is sparse and when it appears, usually solitary: a single Laysan Albatross, a White-tailed Tropicbird (which circled the boat, longingly inspecting the rigging for possible resting spot). Watching a tiny storm petrel zig-zagging over the waves, it seems unlikely that such a thing survives here; yet it would be warm, its heart beating, and it would smell of the musty oil it secretes to waterproof its plumage.
Our routines are now settling, the day and night dissolving into pieces of wakefulness and sleep. When not on watches we read and write, cook, and eat. Our appetites are coming back, which is a good thing as we have A LOT of food on board. Hammocks lashed to the ceiling rails above me swing heavily, stuffed with grapefruits, oranges, jicama, avocadoes, pineapple…
The night watches are cool, we had to dig out sweaters and fleeces for first time in months. The southern sky is thick with constellations, which I must spend some time untangling soon.
The days are punctuated by small things. For example the haircut I gave Tavish-leaving (at his request) a jaunty mullet (which has fortunately been recorded in photos, as he is threatening to cut it off).
When the winds are steady and we can sail downwind we hoist the big blue spinnaker and make 7 or 8 knots. Mostly the wind has been light, pushing us along at 5-6 knots. A couple of nights ago we lost it for a few hours and drifted slowly, the rigging banging, reverberating in the drum of the boat, until we gave up and ran the engine. We have to be careful with fuel. The trip is 2600 miles long and we have enough fuel for about 300 miles. (And after a few hours of no wind, we definitely want to be able to outrun the dreaded doldrums, which still lie many days away).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From s/v Circadia

12:28 MST Position 21 degrees, 9 minutes N, 111 degrees, 23 minutes W. Total distance traveled: 134 nautical miles

 If you have any reservations about getting started on a long ocean voyage, start from Cabo San Lucas. After two days in the anchorage, awash with the wakes of pangas, glass bottom boats, party cats, jet skis and cruise ships; after two nights of pounding 80's club music from the beach, we were happy to leave.

One other boat, (from New Zealand) took off a half an hour before us. Apparently there are other boats as well on the crossing, but it looks pretty empty out here.

Within twenty minutes of leaving the pinnacles of the Cape behind us, we had 20 knots of beam wind, and big, confused seas. Everyone skipped dinner. Out here, with less shipping, night watches are a little more relaxed than coming down the west coast. One of the two people on watch can usually doze, though sleeping on deck is like sleeping on minimalist furniture, or in an airport.

The sky was clear. Once in a while a falling star would shoot through the Milky Way. The water, mostlty rinsed of plankton, has turned swimming pool blue. But last night we passed through a school of squid so dense we could smell it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Surviving Cabo

Alison, by Jude

Just coming to the end of a week in Cabo with friends. Darcy, Jude, and I have painted and shown together numerous times. It’s great for me to have “the company of women” and for them to have a break from the relentless winter back home. Still getting reports of snow…
Jude and Darcy

Turned out it’s been spring break for American college kids this week. It’s been mostly entertaining watching the show: acres of flesh, swimming pools of alcohol. But we have been happy to escape Cabo most days for beaches and towns up the coast.
At the beach

Kim arrives today with crew, Tavish and Farlyn. They have had to motor down most of the way from La Paz. Hopefully we'll find better breezes on the Pacific. Tomorrow we’ll provision and, weather permitting, set out on Monday.
And so, my friends, thanks for coming along for the ride thus far. Your presence, visible and invisible, has meant a lot to me. I’m hoping to be able to make the odd post through the miracle of modern technology and the ionosphere. But if all fails, don’t worry, we’ll blow into some South Pacific Isle eventually (somewhere after the middle of April) and you will the first to hear about it!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blog From the Sea of Cortez 2


I was sorry to miss the chance to travel recently with our friends, Angus (you may remember him as one of our first crew members) and his brother Graeme. Graeme is a whale biologist (a whale magnet actually) and over the twelve days I was gone, the boys on Circadia managed to spot tons (literally) of whales: pygmy sperm, humpback, pilot, fin and blue (including a baby the size of a city bus).

Blue Whale (photo, Graeme Ellis)

Each day, my thoughts turn more to the next phase of our journey, the Pacific crossing to French Polynesia. I trust the boat and I trust our crew (Tavish, also an early crew member, and his twin sister Farlyn will be sailing with us). Yet, I am anxious. Recently I read an interview with a woman climber. When asked how she overcame her fear, she answered that she didn’t, she just went anyways. I guess I can accept that; I can drag my fear along with me, like a bad knee, like a lost chance, something I’ll never get over.
Brown Boobies

But I am also curious. Flying home from Honduras, the earth seemed animate from above—veins of rivers, spines of mountains. But impossible to know, except in its small and particular wrinkles: a garden, a street, a beach. I’ve always wondered how it would feel to move slowly over a whole sea, to be intimate with immensity.

But I have no idea whether these poetic sentiments will sustain me. I’m pretty sure I won’t find the lack of fresh food or bathing difficult. I can go feral with the best of them. What I’m not sure of is what will happen to time. Will the days drag by or will they melt into one another? Will I be bored? And space—will I feel trapped, or could I be “…bound in a nutshell and consider myself a king of infinite space”.

In the meantime we have had one last interlude in the Sea of Cortez, with Kim’s brother, Doug, and his two small sons.
It is a simple landscape, this hot red stone and cool turquoise water. One where a person could go to remember themselves. Or forget—burn things off, wash them away. But mainly, where you are reminded of patience—how slowly everything here grows, decomposes, erodes.
Palo Blanco

I will spend the next week in Cabo San Lucas. A week of terra firma and time with my best girls, Jude and Darcy, who are flying down from Canada, before I take off on the next leg of this journey. A week to compose myself, maybe finally do some reading on the South Pacific, around the pool.
Frankly, I’m still a little hazy on the geography of our next destination. Not the best strategy, to wade into life’s unknowns perversely unarmed with knowledge. But the truth is I think there is only so much we can do to prepare for the biggest crossings, real and metaphorical, in life. You have to wait and see what happens and when the time comes, as we say in Canada, “just give er.”

Honduras sketches

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pico Bonito, Honduras

                                             the Lodge at Pico Bonito

I first fell under the spell of tropical forest when I was in my twenties and set off to spend three months in the Amazon. In those days, among biologists, it was known as a good gig—room and board at one of the first jungle lodges, the Explorers Inn in Southeast Peru, in exchange for a little guiding and a modest research project.
So I got myself a South American bird book (which weighed about three times as much as my North American guide) read a little about tropical ecology, and decided that my research project was going to solve the mystery of the relationship between certain canopy fruit eaters and seed dispersal. I had been working at a botanical garden and had years of experience as a park naturalist in BC. Piece of cake.
It took about two weeks for it to dawn on me that I had been seriously deluded. First, to put it simply: in a 4 square mile piece of a coastal BC forest, 2 or 3 species (of conifers) dominate the landscape; in a tropical forest you could easily find 200 species of trees and that doesn’t even count the tangles of lianas, the ferns and orchids encrusting trunks, the great aerial pools of bromeliads, the under story of heliconias, herbs, and grasses. This is something like opening a mixed chocolate box—it’s better to have a key.
I had neither plant keys, nor botanists to consult. I would walk the dark forest floor, gazing up at the sunlit canopy, picking up strange fruits and flowers, with no idea what I was looking at. Sometimes a mixed foraging flock would wash around me and shake down the forest and I would flip through my bird book trying to get all the field marks before they rushed off again. Then I would simply lie on the trail on my back with my binoculars plastered against my face. I had a biologist’s existential crisis—if I couldn’t name things where did that leave me? Was taxonomy dead? Eventually I became lethargic, undisciplined, entranced. I would set off, telling the other naturalists that I was going to do research and simply wander the trails, watching.
Every time I’ve set foot in a tropical forest since, I start resolved and am seduced again. I lose my edges, start to melt into the whole thing.
This week though, it was different. I was on task—I was with BIRDERS—at the Pico Bonito Lodge, one of my favourite places in the world. The lodge nestles at the edge of a huge protected area, which cloaks the high steep flanks of the Pico Bonito Range. Looking at the wall of this forest from below is like looking at a beautifully stitched tapestry, rich with the many textures of the trees, occasionally embroidered with flowering canopies. Waterfalls feed rivers, which pause from time to time, in clear cool pools.
My companions were a mixture of writers, local guides, biologists, and eco-tour company owners. Neither a fleeting feather, nor a faint call was lost on them. I followed them happily, though often I felt like one of those foreign correspondents, slowed by their feed—mine being the time it took me to actually find the birds in the dense layers of forest. The final list was long and included some uncommon species. All in all a respectable piece of field work. Yet, it still feels more like love than science.