A Long and Lonely Thousand Miles

Clark April 12th, 2008

The novelty of the long and soulful solo passage has long since worn off. It was lonely and boring out there, but the alcoholism helps.

I left Nicaragua to meet my mom in Manzanillo, Mexico, exactly two weeks later. I figured I’d have plenty of time to get to Puerto Madero in a few days, then Huatulco, then cruise on up the Mexican Riviera. I tended to overestimate my day’s runs because I planned on there actually being WIND. The winds were light – I could only sail a few hours per day – and there was a foul contrary current that started in the middle of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and set me back at the frustrating rate of 1.5-2 knots. It made for day’s runs of about a hundred miles, mostly motoring and burning lots of expensive Central American fuel.

With every possible landfall I realized that I had to keep moving or I wouldn’t make it on time. As it turned out, my mom could see Condesa sailing across Manzanillo Bay from the window of her airplane. The timing worked out exactly right, except that she was actually expecting me to meet her at the airport.

There was an amazing amount of wildlife out there. I saw humpback whales almost every day:

They were doing a lot of acrobatics for me:

Do you know how long you have to stand there on a rocking boat, and how many times you have to try, to get a picture like this? And it’s still out of focus.

And then there were the turtles. I must have seen 10,000 sea turtles between Nicaragua and Mexico. When the weather is calm the whole sea is dotted with them, mostly green turtles, some hawksbills, and I think some Olive Ridley’s. It’s hard to believe they are endangered when there are so many to be seen, but it makes me feel good that I’ve been cutting my plastic six pack rings all these years before throwing them in the water.

When Condesa hits a sea turtle it makes a resounding thump. I assume this doesn’t hurt the turtle as Condesa is a pretty blunt object and the turtles have solid shells, but with so many of them there’s occasionally a collision. You’d think for an animal who has a brain the size of a pea there would be a very simple process: Sense danger…dive. But they’re sometimes sleeping or daydreaming, Condesa comes up upon them, and instead of executing a simple dive—as they have plenty of time to do—they panic! They sort of flop on one side, slap a flipper against the water, and blow all their air out in a torrent of bubbles. Then, after a couple seconds, they regain their composure and do the dive. I watched this dozens of time, since they will panic in exactly the same manner if Condesa passes close alongside them. By the same token, a turtle that sees Condesa at say, twenty yards, will submerge smoothly with no floundering about.

Here’s one of our friends:

And here’s one with a bird on his back. If this bird had a sea snake in his mouth we’d be well on our way to some sort of new Mesoamerican creation myth:

My best company of the whole trip came along when this flock of seabirds started dive bombing Condesa. They’d fly right into her side and swerve away at the last minute with a lots of squawking. I tried to get photos, but flying birds are notoriously hard to capture. I ended up with lots of blurry photos of the sea in the background. Anyway, this went on for about an hour, to where the novelty was wearing off and I wished they’d shut up. They kept getting more and more bold, until finally they were landing on the foredeck. With my past experiences with birdshit, I shooed them away.

A while later there was a strange gerb in the middle of the table in the main salon. I was stumped as to where this could have come from and finally convinced myself that I must have spit it there, eating like a bachelor an hour or so before. Then another hour after that I was sitting at the same table reading, I glanced down by my feet, and ahhhh! Norman! He instantly became Norman-he just looked like a Norman-and he was one of these seabirds, and he was sitting on my floor.

He must have come in through one of the open portholes. Now it was all clear, the gerb in the middle of the table was the first of many gifts from Norman.

Since Norman was the first live being in my world in about a week, we had lots to talk about. My first effort was to capture him in a towel and get him out on deck where he could fly away. I figured he just couldn’t find his way out of the boat. He pecked at me a few times, and this didn’t hurt at all: a laughable effort at self-defense. I got him up on deck, poised on the roof of the aft cabin, and he just sat there. I got him back in the towel and looked him over: no broken wings, no broken legs. He seemed fine. “Norman, there’s nothing wrong with you! It’s all in your head! You can fly! I’m telling you. With each passing minute we’re getting farther and farther away from the flock!” Nope, he just wanted to hang out.

I tried giving him some fresh water and I had some fresh dorado in the fridge. He wouldn’t touch either.

He was already starting to accept me. He didn’t peck at me anymore and didn’t seem at all scared. We were going to be shipmates.

The one problem with my new shipmate was that he was not potty trained. He shat about every ten minutes, but like a master with an ill-behaved dog I was willing to accept this because he was now mine and I was very lonely. Maybe this was what was wrong with him: He had the trots and couldn’t fly.

He stayed the whole first night under the table. The next day, after he’d had a good rest, I took him back out on deck and he still wouldn’t fly away. He was becoming quite tame. He’d sit on my lap, I could pet him, he’d preen a bit. I was already having visions of Norman becoming the Condesa pet, just like Long John Silver with his parrot. I’d be able to smuggle him through customs everywhere: I could just say ‘Oh, that sea bird? He must have just landed there.’

That night I caught a sierra. This is love: I cut open the sierra’s belly and removed four fry in various states of digestion. I brought one to Norman and ooh, he knew what that was. He gobbled it right up. I had found his natural diet: He wasn’t into dorado filets, but whole little fishies. Since the four fry didn’t look like much of a meal, I cut up some bits of the sierra too, and did my best to make them look like faux fry. Norman gobbled up his repast with gusto, a pretty big meal for a little guy, and promptly shat it all out on my Turkish rug.

How long could I supply him with his insatiable and finicky appetite? And what had become of his flock? And where was home? Was Norman getting hopelessly lost after covering 150 miles on Condesa?

He spent a second night under the table, but was spending half of the time nestled on my lap. He was very warm and soft, and for all I know he was a she, a Norma.

On the third day I brought him up into to the cockpit. I could tell the minute he saw daylight that he was going to make a run for it. I set him on the aft cabin top, he ruffled his feathers, and away! He charged out over the water, surfed the air current down a wave, pirouetted once or twice, then landed in the water and just sat there. Hmm.

I was worried about him. What if he was sick and that was a far as he could make it? He could now be easy prey for some predator. I dropped the sails and went back for him. It was very calm and he was easy to keep in sight.

I got close but he flew a hundred yards away and landed on the water again. He was afraid of Condesa and I couldn’t get close to him. It was hopeless. ‘Norman, come back!’ I tried four or five times, but Condesa spooked him every time and he ran for it. I contemplated launching the windsurfer board and paddling to him. Back in Lima I would have gladly killed little Norman as a contributor to the birdshit problem. Now in the middle of the ocean, I was contemplating risking my life to save him. In the end the risk of getting separated from Condesa on the open sea was too great. I wouldn’t have wanted to have spent my last days of life cursing myself for giving it all up for a seabird, and wringing little Norman’s neck for my last meal.

I had to leave him, and it broke my heart. He was bobbing among the waves, looking at me longingly. I felt like Tom Hanks leaving Wilson the volleyball behind, but Norman was a living, breathing bird. Maybe he’s fine. Who knows? I don’t even know what species he is…the cute and friendly species.

Leaving Norman behind put me in a dark and maudlin mood.

Norman in his favorite spot under the table:

Norman and I parted ways in about the middle of the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The Gulf of Tehuantepec is notorious for dangerous offshore gales, called Tehuantepeckers. It’s funny looking back to the first time I crossed the Gulf of Tehuantepec nine years ago. A big group of cruisers got together in a restaurant to discuss our ‘strategy.’ We all had steely looks as if we were going off to war. We compared weatherfaxes and weather reports and finally set off, en masse, as if being in a group would make any difference if things went wrong…maybe give us something to run into. It was a brave and terrible undertaking.

This time I called the Port Captain in Puerto Madero as I passed, got three totally contradictory and meaningless weather reports, then charged across solo thinking, ‘Bring on a fifty knot Tehuantepecker, please. At least I’ll be able to sail.’

Here is the notorious Gulf of Tehuantepec during my daring solo passage:

Making such slow progress I would have arrived in Huatulco on a Saturday, meaning I would have either been charged exorbitant overtime charges, or been put off till Monday to clear into Mexico. I pulled a sneaky night at anchor in a hidden cove to get some sleep and pressed on early the next morning. I figured I wanted to avoid clearing in at Tackypulco too, because the offices are scattered all over town. Zihuatanejo was the place: All the offices were in the town square and I could arrive on a weekday.

After nine days at sea without speaking to anyone except Norman, the Port Captain in Puerto Madero, and the voices in my head, I finally made landfall in Zihuatanejo. I was running low on fuel with all that motoring and wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. I’d just read this article in a sailing magazine about calculating your motoring range based on your useable fuel reserve. The writer was careful to point out that your useable reserve is not the same as what your tanks hold, because the fuel pickup is usually an inch or two above the bottom of the tank so that dirt from the bottom of the tank doesn’t get sucked in. It’s all useable, damn it! I drained both tanks from the sump, put the fuel in a jug, then built a sort of a day tank connected with a hose to the filter. This way I had every last drop of diesel to burn.

In the end I arrived with this much fuel:

There’s at least a quart there. That’s not cutting it too close, is it?

In a bizarre, sleep-deprived, semi-hallucinatory state, I ended up partying on Condesa with all of the officials in Zihautanejo. There was a cruise ship just in port and all of the launches were busy, so the officials ended up stuck on Condesa for about an hour. The doctor from Port Health was the instigator, but the customs gal, the immigration gal, and the Port Captain were all up for it too. The deal was that I had more alcohol than I was allowed to bring in to Mexico, and we could either drink it or they could confiscate it. We drank it. This was all done with smiles and I was happy to oblige. Did that really happen? Was I really partying and dancing, making jokes about drug smuggling, with uniformed Mexican officials?

Here is Condesa anchored in front of the famous La Casa Que Canta in Zihuatanejo:

And then I met Roberto, a member of the Acapulco Yacht Club taking one of his annual cruises. Roberto had a full-time captain, who was really a full-time bartender, and my two days in Zihuatenajo are just a blur. Here is Roberto and me after drinking all the Tequila in Zihuat:

I pressed the last few days to Manzanillo, just anchoring here and there to sleep along the way, and now we’re at Las Hadas, the hotel where the movie ‘10’ was filmed. Las Hadas was a haunt for the rich and famous back in the 50’s and 60’s, but now it’s seeming a little long in the tooth. The architecture is still amazing. Las Hadas needs a new PR/marketing manager to start bringing in the best DJ’s from Europe and put the place back on the map.

Las Hadas:

We finally crossed paths with Sandy Purdon from San Diego, a friend of Matt Thoene, the builder of this website. Sandy kindly invited my mom, also Sandy, out to dinner at Las Hadas with his shipmates, Rich and Doc:

The two Sandys and me:

From here it’s off to Barra de Navidad…

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Comment by Fjorder
2008-04-14 05:25:06

Good to hear you’re well. On my commute into the midtown Manhattan office this morn (ugh!) I watched—from the Q train— a recreational powerboat make her way north at about 25 knots between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. You don’t see too many private vessels on the East River during the early spring, so my first thought was that she’s a welcome sight. My second thought: I need to get on the water, man!
fair winds… J

Comment by Clark
2008-05-01 11:55:35

Hey Jeff,

Why did I think you lived somewhere else? Wow, Manhattan. I’ve never been to New York, so I only know it from Woodie Allen movies, where it always looks exciting. Well, summer is upon you, and the Endless Summer is almost over for me.


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