The Last Post. Full Circle, Maui to Canada Aboard Samphire, The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, and a Return to Mexico.

My email was just hacked and is all screwed up, this is the only way I can warn anyone. Don’t open anything from me that doesn’t look personal.

Can’t we just kill these virus assholes?


A gratuitous picture of Desesperado. How I miss him!

A gratuitous picture of Desesperado. How I miss him!


Maui to Canada aboard Samphire took 20 days and was more than a little tedious at times though not without incident. This section of the voyage had a different feeling to the first. During the 43 days from Panama to Maui I don’t think we took a single drop of seawater on deck but almost as soon as we upped anchor at Maui we were beating into choppy seas and strong winds and there was plenty of spray. This calmed down somewhat once Samphire cleared the Paiolo Strait between Maui and Molokai but for a week we pitched into a goodly wind on our starboard bow and you had to look lively on the foredeck if you wanted to avoid a soaking.

I am reminded – in my previous post I rashly declared that I thought Hawaiian sailing canoes are undercanvassed but now I see that they are rigged for the fierce blasts that whip along the channels between islands, so Hawaiians you win. I still think you paddle too much and probably can’t go to windward very effectively, but hell, you look the coolest.

Also in my last post I said something like a proper Pacific crossing involved arriving mad with thirst, having eaten the smaller members of the crew and been dismasted by a hurricane. Well, I should be careful what I wish for: on the fourth night we were dismasted.

At two in the morning a critical bolt worked its way out of the forward rig and the entire thing collapsed to leeward. Samphire has, or had, a unique rig consisting of two identical A-frames rising about 42 feet above deck, which are normally very strong ( I had no hesitation scaling them in order to sit on the horizontal plate at the peak to watch for whales whilst underway, as long as the motion of the boat was mild: up there I can get pretty sick), but, well, we should have kept a better eye on the bolts. We’d been flying a very small “fisherman” sail upside-down between the two mast tops and rather incredibly this sail, sheeted to the top of the aft rig and halyarded to the top of the fore, did not tear and was preventing all 400lbs of the forward rig from falling into the sea; the whole thing was hanging in the air at an angle to leeward and swinging about. The ocean was fairly bouncy, not to mention dark, but we were not in a position where the rig was banging against the hull and threatening to sink us (it probably couldn’t sink us, Samphire is tough), so we had time to plan and move carefully. Paul dismounted what was left of the Furuno radar whilst I went gingerly forward and rolled in the forward furling staysail which was fortunately still taut on its stay. Then came the process of cutting the forward rig free of its remaining good leg and cables, and in a couple of hours we had the whole mess lowered and secured diagonally across the deck. We sustained no injuries and the only damage to Samphire aside from the loss of the forward rig was a slightly bent guardrail and some scratches on the hull. We went to bed, lying ahull the night, rolling violently side-on to the weather. By daylight we finished cutting up the mess (oh the joy of inverters and angle grinders) and raised sail on the aft rig and so continued on our way.

The mess in the morning.

The mess in the morning.




Paul has long wanted to change the rig; Samphire was definitely undercanvassed, performed poorly to windward, and having no booms could not run directly downwind. So it is rare to find Paul on deck not staring up at the rigging working on a new plan. I think he may sustain permanent neck damage. The amazing thing with this dismasting business was that Samphire sailed on pretty much as well as she had before. We ran a jury stay from aft rig to the prow and hung staysails from this, and the usual staysail from aft rig to mid foredeck, and we could still make five or even six knots at times though we could not cut better than 20 degrees into the wind. In the end it made little difference – the wind began to fail us as we entered a region of calms; we had to motorsail and then motor only, though we would raise sail again at the slightest sign of wind.

We had sadly lost Miriam to work commitments so Paul and I had to take four-hour watches in turn at night for fear of hitting ships of which we saw very few but it only takes one. The dismasting had smashed the good Furuno radar but we had the more limited backup JRC radar which served well enough. We saw no ships at all for a couple of weeks.


The Eastern Pacific Garbage |Patch.


Our route to Canada crossed a thousand-mile-diameter region of calms roughly level with California where currents spiral inwards and dwindle, along with the winds. Floating debris from the North Pacific, anything that does not get washed ashore somewhere, is likely to be carried here by the North Pacific Gyre and go around and around for years. This debris consists almost entirely of plastic, which is degraded by sunlight and motion into smaller and smaller pieces until it is mostly in particulate form. There was plenty of larger stuff to see too, bottles, light bulbs, buckets, beer crates, pieces of rope, chunks of foam, barrels, scraps of this and that, and most visibly of all net floats from the fishing industry. We would come across these net floats, between the size of a baseball and a sheep but mostly around basketball size, every few hundred yards. They are always bearded with gooseneck barnacles and weed and host colonies of small crabs and are made of very tough plastic as an experiment I took a big hammer to one and had real difficulty breaking into it. I was always deviating course to examine floating things, having an abiding love for lost objects, but they were rarely anything but a net float. We found one glass float, basketball sized. They stopped making these years ago so the journey of his one must have been very long indeed. I figured that there are between 20 and 50 plastic floats per square mile giving a conservative estimate of 20 to 50 million in this area alone. These are just the lost floats – does it give you an idea of the scale of humanity’s attack on life in the oceans?

At no point did we encounter a real concentration of floating objects, at most we’d see something bigger than a hand about every 50 meters. But we only cut one line straight across; there may be regions in the Patch which are much worse.

The shipping industry moves around a hundred million containers a year and loses about 2000 of these over the side, some of which float and many of which must make their way into this oceanic dead end. There are surely be some other things too, like swamped-but-floating vessels and Japanese tsunami debris. I would love to go searching for these things although the containers would probably only yield left-handed baby shoes or the like but it would be fun, this treasure hunting. If you have the money to help make this happen contact me, I have some ideas of how to go about it with a good chance of success.

Occasionally I would raise some water and examine it closely for plastic. Typically each bucket would contain one or two pieces bigger than a grain of rice, three or four around pinhead size, and many hundreds of particles like dust, far outnumbering the visible plankton. What little that has so far been discovered about the effects of this plastic and its associated chemicals – pthalates and so on – upon the food chain is not encouraging.

Oddly, in this area which is only a tiny part of the Pacific (but seemed huge to us), we saw no sign of humans excepts the waste that we have dumped. No ships, no aircraft. It had a post-apocalyptic feel, lonely as hell, dotted with reminders. In this overpopulated world one might sometime wish for a clearing of people, a great disaster, but if the emptied world feels like this it is not for me. I would rather be counted amongst the dead.

We caught fish: wahoo, dorado, tuna, just enough to eat. We’d let the dorado go free, having developed a soft spot for these shimmering, prehistoric-looking electric blue-green beauties. They were smarter than other fish too; when hooked they would soon stop fighting and swim up level with our stern and off to one side, saving their strength for a last effort. We saw only one whale, an enormous lone bull that must have equalled or exceeded Samphire’s 52 feet. No turtles, and only one visit from dolphins the whole way. We learned to make bread; dinner sometimes consisted of nothing but a hot loaf with butter. We’d long ago exhausted our supply of literature and movies so we watched “Band of Brothers” and the very amusing “Modern Family” series. There was a lot of time to pass. We slept as much as we could. It became bitterly cold, something neither of us had experienced in a couple of years. I had to borrow clothes from Paul and my status as a fashion icon was somewhat diminished.

Canada drew near, thankfully. Paul and I got on very well together (long ocean passages are a true test of compatibility) but we were ready for an end to this voyage. The air warmed up, grew foggy. 120 miles out we were hailed on the VHF by some kind of US agency, presumably Homeland Security; twenty minutes later they buzzed us in a heavy twin-prop aircraft. A good use of taxpayers` money, second only to making enemies. Dramatic craggy land finally appeared through the mists. Salmon bit our lure like crazy; we fried one and it was truly delicious. We slipped into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, motored all day dodging all the floating timber, flaked and stowed our sails, coiled lines, cleaned up and made ready for port. At Victoria we tied to a fuel dock, cleared both immigration and customs with a short phone call and waltzed into town for a six-dollar beer. Kind of a damper, the price of celebration in `civilization`. I must say Canada as far as I saw it is a truly civilized place, very friendly, clean, safe, polite.

Samphire docked at Victoria.

Samphire docked at Victoria.


Twyla, now very pregnant, rejoined Samphire and her man. I took off to visit my father in Anacortes Washington just a short ferry ride away. Samphire’s gearbox croaked just days later; we had been lucky, with our poor windward ability and poorer wind we’d still be out there had that happened much sooner.


I am happy that I took the trip aboard Samphire, glad that I was there to help my good friends Paul and Twyla to bring their home home. However it would take some persuasion (perhaps here I mean money) to get me aboard any vessel for another such long trip. I am done with the ocean for now, I want to dig a hole, chop some wood, sleep n a proper bed, get some real exercise, see my home again, grow some food. Lacking a real reason to be at sea, life aboard boats will never be more than a temporary thing for me; we evolved on terra firma, we belong on the earth, even seamen depend on the land more than they will admit. Sailors are an aberration: resourceful, tough, almost unbelievably capable, indispensable, brave, romantic. But I am not sure that they are happiest of crews.


I made this test model in my dad's workshop. Yes, I am thinking of building another boat.

I made this test model in my dad’s workshop. Yes, I am thinking of building another boat.


I am back in Mexico, trying to recover the car I’d left here two years ago. Its permit expired two years ago and the Mexican bureaucracy is formidable, but I am making progress obtaining permission to escape without confiscation of my vehicle. Formidable? I mean crazy: I have submitted 32 pieces of paper, made 10 visits to Veracruz in 12 days, visited four different buildings and six different offices. They took 15 photos of the car. The worst thing about it is that the bureaucrats cannot find their own asses – they repeatedly and without apology give me wrong or incomplete information which causes no end of ludicrous hassle, then they expect respect which they do not earn or return. Mexican bureaucrats are scum.

Little has changed here except that the construction of housing projects and malls for the well-to-do in the Veracruz area has progressed at amazing speed. And everyone I knew who is now over the age of about sixteen is married, pregnant, or both; the birthrate is alarming (eg. nearby two sisters live with one man; they have 22 children between them) but perhaps will be compensated for: in recent months, I am told, Mexico has achieved the coveted world number one position in incidence of obesity, diabetes and cancer. These poor, lovely, oppressed, foolish people, I fear for them. They have given me a very warm reception back in the village of Playa Zapote; my survival is widely hailed as a milagro, a miracle, due entirely the intercession of Dios in response to prayers said for my safety; my own skill as a seaman is apparently irrelevant. I mostly just smile and stay silent, but the evangelism gets too much sometimes. “If your god loves us so much” I ask, “Why the mosquitoes?” The people’s hospitality extends to housing me and feeding me the most fantastic food, I just love it, and I feel extremely comfortable socially here and in a frighteningly good mood. Physically I am far from comfortable; it is now rainy season and the heat, humidity and biting insects are beyond belief. I haul nets with the fishermen early in the morning and we go back to our hovels with just enough fish and shrimp for the best breakfast anyone ever had anywhere. There seem to be hardly any fish any more and this is a matter of great concern in the village; for the moment the situation is being blamed on a PEMEX boat (PEMEX is the state oil company, all oil deposits are publicly owned; Mexico has the strange idea that the resources of the world belong to all the people of the world, not just the fat cats), this boat made a number of exploratory sonar explosions out at sea a few weeks ago – dead fish and turtles were washed up along the beach for miles and PEMEX is now paying about $130 per week per lancha for three months as compensation – but I really doubt that that PEMEX is the big problem.


I pay a social call on friends “Gordo”Angel and Marta Polom in the inland village of EL Zapote. For some reason they have moved into the little shed behind their house; perhaps it is cooler. The horse stands by and munches, the chickens scratch about. I sit in the doorway sipping the cool water they gave me. Without the ghastly heat, no delicious cold, without suffering, no joy. Marta sits before me with new grandchild Angeles on her lap, her love for the baby apparent in the way she holds her. Marta tells me what has happened in my absence; She talks because I never could understand a word Gordo said; he scowls a little as he tries to communicate and I look stupidly at him. “Many people cannot understand my husband” comforts Marta, “not just you”. She tells me their son Freddie split from wife Jessica; both remarried, had new babies, are happy. Grandson Angel is working as a cook at the marine base. Gordo decided not to plant watermelons this year so they have rented out their fields, but they still have the cows. Marta has had a lot of crazy latin dental work, each tooth patched and edged with silver, but it is not just the metal that shines from her smile; as she talks and jiggles the child her face is suffused with pleasure, and it shines into me, and I am suffused likewise. Nothing is biting me right now. I feel very good. It can’t last.




It didn’t last. A day after I wrote the last line I visited friends Reyna and Chinto. Their neighbors were passing around a small sea turtle which they had found in their gillnet, badly injured in one flipper from its entanglement. They’d brought it to shore hoping to sell it – I’m not sure how – despite the fact that this is a serious crime in Mexico. The poor creature was dry as a bone and they would not stop turning it upside down. I sat and fumed for a bit then took it from them, jumped in my car and drove away. Friend Victor called the environmental authorities and they came out to take it away for veterinary care and release. Splendid people, they clearly really care about their work. Now I am having to watch my back, since four fishermen are now rather annoyed with me; they are led by the particularly grim Pablo who has sworn to fight me if I do not give him about $18 US. Fuck him. I didn’t need this, making enemies here. I have sent the message that if he thinks I stole something from him I am quite prepared to go before justicia or Jesus. The fact is that it was not `his` turtle; Because they have slaughtered so many the ones that remain belong to everybody and nobody and not to the first person to go out and kill them. Personally I would like to see the same ethos extended to all the world`s wildlife.


The destruction of the beach here continues at speed: encroachment by the palaces of the rich, illegal dumping. Gringo Jack: “I used to think ill of tree huggers and their lawsuits. Now I compare my town in California with Mexico. Thank God for those people”


I found my little car not on blocks as I had left it but sunk in the sand with flat tires and both rear springs broken. According to Toyota replacement springs are twenty days away so by dint of scavenging scrapyards I have jury-rigged it with unsuitable ones from some other vehicle; my ride now leans both forward and sideways but I think I will make it at least to the border.  I am tired of the travelling. I have one more run to make, over 3000 miles to NY state and my cabin in the woods. This will bring closure to this adventure which has now consumed over five years of my life and almost all my savings. I am told that this saga has changed me (certainly it has aged me), and that is good for my motto was Change or Death. I know my feet have changed; the toes spread out and won’t fit in my shoes!

And after this – a return to Panama, maybe yet another new life, there are things I have not told you. They may have to wait for the book I have been encouraged to write.


I am unlikely to make any further posts; this blog has already run on much longer than I ever intended. I have had a most wonderful adventure and I have told of it and I hope that you have enjoyed the telling. I would like to thank you all for your support, it meant a great deal more to me than you knew. It has been lonely and scary and your many words of encouragement were a great comfort. Now you and I must find another brave or foolish soul (I was definitely the latter) whose exploits we can follow. I realize now that the world still has enormous space for personal challenge and discovery.

Perhaps the next discoverer will be you?

Across the Pacific.

I think I have fixed that dark-on-dark unreadability problem that has been troubling some readers.

During that time I have done little but hang about the archipelago near Bocas del Toro, Panama, sailing a great deal in the mostly weak and vacillating winds normal to the area (puncuated by the terrifying screaming squalls which so plague Carribbean waters), and endlessly agonizing over my directionless and pointless existance. If I had nothing to agonize about I would worry about that, it seems to be the way I am made. In my more productive moments I hauled Desesperado out and revarnished him, rebuilt the deck and hatches for the fourth time,  made a new shuntable staysail for storm safety which worked to some extent but still left me afraid to continue my travels upon a sea blasted by so many squalls and rimmed by a shore beset with huge breakers which I cannot cross to get to the safety of the land. I found myself worn out, my reserves of courage depleted, my determination to go on withered. Nicaragua really did me in. So I have accepted that at least for now the journey is over. But there is one more adventure to go:  when my friends Paul and Twyla of the sailing vessel Samphire asked if I could help Paul to sail home to Vancouver by way of Hawaii in time for the birth of their child I said yes. I left  Desesperado dismantled, packed up and hauled out of the water on the side of a friend’s house in Bocas and traveled to Colon to meet Samphire when she arrived from the Bay Islands of Honduras where she has spent most of her time since our last encounter.

To bring Samphire home, she first had to reach the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal. We spent two weeks at Colon working on the boat whilst  waiting for our transit slot. Colon is still every bit as dangerous as it has ever been but the non-mugging inhabitants are surprisingly friendly and concerned for the safety of strangers. We did not much dare to venture ashore after dark, even in the daytime we kept a sharp lookout behind us at all times. The Canal is perhaps the greatest engineering wonder of the world and yet was somehow not so impressive to pass through; the part I liked most was the huge iron doors on the locks which have been in continuous service for nearly a hundred years. We did all the usual stuff, taking on the pilots, anchoring overnight in Lake Gatun (die hull barnacles, die!), catching the lines thrown by the lock keepers, rising then falling.  Anyway, we transited the canal without incident and entered the Pacific, a whole new ocean with a distinctly different feel to the Caribbean. Panama City, a hot hell of traffic jams; provisioning the boat for the Pacific crossing was a huge pain in the arse but we got it done and finally pulled the anchor up on the 11th of April. What a joy to finally be under way.

Due to adverse winds one is unwise to try to sail directly up the west coast of Central America, Mexico and the United States to get to Canada. It is better to work far out to sea, then tack back in after re-provisioning in Hawaii. This first part, Panama to Hawaii, is over 4600 nautical miles as a very determined crow might fly, farther than Paris is from the USA. The Hawaiian archipelago is in fact so remote that in the whole of evolutionary history coconuts, which can float great distances before washing up on shore and sprouting, never made it to the islands (they were carried there from Bora Bora by the first Hawaiians, a thousand years back). 90% of the flora and fauna there is unique to the islands. Our crew numbered just three –  Paul Ross (captain) aided by Miriam Hanson and myself. I had hoped we would take on the real challenge of sailing all the way but to my dismay the engine was started every time our sailing speed dropped below 4 knots, and as there was very little wind for the first month we motored almost the whole of that time, grinding along through a low, slow swell, pulling up sails at the least sign of wind then dropping them shortly after in disappointment. It was hot and bright, the ocean heaved and sank in an unfamiliar way – the swell in the Pacific is of a much longer period than in the Caribbean and one feel like whole  areas are lifting up and down, as in fact they are. We ate well, trying to work through the fruit and veg before mold and heat ate them first. Every minute or so due to the timing of waves and swell the boat would go into a convulsion of rolling but there was no seasickness which we all found mystifying, none of us ever having been so immune before. In deep water in the Gulf of Panama we drifted whilst we snorkeled about, scraping the barnacles off the hull. They had grown big and strong at Colon and now were dead from their fresh water stint in Lake Gatun but still hard to remove. The next day we happened to read that the Gulf of Panama is one of the sharkiest areas in the world but we saw none though there were many large rays, jumping clear of the waves or lazing with their fin tips out of the water. Small migrating land birds would land aboard and stay the night, or just die on deck. I spent a great deal of time up the foremast (actually not a mast at all: Samphire has an unusual arrangement of A-frames instead of masts, easily climbed. You may see pictures of Samphire at ) looking for whales and dolphins or perhaps a shipping container full of Ipads washed out to sea by the Japanese tsunami. Dolphins of various varieties visited us several times a day and played around the boat until we were so familiar with them I jokingly referred to them as dullphins.  But there were two incidents with dolphins which I will never forget.

The first of these happened at night whilst I was on watch. The phosphoresence was unusually strong, and flashing jellyfish were numerous. These, stimulated by the disturbance of our passing, would burst a sudden bright green beneath us for a second only. Looking down over the stern at night whilst under power or sail it was like “shooting fireballs out of our ass”, this in addition to the regular trail of thousands of tiny bright green starlets in our bow wave and wake, plankton activated by our passage. I saw moving, glowing things in the water and realised it was five or six (they move so fast that they get hard to count) dolphins approaching, our first nocturnal visit. I roused my shipmates and we went up to the bow to watch the creatures as they glided around us and under the bow, completely sheathed in intensely bright phosphoresence. They were like angels, that’s the closest thing to it, stunning, quite indescribably gorgeous; they had quite an effect upon us. In a way I am glad this happened only this one time, it was too special a thing to see more than once in a lifetime.

The other big dolphin event was the spinners. We saw a disturbance in the water way off to port which rapidly converged on us. It was a pod (?) of spinner dolphins, so named because they have the unique habit of hurling themselves from the water and spinning through the air about their long axis, they can spin up to 5.5 times in one leap. There were perhaps two hundred of them, pretty much all of them leaping out of the water and spinning or somersaulting or just hurling themselves into the air, a mad tumult of jumping joy, the most insanely happy procession of creatures one could imagine. They were not feeding. How I envy them! Think of a children’s party, where all the kids have all been fed too much sugar and given new nintendos and unlimited tickets to Disneyland, and you would not even come close to how insanely happy these dolphins seemed to be in their communal progress across the ocean. They stayed with us a while, then diverged on their previous path. Like so many creatures this kind of dolphin  has been reduced in number by 50% since seine net tuna fishing sarted in the 1950’s.

One day off Costa Rica I saw something from the masthead and sounded the alarm. Because almost every “objecto flotando” we ever spotted turned out to be a bird standing on the back of a turtle this alarm consisted of the spotter shouting “Ca-CAW Ca-CAW!” and brought the others on deck in a hurry. The turtles seem to blow themselves up with air whilst they sleep and cannot expell it quickly enough to dive on our approach, sometimes their backs would be quite dry and they would be making obvious but futile attempts to dive. This time I’d seen two white objects which on closer view turned out to be fishing floats attached to some lost tuna fishing gear. One way of catching tuna is with many baited hooks strung along a very lengthy (kilometers) piece of heavy nylon monofilament strung between two buoys adrift on the ocean. This gear had been lost and had tangled up, and trapped in part of the mess was a turtle struggling for its life. We circled in and got him free and he seemed none the worse for wear so off he went whilst we pulled all the line and hooks aboard which took me a whole day to untangle and stow away, there being about a mile of line. We couldn’t just leave it there.

We’d been trailing a lure behind the boat and catching the odd bonito-like fish which we ate or salted and dried in the sun for harder times. Sometimes we’d hook a much larger fish, a marlin or other billfish but they would invariably spit the hook or break the line which we felt bad about, though we were pretty sure the hooks would rust away quite quickly and free the animal from its burden. A bird bit our lure and got hooked; it died. When we caught a 3-foot shark we realized that catching a much larger fish would mean a serious bloodbath so we eventually only used small lures, but sometimes big fish would bite these anyway. I built a big reel from scrap wood which could handle the large line we had recovered drifting with the turtle, and this did the trick, bringing in almost every fish that struck. The shark was delicious, as were a couple of dorado  and a wahoo. I am still not comfortable with even this limited slaughter though; I have to admit I fished to alleviate the boredom of the passage and out of interest in what swims below – in other words for entertainment, and the food thing is just an excuse for we could feed ourselves in many other ways. The dorado are extraordinarily beautiful, electric blue-green in color with yellow fins; we watched a pair swimming ahead of the boat one day and noticed that every time they were about to strike at a flyingfish they would instantaneously change color to a green and black tiger stripe pattern. They wear their mood on their sleeve. Wahoo aren’t pretty but they can swim at 50mph. Amazing.

A week in, 60 miles off the coast of El Salvador (for we were following the coast northwards planning to peel off for Hawaii around Mexico somewhere) we saw a small boat ahead, and open lancha containing three men, the first vessel we had seen other than the enormous cargo ships that we often avoided on their rapid routes north and south. This little boat was clearly tied to the lee end of a tuna driftline, but as we passed it disengaged and started to follow us. Why? We were off a very lawless country with our heads full of the ridiculously numerous and horrible pirate stories (all true) of Central America so this rattled us somewhat and by the time they caught up with us we were locked and loaded and greeted them with guns in hand. This turned out to be an overreaction but justified under the circumstances – a common trick is for an approaching lancha to appear all innocent or even in distress then suddenly whip out firearms once close enough to their prey, and it is a fool who does not take precautions day and night in Latin American waters. I did not feel cool carrying a pistol, in fact my heart was in my mouth. It turned out they only wanted to know if we had cigarettes which we did not, nor did we give them anything else as I felt we should have: I felt horrible about this rude greeting on our part; fishermen had always been friendly and generous towards me on my own voyage. But it was not my call. I felt even worse about this in the light of what happened later. We motored on.

And on, and on, timeless grinding across the doldrums. It was bliss to turn off the motor during the rare bouts of wind and travel in peace like real sailors. When the wind came it was always more or less behind us and as Samphire has only roller furling and other staysails without booms we had to zig-zag in order to keep the sails full. Sometimes we put two large jibs up on the double forestays like cupped hands held ahead, and this worked well running directly downwind as long as we poled out the clews. We’d do anything we could to add an extra half-knot of speed but on a run our options were limited. As she stands today, Samphire is undercanvassed, heavy and not fleet withough a good 20knots of wind to push her. At 25 days our fresh food was almost gone and we had only a few days worth of diesel left. We had this running joke, a dream fantasy we invented called “The Great Pacific Fruit Basket” which we imagined to be floating out there; maybe we would find it and have fruit again. But the ocean was barren, now we were 800 miles out from the Mexican coast, now a thousand, moving a hundred and twenty miles a day. The radar scans out to a 36 mile radius and rarely showed a blip, this was remote, we were out there, it was hard for the mind to grasp the scale of this watery plain. The dolphins stopped coming but we still had a few birds, the same ones day after day; they’d form a raft ahead of us, wait for us to pass, take off and fly ahead, settle again in our path. Sometimes they would ride aboard for the night, unafraid of us, but after they’d crapped down the forehatch onto Paul’s bed one time too many (once) they were banned from hitchhiking, They’d hunt about but seemed unable to catch much until the wind came up; then they would use this wind to fly and swoop at great speed, catching in mid-air the flyingfish that at times almost continuously burst from beneath our bow in airborne schools of up to a hundred at a time. These aerial hunts were exciting to watch, the skill of the birds breathtaking. They could rush at the water where they knew a school to be and the stupid flyingfish would be startled out of the water, then the bird had a chance to grab one if it had a little luck in addition to its considerable skill. I once saw a flock of boobies, maybe fulmars, whatever, low in a cloud of flyingfish, when a fat tuna sailed into the air from ahead of them. The birds going one way, the tuna flying through the them in the opposite direction, the flyingfish everywhere. Spectacular.  Another time I saw a skua repeatedly diving on a lone flyingfish weaving to escape the menace above whilst a dorado powered along behind with only its tail in the water. The poor flyingfish had nowhere to go, and the dorado bit him out of the air just ahead of the skua’s third dive.

The ocean was empty. We rarely saw a floating object of any kind. No more turtles, no ships. None of the expected garbage except one day a lone fishing float. No seaweed at all unlike the Caribbean where the stuff floats everywhere. Sometimes we would stop and swim around the boat hanging three miles high in the clear blue void; well not quite clear, there were always jellyfish, plankton and many kinds of drifting skeins of connected eggs to see. The boat looks weird from below. Goose-neck barnacles were already proliferating and a couple of remoras were clamped on near the rudder. The water just goes down and down, blue with shafts of light. It’s no place for a human. We all thought about the horrifying prospects of falling overboard to float helplessly in this emptiness until the sharks came… and we held on tight to the boat whilst on deck especially at night. We’d also try to imagine the journey of a sinking object, say a tin can thrown overboard, as it sank into the dark and the terrible pressure for three miles.

We were 26 days out and a thousand miles from land with no wind and only three days worth of diesel left, when we found the Great Pacific Fruit Basket. Or rather it found us.

I love to tell this story; some stories should be told because they give credit to the people who made them happen (in this case Mexican fishermen). I was on watch in the morning, reading in the pilot chair, my crewmates asleep for they had taken the two night watches. Sailors used to work all the time but we are in a fiberglass boat, neither modern nor fast but very reliable and with our excellent autopilot doing the steering we don’t have to work too hard and we had leisure to get through a lot of books. I heard a noise and to my amazement a pretty little orange helicopter came up from behind. WHAT? A small helicopter, maybe even not a big one, does not have the range to be out here unless… I fired up the radar, yes, there was a vessel about 15 miles astern. The helicopter hovered over us and the copilot leaned out of the door, smiling and waving, which of course I returned. He looked Mexican. Off they went and I thought no more of it, until the radar blip started converging on us. A mile off, the Mexican tuna boat Azteca 7 hailed us on the VHF. Hola! Hola! Donde van? and so on, very friendly. We told them we were on route to Hawaii. Can we be of any assistance? asked Capitan Mauro. Well, do you have any unneeded diesel you can sell us? asked Paul. Certainly! they replied. (This was crushing to me, I despise motoring and was counting the minutes until the fuel ran out so we would be forced to sail the Pacific like real mariners. I was also afraid they’d give us food. To me, after all the stories I’d read, no Pacific crossing is really worth the bother unless you only just make it to where you are going half-starved, crazy with thirst and preferably dismasted by a hurricane. All this motoring made things too easy and fast. I wanted a challenge, not help. It is more than this deep-seated need of mine to do things the hard way, the fact is that being becalmed is part of the experience, and the joy of at last getting wind is all the more intense for the waiting.Further, unless one goes slowly at least some of the time one is likely to rush past the many wonderful wildlife experiences that only happen to a slow or stationary boat. I do have to admit that the journey would have taken weeks longer without the motor and that Paul cannot wait; Twyla is 8 months pregnant and of course he wishes to be there for the birth.)

So a thousand miles from land we tied up to the Azteca 7‘s 120 feet of steel. We were held away from them by two small speedboats (they had five of these), though conditions were calm there was still the swell so the mini boats had to pull the big boats apart to stop us from smashing together. Soon they had a hose in our diesel fill and were pumping away, about 300 gallons of fuel. They filled our water containers. They loaded aboard baskets of fresh fruits, piles of vegetables, fruit juice and four whacking great tuna fish though we managed to give two of these back, for we could not refrigerate or possibly eat this much fish. For all this, perhaps $1700 worth of stuff, they refused to take a penny! It was quite overwhelming and I was mortified with embarrassment. Miriam went aboard their boat for a tour, they had not seen a female in weeks so of course they loved this. There was a great deal of chatter back and forth and we parted after an hour or two all smiles, with us really unable to come up with an adequate expression of thanks. I remembered how we had greeted those fishermen in the lancha off of El Salvador and felt shame.

That night as darkness closed we were at last under full sail when Azteca 7 appeared on the horizon ahead of us. Would you be our guests for dinner? asked Captain Mauro, and off course we could not refuse and were glad we did not for dinner was excellent and our hosts were extremely charming; they made us glow with pleasure in that way that only Mexicans can do. Pedro, who had lost three fingers aboard in an accident (crushed between two of the small boats), and Domingo took Paul and I on a tour and later we were shown a DVD they had made detailing how the tuna are caught. We saw every part of the vessel, the refrigeration equipment, the monstrous engine, the workshops, food fridge, their little chapel, rec rooms, the helicopter, bridge The diesel engine that powered their bow thruster is six times as powerful as Samphire‘s only motor. Azteca uses up to 13,000 liters of diesel a day. I’m sure right-wingers think this is entirely reasonable. The crew and captain seemed to be one big happy family and very casual; at one point a lowly deckhand took me into the captain’s stateroom without asking any permission.

The ship itself  is onew of 16 owned by the same man. It leaves port loaded with 600,000 liters of diesel plus aviation fuel for the helicopter and gasoline for the five speedboats and the pango, a monstrously fat and huge “dinghy” which carries and deploys the net which is 2.5 kilometers long and 180 meters deep. There are 25 crewmen and they stay out three to four months on average, returning when they have caught 1200 tons of tuna. The chopper spots the tuna schools by looking for jumpers, discolored water or more often the presence of dolphins which follow the tuna for (they say) unknown reasons (the dolphins do not eat the tuna). Once spotted the ship heads fort he school, deploying the speedboats which hang over the side and are dropped by winches whilst the mothership is making full speed, about 15 knots. This is a tricky business but we saw how competent the men are when they took us aboard in this manner; we left Samphire at the end of a long rope and were ferried across on the little speedboats which were hauled up the side with us aboard. The speedboats herd the tuna school together and when the ship arrives it launches the pango which circles the school, paying out net as it goes. Then they start to draw the seine closed at the bottom, at this point the dolphins sometimes escape by diving deep and the tuna sometimes follow. When closed at the bottom the net is slowly drawn in over large roller raised up on a huge crane. All the gear is huge, modern, expensive and highly effective at what it does.

Dolphins in the Pacific (not to mention the tuna) have been decimated by the tuna fishing industry but these days Mexico is extremely serious about protecting marine mammals and turtles (however it seems fine to decimate anything that doesn’t breathe air, such as the tuna themselves, just as on land only the cuddly creatures are spared our shameful cruelty) so at this point, with the circle of net hundreds of yards across, some of the crewmen actually jump over the side into the boiling madness and swim across the net herding the dolphins out with their own bodies. Part of the net is pushed down (I think) to let the dolphins escape. The men seem to have a soft spot for the creatures nowadays, and are proud of this part, and they do it despite the fear they feel because of the occasional presence of billfish such as marlin in the net, which can impale a man. Once they caught a marlin which they said measured from beam to beam of the ship which is about 40 feet, which seems incredible. The dolphins themselves are frightened but never attack. Once they are removed the net is drawn in tight and becomes a boiling, thrashing mass of fish and blood, and is too heavy to drag aboard so a big net scoop is lowered in repeatedly, hauling out load after load of tuna and dropping them into a chute which channels them down inside the ship and directly, whole, alive and ungutted into holds filled with freezing brine. These are skipjacks and on the video they averaged about four feet in length, quite  a sight to see thrashing their way down the chutes in a spray of blood.. The fishermen never actually touch the fish except a few that spill from the scoop, these they boot into the chute. They told us that sometimes they catch octopus in the nets, ones with big heads and short legs, (not squid they say), which I would not have expected to find in waters three miles deep but I wouldn’t expect to find crabs swimming about out here either, and we saw these all the time. Another surprise – the presence on the surface of insects– water skaters of some kind. Insects, way out on the ocean. Really.

The day before we met the Azteca 7 had caught 180 tons of tuna in this way in a single pull, so they were in a good mood I guess. A deckhand gets $6.00 per ton caught, the fishing master (who had worked his way up from a lowly deckhand), gets $87 per ton. A full hold sells for about three million bucks. They plied us with more gifts, candies, tequila, A mazatlan mug, a huge bag of limes. We talked until late, Samphire out in the dark, looking like a dinghy, flyingfish attracted by the lights leaping all around the boat and dorado leaping after them. We parted friends, back on Samphire we pulled on our halyards and slipped away into a once more black and lonely ocean.

This encounter with Azteca 7 and its gentlemanly crew was of course quite thrilling to us, but also sobering. We saw a mercilessly efficient industrial operation, the kind that has been emptying the ocean of life for decades to the point where its population of large predators are now at a level, according to some estimates, of only ten per cent of their former numbers. Throughout the world wildlife is reduced to scattered undersized remnants taught to know their place, a fact that we on Samphire often lamented, for our experience on the ocean is significantly impoverished by the paucity of wildlife that used to be overwhelmingly present. I do not blame the fishermen, it is the consumer who pays for this to happen; as long as there is demand there will always be supply. No adult has any excuse to be ignorant of the results of their choices; I myself have been aware of the tuna industry’s depradations, including what it has done to the turtles and dolphins, since my teens and have for decades made the strict conscious choice not to support the fishing industry. I buy no seafood, it is only on this voyage, living on the sea, that I have fished at all. In my opinion money should be taken out of the equation, (in fact money should not change hands over flesh of any kind, it leads to cruelties and environmental damage on a horrifying scale): if you want to eat fish, catch it yourself. People catching fish for themselves and family and friends have never been a problem and I would never want to deny people that experience. It is the commercial operation – millions upon millions of deadly efficient boats  sent out by you – that is damaging and unsustainable. Tut tut you might say, what a shame about the ecological disaster that is upon us, but does it happen despite you or with your full and active participation?  Rob our descendants as our ancestors robbed us, strip the world bare. What’s in your pantry?

This is without getting into the other issues – eg. the million dollars in fuel this ship alone burns each trip, the devastation of an ecosytem to keep one man in opulence, the tragedy of the commons (whereby an inheritance supposedly common to all is destroyed or denuded by a few, for a few).

Sigh. I feel like one of the few sane people in Nazi Germany or the slaving South, shouting the obvious to deaf ears, despised for doing the right thing..

In the next few days the wind gradually increased as we entered the trades and for for a week or two we surged along under sail at six or seven knots, faster than we ever went with the motor unless we ran it hard. The little wind turbine kept the batteries happy enough to power the autopilot so all was quiet but for the noise of water gurgling past the hull. The waves never went above two or three meters, coming up behind us, marching on ahead. Without wind from the side to steady us we rolled grievously and cooking in the galley (which needs work to make it ergonomic at sea) became a real trial, things would slide around, nothing could be left unattended for more than a few seconds without it jumping onto the floor or spilling scaldingly onto one’s legs. Tempers became frayed in the galley at times. Seated for supper in the saloon, we all became adept at catching our cutlery as it leaped into our laps, sometimes we were really flashy and caught it without looking or breaking conversation. If an object fell to the floor and started rolling and sliding around one did not bother to chase it around the room, it would come back in its own time to be plucked from the floor and replaced, to spread its wings again soon enough.

Since they were mostly boiled down ages ago it was not until day 39 that I spotted a whale. Its spout was much more dramatic and obvious than I had expected, a cow-sized ball of steamy vapor that puffed above the waves and nearly surprised me out of the rigging . “Ca-CAW ca-CAW!” There were two, humpbacks, we approached the juvenile one by sail and it wheezed along nearby for a short while before sounding. Big, really big, maybe 40 feet long.

Time slowed down for the last days. 700 miles to go, 600. Our best day was around 150 nautical miles.  The trade winds withered annoyingly (as measured on Oahu they have decreased 28% in the last thirty years for unknown reasons). At 80 miles to go to the Big Island I started to spend even more time up the rigging, but there was nothing to see ahead; in fact the much-coveted sight of Hawaii rising impressively from the ocean was denied to us; as dusk came we were only 15 miles distant but could see no sign of land through the heavy low clouds. We saw lights in the night and in the morning we were crawling up the east side of the Big Island which we bypassed in favor of Maui where Paul has friends.

Checking in at Ma’alaea customs did not bother to board us. Odd considering our last port of call in cocaine country. “You came from offshore so you’ve got no garbage right?” asked the customs man. It is totally normal for a boat to throw its garbage overboard, a cruise ship dumps up to 7 tons per day. Criminal. It is 2013 now, no? It seems acceptable to throw cans over for they rapidly corrode to nothing, and paper for it quickly disintegrates, but we had saved all plastic aboard. An area near here known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a kind of becalmed gyre twice the size of Texas, is thought to be home to 100 million tons of floating plastic. This is only one of six such major gyres in the ocean. On the next leg of our trip, from here in the Hawaiian Archipelago to Vancouver – 2500 miles, we expect to pass through a part of this garbage gyre.

Maui – friendly, highly touristy, stunningly beautiful, clean as a whistle, safe as Disneyland; opposite in so many ways to Latin America. The native Hawaiians are much more amiable here than I experienced on the Big Island a couple of years back ( I hope I was just unlucky there). Uncomfortable as a tourist, I volunteered at the local canoe club and helped a little with the building of an incredible traditional-formed 63-foot double canoe. I hitched around the island; it is very easy to get rides; Maui has the most civil traffic I have ever seen. Some of the worst woo too, amongst the New-Agers. Enough of the “Spirit this, goddess that, this is blessed, that is sacred” (this from folks who would try to tell me they are not religious). I had an argument with a chemtrail believer the other day, poor deluded fellow. Unburdened by facts, logic, scientific literacy or the ability to think critically, he must stumble through life wearing a foil hat.

The Hawaiians have the coolest-looking outrigger paddling canoes in the world, but when they put sail on them they undercanvas and add no leeboards so they cannot go well to windward. They are happy to use modern materials such as glassfiber and epoxy resin but seem uninterested in improving performance. Their sails are so wrong that they must paddle all the time, a tedious proposition to me but they seem to like it for cultural identity reasons. I have seen nothing as outrageously cool and effective as Desesperado. If they want to get out on the water, tourists here are stuck with whale watching, diving, trips on submarines or sailing trips on regular yachts and catamarans which don’t seem to want to turn off their motors, Hawaiians could be selling really thrilling adventure sailing on improved traditional outriggers. Over and over again I heard, after taking people out on Desesperado “This is by far the most fun we have had on our entire trip”.

And get the hell out of here with these whale-watching boats, million dollar power cats with “eco-adventure” plastered all over them. Burning that much diesel on trips this tame, there is nothing either ecological or adventurous about them. Chasing whales about with power boats: where’s the dignity?

I’ve more to say but am out of time – we are ready to pull up the anchor and raise sail for Vancouver.It is just Paul and myself now, sadly we lost Miriam to her work obligations. Miriam we miss you, now it is just men aboard we will degenerate into animals.

Possibly I may be tracked my SPOT signals although there are gaps in INMARSAT coverage out here so no transmission does not mean we have sunk. Here we are:

Since my adventures are nearly over and my cash is running low, I am going to need some form of employment. Any ideas, anyone?

Vancouver or bust.

The Panama Interlude

Ok, ok,’ll write something…it is a reflection of my state of indecision that I have been unable to post an update for so many months. Apologies.

I am still here in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I feel disconnected, as if I have been wheeling on the wind at anchor, glued to the border between sea and sky for all my life. The USA has become as foggy and unappealing as Eastern Swaziland. Not to disrespect Eastern Swaziland of course; I’m sure it is lovely.

I know that inland there are roads and homes, trees and rivers and such but I have little to do with them, they are not my world. I look out onto the land as the folk of the land look out on the sea. My territory is the water and its edges, the lagoons and the sea, channels, bays and beaches, endless mangrove islands and inlets, and to a much lesser extent the indian villages and the town of Bocas del Toro with its border of stilted cafes, bars, habitations, dive shops, water-taxi enterprises, hotels and marinas. I have barely touched the mainland nor been more than a few hundred yards from the sea in at least a year. I cross the vast expanses of water aboard Desesperado, poke at the edges, push off again and fill the sail to slip towards the next place, return to my present home afloat in the anchorage and tie up alngside. I don’t know what I am doing here; it is mostly pointless but also enjoyable at times, so I take one day at a time and try not to let my doubts and anxiety pull me down. I’m sick often – fevers and such – and tropical infections have been a problem, my skin is aging from exposure and my eyesight has deteriorated alarmingly; I think the constant intense light of tropical life is burning out my eyeballs.

The town of Bocas del Toro sits at one corner of Isla Colon which is just one of many islands in the Bocas archipelago, perhaps seven miles across. Between this island and the mainland to the south lies a lagoon, big but one can see the mainland on the other side, mountainous Tierra Oscura, the “dark lands”, black beneath a nearly perpetual covering of cloud. All around lie islands and islets and these in turn are largely surrounded by mangrove swamps and mangrove islets which have little or no solid land, being made up only of the mangrove trees themselves growing out of the salt water, sprouting from an impossibly tangled mass of their own roots. I look upon these swamps with horror, they are no place for a human being, but they are not all bad. Since fish can take shelter within the maze of roots this habitat is extremely valuable to them and to other wildlife. I hear of a gringo, drunk, driving his panga at full speed into the mangroves in the dark, thrown forward off the boat into the roots, to crawl out in a nightmare of tangled blackness. Horrible.

After the chaos of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua it is a pleasure to see a place where some rules are taken seriously and there is some measure of municipal control. Panama is quite civilized. Bocas del Toro for example, is rigorously fumigated for mosquitoes, every single building blasted with DDT and patrolled for standing water which makes it the only place I have yet visited other than Isla Mujeres where mosquitoes are rare, though sandflies are far from scarce and are a constant irritant even when anchored out. I am one of those unfortunate individuals who scratches and thrashes about whilst everyone else says “What bugs?” This fumigation I believe is a descendant of the measures taken to control yellow fever and the like during the building of the Panama Canal. It is cheaper than endemic dengue fever, though there is always some of this about. The police are useless here as they are everywhere south of the north, muggings are rampant (the weapon of choice seems to be a two-by four), we are all so sick of being robbed by the indians and others, but the cops are not completely idle; they will ticket you if you walk down the street without a shirt on or fine you if your vessel’s Panamanian pennant is tattered. Always for the money. One may not smoke in indoor public places nor walk down the street with a beer. I kind of like it.

Bocas is noisy in places but peaceful compared with Mexico. The music is horrible as usual, joyless tuneless creole rap-jabbering glorification of scumbaggery and misogyny to which one cannot dance (not just me, it make neither the locals nor anyone else move with any enthusiasm). Calypso seems mostly gone in the Caribbean as far as I have yet seen. One holdout is Calypso Joe who wanders about and plays out cheery stuff on his guitar including his magnum opus “If your mother and your wife were drowning / Which one would you save? / I tell you you better save your mother / You can always get another wife in your life.” There are many interesting and offbeat characters here, most deeply steeped in alcohol which is hard to avoid.

Bocas Del Toro was founded about a century and a half back and was just a village until the arrival of the banana company. The company shifted operations elsewhere leaving today’s Bocas to survive on tourism and as a refueling and transfer hub for the cocaine trade.  Business in the latter racket is good, but as a tourist one might be completely oblivious of it except for the easy availability of the stuff on the street. One may be offered drugs several times in just one half-mile walk along the main street. Banana ships still cross the lagoon to Almarante, the narcos had one of their own ship disguised as such for a while before getting nabbed. Just a few days ago The US Coastguard sank a narco submarine nearby outside the Drago channel, speedboats and yachts are also caught occasionally but we all know that the ones bagged by the local authorities are mere publicity tokens. The big boys are left alone. Few here have a real problem with the trade, Bocas itself has a strong undertow of black money and sin, one can feel it the air, but there is no air of malice or threat. The US Coastguard are less popular than the police or narcos; They show up for shore leave every couple of weeks and the crew are found very intoxicated in the Toro Loco on the drug that someone decided should be legal, and sometimes scoring weed on the backstreets. They are hated by many of the cruisers whose boats are aggressively boarded, searched, and damaged under the pretext of “safety checks”.

It is said that there are three Bocas lies:

1) I am not drinking tonight.

2) I am leaving tomorrow.

3) I love you.

To which I have added a fourth: 4) I am just going a for a pee.

When a lady here goes to powder her nose, it is very often literal.

    Being dependent on water traffic the watery edges of town are infested with rickety wooden docks to to which a huge fleet of pangas tie up to load and offload cargo and passengers (there is also an aging concrete dock for the two ex-Baltic ferries – reputedly stolen by the Russian mob – that lumber back and forth daily from Almarante on the mainland); every waterside business and home – all of which stand out above the water on stilts – has at least one dock, the shore is hairy with them yet it is very hard to find a place to land Desesperado. Private interests have usurped the entire shoreline and we are supposed to be grateful to them if they grudgingly allow us to tie up. With the myriad pangas zooming around being beside the sea in Bocas is like living by a go-cart track; whilst recognizing their usefulness I despise the graceless pangas (referred to as lanchas in earlier posts), they are the bluntest of instruments, ugly fiberglass workboats with outboards bolted on. Laden with life-jacketed tourists they hound and kill what’s left of the dolphins and turtles, they pollute with extreme noise and oil and fuel, as they scream around their wakes knock me off me feet and smash my vessel against docks, swamp the indians in their crude dugout cayucos . They use horrifying amounts of fuel – typically a gallon of gasoline every three miles and are driven at top speed almost all the time resulting in injuries and deaths from collisions with other boats and with swimmers. What is this feeling of a god-given right to travel at high speed everywhere one wishes on the water with no care given to the costs beyond the personal financial? Pleasure journeys are not pleasurable at all, the scream of the motor drowns out any conversation but that shouted directly into the ear, and there are always the painfully expensive stops at the fuel dock. There is some sailing done, mostly by me as I travel everywhere without hesitation by sail, but also a little by the cruisers on their yachts (most of these motor a lot of the time) and a bit more by the Ngobe-Bugle indians who are everywhere in their cayucos, bailing constantly as they fish, some of these carry a crude sailing rig which they can step and unfurl in seconds, the sail itself is a ragged piece of plastic tarp or sewn-together polypropylene rice sacks. They have no leeboards and cannot carry much sail nor work to windward, and often I find their occpants regarding Desesperado thoughtfully as if they wish to learn to improve their own craft. I don’t think they actually will though, they seem content to paddle for mile after mile most of the time. I find it remarkable just how much they can do with such a shitty boat as a cayuco – uncomfortable, unstable, always leaking (one’s seated posterior tends to plug the boat completely so one must bail in front of one as well as behind), easily swamped (the paddler takes the panga wakes broadside, a four-inch head sea can swamp the boat), but narrow and aquadynamic enough to be easily moved with a light stroke of the paddle. Few white people would brave the open sea in such craft but the Ngobe-Bugle indians, at least the young men, seem to think nothing of venturing a few miles out and spending hours diving in ten to fifteen meters of sharky water. It is difficult to imagine how they caught enough food before they had masks and snorkels, spearguns, metal hooks and nylon monofilament; doubtless there was a lot more marine life then. I wonder how it feels to be a Ngobe or a Bugle as the pangas scream past, looking up at the many impossibly complex modern yachts. These indians live in huts on stilts in the sandfly-infested mangroves, in small villages in huts on stilts on what solid land they can claim above the mangroves, and also higher up on the mainland in their own camarca, a semi-autonomous region. Many of the men and a few of the women speak Spanish as well as their own language so we may talk a little, they are inscrutable though not unfriendly. They sit in their rotting craft bailing almost continuously as they hook little fish with fast jerks on handlines. They go through the anchorage overloaded and unstable but never sinking and I buy bananas and root vegetables from them. I meet them out on the vast expanses of the lagoon or the sea, they are paddling the miles patiently or diving spearguns in hand for fish and lobster, their snorkels fitted with some kind of reed (ok it is probably plastic) which makes a flutey piping noise as they breathe on the surface; they say it attracts the fish. I see children getting about by paddle in the bowl of a wheelbarrow.

     Some of the dugouts are impressively huge. Apparently they can still find a few trees large enough to carve out a high-sided canoe upwards of 45 feet in length which will go at a good speed with a small outboard despite their weight. We race each other across the lagoon, all smiles, if there is sufficient wind I can beat even the fastest of them and this is a thing of wonder. Deseperado is famous in the archipelago, and Panamanians black, white and indian are all gratifyingly appreciative of him. Often I ampaced by boautloads of tourist snapping pictures .Winds here were mild and fluky for most of my time here leaving me to take hours to go nowhere but occasionally beset by vicious thundersqualls during which I have had quite a few scary adventures. For the first two months the thunder and lightning were pretty much continuous. Now we are in the worst of Panama’s rainy season, rain that beats one about the head, cold but not unbearably so, rain that soaks the world, mildews my clothes and sails, rain that can sink a dinghy overnight.

I have not moved on, I don’t know if I can. The Nicaraguan coast frightened me almost witless and ahead lays worse. I hoped my courage and enthusiasm would return but it is not happening. I have been here nearly six months. I have made some friends, such as Belgian Chris, an all-round dude and decent fellow, speaker of six languages, good-looking and fun-loving. He found me in the rain on Desesperado months ago and arranged a boat for me to stay on, then another, and has warmed my life here with good company and large quantities of rum. We run to Starfish Beach on his boat Marita, work together to save yachts dragging at anchor in storms in the night, investigate mad schemes like raising sunken boats and sometimes even do a little useful work. Though mired in self-doubt I sometimes realize that this is as good as it gets, this could be the time of my life. I realize that much of what I have said about Bocas is not positive, it is a weird place, but it does have good qualities: friendliness, relative safety, the blue easy waters and an openness for one to make what one can of one’s existence here.

But the doubts do stand. To live afloat is to separate oneself from all things green, to never dig the soil, to never hear a bird that doesn’t just squawk or schreech. To be utterly dependent upon systems and stuff. To rarely break a sweat in meaningful work, though there is an abundance of work to be sure.. I just read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a haunting masterpiece whose dominant theme is the beauty of the land, and I ache – literally ache – for the mountains and streams and invigorating physical work in touch with the life and land amongst and upon which my being evolved. The sea has its beauty yes, but it is not a human element. Many are driven, not pulled, to it. Here the land is a humid and swampy bug-infested jungle replete with snakes and virulent infections; the indians can survive it but it holds little promise for the rest of us.

I live aboard Odin, a massive brute of a trimaran with a white deck like a tennis court, out at anchor south of town. Odin is a masterpiece of heavy construction built by Captain Kirk, and launched in 1969, still in perfect condition. Desesperado looks like a toy tied up alongside. Captain Kirk, 78 is a kindly and amusing man of amazing physical zeal, a well know tug-and-salvage man of San Francisco harbor. I could say so much about him. I love the guy and and would do anything to protect his boat which is now under contract for day charters and needed a watchman whilst Kirk himself lives on an extraordinary molehill of an island completely surrounded by mangrove swamp a few miles to the south. Somebody must guard Odin from the besieging thieves and learn the systems to be ready to fire up and cut loose the anchor when another boat drags down upon it in a storm, and I take my duties seriously to the extent that I rarely leave the boat at night and head back to it at speed at the first black sign of a squall.

I have lately been trying to save a big steel Chinese junk wittily titled Nuthin’ Wong which went up on a shoal during a squall a month ago. Repeated attempts to pull her off have come to nothing, and high winds and waves pushed her up and up until now she is seriously grounded in a deep hole in the coral sand. I have been unable to persuade my partner in this enterprise to take what seems to me to be the only logical approach – quit trying to dig the ocean deeper, instead float the boat higher then lead her off like a lamb. To this end I devised ultra-cheap airlift bags and have made enough of them to apply over five tons of buoyancy; I am keen to use them but with one let down after another I may not get that chance; the high tides are now passed and Nuthin’ Wong has now opened a weld and is leaking badly. It is another painful lesson to me that sometimes one must just take over and not wait for others. I should now use my time to make repairs to Desesperado for he now needs re-varnishing and a new sail, and the new deck I put in a few months ago is already deteriorating in this damp climate. A rudder bracket just snapped off meaning I must cut the new deck open again. Admittedly I have not gotten much done for myself in recent months; between my many illnesses and a penchant for going off trolling by sail it seems there is little time left over for work. Sometimes I pick up a random person for company from one of the hostels on legs and sail them out the Bastimentos channel through the rough stuff thrown up where the outgoing current meets the incoming swell, then surf back through the waves , perhaps landing a shining fish on the way; it is always a pleasure to hear someone say as they so often do that that was the finest experience of their whole long trip, one of the best of their lives. Desesperado shines on.

Sorry about the lack of photos, the climate ate my camera. I’m surprised it lasted this long.

There is a great deal more I wished to say about my experiences here, but suddenly everything has become a rush. Yesterday I was asked to join the sailing yacht Devaneo as paid crew on a charter trip from here to Cuba and back via the Colombian islands of San Andreas and Providencia. There will four of us aboard and we will be out for two or three weeks. I have long wanted to make some long ocean passages for which Desesperado is unsuitable, in fact I have not been more than forty miles out. I dread the seasickness to which I am prone but I am very excited. We weigh anchor tomorrow..

Bluefields Nicaragua to Bocas del Toro Panama by Pacific Flying Proa.

I have been in Panama for a month or two now but here is the story of the last jump for those who are interested:

After three days in Bluefields Nicaragua procuring a new GPS and trying to download charts into it without success I could not wait to get back to sea -life moored to the municipal dock lacked any privacy and there were plenty of rough characters about though I was safe enough especially in the daylight. Around midday I cast off and sped southward down the lagoon towards Rama Cay but the wind failed me at the last moment and I anchored by a small island a mile short of Rama. Some of the Rama Indians came by on their way out to the lagoon´s sea exit to do some night fishing in their dugouts, most of which are outfitted with little crabclaw sails. They said hello and perused my vessel which has a similar, though much larger sail and unlike the dugouts can work to windward by virtue of its flat leeward side. Desesperado can easily outsail anything around here but the indians seem uninterested in building better craft, or even in sailing upwind though they spend many tedious hours paddling. Amazingly, all the Rama I met spoke English (as well as Rama and Spanish)! As with the Miskito farther north, the British had a big influence around here. They invited me to their village on the next Cay but there was no wind now; I have to admit that to some extent this was an excuse: I could have made it to Rama Cay by paddle (though not in daylight) but frankly I was so worn by being the center of many, many groups of Indian, Garifuna and Latin spectators along the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts that I just wanted to be left alone for a while. Once the Rama had all departed I was at last alone to enjoy a beautiful sunset and after dark things continued to go well because I had by some fluke managed to properly adjust the tarp (which is about an inch too short and therefore very finicky) and this turned out to be one of the rare nights that my bed stayed dry through the inevitable downpours.

Morning, and I sailed across the lagoon with another excellent Rama fleet towards the exit to the sea, weaving under a gorgeous sunrise between friendly men and (unusually) some women raising nets and crab traps into their dugouts. One almost never sees women working in boats in Central America – they go only as passengers. The men showed me the long sticks they carry aboard, into the end of which they insert a detachable barbed metal spearhead for hunting turtles. Once thrust through the turtle’s shell this barbed head, which is tied to a long length of line, detaches from the stick and the creature may then be played on the line until exhausted. “We get sharks this way too” they told me. The Rama were as easy to like as the Miskito, but I left them in the estuary and dithered slowly out to sea over a sandbar not too afflicted with surf this calm morning. Too calm: it took a long time to go nowhere this morning, in fact by early afternoon I had only made about five sun-roasted miles along the coast. I was trying to stay far offshore to minimise my presence in an area notorious for piracy and violence but could not make much progress out to sea. I realized I had one great advantage – my crabclaw sail would look from a distance like the sail of any of the cayucos from the lagoon (which do sometimes venture out to sea on such calm days) and therefore I would appear from a distance as a poor target for the bad guys.

I passed numerous small islands, none of which offered me any kind of sheltered anchorage. I really wanted to stay clear of the mainland if I could, after all the stories I had been told it felt just plain scary. It was late in the afternoon when I rounded Monkey Point, threaded some more small islands, and very nearly put into a mainland cove for the night. But it felt wrong, I didn’t like it for no reason that I could explain. Despite the shelter available there I carried on past Monkey Point.

Here in Bocas del Toro, Panama where I sit writing this I met Alphonso. He’s Argentine or Spanish and came down the Nicaraguan coast in his tiny sailing boat no longer than mine (though it has a cabin and motor) only because he is an inexperienced sailor and feared making long open-ocean crossings. Anyone with experience would take on the open ocean rather than the Nicaraguan coast in a heartbeat. It is the land that kills boats. Well, Alphonso put in at Monkey Point one evening. Soon a panga (a lancha , fiberglass launch powered by an outboard) appeared carrying two armed men and a woman. They circled Alphonso waving their guns and would have boarded but the woman aboard became hysterical crying that she did not want to be a part of this. The men relented, saying to her in Spanish (they took Alphonso for a gringo who didn’t understand them)  that they would put her ashore and then return ¨to fuck this gringo.¨  As soon as they left Alphonso fired up his engine and burned out to sea, then cut it dead and drifted in the gathering dark, still close enough to hear the men circling and cursing their inability to find the gringo. A lucky escape for Alphonso.

A couple of days before Alphonso had put in at Puerto Cabezas as I had, and had the same trouble with immigration and the awful “harbor” as myself. Three men came along the pier and threatened him with machetes, but Alphonso has been robbed so many times before that he had prepared a bundle of paper wrapped in a few small bills and a plastic bag which looked like a lot of money, and he gave this to the men.  He also gave them two full gasoline cans, but they were full of rainwater he’d been saving for washing clothes! At that moment the military came along the pier bearing Alphonso’s passport which they’d taken earlier so the men scrammed, clearly planning to return. As soon as he had his passport Alphonso cast off and headed out to sea.

I think I got off lightly in Nicaragua. I will never return to that coast. Maybe the other side of the country is better.

I made it ten or fifteen more miles to the mouth of the Rio Punta Gorda and passed over the sandbar to enter the mouth without incident. It was a strikingly beautiful place, green hills and jungle, a wide river, no significant habitation, a military post with unfriendly soldiers who took my documents and radioed back to Bluefields. Nicaragua seems quite intensely paranoid. I was cleared, and sailed back to midriver (to avoid the worst of the sandflies) where I anchored, slept well and was off and being mangled by the waves on the sandbar early in the morning. Where the outflowing river meets the incoming swell over the shallow sandbar things get pretty interesting but I can get through this crazed spiky surf well enough as long as I have enough wind to maintain steerage perpendicular to the waves. But this morning there was little wind so I got turned side-on to the waves which crashed over the boat in droves and gave us a thorough cleansing. Desesperado takes these beatings well and I have become rather phlegmatic about them myself during the actual events. Drifting downriver towards these maelstroms is a different matter – I pretty much chew my nails down to the roots.

I think it was only thirty or forty miles to San Juan de Nicaragua, the last town before Costa Rica. I ploughed along weaving through the usual vast amounts of driftwood washed out of the rain-swollen rivers into a sea which varied between grey and green and brown as it had for hundreds of miles.  Areas of differing current would be separated by “trash lines,” bands of driftwood and garbage twenty feet wide. I’d have to slow down and push through. Often the sea on each side of these lines would contrast in color so sharply that the transition between one world and the next would be jarring, like putting on a pair of heavily tinted glasses. I had little information, only a road map, the base landmap in the new GPS, and an ancient chart of the coast of such large scale it showed three whole countries. As I approached the area near the point where I thought the town of San Juan should be I saw nothing, and the wind rose to a fierce blast and clocked around into my face to force me to beat into it. Big surf was pounding the coast making a landing dodgy at best. Here I was once again beating towards an uncertain landfall and running out of time –  soon the sun would set. I hate these moments – they are not just moments: because boats move so slowly situations like this go on for hours. I already have enough of an anxiety disorder, I get awful headaches from the strain of trying to decide tactics, of fearing the weather, the surf, the night, the bad guys, of dealing with such massively important uncertainty, for such long periods of time. This was worse than usual. I could see no port, no town, no landing, and the sea was really getting unpleasant. The only thing was a naval vessel anchored far out guarding the border with Costa Rica only just around the next point. I figured I would have to beat out to them and ask where the hell the town was, when a black dot behind me resolved into a panga.  Hooray, maybe. A panga at sea around here can help one or kill one. Too many tales of violent piracy, such as the one from a likeable young dude on the dock at Bluefields who earlier this year was out lobstering in his panga on the offshore reefs. In the night he was woken by BANG BANG BANG! and rose to find his friend, who had been on watch, shot dead. The pirates boarded from their own panga and took his GPS and the iced lobsters and conch from the cooler.

Two rather brutish-looking men were aboard the boat approaching me now, and three small children. I figured even the worst of the worst would not hack a gringo to bits in front of their kids so I was reassured. They were all clearly astonished at my presence, I get this a lot; I in turn endeavored to appear unruffled by my situation and not a fellow to be trifled with. We shouted over the wind; they said I might make it to the Rio Colorado and enter it but it was seven more miles and there was nothing there. Nearer, at invisible San Juan de Nicaragua where they were going, there was beer. That settled that.  I would follow them into some kind of entrance ahead. We pressed on towards the blank, sandy, surf-beseiged coast. It made me nervous as hell to look at the scene. Big brown surf, left, right, and dead ahead. We lumped towards the land.

Oh my. The worst sandbar yet. I could not see the entrance, only wild surf, but judging by the muddiness of the water there had to be one. The panga went first, using their powerful outboard to fly diagonally along the trough between breakers which rose high and muddy to my left then crashed down to my right. Desesperado can handle some pretty nasty surf but I have to be able to run it perpendicular to the waves – any other way and a wave will knock me wildly off course and the next breaker will then hit me broadside with an impact that has to be experienced to be believed. Here there was no way to go in but diagonally  – if I went in perpendicular I would just hit the beach and not enter the river. If I did not go in I must stay out all night in a dark and mean sea. So in I went. A huge wave reared up and I thought “This is it, the end of the trip” but it crested below then broke only a yard or two past me. My heart hammered crazily as I dropped into the trough behind, then I was hit by one, two, three big breakers which crashed over the outrigger and smashed it below spinning me about and nearly chucking me overboard, but in the next trough I got things back under control and now with a little speed up started to surf diagonally along the next wave. I was unable to head directly towards where the guys were waving, they having dropped off the kids and heroically come back out to guide me; I had to veer closer to land and at one point bumped over a shoal.  Wow!  It was madness, but Desesperado came through it brilliantly and I was so high on adrenaline by the time I reached smooth river that I was singing, which probably made me look like a madmen but I do not mind arriving at a place with this kind of image. Certainly the guys in the panga thought it was all pretty cool. I can’t describe the feeling of making it through a mess like this and entering calm protected water. Euphoric certainly.

A calm but fast-flowing river, truly gorgeous, running between the land and a raised spit of forested dune which ran along the sea’s edge and completely obscured the town from the ocean. Well-tended dwellings, palms, lush greenery and fields, a few docks. I cruised upriver until Justo smiled at me from his house on pilings half over the water and I shunted in to ask him if I could moor there. Certainly, he said. Mind the crocodile at night though, it comes past sometimes and is very, very big.

This fine place was founded in 1538. For the first time I started to like Nicaragua.  Some kind of fair was in progress on the green by the river: young girls dancing in cowboy hats on a stage, a lot of small makeshift noisy bars, some good-natured drunkenness. I got a sort of rice-and-bean stuffed empanada to eat and was in a good mood indeed but made the mistake of paying a courtesy visit to the immigration office. Carlos the official was unhappy to see me. My exit stamp, banged on in Puerto Cabezas, was now a week old which meant, oh so reluctantly, he had to fine me. No. I refused to pay. They’d told me in Cabezas that it was perfectly legal to return to ports down the coast even after being stamped out, especially in case of maritime emergencies and I was declaring such an emergency.  Carlos did have a point though, returning to land after being stamped out a week previously was pushing it a bit. I just didn’t like the sweaty bastard and wasn’t going to make it easy for him. He had to call Managua and to my amazement Managua backed me up! I was legal! Time for a beer.

Back at the fair people more or less ignored me but were not actively unfriendly. Those few I did talk to said that the town had changed since 600 military personnel had been garrisoned there recently, they didn’t like the military presence much. They were aware that Nicaragua has a friendliness problem, they told me so. Carlos had ordered me to report to these military folks, so I went down to the base but nobody could be found to deal with me so I promised to return the next day.

I never saw the crocodile. The next morning I was admitted to the military base and chatted with the soldiers whilst waiting to be dealt with – the lower ranks were well-intended enough but seemed wary of their superiors when interacting with me, for the officers were not friendly at all. They put me in a panga with a grim lieutenant assigned to inspect my boat. It was all very serious. They threatened to prohibit my departure, my presence and vessel were all too irregular, there wasn’t even a motor. Fortunately I had a certificate of maritime safety for the boat procured by great good luck upon registration in Mexico (nobody had even looked at my boat there) and they could not argue with this and didn’t want me around anyway. Ok, you can go. But go see the Port Captain for final clearance.

But what’s this? says the Port captain, Your zarpe is a week old, you cannot leave with an old zarpe. You must buy a new zarpe. No, I would not. Talk to the Port Captain in Cabezas, he issued the old one and said it was good. I have paid all I am going to pay to the government of Nicaragua for a mere few days in your unfriendly country.  Port Captain called his superiors and again to my astonishment they backed me up. I was free. I got back to the boat and cast off before they changed their minds.

It was now midday.  Down the river and around the bend to the sea. The sandbar had not gotten wild with the afternoon winds yet so we only got a mild battering in 5-foot waves on the way out, then it was a long beat out to the point and around and YAY! I was out of Nicaragua and into Costa Rica!

I passed the Rio Colorado. Outide I saw something weird sticking out of the water. It looked alive. I approached. It was a pair of big turtles mating! One atop the other, gyrating around and around, gasping heavily, they did not submerge immediately as turtles almost always do when approached. I watched for a while, it was pretty hot stuff. They finally submerged reluctantly and I felt guilty. I saw nine more pairs of mating turtles in the next 17 miles  of increasingly blue water to Rio Tortuguero. I had not seen much blue water at all in weeks. My first Costa Ricans appeared along the way, speeding out in a small skiff, goggling at me and smiling. “You came from Mexico?” The whole feeling of threat I’d experienced in Nicaragua evaporated. “They are rich down there in Costa Rica” some Nicaraguan had told me “and things are much better.” And so it was. These two friendly guys must have been out fishing but all they had in the boat was thin rope and long sticks. They zoomed away after a little while.

I planned to enter the river and visit the town of Tortuguero in this area famed for turtles. There were indeed plenty of turtles, big ones. Three miles short of the sandbar I met a panga bearing five men who were friendly and amazed at my vessel. They said I was on a good bearing to cross the bar but  it was “muy brava”, not good news. For most of my trip I have been very fortunate in that offshore shoals have attenuated the big swells and caused the surf to be mostly quite manageable, but now the sea was deep all the way to the shore and the waves rear up to scary heights before breaking thunderously. It is terrifying. Not only could my boat be destroyed but it is purely a matter of chance whether or not I myself might escape unharmed from a sailboat tumbling in the foam. So I was in some doubt about whether or not I could land in Costa Rica at all.

Suddenly the men in the panga ceased conversation and took up long sticks. They shot off in the direction of a pair of mating turtles only a hundred meters distant. I fumbled in Cargo Bay Three for my camera but was too late. The men roared up on the turtles and hurled their harpoons into the poor creatures. One struck home and as I caught up and sailed close I could see the line snaking rapidly from the big coil on deck. I asked “Is this turtle hunting season?” and the men were silent until one said “Yes,” but I think it was a lie. I carried on. I did not want to see the rest. It is low enough to hunt these creatures but to do so whilst they are mating seems quite despicable. I might add that all of the men aboard the panga were well fed to the point of obesity.

Now I was only two miles from the river at Tortuguero. A squall appeared, the wind clocked into my teeth. For two frustrating hours I worked against a wind that seemed to have a personal vendetta against me. I could not make it to the bar, and eventually the wind was coming directly from the land so that even if I reached the bar I would have to tack against the wind and would certainly get destroyed. The only way to run a really bad surf is to have enough wind to be able to keep up with the waves – in fact if one can go very fast one can stay between the waves and never be touched by them at all. It was getting dark. Reluctantly I turned and headed on southeast along the coast in the dusk. I was in for my first all-nighter.

I have anchored offshore for the night before and tried to sleep, and might have tried that here had I 1000 feet of anchor rode. Now all I could do was to carry on sailing despite the fatigue of already having steered for 7 hours which was wearing heavily on me. I put on my wetsuit, got out my flashlight and ate some stale soda crackers which are my staple diet.

It turned out to be a lovely night, partly cloudy and moonless but with a gorgeous display of stars. I steered by the Southern Cross until it rotated out of view. A great trail of phosphorescence poured off the hull, the outrigger and the rudder. I was a good ten miles offshore and the few lights on the coast passed slowly. Even this far out I saw a bat and some fireflies. The wind blew steadily and without vindictiveness and I had a pretty easy time of it. In the small hours I reached the port of Limon, which as Costa Rica’s only Atlantic seaport was ludicrously busy even at this time of night. Huge cargo ships moved about, confusing lights were everywhere. It was extremely difficult to tell what the hell was going on.  Some kind of big patrol vessel was going around and around in a circle a mile across so twice I came within a hundred meters of it but it did not spot me. I kept my flashlight off despite the unnerving proximity and speed of the ships. I was in Costa Rican waters and getting the idea that there was no point in entering the country legally – to what end? Most of the coast was inaccessible to me due to the surf. Likely I’d just get charged a lot of money for nada. So I kept my light off and hoped to avoid all contact with the authorities.

I don’t know how I got through that insanity of moving ships at Limon. It was worse than a sandbar for adrenaline. No sooner than I’d slipped behind one of the monsters then another would be bearing down on me from somewhere else, festooned with indecipherable lights and belting along at fantastic speed. I have no radar reflector and there is almost no metal aboard Desesperado. I was still dodging these things as it grew light, fortunately I had enough wind to make some speed. At last I was out of the lanes and the sun rose red over the eastern horizon and I could stop for a bit and eat some more crackers as a school of bonito leaped around me eating their own breakfast of tiny fishes.

But now the wind died. The sea became glassy. Until two in the afternooon I drifted under strong sun in a state of unbearable heat, trying to hide under a portion of the sail which I had dropped since it was doing no good. If I tried to sail in what few puffs there were I would doze off immediately, but with the sail down and nothing to do I could not sleep a much-needed wink.  I drifted near mating turtles and enjoyed their gasping. In the afternoon I made some progress, and by dusk I was in Panamanian waters but still 14 miles short of Isla Colon and moving slowly.

I did not relish the thought of another sleepless night at sea. On the south side of Isla Colon lies the town of Bocas del Toro and I have a friend there, Captain Ray Jason of Aventura, but I had no decent chart, only the very basic land map on my new GPS. To enter the channel between Isla Colon and Isla Bastimentos in the dark with such scanty information would be the height of foolishness yet it was that or drift about all night with no information about the upcoming weather. So I crept in, mile after pitch-dark mile, always listening for surf or waves breaking against rocks. I could hear surf to my left, surf to my right, but none ahead, so I kept going, not liking it much, ready to shunt and backtrack at a moment´s notice. There was no sign of the light on the northwest corner of Isla Bastimentos described on my terrible ancient large-scale chart of the coast. A line of light which must be Bocas del Toro slowly hove into view but there was no way to tell if there were rocks or a reef or a breakwater between myself and them. It was all very confusing and scary. I appealed continuously for help on my VHF with no response. The swell beneath me began to rise and fall sharply, indicating shoaling. At last I saw a light nearby – a boat! I shone my flashlight and yelled and they immediately fired up their outboard and shot away. Well thanks a bunch. Drug smugglers probably, I was told later, I don’t buy it but have no better explanation. I crept on. I encountered another boat, or maybe the same one for it also ran away.  My rudder touched something but maybe it was driftwood. I was tired of squinting, crouching, straining my ears, metabolizing adrenaline, staying awake.

At last, my flashlight picked out something, a bunch of white pilings near a shore. I heard later that this is the remains of a hotel that the owners left unattended for a couple of years and the locals stole the entire building piece by piece leaving only the pilings! I shunted over, dropped anchor, set up my hovel and fell gratefully asleep. I had come 130 nautical miles in 35 hours.

In the morning it became clear that I had by great good luck barely missed a coral shoal beside the island of Carenero which does not exist on the GPS basemap, it is marked as open sea. Columbus careened his ships here I am told. It costs double to check in on a Sunday so I spent the day sailing around the area. On Monday I pulled up on a tiny bit of sand next to the Port Captain’s office to check in. People came out of the office, had a good laugh at my boat, then went back in to get more people who came out and laughed too. They checked me in and relieved me of $183 but were very friendly and offered me every assistance. Panama is a huge breath of sweet fresh air after the horrors of Nicaragua´s Atlantic coast. It is cheap and friendly and not in the least threatening. The Bocas area is an archipelago of small hilly islands and mangrove cays, coral reefs, sandy beaches with big surf, palm trees and bananas. The inhabitants are Latins and Afro-Caribbeans and Ngobe indians paddling about in their dugouts. And of course ex-pats from the USA and many other countries whose presence has led to things like decent roads and municipal garbage cans. There are surfing schools and dive shops and one can get hummus here.  I get a few people pretending to be my friend then asking for cash but not too much, it is all pretty laid back. When some black guy whistles at me from his seated position on the other side of the road, trying to get me over so he can hustle me I say “I am not your dog.”  For some reason bananas are sold singly and never in a bunch so this is the wrong place to come to if you want a whole bunch of bananas. There is hardly any wind here, but booming thunderstorms abound at this time of year. The area is frustratingly fishless; apparently the indians net the river mouths and hoover up all the critters.

My foot keeps going trough my rotting plywood deck. I plan to fix it before moving on. I am so tired of my things below deck getting soaked, and of having to bail out the big hull all the time. In a night’s rain it can fill the hull to a depth of over a foot. I need a foul weather sail and a new shelter and there are many other small repairs to effect. I feel bogged down but must put up with it until I can make these repairs and modifications. The cruising community have been very kind especially Captain Ray, and Belgian Chris who motored over in his dinghy to offer me an entire unused yacht to live aboard and get out of the considerable rain. I am now comfortably ensconced aboard Evening Star, a 40-foot Islander. And Lenny from Windancer who solved my chart problem: there are now 1147 digitized charts in my GPS. Yahoo!
I would be wise to end my journey here but likely I will go on at least to the San Blas Islands, maybe Columbia. I hear good things about both. I’ll let you know.

I made it to Panama!

I’ve been working on a post describing the trip from Bluefields Nicaragua to Bocas del Toro Panama but I just can’t seem to get the thing finished. In the meantime: I made it to Panama safe and sound, and am presently hanging about in Bocas del Toro doing a bit of sailing and waiting for the right situation to appear conducive to my replacing the entire deck on the main hull of Desesperado which has decayed to the point that my foot goes through it all the time and the holds flood in rain or waves to an extent that is no longer bearable to me. I must also make some kind of alternative sail along the lines of a stoprm jib to render the boat safer in foul weather. Bocas del Toro is quite pleasant and safe enough if one ignores the odd robbery or rape, and the frequent rains are not a bother to me since Belgian Christian, a fine bloke, took pity on me and let me live aboard his unused and empty sailboat. So all is well. I am likely to be here for some weeks yet, after which the San Blas Islands and the Kuna indians beckon. And then I suppose Columbia. Will this ever end?


Aqui estoy mis amigos.  Here I am:  This links to a site where you can see a map showing exactly where I am, or where I was last time I sent a message from my SPOT satellite tracking device. I always send a message from offshore just as I am setting sail, then another when I arrive somewhere, but don’t necessarily send one every day; if there has been no message for days it means I am still at the last location shown. Or dead.

Again, I have little time. Desesperado sits at the public dock in one of the dodgiest towns I have ever visited, Bluefields Nicaragua, and I hate to leave him for long. I only came here because I ran off the end of my map and my piece-of-shit Garmin GPS that claimed to be waterproof but wasn’t finally wheezed its last, taking with it the entire record of my journey. It is not good to not know where one is.

I last left you dear reader in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. Port Captain Moreno wouldn’t give me an exit zarpe without a stamp in my passport and immigration wouldn’t give me a stamp without an exit zarpe but after a few beers and a long strange motorcycle ride in the dark and mud (into which we crashed) visiting his favorite bars, or were they brothels – I wasn’t sure, Moreno lightened up and my way was clear. Still, it was insisted that I leave at the time the zarpe dictated so I committed to 5pm and hauled up the anchor through all two feet of muddy lagoon water and before a crowd of 200 on the pier shot off rather dramatically into a nasty wind and blasted through the chop, I mean really blasted, the boat under water as much as above and myself freezing wet, across that lagoon to the naval station at the mouth in only 40 minutes, where I cleared out with those friendly guys. I find navies consistantly gentlemanly in Central America. A night anchored in a cove in the lagoon mouth, then out across the wavy bar early in the morning which I filmed but it was disappointingly easy. Out at sea it was pretty windy and rough and after only two or three miles beating to the east I was forced to shore. I was a mile or two from the nearest village (Kaski) but had an endless stream of lingering visitors all day. They are nice and generous people mostly, bringing me coconuts, yuca (cassava, a tuber something like a delicious waxy potato), beans and rice, fried plantains. Likeable though they are they just don’t go away and I find it extremely wearing trying to entertain guests long after my well of conversation has run dry, and to have many people watching my every move all day becomes a little distressing. I can’t even take a piss, not in front of all those people. I’m English for Christ’s sake. It rained a lot, and they left  me alone to read in my shack but were soon back during the lulls.

Many warnings about saltantes (bad guys), but nobody bothered me in the night. At dawn, desperate to escape my already growing audience and the ravaging sandflies I attempted to break through the surf with no wind, under paddle power alone, but a series of freaky breakers washed me and the deck bag overboard and smashed the boat back to the beach. I had neglected to secure or zip the deck bag and lost my entire supply of cordage, anchor rope and all, which was a serious blow. My carbon fiber yard was snappped, and the broken end driven through the sail. Damn. I must expect setbacks but they are harder to take when they occur through one’s own stupidity.

Another day on the beach making repairs. Endless tedious visitors. Had I time I would tell you much about them and the Miskito. Next day I broke through the surf and fought the strong easterly all day, tacking and bashing along working hard not to capsize. I spotted the Harmac III, a big steel fishing boat anchored off the coast and I boarded, scrounged enough nylon fishing line from them to be able to reef my sail ( for I had lost all my cordage), and carried on loaded with the coconuts they also gave me. This is weather I would prefer not to sail in but I saw no choice. It was this,rough and tough, or no progress at all. I advanced only 20  miles and came ashore at dusk, worked the boat up the beach, made a little fire and cooked rice and the fish I’d caught. It is now my tactic to land on the beach at dusk and to leave at dawn, hoping for enough rain to deter the turtle and bale hunters (I do not have to hope very hard for rain). Alone on the beach I am at the mercy of saltantes.

At the stern of Harmac III. Generous to a brother of the sea with their coconuts and fishing line. They are gearing up to dive for sea cucumbers on the outer banks.

I get many lovely visitors.

I was here for four days on the beach near Usibila. The Miskito were charming and brought me many meals (always some combination of rice, red beans, yuca, plantains, fried chicken and maybe a river fish from inland. They could no more venture into the sea to fish than I could as the easterlies raged and the surf, muddy brown from the rivers, roared and gnashed. I was glad to leave finally, into an unreasonably rough ocean but with the wind a little more favorable enabling me to make twenty fast miles and at last round Cabo Gracias a Dios (Cape Thank God, so named by Columbus himself apparently as he too took weeks to round it in the face of these fierce easterlies) and to start my way down the coast of Nicaragua. I got backwinded and broke the mast-support bungee stick but must have done about 70 miles that day, landing again at dusk, fire, rice with a fish steamed on top, and to bed in the rain. In the morning, I awoke surrounded by saltantes.

There were four of them, out combing the beach for lost bales of cocaine, They’d found me instead. Youngish men, their leader (with the longest machete) a scary fellow with a lopsided psychopathic leer permanently on his face. He demanded money, I refused. ¨I owe you something?¨ ¨Yes, for landing on our beach¨. They started going over the boat, opening things, spreading my garbage bag about, more interested in the contents of the boat than the boat itself. I kept my cool, pushed them aside, restored order to the garbage. ¨You are my first Nicaraguans I said¨Is this my welcome to your land? Is this your hospitality?¨Give us money¨. No. I would not. ¨Why don’t you give me money?”

Give me money, says the leader. Give me money, I imitated. I offered them some extra rice I had, which they accepted, but soon it was ¨give me money ¨again. It was getting pretty scary. I cannot fight four guys. I didn’t like the way things were going.

This could all have ended very badly but just then a lancha appeared, though it was full of paying passengers running from Sandy Bay to Puerto Cabezas it was skirting the shore because it is always worth looking for bales. They stopped and the captain waded ashore for a look at my boat. Now there were witnesses and the four guys were robbed of their opportunity to fuck me. Whew. I got a chance to thank the captain later in Puerto Cabezas. I pushed off, ran the surf, did not look back at my persecutors.

I found a very pleasant surprise – the sea was alive with sailboats.

Five were tacking north, two south. I heaved-to and waited for one to catch up. An open wooden double-ender, engineless, around 34 feet in length, three crew, a big crabclaw mainsail with a boomed jib. Very elegant and as I was to find out, pretty fast too. These boats are known as “catboats” here and are used to carry goods and passengers up and down the coast as well as to go lobstering and fishing on the offshore banks and reefs. I saw many displays of great skill on the part of their crews during the next few days.

¨Anira ow ma?¨ I asked in Miskito, where are you going? (Pretty fancy eh?)

¨Puerto!¨(Cabezas, where I was heading to check in to the country)

¨Pein!¨ (Good) ¨Letsgo!”  (The Miskito people were a British protectorate for 200 years and many such phrases entered their language, as well as corrupted words such as “Tinki” – thankyou)

We raced downwind all twenty miles to Peurto Cabezas at between 8 and 11 knots, neck and neck the whole way, neither of us able to gain an advantage. It was thrilling. We roared into Cabezas side by side.

The catboat which I raced to Puerto Cabezas.

The problem with Puerto Cabezas is that there is no Puerto. Nothing but a great oily wooden pier sticking out into the open ocean. No shelter at all. This pier was once three quarters of a mile long and used to load bananas and lumber but revolution fighting put an end to that trade and a hurricane gnawed the pier down to 300 yards. A soldier waved me over to tie to this pier, they have the rustiest machine guns here. Port Captain Calderon was most civil and likeable but immigration was another matter; I was grilled for a long long time by a rather scary individual who did not believe that anybody would do what I am doing without some kind of ulterior motive. Perhaps I was an agent of the US government of some kind? I get this a lot. People think I am DE and the craziness of my boat and voyage are just a bluff. I suspect that this impression may be working to my advantage, for one thing people assume I must have a gun. I am careful not to disillusion people. On the beach when they tell me that the saltantes are likely to come to rob me I laugh and say “Let them come! I am ready. Maybe they should be afraid of me.

At length Mr. Plainclothes Immigration jefe asked me. “Are you looking for bales?”

“It is not what I am here for but I do sail with my eyes open”

“What would you do if you found a load of drugs?

” I do not know anyone to trust here. It probably spells death for me to touch them. I wold have to leave them I expect”

“And if you found a bale of cash?”

” I am not an angel”

This cracked his first smile, he knew I was not lying then. He lightened up and then it only remained for me to pay about US$200 for the privilege of entering Nicaragua. Sigh.

It was too late now to leave. I needed new cordage, to fix the mast support stick, to get food. I could remain tied to the pier on the open sea, bouncing up and down all night, or I could run in to the beach and take my chances with the drunks and thieves in the night. It was a difficult choice. Lobster season has been closed for three and a half months, it reopens in two weeks but this is really the only industry and people are really desperate at this time of year. I chose the ocean, and regretted it.

To cut a long story short it was the worst night of my trip,, no sleep, violently shaken around all night, the platform flexing alarmingly under my back, soaked by rain and sea. I thought the boat would come apart. It got so bad I had to cast off from the pier, paddle out in the rain against the wind and anchor using the rope loaned by Captain Calderon, in the lee of an ancient bunker ship moored to the pier, which helped a bit for a short while. By morning 1.5 meter wavers were rolling through; one broke clear over the boat completing the process of soaking my bed. When daylight finally came I ran the surf to the beach, a great crowd appeared and hauled me out, many dodgy guys but many nice ones too, and Lino appeared, stored my things in his shed, watched over my boat parked amongst the ones he was repairing on the beach. I spent the day taking care of business and drying my things, big audience, further interviews with dour plainclothes cops. Nicaragua is uptight!

In the morning out to sea, south, a long run in the rain and many squalls, a night on the beach alone. A man appeared in the morning but Roberto turned out to be harmless but hungry and I fed him. People are fighting over food, he said. He was walking the 50 or so beach miles to Cabezas in the hope of finding work on a lobster boat. I got out through the surf diagonally for the wind was dead against me, tricky work, another long day running south, hit by 9 squalls, much rain and thunder but I did not have to take the sail down even though it was not reefed. I hoped to land at an island but on arrival I found it to be a waveswept rock, beachless and barren except for birds, so I turned for land and got there through bad surf at sunset, hauled out on the steep beach with great difficulty. A lovely beach, white sand, palms, but a bad mosquito problem and awful rain, all night. I had not managed to get much dry at P. Cabezas so now everything was in a bit of a state, rotting clothes, wet bed, wet food even. I struggled to get a fire going long enough to make a double ramen extravaganza then the rain put it out and I went wetly to my hovel.

Here I am approaching the barren island hoping to land for the night. It didn’t work out.

A buggy escape in the morning, no people, a successful bash through bad surf. In a few miles I saw a town and rounded a headland to enter a lagoon. I did not know where I was, the GPS having croaked, but fishermen informed me that yonder was Bluefields and even though I had checked out of the country at Cabezas I had planned to visit here on the pretext of some maritime emergency. The fishermen tell me they work twelve hours a day, seven days a week because the fishing is too irregular to sustain them otherwise.

Fishermen showed me these freshwater shrimp they are catching. The thing has claws!

Anchored in the lagoon in front of Bluefields drying my clothes and bed, I am visited by fishermen. They are cool, cheery and likeable.

So here I am, looking for stuff, talking endlessly with my audiences, fending off people who pretend to be my friend but then ask for cash, trying to get moving again. I am having to be hard and aggressive sometimes. This is a Garifuna town and pretty tough around the docks. I do not like it much, everyone is hustling and I am the only whitey I’ve seen, which spells money to most. Some folks heve been great, especially the lobster fishing boat crews. These steel boats go out and drop up to a two thousand big traps on the banks, ferrying them out in relays. The traps are wire and wood and measure around four feet square and 16 inches deep, and are baited with cowhide so that they can be left down for up to a month. They are laid out in strings and no bouys are used – other boats would just steal them if they were marked so obviously – GPS is used to find the traps, a hook is dragged along the bottom to pick up the line. I’ve had two nights at the dock and will leave today as I have managed to procure a new GPS at great expense, and an old chart of the coast. The next run is to the Costa Rican border, then likely I will check in at Limon. The coast is a bit worrying, known for its bad surf (it is deep all the way up to the edge of the beach, unlike most of Nicaragua which had extensive shoals which break the waves and keep the surf low). If I cannot land I must sail all night. Me no likey sail all night. Also, I am told that the coast guard is patrolling pirate alley off the coast, the main route to Panama, so all the pirates are closer to shore where I will be. Too many bad stories. I plan to sail about eight miles offshore so I cannot be seen from land, from whence the pirates would come.

To be honest, I am tired. Tired of the squalls, the rain, the bugs, the heat, the food, the many needs of the boat and its limitations which I have to ignore at my peril, the dangers of the people, the sleepless nights, the squalor of every place I visit. I did not expect that this trip would be “fun” exactly, but I did hope that it would be more than a gruelling ordeal. I take a huge risk with every landing I make; I am a target here, I feel this acutely, and it is up to the saltantes whether or not I live or die. If I keep doing this sooner or later the laws of probablity dictate the worst. I will continue onwards to Panama but I do not think I will go any further, that is far enough. Desesperado will have to be sold or maybe shipped back to the States on some ship coming through the canal, but that will take a big favor from a friendly captain.

I have a friend at Boca del Toros in Panama, I will write from there. I sail in an hour.

The Towers of Tigo.

Aqui estoy mis amigos.  Here I am:  This links to a site where you can see a map showing exactly where I am, or where I was last time I sent a message from my SPOT satellite tracking device. I always send a message from offshore just as I am setting sail, then another when I arrive somewhere, but don’t necessarily send one every day; if there has been no message for days it means I am still at the last location shown.



Well, it has been badass.

I could write reams and reams about the events of the last two weeks but I am afraid I do not have the time and must settle for a quick synopsis and a few pictures.

I sadly left Samphire in Roatan where Paul and Twyla are working charters (Charter them!, sailed on a freak westerly (fallout from a hurricane near Mexico I am told) along to the eastern tip of the island, the next day onwards past the island of Barbareta to land at Guanaja where the rain, heretofore not too bad, started in earnest. I spent the next day trying to stay dry in the shelter and failing – water gets in around the bottom and the bedding being very salty like everything else absorbs water straight from the air. The following day I took a chance and sailed for the mainland, hoping to make a long run to the southeast and fetch up at Rio Patuca, but the weather turned nasty and I had a horrible trip, didn´t think I would make it and swore I would never sail again but once I had at last crossed a crazy bar and entered a rivermouth at Santa Rosa de Aguan I was euphoric and soon forgot the horrors. Santa Rosa is a Garifuna village, not particularly hospitable but not unfriendly and I obtained some much needed hot foot and sleep. The next day shaped up to another westerly and with a strong following wind I made a good 70 miles eastwards down the coast, crossing another bar and landing at the Miskito village of Platano. This was my first encounter with the Miskito. I find them mostly pretty smart cookies, adaptable and intensely curious about me and my vessel, though there is the usual sprinkling of half-wits and smelly slobs amongst them. They gather in groups and watch my every move for hours and hours – how they linger! – which I find a bit difficult to bear after a while but have to be as pleasant as I can be. At Platano they fed me and would not take payment though I left them with some of my own supplies. They also steal, it is a huge problem along here and I have to guard my stuff very carefully, all the time. Even being careful I lost my sunglasses and my precious deck knife which I have carried from Veracruz and never dropped overboard once.

Onwards the next day, only half a day´s sailing before the wind changed abruptly from almost nothing to a good 25 knots and forced me to land. As I work my way along, tacking into the wind, one thundersquall after another bullies its way down the coast and the winds that come with these are overwhelming. I must drop sail and drift, or reef and fight on carefully. It is not fun. I landed a mile or two short of Rio Patuca. A night on the beach, then pretty much the same experience the next day to land at the tiny settlement of Flor de Uva, The Miskito here very likeable and they fed me quite a few meals over the next few days (red beans, rice, plantains, yuca, armadillo) as the wind howled nonstop and the rain blasted horizontally along the beach. They speak Miskito, I have been learning some which goes down well, and many speak Spanish also so communication is not a problem. So much to tell about my time here but I cannot.

Another half day to Uhi, a huge audience at this village, rather tiresome. Onwards from there the next day to the great Carratasca Bar at the entrance to the huge Carratasca Lagoon. Crossing this bar was one of the most exciting things I have ever done, chrging through the best part of a mile of running surf over unfamiliar sandy shoals to finally enter the calm within the lagoon mouth proper. Thence after checking in at the military post across the lagoon to Puerto Lempira where I sit writing this whilst mosquitoes bite my feet.

Here are some photos. There were a bunch more but I am having problems uploading them and am out of time.

I think that´s Barbareta and Guanaja up ahead. Early morning by the east end of Roatan.

In Guanaja, whether on the mountainside or over the water, everything is on legs. Note the lovely weather.


During the grim crossing from Guanaja to the mainland I managed to jury-rig my tiny storm sail for the first time. This is the only photo I managed to take. The sail worked to an extent, giving me steerage bu tnot enough speed to reach the coast before dark so I went back to the big sail, reefed.

Now that I have left the mountains behind the coast of La Mosquitia looks like this, though this bit has the village of Platano at the mouth of the Rio Platano on it. Behind the first barrier of dune the land is flat and is covered in low, almost impenetrable swampy jungle, largely flooded at the moment.

The Miskito use these amazingly long river boats called pipantes. This one is a pure single-tree dugout.

Miskito kids. Cute, adorable. I was having wet camera problems, hence the mist. Rio Platano.

Standard beach stop for Desesperado. One mile south of Rio Patuca.

Agara, 19 and Yanira, 22, appeared near Patuca and rather threw themselves at me, to which overtures I feigned obliviousness. I´ve been getting this a lot; it is not easy being me you know. We had a good time around the fire though; I fed them as I fed quite a few people. The Miskito also fed me.

Ahh, puppies.

Nels´ cayuco, soundly repaired with galvanized nails and various kinds of plastic washed up on the beach.

Bobmarley and Melanie. it is so easy to fall in love with these kids. This is taken on a pathway, believe it or not, and it was not even officially rainy season yet. It is now.

The Cutest Miskito.

View from inside the asphalt shack down the rain-lashed beach. How it rains here! I was rained and galed in at this spot near the tiny Miskito settlement of Flor de Uva for five days, spending a good deal of that time on my wet bed, bracing hands and feet against the inward-bulging sides of my shelter whilst gusts tried to tear it away. There has been very little pleasant weather in the last two or three weeks.

This fishing vessel was wrecked here on this remote stretch of beach some years ago. Its crew of escaped Cubans happily ran off down the beach and made it to La Ceiba. I am told that Cubans are not pursued and deported from Honduras.

Puerto Lempira. The usual gathering stands by Desesperado. Lempira has dirt streets and a mixed population of Miskito, Latins and Garifuna. I am constantly pestered by drunks wanting money and offering their pimping services.

Hair? What´s wrong with my hair?

I am now ready to leave Lempira within the hour. I must cross the lagoon and then the bar against the waves, then make a right turn for Cabo Gracias a Dios and Nicaragua, about whose coastal inhabitants I have received a disturbing number of dire warnings. However it is always like this – every village thinks the next village down is evil. Next stop with internet service – Puerto Cabezas Nicaragua. I will try to add to this post there if computer time is cheap.



At Sea, No-one Can Hear You Scream

Disaster at sea, kinda.

Aqui estoy mis amigos.  Here I am:  This links to a site where you can see a map showing exactly where I am, or where I was last time I sent a message from my SPOT satellite tracking device. I always send a message from offshore just as I am setting sail, then another when I arrive somewhere, but don’t necessarily send one every day; if there has been no message for days it means I am still at the last location shown.

I finally left Utila loaded with supplies for the coast of Honduras ahead including a couple of books from my friends John and Amanda who were more than hospitable to me during my stay. I’d used their sensory deprivation tank the day before so I was relaxed and ready for anything. Perhaps this was my downfall. Overconfidence is not something I suffer from much.

It was blowing pretty fresh outside of the reef that morning, nothing serious but stronger than I like. The forecast predicted no serious worsening of the weather so I beat into it towards Cayos Cochinos  ( which is a group of tiny islands between Utila and Trujillo on the mainland. When the wind continued to freshen I considered turning back but I’d said my goodbyes and Desesperado was still making good progress so onwards I went. I could see the Cayos now, a small dark hump about twenty miles off.

The wind got worse, now blowing about twenty knots. It got so that I was having trouble keeping the boat upright. Even with the sail let completely free, flogging brutally, its drag in the wind would try to heel the boat. Upon sheeting in I’d get a little forward power and a lot more heeling force, and the ama (outrigger float) would leave the waves frequently. This is the big problem with the traditionally-rigged Pacific flying proa – the sail really cannot be reefed effectively. In making this new sail a month ago in Guatemala I had added a line of grommets radiating out from the tack enabling one third or two thirds of the sail to be laced down to the boom or up to the yard but that still leaves the working part of the sail way up high where its heeling moment does the most to turn me over.  And on this day my problem was exacerbated because in Utila I’d refiled the teeth of my camcleats which were worn and slipping and this had weakened one; a piece chipped off which would cause the rope to jam in the cleat leaving me unable to release the sail when I needed to most. I had one chance and one chance only to jerk the sheet out of the cleat – no time for a second pull, I’d be capsized by then.

The wind grew tiresome with its constant attempts to make off with my hat and its roaring in my ears. The waves mounted to a maximum of about 2 meters peak-to-trough which is not dramatic, it is easy enough to handle though they were becoming choppy and there was plenty of spray. I was making slow progress – though beating through the water at about four knots I was being pushed backwards by each wave reducing my speed over the ground to just two or three knots.

Suddenly I was heeling at 45 degrees, pulling madly to release the sheet but it wouldn’t come free and I was almost instantly upside down in the open ocean, land almost out of sight behind and not much better in front. I pulled myself onto the upturned platform and dragged the laundry bucket and ballast bag of water jugs from under the inverted trampoline and tied them to the main hull, crawled back to the outrigger and detached the anchor and likewise ferried this back to the main hull, these actions to lessen the weight on the ama so that I might pull it into the air and back over the main hull, righting the boat. I swam under and released the halyard so the sail would be left in the water as the ama rose and its weight would not interfere with the operation. The water was not cold but there was plenty of it around. The wind howled and waves sloshed over the the main hull which was upwind. I detached the capsize recovery stick and got it into position and began to lever the boat over, sitting on the stick as far out as I could, my feet on the keel, pulling hard on a rope out to the ama. Slowly, very slowly it came up and over then I was back in the water with the ama coming down on my head but I’d been here plenty of times before and submerged myself to avoid being conked. I’d been capsized for over twenty minutes and it was a huge relief to be the right way up again.

The boat was now upright but dismasted, the sail all messed up under water, lines running tangled everywhere, the ballast bag, anchor, and bucket also hanging below or floating around. There was no damage at all. I restepped the mast, sorted the mess out, checked the holds for flooding: not too bad. I filled the laundry bucket and lashed it back on over the ama and reefed one third of the sail before raising it then sheeted in and continued onwards towards Cayos Cochinos; I was about halfway there. I hoped that the wind would not get any worse.

The aftermath.

But it did get worse. Soon it was really howling horribly, there were whitecaps everywhere and the swells were starting to break. Occasionally one would crash clean over the boat and try to wash me off my platform. Some of the swells were three meters peak-to-trough, steep-faced and black. I am sure that reefing the sail helped some but I was still barely staving off capsize at every moment. I experienced a twinge of fear. I did not know if I could make it to Cayos Cochinos through this and if I did not there was nowhere else to go.

Suddenly I capsized again. This time I was pinned between the inverted trampoline and the sail but extricated myself quickly. I had a long struggle to right the boat, not helped by the waves breaking over us at intervals. But I got him upright. My hat was gone, there was a big hole in the sail, the mast support bungee stick was broken into four pieces, one of the mast cleats had snapped, the mast base coconut cup was all busted up, the holds were partly flooded and I’d gashed open my foot somehow. I am so sick of these foot injuries; being wet all the time they take forever to heal. I have taken to sewing them up myself, Rambo style.

After again sorting out the mess and setting forth once more on a pretty wild seascape with my heart in my mouth I found I was still a long way off the islands and progressing very slowly. I’d drifted downwind a mile or two whilst capsized and that increased the angle I had to sail against the wind. I was cold and tired with blistered hands. Worse, the sun was descending and I knew that if I did not make the islands before dusk I would have to spend the night adrift in this craziness because it would be foolhardy to approach the unfamiliar reefs without good visibility. I bashed onwards. The sun sank. I could not believe how slowly the islands approached. They tantalized me, I ached for them. I loaded everything impervious to water from my holds onto the trampoline as ballast to keep the boat upright, then climbed out there myself and steered in an awkward position, soaked to the bone. Now I was five miles off and could see a pair of masts in what might be a bay. A long time later I could see the calm water in the lee of one of the islands… ooh, I wanted that. Desesperado and I bashed onwards full of hope and fear in equal measure. We would rise and rise to the crest of a big wave, then our nose would be hanging air, then over we’d go diving down into the deep trench beyond, plunge into the steep face of the next wave, spray everywhere, deck awash, then climb climb again, over and over. How much more of this could we take? I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as much as I wanted to get behind that island.

Just as the sun touched the horizon I limped in. In the circular winds of the bay I was repeatedly backwinded and my mast support stick having been destroyed I was dismasted four times on the way into the bay. Christian puttered out from his yacht Chantauvent and offered to tow me the rest of the way but Desesperado and I may have been sorely battered but we were not beaten, and I made it to a mooring ball alone, the last fifty meters by paddle after a final dismasting. I tied on, laid down on the platform and gasped with relief.

Christian and Marie-Anne invited me to a lobster dinner aboard Chantauvent and it was just wonderful, the food was delicious and they were terrific company so very soon I was forgetting the horrors of the day. What lovely people. The bay was beautiful though still being hammered by random gusts which flattened the water in spreading matt patches, spinning our vessels around on their lines.

This crummy picture does not do the place justice at all. I think it is called Pelican Bay, Cayos Cochinos.

In the morning I had not been up long when I had visitors. Guillermo, Dava and Jim swam a long way out from the beach to offer me all assistance and also breakfast at their place on the stunning beach, one of only a handful of dwellings on the little hilly island. Within a few hours I had fashioned a new bungee stick and repaired the sail.

Guillermo and Dava had their own yacht moored in the bay, the deadly efficent-looking Galatea, pushing forty years old but appearing as though it had just this day rolled off the line. Dava lectures in aerospace engineering at MIT, Guillermo is an architect with involvement in the International Space Station, together they have been working for ten years on a radical new space suit design for NASA. Highly intelligent, likeable, friendly, generous, amazing people. They fed me and gave me a new hat and all was right with the world in this astonishingly idyllic place. The hilly, lush tropical island rose above, the crystal bay stretched out before the beach bursting with fish and turtles. Another island rose from the sea a couple of miles to the west and there were numerous outlying low cays. There was no horrible bass. Life appears very pleasant indeed for all here including the locals from the two small villages who fish and make a little from the few tourists who get out this far; these people (largely Garifuna, some Latins) seem well aware that though they may not be rich their lives would be envied by most of the rest of the world. They use sail a little here – tiny crabclaws like mine on their single-hulled dugout cayocos which help with reaching and running but cannot be used effectively upwind. I took Roger and Gerson of the absolutely charming family Rolbel, Falsa, Gerson, Roger and Jairo from Nueva Armenia on the mainland coast who caretake for Guillermo and Dava out for spins to show them what they might do by joining two of their cayucos together – I’d love to try this myself; one could build a fabulous rustic craft for next to nothing, the big hull could be one of the big thirty-footers like the one on Lighthouse Reef pictured on my last post.

Local boat with sail (not a dugout cayuco). This one has an engine too. Fancy.

Cayos Cochinos fading behind

My plan had been to continue to Truhillo on the mainland coast, but now it was imperative to replace the damaged camcleat and that meant doubling back to Roatan where there are yachts. I made this 23 mile run with ease the next day. The anchorage at French Harbor was well protected but I cannot say I am much endeared to the 50km-long island of Roatan; it seems pretty enough but quite charmless; French Harbor is split between a poverty-stricken total dump or American-style shopping centers and bar restaurants with names like “Frenchy’s” and “Bojangles”, all owned by ex-pats. The rich can afford to stay and the rest can’t afford to leave. “I’m on Roatan” goes a song I heard “It’s a sunny place for shady people”. I spent some time with Scotsman Jim on his tiny 21-foot cruiser Little Ben anchored nearby, he had gone transatlantic in this wee bubble which had a bed in it which would shame a mega-yacht. Though the cruisers on the big expensive yachts are friendly I don’t have so much to do with them, the bigger their budgets the less interesting they seem. The most expensive boats of all are the big catamarans, white and characterless, the trailer homes of the sea, brilliantly designed and fabulously comfortable but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. In some ways I envy them (oh it would be so nice just to get out of the sun which has now fried me almost black) but I would never travel this way.

Typical encounter with a cargo vessel, off Roatan.

I up-anchored and had a tedious and roasting slow day of nearly windless sailing down to Roatan’s West End where I found my friends on Samphire. I have been tied to their stern the last few days in this pleasant but fishless bay, waiting for the now very fresh winds to ease off a bit, wearing earplugs at night against the music from the bars and clubs ashore whilst we scrub and sand and entirely repaint Samphire’s decks so that the boat may be smarter for getting some charter work. She is a fine vessel geared towards expeditions, exceeded in quality only by her captain and first mate; Paul and Twyla are first class shipmates and friends who can take you anywhere. They do not pussyfoot around being a booze-cruising go-nowhere party boat. They are able to offer a full-sized well-equipped and unique expedition vessel for a fraction of the cost one could find anywhere else. Get some friends together, look at some maps, find some tiny archipelago of amazing paradise islands that almost nobody has ever been to (there are a surprising number of these, charter Samphire and have a real adventure that will put a sparkle in your eyes for the rest of your life. (

Since I arrived here at the West End it has “Caulkered” (so called by me because I am reminded of all the howling weeks at Cay Caulker) most of the time. The frenzied wailing of Samphire‘s wind turbine is the soundtrack of our lives. I am more nervous than ever about setting sail in high winds, hence I am biding my time. I’ve been playing with the little storm sail that I made in Veracruz but never tested: to use it I must remove and disassemble the rubrail into two parts to use as spars which must be inserted into the sail’s sleeves and attached to the boat with a jury-rigged halyard, sheet and attachment for the tack, plus the mast must have jury stays fixed to it, so the whole thing is a pain in the arse. In the next window (tomorrow I believe) I intend to sail up the north coast of reefy Roatan, hopefully stopping at the independent Garifuna town of Punta Gorda before moving on to the mountainous island of Guanaja. From there I must make a 60-mile open sea crossing to La Mosquitia ( , the mainland coast of Honduras, and then I must continue eastwards against the trade winds until I reach Cabo Gracias a Dios ( where I can turn south and run down the Miskito Coast ( of Nicaragua. Both La Mosquitia and the Miskito Coast are almost unbelievably remote, sparsely populated and unvisited by outsiders. Looking at my map it all appears quite intimidating – Mexico was nothing compared to this.

I’ve been on Desesperado for 11 months but feel like the voyage is about to start all over again.

I have loaded up 37 liters of water and a lot of dried and canned goods, will be catching fish on the way and cooking on the beach if I can reach it through the surf (my propane stove has corroded beyond use). Desesperado is horribly overloaded. I hope I have the courage not to hurry along this next bit. I am a little nervous but I am ready. I guess.

When Monkeys Poo.

Another day, another crazy place. Punta Sal, Honduras. Note onboard coconut dispensary.


Home sweet home ready for the night. Sometimes at a dock, sometimes at anchor, sometimes hauled out on a beach. Here at Shallow Cay near Cay Caulker, Belize.

Aqui estoy mis amigos.  Here I am:

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”  ―    Cesare Pavese

The Story so far: I built the 22-foot Pacific flying proa Desesperado in a fishing village just south of Veracruz Mexico, an adventure in itself. About 9 months ago I set off along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. After 40 or 50 days I reached Isla Mujeres on the northeast corner of the Yucatan where between horrible winds and a worse depression I became mired for three months. Another burst of energy got me to Cay Caulker Belize; more awful winds pinned me there for a couple of pleasant months. Pleasant largely due to making new friends – wonderful Paul Ross and Twyla Roscovich aboard their 52-foot Millenium Falcon of a boat, Samphire (  We buddy-boated for a while. I got my mojo back, did a refit in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, and am now on the island of Utila, Honduras with a shiny boat and a new sail, ready for further travels towards Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Now I must pay for my neglect of this blog by writing a mammoth post to tell you of all that happened between Belize and here. It is very difficult to get caught up to the present day. Things are a bit scatty because I write a bit here, a bit there, when I can get to a computer (I really wish I had one aboard).

From Belize City to Lighthouse Reef.  Wonderland. It was the best of times, it was the best of times.


In Belize City Paul and I were suffering from stinking colds. Twyla returned from turning heads in town with this gem of herbal medicine: the “sneeze-fruit”. We were told to toast the thing and snort a bit of its innards, which we did and were overwhelmed with a powerful and lengthy paroxism of sneezing which had Twyla rolling in the aisles. I don’t think it  helped our colds any but we sure had fun.

When last I wrote a post of any consequence Samphire and Desesperado were anchored outside of Belize City. We decided to meet up out at Lighthouse Reef, Belize’s furthest outpost. We took separate routes to the atoll which is a reef thirty or forty miles around containing a few small low islands, situated twenty or thirty miles out from Belize’s barrier reef  which in turn is ten or fifteen miles out from the mainland. Samphire sailed southeast out through the barrier reef, around the bottom of the Turneffe Islands and then motored directly into the northeasterlies to Northern Cay. I, having no motor and being too stubborn to use it if I had, as well as having the ability to cross shoals, headed due east to cut directly across the Turneffes.

The nasty winds that had plagued us at Cay Caulker had at last subsided to managable levels and Belize which had seemed positively threatening in a 25-knot blaster assumed a much friendlier aspect in ten knots of wind or less. It was magical, a fantasy wonderland of mangroved islands each one its own planet, each group a star system. Bogues, narrow tidal channels are like wormholes in space, the tides sucking one through at great speed and spitting one out into a new lagoon or the other side of a chain of cays into conditions unlike the side one just left, a whole new universe.

A mysterious building on a swampy cay between Swallow and St Georges Cays.

A coconut plucked from the sea falls to my blade and is found to be sweet and refreshing, a feather trailed on its magic filament yields a shining fish. Manatees gasp near Swallow Cay and moments later a few dolphins appear and swim alongside a while. The seagrass passes below waving slightly in the crystal water. Then comes the reef, like some magical barrier between worlds that must be passed (In this case between St.Georges Cay and the Turneffes) at risk ( for tales and sightings of wrecked vessels are alarmingly common), but today wind and waves are mild and I find my way through a wide pass with nothing more noteworthy happening than a close miss by a huge lone dolphin. Tiny East St Georges Cay as marked on my chart only a few years old appears to have completely disappeared as so often happens. Now the seagrass is gone, the coral sinks out of sight, the aquamarine becoming darker until it suddenly turns a deep royal blue – the wall of coral dropping off into the abyss. Then the low islands drop behind and the open ocean undulates ahead, I make very slow progress in light winds, crossing great patches of floating sargasso weed entwined with garbage, then I see a dark object afloat in the distance – A bale? One of those fabled prizes that in Wonderland reward the adventurer for his daring? The distance closed, no, the object finally resolves into a big television tube festooned with goose-neck barnacles and weed but that is ok, I am not sure I really want to find a bale anyway. The garbage falls behind and the ocean is unspeakably beautiful again.

St Georges Cay out of sight behind, in the afternoon the Turneffes hove into view. It has been a long slow crossing and there is almost no wind at all now. The current pushes me south of the pass in the Turneffe’s reef, and I must resort to paddling which I almost never do on principle. I do not understand paddlers. Get a sail and save yourselves all that tedious work!  A couple of hours of this and I am through the pass and into the Northern Lagoon. The Turneffes are a great mass of swampy mangrove cays, lagoons, shoals and bogues infested with crocodiles and sandflies all ringed by a reef with only a few passes, in all covering 200 square miles. I must cross the Northern Lagoon, thread my way down the western side between the mangroves and the reef and its numerous tiny caylets and then exit the eastern reef to cross 20 miles or so of open ocean to reach my destination, Belize’s outermost reef, Lighthouse. But now the sun is setting and I have trouble avoiding the patch coral almost but not quite breaking the surface and hidden by reflected glare from the low sun. This is not a problem when there are any kind of waves – the coral reveals itself by disturbing the surface – but now it is calm and the coral lurks invisibly. But I get through. A horse-eye jack takes my lure as soon as I drop it and I glide over three more miles of seagrass as the sun sets and turn in to a large mangrove-walled bay. In the dark I drop anchor in three feet of water. I am utterly alone here, it is beautiful. I fry the fish on my decaying stove and put up my shelter but leave the tarp off and from the mangroves the croaks, squawks, hoots, shrieks, gibbers and splashes, by now a familiar and unworrying soundtrack, lull me into one of the deepest sleeps of my life on the flat calm and benign sea of Wonderland. I sleep naked with the stars my ceiling as bright as can be.

I am so deeply relaxed in the morning that it is hard to rise but at dawn I pack up my dewy floating camp and am off; with a good wind behind me I shoot eastwards, curve around the mangroves on the eastern side and head south. It is hugely thrilling and nerve-wracking trying to find one’s way through these new terrritories, over the shoals, shunt here, shunt there, round this point then a very fast reach to the next one, the ama flying, a dugout cayuco with two fisherman open-mouthed at my appearance – oh no coral  ahead! – shunt! – backtrack! shunt again, then around Cockroach Cay and out through what may or may not be a pass in the  reef. It turns out that it is a pass, after some heart-in-the-mouth creeping along at minimum thrust and peering ahead with the rising sun in my eyes, and as I leave the cays behind and the ocean goes back to royal blue a black squall appears behind me over the islands and the wind rises. I am moving out to sea at nine knots on the edge of the squall and Desesperado shows himself at his finest, slicing along with a rising sea on my rear quarter, surfing a little, very fast but in control. I do not let the sail out to slow down and be more safe on the open ocean; I use this fresh wind to maximum effect because who knows, it may soon die away to nothing. At this speed the cursed sargasso weed which frequently fouls the rudder cannot hang on – it breaks up and falls behind and I do not have to keep raising the blade to clear it. Wow! – probably eleven or twelve knots at times!  I look at my GPS, then put it away and steer by the blinding sun rising ahead and Northern Cay, Lighthouse Reef, comes into view right where it should be not long after the Turneffes disappear behind making mercifully short that period when no reassuring land is in sight and I am sailing “on instruments”.

About halfway across I landed a barracuda around 4 kilos. This is unusual, my lure rarely catches anything on the deep ocean, only in the shallows or near reefs. Once or twice I have seen huge marlin or rays leaping, and have caught a few bonito. I am told I don’t really want to catch anything out there because it is mostly too big. I continue to agonize about my fishing but it is too much a part of this bright unreality to quit.


I arrived outside the reef between Northern Cay and little Sandbore Cay to the north. The book I carry, a gift from Paul and Twyla, says that there is a pass here so as best I can I line up the book’s chart with my GPS chart’s highly dubious approximation of it and creep inward towards the reef which I can see breaking on both sides of me. Closer, closer, another barrier between worlds, Here somewhere, should be the pass… looks good… looks good… should be through soon… looks good, ooh a bit shallow OH NO!  Coral heads thiry feet ahead and I cannot stop! OH NO!

A sailboat can be sailed pretty much wherever one likes but not always in a straight line and one cannot always stop when one wants to.  Given more room I can make a shunt and reverse course but even though I am running with the sail let way out and moving as slowly as I can there is no way I can hope to reverse course in thirty feet in order to avoid the coral. This has happened quite a few times now, usually late in the afternoon when the sun’s glare ruins visibility. Or early in the morning like now.

So I have developed a technique. When collision with the coral is inevitable I sheet in and give the boat full power! The boat accelerates and on impact, due to the shallow draft and sloping keel line, the boat will ride up on the coral, grind across the high spots and down the other side back into deeper water.  The noise is horrible! I guess the coral does not like it much either but this is the route of minimum damage to both boat and coral – were I to come to a halt and get stuck there would be a whole bunch of slamming around and nobody would like it much. Obviously this would not work with a very wide reef or patch of coral but so far it has never failed me.

This technique is not to be found in Chapmans Seamanship. I do not recommend it for larger vessels.

I was soon across, a bit rattled but not sinking. I found myself in a maze of patch coral requiring nimble work on sheet and tiller but I made it through without further impacts, dropped anchor over sand and relaxed. Later I explored and found I had missed the pass by 50 meters.

Sandbore Cay. The dark parts of the water are patch coral.

Desesperado. Due to the frail-looking spindly nature of my boat Paul calls it “La Mosquita”, which is ok. I am less enthusiastic when people call it “That contraption”.

I was anchored over bright aquamarine sand surrounded by patch coral between Sandbore Cay and Northern Cay, the only two specks of land for miles. Leopold the lighthouse keeper puttered over in his panga (a local word for lancha, a fiberglass launch twenty to thirty feet powered by an outboard engine) to ask if I needed anything. A very cool guy, 32, intelligent, friendly, very good-looking, most likeable. I think his work out there is more to do with maintaining some kind of nominal government presence than with actually keeping the lighthouse which is now no more than a small solar-powered box bolted on next to the corroded ruins of the old complex affair atop the rusting 120-foot steel tower left behind by the British; this light needs no keeping. Leopold spends much of his time fishing the rich waters just outside the reef; this catch he “corns”, or salts and carries back to Belize City at the end of his three-week stint. I gave Leopold half my barracuda though he was less than enthusiastic. “Been on fishing boats since I was two”. Later I sailed over to Sandbore Cay and cooked the rest of the fish on the stove in his dwelling by the light tower.

      Samphire arrived late the next day. It wasn’t a race but I beat them here by thirty hours so neah neahny neah neah anyway. Leopold guided them in through the reef and there was a misunderstanding which had Samphire briefly stuck on a sandbar.  I feel so blessed with my shallow draft and ability to run to shore – it goes a long way to helping me feel safer – though disturbingly upon seeing my boat and being told of my voyage one of the men in a visiting panga was heard to say “Guess he got tired of living.”

Fishermen found this 30-foot dugout launch drifting awash near Lighthouse Reef and towed it in to Sandbore Cay. I think it is more of a riverboat than a seaboat and therefore not much use to them, so I found it full of rainwater though still sound. I got some help to turn it over and put it on blocks, so it is there for anyone who wants it, cheap. For some reason the Lighthousers think it came from Jamaica but to me it more resembles the craft I saw later in the Rio Dulce and Honduras.

Paul and Twyla check over the dugout. Bella does not care: there are iguanas to watch out for.

This primitive and remarkable machine was made by the Mennonites of Belize, reputedly a very productive people, and used by two old men out on Sandbore Cay to shred coconut meat for making coconut oil. The shredder is a wooden roller covered in a copper sheet with holes nail-punched in it.

In the following days we explored the reef and its passes aboard Desesperado, trailing a lure and loading up barracuda, jacks and grouper with amazing ease, some of which we salted then dried. By snorkel we surged about with multitudes of gorgeous fish in the break over the reef. By scuba we hung before vertical walls of crazy coral, life piled upon life in fantastic profusion, whilst Twyla filmed world-class footage of turtles and other wondrous creatures. We floated between earth and sky on crystal water, the light below as intense as above. I climbed the palms and rafted coconuts across to Samphire aboard Desesperado. We scaled the old lighthouse and looked down on the two cays and the reef stretching far out of sight to the south. We kept our eyes open for bales. I took a Mayan fisherman sailing, visited the Great Engine and the wreck of the Transfer. We had Leopold over for dinner on Samphire and listened enraptured to his stories of life on the reef and his delicate position as an employee of the government in an area where drug traffickers regularly require his help. “The government people canna tell me what to do from no office in Belmopan” he said. “I gotta stay alive”.

The Great Engine. All that is left of a ship wrecked on northern Lighthouse Reef. It does not float: it is balanced on the coral.

The wreck of the Transfer, high and dry on the eastern reef.

When walking the edge of Northern Cay gathering coconuts and taking Bella the dog for walks I would look for footwear, my own having been lost somewhere along the way. It works like this: a significant portion of the garbage washed up along the shore is sandals and flip-flops. Just put on the first shoes one comes across regardless of whether or not they fit; this enables one to continue along the sharp coral stone and sand of the shoreline. Soon enough one comes upon better shoes and trades up one at a time, and after a half-hour or so of this one is really shod in style, although matching footwear is a bit much to hope for.

It is not easy maintaing my position at the forefront of fashion, but I try.

The bales again. The “square grouper”. Some bear the  mark of a scorpion or a dragon. One was found on the day I arrived at the atoll on top of the eastern reef by a small sailing fishing vessel. These boats – the only real sailing vessels used by fishermen that I have seen on my whole journey – usually carry twelve to fifteen guys (incredible for they are only around 27 feet in length) plus a number of small dugout canoes which fan out from the mother ship in search of conch, lobster and spearable fish. They must also carry enough ice to last a week; as it melts the space is replaced with the catch. All those guys have to sleep somewhere; it rains plenty so somehow, they tell me, all the men fit below. It is hard to imagine. Fishermen are tough. They are always friendly and intrigued by my boat; they never fail to try to flag me down as Desesperado flies by at twice their speed. Sometimes I stop and gab. They confirm what I’d heard in Mexico: sharks are not attracted to lobster blood which is “transparent” but when fish are speared and carried around in a bag this can be a problem. “If a shark comes just give it your fish and it will eat it and go away”. Well, this boat found a bale; between twelve men nobody is going to get rich and somebody is bound to talk so they did not even try to keep it a secret. They sailed directly for Belize City and a bit of a party I imagine.

Typical sailing fishing vessel seen at Lighthouse reef, out of Belize City. Yes, this carries and sleeps 12 to 15 guys.

Two men in a cayuco, a dugout canoe, paddle around Northern Cay every morning on bale patrol. People come from the interior and spend their lives looking for bales. I met a man who owns part of a cay in the Turneffes who has found bales “At least eight times”. One time he found two thousand kilos stashed out there. This is cocaine we are talking about. Bales are the Belizean lottery. Typically the money is squandered (?) on booze and women (and not all of the cocaine is sold) and the lucky person finds himself back on the beach in due course.
The bales, equipped with radio transponders, are dropped from planes  but things can go wrong and sometimes they are not picked up. Or they are thrown overboard by boats escaping the law (Belize is provided with ridiculously fast patrol boats by the DEA, and a big reconnaisance aircraft patrols extensively). Occasionally bales are planted in order to draw law enforcement resources to a dummy area. It is a huge game, and many of the participants appear as ordinary fishermen, masking sophistcation and lucre that you and I would never suspect. Whole boats are found too – a vessel loaded with all it can carry is simply abandoned when it has used up all its fuel, its load transferred to another.
Here’s a story confirmed true by two separate sources: A security guard at a beach hotel in San Pedro found a bale washed up there one night. An unusually good citizen (and perhaps not too bright for the police are the biggest criminal organization to be found in any Central American country) he called the cops “There’s a bale of drugs here. Come and take it away”. Two policemen arrived and opened the bale on the beach. But it did not contain drugs, it was packed with cash! “Crikey!” was the general reaction, or some such wordage. The two cops humped the bale into their police pickup but they did not return to the station, in fact they have not been seen since. The security guard was left scratching his head, the laughing stock of San Pedro.

Captain Ray Jason of Aventura whom I met later in the Rio Dulce tells this tale of unknown veracity: A small aircraft carrying drugs into Florida developed engines trouble over the Keys and had to ditch in the ocean. Luckily for the pilot and his co-pilot the crash was seen from a distance by a lobster boat which called the coastguard; they soon arrived on the scene to find the pilot and his co-pilot in the dodgiest of legal positions clinging to their cargo of bales, the plane having sunk. “Seems like it ain’t your lucky day” shouted a voice from the cutter”. “Whaddyamean?” shouts back the pilot “Reckon it’s the luckiest day of my life. My plane was going down and we’d have been drowned for sure if I hadn’t spotted all these here bales to hang on to!”

One day Paul and I were exploring the north pass aboard Desesperado when we saw three masts in the far distance. Keen for a closer look at whatever this was we pursued them out to sea. After a chase of twelve miles we caught up with the luxury square-rigger Sea Cloud II ( and made a close pass on her downwind side making jokes about not wanting to foul her wind. I don’t know who was more amazed, way out on the open ocean, us looking way up at the most impressive sailing vessel I have ever seen or her passengers looking down on our tiny frail and unusual craft. We both made each other’s day I think.

Sea Cloud II

Bianca Wilson

Paul found her on the beach. Blonde and beautiful, always smiling, a great listener. She has a few barnacles on her skin and seaweed in her hair I fell for her at once and she was easily fixed on above Desesperado’s outrigger with some inner-tube rubber and soon it was hard to imagine I had ever sailed without her. I do not have a photo of her. Imagine the head and shoulders of Barbie, her head the size of an orange but oh so much sweeter. Oh Bianca.

We worked hard for this quality time at Lighthouse Reef. From dawn until dark and beyond we cleaned, repaired, repainted, rebuilt, modified and serviced our two vessels; we had no choice. Desesperado does not need too much care but a big boat like Samphire has so many systems and details necessary to make the operation viable – engine, ac and dc electrics, electronics, plumbing, galley, toilet, sails, rigging, anchoring, hydraulics, winches, communications, bilge pumps, fuel delivery, batteries, lighting, manual steering, automatic steering, refrigeration, wind turbines, solar panels, generator, dinghy, compressor, davits, rainwater collection, outboard engine, onboard storage for diesel, gasoline, propane, tools, materials, chemicals, gear and all the household necessities of life. All this stuff has to be attended to and every tool and material used in the work must be winkled out of some obscure corner of the boat, the work itself perfomed in cramped spaces without the benefit of workbenches. For every minute of leisure the yachtsman works for an hour. It is very difficult to ever leave an anchorage or marina because the work is never done.

Yachtsmen are generally amazingly practical, versatile, skilled people. In addition to needing to be able to repair and maintain their vessels they must also be able to sail them and this requires another long list of skills plus a certain amount of courage. Sailing boats around is not for the faint of heart and I have developed a great respect for most of the yachtsmen I have met.

But I have reservations about the cruising life. In many ways I would seem a natural for it but I keep coming back to the same question – what’s the point? To live in such a tight space, to slave constantly at one’s vessel, to be unable to grow a garden, to make a thousand such sacrifices… just to hang at anchor in some blue-water bay and then up the hook to move to another blue-water bay; to drink vodka with the other yachties… I think I need more of a mission myself. The voyage of Desesperado is not cruising, it is an adventure in the true sense of the word and when it ends I hope I can return to the world and find something useful to do.

After a week or two both Samphire and I moved fifteen miles south to a new anchorage at Long Cay. This is within the same ring of reef but to get there I took an outside route and having left late in the day I arrived outside the reef at Long Cay at night and had to enter the completely unfamiliar pass in pitch darkness “on instruments” only. This was a bit nerve-racking but I did not strike the coral. A couple of days later I parted from Samphire, Bella touchingly having histrionics as I sailed away towards the mainland.

From Lighthouse Reef to Livingston Guatemala.

The twenty mile trip to the barrier reef was slow and pleasant; I made another ten miles to Bikini Cay in the Garbutts where I landed and was greeted by Alex and Emilio on the beach bearing a huge spliff which I could not refuse. They were here on this tiny cay on a conch fishing expedition but their ice was nearly gone and they had not had much luck. Alex had a pet sea turtle, Lupita, tied in the shallows by its leg, a perfect creature which lived on tortillas and fried fish. They were boiling mahoghany bark as a curative for the flu. The island was only a stone’s throw across and had a few pines and palms planted and pilings driven around to slow erosion, for in storms these cays are at risk of washing away. There were many piles of conch shells, ubiquitous on these cays, each one with a small hole chipped in it near the top where a knife had been inserted to cut the retaining tendon.
A bale had been found on the next cay a month previously, 27 kilos.
I shared the little food I had left with my new friends and along with their fish we ate well.

Bikini Cay in the Garbutts.

I was very low on supplies, my clothes and sails threadbare, many necessities absent. No food now, no stove, plate, spoon, proper shoes, hat. Desesperado’s cordage was frayed, his hull weedy and his varnish chipped in many places which lets ugly rot into the wood. I needed a place to refit and rest and to make a new sail and by all accounts that place should be the Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Next day after taking Alex for a ride I made it to thirty miles down the coast to Placencia, on the next a mad rough ride down to Punta Gorda where again I ran into Samphire and went through the expensive and annoying bureaucratic process of checking out of the country. Next day I sailed to Livingston Guatemala, an isolated Garifuna settlement at the mouth of the Dulce where I checked in, again a process taking several hours of traipsing around three different offices with different pieces of costly paper. I liked Livingston, it is colorful and has a relaxed feeling all its own. Unlike most of Central America it has municipal garbage cans so you don’t have to walk around for hours with a piece of trash in you hand unable to get rid of it decently. I get a bit tired of people pretending to be my friend then asking for cash. Desesperado drew a crowd and Bianca was a huge hit here.  Then on up the Dulce. Oh my the Rio Dulce.

Crossing the sandbar in front of Livingston Guatemala.

On the dock at Livingston.

Sweet River.

The Rio Dulce (“Sweet River”) is very beautiful. As mariners experience it from the mouth up it starts at Livingston winding narrowly through 8km of canyon walled by cliffs and steep jungle rising quickly up to around 200 meters. Here and there are picturesque mayan dwellings nestled in the greenery on the banks and men paddle about in low swift dugout cayucos. Then the river opens out at the foot of a lake, the Golfete, around 17km long and 10km wide, ringed by hills and mountains with the jungle coming right down to the edge. Then it is back to river a hundred to two hundred meters across bordered by jungly hills for 10km or so before again opening into a much larger lake, Izabal, so grand that one side cannot be seen from another.

Paul and Twyla on Samphire on the start through the gorge near Livingston. I accepted a tow for this first part of the Dulce having been assured it was impossible to sail, which turned out to be nonsense.

About half way between the Golfete and Lake Izabal lies the town of Rio Dulce, also known as Fronteras, a somewhat squalid and noisy place, small but nonetheless this is the big city around here.
I had chosen this river as a good place to refit Desesperado because it is a well-known “hurricane hole”, a place where yachts and other boat whose draft is not too deep to cross the sandbar at Livingston can be safely harbored during hurricanes, and therefore there are many yachts moored and anchored here, and that means that I could probably find an old sail from whih to make a new one. I timed my arrival to coincide with the start of a DIY cruising meetup being organized by friends of Paul and Twyla, but right from my arrival I got sick and did not take much part.
It started with some bad beans eaten in town, then came a long series of mild fevers and aches that was probably Dengue fever but not a serious case. This went on for most of a month; between bouts I was well enough to do projects on Samphire and visit the sqalid, horribly noisy town to eat food which was cheap but grim; Paul described it as “prison food”. In Mexico I was quite happy with rice and beans for the accompanying salsa would make the meal interesting but in Guatemala, or at least in Rio Dulce, there is no salsa to be had and the only accompanying stuff is bacteria; to which many people succomb regularly.
I find the Guatemalans here friendly enough, though not as carefree and boisterous as Mexicans. They seem understandably haunted by their past and present troubles.  Mercifully they are not as noisy as Mexicans although there is still plenty of noise in Rio Dulce; most of this comes from businesses such as the despicable Tigo cellphone company that sets up speakers outside its stores hammering out music with men yelling earsplittingly into microphones to hawk their products. Conversation is impossible in the vicinity. The locals deal with this overwhelming pollution by… buying cellphones. The poor till the fields and slave themselves to long hours in grubbly commerce, the rich, inheritors of the world, drive by in Chevy Avalanches and play on their jetskis.
According to a study I saw recently Guatemala is the fourth most dangerous place in the world (Khazakstan, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Oh dear I was in no. 4 and am now in no. 2 ) and certainly I have never seen so many guns around nor heard so many stories of muggings, murder and violence. There are an alarming number of incidents of boats being boarded by men with machetes and pistols and one must watch one’s back constantly for theft. I do not feel like a target because I am not in a fancy yacht; nonetheless one night Desesperado was stolen from where he was rafted up alongside Samphire and recovered the next morning from a marina across the river, undamaged but minus his paddle and, sadly, Bianca. My biggest worry is that she went willingly with the theives and has been playing me for a fool all this time. She may even have masterminded the theft. A dinghy and two outboards were also stolen that night; everything must be chained up most of the time. I have heard of people leaving containers of sugared gasoline on deck for the thieves. Ha ha!

One night Paul and Twyla emerged on deck to discover a man in a cayuco adrift nearby. They suspected he was there to steal from Samphire but he said he was out fishing and his friend was in the water nearby. In the water? It was the middle of the river in the middle of the night! Later all became clear: the locals fish with waterproof flashlights and spearguns, diving deep down into water through which even in the daylight one cannot see one’s own feet, in search of some kind of bottom fish they tell me can grow up to three meters. I would not do it for all the tea in China.
It is said that in Guatemala there is no debt greater than 1000 Quetzales (about 125 US dollars). Above this amount it is cheaper to have the person to whom the money is owed killed.
My friend Robert Smith of the Winnie Estelle witnessed a murder (actually two in three years).  Broad daylight, eight shots to the head. The victim was a scammer running a loan scheme on the poor, taken out by vigilantes so no need to shed any tears. The interesting thing is that according to Robert there was a police pickup carrying four machine-gun armed cops not two hundred meters away at the time. They quickly arrived and watched the car carrying the murderers drive away, made no attempt to give chase or even to make a radio call to set up  a roadblock (only one road out of town to the next). Instead they went straight to the deceased’s vehicle and ransacked it for goodies.

Robert Smith again: “Nothing here is done legally. Nothing can be done legally, the bureaucracy is impossible. To move a truckload of lumber a bribe of 2000 dollars is paid to the police who give forged papers to get the truck through the army checkpoints down the road”. The wood itself is cut from the National Forest, the only place left to find it in a land denuded for building materials and firewood.

Another story from Robert, an American now naturalized Belizean after living long in San Pedro where he refloated and rebuilt the Winnie Estelle pictured below. He tells me that a man who helped him with the rebuild, in his youth used to team up with a friend and together get a ride out to the Turneffe Islands, taking with them a big sack of flour, salt, basic tools, canvas and some other materials. They would set up camp on a cay and over a period of six months using planks they hand-sawed of green wood cut on the island, they would build a sail fishing boat in its entirity just like the one pictured above. They would use shark skin for sandpaper and for caulking they would make lime by firing conch shells. Then they would fish, salting the catch with the salt they had with them, and when the hold was full sail back to Belize City to sell the lot, boat and catch. Then they would buy a sack of flour and more salt and…

The DIY sailing summit was held here the week I arrived. It was attended by about 40 young people looking to get into sailing and cruising from the bottom end – not after spending a lifetime of labor within the system culminating with spending a quarter million dollars on a sailboat. The attendees were perhaps the most heavily-tattooed group I have ever met, largely black-clothed anarchists. They were a great bunch, very smart, cheerful and respectful and in turn I have a great deal of respect for them. I wish that I had had the brains to get into boating at their age. They brought with them from the States four small boats in the 25-foot range and at one point we rafted these together at anchor alongside Samphire for a big party. I laid in bed groaning of course. I wanted to get off of Samphire and give Paul and Twyla their space back, but I was too sick. The best I could do was to make myself useful working on projects aboard whenever I had the energy.

Raft-up in the Dulce. Desesperado in the rear.

I sailed a little in the vacillating and confused winds of the river which is a half-kilometer wide in places and opens out into two great lakes as well. I liked the absence of sea salt on everything including my skin and the slower corrosion that comes with floating on fresh water. Deseperado now looked very ragged – his cordage had suffered in sun and sea and gone hairy. The big polytarp sail was now so thin it was almost transparent and I got hot even in its shade. Some of the woodwork had turned grey where the varnish had worn off, and the trampoline was in shreds. I too was a bit ragged, my clothes had seen better days, zippers and buttons rusted, my straw hat frayed and I needed a haircut. I was missing a lot of gear, my SPOT transmitter had died as well as my VHF radio, I had no spoon, no plate, the stove rusted away as did some of my tools. I lost my paddle in a capsize and a replacement one when Desesperado was stolen in his entirety that bad night.

It was definitely time for a bit of care and attention.

After five weeks in the Dulce I finally got off of Samphire and hauled Desesperado out on the dock at a dilapidated marina (here I was named “The Lion of the Sea” by the security guys, which amused me. The owner, a gringo was something of a whoremongering monster. “I rent ’em for ten bucks a night”. “You can lead a Guatemalan to water but you cannot make him think”, and “never let a hooker get ahold of your phone number” are amongst his utterances. ). I took Desesperado apart, sanded him down, built new saddles for the crossbeams and a new trampoline, cut new scuppers, rebuilt the chair, reinforced the platform edge, then revarnished and repainted the whole boat before reassembly. Then I sewed a whole new sail from an old one purchased for 60 dollars. This sail, the tenth I have made, has a primitive reefing system (two lines of grommets radiating out from the tack enabling one third or two thirds of the sail to be laced to the boom. Hardly ideal but it is the only way I can think of to reef the sail). I sadly dumped the old polytarp sail that has brought me so far.
All this work took me three weeks of long hours in the heat. I was quite desperate to escape the Rio Dulce, I did not like the place at all, the noise, the humidity, the smoke, the constant problem with thieves, and the gringo culture of yachts in marinas going nowhere, people drinking beer in the mornings content to piss away their lives never setting sail on their precious boats, not learning Spanish and spending their nights with prostitutes. I did meet many good people of course, I generalize, but it is true to say that I ever escaped the feeling that there is something unhealthy in the air in Rio Dulce. As I said in a previous post some Guatemalans call the Rio Dulce “The river That Swallows Gringos” and I was determined not to be one of the swallowed; to that end I worked like a dog. I was now ready. Time to go.

New saddles for the iakos (crossbeams) of laminated Santa Maria. I’d been worrying about the strength of the original ones. Robert Smith used the offcuts as wedges to help remove Winnie Estelle‘s samson post; he whaled on them with a sledgehammer and they did not split. I worry no more.

Desesperado ready for relaunch.

One of my favorite boats on the Dulce. Spiritus, wooden Herreshof. Owned by Captain Tom.

Annefant. Tiny, tough, Norwegian built, incredibly seaworthy-looking. You could round the Horn n this thing.

Winnie Estelle. 65 feet. One of the last of the Chesapeake buyboats (built to buy up the catch of fish and shellfish and take it to market). She was refloated and rebuilt by captain Robert Smith, every plank and all but one frame replaced over twenty years of work. Remarkable. I don’t like motorboats as a rule (she does have a limited sailing ability) but I love Winnie Estelle and her captain.

To my mind the finest boat on the Dulce, Chance Along was built entirely of wood by Kirby and Christina Salisbury. Now back in Belize where she is based near Punta Gorda; her owners have lived there in a tree since the sixties. I hope I get to visit them some day. Exquisite work Kirby and Christina. (Christina and Kirby Salisbury have a book Tree House Perspectives about their most unusually adventurous lives and the storied world of Belize.)

Escape From the Dulce.

In a tiny cove by Fronteras (also known it seems as the town of Rio Dulce) I pulled up my anchor at 5 am on the 14th of April and it being glassy calm and windless proceeded to blast out of there downriver for the sea at a good half a knot. The howler monkeys made their ghastly noise from the banks at frequent intervals, a gutteral yowling something like the sound a gigantic gruff turkey might make. An hour later I could still see my anchorage behind me, I was paddling by now and various launches were zooming past me, even cayucos, the ubiquitous indigenous dugout canoes were zooming past me (not only are dugout canoes still around, there are thousands and thousands of them in daily use on the river. I borrowed one for a few days to get around whilst my boat was hauled out and found them tippy, with hardly any freeboard – you must take the waves side-on – but marvellously easy to paddle swiftly. I soon got the hang of paddling on one side only and got a real “going native” feeling out of the experience).  Though Desesperado paddles ok he is not designed for this, too heavy for one thing, and it is slow work.

Local dugout cayuco. Often as the canoe rots away its owner will cover it in glassfiber, then as the rot progresses the old wood is taken out leaving a lightweight shell even handier than the original dugout.

Two or three miles downriver from Fronteras manatees surfaced around the boat, taking no notice of me as usual. How they survive with all this fast motorized river traffic is beyond me. I finally made it to the Golfete, ten miles of lake which I had to cross, again glassy calm but a wind soon sprang up – dead in my teeth of course – and I tacked (shunted in fact) the distance in a couple of hours. At the downriver end the wind became violent, pouring over the hills ahead and swirling unpredictably so that horrible gusts kept bashing at me from all angles. Again and again the ama (the pontoon float) flew up in the air, my vessel heeled at an alarming 45  degree angle before I could pop the mainsheet (let the sail go) and the ama would slam back down into the drink. Many times I was backwinded and had to drop the sail.

Between the Golfete and Livingston lie 8km of river mostly two or threee hundred feet wide bordered by steep jungly hills and cliffs up to about 600 feet high. Winds were fully against me and highly confused, but at least the tide had just peaked and the current would be in my favor. So I beat my way into this defile, back and forth, shunting with my spars in the trees, getting back-winded, losing ground to the wind on each shunt. Back and forth, back and forth, men in Cayucos and indios on in their picturesque dwellings on the banks amazed and amused at my antics as I leapt about the deck like a monkey, hauling, untangling, deploying and raising rudders and paddling like fury when spun out of control in the swirls. I really got into it. To paraphrase Caine or Connery in The man who would be King  I fought my way up the Dulce Pass yard by bloody yard. At one point I passed close to a solitary yacht anchored in mid-river. “Where are you going?” asked the Italians aboard. “Panama”. “Where is your boat?” “This is my boat!”

The river narrowed and contrary to my expectations I found a strong current against me. I cannot understand this – the tide was falling. This current became so strong that after a couple of miles when the wind faded some I was unable to gain further ground. As I struggled an old man in a cayuco approached. Nolberto was carrying a bucket of drinking water aboard from a nearby spring in the cliffs. We talked for a while. He said he lived with his aged parents and son from fishing and grew a litle maize in a clearing nearby. He suggested I give up my Herculean struggle and stop for  the night in a little gap in the cliffs where there was a “criki” (a creek). The current would be better in the morning. I did as he suggested, wolfing down some of my staple diet of canned refried beans on crackers at anchor and waiting for dark. The current was crazy. As dusk came Nolberto came back for another chat and then a launch came bearing Chris, a cool Englishman who ran a small jungle hotel (The Roundhouse, what a wonderfully beautiful riverside place for a quiet unwinding, in the care of fine people.  tel. 42949730. By using mosquito nets they have solved the problem of guests being bitten by vampire bats in the night.) on the bank almost opposite; he invited me to tie up at his dock for the night which would be safer from banditos. I paddled across and would not have made it but for the little bit of slack water at the very edge on his side which allowed me to regain the ground I lost to the current. Chris and his partner Dani made me very welcome… Chris has been on the river for 9 years, the second foreigner there. He said that Nolberto and his parents were amongst the first people to move to this part of the river – they are of latin stock but almot all the later arrivals are Mayans so Nolberto and family are now socially isolated. Sometimes Chris must show people his arse to prove that he does not have a tail because some Guatemalans believe that all Englishmen have tails.

That night it rained, my shelter aboard (known unfondly as the Asphalt Shack due to my having painted it with tar so many times trying to waterproof it) leaked terribly and I lay there in a sodden bed, quite miserable. I can take the wet bedding but the dripping is intolerable.

A picture cannot do this lovely place justice. The Roundhouse is within the greenery on the left.

In the morning over coffee Dani and I talked of the illusion of security in our homelands. If everything went haywire would we rather be here where there is always food in the river or jungle, or in Europe where there are police? ” Here we would need a lot of guns” said Dani. “We will always be outsiders and we will always be targets”.

I rather sadly said my goodbyes – sometimes I really hate to move on – and paddled off with Desesperado well draped with wet bedding.

Paddling some, sailing some, I slipped along this gorgeous canyon as quietly as I could, not wishing to spoil the magic. The current seemed to be going in both directions simultaneously! In the inhabited parts would come from the jungled banks the noises of dogs barking, roosters crowing, machetes and children. No booming stereos because there is no power here (people come for miles to charge things on Chris & Dani’s solar system); in the uninhabited stretches it was just me and the singing jungle, patient herons watching me go by from perches in the lowest trees. A grim sight – a baby manatee probably killed by a propellor, bloated and ridden by vultures, this was the only low point in a fabulous trip of 5km I wished would never end.

I filled my water bottles from a cliff spring, finally rounded a bend and the ocean came into view, about which I had mixed feelings. The ocean is a scary place in comparison to the ease and safety of a river. I landed at Livingston where after nearly two months absence Bianca was not only remembered, she was remembered by name, and within a few hours was checked out at the various offices and in possession of a zarpe, a sort of country-to-country clearance document needed to check in at the next port. I purchased some gasoline and painted it on the Asphalt Shack in the hope it would redissolve the tar and plug the holes, and dried my bedding. A northerly gale came up and I could not leave the pathetic “harbor”, Desesperado bucked and pranced around alarmingly at his moorings and I spent the whole night lying, and then standing in the rain and filth, on the dock at my boat’s side in company of a most mysterious person, a thin attractive Columbian negress, a penniless backpacker afraid of nothing and requiring no sleep or security. I am afraid you will have to wait for a book to learn more of her; I myself may never know if her extraordinary tales are true. Hello Nana, I shall not forget you.

Early in the morning the wind calmed and I rather blearily set off once again to sea, Nana on the dock receding into the distance, small but not sad. I spent the morning moving slowly, then a couple of hours becalmed, then came wind, my favorite, pushing me fast into large smooth oncoming swells, rollercoastering along, quite thrilling. My GPS charts indicated a pair of small islands about 12nm out to sea which I thought might make a good stop for the night, but on arrival at the coordinates I found that they did not exist or were nowhere in sight so I carried on. At dusk I made Omoa on the Honduran coast after about 55nm of travel but I did not try to check into Honduras. Omoa was yet another place that would be charming and pleasant were it not completely poisoned by loud music. I was badly sunburned and slept well after moving anchorage a mile out of town to reduce the noise.

Lord of the Sandflies.

Passing a group of small boats fishing a rivermouth at dawn. Omoa, Honduras.

Honduran coast east of Omoa.

Next day after leaving Omoa in darkness I had an easy run to Punta Sal (also seems to be known as Escondido), scene of a notorious murder of a yachtsman by robbers and a good jumping off place for a 40nm offshore run to Utila. But it was too late in the day to start that passage so I decided to stop. A truly spectacular place: a peninsula that feels like a wild paradise island; high cliffs and big jungle, small beaches, howler monkeys in chorus all around. When I heard a screech and saw a bird winging towards me that looked for all the world like a pterydactyl there was a strong “land that time forgot” illusion which lasted my whole stay here of 2 1/2 days.

Third lagoon, Punta Sal.

I explored two of the three lagoons, loaded up with coconuts on a beach and then settled on the outermost lagoon to anchor for the night. Except for me the place was completely deserted and in view of the murder (the story is that two men in a lancha approached a yacht anchored here, somehow the man aboard was shot but his daughter survived by firing flares at the assailants) I liked having it all to myself. But I was jumpy, and my heart sank when in late afternoon a lancha bearing two men suddenly shot into my lagoon and made to anchor near me. I hailed them but they did not respond, did not even smile. This looked bad. Would my first encounter with Hondurans be my last? I readied my flare pistol, pepper spray, knife and machete.

But I needn’t have worried. Once they had anchored Minor (?) and Edwin were a pair of pussycats, bemused by my presence (I get that a lot) but perfectly friendly. They anchored stern to the beach and said they were going to fry some fish and sleep there the night. “what about the sandflies? I asked. “Oh they don’t bother us” said Minor.

Five minutes later they were back in their lancha reanchoring it out from the beach as I myself had just done and for the same reason – the sandflies here are just horrible. Even anchored out it is pretty bad. We rafted our vessels together and drank my rum and learned about each other. Minor and Edwin are from Puerto Cortes and were here fishing a shallows 5 km out but there was too much current right now; they planned to continue in the morning and stay out in the area as long as the ice in their big chest lasted, about three days. They would sleep in the open on the 4-foot thwart and the ice chest, no cushioning, no covering but their jackets.  No stove onboard, only fires on the beach when they could get there. a dog could expect better. I have seen this kind of extraordinary toughness – to them it is ordinary – again and again in the fishermen on my trip. They in turn were awed by my adventure. We agreed that the ricos could never enjoy a good bed as much as we did when we had one and perhaps that went for many of life’s pleasures. Can joy only be experienced through suffering?

As I had heard before Honduran waters are notoriously poor in fish. At rare times one could do well but it made more sense for Minor and Edwin to run when they could all the way to Belize to fish at night with hooks and lines and a lightbulb carefully concealed in a plastic sheath which was only removed underwater for fear of attracting the Belizean fish police. They use short sections of bicycle inner tube to protect their fingers from the monofilament line and 10cm pieces of rebar as weights. If caught by the patrols they would lose everything – boat, motor, gear, catch – everything but their clothing. “Many fish Belize” said Minor who was a veteran of fish campaigns in several countries and spoke a few words of English. About 300 Honduran lanchas run to Belize every night. A lancha can catch up to 2000 pounds of fish per night in Belizean waters but only a tenth of that in Honduran territory so you can see the attraction.

We unrafted and they moved further out into the lagoon to escape the sandflies which don’t bother me so much once I am under my net, although I have problems sealing the net around the legs of the shack so some always get in to bite me, all night. As they were leaving and I was setting up my shelter I asked “Do you think it will rain tonight?” “No!” they said vehemently. “What makes you so sure?” “Forty years experience on the sea.”

The rain came in the small hours, the asphalt shack leaked copiously. I lay on my back padding the ceiling with a shirt to control the drips, a technique first developed behind the Iron Curtain then perfected by NASA in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and the morning found me sodden and bleary but at least I was not Minor and Edwin lying curled up in the open in ragged foul-weather gear in the gusty middle of the lagoon. “Horrible night eh? ” I said to Minor when they came over. “No, why?” said Minor. Real men. They took off a little later. I went to the beach looking for food and found almonds (wild and tiny, much work to get them out of their shells for little reward), coconuts, cocolitos (a kind of palm nut very abundant here, a bit like a brazil nut inside though the meat is like hard coconut. The shells of these things are so tough they tend to break the rocks that I bash them with) and wild bananas (small, pithy, full of seeds). I found that the four cartridges for my flare pistol were badly corroded and decided that a test of one was worthwhile. I had not taken the flare pistol seriously as a weapon but Blimey! The thing went off with a hell of a bang and shot off a glowing red bolt that went a hundred meters or more horizontally before landing in the sea. Anybody hit with that would really be hurting! I feel more confident in my defenses now although I only have three cartridges left and cannot reload quickly.

Monkeys appeared in the trees close above my anchorage and seemed curious about me. By noon Minor and Edwin had reappeared, battered by the weather. I had not set sail myself that morning bcause the wind was pretty high and I did not like the look of it thrashing the treetops on the clifftops around me and it had now beaten these tough fishermen off the ocean. We went to the beach to fry fish and plantains, great mountains of them; each load fried in a lump of lard the size of a grapefruit squeezed from a tube-bag that must have weighed five kilos. Three other lanchas appeared and there were eleven of us on the beach cooking up a storm. I made noodles with onions and garlic. One of the boats had two sharks aboard around seven feet long (well one and a half sharks for one of them had been half-eaten whilst hooked). We ate deep-fried shark and shark ceviche until we were sick of it. The men were all very friendly and I felt very comfortable with them; perhaps this was partly due to having no need to prove mysef to them – I had arrived on Desesperado from Veracruz, no more demonstration of manliness needed. Nonetheless at one point, curious about the jungle I put on long clothing and shouldered my machete and asked the guys to watch over my boat whilst I went to fight with lions and tigers. I had not the slightest fear they would do anything but defend my boat with their lives. “All of us are brothers on the sea” Minor had said earlier. I consider it a huge privilege to be accepted by such fellows.

The jungle was impressive. Vines, 30 meter trees with massive buttressed trunks, shady groves of huge wild banana trees, bugs. Spider web soon streamed from my hat. I dodged and hacked my way up to the heights to see truly stunning vistas of cliffs and vegetation and the wild sea foaming below. All the photos are on the camera with the obscure unopenable files. I returned to the beach to find the guys lying around smoking marijuana and slicing the sharks, and announced that the lions and tigers had been afraid of me and run away but I had managed to kill two elephants with my bare hands but couldn’t be bothered to bring them back because they were heavy. I volunteered to take someone out for a sail but they all chickened out except for Teri who was soon the envy of all the rest as he rode high above the lagoon balanced on a flying ama. The circular gusting winds in the lagoon made for a wild ride.

Suddenly the fishermen packed up and readied to leave. There was a north wind coming and there was no point in waiting for better weather, they said. They showed much concern about me and advised me where I could get water from a spring and left a huge bag of plantains. They advised me to move to the second lagoon, better shelter in a norte. I did so after they were gone, braving a wild and confused sea outside the lagoon, the result of high winds and reflections from the cliffs, Desesperado handled it well and I zoomed into that second lagoon laughing. I anchored under the cliffs because of the possibility of lightning coming with the cold front and set my makeshift shrimp trap on the bottom for the night.

Next day the wind was howling from the north as predicted, also as predicted there was nothing in the shrimp trap but tiny crabs and snails which is all it ever catches. I went to a little beach under the cliffs to fry plantains. There had been much noise from the monkeys ashore and now two of them came out into the branches not five meters away and hooted at me, some kind of a territorial thing. They also pooed copiously and I was glad they were not chimps: chimps throw poo. When howler monkeys poo it seems to carry a message – “Go away or I shall poo some more!” Terrifying.  I hooted back which definitely pressed their buttons; a good time was had by all. I played my violin to them which also did not please them.

The following morning after a mercifully dry night things were calmer; At dawn I sailed back to the outermost lagoon and filled my bottles from the spring at the base of the cliffs (you will find it hidden in a cleft on the east side about 60 meters from the north beach, it has a jacuzzi-sized pool of fresh water at its base). Then out to sea for a very slow day of becalmings and beating into light winds towards Utila where I landed at dusk.

Punta Sal recedes.

I do not have much to say about Utila. It seems an unremarkable sandfly-infested island surrounded by clear fishless waters; the town is music-polluted and stressful to walk around in since as usual no provision whatsoever has been made for pedestrians and one must constantly watch one’s back on the narrow street. Cay Caulker you have it right – noise pollution laws (nightclubs must be soundproofed instead of as here keeping the entire town awake all night) and a ban on cars. Strangely Utila is largely English-speaking, some kind of British interference way back. There are many dive shops and whale-shark watching is big here but the winds have so far been too light to get out there myself. Checking in to the country was mercifully painless and free! Compare this to Belize which cost me about 300 dollars in fees. Utila claims that Robinson Crusoe lived here, which is just silly: he is fictional.

Oh dear.

Upon relaunching Desesperado I discovered that water had gotten into his plywood deck and it delaminated enough to put my foot through. I am repairing this and will be applying shoe polish to the asphalt shack in yet another attempt to waterproof it, then I must be sure of good weather for a crossing back to the mainland or perhaps first to Roatan followed by a long reach as far as I can eastwards to the mainland. Ahead lies the real Mosquito Coast, or Miskito Coast, named for its brand of indigenous people, then Nicaragua about which nobody seems to know anything except that there is a big problem with pirates along that coast. They call it Pirate Alley. I have heard that 6 meter swells may be expected off Costa Rica with few refuges. And then Panama, should I get that far; I hear tales of the Cuna Indians of the San Blas Islands and their remarkable seamanship – in outrigger sailing canoes! I am told that they are going to love me and I cannot wait to meet them. I do not expect to see Samphire again but maybe I will get lucky and find them in Panama. Really all other vessels heading in that direction go way out to sea and don’t see land until they get there, whereas I must hop along the coast finding shelter every night. The only thing I know for sure about my future is that it contains  a lot more biting insects.

And Hooray! I have caught up to the present day! To do so I have had to leave out a thousand incidents, stories and most regrettably descriptions of a great many wonderful people who have befriended me along the way and this saddens me because they deserve better. I can only say thankyou all and I wish you all the luck that you have wished me.

The River That Swallows Gringos

Aqui estoy mis amigos. Thanks to Crumpetina I have a new SPOT device. Here I am:

Once again I must apologize for my failure to report. Even now I can only write the briefest summary though I am working on something more thorough including  description of the many happenings back in Belize.

“The river that swallows gringos” is one name by which the Rio Dulce is known to Guatemalans. It nearly swallowed me. I was sick for most of a month (probably Dengue fever; as in most cases it was unpleasant but not serious); in between bouts and after it was over I worked on projects aboard Samphire, then three weeks ago I hauled Desesperado out on  a dock at a dilapidated marina and dismantled, strengthened, modified, repaired, repainted and reassembled him in preparation for the Honduran coast ahead which promises to be a very tough beat against the wind for 300 miles before turning the corner at Cabo Gracias a Dios and reaching down the coast of Nicaragua. I also made a new sail out of dacron and dumped the old polytarp one which had served so well but was wearing out. This has all been a horrible amount of work, long hours, no fun… I am not sure that fun is to be had in Guatemala anyway. This, the town of Fronteras on the Rio Dulce is kind of a ghastly place; I will try to write about it from Honduras. I relaunched this morning and did some trials and am determined to escape this river and regain the open sea within a day or two. Panama or bust.

Survival, Arrival.

Just a quickie to let people know that I had a wonderful, magical trip to Belize’s outer atolls and then piled down the coast without touching land until Punta Gorda where I checked out of the country. Last night I arrived in Guatemala’s astonishingly beautiful Rio Dulce where I am attending a DIY anarchist sailing convention and also hope to make a new sail. Desesperado continues to amaze me with his performance. Right now I am rushed as usual but I will make a fuller report when the opportunity presents itself: I expect to be here for at least three weeks.

It’s Unbelizeable

The weather, that is. It’s Unbelizable. (Other local T-shirts slogans include “You’d better Belize it”, “Dive Belize”, “Party Belize” and the rather cumbersome ” I Heart Manatees in Belize at Swallow Caye”).
I know I go on’about the weather a lot but as a sailor – and an Englishman – it is a subject dear to my heart. It is blowing again; in fact it never stopped. Now about five months of these howling winds from the north and east, pinning me in one spot for days and days waiting for the brief lulls in between for a chance to move on, but when the lull actually arrives I tend to think “Oh wouldn’t it be nice just to go for a nice relaxing sail outside the reef and catch a fish and maybe take so-and-so along and have a lovely day in paradise whilst the weather lasts”. So I do that and fail to move on and I am painfully aware that this blog is stagnating as a result.
  At least the old fishermen say that this weather is freakish, which makes me hope it will break soon.
    I am back in Caye Caulker. As I write it is blowing about 25 knots, raining and cold and there will be no sailing for me today. I took a young couple out to Shallow Caye dodging black stormlets yesterday and though we didn’t see the sun or catch any fish it wasn’t too bad. Having other people along for ballast stops me from capsizing and is much more enjoyable than sailing alone, but for a long time now it has had to be done between squalls or not at all.
   All together I spent about a month on Samphire with Paul and Twyla, doing projects at anchor in Caye Caulker then the last ten days or so out at the Turneffe Islands. After deciding to go it took us three days of waiting for the winds to ease a bit before we dared to brave the reef pass, then they died so fully that we had to motorsail out to the islands. We had a marvellous time, scuba diving and snorkeling over fabulous fairy gardens of coral, catching and eating fish, drinking rum and rescuing stranded fishermen. When our lure caught a fish we’d squirt alcohol upon its gills which would kill it within two seconds. We salted and dried some fish. Dolphins played under the bow on the leg between Caye Bokel and Calabash Caye, and at Calabash Caye we met with Eric the head researcher at the marine biology station who was studying dolphin communication though we had no success finding more dolphins with him. Did you know that dolphins have prehensile penises? That two males will separate a female from the pack and by swimming on either side of her keep her prisoner until she mates with them? That each dolphin has a unique identifying call sign that is related to the call signs of the rest of the group, and carries other information about which the researchers are still a bit vague? That they sleep one side of their brains at a time, with the eye opposite the awake side open?
     We also gathered and ate conch (pronounced “conk”) and lobsters. Paul’s play on words:  “Conch lovers all”. Twyla, a professional environmental filmaker and marine photographer from way back, worked on mastering her big new camera housing and was rewarded when she captured some exquisite world-class footage of three trumpetfish (long thin affairs something like stretched-out seahorses) interacting amongst coral. This underwater filming is not easy; in addition to the rigors of diving there are problems with surging currents, contaminants in the water, light and color, and we are awed by her achievment. We thought better of making any night dives after learning that local crocodiles up to 4 meters hunt on the reef at night, so instead we’d swung at anchor, far from the lights of town, gazing up at the brilliant stars.
   Twyla is cool. She washes her hair with dish detergent.
     There is hope for this blog now for since writing that last bit I have moved on. Paul and Twyla dropped me in Belize City and I took a water taxi back to Caye Caulker but after a few days the island began to lose its appeal. I had bags under my eyes from chronic insomnia and too many rum punches, and a rotten cold. The place had an apparent influx of idiots and though the Lazy Lizard Bar at the Split is still kind of cool, I started to feel out of place. The final straw came when I overheard a young guy singing a song which to me epitomized the dumb demented jabbering awfulness of Belizean music (even though it is not even a Belizean song nor is it even as bad as the local stuff), a song which aboard Samphire Paul and Twyla and I would sing in mockery and use as a punchbag, only this young guy was singing it in all seriousness. It goes:
Girl I’m gonna make you sweat,
Sweat ’til you can’t sweat no more,
And when you cry out,
I’m gonna push it, push it some more.
 This charming tune is right up there with the lyrically complex masterpiece “Let’s Do It Tonight”, the moving “Don’t Let Me Cheat on My Boyfriend”, the artistically subtle “You’ve Got to Know fo’ Fuck” and that haunting classic “I’m Fucking You Tonight”.
    Anyway I’d had enough. The weather broke. I repacked Desesperado on a quiet Sunday morning and shoved off, the wind died right away and it took me an hour just to reach the next cay, Caye Chapel, a private golf resort upon which golfies may relax unafraid of any intrusion by myself for I can imagine no greater torment than to  share the place with them. At least, I could imagine no such greater torment at the time but since then something has occurred; more about this later. The sea was choked with sargasso weed constantly fouling my rudder and the sun merciless, I passed the idle hours of steering attempting to read P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Mating Season” A hilarious Jeeves and Wooster story given to me by the excellent Nolan. Thanks Nolan. Occasionally I would divert to check out a floating object which would invariably turn out to be a coconut rather than the bale I was hoping for.
      The dream of every fisherman here, in fact of most of the many mariners, is to find a “bale”. These are carefully wrapped free-floating packages containing what seems to be a standard unit of 30 kilos of cocaine, lost in mishaps that befall the drug gangs in their efforts to move the stuff up the coast towards the USA. It seems the bales are dropped from planes and sometimes there is no boat to pick it up. Many times along the coast of Mexico and Belize I have heard the tale “Pedro was a poor fisherman. Then he found a bale. That’s his hotel over there”. According to J. two of his friends each found bales at opposite ends of a tiny island, and now they are very happy. Another pair of guys saw garbage on a reef, upon investigation they found seven bales and are now rolling in dough and drive Hummers. So the story is quite common it seems. J. Says that it is pointless to do the right thing and turn the stuff in to the cops because they just sell it themselves. One could always burn it I  guess, but come on.
     I did not find a bale. I did catch a small barracuda when I turned westward towards the mainland by St Georges Cay, a nest of hoighty-toighties if ever I saw one. I’d been moving very slowly but as the sun sank I made it to a small indent in the mangroves on the west side of Mapps Cay with Swallow Cay of the above-mentioned T-shirt and manatees only a kilometer distant.
     With creepy mangroves on three sides, two feet of water under my keel and a profound and lovely silence everywhere I dropped the hook and prepared for a pleasant evening but was instantly set upon by a ravening horde of sandflies. In a frenzy I threw on long trousers and a shirt and splattered repellent on my remaining exposed hands then attempted to light a mosquito coil only to discover to my horror that my only lighter had corroded in storage and would not light. The prospect of the next few minutes without any repelling smoke in what seemed the worst buggage of my life was terrible, and I racked my brains for some way to make smoke. Eventually I discovered that by dismantling the lighter I could scrape the remains of its flint with a knife and get the propane stove, now sadly rusted, to wheeze into life. Thus I cooked barracuda and onions in relative comfort; finding my spoon missing I ate with a chisel, for to eat with one’s hands is uncouth and not the sort of thing Bertie Wooster would stoop to. Then as the bugs further intensified I set up the Asphalt Shack and crawled inside (how I chortled once the bugs were safely excluded from my lair) and continued to read Wodehouse and laugh until I thought the boat would shake apart.
    The covering for this crude shelter is a fine gauzy material that the sandflies cannot penetrate but there are always small gaps left unsealed around the frame unless I am extremely careful, in fact even if I am extremely careful. So the blighters still entered in annoying numbers. One percent of infinity is still infinity. It was a grim night. I thrashed about and listened to the mangroves critters shriek, wail, splash, gurgle, grunt and gibber. Sandflies in their thousands coated my bubble, but in the small hours it rained and thinking this would inhibit them I emerged to investigate a loud splashing, maybe a crocodile, somewhere near the boat. If these sandflies were inhibited I would sure hate to meet them when they were carefree – I sustained within 30 seconds or so perhaps 200 stinging bites, the most intense bug attack of my life (and I have long been a top menu item for insects). I dived back into the shelter and scratched for an hour and dawn finally found me exhausted and keen to leave this spot forever. This then is the torment I thought of more awful than being stuck on a golf resort – to be marooned naked in a buggy place like this.
      I had hoped to pass much further south to Rendezvous Cay the previous day but the wind had failed me and I found myself within a few miles of  Belize City and on the day when Samphire was due in after her charter. Belize City is rather third-world and not terribly inviting but the prospect of seeing Paul and Twyla again was irresistable. I sailed past Swallow Caye without encountering any manatees and edged near enough to the city to see that Samphire was not yet there and as I dithered about wondering what to do a couple of miles out three huge manatees surfaced beside the boat. I was of course delighted and stayed with them for a while – they seemed completely indifferent to my presence – as they fed. Such things as shunting about with manatees have become commonplace in this strange life I am leading. I am a little surprised that there are any of these docile creatures left alive because there are so many fishing boats and water taxis speeding about, plus I am told that manatee used to be a favorite Christmas dish hereabouts. Twenty minutes after I left the manatees I was amongst dolphins and shortly after that in another group of manatees. The waters around Belize City churn with marine mammals.
    Samphire came in. We are going to buddy-boat out at that shining jewel in the Caribbean, Lighthouse Reef where we will be diving to film grouper spawning and may get to visit the Great Blue Hole by Pacific flying proa. I dropped my SPOT satellite tracker in the water for only a few seconds and though supposedly waterproof  it died, so there will be no tracking me and no way for me to send a distress signal if badness befalls me. I cannot sail with Samphire for safety because the winds will be contrary and she will use her engine.  Lighthouse Reef is a ways out there and I plan to skirt the northern edge of the Turneffe Islands or possibly cut through them if I can make it through the bogues (tidal channels) on their western side into the lagoon. I am unlikely to be online again for a couple of weeks. I am looking forward to this trip. If anyone ever had a good excuse to say “This is what it’s all about” it is me, now. This is what it’s all about.

A Temporary Change of Vessel.

Aqui estoy mis amigos. Here I am:

I am going out to the offshore reefs aboard Samphire so for the next two weeks any SPOT locations will be sent from that vessel not my own. Desesperado is stored on an islet near Cay Caulker where I think he is safe; I shall return here by water bus after being dropped off at Belize City.

If you took a big double handful of mixed beans and wet spaghetti and scattered them across a table so that not too much fell off you would have some idea of what Belizean waters look like on a chart – an incredible maze of cays and reefs. Most are on the landward side of a long barrier reef (second longest only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) running north-south miles off the mainland. However outside of that reef lie three other groupings – The Turneffe Islands, an archipelago covering 200 square miles, Lighthouse Reef and Glovers Reef. The latter two areas have fewer cays but all three places are ringed by reputedly fabulous reefs and have great lagoons within containing manatees, dolphins and even 20-foot crocodiles not to mention thousands of fairy castles of coral with all their amazing lifeforms. We will be diving and exploring these as best we can given the weather which at present is blowing a gale as usual though only the trickiness of the reef pass here at Cay Caulker prevents us from departing to the open sea and making the crossing to Turneffe. As I write intrepid Paul and Twyla are off in the zodiac scouting this pass; if they think we can run it safely I will soon be heaving my guts up over the rail into a wild sea. Ah well, nothing comes for free.

Sunset at the Split.

Aqui estoy mis amigos. Here I am:

High time I wrote a post even if it is only brief. I am inhibited from a full description of events here by the exorbitant price of internet access in Belize.

I am still at Cay Caulker; I’ve been here over two weeks and I’m losing track of time… My trip is going slower and slower; I feel I ought to move on because that’s what people do when they voyage but I like Cay Caulker and am enjoying life here and the north and east winds howl endlessly with frequent black rain squalls making further progress at least uncomfortable if not downright dangerous. It is tropical winter, most objectionable – I never signed up to sail in this kind of stuff. I do sail when I can in the brief intervals of relative calm. A mile out the reef roars and I slip between the coral heads and out through the passes out into the beautiful rolling swells where I trail a lure for barracuda down the reef a hundred feet from the break. Sometimes I get one and Twyla converts it into fabulous ceviche or burgers. More about Twyla in a moment.

Cay Caulker is a low island of sand only 5 km long, ish. The main settlement is a strip of local dwellings and small hotels for the tourists, restaurants and bars, everything on a small scale and nothing over three stories. There are about 2000 people including the tourists and a very laid-back, friendly and casual atmosphere prevails. There is no pretense, no fawning to the tourists, the feeling is that the islanders work the trade without the usual massive influx of outsiders getting in on the game and turning it into a mill. The island motto is “Go Slow”. There are no cars, only golf carts and feet. There is little beach but that does not seem to matter, people wander up and down the strip, eat, go snorkeling by boat out to the reef where big rays and harmless nurse sharks cruise. take trips to see the manatees, dive, kitesurf, sail on old Bahamanian sloops with a rum punch or a panty ripper. Rastafarians hawk carvings and street food on the strip along with other black locals and the Guatemalans. The Chinese own the stores. The local men are not shy, they hawk their wares quite aggressively but with humor, engaging all who pass, but if you don’t want to buy that doesn’t mean the conversation is over.

“The Split” is where Cay Caulker was cut in half I think by Hurricane Hattie and beside this lies the Lazy Lizard bar where at sunset the tourists gather on the sand beneath the palms for a Belizean Beliken beer or a rum punch or a panty ripper and to watch the sun set to the west; it is a Cay Caulker tradition.

Neil of Madelin’s Hardware very kindly let me moor at his dock and Desesperado bounces away there secured by 5 lines against the howling winds. I sail, walk the strip, repair and maintain the boat, swim, fish a little. Some of the locals know me as “Robinson Crusoe” and frequently approach me to express their respect for what I am doing, and sometimes to offer me drugs. They speak a thick Creole which they tune down when speaking to tourists such as myself but it is still hard to understand – when they speak amongst themselves they are almost wholly unintelligible to me. Some are white and it is kind of strange to hear them speak this tongue. They can be rather touchy when drunk – which they are frequently – and though they are big, tough and brave people who need top make a living there seems no malice in most of them. I have been away from Desesperado for several days and nights and nobody has stolen a thing.

I am usually tired by nightfall and go to bed on my platform early (the asphalt shack ceased to stench so badly, but began to leak once more in the frequent blasting downpours so once again I had to tar it and thin the tar with gasoline, the eleventh coating I think, so the stench is back and I have to raise the windward side to let air blow through) but a few times I have been out at night drinking attempting  to dance to the most terrible music anybody ever heard. This seems to be a peculiarity of Belize, this awful rhythmless reggae-derived subtlety-free horror-noise to which the locals don’t exactly dance but perform explicit acts of quite serious unsmiling mock-sex on front of all on the dance floor, without the music seeming to move them much at all. We are talking full-on doggie-style and dry-humping. The children do it too and the adults laugh. The tourists are to a man bemused and astonished by all this, none of us can dance to the stuff, even the lyrics are mostly a kind of A.D.D. “whining for sex” as I call it and there is no apparent joy or humor in it at all. On New Years Eve some new DJ was somehow aquired and he played some great stuff from whitey-world which had the floor packed and frenzied and screaming with pleasure and there is just no comparison between the two styles and the fun derived from them so why the hell do the locals stick with stuff that as far as anyone can see is not working even for them, it’s just a mystery to us. I had a terrific New Year’s eve, by the way.

I have made two wonderful friends, Paul and Twyla, aboard their amazingly unique and bombproof sailing vessel, the 52 foot monohull Samphire. They are anchored off of Cay Caulker whilst considering their next move; they have equipped themselves and Samphire as an expedition vessel-for-hire with marine videography and editing capabilities with a strong bent towards marine biology research. Captain Paul and Twyla are not Benneteau yachties, they are young and tough and practical with scars on their hands with no time for frippery but plenty for laughing and making me feel welcome aboard. Captain Paul, tough, personable and pragmatic with a big smile and a way with words and nuts and bolts and his equal Twyla, immensely capable, utterly fearless, completely endearing, no way a princess but rather beautiful, she is the videographer and webmaster and the glue that holds Samphire together and while Paul makes it possible for the boat to move, it is Twyla who finds the destination. I have spent the last few days and nights afloat with them whilst the weather makes things uncomfortable ashore; we have been making repairs to Samphire and eating well… I love the windy rides out through the dark in the rubber zodiac to the big orange boat swinging at anchor, the spray on my face, bucking over the weirdscape, an experience you could film but it would never look real. I am happy, it has done me a power of good to be befriended by such people and have quality time and intellectual discourse; I am inspired and though it will be sad to move on, I am ready when the time comes. Doubts about the wisdom of continuing persist, but some determination has returned as well.

Yesterday we saw dolphins approaching and jumped overboard in our snorkeling gear to swim with them. They came within a few feet but were either wary or uninterested in us. It was nonetheless thrilling.

I may travel aboard Samphire out to the offshore reefs for a week or two if I can find somewhere to leave Desesperado.

I went in.

The Bay of Chetumal was mostly a featureless green expanse of water with little to see until well into Belizean waters when numerous small cays began to appear. I landed on one to change up to my big sail in an effort to speed up and get to San Pedro before dark and I just made it to a dock minutes after sundown only an hour ago. Desesperado had a bit of a hard time in these shoal-infested waters; one minute we have two meters under us, the next nothing and at one point we bumped and banged and ground our way over about 300 meters of rocks, but that is what the extra-thick fiberglass on the keel is for. The rudders got banged a lot too. I was met on the dock by a pair of friendly tourists who gave me local information but the locals don’t seem much interested in Desesperado’s magnificence, or perhaps it was too dark. Really I demand a reception with flowers and hula girls.

San Pedro is very pleasant, a brightly painted semi-ramshackle town on a long flat sandy cay. The streets have been paved since I was here last six years ago. Tall, attractive people of all shades of brown, strong Caribbean accents, very laid back. Reggae, dreadlocks, tourists, bananas, golf carts, bicycles with rusty chains, the feeling very different from Mexico in intangible ways. Everybody seems friendly as far as that can ever be really genuine in a tourist haven and I already regret my slight upon the Belizean character in my last post.

When I was last here the cocktail of choice was the “panty ripper” and I am pleased to hear it is still around though it is an awful sweet coconutty thing. I am looking for a drink now myself and rum seems appropriate. It is nice to have such a worthy mission.


I’m going in.

Ok, I have decided to carry on just a little further southwards, into Belize. I have been fleeced and cleared to leave Mexico by the authorities, leaving early tomorrow. I should reach San Pedro of the Madonna song, Ambergris Cay, Belize, later tomorrow or sometime the next day. Weather forecasts vary between 10  knot following winds which would be nice and 19 knot following winds which give me the willies.

I may have a slightly nervous disposition – by now you may have noticed that a lot of things give me the willies. Like reefs, shoals, winds, waves, weeds, thunderstorms, pirates… Belize gives me the willies too. If I may most egregiously generalize and stereotype, Belizeans are bigger, more aggressive, more aquisitive and less trustworthy than Mexicans by almost all accounts and my own past experience. But the place is a paradise of small sandy cays and atolls, blue-water bays protected by reefs and all that good stuff. So… I’m going in. I just love saying that.

Running Down the Mexican Caribbean Coast.

Aqui estoy mis amigos:

At last some video! Sailing across the Bay of Chetumal:

It’s not much of a video but it took more than an hour to upload so it’s all I can manage for now. It appears my old SD cards are infected with a virus which has foiled all previous attempt to upload video… this is a new card.

That night in Tulum I wandered about too tired to drink or have “fun” so I returned to the beach to find my hired guard nowhere in sight. He showed up twenty minutes later so concerned and apologetic I had to pay him anyway, nothing was missing after all.

At 1 am. a police foot patrol awoke me, looked at my papers, said I could not sleep on the beach. I said it was the first time in 1500km of coast that this had happened; did they expect me to go out into that black and blowing ocean? They relented and let me stay just this one night, but they were quite uptight about it.

I did not visit the Mayan ruins at Tulum, I don’t do old piles of rocks.  It is an extensive area of solid edifices of which a couple overlook the sea. The largest, a well-preserved temple-like structure atop the sea cliff still performs a wonderful function as it is placed more or less opposite the big reef pass, and there are two windows high up that pass light from clear through the building. When light shows through one window only, one must move towards the other window, when light shows through both one is lined up with the deepest part of the pass. I sailed out to confirm this and indeed it was so, though I did not use the pass. And I forgot to take a picture.

A day of no wind, then a strong northerly, then the next day a calm start to the south with a light following breeze. Typically along this coast after dismantling the Asphalt shack and drying out my dew-soaked bed as much as I can I pack everything below and set off straight out from the beach, watching out for coral heads and aiming for whatever gap in the reef I’d run in through the day before. Once outside I keep going straight out for a mile or three to be well clear of reefy surprises, then heave-to and jump over the side for a poo. Poo extruded under water does not break off as it does in air, so some impressive lengths are possible.

I regain the deck, sheet in, pull on the tiller and head downwind to the south. the wind has been right behind me mostly which is counterintuitively not the fastest point of sail for a boat, but if it is strong enough I can go along at a fair speed, seven or eight knots. The sail shades the rising sun and with this north wind cold has become a real issue, I wear clothes but these get wet and I get colder, until my teeth are chattering and I am straining every muscle to keep warm. I have raingear but the spray goes right through it, it needs waterproofing compound of some kind and I am not about to use the only available stuff, roofing tar. If the spray is light it dries off of me multiple times leaving me white with salt.

Typical view ahead.

A coast of no dolphins and few turtles. I expect they are all inside the reef where I dare not travel much for fear of the coral heads. Out at sea flying fish scatter away before me, often thirty or forty at a time.

I fear the spiky limestone rocks that line the coast.

There’s a strong current heading north, up to four knots, the Gulf Stream. This can mean that despite a speed of say six knots through the water I may only be doing two past the land. The reef breakers boom on my right and further away the coast slips past agonizingly slowly, a low limestone shelf interrupted by long white beaches, low scrub, a few coco palms. Past Tulum the hotels faded out entirely and both sea and land became almost completely deserted. A lone shack on the beach once in a while would be the only sign of humanity. Blue water below, varying in shade with depth, swells from behind lifting and surging the boat forward then passing on ahead, the boat wallowing a bit in the trough with its nose up on the back of the departing hill. Surge, wallow, surge, wallow, hour after hour. No break from steering on these downwind courses. I may heave-to for a few minutes now and then to change clothes or dig out a bag of Globitos but mostly I sail without any breaks. The reefs give me the willies, especially when they boom with surf. The charts in my GPS are the only ones available, 32 years old, made I guess by sextant so things are often off by a kilometer leaving one with only one’s eyes and wits to rely upon.

The end of somebody's dream.

I am plagued with anxiety and doubts about what to do when I reach Chetumal and run out of Mexico.

I came near Punta Allen, where a big bay opens up in the coast. The mouth of the bay is perhaps 25 km across and I did not think I could cross that with certainty before dark so I moved in towards the coast with the idea of camping the night, crossed the reef but found myself in a horrible maze of coral heads, some just breaking the surface and all virtually invisible with the sun reflecting off the water ahead. I had a merry time getting through, standing, squinting, shouting  stuff like “Enemy off the port bow!” and trying not to get backwinded during extreme hasty turns. I hit one coral head pretty hard but ground over and beyond without I think much damage though the noise was distressing.

Up ahead a lone surprise hotel, a place with eight small palapas, coco-thatched cabañas, in the middle of a long stretch of steep white beach. This is the Sian Kaan nature reserve and only buildings such as this hotel which existed before the reserve was declared exist; nothing new may be built. I landed not far from the hotel thinking there might be a bar, I’ve learned a few tricks you know. I worked the boat up the sand, piled driftwood beneath the ama to level it out, erected the Asphalt Shack, cut some new sacrificial pegs for the rudders from bamboo driftwood and the woody skeletons of fan corals washed up on shore, scaled a palm and ate the best coconuts ever. Some Sol Caribe hotel guests came to say hello, they were very nice, people of taste who had elected this quiet and beautiful spot to vacation at because they are of that increasingly rare breed of person who can actually survive a few minutes without music or some vapid stimulation. Hello Maria and Seppo. I loved this beach, it was absolutely gorgeous and I had a divine, happy time beachcombing, doing my chores and sitting by my fire cooking pasta in a pot of salt and fresh water. There was no noise but the lapping of the sea, no engines, few bugs, neither hot nor cold… as close as I have come to paradise this whole trip. the ghost crabs were my friends, I was happy, and it seems to be no coincidence that I am happiest away from the tourists, in out-of-the-way places. I am unsure quite why this is.

Lovely lovely quiet beach.

My respects to Argentine Maurecio who was most friendly, he runs the Sol Caribe. Again and again I have met Argentines who impress me.

The next day I made a record 79km in a brisk wind with the usual following swell and the day still had a couple of hours to run when I heard a sort of faint whoop from behind me. I looked back and saw nothing but a white stick waving. I tacked back a few hundred meters and found a smiling man in a mask and snorkel with a massive lobster on the end of his speargun spear. This was Pedro. ” Was that you shouting? I asked “Do you need help?”

” I thought it was you who needed help. You look like a Cuban, or a pirate”.

I get this a lot. I am taken for a Cuban all the time although their escape vessels are never anything like mine. Also I am compared to Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean  or to Kevin Costner in Waterworld.  Waterworld comes up a lot. I am regularly checked for gills.

” No, I don’t need help. I’m just hungry.”

” Stop and camp here. I live there.” He gestured towards a couple of lonely shacks on the beach a half mile away. ” We will eat together. There’ s an entrance to the reef over there and Eduardo will help you when you land. Watch out, there are many rocks.”

I decided to stop, his smile was so engaging. There were indeed many rocks but I missed them and made the beach. Eduardo, Pedro’s 17-year old helper was out tending to the fish trap, a long line of sticks and net that deflected fish down to an enclosure at one end. There was a big moray in it today which is useless to them and dangerous too so Eduardo came back in with only a single fish.

The fish trap.

Miguel Angelo “da Vinci” appeared. Ancient, eight-fingered and one-eyed. He seemed utterly unsurprised to see me. We chatted a bit though I understood little of what he said, then he went off to pole his motorless lancha off down the beach to set his net.

Three huts there were, nothing else for miles but a dirt road ran along the coast a hundred meters inland. Pancho showed up on a motorcycle and came to admire Desesperado and talk. A couple of hours passed and Pedro emerged from the sea bearing a bag of twenty lobster tails – the rest of the creatures were discarded at sea – and I was invited to eat.  Dinner was deep-fried lobster tails for me, tortillas and Cup o’ Noodles all round washed down with Nescafe and the vodka I’d produced from Cargo Bay Three, mixed with coconut water which goes very well indeed. Pedro and Eduardo being Evangelists do not drink (saved from bad habits earlier in life by Dios, I must have heard this story a hundred times) but Pancho more than made up for it. He is an Evangelist too but “not a good one”. We ate seated on gasoline cans around a battered cable spool for a table and thrashed in the intense mosquitos; the typical half-assed mosquito shelter they had made was worse than useless,  I swear there were more bugs inside than out. I emerged for another coconut from time to time. Pedro demolished the most enormous plate of fried fish and most of a kilo of tortillas at gustatory athlete speed – he had been in the ocean for more than four hours without a wetsuit and was famished. His girth indicated that his regular input was something more than his output. I’d found him outside the reef, alone, in about three meters of water, at least a half-mile from land. This I think takes balls: they said that there are sharks which come and take an interest but normally do not bite, if they do it is by mistake because they have such poor vision. Cutting the lobsters in half does not attract them because “lobsters have transparent blood”, but when fish are speared then carried around in a net bag this is more of a problem. We told stories, had a long talk about Dios. I don’t agree with them but the innocence of their position is endearing.

Pedro actually lives in Chetumal 200km distant and has a wife and children. He spends the six months of lobster season in this isolated spot, two weeks on, three days off, snorkeling for four hours a day. He does not own this piece of land, it belongs to “some rich guy” who does not bother them. They cannot sell the lobsters live because town is a long way off and if they stored them in a cage they would be stolen whilst unguarded, so only the tails are sold, run to the nearest town by Pancho who lives in in the presumably buggy village of Mosquitero to the north, on the bike. I had never eaten lobster before and they were pretty good. It’s just a big shrimp isn’t it really?

Six months ago a lone Cuban passing nearby had to jump overboard to fix his ailing propeller. A shark bit him on the thigh. He survived two days at sea with this injury, managed to row to land but died of the infection. Poor bastard.

A month ago an Englishman in a yacht went up on the reef a few miles to the north. He immediately jumped aboard another yacht and disappeared, leaving the whole vessel to the locals. This is considered very suspicious. Da Vinci had a sail from the wreck.

Three years ago a monster came out of the ocean and went southwards along the beach, leaving no prints. There were several witnesses. The best I could understand was that it resembled ” the ghost of a pirate under a tarpaulin”. I do not know what to make of stories like this. I suspect it my have been a Cuban who swam in from a dying boat carrying whatever he could.

That night the mosquitoes were unbelievable, coating my net and finding their way through tiny gaps around the bottom of the Asphalt Shack’s frame, but it was not so bad. My folded towel makes a pillow the size of a slice of a small stack of toast. Mmm, toast.

In the morning I was invited to breakfast and we went first to da Vinci’s hut. He had just finished butchering a sea turtle which he’d found in his net.

I am tired of the turtle issue. The people of this coast eat them whenever they think they can get away with it, despite the draconian punishments that are possible. This creature was small, the shell a foot or two long, it had probably drowned in the net but I did not ask. There was a lot of meat. I weary of arguing about this with people, they do not understand me, it makes no difference. And I have to confess they have a point – there seem to be a hell of a lot of turtles.

What to do? Refuse hospitality? Rail against eating an animal which was dead anyway? I couldn’t bring the thing back to life, nor was I paying anyone to kill another.  They say they don’t eat them daily but often, yes. I sighed and ate deep-fried sea turtle for breakfast. What the hell am I coming to? The stuff was delicious, something like chicken, white and dry but tender, no fish taste. I am a very bad person and a criminal. I’m so sorry Mr. Froog.


Launch, onwards. Forty kilometers or so took me to Mahahual. On the way I saw my first lancha in a couple of days so so I approached for a gab to find to my astonishment that it was piloted by a beautiful blonde woman. I had never before seen any woman piloting a lancha. I heaved-to and crept close.

“You don’t look like a typical Mexican fisherperson”

” Neither do you”

” Yes I get that a lot”

She worked for a company doing reef surveys and had divers down. I said farewell and sailed onwards. Despite the existence of Crumpetina it is hard to leave a blonde alone at sea. I am just a man.

Mahahual.  “A little drinking town with a diving problem”. An attractive place with a small beach and a big pier touting two enormous cruise ships one of which sounded its horn as I passed under its bow, a noise fit to stun a rhinoceros, kind of thrilling. These ships appear two or three times a week and the passengers come ashore, enjoy the land, reboard and vanish leaving Mahahual very quiet again but for the local populace and a few diving and fishing tourists. I pulled ashore looking for the establishment of Dr. Primo who had very kindly invited me to visit via this blog, but my timing was bad and he was not around. I had a beer at the excellent and most friendly Nohoch Kay restaurant where I had beached because of the presence of the Nohoch’s rental Hobie cats and found that my money was no good there. Owner Jaime is a most hospitable fellow who welcomed and pampered me and was all in all a great guy, I wish him the very best and his staff as well. That night I watched mystified as a man unreeled most of his line on the wide concrete dock in a zig-zag pattern, then he stood on the edge and whirled his weight in a 16-foot vertical circle and heaved it out into the dark, the zig-zag line flying easily off the concrete. The weight must have gone 100 meters or more.  Later the boat kept banging the dock in a most distracting way so I had to pull out into the dark and anchor, then I slept a little.

I’d forgotten to check the weather on the net but it looked fine out there, a very light breeze, so I left the big sail up and headed out. After my morning Yard o’ Poo I turned south. This turned out to be a bad day to be at sea.

In an hour or so the wind started to freshen. It went from bad to worse with big swells coming up behind me to make me surf down their faces. Since they were hitting me diagonally on this tack I had to surf them with the ama on the downhill side which risked it plunging way under and tripping the boat, although this has never actually happened things got a bit worrying. I like the surfing normally but it was getting a bit out of hand this time. As the wind started to clock around to the northwesterly I changed tack and that let me surf with the big hull downhill, which was better, but things were getting hairier and hairier. At first the swells were moving much faster than the boat so the surfings would be brief, but as the wind freshened further I sped up and surfed for longer and longer spurts, the boat racing along at an alarming pace, charging over and through car-sized lumps of water, great black (it was overcast) swells rearing up behind me to three meters, occasional 4-meter freaks lifting me to commanding heights with deep pits opening in front into which I would plunge, the GPS now hitting 12 knots over-the-ground despite the back-current. I sat sideways the better to see in front and behind but after a while decided it was better not to look back because each approaching mountain frankly scared the crap out of me and I didn’t want to know, the adrenaline was too much. Most of them passed harmlessly below no matter how bad they looked.

Where was Xcalak, the next town down? I was going so fast it must surely be soon, but no sign. As I surfed forward some of the wind pressure would come off the sail and with such little force from the side the sail would collapse (yard and boom coming together) and fall inboard across the bow which could lead to the spars getting hooked over the top of the mast, an ugly prospect, so I started to zig-zag to keep pressure on the sail but that was not so good as it is better to surf perpendicular to the big waves. I finally saw some smoke on the horizon – Xcalak? Oh please! I had the option of crossing the reef to land on the beach but after my experience north of Tulum I was saving that one as a last desperate measure. In fact I carefully edged away from the reef in case I had a rigging failure and needed time and searoom to fix it. So it was Xcalak or bust but this last half-hour things got so crazy at times I doubted I’d make it, I was charging along, soaked, the deck completely under sometimes, my hat gone, fighting with rigid concentration to keep my course and control and becoming increasingly alarmed. If I wavered from a run to a broad reach steering would become almost impossible due to the excessive weather helm on this point of sail, exacerbated terribly by my big sail, so when this happened I’d be slewn around broadside to the weather. The only way to get back to running downwind was to sheet in, build up speed then completely let go the sail, steer hard leewards, then try to get the sail sheeted in again before it fell across the bows. The stress on the rudders during these turns was awful and I was very worried that something would give – without steering I’d be fucked for sure. But Deseperado is made of stern stuff to my never-ending amazement and nothing broke. That quina hardwood of which the blades are made is some good shit as is the marine ply.

Anyway, onwards really really fast. Xcalak came into view but the reef was pretty much continuous here and worryingly so. I was considering breaking out the VHF walkie-talkie to ask for advice with little hope of understanding the replies, if any, when I saw a lancha outside the reef. YAHOO!

Jorge, in full raingear, was circling around in the lumps with consummate skill. I approached and grinned. Might as well pretend this kind of thing happens all the time and I’m cool with it. He had divers down, he yelled over the howling. We went up and down, up and down. He said his divers would be up soon and I could follow him in through the reef. Phew. Salvation.

I hung around, heaved-to in the mountains, tensioned the mainsheet just enough  to stop the sail flogging violently, got out the Go-Pro head camera for the ride through the reef and stood on the deck admiring the sea, which was impressive, magnificent and very menacing indeed. It wouldn’t look that way on camera of course, it never does. Sailors say the best way to reduce the size of the waves is to point a camera at them. On camera it looks always looks like a millpond.

Divers started to appear and looked at me astonished and I was like, just hanging out you know? I do this all the time, sure.

The divers eventually got aboard and Jorge waved me forward.  I was now on a broad reach with steering difficulties and having a hard time, but it was better than surfing. We ran for a tiny gap in the reef north of the town, the divers shivering but with all their eyes glued to the spectacle behind them. Through the gap, no trouble, I may safely say I experienced a feeling of relief at this point, then through a maze of coral heads with steering trouble but no impacts, then a shunt and a fast run southwest to land. I ran Desesperado up on the beach and sat and enjoyed still being alive.

Xcalak is a quiet and poor place, dirt roads, palms, miniscule beaches, eight year-olds driving mopeds. The people are calm and only mildly interested in my boat and journey. Real Mexico here. A few men came to check out the Desesperado. They often ask if I am afraid of sharks attacking my little boat. No, I am afraid of reef and big waves. They claim that there is a type of shark that attacks the motors of lanchas occasionally, presumably only once per shark though. Often it completely escapes people that there is no motor – they don’t notice the sail when it is wrapped around its spars on deck, and then they think that the rudders are oars and I am some kind of rowing nut. Waterworld, Captain Jack Sparrow.


Cuban escape boat at Xcalak. Weirdly high-sided (five or six feet), made of very thin glass fiber and roofing metal and powered by a car engine cooled with straight sea-water delivered through very dodgy plumbing. A one-shot disposable boat. They made it I guess.

The next day I took off, sailed south a few miles inside the reef and belted through the Zaragoza canal, a 500 meter cut in the land allowing access to the lagoon behind. Soldiers at the canal entrance waved at me to stop but not until I had already passed and in this narrow space with my crappy small sail up, plus a strong current I could not tack back to them. I tried for a bit but my heart wasn’t in it then I threw up my hands and carried on. The soldiers did not did not pursue. Behind the canal a lagoon opened up with low scrubby sandbars and shoals, mangroves, herons and whatnot, Belize to my left, Mexico to the right. I crossed 40 or 50 km of featureless greenish Bay of Chetumal to Chetumal, tied to the public pier, had to check in with immigration and pay to moor, kinda uptight here.  Cars drive out on the pier then stop where I am moored, the only boat on a 150-meter pier, to goggle at Desesperado. The pier guards are friendly enough towards me but cars are not allowed to stop on the pier and this is taken this very seriously – I said they were uptight – so they have to walk down the pier from their office each time to order the vehicles into motion again and I think it is wearing them out. A sign says ” Beware of the Alligators” so I don’t swim in this murky lagoon water. Not even for my trousers.

I walk the streets of Chetumal as always lugging my electronics and other valuable valuables in my submersible bag. It rains here so this bag is useful off the boat as well as at sea. This is quite the noisiest place I have ever experienced… I had the misfortune to arrive on a Saturday afternoon and could hear the place booming from about 8km out, a bad sign if you are me, which I am. I walked up the main commercial street through the worst cacophony ever. About every third store has big speakers outside blasting and shrieking and pounding music. Over this a person with a microphone is often ranting like a minister about their wares. This could be a shoe shop, a pharmacy, a bank…  Here and there on the wide street a tent is set up before thirty or so chairs and a man with a microphone stands in front of maybe six sitters and yells about something, thundering out of his speakers at a volume fit to strip the lichen off a boulder. I wince. A cactus would wince. But the sitters seem completely unperturbed. The only way to not hear music is if it is drowned out by some other music. Cars thump by, their huge stainless “mufflers” deafening, an open-sided double-decker tour bus goes around and around with its speakers taking up the whole rear end hammering out crap. Cars with speakers or megaphones on their roofs drive about blaring recorded commercial messages. Much of the music is the whiny kind with the semi-synthesized voices which I love so much. A fair was set up, with a main stage doing some kind of ghastly Christmas show with Santa and big rabbits dancing about, lots of refrigerator-sized speakers with this outfit. And fireworks. There are so many firework sellers on the streets that I fear some Dresden-like firestorm cataclysm may befall Chetumal.

Imagine you are inside a giant Coca-Cola can ten stories high. Put inside a dozen steel water tanks, a few cathedral bells and a dumpster load of cannon balls then roll the whole shebang down a lumpy hill. You will now be experiencing peace and quiet, a calm day by a slow-moving river with some hummus and a bottle of Merlot, in comparison to Chetumal.

Desesperado at Chetumal.

And now I must decide. Desesperado is in much the same shape as when he left Veracruz, improved if anything, and I myself have a few more gray hairs but am otherwise in great condition and ready to keep sailing. Do I go on towards Panama where I may have work of a kind? Head back to Veracruz? Sell Desesperado? Ask for rescue by a friend with a trailer? This has to be one of the hardest decisions of my life.

Aqui estoy mis amigos:

The day after Crumpetina’s lovely visit ended I rather sadly set sail from Isla Mujeres. No more $4 per night hotel room, no more breakfast biscuits at Barlitos. The wind was light and I had to resort to anchoring exposed off the horrible thumping hotel zone of Cancun. Due to the current pushing me one way and the waves coming from the side I had a rough night – waves from the side strike the outrigger and then the main hull flat-on and the boat shakes and jerks so violently that I cannot lie on my side without being flopped this way and that – but at least the Asphalt Shack did not let in the copious rain. In the morning a school of little fish which had become fond of  the boat in the night swam desperately along close to the hull until I had to leave them behind, so tiny and alone in the vast clear blue.

Just south of Cancun begins the reef; a couple of weeks ago when I passed here on my aborted attempt to go south the entrance was beset with breakers but this time it was clear and calm, however the dangers of the reefs were brought home to me by two vessels –  a small sailing yacht and a big motor vessel –  that had become grounded upon the coral. Woe betide the careless here. It appeared that the big motor boat was a salvage vessel sent to recover the yacht. Once behind the reef one still has to take care because of patches of coral and isolated coral heads that are especially hard to spot with the sun ahead and low to the south, reflecting off the water. This is quite stressful and adds to my general mental malaise, irrepressible anxious thoughts that rise to the surface like the fat in a stew and cannot be stirred down for long. I would quit this voyage now if I didn’t think I would regret it for the rest of my life, also this is one of the most lovely coasts in the world and it would be a shame to miss it. I intend to go no further than the end of Mexico, then I must decide on how to save myself and Desesperado.

The wind was weak and vacillating so I didn’t get far. About four kilometers north of Playa del Carmen I ground over a few rocks then hauled out on the beach at a vacant spot between hotels, discovering to my surprise I can now move the boat up the sand end-for-end whilst it is fully loaded – I seem to be getting physically stronger whilst mentally weaker. I had a delightful night with at least four hours of good sleep which sounds sarcastic but it really was nice.  Sleep has been a luxury on this trip.

The morning, this morning, brought rain and strong winds so I stayed in bed thinking I would not sail today but finally out of sheer boredom I rose and packed up, changed down to the smaller sail then walked the boat out past the rocks, leapt aboard and blasted out to sea and southwards leaving a small crowd at a nearby hotel waving. With this howling wind behind me I made crazy speed towards Playa del Carmen and was soon soaked to the skin and wishing the sky were clearer and the sun higher.

I thought I would stop at Playa but somehow that didn’t happen. I don’t like the place that much and though my speed was frightening, the coral invisible under the chop and I was freezing cold I thought “so far so good” and carried right on by. I think a big factor in this decision was this – I was too afraid to be depressed! And busy too.

This stretch today between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum was the scariest and fastest of the whole trip. Conditions deteriorated as I went along, the barrier reef petered out leaving me on a broad reach in the open ocean with great swells lifting me high then dropping me into great pits, with confused smaller waves reflected off the land running in all directions. The wind increased, whitecaps everywhere and Desesperado plunged through wave after wave throwing up spray by the bucketload. Once in a while a little piece of my shirt would dry out enough that I could wipe off my sunglasses. The hotels on my right petered out with the reef and the coast became a low shelf of incredibly spiky wave-worn limestone beset with breakers, interrupted occasionally by small lagoons which might be enterable but for the reef strung straight across the mouth of each one. Breakers crashed across these reefs and though I might have had clearance I dared not risk it. The waves might lift me over – but they can also drop one down.

So I pounded along. I think for only about four hours or so. Then another bay appeared and this one had no end in sight. If I were to cross the reef could I sail along inside out of these crazy waves, maybe as far as Tulum, my target?

I piddled about outside the reef in an ocean which was getting madder by the minute, decided on a spot where the breakers were less. It didn’t look too bad. I shunted and headed in, regretted it as the swells behind reared up and twice bashed me sideways before passing by. I regained control and the next one lifted my stern so high I was at a 45 degree angle (I am not exaggerating, it felt like I was pointing vertically downwards) and we surfed down the slope at horrible speed, then the coral was  flashing by close below and we slowed down and it was over. I was shaking from head to toe for the next twenty minutes which warmed me up pleasantly.

The inside of this bay is strewn with the coral heads so I was continually lifting my rudder and standing up to see ahead better. A good deal of the swells made it over the reef so it was still rough and there are areas of shoals covered in breakers through which I had to run, turning into the waves when I could to lessen their impact. One breaker caught me side on and completely covered the whole boat, ripping away one of my water bottles which I keep lashed above the outrigger as weight to help prevent capsize. This was the only loss of the day – all this battering resulted in no damage at all to Desesperado.

Only a few miles of this bay-hammering and I looked up at the cliffs to my right and was amazed to see Mayan ruins. This must be Tulum! Sorry, I had my hands too full to take pictures.  A beach was coming up ahead; I landed and made instant friends. Papo unasked gave me a shoulder massage… he owns a lancha and knows the pain of steering long distances. I am glad I made the shore for the wind later became even worse and the rain returned to clear the beach of all tourists. After a couple of beers I hired a guard for the boat and was driven to the town of Tulum where I intend to have more beers and some food. I am famished. I’m going to eat now. This post is haphazard but it is done for the time being.

Waves of Doubt

I decided I was going to have to put up with winds higher than I would like because they just never seem to stop. Sailors always say there is either too much wind or too little. So accordingly I set sail around lunchtime on Tuesday and made good speed on lumpy open ocean across to and then past horrible thumping Cancun. As the huge hotels, built on a scale that staggers me – I feel so small, a little fish – petered out I approached an area where the sizeable swells were rearing up over shallow water and coral. I had some idea that here an offshore reef started that would continue down the coast a ways offering a strip of sea by the coast between a half kilometer and 2 kilometers wide that was protected from the swell, an easy passage southwards. But first I had to get inside and this entrance was narrow and beset with huge breakers and I didn’t like the look of it at all.

Desesperado has the great advantage of remarkable speed. The bigger the waves the faster they go. With enough wind behind me I can outpace waves five feet tall or so, bigger waves will catch up with me and start to raise my stern so I surf down them at thrilling velocity, staying ahead as the wave crests and then breaks harmlessly behind. The trick is to wait for a set of bad ones to pass, then get up enough speed and maintain an iron grip on the tiller and total control through the charge. Heaven help me if I broach and trip…

So it went here through the danger area. After the worst I found my heart pounding so hard I thought it would do itself damage, and I was shaking from head to foot and ooh I felt so alive.

Inside the reef there were some coral heads to negotiate but I got around these and for the next few hours raced along on pretty flat water with the wind behind me and the surf crashing on the long barrier reef on my left. Sporadic huge hotels separated by low scrub and swampland passed by on my right. Not much in the way of attractive beach.

Towards dusk I anchored in the shelter behind a wrecked ship at Puerto Morelos. A police car glowered at me from the shore, but waited until an hour after dark and I was in bed to shine a spotlight on me and bellow through his PA that I was in a federal security zone related to a nearby shipping terminal and I had to go. I’d be damned if I’d take down my shelter (which due to its heavy and malodiferous coating of tar I now call “The Asphalt Shack” or ” The Roadhouse”) so I upped anchor and let the cold wind blow me sailess down the beach to a new and darker place. Later somebody else trained a spotlight on me and flashed it for ages but I ignored them and they eventually gave up.

Nights are always long on Desesperado but this one was particularly grim… I am constantly assailed by the worst thoughts about my situation, the wisdom of going on, my station in life, my past decisions… everything. Why do I make friends then move on? Why am I always alone? Why did I give my dog away? What am I doing? What am I going to do? It rained but at at last the cover worked, ninth time lucky with the waterproofing I guess.

More reef-protected coast southwards the next day. More huge hotels, tourists dotting the beach, shallow water, coral heads to avoid, dumbo jetskis, boat-towed parasails, dive boats, Hobie 14’s, beach bars. I thought I would like this coast but I do not: it seems like a vast tourist-processing plant absolutely devoid of character. Much of the beach is mundane with nothing to recommend it, so why build hotels there? The answer is money-laundering, everybody knows it, though I do not understand how it works.

I hit one coral head pretty hard but the boat ground its way quickly over to the other side and deeper water. The noise was horrible. I have not inspected the damage yet.

I have never raced an 18 but Hobie 14’s certainly do not stand a chance against Desesperado on any point of sail. I leave ’em far behind. Jetskis I do not even wave to. I despise them.

The mad water activity increased as I approached Playa del Carmen whose beach was at least more attractive though it would be nicer without the continous wall of hotels behind it, and all the noise. I anchored in front of one blasting out the most horrible bleating whiny music I have ever heard “Oh I neeeeeeeed to be with you baaaaaby, ohhhh, ohhh…” Just pathetic. It was probably Craig David. No man should have two first names says Crumpetina. Who listens to this shit?  I found myself averse to having the same old conversations about the boat so I quickly walked into town toting my most valuable valuables to find something to eat. I found this major tourist-processing facility quite without charm or character and as soon as I had some globitos I got back aboard and hauled up the anchor. I headed south towards Tulum.

Crumpetina is coming for a long-overdue visit on Wednesday, flying into Cancun. I was looking for a good place to entertain her but did not find in this coast what I expected, and did not like it as much as Isla Mujeres. If I continued much further south Crumpetina would have to spend a good portion of two of her seven days here on buses. Isla Mujeres is a nice place with all the character this coast lacks, plus I now have a few friends there and I know where I can leave the boat unattended safely. The wind was dead behind me, every kilometer I went south would require two kilometers beating back northwards… so right there I turned around and headed back towards Isla Mujeres.

I tacked (shunted actually) a few miles north before dark, spent another wretched night by some desolate swampland between hotels. The tide went down and at 3am I started to hit bottom and grind against the strewn lumps of limestone-upon-sand so I had to up anchor and sit, naked and freezing, as a cold westerly blew me out to deeper water. Well I wasn’t sleeping anyway. The next day the westerly continued blowing me close-hauled up the coast in fitful rain, then it clocked around to an easterly, more rain and cold, then a long becalming, and finally more rain and a nasty blow in my face beating across from Cancun to the island. By Cancun a park guardboat approached, said I could not fish (I was trailing a lure, not a bite on the whole trip) because it was a protected park of which I was genuinely unaware “But there are fishermen everywhere” I protested, which is true, both tourist and commercial, so it does not seem very protected at all. “They have special permits”.

Well, ok. I guess. It seems a little rough after a life of careful environmental responsibility including 26 years as a vegan that everyone but me gets to fish. Am I being entitled? Not for me to say. Anyway I threw the lure back over after they were gone and caught two fine barracuda near Isla Mujeres during a pretty bouncy and splashy ride. Desesperado performed magnificently as always throughout this trip.

So I am back on the island, waiting for Crumpetina.

Doubt. It is quite intense. I am tired. This isn’t fun any more. I have come a long way and want to do something else, but I knew that the fear and discomfort would cause me to think this way so I must fight my rationalizations towards quitting. I have several options about what to do next. I have kind of committed myself to some work in Panama starting in January. I would like to save Desesperado which means getting him safe somewhere. It is getting cold and severe nortes blow every few days. These factors make decisions difficult.

Option 1) Sail back to Zapote. Not too appealing, I have done this coast. With these winds though it might be a quick trip, 2 – 3 weeks perhaps.

2) Sail to Cuba, then up to Miami. Then go get my car and trailer from Mexico and drive the boat up to NY State from there. This means at least two long and possibly dangerous crossings, plus possible trouble from US authorities who just can’t get over something that happened before I was even born. Who voted for this? Anyone? I am not sure I have the energy to take on Cuba. And my salsa lessons went nowhere. I still can’t dance.

3) Try to sail to Panama. Virtually impossible to go another thousand miles or so before January, and frankly in my present state of mind I don’t know if I could survive the ordeal. At the very best I would have to rush along, suffering all of the difficulties and not being able to stop for the rewards. I dread all the bureaucracy of checking in and out of all those countries, that alone could take a month. Urgh.

4) Find somewhere to store the boat between here and, say Honduras, and return refreshed later on to continue the odyssey.

5) Stay here, find work, make a life. Isla Mujeres is a fine place.

Whilst I ponder these impenetrables I have a $4 per night room at the scabby Hotel Caracol, above the disco. It is ok but the gold filigree and inlaid lapis-lazuli is harsh on the eyes. I am trying to find an old sail from which to make a new and better one than the polytarp job that has pulled me so far. I do a little sailing when weather permits. The beach is still very pleasant; I adore David and Marcelo of Stand Up Paddleboard Isla Mujeres and Adriana of Mundaca Divers and Alina the Masseuse for the NaBalam Hotel and Mary Ann who has been so good to me, all are wonderful company. The busted rib is healing and I have developed the ability to climb coconut palms like a monkey. I accidently had a wave of positive feeling today but it passed. Phew.

Mujeres, Prison Isle

I tried to escape today. More than three weeks of relentless high winds and rain were finally supposed to break today according to WindGURU. At least the wind was supposed to moderate and I was prepared to accept the rain.

(Actually we did have a weird calm day yesterday, so calm that no sailing was possible at all. I insinuated myself into a dinghy and spent some hours bringing yachts back into the harbor from the lagoon where they’d been sheltering from the tropical storm.)

But WindGURU was wrong. As I loaded the boat another howler sprang up which went on most of the day, to be replaced by rain late in the afternoon. I lashed the heavy log on over the outrigger and went out anyway but with the deck constantly awash and the platform frequently  inundated sufficient to nearly sweep me overboard it was just too stressful and I ran back to the beach after a half hour and concentrated on throwing ropes over coconuts to pull them down with. After all this forced inactivity I am in a weakened state and can no longer climb the trees; the broken rib doesn’t help much either.

There is nowhere so lonely as a place full of happy people you don’t know. I am going out of my mind here, and whilst continuing my voyage also does not really appeal I am prepared to do it just to get the **** out of here whilst I still have any motivation left at all. Anything but more thumb-twiddling tedium, wandering from place to place, eating too much, drinking not enough. It is sapping my strength. I remember so fondly all those little villages I visited on the way here and how easy it was to fill the time just by joining in with whatever the fishermen were doing. I’ve managed a little volunteering here but have found nothing substantial enough to keep me amused. I suck as a tourist. Years ago I swore I would never again visit a poor country as a tourist – I would need to be working or on an expedition – but now I have become a tourist again by default and I really don’t like it.

Sorry, I am bitching. You think I am in the Caribbean and should be having a great time but the weather is more like something from the Outer Hebrides so the Caribbean aspect is absent and this has gone on so long it is getting very hard to be philosophical about it.

A light at the end of the tunnel! Crumpetina is coming over in 16 days! YAY!

A Photo

El Milagro Marina owner Eric Schott caught this as headed into the lagoon ahead of the expected hurricane. There's a log beside me on the platform as an anti-capsize measure because despite the apparent calm there is a strong wind blowing, enough to make me wear the life jacket for the first time. This photo is distorted - stretched sideways - the boat is not that long nor I that wide.

What was that all about?

The storm hit late last night, lots of lightning and rain and a howling wind that bent the palms over and strung out their hair like girls with their heads out of a car window, but there was little effect upon the buildings. It was dramatic enough for me to say that if this was just a tropical storm I am no longer sure I want to experience a real hurricane. The power went in and out and finally died for good and I fell asleep with my wet clothes strewn about the room. This morning I woke to an overcast sky with little wind and a flat sea, the ceiling fan turning again. Kind of a big fat nothing’ the whole deal.  There are some leaves and branches on the streets, some minor coconuttage, folks are unboarding their windows and getting back to normal though with little prospect of doing business until the tourists return. I sense relief but some slight disappointment that all the preparatory work was wasted.

The forecast is still terrible, strong winds for a couple of days and continued rain and thunderstorms for a week; this is getting tiring. I may have to take off in the rain because I can’t live with this waiting much longer.

This Town is Clean

Hurricane Rina has degenerated into a tropical storm which is kind of disappointing after all these days of anticipation. We are still in for some nasty weather but nothing to worry about. The storm proper should arrive tonight.

The island flew into action yesterday. Many hundreds of boats were moved into sheltered Laguna Makax in the middle of the island and the town boarded up most of its windows. I helped until we were out of plywood and after that there was little anyone could do but wait. Most of the tourists have left and most businesses have closed up for the duration, so the place is quiet between sporadic outbursts of torrential rain. At firsts the streets ran murky despite all the rain last week but now the water flows as clear and sparkly as a mountain stream. This town is clean.

Desesperado is upsidedown and weighted with lumber and blocks at the excellent and friendly Paraiso Marina whose owner Frank and manager Kevin have been nothing but charming and helpful to me since my arrival here.

Throughout my trip people have said “Oh the hurricanes are very dangerous” and of course that is true but they have never worried me because there is always warning and even then they miss most of the time. In this case we have been waiting for a week and the storm has weakened and veered off and become an anticlimax. I have the great advantage over other vessels that I can run straight for land and haul out singlehanded (this is no accident, it is my main reason for building a weird boat) so hurricanes have never worried me. It is lesser storms with less warning that bother me, but so far so good.

I have a cheap hotel room, just moved there this morning after the last one repeatedly flooded.

I have been trapped on Isla Mujeres so long now I can barely remember life on the trip far from restaurants and people who speak my own language. I almost wish I’d gotton stuck on some random beach or islet and had a more difficult and intense experience. It certainly would have been cheaper.

A Monster Approaches.


I would have left Isla Mujeres some time ago but for the frustrating weather which has pounded us with rain and strong winds for 13 days now without any breaks worth mentioning. The tourists have stayed in their rooms, activities like diving, snorkelling, sailing, island tours and paddleboard rental are all suspended and the local people are out of money and unhappy. The seas to the East of the island were for days quite huge but now that the winds are coming from the north they have moderated and become barely navigable however with more severe weather on the way it seems I should remain here where I know the ropes and have a few friends, until things calm down. Desesperado spends most of his time hauled up upon North Beach beneath the palms, every day I move him a little more inland as what little beach remains is eroded away by the waves. Yesterday I took him for a risky little spin and was hammered by a squall, lashed by horizontal rain and bounced around until my passenger (carried for ballast) screamed. She has a story to tell her friends, and I am reminded that what has come to seem normal for me is quite abnormal for others.

Mostly I sleep on the boat but I have been forced into cheap hotels some nights by the continued leaking of my shelter which I was unable to re-tar due to the weather – finally in desperation I lashed it to the boat and thoroughly smeared it with goo (the ninth time. The cover is now so thick and heavy I have trouble stuffing it into cargo bay three)  in a 25-knot howler and I think this may have done the trick at last. Funny that after a day on the beach being wind-blasted my hovel now seems to be a luxury pad, a delicious escape from the elements. I have also replaced a cracked rudder bracket, repaired my folding chair and created a new non-slip deck by mixing sand with paint which worked a treat; thanks to Dave the mad scientist for that suggestion.

A rotten thief keeps stealing stuff from the boat- navigation lights, two sets of snorkelling gear, ropes and so on so I have moved everything to another hotel room, this one rented in anticpation of Hurricane Rina which should arrive in force on Thursday night if nothing changes in its predicted track. The authorities are likely to evacuate all foreigners from the island so I will have to hide from them in order to stay near my vessel. Rina, now north of Honduras and moving slowly directly towards us is at present a category 2, not as bad as Gilbert a couple of decades back which really wrecked the place… the locals say that the waves were so huge that they broke clear over this narrow island such that it could not be seen from the air. I am not yet sure where I shall store the boat but at least I have the advantage that I can dismantle it and carry it inland and as long as I can avoid falling palms it will be ok.

I am feeling a little happier though still somewhat full of self-doubt. It is hard to keep in mind why I am doing this; maybe I was never clear in the first place. There is some Dengue fever knocking about here but it has missed me; my health is good apart from a cracked or broken rib sustained whilst climbing coconut palms. I have made a few friends and Isla Mujeres is not an objectionable place to get stuck; I wander about, fiddle horribly in the wind on the beach, drink a little in the evenings and even dance a bit… salsa does not really move me, it kind of has to be learned, it is all in the hips they say and this movement feels to me to be more than a little, well, gay. (“But it’s not your culture!” exclaims my Cuban instructor). It seems to me that salsa is great for dancing in couples but I have never seen anybody dancing to it with wild abandon as they do to say, Appalachian fiddle or Trance Techno. Nonetheless I am insanely jealous of those who can do it.


I have not filmed anthing nor sent any SPOT messages since I arrived here. Likely we will be without power for some days after the hurricane so I will dig out SPOT and send messages during the storm to let folks know it is all ok… if it is ok that is. I am kind of looking forward to it. Today I will see what I can do to help others prepare, boarding up houses and so on though I have seen no such activity at all, the island is in a state of oblivious calm as far as I can see; perhaps this happens often enough that nobody takes action until the last minute when impact is certain.

So, I still exist and everything is ok. I will report on the hurricane as soon as I am able.


My apologies for the long silence.

Things have not been so good. The black guy mentioned at the end of the last post was not my friend at all, he was in fact a con man and he took me for a lot of money. Maybe I will tell the tale someday but right now it hurts too much; I would rather not think about it.

I am still on Isla Mujeres. I have been profoundly depressed, lonely and anxious, and at present lack the ability to continue my voyage. At least life is not stressful here… I exist as a beach bum using my only asset – the boat – to make a little cash by renting it out with myself at the tiller. I meet interesting people but they are mostly tourists and they leave, I walk the streets in the evening in the faint hope of some momentous encounter, fail, swim or wade back to bed wherever the boat is anchored. Occasionally I catch a barracuda but I release most of them. I started salsa dancing lessons this morning, this seems essential for a visit to Cuba should I eventually decide to head that way. Maybe I could live here? I don’t know… better than returning to the forest in upstate NY with winter coming on, though at least there I would have a bed.

To rent out the boat I have attached myself to SUP Isla Mujeres, an outfit consisting of two groovy guys who rent out Stand Up Paddleboards. I like David and Marcelo a lot and they have been most welcoming. At first I felt I was tempramentally unsuited to life as a beach bum but it is growing on me a little. It is low season – barely anyone on the beach – and I am unable to advertise my services for fear of legal consequences (I am here on a tourist visa for one thing) so renters are few and far between. Desesperado always gets a lot of favorable attention, he is the fastest sailboat around and the prettiest. For some reason he is able to outrun catamarans of twice his length which just shouldn’t be. Sometimes I take him out with the big sail up to blast around the windy edge of a rainstorm and try to beat his speed record but we cannot break 12.7 knots. The sailing is fantastic here – good breezes over clear blue warm water.

I will be here at least another week or two.

My Beautiful Voyage to the Island of Women.

Aqui estoy mis amigos:

Sorry no photos. The only camera from which I can extract them is having battery problems.

It is only 80 or 90 km as the crow flies from Holbox to Isla Mujeres but I do not sail as the crow flies; first Cabo Catoche to the east has to be rounded before one can sail southwards towards the island. I had been dreading this Cape at the northeasternmost corner of the Yucatan peninsula – not because it is particularly dangerous in itself but because everyone says that beyond that point seas become large again and I had become used to an ocean largely free of big waves and liked it that way.

I packed up my shelter and readied the boat by flashlight then pulled up the anchor and crept out to sea against a light northeasterly as the sun rose redly over the horizon. “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in the morning, sailors’ warning” as the saying goes but most days I see both red sunrises and red sunsets and neither seems to foretell anything so I ignore such portents. I was some way out to sea planning to take the “outside” ocean route to the Cape when on impulse I turned around and headed back the way I had just come to round Holbox and enter the great lagoon. This lagoon stretches all the way inside the Island of Holbox up to Cabo Catoche and reputedly had a cut right near the Cabo Catoche lighthouse by which I could enter the ocean (the SPOT map is deceptive, look at the satellite image for the true picture). So it provides an inside passage to the Cape. By gorgeous sunrise I threaded my way through the myriad weedy shoals some marked by sticks jammed into the mud and others by herons standing still amidst many gurking flamingoes. Fish jumped, turtles splashed, pelicans nose-dived into the water with big splashes and emerged necking their prey. Within an hour an early cadre of five thunderstorms had formed but I slid carefully by them with no more than mild soakings during which I attempted to wash the salt out of my ever-wet clothes without much success. Once I had passed the lagoon side of the town of Holbox the lagoon, so great that I could not see the far side, became completely deserted and I saw no sign of people for a long time. After twenty kilometers or so I reached a narrowing where the water suddenly became crystal clear and shoaled to the point where my keel sliced through the weeds to the mud below and I left a trail of  mud cloud in my wake. It got worse and worse and I could find no deeper water; mostly it was around 14 inches which is shallow enough that young mangrove trees had taken root and were growing up out of the water.

A lesson good mariners learn early is don’t sail where there are trees. I feel that this is a reasonable policy but now I had no choice. There were trees all around me and to go forwards looked as good as to go back. The tide was ebbing and if I did not get out of here I would soon be stuck; as it was my speed was quite reduced by the underside polishing I as receiving. I developed a new policy – sail where there are fewer trees.  Now I was in a foot of water… Desesperado draws 15 inches. I shunted desperately back and forth hunting deeper water, now seeing long tracks where lancha motors had cut swathes throught the weeds and sometimes retangular patches where lanchas had been completely grounded for some time. Occasionally big deep pools opened up below where clearly-visible big fish startled by my sudden appearance would dart in all directions into the weeds at the sides. Then I was free again, the lagoon deepened and widened and with this clear water it became much bluer. Flamingoes all around, many other birds… manatees are said to live in this area but I did not expect to see them.

I found the channel more by luck than judgement amongst a maze of mangrove islets speckled with birds and shunted out through it dead against the wind towards the ocean beyond. This was no mean feat for the channel was only twenty metres wide so there was little advancement to be had on each tack. To make any headway at all I had to use all the room available which meant nose-diving the boat into the mangroves on each side, reversing the sail just in time to kill my momentum and backpeddle out of the trees before the sail was caught in the branches. I have become one with Desesperado and can now shunt without so many disasters; I heaved at my tackline, hauled at my mainsheet, raised and lowered rudders, leapt monkey-like about the platform breathing hard and soaked in sweat and finally made it out into this new sea which I had feared so much for so long.

Instead of the roaring surf and monstrous swell I found unthreatening 3 foot waves running around confusedly with no intention of bothering me. And they were a beautiful clear blue! At last after all these weeks and miles I had reached real clear blue water! Water like this just seems so much friendlier and is certainly prettier and I had been looking forward to experiencing it without ever really believing I would make it this far.

Instead of turning south for my intended destination of Isla Mujeres I headed eastwards away from the coast out into open sea. I had a reason. I was looking for the biggest fish in the ocean – the whale sharks.

The places where whale sharks are to be found are no secret, I was able to find out about them from sea captains and from the lanchas which carry tourists out to swim with these huge but unaggressive plankton-eaters. But the season ends in mid-September after which the sharks go off somewhere else far away, and it was now September 13 or 14  so my chances were poor. Nonetheless I headed away from land for about three hours close-hauled against a light northeasterly for the nearest possible location. Away from land the swells increased and they ran about and interacted confusedly. There were swells from the north, others from the east and smaller ones reflected from the land behind me to the west. The boat heaved along now uphill now downhill, now deep in a trough, now thrown way up high where the peaks of two or more swells intersected. It wasn’t dangerous, Desesperado handled it easily and knew where he was going without being steered . I lay naked on the platform. It was beautiful.

Far out, around twenty kilometers from where I could see no land if you don’t count  the lighthouse on Isla Contoy to the south I spotted a pair of boats. Thinking they might be watching the whale sharks I headed towards them. They turned  to be a fishing boat towing a lancha and they were not watching whale sharks, they had in fact harpooned an enormous manta ray (probably weighing about one ton) which they had tied to the back of the boat and were now pulling in a second one into which they had thrown two harpoons with ropes tied to them. They were not pleased that I was filming them and I was not pleased at what they were doing. This was a violation of one of the most amazing and special places I had ever seen.

It looked like any other part of this blue ocean. I had been seeing an unusually large number of turtles on the way out but now, here in an area I’d say was no more than a half mile square I saw action everywhere. Many turtles. Pelicans diving into great schools of fish which thrashed areas of water the size of tennis courts into a rippled frenzy. Under me enormous manta rays flapped majestically past. And there were whale sharks.

Frankly I nearly crapped the shorts I was now wearing when I first saw one. It was churning around and around in the midst of a big school of fish which would panic and flap out of the way at the last second. Its mouth was open gathering plankton, and it was huge, around thirty feet long. Soon I saw others some a bit bigger, others a bit smaller but all of them much longer than my vessel. The fishing boat left and it was just me alone in a lumpy sea of thrashing fish and churning monsters. There were at least twelve of them, all going around and around with their mouths open and half out of the water, mostly in twos and threes. I would approach a pair and heave-to, filming shakily as they circled about and passed within feet of my boat. If I was directly in their path they would dive below the boat and come up on the other side. I knew that they were not aggressive creatures but had also been warned that they could smash my boat to pieces with a flick of the tail by accident, so it was terrifying! The mantas, also plankton-eaters, were not much less scary. I was quite thrilled by all of this as you might imagine; I felt that this was a very special thing that few people could ever experience… being alone with these creatures made it all the more intense. I am such a lucky fellow. I will never forget it.

After an hour or two, threatened by the setting sun I turned south and headed for Isla Contoy which seemed a good island to hide from the swells behind for the night. But as I left this wondrous spot I saw two more whale sharks ahead. I slowed and pulled out the camera. One turned into my path and the other into my only other possible route – a hard turn to the left. Oh no. OH NO! OOOHH! I could not stop…..OOOOOHHHH! I hit the whale shark and Desesperado rose into the air as my keel ran up its monstrous back, then something slapped the boat hard and we plopped back into the water as the spotted expanse of the creature gloomed off underneath to the right. The boat was unharmed and I have no doubt the fish was fine too, but it took a long time for my heart rate to return to normal. It is all on film. Why can I not upload from an SD card? Why?

For some reason – I guess the mindlessness and enormity of the whale sharks going around and around continuously feeding I kept thinking of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. When faced by this extremely dangerous animal it is best to wrap a towel around one’s head for it is so mindbogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.

Running southwards to Contoy enabled me to surf down the swells from the north so I crossed the few kilometers in no time, a lovely ride. I approached the light house and two figures came to the end of the dock; they said I could not land without a permit because the place was a reserve which I already knew. I said I only wished to anchor the night. They said I could do so at the biological station 8km to the south; I said it was too dark to go so far in unfamiliar waters. They made a call on their radio and cleared me with the authorities so I anchored just south of the lighthouse and slept under the stars which glowed as brightly as some  mysterious phosphorescent creatures which gathered around the boat, mystifying me as to their exact natures for they were as large as sausages yet I could not focus upon them.

The lighthouse keepers also said it was illegal to hunt the manta rays but the fishermen may (or may not) have had a permit.

A weak wind in the morning pushed me at a calm pace along the island’s west side. Thousands of birds gathered along the cliffs and scrubby trees, little lagoons and pastures could be seen beyond the spiky rocks. Fish jumped everywhere and the turtles were more abundant than I had ever seen.  A little south of the island there was a coral reef so lousy with  big turtles I just had to pull over and watch them swimming, floating and diving all around me, though they are too wary to come close. A bit farther on the reef became so shallow I became alarmed, the swells were breaking here and I could se no obvious route to deeper water. My rudder struck twice, the first impacts against solid objects of the whole voyage, and I looked down to see  the finest and most beautiful reef I have ever seen. I got out of there with some relief though.

Isla Mujeres was twenty or so kilometers further and most of these passed slowly and without incident. Perhaps 5km from the island a strong wind from the edge of a thunderstorm blew up and we ran downwind at ridiculous speed. A lancha joined us for a while –  I wish I could have seen what they saw for Desesperado at full speed in a lumpy ocean is a magnificent spectacle, one I am unable to film for my hands are always full. Both fishermen were goggle-eyed and I could only smile in return because of the need to fight with the rudder with one hand and hold the mainsheet ready for instant release to prevent capsize with the other. Decks occasionally completely awash, rudder throwing up a tail of spray, the bow piercing one wave after another and leaping from crests into the voids beyond through a welter of foam and spray, 18kmph of watery action.

Isla Mujeres is very pleasant. I landed at a dock projecting out into the crystal blue harbor, was welcomed with beers and invited aboard two different huge sailing catamarans which were waiting for their loads of tourists to emerge from the island to be taken back to Cancun. More beers aboard, very congenial. These catamarans carry thirty or forty scantily-clad people music blaring all the time back and forth to the island and are my nightmare, but the crews and passengers are friendly. I escaped to wander the little town which is very touristy- open-air restaurants, shops, tour companies and so on – and perfectly friendly. There is no mud, little bass, and amazingly I am not continuously savaged by insects here, the first time in the voyage. I immediately found affordable and delicious vegan Mexican food containing at least a few actual vegetables for which I was more than ready. I do not feel adventurous being here, I am just another tourist. I spent two days relaxing and sailing a little bit off the island’s pleasant North Beach, Desesperado must be one of the most-photographed small boats in history. I have met a few people but made no real friends. Except –

I finally saw a black man in Mexico and now he is my friend. As I write this I am on a side adventure with him in Guatemala City (yes, I am in Guatemala. The boat is hauled out at a marina on Isla Mujeres). I am having a blast.

But that is another story. A mad one.

Red Tide.

I am now on the island of Holbox (HOL-BOSH) at the northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and this post concerns the many events that transpired along the north coast between Progreso and here.

A Day of Many Embarrassments

I said my goodbyes to some of the many excellent people I had met and left Progreso. It took me a lot of tacks to make it out of the harbor through the swirling winds of the lagoon mouth – Desesperado does not like winds that change direction suddenly; I get backwinded (the wind on the wrong side of the sail) and the sail then pushes against the mast and the whole rig leans inboard over the platform. I have to drop sail then climb out on the outrigger (which sinks under me) and paddle furiously to rotate the boat to a viable orientation, then raise sail again. This is frankly embarrassing as all the lanchas, motorboats and jet skis pass howl close by me and leave me rocking in their wakes of contempt. In return I feel that the accident rate for jetskis is not nearly high enough and it should be legally required that they all be strongly magnetized, half of them north and the other half south.

I need some anti slip paint on the platform desperately (surf wax briefly but soon melts off.) because about four kilometers offshore I slipped after a shunt and fell overboard.

On the way down I hit the tiller and broke the rudder mechanism. About the same time I remembered that I had not yet gotten around to rigging my “me overboard” line which I usually trail astern for such emergencies. I failed to grab anything as I went over so the boat moved on without me.

Immediately upon surfacing I swam in pursuit of the boat. I was in no danger as I had just passed and greeted an octopus boat and he was sure to help, but this feeling of swimming after one’s own boat in the open ocean was terribly frightening nonetheless, not to mention embarrassing. Only by giving it everything I had was I able to catch my vessel, and that after a long chase which left me exhausted and unable to pull myself aboard.

The octopus boat started his engine and retrieved my hat – more embarrassment. I resolved never to sail without my rescue line trailing again.

Finally a decent wind arrived and I made it around Progeso’s staggering miles-long breakwater which is constructed of hundreds of thousands of 2-meter cubed concrete blocks all piled higgledy-piggledy. Makes the pyramids look puny. How it can make any kind of sense to kiln and reform all that limestone instead of just using the limestone I cannot imagine. The locals say that the sense it makes is that the governor got very rich.

For miles and miles I raced the 50-foot wooden fishing boat “Pescamex 54” neck-and-neck but he finally won by turning upwind, the crew cheering me in a most sporting fashion. Then I was on my own in the blue clear ocean, pounding along on a close reach several kilometers out from a shore turning from vacation homes to mangroves and then to sandy beach with a few palms. The coast remained low… I doubt I have seen anything over 20 meters above sea level in 800 kilometers or more.

Eventually I tired and headed in and entered a pair of narrowly spaced breakwaters by the village of Chabihau, about 60km from Progreso. The harbor was small and snug and had a concrete wharf, towards which the wind was blowing. I thought “I’ll head for the wharf and throw the anchor over the stern, then drop the sail and the anchor should stop me”, so I prepared a line to hook to the anchor chain. My plan might have worked but 20 meters from the wharf I threw the anchor over the stern then discovered to my horror that I had not clipped it to the line! Was I completely stupid? I dropped the sail but the momentum was so great it carried me into the wharf at speed and I banged the nose pretty hard. I thought there must be serious damage but no harm was done. I was reduced to swimming about in murky water up to my neck feeling the deep slimy mud with my toes for my anchor before an audience of amused fishermen. It was Sabancuy and the lost trousers all over again. It was of course very embarrassing. I was ready for this day to be over.

At the dock at Chabihau.

Agua potable” means to at least some Mexicans water that is not drinkable. Beware.

Red Tide.

After making a temporary repair to the rudder using some neoprene cut from a pipe I found in a garbage pile I set up the shelter and went to my usual hot, airless, sweaty bed. About midnight a lancha came in and moored nearby. I asked him how he’d done that day… he said he’d gone out for fish not octopus but … something I didn’t understand, something was wrong, there were no fish at all he said.

The next morning I soon found out what was wrong. On leaving the harbor on a tiny breeze from the southeast I found the water on the open sea to have changed from transparent blue to a murky green. Dead fish were floating here and there, first tens, then hundreds, then thousands. It got worse and worse as the day went on. Everywhere as far as I could see the ocean was dotted with floating corpses. Most were white, a couple of days dead, a few were more fresh. All sizes up to 70cm and many types. Many of the puffer fish had swollen up to full expanded size and could be seen from a mile off. The stench was awful.

Big ol' gasbag puffer fish.

I was becalmed three times this day, drifting along at about the same speed as the ubiquitous floating coke bottles of Mexican waters. Huge thunderstorms completely obscured the coast in both directions and moved out towards me. In the absence of wind I could not evade them completely, the best I could do was to scoot out from under their edges using the winds of the storms themselves. An advancing storm would make a rushing noise like a bunch of girls in a shower only without all the noise the girls make which is where my image breaks down but it is a nice image and I still like it. Between all the rainy escapes from one front and into the next, backtracking and getting backwinded I crossed and recrossed my own trail of peanut shells many times. It is little known that peanut shells have long been used as an aid to navigation, as first recorded by Pliny the Elder speaking of the Phoenicans in 68 ad: “And the seamen of these parts cast upon the waters the husks of peanuts and by certain signs knoweth whether the gods sendeth tempests.” I was successful in evading the full impact of these storms. This day.

Finally I escaped and was carried along by a NE wind in the direction I wanted to go. A gunboat circled me but did not interfere. I saw them many times in the next couple of days patrolling for drug-runners. I also saw another truly enormous turtle, its head the size of that of an adolescent human. I discovered that the migrating butterflies can land on the water to rest and actually flop down on one side, then take off again. I met some dolphins, about 15 of them (it is impossible to count them if there are more than about eight because they move fast and submerge a lot. I find the best way to get an accurate count is to shoot them all. Dynamite can also be used). I dug out the fiddle but after an initial close pass they seemed uninterested , and after a bit more playing they disappeared completely. I am afraid they may have drowned themselves to escape my music; it is a normal reaction for my audience.

By the time I reached the mouth of yet another lagoon (I have always heard that the Yucatan Peninsular has no rivers (untrue). It certainly has plenty of lagoons) called I think Laguna Bocas about 50km from Chabihau the water was a soupy, stinking brown-green and death was everywhere. I asked an anchored motorboat and they said the lagoon entrance was 5 feet deep so in I went. I soon got grounded in the mouth upon the weeds and mud but was unconcerned, the tide was low and in the morning it would be high again. Birds shrieked everywhere on nearby islets and insects hummed and many creatures croaked and burped, a fabulously rich place, low islands of mangroves, shoals with herons and flamingos standing about doing their thing, all to myself. After slurping about in the lagoon on foot for a while I went to my bed on the platform which gradually leaned further and further to the side through the night and then recovered as the tide ebbed and returned and Desesperado’s ama sank and rose. The night was full of the noises of lagoon creatures to which I am now accustomed but there was one difference from normal – lots and lots of splashing noises, far more than the usual fish jumpings, and this was puzzling. Nowadays if there is no rain imminent I leave the rain cover off of my shelter in the hope of a little cooling air and the curvy frame and mosquito netting gives it, from inside looking up at the stars, the aspect of a planetarium. The lightning flashed all around the horizon but the sky above was clear and magnificent and the mosquitos were confined to the outside of my bubble. It was a lovely night.

The New Lagoon

Morning brought a fabulous sunrise. I festooned the boat with my bedding; it was as always soaked with my sweat and the dew from the heavy sea air. This dew is a bane. It heavily wets the boat as soon as the sun starts to wane, and everything that is salty (which is everything) gets a double dose. If I don’t make sure to dry my bed each day I have unpleasantly damp nights. Damp is the color of my life: I am wet almost all the time, damp clothes, shoes, bed, my hands and feet always pruned up and all my many small cuts constantly white and puffed up. My clothes are falling apart.  There was not enough wind to be very useful so I waited and looked around, just me and Desesperado on the empty lagoon drifting gently about but constrained by the anchor.  Something was weird. Everywhere there were fish breaking the surface, splashing, sticking their mouths above the water, swimming along only just submerged. The bottom was littered with dead fish and octopus. Lots of crazily-shaped flatfish which normally live on the bottom were now aimlessly wandering about on the surface. I wandered around barefoot in the mud filming them and found that I could pick them up easily. Then by paddle I followed a bunch of heads around the back of a small island and there found a most amazing thing.

Flatfish grooving on up.

Here they had gathered.  I estimated ten, maybe twenty thousand fish of many types and sizes up to 60cm in length, mostly the bigger ones, all swimming slowly about in circles and coming up to put their mouths  above water, breathing air and forcing it out through their gills. The place, about the size of two tennis courts, was filled with this bubbling noise. A red tide (not necessarily red and now more properly known as a “harmful algal bloom”) is caused by an explosion of an algae Karenia brevis which robs the water of oxygen (Apparently it can create a toxin which paralyses the respiratory system of fish, but I think oxygen depletion was the problem here). I anchored and filmed, stood motionless in the mud hoping they would come close but though distressed they remained wary and would not come closer than two meters. I stayed for an hour or two, it was incredible! 


After filming some flamingos – more incredible here, they are so big and weird and make wonderful croaking noises and they are just so fantastically pink – outwards and onwards. The ocean was flat and glassy and strewn with thousands of floating corpses for miles and miles. Turtles still splashed but no other life moved, and the coast was completely deserted, low mangroves again. Most strangely there was a wind sufficient to carry me along at two or three knots yet the sea remained as molten glass – no wind ripples. I cannot account for it; it was as if the water itself had died. I played dodge-the-storm, more successfully this time. The wind changed from SE to NE and I belted for the lagoon at San Felipe at good speed and weaved in through the crowded anchorage and harbor to make a perfect landing at a dock. The Mexican government has taken great pains to create safe, protected harbors with plenty of mooring space and concrete wharfs (I am a little unsure of the differences between wharfs, moles, docks and quays. Piers, jetties and breakwaters I have down) and I am grateful for them as it saves all that hassle of unloading for beach haulouts. The water and dead fish had at last cleared up and I hoped it would stay that way because I was sick of the stench and felt bad for the fishermen, not to mention the fish.


After sorting out the boat I went to eat at the only place I could find, the cantina. Deafening as always, I would rather steer clear. They had beans though. You would not believe the miles I walk looking for a simple plate of beans with tortillas and hot sauce. The Mexicans eat MEAT and fish, lots of it, and it is just plain impossible to find any prepared vegetables at all, anywhere at all except maybe in cities. They prepare vegetables at home, but restaurants and street stands simply have no truck with them. I do not exaggerate. I am absolutely sick of these ridiculous quests. I feel like I am the only real Beaner in Mexico (Euros – the Americans call Mexicans “Beaners”) I have it is true eaten some meat and fish here but only when to refuse would give some offense and one fish that I caught because this is an adventure, but I try hard to remain as vegan as I can here. I have never had this much trouble in any other country. Of course I can buy fresh vegetables and cook them myself but they go bad almost immediately in the salty wet environment of the boat and anyway I have run out of propane for the stove. So I live on a diet of refried beans in cans or squeezed from the new plastic-bag style packaging, soda crackers, and some little inflated wheat crackers called “globitos”, and whatever prepared beans I can find in restaurants on land. As I said, there are simply no prepared vegetables to be had.

Globitos. Each one is different but they are all my friends. They do not float for long and cannot be used for navigation.

I have little doubt that the terribly unhealthy diet of Mexicans is responsible for their remarkable ugliness in later life, and of course the endemic obesity. I don’t say these things meanly, it is not personal (I like most Mexicans whatever they look like) it is just the truth – it is rare to see an attractive Mexican of either gender older than about 25, physically these people are a terrible mess. Only the wives of the ricos seem to make any attempt at preserving themselves… and few succeed.

Anyway, good beans at the cantina, good salsa, it is all about the salsa. Afterwards  a youngish fellow called Daniel invited me to his table. There were four of them, two mindlessly drunk as I so often encounter here, the usual multiple declarations of brotherhood, the frequent repeated complex handshakes, the sleeve-tugging. I cannot abide a sleeve-tugger. As Pliny the Elder wrote speaking of the Etruscans in 71 ad. “The people of these parts are wont to pull at one’s tunic, and it really pisses me off.”

Daniel said something that interested me. After discovering that I am an atheist (which I do not think means  someone who thinks he knows God is nonexistant, it means someone who thinks that the evidence for God is on the same level as the evidence for other kinds of fairies) he remarked that he had never met anyone who did not believe in God before. But then he sat back and said “Well, come to think of it, I do not believe in the god of the Egyptians”. This was such a rare and honest actual firing of brain cells in the mind of a religious person that I was almost incredulous to hear it. The point raised is this – when you can explain to me why you don’t believe in Ra or any of the other ten thousand gods of human history, you will have explained why I don’t believe in yours. Why do they all fail the test but the one you believe in passes? (Please do not claim that all gods are one, or that “all religions are getting at the same thing” because the natures of gods and the claims of different religions are clearly widely disparate and incompatible which is why religious folk are so often keen to kill each other).


OK Ok Chris, get off your hobby horse.

I’d been there an hour and the bill came – they gave it to me! 400 pesos! I said “I had two beers. What am I supposed to do with this?” It’s ok” said Daniel generously,” I’ll pay half and you pay half” I slapped down 70 pesos – twice what I’d drunk –  and turned my back on them.

Lorenzo the harbor Master paid me a bemused visit as I prepared for bed. He didn’t really know what to do with me so I suggested he look at my passport. This has happened a few times now. Nice fellow, they all are and they all offer me every service they can. Mexico, there is no place like this.

On the way to Rio Lagartos the next morning I discovered the water had turned murky, the red tide had caught up with me. I passed a shore where many lanchas were working the shallows so I tacked in joined them for a while. Octopus had been driven into the sandy shallows by the algal bloom and could be easily seen and caught with long hooks on sticks. The fishermen said they could still be eaten if caught alive.

The Coast of Storms.

Rio Lagartos was just a few miles up the coast. Nice… flamingos, crocodiles… but the open sea called me through the lagoon mouth and pulled me out after an hour. Outside the water had cleared some and a big ray jumped fully two meters out of the water, flapping its wings like a bird in midair. Other rays could be seen racing across the bottom at great speed. I had an excellent run nearly to Las Coloradas but was suddenly stopped in my tracks by a big thunderstorm which clocked the wind from NE to E then SE and was ferocious enough to make me heave-to for almost an hour. During this time, bouncing around in the waves, a remora came and attached itself to my hull. When the storm had passed I raced in to the beach at Las Coloradas and landed. Fishermen helped me haul out above the tideline (The remora was gone).

On the beach at Las Coloradas.

This was a quiet place and I stayed the rest of the day and the next day too, making more permanent repairs to the rudder and new boom jaws of polyethylene pipe, the fourth time I have made these. There are a few niggling problems with the boat which are really annoying me – the leaky hatches which cause my things to get wet with much work to dry them out, the boom jaws which break or hang up on the rubrail causing botched shunts and backwindings, and the supposedly rainproof nylon cover for my night shelter which I have now bitumened three or four times with an irksome lack of success. Also the deck newly-painted in Progreso is already a mess – the paint never cured right and is coming off everywhere and is very slippery too. I fall over whilst shunting. Surf wax helps for a while but then melts off.

The next stop was El Cuyo. I nearly made it there but another big storm caught me out in the open; this made me drop my sail, something I had hitherto been too stubborn to do. I drifted with the wind in a sea of whitecaps, cold but huddled in my raingear which although apparently completely porous helps a lot. When the wind moderated a bit after an hour I tacked out then back in towards the harbor, racing in at great speed through a two-foot chop and putting on quite a show for the many lanchas full of soaked fishermen heading the same way and passing close by. I shot into the harbor which was packed with around 300 lanchas making mooring difficult. I was forced into a spot ful of floating garbage and dead crabs, infested with sandflies and stinking. Literally hundreds of people had watched me enter but none came to say hello. They were generally small with indigenous features and some stared at me which I am unaccustomed to because very few Mexicans do this. There were many signs around town in Mayan, or what is called Mayan (I am told it is only one of thirty or so languages descended from the Mayans). So after a brief investigation of the town in which I met no-one I cast off and headed out again in the lowering light to anchor outside the harbor. Something just didn’t feel right in El Cuyo.

It rained most of the night. Once again my shelter cover leaked terribly and I had to strip it off and thatch the bubble  with a mylar space blanket and a number of garbage bags which were mostly effective but it was too late by then for a dry night. When morning eventually came it was still raining and I had a choice – go back into the stinky harbor and spend the day trying to keep dry in a town I had not found welcoming, or put to sea to try to make Holbox island which was only 30km distant to the east. Of course I put to sea, which was the wrong choice.

There was almost no wind for two hours. Then a mild breeze from the east pushed me out to sea – the only direction I could go and a good one I thought for the usual thunderstorms were forming over the land as they mostly seem to do. Typically they then move a few miles out to sea and then either peter out or parallel the coast, so it is possible to avoid most of them by going far enough out to sea. Usually. This time it did not work.

An absolutely huge thunderstorm formed over El Cuyo behind me, entirely blotting it and the coast out for ten miles or so in each direction. It was black as charcoal with thunderheads as high as Everest and it boomed horribly and was following me out to sea. I piled on all speed that I could and the race went on for an hour as it grew more and more ominous and enormous on my tail.  I watched it swallow up two lanchas in the distance; they looked totally insignificant beneath its might, on the scale of two tiny breadcrumbs on a banqueting table. The thing was coming right bang on at me and the dread grew and grew as the distance shrank and the booms grew teeth-rattlingly loud.  I did not have enough wind to outrun it. Oh, I knew this was going to be bad. I gave up running while there was still time to take down the sail and lash it to the deck and then watched as the sky above blacked out and the wind-lashed water at the monster’s base raced towards me.

It kind of steamrollered me, smashing quite suddenly into the boat and pushing it down as the ama (outrigger) slewed around to leeward and wallowed deeply into the troughs of the waves, thrown into them and pushed deep by the weight of the main hull and the wind pressure on the mast. The  platform to which I clung sloped right over as the ama went under, but we did not capsize. The rain hammered horizontally and almost immediately filled all the grooves in the folded sail and ran in rivers from the scuppers. The waves built immediately to about three feet but were smoothed over by the rain, an effect I have always found curious. The lightning was bad and I stayed as far from the mast as I could at first then decided it was better to unstep the mast so I stood on the drastically sloped platform and wrestled it down. I kept saying “Jesus Christ!” but though my situation certainly felt perilous this is just an expression – I do not find myself calling for help from nonexistant deities in these extremes, that is for pussies. After a while I found that we were surviving and in no real danger though I did worry for the ama connections – I need to make a drag so the boat can point into the waves.

The storm lasted about twenty minutes and then raced away leaving the ocean quiet but very confused. I raised mast and sail again but there was little wind and I could make no progress towards Isla Holbox.

I was hit by four more thunderstorms that day and in between them had little wind to work with. Only two of them were bad and neither of those as bad as the first but all of them pushed me further out to sea away from my destination. Two of the storms had definite eyes through which I passed a few hundred yards across inside which the wind stopped but the rain continued. I could not see land but I could see more thunderstorms racked up to the horizon. Though it was quite beautiful out there the lack of wind was frustrating –  I did not want to spend the night so far from land. I saw a school of large rays (migrating?) in formation just below the surface, quite impressive. Finally at dusk I got some real wind and had some of the most amazing sailing yet – about forty minutes on a broad reach doing a good ten knots on an ocean with only minor lumps. My speed was so great that it enabled me to weave my way around the edges of three less intense rainstorms by varying my heading a bit – this was beautiful, I now had some control and a fair chance and found myself winning the game. This brief burst of speed took me within sight of the lights of Isla Holbox but the wind then faded leaving me a few miles short. It was now dark and I did not wish to continue into unknown territory- my GPS charts show lots of shoals about.

It is a curious thing but every time I have needed to stop on this trip there is some sort of obvious haven for me – a river, lagoon, beach or harbor. In this case I was a good way out to sea but as I looked at my GPS I noticed a little symbol right by my current position meaning “recommended anchorage area”! Though I did not know what kind of a storm might blow up in the night I found this comforting. It is the first such symbol I have seen.

The hook bit well and as I set up my shelter on the platform a nudibranch (sea slug, some types are quite beautiful) puffed by. Then I saw a phallic arrow-shaped red squid almost two feet long beneath the boat. It would sink deep when I shone my light directly upon it but would then rise close again as I returned to work. It was still monitoring me an hour or two later when I crawled into the bubble. From just outside the range of my lamp I heard loud exhalations which I took to be one or more dolphins but perhaps it was a turtle; either way it or they remained nearby most of the night. I emerged at about 3 am. to check my anchor and a small sea snake was climbing the anchor rope. I shook him off, he was not so welcome. The night was black and it is not an entirely comfortable feeling to know that beyond the blackness outside of the light of my headlamp lay a great deal more blackness, miles of it. I hoped desperately that no horrible events would occur in the night (imagine a storm blowing up and having to arise, put on wet clothes, take down the shelter, raise sail and fight through pitch blackness towards a shore which might well be rocky and was certainly invisible…) and so it transpired – I actually slept a little and rose early to ride a light breeze to town.


The flat low mangrovy island of Holbox is a cute little place. Narrow sand/mud streets run between small hotels, restaurants and shops, many built in a ramshackle Caribbean style, lots of varnished wood and seashell necklaces about. It lives from fishing and tourism; tourists have pretty much taken over the centre of the town. They come mainly for the whale sharks but also to visit the wildlife and islands of the nearby reserve. The thunderstorms have flooded the place and the people slosh about through the great puddles on foot or in motorized golf carts, these being the preferred local transport which is common on small Caribbean islands. Due to these puddles it is mosquito time- big time. Prices are double or more than those of anywhere I have been in Mexico and I see no reason for it except that the locals are out to ream the tourists for whatever they can. Many of the locals are not particularly friendly and some of the storekeepers are downright rude. I have found it almost impossible to buy any Mexican food with vegetables in it or any plate of food under about $10 so I have been very hungry a lot of the time here, though I could eat fish or Italian or sushi or fancy here I have no interest in these and they are not within my budget. Is an affordable plate of rice and beans too much to ask? A potato? This is Mexico! A trip in a lancha to see and swim with the fantastically huge whale sharks cost around $80 per person – they’ll pack 12 people in a lancha, take them about thirty miles out to see the fish then be back by lunchtime and walk away with around $1000 for this so clearly there is no competition between the many tour companies.

In short though the place appears charming I am not hugely enamoured of it. I hang about near Desesperado, take people sailing if I like them, write this endless blog post, make minor repairs, paint tar on my shelter cover, play my fiddle out on the end of the dock, suffer in the merciless sun, swat at bugs. I’ve made a few friends, there are certainly some characters here. Like Juan the local Casanova, 5 children by five women from five countries. Remecio the likeable bullshitter. Flaco the likeable rangy American who left his successful business in ‘Frisco to work like a dog daily in the fishing lanchas, learning the trade from the bottom up and enjoying his life. He’s 51 and and I watched him beat everyone in the bar with ease at arm wrestling – somehow it is is always nice to see a gringo kicking some ass and winning the respect of people who supposedly live much harder and more physical lives. Flaco loves physical action and the locals think he is crazy for amongst other things his addiction to standing on the little platform over the bows of each lancha and riding it as the speeding vessel rears  and bucks high into the air, he has only the bow painter to hold onto, keeping his feet braced to the deck by pulling hard. Anyone who has ever ridden in the front of a lancha knows that if Flaco ever screws up his injuries will be severe. And there’s H——, the very endearing young total strumpet who must tell all of her latest conquest in some detail. Victor, 74, a maker of mandolins. A shark bit off his oar once and the dolphins came and chased it away then accompanied him on his ratty little sailboat for thirty miles like angels in the phosphorescence. He has singing raccoons crawling over his house when he plays his instruments. When he needs money he goes out on the sailboat and catches a few kilos of octopus by diving; he is the only fisherman to use sail that I have encountered. He strummed the mandolincello (a big mandolin) very wonderfully and forced me to attempt to extemporise on the fiddle and I could actually do it a bit and there I was jamming! Fuck me! At night I may have a beer or two then swim out to the dew-soaked boat and put up my shelter for the night. Anchoring it safely is a hassle here where the wind changes direction so much and there is no shelter from the north.  One night a big swell came out of the north and played havoc with all the boats anchored along the shore. Desesperado did fine until his anchor most mysteriously came unclipped from its rope, something that is very difficult to imagine happening by accident yet it must be so for nobody has any reason to sabotage me. He sustained some minor cosmetic damage from being slammed against a wall but was pulled away by some people from a nearby bar. I myself spent much of the night securing other people’s boats, re-anchoring them so they would not smash into each other, raising their motors, bailing out three that sank. The weird thing was that the people did not come to save their boats. I sent a transvestite to the police station to raise the alarm but still only a few men came, and after dealing with their own vessels they would not help me to rescue others. I might have moved on days ago but for the crappy fitful winds and the relentless lashing thunderstorms. I am so tired of these and my constant dampness. One night a thunderstorm raised hell out there and I bounced around wildly, then found to my absolute horror that despite reproofing my shelter cover after the grim night at El Cuyo it was once again leaking, and not just a little bit. I spent hours continuously wiping my ceiling with my shirt but still wound up with a soaked bed and a need for coffee to help me face yet another sleep-deprived day.

Why is this cover such a problem? I have to make do with what I can find here. The first time I attempted to proof it I used a tarry car underbody sealant thinned with white gasoline but it didn’t work. The second attempt at Sabancuy I used roofing tar thinned with ordinary gasoline but there were still holes, so I went over it again, only to find it still leaked badly at El Cuyo. At Holbox I hit it a fourth time now with something called “microelastic DPC membrane base primer” which might have worked but before it fully dried the wind picked it up and folded it and it all stuck together, and the job was ruined when I pulled it apart though I didn’t know that so I suffered again. The fifth time was done with extreme care using the same substance thinned with laquer thinner which may be effective but I have no faith. The cover now weighs as much as a circus tent and smells intensely of solvents. I hate it passionately.

This is a turtle skull. The guy had one he described as "much bigger" but it was stolen.

I have lost my momentum somewhat here and dread the return of the big seas which I will face once I round the point at Cabo Catoche twenty miles or so away, the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. But I must go on because that is my job and my life now and I really don’t know what else to do. And ahead lies the most interesting eastern coast of the Yucatan with its fantastic blue waters, its reefs, islands and ruins and wrecks. There will be many beaches and tourists and sailboats and anything could happen. I will be sure to tell you about it, if you like.

The Poo Lagoon.


Aqui estoy mis amigos:

This post concerns my trip along the west coast of the Yucatan from Champoton to Progreso, now ancient history. Nothing hugely exciting happens but I thought I’d write it up for the sake of completeness.

Champoton faded into the distance as the octopus fleet hove into view; I threaded my way through them as I had at Sabancuy and for a while it was plain sailing over tiny waves with a light and fitful wind coming from behind and to the side giving me occasional bursts of real speed. Delightful sailing after these weeks in which I have had scarcely any favorable winds, nothing that lasted any length of time and always with some chop to sap my momentum. Here on the Bay of Campeche a pattern has emerged – light but favorable southeasterlies in the morning, fading to a long becalming, then fierce and contrary northerlies later in the afternoon

North from Champoton over a vast field of seagrass only a few feet below which deepened until the bottom faded completely from view.  I encountered many octopus boats which instead of drifting as usual towing crabs across the bottom had anchored and dropped off divers in masks and snorkels to search for octopus with spearguns and long handheld hooks despite that the bottom about 5 meters down was invisible. These guys were often a long way from their lancha, completely alone in the ocean and unable to see more than a few feet. They say there are no sharks but how that would not comfort me  much. All it takes is one.

This means of octopus fishing is illegal but the law has never mattered to most Mexicans no matter whether or not it is sane and ethical.

My father told me of the Portuguese method of octopus fishing – laying strings of small unbaited open earthenware pots across the bottom which the octopus find handy to use as homes, and I asked the people here if they had tried this method here and did it work? Yes, they said, they had tried it using pots made of pvc pipe and it worked very well but it was illegal and a boat could not hide the pots when it returned to port, nor the floats in the ocean. The reason it was illegal they said, was that the females full of eggs would tend to get caught as they prefer to shelter during the day, hence the eggs would be wasted. The same applied to octopussing with spearguns and hooks. Most of the octopus caught by the crab-dragging method are male. Every fisherman says the same thing – the octopus are down every year and are not a shadow of what they used to be in either size or number.

Becalmed again. Terrible heat, sitting on a platform so hot I cannot touch most of it without being burned. Two lanchas visited full of divers and we swam between each others’ craft and bullshitted. These people are so friendly, so uncompetitive and unaggressive that pretty much my every experience with them has me feeling all fuzzy inside. Green-white butterflies flew past determinedly out to sea, some kind of migration; I have seen them along this coast miles out to sea every time I have been becalmed and they are always heading southwest. Three hours of this awful heat in which I moved only a couple of hundred yards. Then a mild wind from the north, then another becalming, then a tiny wind from the north again. I was now at Point Morro just north of Seybaplaya and things looked hopeless so I headed in towards what looked like a Polynesian village. Mine is a Polynesian vessel so it seemed natural. Tuned out the place was a beach lined with thatched shade structures, palapas, for tourists, but it was almost completely deserted. I headed for the only people I could see and dropped the hook just offshore. I was almost out of water and desperate.

Alfonso immediately approached me and he and his large family fed and beered me like a king, it was embarrassing frankly. I expected deprivation on this trip but so often I am treated royally by very generous folk.

The "Polynesian Village"

I spent the night anchored in a sort of harbor made by the tailings from a selenium mine because, you know, who can resist a selenium mine? I like sleeping afloat. There is a gentle motion and lapping noise and the feeling that nobody can bother me, and I don’t have to go far for a pee. Against this is the thought that something might blow up in the night and cause unpleasantness, or that the anchor might drag. I see that I am carrying an anchor larger than that of wide-hulled boats twice my length and I am glad of it.

A very early start next morning after packing down the bubble with a favorable light and puffy wind driving me in fits and starts to Campeche. I had wanted to visit Campeche but because of its soft and soothing name (Mexicans pronounce it Campeshay) but I could immediately see that it was a modern place like Veracruz, really of no interest to me (I am told it has an amazing antiquated center but that seemed inaccesable to me without finding a very safe place for the boat). The ripping noise of the big stainless “muffler” brigade sounded far out to sea. Can we not just beat these people with sticks? There was nothing for me here, I thought. I anchored outside the marina and swam ashore to scrounge a liter of water from the gas pump attendant, then put out to sea.

Around Campeche, the first I have seen of these beat-up little fishing vessels with inboard engines.

The bay of Campeche is shallow, at least near the coast. The waves are tiny, hardly deserving of the name. I had been over these weedy shoals all morning and now they became even more shallow, an endless plain of waving seagrass mostly about 3 meters down but sometimes only half that. I do not like shoals and weeds give me the creeps but in the long becalming which grounded me outside of Campeche anything was better than the heat so for three hours so I hung in mask and snorkel under the platform or wrapped around the ama or held on to the “me overboard” line which I always trail astern. I passed directly over a turtle two feet long flat on the bottom grazing, and caught a small octopus which I had half a mind to eat being once again almost foodless but I couldn’t do it and let him go. There were some round sponges rolling around down there and the odd small fish but mostly it was just seagrass with occasional patches of muddy shell sand.  I discovered that Desesperado’s hull was growing tiny barnacles. I would have to deal with that.

The weedy horrors below.

These globular sponges seem to roll about freely in the seagrass.

Wind finally, a real stinking howler out of the north. It was horrible, waves small (in the two feet region) but whitecaps everywhere, the surface completely matt. I tacked back and forth off the coast and made progress and as the sun lowered searched for a landfall but here north of Campeche there were no beaches to be seen, no villages, not a sign of humanity at all. The shore was a low wall of mangroves right down to the water as far as I could see north and south. In fact even now writing this in Progreso a couple of hundred kilometers further north I still have no reason to see the Yucatan as anything but an endless level mangrove swamp.

I had two options. Sail all night or try to anchor in the open ocean. I decided on the latter. I headed in so that if something awful happened in the night I would be able to swim for land. The sun touched the horizon, sank lower, I bashed and splashed towards shore close-hauled in a howling wind, heeling badly at intervals, the ama way above the waves before I’d panic and let go the mainsheet. As the last of the sun vanished I stopped a kilometer from land and looked down carefully at the blobbly orange shapes I had seen going by underneath the boat in the last few minutes.

Oh shit.

Rocks! Only four feet down! I touched them easily with the paddle, This I did not like at all. I did not know if the tide would go out much  because my tables had expired at the end of July. I tried to anchor but it would not bite, so I pulled it back aboard and raised sail again and headed back out into the wild and blackening sea. I went a kilometer or so and stopped again. This time there were eight feet of water below me and the anchor bit instantly. Yay! Everything was going to be ok.

Even in this wind and waves I was not getting splashed at all on the platform now that the boat had stopped advancing. As the wind moderated it became rather pleasant. I had not eaten in 27 hours so I made a space on the waka (main hull) deck sheltered with gear and used the stove to cook some pasta with chile chipotle, salt and some rather rancid canola oil. Supper achieved my “not horrible” ranking, probably due to my great hunger.

I had to tie my blanket down to the platform to stop it blowing away and later on also the tarp from the Little House on the Proa because I was cold and there I lay gazing at the sky and checking the GPS occasionally to see that the anchor had not dragged. Half a moon, a few clouds and the uncountable stars. It was not a bad night, chilly but beautiful and with a bit of actual sleep. The anchor stuck in the bottom like it was nailed there.

The next day was a slow but steady dribble along a low mangrove coast through brown water over and endless shoal of seagrass and other weeds. Can’t say I like this much. The thought of something going wrong and me having to swim through the stuff, then slog through the mud, then hack my way through miles of mangrove swamp gave me the willies. And I was out of water again.

I resolved to stop for water at the first sign of human habitation but there was nothing, nothing at all for miles and miles. No beaches, no houses, no lanchas, no noise, nothing but the weeds and the brown water and the mangroves which had stained it thus. Plenty of turtles splashed and fish jumped – sometimes a whole school at once, or a big predator jumping after a jumping prey, both airborn at once. But no people of sign that there had ever been people. I passed the open mouth of a lagoon which had beaches inside but I could see not a village, but it looked lovely in there and very tempting however I figured I should keep going north as long as there was a little wind which was now very little admittedly so  passed this lagoon but then I saw…

The butterflies were launching! Thousands came swarming out of the mangroves heading southwest as usual to either make landfall to the south when the afternoon northerly wind comes or to die at sea. Perhaps this meant a becalming was imminent, in which case I had nothing to lose by entering the lagoon because I would not be advancing anywhere anyway. So I backtracked a half-kilometer and cruised in towards the opening which was about a hundred meters wide and bordered by mangroves. This mouth opened up ito a lagoon a mile or two across with deep indents to its mangroved edges broken by small white beaches. It was utterly silent, no sign of people, no noise of animals or anything. Some vulture-like birds watched me from the branches of a sunken tree. I know I keep talking about getting the creeps but this place really did get to me… the total silence, the staring birds, the weed below rising towards me. The bottom shoaled further until my rudder was slicing mud so I shunted and got out before I got stuck. It was a poo lagoon.

The Poo Lagoon.

The butterflies were wrong because the wind stayed alive enough to move me slowly along for hours and hours through the brown water over the weeds and past the endless mangroves until I was in the area of more serious shoals, a vast expanse of mud that is exposed at low tide. My GPS has charts downloaded into it (and there are paper charts in the hold which I never look at) but the information is 32 years old and untrustworthy so I stayed well out to sea, now getting very thirsty indeed. I pushed though floating bands and rafts of dead weed, saw turtles, loons, no sign of people at all. At last… A ship! A ship! I found myself crying out, like some ragged starveling on a desert isle. But it was not, merely a building standing up alone above the horizon. More of it appeared and then a small town which my GPS listed as “Punta Desconocida” or ” Unknown Point”. It appeared I was not going to die of thirst though it was really beginning to feel that way.

But first I had to land there and that did not look straightforward, what with the place surrounded by these shoals and the tide in a state unknown to me due to the expiration of my tables. At this point a horrible northerly wind sprang up, beating me severely more and more as the waves increased. Close-hauled as so often before I inched and tacked forwards wondering how to land. I needed to talk to one of the lanchas I could see in to the north zooming homewards  but none would stop, they seemed to be in a hurry (as I learned later due to the falling tide; if they did not make land soon they would not be able to.  I uncleated the sail and stood on deck waving my red shirt in the howling wind but still they raced past a half mile away until there were no more. I thought this peculiar and contrary to the code of the sea – seamen help seamen. That’s the rules.

I moved in. The lanchas had appeared to avoid a certain area so I did too, but eventually I just had to point in and go for it because the sea was becoming an untenable place to be. I charged  inwards at crazy speed with a huge pile of spray foaming over the depressd bow (the sail pushes the bow down when running downwind as I was then). I could not tell how deep the swirling mucky water was because patchy clouds caused it to change color in splotches everywhere. 400 meters, 300, I was going to make it! 250 meters… OH SHIT!

I seem to say this a lot don’t I? But I had good reason. The water changed color, shoaled rapidly… I could see weeds on the surface, didn’t know if I was heading into rocks or what, and I could not slow down or turn in time to miss the weeds. I ploughed right into them.

I guess the following was quite funny to the crowd now assembled on the shore, holding on to their hats in the fierce wind. The bottom was mud and under full power I kept moving but at a snail’s pace. The mud slid by; I wondered if it would remove the barnacles. If I moved out to the ama I’d get another inch of freeboard on the main hull and move along a bit more. Eventually, 50 meters from shore I came to a complete halt. Time to go overboard and slog through the mud up to my knees, weeds and water to my hips, all the way to shore dragging the boat behind. As I staggered up the bank onto the concrete I exclaimed “Land!” which had the crowd rolling in the aisles for some reason.

This was the village of “Isla Arena” The Island of Sand. The people were very friendly. They had never heard of Punta Desconocida and in fact my charts say Isla Arena is six kilometers south of here. That is just wrong. Ernesto immediately approached and invited me to eat with his large family, an octopus ceviche with tortilla chips and large glasses of oh-so-sweet water. I enjoyed the food and the family equally, and got to know them that evening as huge thunderstorms drenched the town. I spread my sail during one deluge and refilled all my water bottles. I have always wanted to collect drinking water in a sail. Ernesto was 55ish, evangelist, very intelligent and personable, a real gentleman, another of so many people I have met in Mexico with whom I wish I could be neighbors. He wants an English girlfriend (Ladies? He is good looking). He told me of the two times in his life as a fisherman he has been caught out in really severe thunderstorms, completely blinded for minutes by near strikes, praying for his life.

I moved on and made a short hop to Celestun the next morning. I was there by lunchtime having entered the very sheltered harbor through the narrow breakwatered entrance against the wind in a series of quick shunts that inched me along the passage a bit at a time. I was surprised it was possible at all – one loses a lot of ground on each shunt. The reception of tooting and yelling and near-passes I received from hundreds of lanchas (all fitted out for octopus fishing of course) was heartwarming. Isodoro later approached me. “When we saw you coming wearing only shorts and a hat” he said, “we knew you were one of us.”

Celestun is nearly 300 years old, not much to blog about architecturally but it does have flamingoes in a lagoon behind. The town square would be pleasant were it not poisoned by loud music all the time. I spent a couple of days here hoping to find like-minded company wishing to take the risky (because of the likelihood of grounding in mud) trip to see them but found no-one). Celestun has something else – white tourists. I was horrified to see more gringos and euros in my first half hour ashore than in the whole previous six months put together. It took the wind out of my sails. I was no longer in mysterious unknown Mexico, I was in touristville. I have had to get used to this feeling. I am in the Caribbean Sea now and will not again be in the back of beyond where I want to be for some time.

I met Alberto. He was drunk in a bar and came over to ask me about the dead Cuban in my boat. It’s a long story, a case of mistaken identity that affected the town’s opinion of me for a while, but I hope the truth penetrated as fast as the rumor. Alberto worked persuading tourists fresh off the buses to go out on the lanchas to see the flamingos of which there were about 300 at present. I called him “King of the Mayas” for his T-shirt said something like this in Mayan which is a language many people of the Yucatan still speak; it did not die with the empire. Who knew? Alberto, a small man with indigenous features was frequently banned from bars but maintained sufficient control around me such that I did not avoid him. He asked me for nothing, brought me coconuts, spoke some English. I grew to like him. Over the next two days he told me of the three worlds of the Maya, the sacred numbers, the important colors, the square world, the great ceiba tree through whose trunk one must pass to reach the world above… much of this was scribbled upon serviettes in bars into which I let myself be enticed. I do not drink much, and not early. I can’t understand the attraction of drinking all afternoon in Mexican cantinas which are always painfully loud and have only fat women. (Oh tell me I’m wrong). I cannot abide a drunk who pulls at my sleeve for attention every sentence (this happens a lot in Mexico for some reason, and not only with drunks.)

I had moved Desesperado around to the beach by now, much cleaner than the harbor for swimming and nearer town. I sailed around a little by day and anchored out at night, swimming to the boat in the dark to go to bed.

When I say that a Mexican cantina is painfully loud I mean it. It is not just the music that is so raucous it makes your teeth hurt, but everyone shouts, and as the whole place is made of concrete (always) and there are never any soft furnishings whatsoever to absorb the noise, even when the music stops the volume makes one wince and cower. I do not know how they stand it. It is the same in every Mexican home – no soft furnishings, painful noise levels. Another thing that truly amazes me is the ability of people to live and sleep with mosquitos. Most houses have no screens on the windows or doors and the horrible insects which are often intense are free to enter. Most of the people here sleep in hammocks strung at night from hooks in the walls with no mosquito protection except that in most houses the people will light a green mosquito coil indoors (these things are not for indoor use) which emits highly toxic smoke to kill all the mosquitos in the building, and by the time it burns out and new bugs enter the people are asleep, so they tell me. But a single mosquito will wake me in the night and bite me five or six times as I interrupt its ghastly feed and this will drive me just about insane, especially as they usually target my feet which are the most painful place to be bitten. Two or three mosquitos in my shelter are absolutely intolerable. The people here say they are acostumbrado – accustomed to it, but clearly they do not like the things because I see them swatting too. I don’t get it. No American would spend money on a pinata (paper-mache figure full of sweets for suspending from a tree and hitting with a stick at parties, great fun) whilst his home lacked bugscreen.

I had better get on with this.

Celestun, northeast. The water now blue-green and clear with lovely clean sand below. I made it to the town of Sisal, rammed the beach so hard I was pretty much hauled out just like that. During the afternoon at least three thousand flamingos flew by the pier. With their long legs straight out behind and their long necks straight out in front they looked like they could go backwards as easily as forwards – like a proa. Ate, slept on the boat on the beach. Next morning on towards Progreso.

A bunch o' flamingos.

This turned out to be the most unpleasant day yet. I went out through a great swarm of millions of semi-global jellyfish as big as grapefruits through an unfavorable wind that turned strong and more unfavorable later. I had to land on a beach covered in turtle tracks to change down sail, then went out again but could make little headway with this crappy canvas sail. Many tacks later I was cold, hungry (again no food in 26 hours) and very tired so I finally gave up and landed in front of one of many tourist villas on the beach at Chelem a few kilometers short of Progreso. Carlos came out of the villa along with his big family and welcomed me; they fed me and made me part of the family and later we played loteria, a kind of bingo with pictures. One picture card amused me  – “El Negrito”, “The Black Guy”as if he were just a thing. I have never seen a black person in Mexico.

In the morning I quickly polished off the last few kilometers to Progreso and joined the sail race as described in my last post.

I have met many fine and friendly people here in my eight days or so in Progreso. I would like to mention Mike Dutton in particular who owns a local marina and has been very helpful to me with no thought of reward although I intend to come up with something. I was the guest of the sailing club for dinner. A reporter came and his article I mentioned last post… I am amused by a Google translation which says “The boat can be completely submerged but continue browsing”. I have spent the last seven days living like a dog in the a shipyard, upon whose oily sands I have completely dismantled Desesperado, making several small modifications and reinforcements and revarnishing the whole boat, as well as painting his platform and ama cream on their topsides as a means to keep their temperature down as I am tired of being burned. I resisted the temptation to paint a big “H” (helicopter landing pad sign) on the platform.

One of the many fabulous large wooden fishing boats that goes by the shipyard.

I was at first a bit uncomfortable in the shipyard but the workers soon made me welcome. I could not avoid eating with them if I tried, and I do not try. I have been very happy here despite the large amount of hand sandfing I have had to do. Much shipyard activity revolves around breakfast and lunch. I swear the yard workers put more time and energy into sustaining themselves than into maintaining ships. It is phenomenal the way Jose or any of them just go strolling off down the wharf with a speargun and come back with two or three big fat fish for lunch for all. Then the fish must be fried and pico de gallo (onions, tomatoes, chiles chopped together with lemon juice) made, tortillas and soft drinks obtained… There is a great deal of camaraderie shown over lunch, and many jokes over Ruben the supervisor’s alleged gayness. A very long time after lunch starts the crew return to sanding away, maskless, at the antifouling paint of a ship.

I still have some work to do on my sail but I hope to be back on my way within three days.

We heat tortillas on a hotwired ring stripped from an electric cooker, shipyard style.

Jose, one of the shipyard workers and a particular friend, stands before my encampment.

Desesperado being craned back into the water today. In the background sits "Bolder Won" a 70-foot, $5,000,000 superyacht that made me feel small until I discovered it cannot take waves over two feet nor even go as fast as Desesperado unless on a perfectly flat sea.

Progress, Progreso


Aqui estoy mis amigos:

I haven’t time enough online to write up the story of the last week so this is just a brief one to keep you posted.


I left you at Champoton, worked past Campeche up the weird and deserted west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to Celestun, then to Sisal, then Chelem, then left Chelem to make the last few kilometers to Progreso. I will try to write up this journey, it included one night anchored on the open ocean. As I approached Progreso at abot 10 am. what did I see? A whole bunch of sailing yachts pouring out of the harbor! These were the first sails I had seen in over a thousand kilometers of sailing so I was most interested, and could not resist the urge to give chase. They were clearly racing and the last of them were at least a kilometer ahead.

To cut a long story short it was a fast and exciting race of about 50km. I was absolutely thrilled especially on the reaches (sideways to the wind) where I caught up with six yachts and passed them like they were  going backwards. I beat six of the boats by about three kilometers but could not catch the big ones way out front due to my inability to work to windward as well as they can. When I reached the marina, one of many nested in a great enclosed harbor filled with many hundreds if not thousands of boats and ships I drew a big crowd on the dock, very friendly yachties. Mike Dutton put me up at his dock for free.

Oh long story. Many miles to walk in awful heat. Much thirst and hunger due to unwillingness to carry stuff far on foot, and business with boat. I have managed to wangle a spot in a shipyard and get hauled out so I can make modifications, a few things are bothering me. A reporter showed up and I took him sailing. His article in the paper was a big one ( I was front page of the “Local” section) but here is a clipped version online–define-su-destino-en-el-mar–.htm

I will be working on the boat here for at least a week. After that, onwards into the Caribbean sea, which is colder but clear and blue with sandy beaches and so far no serious waves or wind. I am looking forward to it.

Champoton and a Lamentable Near-Absence of Pain and Suffering.

Appropriate Technology. This poche has a shade for driver as well as passengers.

More appropriate technology

And more

I worry that this blog may lose its interest if I do not have a disaster of some kind at least once every couple of days.

I don't know that I have ever had a more switched-on helper than 9 year old Eric of Sabancuy.

The run of 40km or so to Champoton was pretty easy. First I had to escape the lagoon… I cast off, sailed halfway to the sea exit, got grounded, slogged through the mud a bit until Iwas free, sailed up to the  bridge at the narrowest point of the passage where by my tide calculations there should have been a current to carry me out to sea, dropped the sail so I could drift under the bridge… and slowly reversed back into the lagoon.

As I escaped the lagoon I looked back and took this shot. This is what I saw when I arrived a few days ago. Wouldn't you want to get in there and take a look?

Puzzling. The tide should have been going out which by my logic meant a current out to sea. I was reduced to paddling, which is frankly embarrassing.  But once out at sea, which was beautiful (as indescribable as a ciruela, that fruit like no other) the lagoon smell was soon washed off the boat and I piddled on a light northeasterly through the octopus fleet which now numbered at least 200 vessels within sight with many more appearing on the horizon as I went along. They were not doing well. The light wind meant that the boats did not drift along fast enough to to cover much ground, and there were few octopus anyway. Why do they all fish concentrated here not far from the lagoon exit? I asked one. “The gasoline” they said. Peculiar. Either the octopus are stationary in which case this area would very quickly be fished out, or they move around in which case why did we keep shifting from spot to spot all day, reloading the dinghy 5 times I think, when I went out with them on Monday? How would moving about at random in a limited area help?  “The octopus are migrating” they said. “New ones come along.  Sometimes there are many.” Still, it would seem to me that it would make sense to get out of this area which had been so thoroughly swept the day before.

Desesperado passes an octopus boat.

When I approached the last lancha of the fleet, a solitary vessel some two kilometers north of the rest of the fleet the old man within was pulling aboard a ‘pus as I approached and another as I came alongside seconds later. “You are the last” I said “Are you having any luck here all alone?” Yes! he said emphatically, smiling as only a Mexican can. “And the last shall be first” I said, and sailed on.

Between Coatzacoalcos and Sabancuy the coastline had been low and the shore an endless sandy beach. Now as I started the northerly climb up the west coast of the Yucatan the shore became rocky with only occasional spots of sand upon which I might haul out the boat, and these spots I dare not approach for fear of pranging the boat on rocky shoals. This is worrying for I liked the idea of being able to run to land whenever I wanted, but the silver lining is that the waves are small here and there is almost no surf at all. The rock itself is compressed shell, coral stone, and limestone.

I played dodge-the-rainstorm all day with some success and passed a few more small groups of octopus boats.

Piddle, piddle. A bit of a becalming, windless roasting, the platform as hot as Vegas asphalt.  Then the wind came up with a vengeance but I made no better time. If I sheeted in the boat heeled and I came close to capsize many times. Eventually I heaved-to and unloaded some heavy items from Cargo Bay Three and put these along with the anchor upon the trampoline to weigh down the ama. I always carry a bag of ropes and another big bag of water, diving gear and miscellaneous useful stuff I need handy on the trampoline but do not like to put too much stuff out here; I feel it strains the iako connections and though of course the weight helps me stay upright I worry that if I do capsize it will all have to be untethered and moved elsewhere before I can right the boat. If I can right the boat. Anyway with the extra weight out there I was able to sheet in and go.

A pretty strong wind approaching Champoton close-hauled as I had been all day. I had been encouraged to look at a satellite photo of the town which showed two enclosed harbors which I might enter for the night, but try as  might I could not spot these. From a maximum height of eight feet above the ocean there is no perspective, the shore is simply a line, and a harbor breakwater just blends in with the rocky shore.  I kept trying to flag down passing lanchas but they would not stop, and between all the hunching down to peer under the sail which was always between me and the land and being ignored by passing fishermen I got pretty irritated. How in the hell can anyone go past a motorless Pacific Flying Proa in a blow or at any other time without at least saying hello and what the hell is that groovy thing you are sailing? Baffling. The water had been full of floating dead seagrass all day (the boat was festooned with the stuff) and now it became turgid, a deep brown soup swirling with dead vegetation. I could not tell how deep it was but all the swirling implied not very. There were rocks sticking up here and there, more as I moved in towards a rivermouth I could see easily. There were storms left right and center and I was getting rained on but there was not much lightning  at least. The pain in my shoulder and neck has become a serious thing lately and it was bothering me a lot. This was getting stressful. Finally a lancha stopped. “Yes you can enter the river. It is deep enough. It turns left and there is a dock.” Bueno, gracias caballeros..

What followed was beautiful. I shot into the narrow, chocolate-brown river (Mangroves tint the water thus). There were many open-mouthed bystanders on the promenade. As the river turned left the mangroves shaded the wind, and I came to a stop, hanging fire as still as a stone balanced on a knife edge in the turbulence between backwinding and being pushed back out to sea by the current in disgrace, or getting enough wind to move me around the corner into a few wind-ripples I could see just ahead. Twenty meters to my right a policeman stopped his car to grin at me. I saluted him and pantomimed blowing on the sail. He took his hat off and flapped it hard at me and phew, I was off around the corner. Upriver a hundred meters I shunted the boat in a narrow space and reversed across the current, throwing the anchor off the stern as I approached the wharf and dropping the sail in time to just nose up to the concrete whereupon I jumped overboard with a line to tie to a ringbolt. I doubt I could repeat such a manouver successfully one time in ten, and was so glad it came together because half the town was watching.

Nine times out of ten the sailing comedy happens when approaching or leaving one’s mooring.

Not one Cargo Bay Three had leaked this time so I did not have to unload the boat and dry everything out. There was no ghastly ordeal of hauling the boat above the tideline. Half an hour later I was in lovely dry clothes and shoes and ready to walk to town for a well-earned cerveza. The dock was watched over by two uniformed guards who were most friendly, they and the nightwatch give my boat special vigilence. I do not know who pays them and nor do they. It is probably the syndicate of fishermen… there were about fifty lanchas all rigged for octopus tied along the quay.

Champoton is a fish town or at this time of year an octopus town. You cannot hear too much about octopus on this blog. Sugar is grown roundabout. The place seems orderly and clean and very well policed and I like it. There are many colonial buildings near the center, and many older buildings are not made horribly of horrible concrete which is a rare thing indeed in Mexico. I met Lizbet and Octavio the owners of the restarant in which I had a beer. The cook made me a veggie-platter. Octavio said he knew of a masseuse who might help with my shoulder trouble. I went back to the boat and constructed the bubble and after a night swim in the river had a beautiful sleep.

Old Champoton building of coral stone.

Town street, Champoton

Beside the zocolo or town square, this fine public building. I am not much of an architecture nut but it is nice to see tasteful work well executed.

Morning brought the shouts and howling-engine departure of the octopus fleet; one was a bit delayed because my anchor had fouled theirs. As all the 2-stroke oil bottles floated by on their way out to sea andf a beach near you I sat on the platform and shaved in the river, had a swim to reset my anchor, deconstructed the bubble. Shortly thereafter I was on the doorstep of Octavio’s restaurant waiting as appointed to hear more of the masseuse; Octavio didn’t show but Bernardo appeared and asked me what my GPS was.

Bernardo, 22, very handsome, flamingly gay and more than friendly. I asked him what he did, perhaps expecting hairdressing but no, he showed me his camos in a bag – he was a “navy soldier” at the base nearby, studying chemistry and spending some of his time searching boats and vehicles for drugs, for fighting the narcotraficantes is a military function here. We went for breakfast, but first to pick up his transvestite partner Argentina. At Argentina’s pad I asked Bernardo was there any problem being gay in the Mexican military? None whatsoever. The armed forces were I said presumably very macho, and you are not. How is it that you joined up? Well, he said, I get to play with beautiful boys all day and they pay me $200 USD a week to do it. Why should’t I want to join?

Bernardo and Argentina’s obsession with my skin was comical. Apparantly I need a jolly good exfoliation.

Breakfast was panuchos, maize flour mixed with 25% wheat flour, formed into tortillas which puff up when deep fried. These are then collapsed and the flattish cup thus formed is loaded with beans, lettuce, avocado, tomatoes and salsa, plus chicken for my friends. Mexican food is not healthy but it is so good that one’s well-being is a small price to pay.

Bernqardo and Argentina let me go gracefully when they finally got the idea how terribly straght I am. Octavio took me for a drive. The massage with old but strong Rosaura was the greatest(I have never before been desperate enough to seek help like this). I had to make her concentrate on the huge balled-knot of muscle in my shoulder. It had me yelling like no other massage ever. I need more work but it was hopefully a beginning to the end of the only serious fly in the ointment of this trip. Afterwards I walked back along the sea front past at least 300 returned octopus boats; every one of them had had its propellor removed by its owner. I saw also through clear water the maze of shoals I had miraculously passed through the previous afternoon.

Deseperado is moored on the right with the octopus boats that did not go out today

Who is that sexy gringo?

The next morning I slipped my mooring, raised sail and moved out into the river current. There was a terrible bang, and I looked across the river to see a delivery truck had piled full-speed into a tree, wrapping the front end of the vehicle around the tree just as it happens when a car hits superman. The tree was pretty big and was uprooted. The driver got out rubbing his head. Very probably my vessel had distracted him.

I am now in Celestun, Yucatan, about 150 kilometers to the north. That is another story which does at least involve some fear, uncertainty, coldness, mud and thirst. And of course octopus.

The Wronged Trousers.

I was all packed up and ready to set sail at dawn but then…

Whilst I was in the internet cafe last night writing “Octopus Manouvers” there was a late thunderstorm, lots of rain and wind. I considered running for the boat to see if it needed attention but I knew by the time I got there it would all be over. Desesperado had gone through many such storms before without incident; it would be all right.

It wasn’t. Oh no.

As I approached the mooring very ready to sleep after day’s octopus fishing and a long blog sassion I realised I could not see the white of the wrapped, raised sail in the distance. I found disaster – the mast, yard, boom, sail and rigging were all in the water. The cover of the Little House on the Proa had been stripped off and the mosquito net was shredded. The lid of Cargo Bay Three was gone and much rain had entered. My bed, pre-prepared inside the bubble, was thoroughly soaked.

I was philosophical about it as a tired man who faces a grim night can be. There didn’t seem any way I could sleep without my bed, worse, without my mosquito net.

Andres the nightwatchman approached. He looked even grimmer than usual and that is saying something. A propellor was missing from one of the lanchas. I had come in on the lancha next to it. Did I know if the owner had taken his propellor with him that evening? If not, it had been stolen and on Andres’ watch.

Propellor thieves are a real scourge of fishermen here, except I guess for the ones in the market for a cheap used propellor. They cost several hundred dollars to replace but can be removed in seconds simply by pulling out a cotter pin with pliers and undoing a castellated nut with a wrench.  Even anchored lanchas are easy targets for a thief who can swim. It is to protect the engines and their propellors that so many clusters of lanchas have nightwatchmen.  Andres  would have to pay fora new prop if this one had vanished by foul means and was as bummed as I was.

I had to wade around in the black and slimy lagoon to untangle the rigging and restep the mast. Eventually I raised the sail out and made all fast again. I threw all my wet stuff on the dock and laid out the sleeping mat in the faint hope that its non-absorbent surface might dry even in this damp night air. I found my swimming trunks and best trousers were gone, they had been “drying” on deck after being washed in a bucket with dish detergent, as one does. I don’t actually manage to get much dry here, wearing wet clothes has become second nature. My body heat eventually drives off most of the moisture but then it rains again.

I reconstructed the little house on the proa and used the soaked bedsheet to cover the holes in the mosquito net. when the outer cover was on I gathered together what few dry clothes I had in cargo bay three and put them inside. Then I turned over the sleeping mat and went for a walk around the night-deserted town to give the clothes I was wearing more time to dry.

To my surprise I encountered a Dutchman with car trouble but he was not friendly so I kept going. I did not fear being mugged; Sabancuy is a small town but unusually well streetlit (the better to illuminate the many huge toads that hop the streets at night) and anyway if  someone messed with me on a night like this it was going to end up his problem, not mine. After an hour I returned to find to my joy that the foam sleeping mat (given to me by Susan Lange. Thankyou thankyou THANKYOU Susan) had gone from dripping wet to that state considered acceptable by mariners, merely damp. I stuffed it into the bubble, crawled in, made a pillow by covering scrunched-up plastic bags, and there in my damp clothes covered by a couple of t-shirts and a plastic rainjacket, fell asleep.

I was so amazed I had fallen asleep that I woke up again. Ok that was was bullshit. But dawn came along with the ruckus of the departing octopusmen and I emerged if not refreshed at least alive and semi-human. I got to drying out my bedding and clothes and cargo, spreading it all over the dock. There was no damage to the boat apart from the mosquito net but the trousers bothered me. They were my favorite, the Levis you gave me Gringo Jack. I wanted them back. When Gringo Jack gives you a pair of trousers, it’s for life, you know? I spent nearly three hours wading about in the slimy muck poking with a broomstick in a sytematic search of the area I thought they may have gone, but found only the swimming shorts which are so covered with epoxy resin they are kind of garbage anyway . The locals were more than happy to line up along the nearby sidewalk and watch the gringo in his obsessive search for his pantalones.  “Se fue!” They shouted. “They’ve gone! They floated away!”. But I did not give up. Who knows the mind of a pair of trousers, who can say which way they will go? I did not find them.

O trousers, I neglected you and now you have gone away, but I miss you and if you forgive me and come back I will hold you tight and never let you go. And we will never mention the incident again.

The propellor turned up in the hands of its owner and went out to sea and I am very happy for Andres.

With all this drying-out going on I have missed the tide which could have carried me out of the lagoon entrance today. I will be ready to try again tomorrow.

Octopus Manouvers.

If I have been most unusually verbose in writing three posts in three days it is because it rains like hell here and the internet cafe is a good place to shelter. Plus, stuff has been happening.

Aqui estoy mis amigos:

Today is the first day of octopus season. For some reason a federal permit is required to fish pulpo, the first I have heard of any kind of restriction on commercial fishing in Mexico.

I have long had an interest in octopus so I wanted to go out with the fleet. What other creature is jet-propelled, defends itself  with ink, is unusually intelligent, grasps with suction cups, can squeeze through tiny holes, changes colors at will and has eight legs. Today I helped kill a whole bunch of these amazing animals.

Jose, the fellow playing air guitar in the previous post, was our captain. He, Ricardo and I set out at dawn in a specially prepared lancha carrying a small dinghy athwartships similarly equipped. Under the bridge and out to sea with such an outpouring of other lanchas as  I have never seen. I counted 82 such craft within sight at one point. We went out about four miles and put the dinghy overboard and Ricardo got in; there we left him. We went another few hundred yards upwind in the lancha before stopping ourselves.

The lancha had been prepared by fixing to it two long, thin saplings which had each been peeled and had 5 eyes screwed into it spaced yard or so apart. Through these eyes strings were threaded with lead weights near the ends. To each string runs a “control string” by which the first string can be pulled in towards the boat. We tied a dead  jaiba, the ubiquitous coastal sand/mud crab to the end of each string and threw them over the side. along the length of the boat we tied four more such strings. We now had 14 baited strings along the whole length of the craft, a lancha of 28 feet stretched by poles out to a usable length of something like 55 feet.

This is not our vessel but it is similar and similarly equipped for octopus fishing.
Me again.

Lanchas and dinghies drift side-on to the wind; we used no anchor so as we drifted our arrangement raked the bottom about 7 meters down with a line of crabs. To slow our drift we dropped a sheet of canvas weighted at the corners with two concrete blocks over the lee side. Every now and then a small octopus would grab hold of a crab and though I said they are unusually intelligent they are not actually smart enough to let go of a crab as it is slowly pulled upwards. One leans over the side and grabs them before they break the surface. We could see by the tension in the lines whether a line needed pulling up or not, but we also had to check bait regularly for it was frequently taken by large fish which would also follow it up to the surface. The going was slow, long periods would pass between catches. There was often comedy because and octopus in the hand folds itself over and crawls up ones arm, sticking on with its suction cups and being very difficult to remove. Ink squirted everywhere and covered ourselves and the boat.

Jose never stopped moving the whole nine hours. He always stands horizontally.
Cheeky fish like this one ate much of our bait.
This is not Ricardo but many other boats used the same bring-along-a-dinghy method to improve their coverage. These guys were floating all over the place.

Way back years ago (this was before I lost my leg) I worked on a few Bering sea longliners and we would catch octopus up to six feet in length by accident whilst fishing cod or halibut. Being rubbery they make excellent long-lasting bait,  so we would keep them for that purpose. But we had a problem – they stick like glue to raingear and a man thus stuck could not get unstuck – too many legs. When another guy came along to help peel the monster off a couple of legs would grab him too, then a third guy would come and he’d get stuck as well; the now 14-legged monster would totter helplessly around the deck. There never was a fourth guy involved – he’d be laughing so hard he was useless for anything. So we developed what we called “The Octopus Manouver”. Gaff them through the head as they surface (didn’t seem to faze ’em at all) and lift them in a fast arc above the deck and overhead, then down into the hold without touching anything at all. The Octopus Manouver. I tell you this to explain my title and because you never know when it might come in handy.

The lancha drifted faster than the dinghy so we would eventually catch up with lonely Ricardo in his tiny craft. Because our luck was ill we five times reloaded the dinghy and sped off to other locations, with similar results. Every fishing boat I have ever worked on (this is the sixth) has had poor luck. We needed to be fishing over rocky terrain which is patchy here; when I dived to the bottom with the headcam on I found sand. Jose says the pulpo migrate and can be found sometimes over sand in groups, then you are really “in them” and can make “billete“, bills. The water was cloudy and we could not see deep enough to know sand from rocks and the people do not have GPS’s nor were we close enough to shore to use landmarks so it was random, until that is as the day wore on and the other lanchas started to gather in groups, these in places where people were having enough luck not to move on. So we joined a group but it did not seem to help. Our catch, dumped into a sack which their suckers cannot grip, squirmed around and made gasping noises and died slowly in a soup of their own ink. I did not feel good about this but it made little difference whether I was there or not. Jose, good company, has been fishing all his life and can handle the work alone with his eyes closed. He was amazingly skilled at handling the lines without entangling them.

At one point we were swarmed by bees which Joselito had warned me about a week ago. We were at least three miles out to sea at the time. No, don’t ask me to explain the mind of a bee.

Ricardo ties crabs as the lancha pounds along.

FIshing is more complex than it seems. In this case the poles must be cut and delivered, stripped, eyed, lined and fixed to the boats. Much string, weights, and a permit are needed. Jaiba must be obtained requiring a completely separate process and in turn different bait. The 75hp Yamaha outboard needs maintenance and for the day, 30 litres of gasoline mixed with oil. Ice is carried to cool the catch in a big insulated box when the sack overflows. This day in nine hours we caught maybe 70 small octopuses/octopi (both are correct) weighing around 35 kilos total. At 30 pesos per kilo, that’s around 1000 pesos or 85 bucks. take out the gasoline and spare parts, then give half to Andres who owns the lancha but no longer fishes. It does not leave much for Jose and Ricardo. But they may have better luck tomorrow.  Octopus season lasts four months.

Our total catch.

I learned something not related to octopi. A rainstorm, not quite a thunderstorm, came out over the sea and loomed a mile away. To avoid it, Jose did something I never would have thought of. He headed stright for it!  By the time he got there it was somewhere else! (ok we did get a little bit rained on) This tactic probably works at least three times out of four.

I hope to raft Desesperado out of the lagoon tomorrow at dawn. We have daily northeasterlies ( I am heading northeast and therefore must tack) and thunderstorms so progress towards the nest town Champoton is likely to be slow. I will post an update when I can.

The Way to Sabancuy

Aqui estoy mis amigos:

Ok sorry about about that, but I had to stop somewhere. All these posts are done in a bit of a rush in internet “cafes” which close when the attendant gets hungry,  and open again at random times whenever someone can be bothered. I got bitten by a dog on the doorstep whilst entering just now, that’s how user-friendly these places are.

This belongs in the last post. Maritza, Joselito, Josefeta and Hugo of Colonia Emilio Zapata.

I anticipted the dreaded salt-water sores by building this airy and spray-protected folding seat. I have the driest ass of any sailor, ever.

So where was I? Yes the bridge, too low and coming towards me (relativistically speaking) much too fast. In retrospect what I should have done is veer off and parallel the bridge whilst considering my options but really it had looked plenty high until the last few seconds, and now there was no time for a turn with any appreciable clearance. I let go the mainsheet in an effort to slow down but I was now almost running dead downwind in my effort to pass through at 90 degrees and the effect of this is that the boom swung out and up so that the sail now stood like a “V” with its lower point on the bow and both yard and boom now stood fixed to strike.  So I sprang to the mast and uncleated the halyard, letting it go just as I went under the concrete so the sail dropped to my side as I shot below, and I was pulling up the sail before I even emerged on the other side. Nothing even touched, and the effect to bystanders had there been any in a position to view would have been that it was an well-practiced and professional manouver. Ok so it was an anticlimax to you but pretty exciting from where I stood.

Back in the ocean now, I headed northeast and rounded the point eastward of the estuary. The water was a beautiful clear aquamarine and weedless, a sandy bottom stretching for ever. I was beginning to climb the Yucatan along a sandy shore. The wind was strong and coming from the southeast boiling off the land, fitful and jerky, pushing me along the flat water in high-speed bursts. Lovely sailing actually, my first taste of fast sailing on flat water since the trip began. I landed on the shell-sand beach and changed up to my biggest sail again as the wind started to fail, but soon once again I was becalmed and roasting at sea. Pulling in the fishing line I discoverd a small fish, maybe 1 kilo on the end and I’m afraid it was his bad luck that I was both hungry, foodless and becalmed, for I ate him, fried on deck over the little gas stove that Santiago gave me which burns even in a gale. I have caught maybe 8  fish since the trip started but let them all go but this one. You may ask why I fish if I am just going to let them go and I don’t have a good answer, it is just curiosity really, adding interest to the voyage and satsfying some of my great interest in what lurks below.

After fishie’s sad demise a northeast wind sprang up and I piddled along the coast making reasonable time. I headed further out to sea to find smoother wind which seemed to work. Nervous about thunderstorms I was worried when one came off the land behind me and cut off my retreat, but it looked like I would escape it. It is hard to tell, for they often move in directions contrary to the wind at ground level. I kept going, looking back occasionally and WHERE THE HELL DID THAT COME FROM?

A mile dead ahead a thunderstorm coalesced out of nothing, moving quickly off the land and into my path. It was close enough  I could see the white water at its base. I could not go forward or back, nor would I make it to land. I dropped sail and anchor and waited.

Spanish for thunderstorm is tormenta, a word I find particularly evocative.

A short wait. The storm ahead cleared out of my road leaving me free to try to outrun the one behind, so I got moving. But black thunderstorms were forming everywhere over the land and moving towards the ocean. I needed shelter.

About three miles ahead I could see what might be a breakwater. There was nothing about a lagoon or river entrance hereabouts on my charts but my charts are 32 years old, the most modern available. Gives you some idea of how devoid of boats other than local lanchas these waters are. I made as fast as I could for this thing, whatever it was, worried because a particularly big storm was heading for the same spot. Would I make it?

I do hope this isn’t boring you. It really is pretty exciting out there.

I got closer. Yes, two breakwaters. I found them to be only about 25 meters apart, guarding a very narrow passage heading straight inland. If you look on the SPOT site (satellite image) you can see it. Through the passage I could glimpse a lagoon and a town. I wanted in, but a narrow passage possibly with a current between two rocky breakwaters is no place for a sailboat. But what the hell, this is an adventure.

So I went in. I didn’t get more than 30 meters inside the entrance before I discoverd the current against me was outrageously strong. The thunderstorm loomed big and black and booming most awfully. What could I do? I threw the anchor over in a side eddy so I could stop and think.

Without help I could not tow the boat throught the entrance under the bridge and into the lagoon. I could not paddle against such a crazy current. As I pondered the boat swung back and forth in the current like a fish on a line,  sometimes nosing the rocks but not hard because I had the paddle in my hands and was using it. I recently discovered that this professionally-made paddle SINKS! On the first mad career across the current the anchor line got wrapped around my ankle and damn near pinched off my foot so there I was lying on the platform wailing and paddling as best I could from my entrapped position and making a right comedy for two boys fishing on the far breakwater. I had to get out of there was my decision, and go around the breakwater and haul out on the beach. The storm was getting really scary now but had not struck. I would just pull up the anchor and float out on the current…

But the anchor would not come up! Oh shit! I pulled and pulled, the mad charging about of the boat helped me tug from different angles, but it would not budge. What to do. No way was I going to dive into that swirling lagoon-murk full of unknown toothy horrors.  With the chain vertical,  I could just see its top- it is 16 feet long. I pulled and pulled. I hated to lose my anchor, I needed it too much.

I could not pussy out of this. Most reluctantly I put on my mask and dived, pulling myself down the chain into the gloom, then the dark. I despaired of being able to see at all when I reached whatever bottom was in store for me. Creepy? Oh god yes. Suddenly I arrived, found the chain jammed between two barnacled blocks. I could not free it, had to go up for air then return. Success this time, but even though I was careful bringing up anchor and chain somehow the chain snagged again and I had to go down a third time.

Gasping back on deck I swirled out into the ocean. Two lanchas roared passed me out to sea; What the hell, with this storm coming? I waved my rope at them hopefully but they just shrugged and went on. I raised sail, made it around the breakwater to land or nearly so as I was blocked by a sandbar. I started to unload in order to lighten the boat. Jesus the storm looked bad. I was bummed I could not make it to the town and would now have to unload the whole boat and drag it across the sandbar and up the steep beach. Both hands and arms bled profusely from multiple barnacle lacerations sustained underwater. The storm, Christ!

Then an angel appeared.
In “Religulous” (well done Mr. Maher) Bill Maher interviews a man who thinks he is the second coming of Christ and asks him how he knows this. “Two angels told me” says the guy. “What, two Mexicans named Angel?” asks Bill, innocently. In any group of more than four Mexicans, there will be at least one called Angel and another called Nacho.

Angel and two young brothers were in their lancha hanging just offshore, watching me curiously. I waved my tow rope and they said yes. I reloaded the boat, dropped the mast fearing the bridge and we hitched up and took off. At this point the storm struck.

Blinding rain so dense I could barely make out the lancha. Lightning and awful thunder bashing down all over the place. No wind. The sea flattened by the pounding rain. The tow rope was too long and despite using the bridle my boat was uncontrollable, veering wildly all over the passage. Weirdly I found I was off to the side and ahead of the boat that was towing me. The brothers clearly wanted to cut me loose but they were made of stern stuff; they did not abandon me to float out to sea again in this storm. I had the presence of mind to rip open cargo bay three and pull out the headcam. The rain eased some and we changed tactic in midriver, rafting my boat alongside theirs, and he was thereafter tame as a lamb as we throttled through the worst of the current, under the bridge and into the lagoon. They pulled me across to the town and left me at a decomposing jetty, but not before I had given them a 500 peso ($45 USD) note in exchange for their gasoline and valor at which I was much impressed. This rather hurt but it was no time for penny-pinching and I had no smaller bill anyway.

The rain stopped, all was calm. I was cold as hell for the first time in months. My audience soon gathered on the dock, fishermen mostly, friendly enough, so many I feared he dock would collapse. I got mostly sorted out but far from dried, that would have to wait until the morning.

Sabancuy is a mud-puddled and mosquito-infested lagoon town. It seems to survive from fishing and farming. As always the biggest building is the church. Dry in the mornings and hot as hell, it rains in the afternoons. I have trouble finding beans here, it’s all meat and fish. With every meal one gets horribly bitten for free. There is a disco for teenagers on Saturday but no other entertainment. That lagoon entrance from the sea was cut artificially soon after my charts were published. The people are friendly – this is Mexico; I am now kin to many fishermen which can get a bit tedious when they are drunk in the afternoons, many declarations of brotherhood and so on. They have silver-capped teeth and an intolerable tendency when drunk to tug at one’s sleeve or poke one at the beginning of almost every sentence (a strangely common habit in Mexico; I cannot abide it) but they are good fellows and their respect means much to me.  I have many visitors when I am at the jetty and I explain the operation of the boat over and over to those interested; apart from on tv they have never seen a sailboat. They are gearing up to start octopus fishing tomorrow; maybe I will stay another day and join them.

As at Chiltepec nobody comes demanding mooring fees. I think that the dock was built by the town. At night a watchman for the fishing cooperative guards all the lanchas and my boat too, I bring him coca-cola. A nine year-old kid named Eric enthusiastically helps me grease my rudders and re-tar my annoyingly leaky bubble canvas. He is a damned fine helper I must say, sharp as a razor; I shall give him a penknife before I go, I still have a few.

Cargo bay three still leaks.

Sabancuy borders the lagoon.

Many lanchas are hauled out by this clever log-ramp method.

The Local Authority.

Yesterday I discoverd my anchor was broken. Outrageous that the thing could be broken by my strength alone (which was not sufficient to beat a woman at arm-wrestling over lunch earlier. It was a draw.). I am glad I splashed out on a bigger anchor though, my first one would not have saved me from the thunderstorm in the Laguna de Terminos. An expedition to weld the thing was mounted, two drunken fishermen on bicycles and a third with myself taking it in turns to power a three-wheeled pedal cart all spashed through the rain along the muddy streets to a welder who did a fine job for $8 US: I bought the guys two six-packs for their valuable time and as we worked on those back at the dock a heavily-muscled man with a sour expression walked out and approached me. I could barely understand anything he said but he definitely had a problem with my presence in the lagoon, said gringos couldn’t just sail in whenever they pleased. Well yes they can, I said, if they have a visa, which I do. But you don’t have papers to be in Campeche, he says. I have a visa issued by the federal goverment and can enter any state I please, I said, I need nothing more. Let me see your papers he says. He really had a bad attitude, the first directly unfriendly and aggressive Mexican I had ever met. Who are you to ask to see my papers? I ask. He was a fisherman. If he had a problem he could call the police and I would show them, but you, no. My brothers squirmed about uncomfortably (If there is one generalization in the world that is true it is this: Mexicans hate confrontation) He is on something, they said.
I do not want to listen to you any more, I said. Call the police if you want to, I have nothing to hide. This had gone on for a half hour. He started up again. ENOUGH! I yelled. FUCK OFF! He went and sat on some nets and glowered at me. Then he went further and must have bothered someone else because ten minutes later two truckloads of cops showed up and took him ahway in handcuffs. I was rather impressed.

Truth is, my legal status is a bit iffy. I have a tourist visa good for six months, but I have become a mariner and that doubtless requires different paperwork. The rules here are unkown even to those who are supposed to enforce them, and bendable anyway. In three weeks my only contact with officialdom has been a brief and friendly chat with policemen passing on the beach at Colonia Emilio Zapata.

A few of my brothers. Jose plays air guitar.

I am still enjoying the hell out of this like I have never enjoyed any trip before. The heat and the rain and even the bugs do not spoil it. My neck hurts a lot when sailing and my barnacle injuries are infected but these things are also fine, or will be. For a long time I was mystified as to why my face hurt in the morning; now I realize it is because I use a rolled-up rough woolen blanket for a pillow which in any normal situation would be intolerably uncomfortable but in the world I am living in I do not even notice. The only thing I really cannot stand is bass, but there has been little of that since I left Zapote. Hooray. I think that a large part of my happiness so far stems from the boat itself – were I sailing in a fibreglass yacht I would be another rich-seeming gringo, and I am sure the people would still be friendly but I would somehow be more insulated. This is the biggest reason I built a weird boat, and it is all working out.

Desesperado hangs on a mooring line strung between pulleys on the dock and a handy old post in the lagoon. By this means I can pull him between the dock and a place where he will not bash the dock or be robbed by thieves who cannot swim.

I make sure to press the Easy Button at regular intervals. A voice says "That was easy".

The Lagoon of Ends.

– Aqui estoy mis amigos.

I will never get all this down. Such a wondrous adventure as I never hoped for.

Leaving Joselito´s family and Colonia Emilio Zapata with some reluctance after three days I beat out to sea and eastwards close-hauled against a northeast wind, then turned right at the a headland and raced at silly speed for the entrance to the Laguna de Terminos by Ciudad Carmen. I went so fast I overtook shipping in the busy lanes heading in and out of Ciudad Carmen and could see crew gazing down at me from bridges at this weird boat leaping from wave to wave and forging ahead of each thousand tonnes of motorized steel. I passed under a huge bridge miles long and was out of the waves and in the lagoon, a lagoon so vast I could not see the other side, an inland sea. The water was green and clearish and an island many miles long was now on my left, sheltering me from the waves but not from a fitful wind that blew me along in jumps and threatened to capsize me at intervals. As opposed to the shoreline of the sea which ever since Coatzacoalcos two or three hundred kiloneters back had been low, palm-lined and of sandy beach unbroken except for rivermouths and lagoon entrances, this shore was wooded but palmless, the trees all the way down to the water except for spots of bright sandy beaches every few hundred yards, some with children playing in the water, with villages hidden beyond the vegetation. The kids thinned out after a few miles, the shore became indented with green-lined passages working off to who knows where (perhaps this is the source of the name “Laguna de Terminos – Lagoon of (dead) Ends)  and I was left with a real feeling of Southern US swamp country. The sun lowered, I worked my way across shoals of dark seagrass weed into a large bay and dropped the hook; here I swung in water not two feet deep (my keel draws about 16 inches) and watched my personal aquarium whilst eating a can of refried beans until sunset. Lanchas plied the water raising crab traps but nobody approached me, here they seemed to have no curiosity, they had left me alone since entering the lagoon. The mosquitos however were most interested in me. The place was beautiful but between the monkey-like noises in the mangroves around me and the dark and fearsome weedy shoals below, rather creepy. I spent a good deal of the night peering out of my tiny vinyl portholes looking out for banditos.

But morning came. After working out of the bay over some scary shoals –  scary because I did not want to spend the day stuck in the mud trying to pull my vessel thorough impossible terrain up to my hips in slime and weed – and into the lagoon proper I spent much of the day becalmed, anchored to prevent any rearward drift, watching distant lanchas pounding their sides and slapping the water with flappers on sticks trying either to herd fish into nets or drive away the numerous dolphins which were clearly eating the catch. Many lanchas passed but only one approached and asked my destination. “Respect!” shouted and old fisherman in rain dungarees far too large for him “I give you my respect!” I thought this was rather sweet.

The airlessness of this baking day had a calm-before-the-storm feel to it. Oh was I right on this one. When wind appeared it came strong, with a massive black thunderstorm approaching. Oh shit. I raced towards a great bay which would shelter me on three sides, extremely anxious that I should arrive there before this montrous thing which was coming fast from the opposite direction.

I didn´t make it.

Back in some previous post I said I went through a thunderstorm and it “was no big deal”. Let me tell you, this was a big deal. It was enormous, charcoal black all over, looking like something from a tornado video. I was in awe of it, and wished I were elsewhere.

Three lanchas running similarly reached the bay before me. I was two hundred yards short when the serious howling began and was forced to drop the sail whilst it could still be controlled enough to lash it down. I threw the anchor over too, then the wind hammered at me like mad, buffeting the boat, turning the whole surface of the bay matt, then whipping the wavelets into whitecaps. I was out there, terrified by this craziness, trying to hold the anchor line such that the boat did not careen off to left or right. I quickly improvised a bridle to help with that and hoped like hell the anchor would hold, which it did, and soaking wet from the cold rain huddled there low and away from the mast because of all the lightning until the thing passed. The three lanchas did not come to my assistance, nor did they visit in the calm that followed though I am sure they had never seen a sailboat here before, not least one in peril. When it was all over I worked my way further into the bay and re-anchored, a can of beans and a well-earned beer were my reward for getting through this.

In the night I awoke to find the boat firmly grounded, no worries, the tide would return in the morning. Very windy all night, mucho rain. Windy still in the morning. I changed to a smaller sail and weighed anchor (about 8 kilos I reckon) though it took some nerve to do so in such a wind but what is a man to do, sit there all day afraid to move like some kinda pussy? The shoals were horrible, all that grim slimy darkness below, those weeds which nothing on earth could make me swim amongst, except a capsize. Don´t capsize Chris, don´t…

Well I made it another six miles to the lagoon exit, which is crossed by a long road bridge. On the way I asked some fishermen their advice on shoals, and collided with their lancha rather clumsily but no harm done; they were amused. The bridge did not look as high as the one at the entrance, but still looked plenty high, but as I raced towards it on a broad reach at about ten knots I began to fear I could not pass below. Abutments were spaced about 25 meters apart, no problem missing those. But oh no. I was coming in very fast but it looked too low and there was no way to slow down without changing direction and colliding with the concrete… shit shit shit… TOO LOW!. Higher than my mast but not higher than my yard… 50 meters to go…

How cruel of me, but I must go. I will try hard to make another installment tomorrow, but it will be Sunday and that might not happen.

At least you know I didn’t die.

Flowers of the Night.

I see some of the pictures I thought I had uploaded last time did not appear.

Oh what a pleasant place I am in now!

The beach, Colionia Emilio Zapata


Short-range transport around here is by poche.

I sailed out of the rivermouth at Chiltepec with my gear dried, my hatches sealed tight and a meal made for me by Sonia, she and husband Maurelio had been guarding my valuables for me during my stay at their little enterprise “Coktels Arley”, selling shrimp cocktails to tourists. Arley is their daughter. Many small businesses in Mexico are named after a family member –  I eat beans and rice at “Restaurante Lucy”, buy groceries at “Abarottes Kevin”, and so on. Anyway, out to sea with a strong wind which soon moderated to another becalming, then later increased to a nasty howler from the northeast, directly in my teeth because northeast along the coast to the river entrance at Frontera was where I was heading. I made long tacks and advanced slowly with the nose under every fourth wave or so and the decks always awash, then found the sea calmer nearer the shore and beat back and forth within three miles of the coast, but as the wind grew worse and the waves sapped my momentum I found I was not gaining much with each tack, and near sunset headed in about 5km short of the rivermouth where I had hoped to enter and anchor. Anchoring saves all the huge hassle of emptying the boat and dragging it up the beach, and then doing the same in reverse in the morning. I thought of anchoring in the shallows near the beach as the wind was now coming off the  land so there were only tiny waves there, but a particularly mean thunderstorm was looming so I changed my mind and rammed the sand just as the sun touched the horizon. I was looking forward to that meal, not having eaten that day. I uncleated (released) the sail and let it hang free whilst I started to unload. I discovered immediately that all three cargo hatches, which open three separate compartments under the deck (each known as “Cargo Bay Three” to save confusion), had leaked horribly. How could this be? I had sealed the tops of the buckets to the deck perfectly, and the lids seemed to fit well and had good seals but now all my gear was wet again, and I would have to dry it and the holds too. Now the thunderstorm hit, no rain but hellish wind, stinging sand sheeted across the beach, huge moths rammed their antennae into my bare chest at top speed, and as I ran up the beach with another load of stuff I looked back and OH SHIT! The boat had capsized! Though the sail was completely free the drag from the wind and the wind pressure on the mast had turned Desesperado on his side in the shallows! I pulled him back upright, just dodging the ama as it came down on me and whammed into the water. Oh no! Lying on his side in the water he had filled up with water! Cargo Bay Three and Cargo Bay Three were totally full to the top;  Cargo Bay Three only had a few inches because it was in the end nearest the beach. And OH NO! the violin was in Cargo Bay Three! Totally submerged. But I pulled it out and found it had been saved by extensive bagging.

My meal meal was ruined. I tried to cook rice later but it was also ruined, rotten from an earlier soaking. It was now dark and I was pretty annoyed. The wind eased, mosquitos swarmed me as did the sandflies, annoying me further. I smothered myself with repellent. “How do you like me now? ” I screamed at the hated pests.

 I finished unloading my soaked gear, hauled the boat up the beach, restowed everything, constructed the bubble. My bedding was only wet at the corners, bearable.

  This was the first night in which I had no visitors at all. The beach wasn’t bad but something gave me the creeps; I broke out the mace, big knife, machete and the flare pistol, and felt better. The mace might work well on mosquitos too.

 I slept wonderfully and before dawn was up and packing. I did not try to dry anything, I wanted to get in the water whilst a usable east wind was blowing and use it to push me around the point a few miles north. I’ be damnned if I’d screw around with the safe little canvas sail all day again – the daily pattern lately had been light winds in the morning followed by a long becalming then a bad blow, so I hung the big poly sail and stowed the wet little one on deck intending to change down at sea during the becalming. I had to get around that point!

Pow! Out to sea with that big sail! The boat flies with it. Up the coast hugging the shore through the first flat water of the voyage towards a fleet of thirty lanchas fishing a rivermouth for a long silvery fish whose tail just tapers away to a point, whose name I forget. I asked the nearest lancha for the usual bad advice on the weather, then unable to resist showing what Deseperado can do I shot right through the fleet on a beam reach with the ama flying, at a full twelve knots. Cheers arose from the fishermen and two boats peeled off to pace me and ask questions. Both confirmed the earlier weather forecast – moderate winds today, hooray.

    The lanchas left me at the Frontera rivermouth, a brown torrent a half-kilometer across –  I doubt I could have entered that river on the previous night’s wind had I made it that far. The current dragged me leftwards as I crossed the flow, aiming for open ocean beyond. As I negotiated an area of nasty one-meter breakers where the current met the ocean a military gunboat appeared and paced me a hundred meters off, but they did not interfere – I don’t think anyone has instructions on what to do with interloping sailboats, there are no sailboats at all. (The people of Colonia Emilio Zapata where I am now have never seen one in their whole lives).

Passed the bad stuff, out into cleaner greener waters, then blue, towards another series of humming oil platforms. I had passed a bunch of these recently, all PEMEX of course (PEtroleum-MEXico), the national and publicly-owned oil conglomerate. What a strange idea, that the natural resources of a country should belong to the people of that country instead of inherited within unbelievably wealthy families whom the rest of us must pay and support in luxury for all of their lives, for all of ours. Republicans, keep voting)

A long tack through the many platforms, calculating intercept courses to dodge around the numerous big PEMEX workboats thundering about sometimes towing barges. The only time I am ever seasick now is when in the diesel fumes of these beasts, which I can smell for miles off.

Moderate winds my ass. It got worse and worse but I could not turn to my next tack without risking a collision with a rig – I had to get clear. Finally out of sight of land a grim sail-flapping shunt and a start to serious easting. I still had the big sail up, there had been no becalming, but I loaded a few things out of Cargo Bay Three and tied them over the ama to help stop me capsizing and continued. I found I could handle it., though the bow plunged under continually and the boat was being thrown upwards so violently that the anchor chain would clank at apogee.

From the SPOT track it looks like I make fewer tacks than I do. I do not send a message every time I shunt.

I stopped to investigate an enormous dark spot right under the boat. It looked like a manatee, but how could it be a manatee? Then it rolled horizontal – a sea turtle ! A HUGE sea turtle! It must have weighed 600lbs. So far they had always been much smaller and shy of the boat but this one showed no concern when it surfaced to breathe right beside me, then leisurely dived into the gloom.

Man, bad wind. The boat leapt, bucked, dived, pounded, bashed and plunged its way forward. A wave comes, rarely steep-sided enough to wash my deck, but as it passes underneath it lifts the rear of the boat and the nose dives down into the next wave. The swell here is not what it was 50km back but I preferred that to these shorter, steeper bruisers. I got a bit frightened but Desesperado ploughed onwards unfazed. A man can only blow so much adrenaline in a day. We were forced nearer and nearer the coast by the east wind but after the next tack out the wind suddenly backed around to the northeast enabling me to parallel the coast at a good speed. Things looked rosier as I was making miles though I was in pain from the long hours twisted and tense at the helm, my neck and shoulders are really a mess from all this. It takes absolute concentration to control the boat in a blow so that I stay upright and make progress.

An hour to sunset, I saw way off on my right a bunch of white specks which could only be lanchas pulled up on the beach. I am gravitating towards landing at inhabited spots because the people are interesting and they help me haul out. I turned in and really hammered towards the coast. I landed, the people helped, they were lovely.

  There are three groups of lanchas, each guarded at night by a member of the fishermen’s co-operative. The nearest watchman was Joselito – “Little Jose” – a small, wiry, energetic, helpful and extremely likeable man. He invited me to his post, a concrete shack with a palapa (horizontal-roofed palm-thatched shade structure) in front, to wash by his well. His wife Josefeta had already prepared me food, fried chicken and beef stew. I was not about to say “No, I’m not going to eat your food” to these people, so I ate it and enjoyed it too. I had not eaten in thirty hours, this is the most animal to pass my lips in 26 years. But the cows are grazing under the palms, the chickens free. They roost atop the palapa with the turkeys, whilst the ducks huddle in groups on the ground and the dogs lie where they may. I let sleeping dogs lie.

I eat witht the family, Joselito, Josefeta, son Hugo, Daughter Marisa. At night Joselito and I lie in hammocks and look out at the bright stars from under the palapa as the fireflies twinkle in patches beneath the palms, we drink aguardiente (cane liquor) and smoke mota rolled in newspaper. A fresh breeze blows away the bugs – I am not bitten at all here –  delightfully cool, all is well with the world. Every ten mintutes Joselito gets up and shines around a headlight he has mounted in a box. The battery is charged daily by the motor of a lancha. He is a great believer in electricity. “No electricity, no security” he says.

In the day I make modest modifications to the boat, collect firewood, sit here in this damned internet cafe. I run back and forth over the hot sand and sparse vegetaion between the boat and the shade of Joselito’s palapa.


Many people visit me and my boat. These were the easiest on the eye.

 I am enormously comfortable with these people.. I do not want to leave.


Here Joselito and family live at night and guard the lanchas.

Joselito mends his nets.

Yesterday I went back to my boat in the dark. On the way I stopped. What was this? I was in a patch of flowers. There had been no flowers earlier, I was sure. Oh yes, says Joselito, they open at sunset and close at dawn.

WTF? What is the point of a flower that nothing can see? I mean, in evolutionary terms. But somehow it is beautiful. Joselito calls them “beach flowers”.

Damn. There is SO much to write but I must go.


Little House on the Proa

Headland at Roca Partida

Aqui estoy mis amigos: Here I am:  

Thank you all for your feedback. Maria Teresa and Maru I am so sorry I did not get to say goodbye to you, but we shall meet again, probably soon. Thank you for caring for Changa, it broke my heart to leave her.

I do not understand all this about not sending a SPOT message for ages. I have been very diligent about this right from the start; I like to send the messages, it is a cool device. I have been unable to find computer with a modern enough browser to actually see the maps, so I don´t know what is going on. I send at least three messages daily.

Sorry no video. Even if I could find a computer with a modern browser I do not know how to get hd video out of an sd card and onto the blog. Can anyone advise me?

Well, it has been a hell of a ride. If I wreck the boat tomorrow it will all have been worth it for the wonderous experience I have had. It has not actually been easy though.

I left Monte Pio and Galo´s hospitality in a light afternoon rain and even lighter winds, pulling out to sea from that lovely place with my host´s dire predictions ringing in my ears  ¨I say you, now is coming… tropical depression! Winds 150 kilometers! Your boat broken, you dead… I say you, you donkey sailor¨ Galo himself is that rarest of things in Mexico, an experienced sailor, and he was wholly negative about my prospects. However he predicted I would make only two kilometers that day and I made nearly thirty, and seventy the next, so there.

     Out to sea, southwards 30km to near Punta Zapotitlan. The wind died, I had to paddle to shore keeping a sharp eye out for savages. Some appeared and helped haul the boat out. Set up camp, my crummy little house on the platform, fried two fish that some fishermen had given me during one of their frequent lancha visits at sea. Always fun to see their faces; though they take it in their stride (I think this sort of thing is expected of Gringos, we are mad and fearless) they are clearly bemused by my appearance. I think many have never seen any kind of sailing vessel before. There is always talk of “El Mundo Aquatica”, Waterworld, Kevin Costner’s terrible movie. Hard to believe the same guy made “Dances With Wolves”.

As darkness fell many villagers appeared from beyond the dunes wielding flashlights. They were friendly enough but paid me little attention; they were busy collecting the amazing and endangered, legally protected blue land crabs which come ashore to breed this season. Later as it began to rain again I heard voices. Estevan and Narciso(?) appeared with a bucket. “What are you doing out in the rain and dark?” I asked. “Collecting turtle eggs.” This was too much. “They are protected!” I exclaimed. “No, no, we work for the government. We collect the eggs and they go to a hatchery. The turtlets are released into the sea.” Much better. Mexico does not enforce many of its laws, but the turtle thing is now being taken very seriously indeed and violators face many years in prison. I accompanied the lads down the beach for a mile or so, we forded a river and I finally left them to go on when we reached their quad bike. On turning back it started to rain more heavily, and soon there was a downpour such as I have rarely experienced. I could see nothing. I tell you fording a strange deep rivermouth alone in the dark in such circumstances is no joke. I ran down the beach so far I thought I´d missed the boat but I found it, crawled into the dark interior of the bubble and started to dry off. Then I looked up.

No! I had made the bubble from a heavy duty nylon gazebo covering and it was suposed to be waterproof, but the rain was coming right through! What a miserable night! completely soaked bedding, then when the rain stopped out came the mosquitos and I discovered a 2-foot rip in the mosquito net, and after I had sewed it another similar one, then the sandflies came which are so small they go right through anyway. No sleep at all. The next night, four long rips (this net is like wet toilet paper), more leaks despite draping sails over me… It rains every night, sometimes int the day too.

Endangered blue land crab. yummy, apparently.

Drying out after The Long Night.

I’ll not try to describe every day.  A typical one goes something like this: I get up early and start to tidy every thing up, dry sails and bedding if I can, take every single thing out of the boat to lighten it to the point where I can work it down from above the tideline to the water´s edge. Everything that can get wet must be bagged in plastic. The combination of  sea, nightly downpours on the beach, humidity and heat leaves me with everything soaked, rotting, and very sandy, and it is only by stopping somewhere like here, Chiltepec, Tobasco, for a full day that I can hope to win the battle to keep things together. I have so much stuff, three or four hundred pounds of it; I hate it, but most of it seems indispensible.

I do all this work on the sand in an awful cloud of mosquitos and sandflies; they love me but the feeling is not mutual. They are a curse.

There must be wind before I can launch; usually it does not arrive until about 11am, but it takes at least that long to get ready. Once the boat checked over, sail changed if necessary and is loaded right at the water´s edge I heave it on rollers down the steep sand and into the breakers. The boat is heavy and the side current strong so the seaward end tries to break free and head down the beach, but by titanic efforts I drag it further out and leap aboard. If there is wind from the side it is a simple matter to run the breakers: I head straight into them and though the boat is repeatedly swamped he powers through and out to sea. Wind from offshore makes things more difficult: I have to build up speed between breakers then turn into the bigger ones; I get bashed and swamped a lot but I make it. So far none of the morning breakers have been huge.

By the way the boat is now called Desesperado which means desperado. Previously he was called Rocinante but I learned there was another shunting craft named after Don Quixote´s horse so I changed it. He has performed magnificently and required virtually no maintenance at all. 

I then usually head straight out to sea fo at least 5km. I feel that the shore is the most dangerous place, and if I have a big problem I will have time to fix it and regain control before I hit the land. If I can´t fix it I will cling to the wreckage until blown to shore in a day or two – so far the wind has always blown that way, at least by day.

There offhore I can get becalmed for hours, no wind at all. I might take down the sail to stop it flapping about annoyingly. At least, you might think, miles offshore I am not being constantly bitten, but no. Amazingly, miles from land thousands of mosquitos are flying about and they encrust the boat. Stinging, itching, burning and scratching in the fearful heat I drift for hours and hours until a little wind comes up. It strengthens and strengthens until I am pounding and bashing along, ama (outrigger float) diving right through waves and waka (main hull) ploughing its nose into wave after wave and throwing up spray. There is a lot of stress on the connection between iakos (crossbeams) and the ama which worries me, but so far Desesperado has thrown off everything that comes at him; it just amazes me the pounding he can take and seem none the worse for wear.

The ocean is lovely even when angry. We climp over swell after swell, great moving hills of water which silently and majestically sweep by to destroy themselves on the shore. Since Monte Pio there have been few other vessels at all, and no visits from lanchas. I see jumping fish, a few dolphins, the odd sea turtle but they always submerge before I can get very close. When the wind grows to create¨”Numerous whitecaps” I would rather be ashore. When it reaches “whitecaps everywhere” I grow genuinely concerned and look for shelter, but fear the surf in such a wind.

Always there is the awful decision on the beach of which sail to use. Light winds require the biggie or I go nowhere slowly, but if a strong wind comes this is way too much and I risk damage and capsize. I cannot predict the weather, and nothing the fishermen say is reliable, so I go blind. I have never tried to change sails at sea, it is possible I think but not easy or quick, and there is no option to reef. Now I use the medium sail which moves me ok in poor wind and can just handle in a blow.

Towards late afternoon I must find a camp. By this time I am usually close to shore as the northeast winds have forced me closer and closer, sometimes I must tack out to sea again. I approach. I may have passed a harbor or two because Iwant no truck with officialdom so I prefer the beaches, but to get to these I must run the surf. It gives me the willies but actually it has not been too bad. I look for a spot with some kind of habitation nearby so I can get help hauling the boat up and avoid places with a sand cliff on the steep beach, over which I will have to lift the boat to raise it above the tideline for the night. I wait outside the surf; when a couple of really big ones go by I follow them in, surfing perpendicular to the waves at ludicrous speed which is a blessing because I go so fast that following waves cannot catch me, I stay between the breakers for the most part. I hit the beach with a bump, then begins the struggle to lift him out, far too heavy, the current turning him sideways. I can´t get a roller under the nose and back to the stern to lift and push fast enough, the rollers don´t work in the soft sand and it is too steep anyway. I gets stressful with my boat being hammered by one breaker after another on the steep shoreline. If people come – great! If not I must lift each end of the boat in turn and walk him up the beach. It nearly kills me. I get him just out of the water then unload everything and work him the rest of the way above the tideline. The bugs are on me instantly.

 I do not enjoy my camps much. There is much to do and usually I must do it with a large audience of lovely people hanging about, asking me questions and dogging my every move. I cannot cook food or eat it or change clothes or do much of anything privately until dark.  The children are adorable though, I love them dearly. After dark I crawl into the bubble I have erected and spend a ghastly night scratching at sandfly bites. Nights are long and I do not sleep much, if at all.

Laguna Cuahtemotzin and the Cables of Death.

Bad wind. I landed on a beach. A fisherman told me there was a river up ahead I might enter for shelter, so I changed to a smaller sail and smashed out through the breakers again. I saw what must be the river, went in through crazy water where river current meets ocean current over the sandbar, light swampings, then all clear and the river opened up into a great lagoon. There were open-mouthed fishermen casting nets from the shore, lanchas going to and fro, shoreside restaurants, dancing maidens… I was so busy looking for water hazards and trying to look cool for my audience that I did not see the three power cables hung all the way across the lagoon entrance, dipping lower than my yard. That they were there at all is an indication of how very rare sailing vessels are here. I hit them, at each one I got a mild shock. They burned through the lacing that fixes the edge of the sail to the yard, and left burn marks all along the upper sail edge, but did no other harm.


I anchored there the night, my first night afloat. Bad mosquitos. In the morning I was so anxious to escape them and so desperate for a poo that I weighed anchor and floated out the lagoon entrance before there was any wind, and got sucked into the mad breakers over the bar. Soon there was not a grain of sand on the boat. I thought I was done for but broke out the padde and by great exertions got the hell out of there.


Two days ago was the most dramatic day yet. I saw a breakwater at the mouth of a river after a nasty afternoon´s pounding and waited outside in the crazy water near the sandbar whilst some fishermen in a lancha hauled a net from the muddy water, then I waved them over to ask for advice on entering. They were amazed at my appearance (I get this a lot) but took it in their stride and showed me which side of the entrance was best, and off I went. The waters rose, and after a short while we had launch commit, there was no turning back. I wish I could have filmed this, but the battery on the Go-Pro headcam had died and my hands were too full to hold another camera as we heaved inwards, the seas rising and breaking behind, me surfing at warp factors that would have had Scotty bitching about his engines again, the rudder hissing and throwing a tail of spray up behind us, me pulling on the tiller like mad to stop us slewing sideways under the brown wall chasing us. Then a mad crosswave struck and the boat went under the next breaker, but both hulls burst forth immediately and charged on , then the same thing  again, this time the emergency paddle is ripped from its lashings but hung on by a thread, and my sunglasses were gone but suddenly we were passed the worst and into calmer water and the lancha catches up and its pop-eyed crew say something like Jesus motherfucking Christ mate! and before I reach the pretty little town I am famous, the Gringo who came in from the cold.

Chiltepec is comfortable, nothing special but nice, and has a concrete mole at which I have been tied for two days while I sort out my gear, tar the cover of the Little House on the Proa, swim in the river and make friends. I have also sealed the hatches better, they leaked annoyingly. The winds are now from the east which is where I wish to go so I am not missing anything on the ocean. The river is gorgeous, lined with palms and festooned with floating clumps of river plants on their way out to sea. The  land around here is a vast maze of lagoons, rivers ansd swamps, very tropical, coco palms and lushness.

Desesperado is constantly mobbed by marauding rafts of river plants. I have my own garden.

Sorry no time for proofreading and fancy stuff like grammatical correctness. I hope to regain Chiltepec (I am now in Paraiso) in time to explore upriver.

I will be back when I can.


I am sorry I have time for only the briefest of reports.

Also my apologies for failing to send enough SPOT messages to satisfy. I have made sure to send at least one every evening from dry land, or at least land.  Imagine though if Crumpetina had not bought me the thing…

I have been having a marvellous adventure and enjoying every minute of it, though in truth I have had only three days of actual sailing. I left Alvarado, the falling tide and a barely detectable breeze carrying me out of the lagoon to the sea where the water, the color of milky coffee, silently and smoothly humped and rolled in the most bizarre and otherworldly fashion. Dolphins met me again, then the boat turned itself south and for the whole day in a light and contrary wind I tacked along the coast, a range of greened dunes above miles and miles of deserted beach. Night was a camp at a random spot maybe 23 nautical miles along, after emptying the boat of its massive cargo and lugging it up the beach, then walking the vessel end for-end up the steep sand above the tideline. Unlike the previous night in Alvarado in which I did not sleep at all for the merciless mosquitos, this night was not bad despite the rain, a wind kept the buggers grounded and they did not bother me until morning. As at sea, where curious fishermen had visited me all day in their lanchas, I had some burro and horse-backed vaqueros come by.   All very friendly but bemused by my presence and strange vessel. “There are no bad people here”, volunteeered one. Sounds like paradise.

    The next day there was even less wind, and after a long becalming I finally rounded the headland at Roca Partida, and made another few miles towards Montepio. I tried to dodge a thunderstorm by sailing far out to sea, but it stayed in my path so I gave up and just went straight through it; it was no big deal, nice to have some wind. Montepio appeared charming from the sea, but I passed it and carried on, but as the wind failed again I headed inshore towards what looked likew a particfularly isolated and lovely beach. I later learned this was the beach featured in “Apocalypto”. The thought of a cold beer (for there were enough breaks in the generally grey skies to roast the hell out of me) at Montepio drove me to throw a coin which decided for a return so I doubled back and with the last wind just made it to the beach in front of the tiny town.

   Almost immediately a jeep piled across the soft sand and over the ledge to my side. Galo the driver and ex-sailor invited me to stay at his fine house. In twenty years I have never seen a sail here¨ he exclaimed.

     I have much to say about my three days´stay here (no internet or cell service: presently I am in San Andreas Tuxtla) but I have no time now. Were not Montepio so exquisitely beautiful and tranquil, at the foot of the verdant foothills of the volcano San Martin, and so full of natural wonders I might have left two days ago. The place is delightful; I am treated like royalty, swim in pools below waterfuls, slide along the cool river in a motorboat and out to sea, visit farms in the hills with happy and intensely pleasant people, sail the bay, eat beans and amaranth deep fried in strips, drink vodka with Galo, even the rain is lovely here… in short I think Montepio to be an undiscovered diamond, as close to a paradise as one could ever find in this world. It will hurt to leave. Tomorrow, weather permitting.

The First Day.

I promised to write up my progress whenever I could but did not expect the first opportunity to come so soon.

I have had a fantastic day.  I could not have asked for better weather: when I set sail at noon a light and favorable breeze was blowing which carried me out to sea at about 4 knots. It brought tears to my eyes to look back and see my friends and Changa standing on the beach so after a while I stopped looking over my shoulder and determined to look forward.

I am not sure how far Alvarado is, maybe 30km, but the boat knew where it was going and I barely steered for the three hours the trip took. The wind increased as I went along, and slowly the sea improved from muddy green to blue in color as I left an area tarnished by the outflowing of some swollen river. I approached the mouth of the estuary at Alvarado, a passage a half mile wide and two long leading inland to the great lagoon, which itself is filled by the convergence of three major rivers.  Outside this passage there was a sharp delineation between the tan-brown river water and the blue sea for miles out, edged with a thick band of floating detruis which I had to slow down and push at to pass through. Then the waves grew, and great confused lumps charged about in many directions.  I shot towards the mouth of the passage at a full ten knots surfing down the swells, and a pod of perhaps twenty dolphins surrounded me, and they paced the boat, surfacing and jumping all around and escorting me the next two miles into the lagoon.

I am not really very sentimental about this kind of thing but it was just marvellous, and lifted my spirits way up where they have remained. The creatures were huge, beautiful, and clearly interested in the boat. They would jump out of the water a few yards away and whilst in the air look right at me, and it all seemed like a good omen even for someone who does not believe in such things.

Santiago and Jose Vasquez, my landlord in Zapote and a most lovable fellow, were up on the bridge filming my arrival, and after passing under I doubled back and met them on the beach of a shipyard owned by a friend of Santiago.  There is a nightwatchman so it was an irresistable place to park up for the night; I was able to leave the boat this evening and walk into Alvarado. But I also came in earlier with Santiago and Jose for a beer, and at one point Jose disappeared and returned with an old man bearing a mini guitar. He sang and played two songs for me, with completely ad-lib lyrics about Cristobal and his adventure and what a great guy he is, and it was amazing! Clearly rap had predecessors. This was just priceless.

So all in all a wonderful first day. Judging by the intensity of the mosquitos hereabouts tonight may be a little less wonderful. It´s that yin and yang thing again, gotta have some pain to pay for the pleasure, that is one of the great truisms of life and there´s no getting away from it.

Now that Santiago and Jose have gone I am on my own and tomorrow I will continue southwards as soon as the wind rises, with no set destination and according to my charts no safe anchorage within range, but plenty of beaches as long as I can get through the surf.

If at First You Don´t Succeed, Lounge About for a Week Then Try Try Again.

Lunes Martes Miércoles Jueves Viernes Sábado Domingo
04 Julio
ObservadoMáxima 28°C
Mínima 24°CPrecip. N/D
05 Julio
ObservadoMáxima 28°C
Mínima 23°CPrecip. N/D
06 Julio
ObservadoMáxima 57°C
Mínima 23°CPrecip. N/D
07 Julio

Tormentas dispersasPor la noche
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.


08 Julio

Tormentas dispersasMáxima 30°C
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.


09 Julio

Tormentas dispersasMáxima 29°C
Mínima 24°CProbabilidad de precip.
50 %


10 Julio

Tormentas dispersasMáxima 29°C
Mínima 24°CProbabilidad de precip.
50 %


Lunes Martes Miércoles Jueves Viernes Sábado Domingo
11 Julio

Tormentas dispersasMáxima 29°C
Mínima 24°CProbabilidad de precip.
50 %
12 Julio

Tormentas dispersasMáxima 28°C
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.
60 %


13 Julio

ChubascosMáxima 28°C
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.
60 %
14 Julio

ChubascosMáxima 28°C
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.
60 %


15 Julio

ChubascosMáxima 28°C
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.
60 %


16 Julio

ChubascosMáxima 28°C
Mínima 23°CProbabilidad de precip.
60 %


17 Julio
Máxima N/D
Mínima N/D

The dire weather that was forecast did not materialize; in fact it has been fairly acceptable considering it is now the rainy season, or estacion de mal tiempo (season of bad weather). Today´s  forecast looks like above. Oh I see it´s all clipped off at the side but you get the idea.

When I say the weather has been acceptable I mean I could have sailed through it, not that it has been lovely. Leave a bucket out overnight and it is full by morning. Watermelons sprout from the sand wherever the fishermen have sat, the fire ants struggle to find new homes after being flooded out with nary an ant-Moses to lead them (and I don´t care: such hateful creatures), the well levels rise, the floor of my shack floods, mushrooms cover the fields, great muddy lakes of unknown depth form on the lanes and tracks which can only be crossed with one´s heart in one´s mouth, and mean insects breed in whatever slimes they prefer. The huge inundations cause the rivers to rise, spewing out thousands of trees and branches, water plants and of course garbage into the ocean, which has turned a dirty green-brown in color for miles out and lost its sparkle. All the detrius has to be avoided at sea until it washes up on the beaches, net fishing is limited because of the likelihood of entanglement. It may be grim and overcast all day but the locals say “Isn´t the weather nice?” and I have to agree because it is at least bearably rather than unbearably hot as it was last week. There is usually plenty of wind in the afternoon, punctuated by calms which end when ghastly screaming black squalls come racing along, blotting everything out, hammering the ocean smooth with raindrops despite the awful wind, then moving on leaving everything in a state of cleaned disturbance. So far none of these squalls have hit me at sea; I am sure it will happen but I can see them coming from a long way off which gives me plenty of time to drop the sail and tie it down before I am struck, so I am not too worried.

My dream was to sail warmly under sunny skies but that may have to be modified a bit. I expect to be wet all day and much of the night too because the little shelter I built, a kind of tent which I can set up on the platform, really was the product of many compromises and rather sucks. I am sure that at least I shall get some amusing video of my sufferings.

I am annoyed that I listened to the foul weather warnings, did not set sail on Sunday and have lost yet another five days, but I haven´t exactly been lounging around. I took advantage of the extra time to rebuild the hatches all three of which leaked and lacked durability, and to cut more scuppers to help drain the decks after plunging through waves. These tasks are important now because I must travel with far more stuff aboard than I would like, and the boat will be low in the water so I figure any advance in its ability to go through the waves rather than over them without filling up is a good thing.

Raimundo the old fisherman has given me a series of rather dire warnings about the horrors of the sea to the south. It is frankly a bit unnerving but I steel myself and try to keep in mind that he is a famous worrier and has predicted imminent catastrophic weather every single time I have asked him for the last six months.

Now I am ready to go again; all packed up, the house clean, and the car ready to be jacked up in a friend’s garden hopefully high enough not to be flooded in the next cyclone. I find myself more upset to go than I thought I would be, but I shall attempt to leave at about 11am. tomorrow, aiming for the great lagoon at Alvarado about 30km south as an easy target for the first day and a safe anchorage for the night. So if by clicking on the link below you see my marker near Alvarado, you will know I have started.

A Wordy Report on My Version of Gary Dierking´s T2 Pacific Flying Proa.

I write this for the interest of proa enthusiasts, because I promised to. Feel free to reproduce it as you wish.  I intend to update it as I gain experience, so check back. I may be talking crap at times. [Later – I have now made so many amendments to the original which was written before I set out along the coast of Mexico you will have to forgive me if it is all a bit of a mess. I will tidy it up sometime.]

[Even later, August 2012. I have been living aboard Desesperado for 14 months and have made it from Veracruz Mexico to Bocas del Toro Panama. It has been interesting and of course I have learned some more things about my vessel which I will add in square brackets, though I already did this way back somewhere so there are a lot of square brackets around.]

For anyone interested and new to this peculiar watercraft here are a few terms specific to proas:

Waka: the main, big hull.

Ama: The outrigger float.

Iakos: The cross-members between waka and ama.

Waes: small lateral members across the waka beneath the iakos, for lashing down the iakos to.

Oceanic lateen: A triangular sail with spar down its two leading edges whose tack (leading corner) is moved from one end of the boat to another during shunts.

Gibbons-Dierking: A sail reminiscent of a windsurfing sail. The middle of its leading-edge spar is fixed to the masthead and the whole sail is rotated overhead from end to end of the boat.

Shunting: Sailboats beat upwind in a zig-zag. Proas do this too but as the wind must always come in from the ama side (if it came from the other side the pressure on the sail would force the ama under water) they do so by shunting ; bow becomes stern and vice-versa.

Backwinding: The undesireable condition whereby the wind is coming from the waka side.

Boat Stats: apologies for mixed units.

Main hull: 6.95m, +/-22feet.

Beam: 3.12m.

Ama: length 4.54m, cylindrical except at the ends, diameter 21cm.

Mast: 15´6″

Sail plan: Oceanic lateen (5 sails), Gibbons-Dierking, (2 sails).

Displacement: 200 kilos?

Yard: 7.9m

Boom: 7m.

Construction time: forever.

Top speed so far: 12.5 knots. Even faster whilst surfing.

Closest angle to the wind: 45 degrees . A touch better in a stiff breeze.

This was my first serious effort at building a boat. I wanted an odd vessel, something interesting, fast enough to get me out of trouble quickly and light enough to pull up on beaches singlehanded. I have an unrealistic plan to sail down the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the thing but reserve the right to chicken out. The boat is a real Pacific flying proa – it shunts, but it is not a real T2 a la Gary Dierking, being longer and wider and rather heavier.

Main Hull. Cedar strip/glass composite, oak gunwhales topped with yellow pine, 1/4″ ply deck glassed on top. Hull subdivided into three watertight sections with the tops of 5-gallon buckets set in for hatches. [These hatches have been a consistant pain in the arse, always leaking. The deck is frquently awash especially when beating to windward] Urethane foam is poured along the keel line to a depth of 10 cm which renders the boat unsinkable without filling all the cargo space and may help contain leaks if I hole the hull down low. [I cut a groove along the middle of this foam, a sort of mini bilge so the leaked-in water has somewhere to go]. Mr. Dierking’s plan is for a hull 17′ 9″ I think; I stretched that out by adding 4 more centre sections rather than increasing the distance between sections. I can’t remember what my rationale was for doing it this way but it worked out well enough and looks fine. Increasing the distance between sections may lead to more error… Be extremely careful when marking out those curves from the offsets for the sections (have at least two people help you so that five hands may hold the curve in place and the other can draw the line) or you will certainly pay for it when it comes time for the brutal fairing of the hull with a sanding board. Tiny errors cause you to have to wear away large areas. It took me ten days and I lost a lot of weight, no kidding. To increase displacement I upped the width by 30%, simply by multiplying the offsets by 1.3. The hull still seems ridiculously thin and bladelike, I wish I had gone 40% or even more. But then I would pay for that with speed. Take note of what Gary says “The T2 is a sport canoe for one or two people”. He means it, The T2 cannot carry more than this. Put weight on the hull, it will sink and plough under. Put weight out on a trampoline or platform, down goes the ama. If you want to carry people or cargo this boat will NOT work for you. Something else Gary says, something like “The absence of leeboards gives one great confidence when sailing in shallow water”. I don’t agree… my (version of the) T2 draws a lot of water, a good 15″ at minimum, so if you want confidence in shallow water a flat- bottomed craft drawing only 3″ (leeboards up) or so would be much better. [I have hit coral many times on my trip which I would have missed with a shallower draft] Add to this the very large wetted surface area of the T2 and you have a hull which may look cool and save one the trouble of leeboards but has some practical drawbacks. [In hindsight I would not change a thing. Desesperado is so fast and so outrageously cool and offbeat that whatever it lacks in displacement it more than makes up for in the attention it receives].

When I started this project I wanted cool and unusual, but I could have gotten that by building an Ulua and actually carried a load with confidence, probably faster too. I do not need a great deal of comfort and wish to use my body weight to advantage to keep the boat upright so it has always been my plan to work the boat from a position on a platform or trampoline to windward, over the water. Hence I did not need a deep well for my legs. However despite this plan I still put the deck too low, about a foot below the gunwhales, and found that it flooded hugely when struck by a wave, and until the scuppers drained it out I’d wallow along carrying a bathtub of water up front. If it was really bad out it would never drain (I could not bring myself to make really enormous holes in my lovely faired sides), just flood and flood again. So I raised the deck, and filled below with plastic bottles and foam for good measure, which added too much weight and robbed me of my cargo space, so I then rebuilt the deck a third time, now with only a little foam below, and three bucket tops for hatches which work well except that sometimes a line will catch under the edge of a lid and rip it off [They leak aq lot] My boat is longer, wider and heavier than Mr. Dierkings’s design and with that sharp keel an absolute bitch to move around on the beach. The keel digs in; in order to slide the boat along I have to put a series of sticks under it. Once I left it in shallow surf bumping on the sa.nd a bit and that completely wore through the two layers of glass on the keel line… now I have four or five layers of mat along there which is ugly but it slides well on the sticks and I do not leave the boat in the surf more than I must.

The lines of the waka look and feel just perfect, not that I am any kind of expert. It slips through the water at speed with no noise and practically no wake,  both of which seem like good signs to me. When the boat heels and the ama comes out of the water it does not strongly point upwind as does my regular crummy old sailing dinghy, so I can go straight on flying the ama. With the sail down it paddles straight.

Waes: Holm oak, one under each iako, they enable me to get the lashings tighter by creating an area around which one can loop more string in order to “squeeze” the lashings and get them very tight. This is how you want them, so nothing moves at all, if things are moving about they are wearing, you don’t want that, so in this case all that stuff about lashings being better because they allow flexing is just useless. Lashings work but they take forever to set up and if I could have thought of an easier way that didn’t add much weight I’d have done it and screw tradition. If you have to set your boat up from scratch each time you sail you will get sick of lashings. Double your lashings (two independent ones at each saddle), so if one comes loose at sea you will not have a most unpleasant disaster. That means 8 separate lashings just to get the iakos fixed onto the waka.

 The saddles for the crossbeams: You really don’t want anything going wrong with these at sea so make them tough and well fixed in place. Mine are some kind of hard and resinous heart pine, glued, screwed and glassed down. Four for the crossbeams, four more for the two top rudder brackets. Make sure the locator blocks under the Iakos are similarly reliable. I figure it will spread the load between the four crossbeam saddles if the iakos are rigidly “diagonalised” to each other with braces or wires or held parallel by a platform rather than a trampoline. I went for the platform.

[I have since rebuilt these saddles, feeling they were not long or strong enough. The new ones are laminated with the laminations vertical].

The Platform: two sheets of 3mm ply about 2m x 1m, enough to sleep on, separated by 1″ foam and a framework of 1″ battens around the edge and over the Iakos, the whole thing is glassed on both sides. To my shame I used Heavy Duty Liquid Nails to glue the ply to the foam but I don’t think it ever dried in there, the ply being sealed airtight with epoxy. The platform is strong enough but I would not dance upon it and it was a pain to build and heavier than I’d have liked. It is screwed down to the iakos and does a good job of squaring them to each other as planned. I think a simple sheet of 1/2″ marine ply with support beams underneath would have worked just as well and not been any heavier.

I find I do need some comfort so I have built a lightweight folding chair to sit on the platform which makes a huge difference to my sailing experience. It is about 6 inches high and has a woven seat so one’s posterior does not stay wet for long. I worried that it would slide around on deck but this does not happen. It is especially stable since I wrapped a little inner tube around it’s feet. [This chair is a godsend on long trips]

The ama: Like everyone else I wish I had built this a little more buoyant. Two fatties on the platform will sink it completely, and it submerges a lot anyway. It is also a bit noisy; with its fully round cross-section constantly leaving the water and returning, it slaps a lot. I’d say that 90% of the noise aboard comes from the ama, but only 10% of the spray. I guess a v-shaped bottom might fix some of the noise. The ama is foam-filled. I can’t help thinking that the Hawaiians have it right with their amas swept upwards at the ends which must surely help prevent them from plunging under. I am tempted to experiment with “dolphin wings” but life is too short. So far it has always returned to the surface and not pitchpoled me.

Some people have suggested using a hollow ama that can be filled with water to help keep the vessel upright, but it seems to me one would then need much stronger and heavier iakos and you might as well just go ahead and build a catamaran. And if one does capsize, draining out that water might really be a pain – I find I need to act quickly after a capsize and would not have time for this.

[Later, maybe 700 sea miles into my voyage: At first I wished I had made a bigger, more buoyant ama but now I don’t think so.  This one has proven more than adequate, and a larger one would not look right.]

I have taken to carrying at least two bags full of ropes, water and so on as well as the anchor upon the trampoline which is strung between paltform and ama in order to prevent capsize, which means I can sheet the sail in more and go faster. The bags are tethered so that I don’t lose them if I turn over, though it is important that I be able to quickly move the bags somewhere else once upside-down or I will be unable to right the boat. So far on this voyage I have not capsized once despite rarely using anything but my largest sail.

I am not so sure about the Hawaiin curved ama idea. I think this is good if you have to run big surf, but as Gary Dierking says it would interfere with the wave-piercing quality of the ama. My ama pierces a lot of waves and it’s ability to do so means it has less resistance and the boat goes faster and probably with less stress on the iakos. Before I run surf I pile my trampoline bags rearwards as far as I can.] [I have now run a great deal of surf up to about two meters in height. It goes well in either direction as long as there is sufficient wind to propel me perpendicular to the waves. I have never pitchpoled.]

Iako-to-ama connection. Well this took a lot of thought. I don’t like any of Gary’s methods except maybe the hole-in-plank idea. The lots-of-sticks techniques just look too rigid for something that is flexing all over the place. Originally I wanted a method something like the suspension of a car, with the ama securely attached but able to move independantly of the iakos to relieve stress, but everything I could think of violated the KISS principle. So I settled on The Holy Cross of Jesus Method, This is the actual method that Jesus used on his own outrigger sailing canoes. It seems to work very well. I can’t really explain it – as you can see in the picture below two bits of hickory under the end of and in line with the iako bear upon two surfaces at right angles, part of and in line with the ama, with the result that the ama can move a bit to the left and right, and can relieve the stress twisting the iakos. I keep adding rubber lashings until there is movement only very occasionally, when hit by a wave from the side or in the other direction, when the ama is severely angled pointing skyward or downward and the waka is not. I hope that makes sense. My obsession with relieving stress at the connection stems from my lack of confidence about the way I fixed the two upright planks into the ama – it is strong as hell but if something does give there, or the ama snaps in half, the whole boat crashes and burns and this could happen miles out to sea. I guess I like to worry. I wanted this iako-to-ama connection up out of the water because I thought it would throw up a lot of spray, however if I did it again I would go with Mr. Dierking’s “direct connection” where the iakos connect directly to the ama, and put up with the spray which is a small price to pay for the simplicity and reliability of the method. A slightly larger ama would not submerge often enough to make spray from the connections on its top an issue. [Now I believe I got this connection right. It has given no trouble at all and throws up no spray. I now use string to lash it and not the rubber strips becaus the rubber would stretch after a while and I´d have to tighten it up every few days.]


[I have since screwed stainless fender washers to the bearing surfaces because they were wearing just a little bit.]

The Iakos: awfully critical these, your two hulls are supposed to remain connected and any deviation from that ideal represents the prospect of a good deal of unpleasantness. Make them well, or worry will gnaw at you. Whilst flexibility is a good thing, if they are too flexible your whole ship will boing around horribly when it hits a wave. My first iakos were simply straight pieces of hardwood (pulakiro(?), something imported here to Mexico) . I could put the ends of these up on blocks and jump on the middle without hurting them, but they would bend so much in use that the mast top, stayed to the ama, would move left and right during even mild poundings, in turn causing the tack of the sail to bounce wildly up and down, bashing off all the varnish at the bow and being generally stressful to live with. So I made laminated hickory I-section iakos, which were very rigid indeed but did not survive the jump test – hickory glues poorly.  Finally I made solid laminated iakos of Alaska yellow cedar and baby, I’m home, for they are virtually indestructible, attractive, rigid to the right extent, and pleasingly lightweight. [3000 miles later – zero trouble with these]


Mast: Bamboo, glassed, with cleats epoxied and lashed on with epoxied cotton string, so far entirely reliable. There’s a bottom plug of wood and the masthead is a foot or so of pine with relieved holes for the attachment of stays and halyard block. [3000 miles later – zero mast trouble. It is remarkably strong. Attractive too.]

Mast length is important. Originally I made a mast that was too long, deliberately, and I tied the halyard block on a foot or two below the top. But the yard would somehow hook itself around the protruding masthead during shunts, damaging the sail and being a pain. I have many sails (because I wish to go fast in light winds and not be destroyed by high winds) and each needs to be hung at the right angle to acheive good sail balance, but one mast length does not work for all sail sizes. I made a track for the base to slide back and forth in

Mast base track. Mast length has been extended with a new foot.

but the thing just didn´t feel reliable and added a whole new level of difficulty to the shunting process, so I went back to the old one-position half-coconut and a mast length that is a bit too short for my largest sail and a bit too long for my smallest.

The thing is, in addition to needing the sail to hang at the correct angle to balance the steering (not too far forward, not too far back), one also needs easy shunts. If the distance between halyard block and tack is shorter than the distance between halyard block and rubrail, the tack will come above the rubrail during a shunt and really get in your face. This limits the leeway that you have in where you attach your halyard to the yard. I could go on and on about this but the basic message is beware the geometries of the proa, don’t allow your masthead to protrude much beyond the halyard block, and make sure the end of your yard is not going to come above the rubrail mid-shunt.

Also, I’d be wary of attching the mast base too securely to wherever it is supposed to be. I have had many dismastings and I figure it is better for the mast to break free completely than to be levering around destroying things (maybe you).

I am in love with my carbon-fiber yard and boom, made from old windsurfer masts. For a future effort I would use one of these for my mast as well. They are very light and hard to break. [One snapped in a surf accident off Honduras. And the hickory rods that joined them together swelled and jammed preventing disassembly and had to be drilled out and replaced with aluminum tubes]

[Later:  I have found that I very rarely use anything but my huge sail. When I do use a smaller sail all I have to do to increase the weather helm is to let out the halyard some, so the yard is not snugged up neatly next to the mast, but it works just fine all the same.]

Mast Base Cup: A glassed half-coconut, very effective in its duty. I drilled a hole in its bottom to let out water and save the mast base from continuous soaking. I put a layer of inner tube or an old flip-flop in it to stop the mast grinding away in there. The mast itself is tied down but somehow always comes out in a capsize… actually that is not a bad thing, I think it saves breakage. [The coconut has been damaged a couple of times when I have capsized. It needs shallower-sloped sides so the mast base can slip out easier without destroying it.]

[ Later: I made the mast longer for my big sail [ because of the shape of the piece of extending wood I had to work with I wound up with a much sharper mast foot (shown three photos up). This does not grind around or make noises as did the old blunt one below, so is much better. ]

 Rubrail: This runs along the lee side and helps the tack of the sail slide along without catching on the protruding ends of the iakos during shunts. It is made of two fiberglass windsurfing masts joined butt to butt with a rod of hickory, and doubles as a spare spar for emergencies. It also protects the gunwhales from rubbing against docks. However the  rod of hickory swelled up and burst the glass, and was very hard to remove.

Hatches: These are the tops of 5-gallon buckets and are a real boon for storing gear below; however even the best polyurethane sealant has failed to adhere them to the deck, a bunch of little screws have not helped much either. I do not know what to suggest. [Later: This worked: I thickened the deck around the bucket tops with a ring of ply then, after putting a spare lid seal under the flange around the bucket top pushed it down hard against the deck and drove a bunch of screws horizontally through thew inside of the bucket top into this thickened area.

I now have pretty good hatches that cannot be ripped out of the deck.]

Relieved holes instead of blocks for the tackline: I am very pleased with how this worked out. The first time around I ran the tackline through a pulley tied to the raised plywood edge at the bows as Mr. Dierking suggests. But as I mentioned the yard tends to bounce up and down in a very stressful manner, really mangling the lee bows and chafing away at the ends of the tackline and spars. This is just horrible to sail with and totally unacceptable. What was needed was a means to pull the end of the yard tightly to the bow so that it could not move about, and I could see no way to do that with a pulley. So I sawed off the ends of my boat and screwed and glued on lumps of zapote, local fruit tree wood, very hard and polishable, through which I bored 3/4″ holes relieved for the passage of ropes. The tackline goes through these holes and has an eye splice in each end, both slipped over the lower end of the yard and bound on with a length or lengths of inner tube strip, long enough that a big lump of rubber is formed around the eye splices and the end of the yard. Pulling the tackline through the hole and cleating it to the deck snugs this lump of rubber neatly up to the bow where it can’t move and does no damage at all. It functions most excellently. The relieved hole is not seriously harder than a block to pull a rope through, perhaps the only problem is that the tackline is often sandy and it quickly wears away at the inside of the hole, so I have to keep rebuilding this place with epoxy and sanding dust. If I had allowed for larger holes in the first place I guess I would have space to insert a piece of plastic tube or something to prevent this wear.

Snug baby, snug. [Boom jaws that worked, unlike these ones, were made later]

Yard and Boom

These are made of four carbon fiber windsurfing masts, joined in pairs at their fat ends with rods of hickory then cut to length and the ends finished with inset knobs of wood, with holes drilled in these to tie the corners of the sails out to. The sections are filled with foam to prevent sinkage and the carbon is painted to protect it from the sun. A string runs from one end to the other and back to make sure the sections don’t pop apart in use. I made jaws at the tack end of the boom to locate it neatly onto the yard but found they kept snagging any line that was in the area and hanging up on the rubrail during shunts so I sawed them off. Then I made lower profile jaws but they did the same thing so I sawed them off too. It seems ok to simply have a hole at the end of the boom and tie it onto the yard… it always slips to either side but it just doesn’t matter [Later: Well yes it does matter. That damned protruding boom end hangs up over the rubrail and I have taken to standing for my shunts so I can leap forward and kick the tack off the rail. I will probably try to make more jaws when I can get a chance, low-profile jobs with curved edges that don’t snag on the rubrail so easily] [This I did. New jaws are made from flattened polyethelene pipe]. These spars are wonderful, very stiff and light and so far unbroken despite four grisly accidents in the surf. Previously I used glassed bamboos which weren’t too bad, but they are hard to fix when they break and I wouldn’t go back. You must protect all hollow spars from crushing where ropes are tied to them, that is where all my early failures with bamboo occurred. I use slit PVC pipe with a lining of inner-tube rubber for this purpose. If you use wooden rods to join masts together don’t forget to make them loose-fitting and well-sealed or they will get wet and swell and you’ll never get your spars apart in a month of Sundays. Mine are now permenantly swelled together and I worry that rot will take its toll. The swelling has actually burst the fiberglass rubrail.

 Bungee backstays: I’m using 5/8″ shock cord for these which is not really powerful enough to verticalize the mast during a shunt, I must give the mast a push as I pull the tackline but this is not a hassle. [Stand up to shunt!]. So for me the bungees do not serve much purpose except to keep the unused stay taut and tidy.

Bungee windward mast prop: This is a clever thing of Mr. Dierking’s that seems to elicit more comment from passersby than any other part of the boat. They never notice the asymmetric hull or the beautiful stitching around the sail grommets or the presence of two rudders, oh no, it’s always that bungee mast prop which grabs their attention. It has functioned perfectly in every backwinding incident. Mine uses lexan (polycarbonate) for the sliders at the ends and a plaited inner-tube rubber bungee. I’d use shock cord but I can’t find it here in Mexico, mind you this home-made one has lasted three months which isn’t bad. I have never found a really tidy way to connect either end of the stick to mast or longitudinal beam between iakos so I just tie them on with rope and that works ok, kinda. [ Panama. In about 12 capsizes I have snapped this bungee stick 3 times, though twice that may have been due to the terrible quality wood from which I made replacements. One gets what one can down here. I now use pieces of flattened polyethelene tube instead of lexan for sliders, this is very tough stuff and exceedingly reliable. I use the same stuff for boom jaws.]

Mast bungee stick.

Brailing lines: I find these quite useless. They are supposed to allow one to depower the sail in a blow and they do that by raising the boom up near the yard. But that stops one from pulling in the mainsheet so the sail cannot be hauled flat and if you want to beat upwind good luck to you. The lines do help with lowering the sail, they keep it under control as it comes down the mast, but that is not a problem anyway (just point the bow into the wind, release the halyard and the whole sail just drops into an outstretched arm), or if the boat is parked on water or the beach you can sort of stow the sail at the top of the mast, but I find these advantages outweighed by the messiness of the things and that they are two more lines that need sorting out after a capsize, plus they keep jamming up on me, so I don’t even rig them any more. Boo to brailing lines.

The Rudders: I tried steering oars and found them simple and reliable but unworkable. Not because they didn’t work, they did, but because they were so damned uncomfortable. They twist in the hand because the lower part of the blade is submerged deeper than the upper, but worse is the way that the handle is inevitably up in the air, and you can rest no weight on it at all without the blade swinging up out of the water. Watch the Bororo guy if you don’t believe me, he has to crouch like that all the time. Fine for a few minutes, then a real pain. My dream is to steer with one foot whilst playing the fiddle and drinking gin and tonics, and steering oars are incompatible with that ideal. It has been suggested to me that I use simple weight-shift for steering, but I don’t buy this for many reasons:

1) The boat does respond to weight shift but it is 22′ long so not much and not quickly.

2) I do not want to have to be fixed to the same spot on the boat, I like and need to move around to some extent. You can do this a fair bit with a hiking stick.

3) Sailing a proa is just like sailing a dinghy in this respect: if you are going as fast as you can (why else would you build a proa?) you are near capsize much of the time, and if that starts to happen you push on the tiller, the boat points up instantly, the boat stabilizes and the danger is past. How are you going to do that with butt-steering? And can one really fly the ama with weight shift?

4) The weight shift idea only works on upwind courses. Steering load is quite heavy running, and reaching is somewhere in between. So far I have found the boat’s courses to be unstable when running or reaching no matter how well the sail is balanced, weight shift will only work for a minute or two before I start to veer off one way or the other to an extent that can’t be corrected with my weight.

5) Weight shift is slow to respond. Try steering through a crowded anchorage or a race or a reef with it. No thanks.

6) My passengers are rarely as agile as myself and are always in the way. It would be a serious pain to keep asking them to move. Oh they move, eventually, too little and too late. Drives me nuts.

So it’s real steering for me. The first mildly successful rudder I made was a delight to use but awful to deploy and stow. Then it broke.

The early days of my long rudder saga.

Here is the Mark IV or thereabouts:

Half-down position for returning through surf.

Normal use position.

The challenge was to design a rudder that:

1) Steers the boat, duh. And easily.

2) Is quick to deploy and stow with one hand.

3) Stays where you leave it, ie, when stowed it stays stowed and does not make a problem of itself. Likewise when deployed.

4) Can take a full-speed blow from underwater obstacles without serious damage.

5) Does not weigh too much.

6) Can work in shallow water when required.

7) Has no castings or other complex parts which can’t be obtained or made in Mexico if you happen to be in Mexico which I do.

8) Can take the weight of a hand or foot resting comfortably on the tiller.

These rudders satisfy all the above conditions except that they are heavier than I would like. They are entirely effective and reliable, and deploy or stow in about 1 second. They have multiple safety features: -The lower mounting bracket is in two pieces. I don’t want an accident ripping a hole in the hull so the part of the bracket upon which the rudder swings is pinned to the part which is glassed into the hull with two dowels, and then lashed with rubber. The dowels break on a severe impact allowing the whole stock to move, since the upper mounting bracket is lashed in a little slackly it can twist. Even when the dowels have snapped the rudder remains useable (though a bit wobbly) because the rubber still holds the two parts of the lower bracket together. -The tiller is connected to the top of the blade where it pivots by two pieces of rubberized canvas belting. This stuff will bend outwards if the rudder hits something, allowing the blade to swing up a little. -Another dowel through the tiller can break on a more serious impact allowing the blade to swing completely up. This has happened. I can steer with one finger. To deploy I lift the handle and push, to stow I lift the handle and pull. The weight of the handle locks the blade down or up. In the up position I only have to move the tiller so that the blade lies close against the bow and it stays right there no matter what the weather, wave after wave hits it and it never moves, so no tying down is needed. [oops untrue. I lubed the brackets with surf wax and now the rudders do move a bit when stowed. Mostly they needn’t be tied but if the weather gets bad I now pop a loop of rubber strip over the end of the tiller, under light tension out to a corner of the platform.] Some drawbacks though: -They stow with the blade forwards, I just couldn’t get around that. Somehow if the bow really plunges the wave or spray channels up between the stock and the hull and spurts in a jet, you guessed it, directly at me. If the blade folded up rearwards as did one of my earlier masterpieces that would take weight away from the bow and be neater, and the spray would miss me more often. -The lower brackets also kick up spray during plunges. -The rubberized canvas belting between the tiller and the top of the blade stretches slowly, leading to a looseness which is not serious, but annoying. I am experimenting with 1/4″ thick black plastic cut from big (polyethylene?) pipe which seems superior. [Later: Yes it is superior, very good] -They work ok in the half-down position, but too little of the tiller is sandwiched between the cheeks of the stock so too much torque on the tiller is likely to force them apart and I must be careful. It is not worth the trouble of correcting. Usually I run shallow water with the blade fully down but the tiller raised a couple of inches so when I hit bottom not even a dowel gets hurt. [Panama – still no trouble with the rudders!]

I visited Kevin O´Neill recently and he blew me away with his rudders which rotate 180 degrees when not in use and trail along tame as kittens. Definitely a better approach.

Hiking Stick Stow-System 3000 automatically returns the hiking sticks to a tidy position when not in use. The black string is a piece of rubber, now upgraded to shock cord. The police like to keep an eye on me.

The Sails: I have five Oceanic lateens and two Gibbons-Dierkings. This many because I keep screwing it up.

Mistakes made: The two largest OLs I made by the “bias parallel to the leech” method. This was a ghastly error, as both developed extreme baggy, floppy leeches and I have had to butcher them both to tighten them up, it is all a big mess. I would not lightly deviate from Mr. Dierking’s plans again. You could lay your spars down on the fabric and cut a simple, straight-sided triangle, but there would be no tension at the leech, so it is usual to pre-bend the spars a bit (you have to have some flat space with some points to tie off ropes to, or arrange a brace under compression between halyard attachment point on the yard and mainsheet attachment point on the boom, then tie a line between the leech ends of both to curve them in. I made two mistakes here 1) I didn’t really know where the halyard and sheet attachment points would be so I guessed wrong and this meant that my spars in use bent a little differently than planned, tensioning the sail poorly. Now I know that in my case halyard attachment varies from sail to sail from between 1/2 and 2/3 the yard length out from the tack, and mainsheet around 3/4 the boom length out from the tack. 2) I pre-bent my spars too much, so much that it would take enormous tension on the mainsheet to flattten my sails resulting in poor windward performance and ignominious race defeats. As a rule of thumb I would say apply no more pre-tension than you can exert with one hand. Mistake: I laid the spars on the fabric, cut out the shape and then added the sleeves which added about 6 inches more area along the whole length of the spars. This was just plain dumb. 6 inches does not make as much difference out at the leech end as it does near the tack, so of course, more distortion, the sail bagging more up at the tack end. Also, because these sleeves had to be sewn to a slightly curved edge I cut them on the bias so they could bend a bit, but they stretch quite a lot and look messy, especially at their ends. Another big mistake I made was going overboard on quality. 9-layer reinforcement, beautiful hemming, bias-cut sleeves, on one sail 63 hand-stitched grommets… it wasn’t necessary, especially on experimental sails. Don’t make grommetted sails that must be laced on, it takes ages both to make and rig. [Later. Now I am not so sure. To remove or hang mount a sleeved sail to a spar is easy on the beach where you can get off the boat and pull the sai lfrom the sand, but might be a nightmare at sea. A laced sail could be removed or mounted methodically from on deck.] Now I simply lay my pre-bent spars down on the fabric, cut about 8″ around them, then fold the edge over the spars for a sleeve, cutting slits every five or six feet to help with the curve, pin or tape the edge down then pull out the spars and go to the sewing machine. I reinforce the corners with about four more layers and put one hand-stitched grommet in each. Remember, the sail does not have to be pulled really tight from the corners, and the sleeves are long and at no point under much strain so you really don’t have to reinforce the ends of the sleeves or those slits I mentioned. (The oceanic lateen is a low-stress sail. The Gibbons-Dierking needs more care) Don’t cut any spaces in the sleeves for the halyard and mainsheet until you are actually rigging it to the boat. And don’t get carried away making every stitch beautiful – once that sail is rigged nobody, not even you, will look at it close up. All will stand back and look at the whole picture and and say “That looks bitchin’!” I can now make such a sail, a 150 square-footer, in a day. It used to take a week. It looks great. None of my sails are reefable. I think a line of grommet holes from the tack to the leech might be a good idea, but remember that the half-a-sail remaining in use after tying the reefs will be the top half (even if you reefed up to the yard, because the yard is hauled to the mast-top by the halyard, and you can’t lower it unless you have a lower attachment point for the halyard block, but this will necessitate another windward stay and will cause shunting difficulties to say the least), the part the does most to turn you over. I made a long skinny sail (No. 5 below) and it turned me over on the beach even though it was in line with the wind not across it.

No. 1. Heavy-duty polytarp, 160 square feet ( a guess). The most recent one I have made and by far the best shape, it moves me easily at 45 degrees to the wind but has the problem that it is a bit too big for the mast and I have too much weather helm; ie. I can’t get the sail much further forward without leaning the mast more than feels safe. I would rather have company when sailing with this one because it wants to flip me. I will not be taking it out in winds over 10 knots.

Later- Oh yes I will! It moves me at thrilling speed and it is just irresistable to try to go faster!

[Much later: This sail has propelled me mostly close-hauled for at least 700 miles and is so much better than any of the others it is all I ever use except if there is a really strong blow going on before I launch from land, where it is easy to change to something smaller. When it gets really bad out I can’t make much forward progress because the sail threatens to capsize me if I sheet in, and if I load down the ama with gear then the strain on the rigging becomes frightening. Then I wish I could change sail or reef but the sea is too wild to have much hope of an easy sail change. I now feel that the best solution to all this is simply to have one big sail with a line of reef points straight from tack to middle of leech. I intend to make one or adapt the sail above. This means that much of what I have written below about sails can be skipped.

Also, I have found that in strong blows no way can I go at 45 degrees to the wind. I am beaten back by waves and horrible leeway.]

No. 2. Dacron, about 130 sqare feet.

This sail is powerful yet I can manage it alone even in a bit of a blow if take care. It has moved me at almost 12 knots in very lumpy water; I am quite sure I would go faster in the same wind on flat water. Now that it has been re-cut to get a flatter shape it pulls me at just a bit more than 45 degrees to the wind.

No. 3. Cotton canvas, about 120 sq. feet. Less powerful, more manageable. 45 degrees to the wind, actual course-over-the-ground by GPS. [Not in a strong blow].

No. 4. Cotton canvas. 65 sq.feet.

This one is so small that I tried exchanging yard for boom so that I can rig it weirdly but it enables me to maintain weather helm with a short sail. It is not really satisfactory. It was originally cut for glassed bamboo spars which bend a lot so there was way too much belly when rigged onto my present carbon poles. I need a sail for bad weather but frankly this sucks.

No. 5  Heavy-duty polytarp. 50 square feet.

This was meant as a stormsail but is clearly ridiculous and needs a total rethink. It is too long, too big, and too high. I believe I must cut it down and rig it to shorter spars and a shorter mast, with the tackline running through holes or blocks nearer the center of the boat. I rigged this sail in a gale and it capsized me on the sand faster than I could scream, though I had it aligned with the wind and only loosely sheeted. Frightening. I cut it down to this:

Weeny-baby storm sail.

As you can see the tack is tied off to the end of an iako, not the ends of the boat. I took this rig out in a nasty blow and found it did indeed move me along fast enough to maintain steerage, but no way could I return to my starting point (I could not go upwind or even tread water). I am now finishing a sail which has more than twice the area – imagine the above sail but with the boom lowered down near the deck , the yard remaining as is. I think this will do better.

No. 6. Light-duty poytarp, 130 sq ft?

Very powerful indeed, more so I believe than the big OL sail, it has moved me at 12.5 knots on flat water, but I had nobody else on board as counterbalance and the wind was not severe so I believe that I can go even faster with this sail in the right conditions. I had one run with it of 8 miles at a fairly consistent 9 knots over 2-meter swells which I will never forget, absolutely thrilling, leaping off the crests into the voids beyond; it was more like windsurfing than regular sailing. It does poorly to windward.

No. 7. Cotton canvas. 80 sq. ft.

Less powerful than above, very manageable. Poor to windward. The G-D sails are clearly more powerful than the OLs and are easy to shunt – I have had no difficulties with them in use – but surprisingly mine work poorly to windward, 55 degrees to the wind is as close as I can get. Admittedly I deviated from Mr. Dierking’s designs so I may have screwed up. They look and feel correct for the boat, quite attractive I think. But the main advantage of the GD, even more than its obvious power, is that it clearly lifts the bow up, rather than pushing it down as does the OL. This is important. Somebody said online that the OL is a lifting rig. Bollocks. Especially when running, it clearly pushes the bows down. On the beach with an OL rigged and loose I can lift my bow up no trouble but as soon as I haul in that mainsheet even just a bit I can barely lift the bow at all. Both sails it seem to me have a large, and wasted, vertical component to their force but if one must choose one or the other I’d rather have my bow lifted than sunk. I have tried canting the mast to windward to increase the lifting effect of the OL which I think works a bit, and decreases that intense weather helm when running, but this makes shunting hard in light winds (the sail will not “flip over”) and creates a situation whereby the more the boat heels the more sail area is presented to the wind which is not what you want if you don’t like capsizing. And me no likey capsizing.

The advantages of the OL sail over the G-D, as I see them:

1) The OL is easier to stow in a hurry – just stick out your arm and drop it, and there it is all folded up in your arm. Even at sea you can get the OL down easily enough, if all else fails just drop it in the water then grab the yard and pull it aboard bit by bit. This is harder to do with the G-D because of the battens. Unless you can point right into the wind you have trouble reaching them. After much experience I have come to the conclusion that rapid stowability is an extremely important attribute – there are so many times when getting that thing under control quickly is important eg. when being backwinded, when approaching a dock too fast,  or a tree, during squalls or when the sail is stuck under a drifting boat.

2) It is more traditional and (matter of opinion) elegant in appearance.

3) It seems less likely to have an accident, is more in control when shunting than that crazy flying G-D. Having said that I have not actually had any serious incidents whilst shunting a G-D, but the business of the entire sail flying about 15 feet overhead just seems wrong. I have holed the big G-D 3 times in capsizes, never the OLs, I don’t know why.

4) Both sails create weather helm when let out, the OL considerably less than the G-D in my experience.

5) I get much closer to the wind with my OLs than my GDs. I suspect that this is because I failed to pre-bend the yard enough when laying it out resulting in an insufficiently flat sail but I would like to know about other people’s experiences in this regard.

6) Easy to make, low-stress, reliable.

7) You might be able to reef an OL sail, but that will never happen with a GD.

Advantages of the G-D:

1) More power. I think much more power.

2) Needs a much shorter boom.

3) Lifts the bow. This is a BIG advantage in my opinion.

4) The presence of a boom fixed at right-angles to the yard means the sail cannot fold itself up when running. Hence one does not need to zig-zag downwind.

The G-D sail must be sized right for the boat; if the boom points above the downhaul block then the mainsheet will pull the boom end downwards (incorrect Schott angle?) thus distorting the sail. The top half gets tight, the bottom half gets loose. You have to put the downhaul blocks way out on the ends of the boat. The OL of course must also have proportions compatible with the vessel. I have found no way to rig a small storm OL to my boat such that it is both low down and can be shunted easily, the only solution seems to be to use shorter spars, have new positions for the tack that are not all the way out at the bows (but the rubrail is in the way), reposition the downhaul blocks and arrange a lower halyard block and mast stay. This is a lot of re-rigging to do out at sea with a blow coming on. After all this discussion I still cannot tell you which type of sail to choose, because I cannot choose myself. I suspect the OL is the right choice if reliability is your prime concern. Though the G-D is not unattractive nobody says “Oooh, isn’t the sail pretty” as they do with the OL. Personally I am leaning towards abandoning my GDs because of their poor windward ability (again, I think this is due to my screwups and is not inherent to the sail type).

 The boat in action: I have had my share of mishaps and embarrassments but mostly the boat is a delight. [Later – 1000 km along the Gulf coast of Mexico and NO capsizes, though I have had a few groundings and so on. I must be getting better at this.] [Yet later, from Panama – around 12 capsizes] Surprisingly reliable, controllable, fast and seaworthy. I find it absolutely thrilling at eight or nine knots, especially in a sea with good swells. and it is just so damned cool. It is by far the most amazing thing I have ever made and is one of the most outrageously exotic things I have ever seen. I love it to death and lavish gallons of varnish upon it (now I vastly prefer two-part aliphatic varinish over spar varnish). It self-steers with no attention on upwind courses [Later: Oops I take this back. If the wind is steady it will self-steer when close-hauled, but if the wind direction is constant but varies in strength as is usually the case, the boat will round up when it blows almost to a stall, and fall off in the lulls until it is not going where I want to go. I have not figured out why this happens but the upshot is I get very little respite from steering.], responds to weight shift but not too much, heaves-to beautifully and reliably enabling one to fix things or to take a break or whatever[Later: Uh-oh… in light winds the boat will not heave-to reliably, often rounding up all the way into a backwinding. Very annoying. It helps a lot in light winds to cant the mast out to leeward so the sail hangs naturally out there. If the mast is canted windward or even vertically the weight of the boom causes it to want to swing inwards and thus the sail maintains a little power, enough to power me into a backwinding] . I can lounge on the platform for hours or even fall asleep and it will attend to itself and keep plodding upwind the whole time. [No. That was a freak day]. Recently I installed a trampoline between the platform and the ama… aaahhh…. I can steer from here using the hiking sticks; it is uncomfortable.   few  because the hiking sticks are too short and the camcleats too far away for easy reliable release in a blow. I have had only a few incidents in many trips out, always my own fault. I cannot get closer to the wind than 50 or 55 degrees with some of my sails but that is due to mistakes in sailmaking – I have three sails that achieve 45 degrees; but modern boats so far usually beat me by a good margin on upwind courses, and of course I can never plane. Downwind things can get a bit uncontrollable, lots of weather helm and since the oceanic lateen tends to fold up and fall inboard without a little wind from the side it is best to zig-zag downwind, though not drastically. Returning through surf is scary at times; one fears for the rudder so it is usually half-up and ineffective but even when down a wave can turn me around suddenly and my cool Hawaii-Five-O surf return degenerates into a shambles. Since the wind here is usually 90 degrees to the beach I have to come in at an angle, very tricky, or the sail will fold up on me and crash inboard. Usually I do ok, and even if I screw up and get broadsided I survive, the boat can take some serious impacts without damage though my passengers look terrified.

I tend to fly the ama only a few seconds at a time. I am sailing on the ocean and whenever there is sufficient wind to fly the ama there are also waves, so the ama slaps the tops of these and flies across the troughs. The boat is being thrown about a lot so it is hard to achieve a steady state. If I try to completely clear the wavetops I generally panic before long and let the mainsheet out to prevent capsize. I’m getting better at flying it longer using rudder control and could probably go a good while on a flat lake. [Yes. The secret is to uncleat the mainsheet and hand-control it as well as the rudder, which takes some effort]

My set mast length means I cannot get enough of my largest sail forwards to get rid of excessive weather helm (I have the opposite trouble with the smallest sail), so when I heave-to I come a little too far head-to-wind and a backwinding incident threatens. When I want to take off again I have difficulties pointing off so I can fill the sail – I can’t steer off the wind without a little speed and I can’t get a little speed unless I steer off the wind. The solution is to let the sail go and steer in reverse until I am at a good angle, then sheet in, pull the tiller and go.

I am not a very experienced sailor so I cannot compare my boat to anything but an ancient O’day 15 and the odd Hobie I have sailed on a lake. The proa is a better than either, it is terrific fun to sail and a chick magnet. It is an almost everybody magnet. In anything over a light wind it comes alive and charges along, slicing rather than smashing through waves, drenching me at times when bigger waves impact the windward bows. There is little spray from the ama. The really surprising thing is that it all works, shrugging off everything that the sea can throw at it and that has been considerable – winds over 20 knots and waves that seem to tower over me though if I were less prone to exaggeration I’d say were not over 8 or 9 feet. I have become quite confident about sailing it in bad weather (which will doubtless lead to my downfall). On one trip I battered into a nasty 4-foot chop for 4 hours, tacking directly upwind 15km, worried the whole way that the boat would just collapse under the beating but there were no disasters and at the end of the ordeal a damage inspection revealed… absolutely nothing! I can now sail singlehanded in pretty stiff winds – 15 to 20 knots – carrying my largest sail without much fear of capsize or of anything serious breaking. I cannot go at top speed in these conditions without a passenger as extra counterbalance. The more agile ones go out to windward where they can sit on the longitudinal brace clinging to the stay with their feet riding the torpedo. Nobody has been washed off yet but they do get pretty clean. It helps a lot if they sit as rearwards as possible, this brings the bow up. When I say I can go at top speed in such conditions I really mean it –  I do not have to take it slow just because there are enormous lumps of water charging around, the boat either leaps over them or cuts through as if they weren’t there, well ok it will slow a little but charge onwards. No way could I beat a Hobie in a race [Wrong- I can easily beat Hobie 16s. Never raced an 18]. They have better windward ability, lighter construction, less wetted surface area, and come about quicker. My only advantage might be that I have no tendency to pitchpole so in a strong wind and waves I could “open her up” whilst a Hobie would need to be cautious.

The boat is something of a pain in the ass to paddle unless there is somebody else aboard to steer. Much depends on the wind direction. I can go short distances sitting far in the rear paddling and steering with one foot but it is very uncomfortable. [It´s not swift but I have since paddled a mile or two at a time, steering with the paddle a bit every couple of strokes]. Sitting in the rear like this is most pleasurable: one can see almost the whole boat and if running downwind (when one´s weight is is not required as counterbalance on the platform) the bow is brought up.

I would not be going out in such conditions if this were a cold water zone. The water is warm and constant onshore winds mean that if the boat breaks up I only need to cling to the wreckage for a couple of days at most and I’ll be on the beach. One time the ama came off because I did not use enough rubber lashings but after a good deal of swimming I managed to tie it back on above the iakos and limp to shore. Another time I capsized in strong winds and could not right the boat… I was near shore but if what I had not been, and the water was cold? Though the boat has performed marvelously for three months with no serious damage and hardly even any wear, the truth is I do not trust it. There is something about the business of having two hulls which must remain connected for the boat to work at all that seems innately unreliable as compared to a monohull. This kind of worry would really eat at a person in cold water I think, so I for this reason I would not recommend an amateur-built small proa in cold waters. Mr. Pjoa man in the Baltic, I take my hat off to you. [Panama – well Desesperado has done plenty of flexing but shows not the slightest sign of breaking up even whilst taking a real battering out of control in the surf. I am frankly amazed].

Plunging. The ama spends a good deal of time submerged in rough water or when running with waves following, but the main hull has only plunged deeply once in twenty trips out. The oceanic lateen strongly drives the bow downwards, especially when running. I suppose this happens with all sailboats.  The worst moments are when returning to the beach through surf with the wind and a big wave behind me, then I cannot slow down and the ama goes so far under I fear a pitchpole, but so far it has always come up again. I swept my sheerline up a couple of inches towards the ends because I feared this plunging business (as anyone who has sailed a Hobie does) and because it added more pretty curvature; it does help although if you want to put your crossbeams at an angle other than 90 degrees to the waka or add diagonal braces across the gunwhales you will have complications, as the crossings will be at different heights. No biggie. I am not being clear here. The short story is that especially when running the bow is too low in the water, and I don’t like it. It inhibits my speed and gets me soaked a lot. This is the only point about the boat which I find unsatisfactory; it would sail much better, more confidently, if the bow floated higher. However, when using a Gibbons-Dierking sail which lifts the bow, things are better… for this reason I think Mr. Dierking is really on to something with his new sail. Also it goes like stink.

[ Later, way into my voyage: I have been through some most unpleasant weather and this boat is a star, I am amazed at what is survives, not only survives but advances in. What causes me the most stress is the plunging of the bow. It is not that the waves are so steep-sided that they wash my decks when the bow hits them – the boat will climb most waves and go over, but when the wave reaches the middle of the boat I am lifted high and then the boat cants over the crest and the bow plunges downwards – both ama and waka go straight through the next wave. Water then fills the deck of most of the forward half of the boat. My bucket hatches leak some but actually that is the only problem… the boat then drains off this water as it carries onwards. It takes some getting used to though, this feeling of foundering under frequent swampings. I do not like it. Surprisingly I do not get very wet up on the platform: that only happens if I am going fast and on this voyage I always seem to be close-hauled. The platform is far more comfortable than the trampoline to work on.]

Shunting: ah, shunting. This goes smoothly enough most times, but has to be done quickly, usually 15 or 20 seconds will do it. Any jam-ups midway cause the boat to turn about and one can end up backwinded and red-faced. The major causes of jam-ups:

1) As the stopper knot in the new rear stay approaches its block it tends to catch the tackline and drag it into the block. It can be pulled out with a jerk.

2) If after the previous shunt I fail to pull in the slack of the tackline and secure it so that there is no slack running back to the new stern, it invariably sinks and goes under the keel, so the slack part of the tackline which should be hanging straight along the lee side under the rubrail is now snagged under both ends of the boat and most of it runs underwater along the windward side. This is extremely irritating and causes me to have to heave to and crawl perilously out on the ends to free it. If I cut all the slack out of the tackline I guess that will cure it but I hate cutting my ropes and it will make it harder to rig sails on the beach without undoing the tackline from the end of the spar, and it will not be long enough to use with a G-D sail.

3) Sometimes a line will drop into the narrowing space as an end of the rubrail approaches the hull, and jam. [rare]

4) The protruding end of the boom at the tack hangs up on the rubrail occasionally. I must kick it leeward. [rare]

5) The stays are tied to bungees under the platform, and the knots joining the two can catch on the waes causing the mast to refuse to tilt towards the new bow.  I have to shove it hard without my feet slipping out from under me. [rare]

If I fail to give the mast a shove towards its new position in time the tack will get above the rubrail and fly into the air, heading forwards to windward. Fast pulling on the tackline will bring it under control though the end of the yard may hook itself over the bow. To unhook it I have to give slack to the tackline, heave in the mainsheet and it will fly up again and swing about. If I time my next pull on the tackline right the tack will come down on the leeward side as it should be. If it doesn´t I must crawl up on the bow but this is problematic in that my weight forward causes th boat to round up and backwind itself, so I have to move quickly.

Shunting G-D sails goes very easily, usually, but one must stay aware of the tackline that is not being pulled, the one rising into the air. If you are not watching it and it gets snagged you continue to pull like mad on the other end, overbending and endangering the yard.

Shunting, in short, is generally straightforward enough but will go wrong if one is slow or does not concentrate. Or if there is an “r” in the month. [About 9 out of 10 shunts go fine, most of the rest have only minor complications but sometimes I wind up with the mast down and the sail on the wrong side of the bvoat, a complete shambles.

I only need two camcleats. The forward one grasps the tackline, the rearward one holds the mainsheet; they exchange roles after a shunt. Lack of a double-block downhaul, which would be difficult to arrange on a boat with two mainsheets, is not the problem I thought it might be; if one needs the mainsheet tighter just point a little closer to windward and the strain comes off. Pull it in and bear off again.

The Oceanic lateen, I read somewhere, is very forgiving of sheeting angles. This is true. A foot or so of mainsheet either way seems to make no detectable difference in sail power or airflow. This is a nice thing, reducing the need to concentrate and increasing lounging possibilities.

Backwinding: No discussion about sailing a proa would be complete without mention of backwinding. But there is not much to say. If I release the mainsheet the boat heads up and comes to a stop, and simply sits there treading water in the best possible way, as long as I like. [Later: not so true, this.] This ability of the boat to heave-to reliably without needing attention to stop it coming around and backwinding itself is absolutely invaluable. Often one needs to stop to fix things, mix a gin and tonic, whatever. I have had a few backwinding incidents, some occur when I head too far downwind and the sail flops over, compressing the bungee stick and causing me to express concern verbally. But in those cases I am still moving so I just throw the tiller over and around he comes and then the sail gybes back where it should be with a WHOP! The other cases occur when a line jams halfway through a shunt. Counter-intuitively the boat is not stable with the tack of the sail stuck in the middle or anywhere but out at the ends and immediately starts marching around until the wind is on the wrong side completely (with the sail down the boat will always wind itself up with the ama downwind). I must carry a paddle lashed on somewhere handy if I don’t want to swim the boat around but I have not needed it for a month, because I am getting better at this.

Capsize. Here is where a vein in my temple pulses somewhat. I tried many ways to right the boat, finally settling on carrying a heavy stick which I can hook under a rope tied next to the hull between the two iakos, and lever against the hull just as Mr. Dierking suggests. But mostly the boat will not come fully over unless I first swim under and release the sail entirely, ie. let go both mainsheet and halyard. Usually the mast base has broken loose by then anyway, and it is a big mess to sort out once I am upright. I have only rolled over three times in six weeks of sailing. Never allowing a cleated mainsheet to leave my hand is the key to prevention. [Later: 700 miles or more, no capsizes!]

The capsize recovery stick tied on. It should be tied on below the iakos where it will be more accessable when needed. It is pine sandwiched between strips of hickory, strong and light.

A word about the finish: Much of my boat is glass-over-cedar. The glass is transparent and the effect was originally lovely, but in this merciless sun it is starting to turn whitish despite many coats of spar varnish. Hence in future I will use as much wood trim as I can but avoid large surfaces of varnished glass-over-wood. I have now painted the uppersurfaces of waka, platform and ama a light cream color to mask this and to keep the surface temperature down at a less painful level.

Some things I learned the hard way that might be helpful if you are building a boat: –

-Oh no you didn’t try t build a boat without a belt sander did you? Look, sure, power tools are expensive but you will spend a ridiculous amount of time sanding stuff so any investment in tools to cut that time down will more than pay for itself. You need three sanders- a belty, a random-orbit disc job, and a corner sander like the B&D mouse. I promise you these will pay dividends, Also very saving is a power planer, and of course you need drill, circular saw, jigsaw/scrolling saw. Long straightedge, really big rasp, Japanese pullsaw, small hand plane and the ability to sharpen it to the point where you can shave with it. Lots of nitrile gloves. Loads of paper cups for mixing small amounts of epoxy, plus little brushes, lots, and plastic spoons for filleting. Pipe cleaners for getting epoxy down inside little holes to seal the wood. And a bunch of other things. Far more than you presently think you might need.

– I was always short of epoxy which is almost unobtainable here in Mexico so I did not take pains to seal the woodwork with it (usually one thins the epoxy with acetone for better penetration). I regret this – wherever the varnish gets nicked or worn off the water enters the wood and it stains and ugly grey.

– I am far from an experienced carpenter but I used many woods (cedar, oak, holm oak, hickory, pitch pine, yellow pine, zapote, pulakiro, kumala, bamboo, quina, alaska yellow cedar) and my favorite was the Alaska yellow cedar. I had been trying to find spruce for the iakos, eventually tracked down a lump but when cut it turned out to be this AYC, which I had never heard of. Good clear spruce seems almost impossible to find, when you do find it the price is astronomical because of it’s value in aircraft building I guess. AYC is much cheaper, just as strong and only a bit heavier than spruce. It resembles tight-grained yellow pine, non-resinous (it is not really a cedar, some kind of cypress), and cuts, planes and glues easily. I’d have used it for a lot more of this boat had I discovered it in time and my boat would have wound up lighter, stronger and prettier.

– You cannot have too many clamps.

– A big problem was cutting wide flat strips for laminating into iakos. 1/4″ x 4″ x 10′ is a tall order for most table saws, if you can find one with a blade big enough to cut 4″ deep chances are the kerf wastage will be appalling. After much screwing around trying to turn a 10′ post around and over and running it through twice only to find awful mismatches in the cuts the idea occurred to mount a hand circular saw above and behind the blade of the table saw (achieved in twenty minutes with scrap sticks and clamps) so that a strip could be sliced off in one pass. It worked wonderfully, though I had to tidy up the strips a bit afterwards with a drum sander because table saw and circular saw had different kerfs.

– Holes can be relieved (rounded, bevelled, smoothed at their entrances and exits) for easy passage of ropes and lashings by cutting long thin strips of sandpaper which you pull back and forth through the hole. I had to do this a lot. The red, tough fabric-backed stuff from used sanding belts works very well. This method works well for other roundings as well, like making smooth groove in the end of a stick where you must lash to prevent splitting.

–  I started out with a prejudice against screws, being sold on all that lashing hype, but now I like them. Often they save weight and are not unattractive. Also, things glued on with epoxy do not always stay glued on, particularly with hardwoods I am finding, and a few screws can make a dubious job a secure one.

– Always sand surfaces before gluing, especially hardwoods.

– You need a fast-setting waterproof glue like polyurethane glue in your shop. Epoxy is great but it can take a lot of your time since you must wait so long for it to set.

– Inner tube rubber. Fantastically useful stuff and I find its longevity in sea and sun quite satisfactory. After being stretched for a while it loses some tension, just untie and retie tighter. The stuff cleans sanding belts pretty well too.

– I find that double-sided tape used in sailmaking gums up the sewing-machine needle and stops work completely so use it where you are not going to sew or remove it as you sew. Mostly I use good old-fashioned pins; lay them across the seam not along it, as they cause lumps with more fabric on one side then the other and this will reduce that effect. A domestic sewing machine is just fine for sailmaking.

I am not at all sure that urethane pour foam is as close-celled as advertised. I have cut lumps out of my bilge and found them waterlogged. Extremely important to get this right as you don’t want your boat increasing in weight and losing flotation.

I may find myself needing a job soonish. If anyone out there needs an enthusiastic and inventive builder of peculiar craft, or would like to team up to build a next-generation super-proa about which I have some ideas, I’m your man.

[Later: I make these additions from Celestun, Yucatan, after one hell of a ride from Veracruz. It has been a fabulous adventure. What a country! What a people! And what a boat!]

[Conclusion after a thousand or two sea-miles: This is a wonderful boat which has carried me safely a long way but if there is one thing that really bothers me about it it is this: It cannot carry much weight, and any attempt load even one person besides myself results in a loss of performance and a digging in of the bow which throws up a lot of spray and is generally stressful to live with, especially in strong winds. It does not feel right at all in these conditions. This boat is substantially wider and longer than Mr. Dierking’s design so I cannot  see how his version could expect to do well (he does warn that it is only a sport canoe for one or two. Take this very seriously). If you are going to build a boat you will want to carry people sometime, food, beer, water, camping gear and so on and you will need more capacity than this, so I think a main hull with greater displacement is essential.]

[Yet later, in Panama. I have another bunch of miles behind me, much of it into headwinds and some in pretty bad seas.  The need to reef the sail is the most pressing thing on my mind. In winds over 20 knots the boat becomes inclined to capsize rather than advance against the wind. In Guatemala I made a new sail from a used dacron sail; this one has a line of grommets radiating out from the tack enabling the bottom third to be laced up to the boom, or the top two- thirds to be laced to the yard though I have not tried out the latter.  Taking in a reef by lacing the bottom third of the sail to the boom certainly helps in a blow but at 25 knots of wind this too becomes untenable – the boat wants to capsize rather than advance at more than a couple of knots. I am being unfair, and perhaps the boat should not be miles out on the ocean… but if I am twenty miles out I want to make it to land quicker than ten hours I need to go faster. The problem is that even when reefed the working part of the sail is way up high where it can lever the mast over. I am working on a loose-footed shuntable jib stayed to the rudder bracket that can be hauled up on the crabclaw´s halyard whilst the crabclaw and its yards are lashed down on deck. I feel confident that I can keep the boat upright with this smaller and lower sail but if I at the same time add two more camcleats to the upwind side of the platform I would then be able to hike out onto the trampoline and control the boat from a comfortable position.

Other issues – My bucket lid hatches leak too much, and the plywood deck of the big hull is rotting away. The 500lb working load Harken halyard block  blew out. The mast base coconut is damaged and there is wear on the insides of the eyes at the extreme ends through which the tackline runs and along the keeline. The two Harken camcleats on the platform are worn out from having sandy rope pulled through them.]

Finally, at Last, Hallelujah and Hooray.

     Well I had a bunch of delays but it is all coming together now and I should at last be setting off from Play Zapote, Veracruz, Mexico, heading southwards, on Sunday 3rd July 2011 about 11am, weather permitting. I am horrified by the amount of luggage that must be stuffed into the boat, I feel I shall be horribly overloaded but it all seems so essential, spare sails, clothes, tools, spare parts, food, water, tent, cordage, medical kit, cameras, GPS, satellite tracker, fishgear, flares, knives, mask and fins, anchor & rode… getting rid of any one object could be disasterous.

     I never heard of a boat journey that started on time or fully prepared, but I cannot screw around here for ever. Sadly we are now into rainy season, so whereas before I would have had favorable winds and no storms I must now fight my way directly against winds from the southeast, with frequent squalls and thunderstorms. So I do not expect my progress to be rapid. Also I am making no promises about how far I intend to go and I reserve the right to chicken out at any time. In my favor, at least it is warm here which is no small help to a person who expects to be wet pretty much continually.

    I have a few things aboard which are not essential: some small gifts such as pocket knives to reward kids who guard my boat for me, my fiddle which I can´t play worth a damn but how can I improve if I leave it behind? and the EASY button, which when pressed speaks ¨That was easy¨. I plan to press this at the end of each day, even if it was a hard one. This is as close as I get to positive thinking.

    Also at the end of each day and probably in the middle too, I plan to press the ok button on my satellite tracker, which will show you my location if you click this link:

I hope you find this interesting. I daresay I will.

Chris Grill, Secret Agent.

Reina and I were speaking of Paris Hilton and I mentioned that in English a child of the rich is said to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Around here, she said, the equivalent is to be “born with a sandwich under your arm”.

Most of the villagers here believe in all manner of supernatural happenings, ghosts and bruhas, witches, who cast black magic spells and can change into animals at will. There seems little point in asking for real-world evidence for almost all are religious – believing in an invisible, omnipresent, omnipotent uber-fairy without any supporting evidence whatsoever (faith – a common but serious neurological disorder) but when I do ask for evidence it is always the usual dubious anecdotes and hearsay:
– A unnamed man waits in the night to elope with his unnamed lover. She is late (surprise!). Suddenly she appears but walks clear through the wall beside them and is gone. She was killed earlier that day.
– So-and-so saw a witch floating over his house, and the house shook.
– So-and-so was riding a burro home in the dark and a strange animal appeared on the road ahead. The burro reacted with fear. The creature ran off laughing like a human.
– An unnamed poor man who never works always has food in his house. His neighbors are missing food but can never catch the culprit. It is thought that the poor man changes into an animal at night to steal the food.

It is always difficult to know how to react to these stories. Clearly anyone trying to teach critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning here has a lot of work to do. I can only say “I have no way to check that any of this is true, so it seems foolish to believe it”.

I am reminded of the late great Indian rationalist Basava Premenand who exposed over 500 of the miracles of Indian holy men – every single one that he encountered – for the conjuring tricks that they are. Humans are unreliable witnesses and with the supernatural, things are never as they are presented.

I never showed you the first boat. It was built of lashed bamboo strips at great expense of time, but I lost confidence in its structural integrity and abandoned it. I was on this "all natural" kick, the thing was to be covered with canvas and pine pitch and likely would have sunk in a week. There are good reasons why people build boats with modern materials.

On my way through Veracruz a young man cut me up so badly and dangerously in traffic I could barely believe it. Even for Mexico it was unusually outrageous. For a change he wasn’t a taxi driver – the very worst in a land of people so many of whom should never be allowed to drive a car. He then did it again to somebody else, so at the next stoplight I got out, went over to his car, reached in and slapped him hard in the face. I did not bother to explain why; he knew.
Never before in my life have I assaulted anybody; I am not a violent person, but hey, this felt pretty good. Maybe he will think twice about endangering others next time, if not out of conscience then at least out of fear.
Three days ago Gringo Jack was on his lawn watching his dog playing with two others on the beach. a car came speeding down the beach, without even slowing down it creamed one of the dogs and sped on. The dog has a broken hip but will live, and Jack is on the warpath. The last two mornings he has been on the beach with his caretakers waiting, armed with rocks and ready to throw. Gringos either end up as fatalistic as the Mexicans or they make a stand; Jack is a decent fellow with a strong sense of moral outrage, and he knows that the rule here is that you can do anything you want here unless somebody stops you. He plans to stop this speedster and recover veterinary costs and make sure he doesn’t do it again, but I myself have come to despair of teaching most Mexicans much in the way of what we gringos think of as normal ethics. Though by the way I have noticed that many gringos start driving like Mexicans as soon as they cross the border.
Oh dear I feel a rant coming on. From where you sit I doubt you can imagine how huge a part inconsideration, inconvenience and endangerment play it the daily lives of people in a place like Mexico. Mostly it is things like the garbage everywhere and the fumes from burning it, or noise pollution, or people who simply stop their car in front of you so they can chat with someone, or completely obstruct the sidewalk or a pedestrian crossing or any of a thousand other nuisances whose obliviousness, entitlement and selfishness I find simply staggering. Often it is more serious – land encroachment, corruption, theft, endangerment, fraud, pollution. Most Mexicans accept this to their great cost, every day, and at the same time most are part of the problem. I simply do not understand. Consideration for others and a little honesty is not rocket science. This is no part of the better world I would like to live in.

Reina and Jacinto at least have stopped capturing the marvelous and endangered great blue crabs, at least whilst I am around. Poco a poco.

Chris Grill, CIA Agent.

Mexicans working in the US are entitled to claim dependents on their tax returns, just as citizens may, and the more dependents one has the less tax one pays. (? So those without children pay for those that have. This seems entirely unjust to me. Surely children should be had entirely on one’s own dime and not forcibly subsidized by the childless) These dependents do not have to be citizens, and the only requirement is that proof of their existence be produced, but not proof that they actually are dependents or ever receive a penny. So certain people here go around to families and offer around US $40 for copies of the birth certificates of Mexican children, which they send off to the US to be divided amongst Mexican workers in return for hefty fees. It is said that a large percentage of the village of El Bayo down the road lives from this organized racket; certainly it is hard to see that legal money alone (of which there is a good deal being sent back by Mexicans in the States) can account for all the nice new houses going up in El Bayo or the recent influx of many big American cars which roar up and down the beach and have necessitated five new speed bumps in Playa Zapote. Popular vehicles include the Chrysler Enormous, Chevrolet Consumer, Dodge Psychopath, Ford Ego, Cadillac Delusion and of course the Hummer Nowthat’sjustplainstupid.
It is thought locally that I myself might be an agent of the American Government here to spy upon both the scammers and the narcotraficantes in the area. I have had a few funny looks but feel no serious bad vibes. Though decapitation is a real threat for US agents in Mexico, and kidnap a possibility for all foreigners or anyone who might have money, the feeling in Mexico is just so unaggressive and harmless that I am not going to let worry about these things ruin my stay. I am in my sixteenth month here without incident.

Now it is hot season, and with a vengeance. The houses are like ovens – they have thin metal or asbestos cement roofs which heat up under the sun rendering indoors almost intolerable. Outside is preferable to all, under the trees or rude structures made of bendy timbers with roofs of knackered sheet metal, also hot but there are no walls which helps. At night the roofs cool but since the houses were roasting all day their concrete walls have stored the heat and radiate it back mercilessly all night. The other type of roof is the 10cm- thick concrete slab which heats up to egg-frying temperatures all day and radiates all night, so it may be even worse. Before these new materials were introduced roofs were made of thatched palm leaves laid few inches thick and there are still some of these around though generally only on the wall-less structures. They had the big advantage that the ceilings did not heat up, but the bigger disadvantages of being time-consuming to make, short-lived and highly combustible. I ask why not throw a few palm branches up on the sheet roofs to shade them? Jacinto says “We haven’t invented that here”.
There may be something wrong with this idea that I am not seeing, but in general I do notice a peculiar absence of inventiveness in this culture. Well, I guess that in any culture invention is the province of just a few and the rest follow on. There are a few houses imaginatively built using ferrocement (chicken wire, cement) and occasion examples of bold and imaginative art seen in Veracruz but for the most part things things are done either the way they have always been done but with whatever help can be gotten with inexpensive off-the-shelf technology or according to the American model, with few embellishments (the other day I saw Philadelphia cheese, chile chipotle flavor). An exception to this is the food, which is unique and imaginative, for some reason far better than anything I ever ate in Central or South America. Perhaps the inventors here are the women.
Or perhaps people just need a little nudge. This appeared on the water the other day.

It is a very crummy dinghy very crummily rigged with a very crummy sail. It could not possibly beat upwind – many people here are surprised to hear that a sailboat can do that (I guess it is pretty counterintuitive) – he would need a centerboard and a flatter sail. .

I like to think I am leading a sailing renaissance in Playa Zapote. I have made a mast and sail for Ruben the Sorbet Guy’s pedal-cart, but we have yet to test it. Rodrigo, who was my crewman at the regatta, now plans to build some kind of a sailing boat so he can rent it out on the packed beaches in Veracruz and live the blessed life of a beach bum. I think it is a good plan.

Life is so different here. Unlike gringos every Mexican knows all of his neighbors and there are few if any people in his whole village or town that he cannot name and is not legally or genetically related to. Extended families are a huge part of daily existence, work, help, land and housing are found through them, skills, food, animals and property are shared and bartered and held in trust within them, and it is always somebody’s birthday or baptism or wedding so one is never short of a party to go to. Amazing the money that somehow gets spent on fiestas here, where money is scarce. There’s an obsession with cakes too, which seem unnecessary and expensive to me. I see cakes everywhere and am occasionally dispatched to Veracruz to pick them up (such a relief to hand over the cake intact. I cannot bear such responsibility).

Cakes man, cakes

Work, if there is work, is generally done by 2pm; it is too brutally hot for most to continue unless the work is well paid or essential. There is a breeze from the sea, so youths play football on the beach, but only the males. What the girls here do with their time is a mystery; they are mostly sequestered in the home though I do see them walking on the beach under sunbrellas or carrying infants about. I know they do some fine embroidery work and of course all the food preparation and domestic chores. I do not think they are encouraged to study. Schoolgirls must wear skirts. Why the hell shouldn’t girls wear trousers to school? I think the answer is to reinforce gender roles and help keep them in the home, but it might be that they would wear very, very tight trousers, as Mexican girls do. Oh it’s so objectionable.
In the evening there is fishing from the beach with nets hauled about in the surf by small family groups, they don’t seem to catch much more than supper. It is dark by 8ish. Those that are to fish at dawn might go to bed but many others, especially the young, have nothing better to do than socialize in the streets. The curse of village life, of rural life, is boredom. It leads to so much evil, drink, drugs, thieving, pregnancy amongst folk who would do none of the above if they had anything else to do The temptations must be terrible when night after night is the same as ever. I wonder if the introduction of electric lights helps or hinders.
Kids play in the dusty streets until very late. I am not sure if there is a concept of “bedtime”. Older folks sit in deckchairs at the roadside and chat and drink beers if they are not Evangelists (In this village most are, the village shop does not even sell beer). They watch tv soaps and movies with doors and windows open and folk wander in and out and from house to house. Houses are open and mostly, incredibly, without screen doors or windows even in mosquito season so the bugs are free to enter, as are most people, with little formality. To the best of my knowledge only one person in the village plays an instrument. There are no books, other than the bible. I mean no books; in all this time here I have never seen one. In Anton Lizardo, a town as sleazy as it sounds not far off, things are a little more sophisticated and a teenager might be able to cadge the ten pesos (85 cents) needed to go and use the internet for an hour (they Facebook and play games). In this village and Mata de Uva everyone is friendly and inviting towards me which I find heartwarming, but I rarely go out at night, there is not much for me on the village street, and the chamacas, teenage girls, have been getting increasingly saucy with me lately so I find it politic to avoid them altogether. I go to bed early and sweat out the night with no clothing at all and no coverings. I have a little fan which is a godsend. If I get kidnapped I hope they will let me take it with me.

Still I wait for the boat’s registration, as philosophically as I can. The delay has literally taken the wind out of my sails. So far I have made 6 trips to Veracruz and three to Alvarado. There are more to come. I could not register the boat myself as I am not a Mexican citizen, Santiago kindly volunteered to help and has been to much trouble. Just to start with we had to produce a notarized document, witnessed by three testigos, saying that the boat was such-and -such and made here in Mexico. This six-page document took a month to obtain and cost $85. We took it to Alvarado along with two copies each of: Identification of the owner, birth certificate, form filled with particulars of the boat, 2 pictures of the boat, letter to the Captain of the Port declaring wish to register, map of the area of intended sailing… They gave us a list of four separate payments that have to be made into a bank in another town, receipts for which have to be returned to Alvarado triggering another wait of a few days before I get my registration number. THEN the boat has to change ownership, into my hands, and I’ll be done except that the boat will really only be legal to sail near the coast and maybe not far from home but Santiago says “These are just pieces of paper, nobody pays them any heed, don’t worry” And I trust his wisdom, because he can do calculus and has a beard.

[Later: I sailed the boat to Veracruz in the hope of renting it out for a bit of needed cash, but I failed in this for I was immediately approached on the beach by two oficials of the Port of Veracruz. They forbade me to rent out my boat without a permiso (though this was clearly just preamble for a bribe, but said I might obtain one from the Capitania del Puerto in Alvarado. Oh, I said, I was there just yesterday registering the boat. But you don’t need to register a boat that has no motor, they said, that is the law.
This is exactly the information I suspected might exist but have been unable to obtain all these frustrating weeks, including by asking the port Administration in Veracruz. The knowing of it would have saved 6 weeks, now 7 trips to Veracruz, 4 to Alvarado, plenty of money, and I would have been able to start the trip much earlier and probably be done by now but now I must drive all he way to Texas and back because my visa is a bout to expire. Sigh. Welcome to Mexico, says Victor.]

Alvarado is such a bustling place, a fishing port on the ocean entrance to a vast brackish lagoon which itself is at the confluence of three major rivers and an enormous area of lakes, wetlands and agricultural lowlands with townships of folk hardened to mosquitos. There are small shipyards and docks here, fish and shellfish farming in the lagoon, a fleet of shrimpers and tuna boats. I have never seen another foreigner in Alvarado. Santiago was born there and knows everybody, so we weave our way along the busy streets past the docks crowded with appallingly rusty fishing boats from fish stall to welding shop to Aunty’s house to the barber’s where we are treated like royalty by wizened genial old men and plied with various mysterious and potent brews, sometimes sugary or otherwise the pure stuff distilled clandestinely from sugar cane and served from a coke bottle. Neither of us need to be plied very hard. There are beers to be had if all else fails. Mopeds like scattering cockroaches blatter in all directions, shagged-out pickups with loudhailers on their roofs scream for scrap metal, a man sells pineapples from a sack, or shrimp from a bucket, or a bunch of crabs tied up alive with grass,

Jaiba, a kind of crab that buries itself in the sand, tied up alive with long blades of grass for sale in the fish market in Alvarado.

every third vehicle pumps out music as does the cd stall across the road. Men greet each other with obscenities (Alvarado is famous for groserias, that’s the only thing I could find out about it on the internet), taxis honk and the pinking of hammers chipping rust comes continually from the boats. I can’t help liking Alvarado. Then it rains, the first of the season, and months of accumulated filth runs down the steep streets and overloads the drains, lifting off a manhole cover in the road in front of our barber’s to flood the area, and inundation of stench. I guess it all ends up in the lagoon which is where much of the fish come from but that is all the cycle of life and the fish look pretty good to me. Alvarado was left cleaner and even more likable.
Watch where you put your feet when walking about a Mexican town. It is not like the USA where you can sue the local authority if you twist your ankle in a pothole. A typical Mexican sidewalk is constructed thus: The driver of a cement truck has a heart attack and gouges open the side of the vehicle against some obstacle. Gushing cement, the vehicle careers out of control down the street. From out of nowhere a small army of girl scouts appears wielding rakes and shovels which are too big and heavy for them but together they valiantly attempt to push the mess together to form some semblance of a pavement, but it is heavy and starts to go hard and they are just little girls so they give up and go home to watch Buffy la Matadora des Vampiros which has been horribly dubbed into Spanish so that all the nuance is lost. The public is left to pick their way along a route which would have shamed even London after The Blitz, over crumbled slabs, cracks, gaping holes, mismatches in height and pieces of rebar sticking out here and there, and in Alvarado after the first rain of the season, pools of rancid ooze. I am not say that this is a bad thing, it just is. A walk down a Mexican street is more interesting than any similar perambulation in the USA. I do not exactly look forward to returning to the USA. I think that the greatest threat we have there is not economic, not the Chinese nor the gasoline running out nor terrorism, it is that by our zeal to perfect our world we will bore ourselves to death.

Here’s a handy way to make some money which just wouldn’t fly in the States. You’ll need a bag of cement, a piece of string, a tin can, a borrowed shovel and wheelbarrow and cheapest of all, a boy. Wheelbarrow the cement out to the edge of town and find a place along the road to the next village with a couple of potholes, preferably with a stream not too far away.
Tie the string to a bush on one side of the road and have the boy stand on the other side pulling the string and holding the cup. It helps to tie a piece of garbage to the middle of the string so it bounces up and down. Meanwhile, using a bottle or two you found by the roadside by walking maybe ten feet, you fetch some water and start mixing cement which you then use to fix a pothole. Draw this process out. You want to make it look like you are doing some work but if you do it too quickly you will soon run out of cement and you will have nothing to do and people will think you are a shyster. Using the string the boy brings every vehicle to a halt and extracts a few pesos into the can, and why shouldn’t they pay you something, haven’t you fixed two potholes today? Soon you have paid off the cement and in a couple more hours the cement will be hard and you’ll be laughing all the way to the minisupermarket where they sell cane liquor real cheap.
By this ingenious scheme which I am sure by what they get out of me must net a small fortune the entire five kilometers of bad road between Anton Lizardo and El Zapote has been fixed by private enterprise!

I drove all the way to Texas for a new visa. 600 miles just to the border then another couple of hundred to Houston. I spent a couple of nights sweating in the desert but was then put up by friends of friends, the lovely Krishnan family, as fine people as I have ever met and very hospitable, not to mention physically beautiful, all of them. The change from Playa Zapote to immensely prosperous Houston, from the poverty to affluence, from a garbaged environment to a clean one, from my hovel to the Krishnan’s beautiful home is so drastic I am still a bit dizzy. I know it is another country, but it seems more like another planet.

Since my hitchhiking days I have always been impressed by Texans – I never had to wait more than five minutes for a ride in this state in contrast to the East where I used to wait hours which shows the friendliness of people and their comfort with each other.  And how heavily armed they are. They are polite and helpful and they continue to be so from behind the wheels of cars when they don’t have to look you in the eye, so Texans I salute you.

I also visited the King of the Proas (as I call him, but it makes him uncomfortable) Kevin O’Neill, another man who can do calculus and his lovely wife Joy who is also no slouch in the cerebral department. Kevin runs the wikiproa site and has two proas, one with rudders so ingenious I kind of kicked myself. We yakked about boats and ate some very good curry and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. There hasn’t been anyone else at all I could talk to about proas in the whole three years this obsession has run. Thank you Kevin and Joy, we will meet again.

I finish this entry from a Starbucks in Corpus Christi – it beats the free wifi in the parking lot at McDonalds, where I can’t charge the computer. I have been driving around buying up used sewing machines and some other items for myself and my Mexican family, sleeping under bridges, you know, the usual. The bridges are ok but the only accessible ones go over water so the mosquitoes are trying to get into the car before I can get out. You never saw a tent go up so fast. (By the way Americans have you noticed that you have fenced off almost your entire enormous “land of the free” to such an extent that it is damned near impossible to find even 15 square feet to pitch a tent for the night. How free are you, exactly?). I should be heading south again within a day or two. I would much have preferred to have made this trip by ‘plane, but it is expensive, and sadly I was only born with a doughnut on my foot.

It’s Kaspar Hauser all Over Again.


A typical catch in a net hauled up to the beach by ten people or so. Sometimes they get more, sometimes less.

It’s Kaspar Hauser all over again.
Most mysterious. Against a wall some 50 meters from my hovel Adelina and Jocabeth saw a young man standing in the merciless sun. Hours later he was still there so they took him a glass of water. He would not drink it nor respond in any way, just stood, his eyes downcast, almost catatonic.
He is clearly of Korean or maybe Japanese descent but understands Spanish, has well groomed hair and nails. Somewhat moon-faced. He wears high-quality glasses of the brand “Crizal” He has not spoken a single word but has been persuaded to write, but only the words “Santiago Ismael ” and “21” in response to questions about his name and age. Both are Christian names. He will follow orders and help carrying heavy objects, but otherwise will simply stand or sit in the same semi-catatonic stance, eyes downcast, face blank and quite unreadable. He appeared disturbed, frightened, when asked about his family. When I spoke to him in English he clearly understood at least some of what I was saying; the impression is that he is intelligent but has either had some awful experience or is autistic in some unusual way.
Lucinda and Pedro took him in, washed him and gave him fresh clothing. He will eat only if spoonfed, has not said a word nor been to the bathroom in all this time, four days. Newspapers and the police are all informed but no information of any kind has appeared.

Later: On the fifth day he said ¨Gracias¨ when given a drink. Later he stood, said ¨I am going for a walk. Who knows if I will return.¨ He walked off down the beach hatless and did not respond to entreaties to come back. He was seen a litttle while later walking through El Bayo, the next village south, but that was the last of him.

Stalinism: The needs of the many override the rights of the individual.

Bassism: The pleasure-seeking of the individual overrides the rights of everybody.

I can hear the foul thumping from a position 18 km out to sea, upwind. That is not a typo.
Next to bassholes, Stalin looks pretty good.

Some folks from Las Barrancas down the beach managed to ring a school of bonito. 3000 kilos is an impressive haul.

I am not achieving much at the moment. This is not unusual but what is new is that I am not having to work endless hours to not achieve much. I sail little, there seems no point now the testing phase is mostly over and it is hard to find willing company. So I piddle about onshore making adjustments and modifications, re-cutting sails, making a shelter on the platform, a new trampoline/hammock between the platform and the outrigger, a chair to help prevent the agonies of pulled muscles and salt-water sores from which I have suffered much during long twisted hours at the helm. Ooh it’s lovely, to have a comfortable chair.

My plan to ignite the Bubbles of Terror has come to nothing so far because they have spread out; instead of the single gout there are many small dribbles which I don’t imagine will burn well. This is happening I think because the sand is very deep and the gas diffuses through it after leaving the rock below, changing routes continually. I must wait, and strike when the time is right.

Some boys dragging a net through the surf to catch jaiba, a crab that buries itself in the sand below breaking waves.

The Three Testigos

I had hoped to have left by now, but I am waiting on the process of registering the boat, which seems rather onerous to me as it is just a tiny sailboat with little displacement and no motor. I believe I am being forced to go through the same process as 100-ton trawlers, and the wait and frustration are driving me insane. The rainy season looms, with all its danger of lightning and sudden squalls at sea, plus my visa will expire soon, so I have the feeling that all my work and time is to be wasted for want of a little paperwork. Since I am not a Mexican national my boat must be registered in the name of a friend, and three testigos must testify before a notary that it was built here. Only the Mexican bureaucracy can require of a man that he present three of those of which nature only gave him two. It took almost a month to get this done, now I may have to hurdle the ¨Certificate of Safety¨requirement which is a reasonable thing although there seems to be only one set of rules for all boats, so amongst many other things I am required to carry a box containing 19 kilos of sand, to extinguish fires.

My thanks go to my good friend Professor Santiago Pavan for all his help and his consistently good company. One of my favorite ways of misspending time is to go to the fish market in Alvarado with him. I buy no fish but we consume sufficient alcohol to justify the trip… I think we have hit upon what is possibly the only way to have a good time in a fish market. Santiago is a clever fellow, a retired naval architect who believes his students should get their hands dirty. He can do calculus, which has me in awe because I forgot mine. And he’s the only person I have ever met who can tie more knots than me. Hi Santiago.

Santiago. I hope you don´t mind I put you up here.

Regatta II, the Sequel.

2 years ago I attended a sailing regatta at Anton Lizardo in a boat very new and unprepared and got my ass handed to me in a race. It would be very weird that there is a regatta at Anton Lizardo – the place is not exactly Henley-on-Thames – but for the fact that the Naval Academy, Mexico’s Annapolis, is located there. Anyway despite my horrible misshapen sails I did well enough to win second place in my class (er, there were only 5 boats in this group). I could not compete with modern sails when beating to windward; the closest I could get to the wind was about 55 degrees which meant that despite my boat being faster reaching and running I lost too much ground on the windward legs. I have since recut two sails to get a flatter shape and can now slice along at 45 degrees to the wind which is reasonable.

The racing was fun, with good cheer and sportsmanship from all. There were a few boats up to ten meters but mostly it was dinghies and Hobie cats. I especially enjoyed the starts, when about 20 boats (several classes would start together for some reason) would all attempt to simultaneously cross a line only about 30 meters long and since half of us would be on one tack and half the other the chaos was amazing. Screams, capsizes, collisions, people falling overboard, terrifying near-misses and nerve-wracking sustained proximities to other boats, everyone trying to figure out who had the right-of-way as our tracks converge or diverge. I only rammed two other vessels, and only lightly.
My boat was the only non-production vessel there and got a lot of attention, all very gratifying. There was practically no woodwork whatsoever on any of the other vessels.

I would like to thank Capitan Carlos Quezada for organizing this fun event and for his personal help to me in obtaining permission to search the beach at for my lost camera. The Captain is a gentleman amongst gentlemen at the academy. I am normally not too keen on military people but when it comes to the Mexican Navy – as seems usual with the people of Mexico – I am won over despite myself.

If social skills are measured by how good one makes another person feel, then Mexicans have the best in the world. It may seem to readers of this blog that I am somewhat schizophrenic in my attitude towards Mexicans: it is true, I love them and I hate them. I like most and dislike some, the liked and the disliked being for the most part separate people, but it is also extraordinary in this place how you can love someone for their personality whom you might despise for their ethics. In other words even the most reprehensible types here can be so charming and disarming that one likes them despite oneself. It is almost confusing. For instance the other day I met a highway patrolman who was quite candid about his corruption to the point of telling me what bribes were expected to escape certain offenses (eg. about $160 USD for drunk driving; the regular fines total around $600) and what he would accept if the person couldn’t pay the whole mordida. I cannot escape the feeling that I should not like this guy, but he was very friendly and personable and I enjoyed his company. Confusing.

I am now making a new sail to give me more speed in light winds. It is a real monster, made of heavy-duty polytarp with sleeves instead of lacing for yard and boom, and no frippery. Looks like I will have it done in 2 days instead of the usual week. [Later: Wow what a sail! I finally got the shape right and even in light winds the boat moves like a stung cat. I wish I’d had this at the regatta. I have not tested it much since the second time out it was pretty blowy and between this and the size of the sail the longitudinal beam to which the windward stay is attached snapped in half causing the entire rig- mast and all – to pitch itself into the surf. All recovered without much damage.]

The new sail.

The Island of Santaguillo.

I only recently learned of this place, out over the horizon about 20km from home. I had to go there. It turned out to be tiny and treeless, made of coral sand with a lighthouse and a few buildings. I’d expected something a bit grander with its big name and all, perhaps to see Papillon jumping off on a bag of coconuts. On the way there, miles out, I found a reef I had not known existed; it explained the mystery of why the swells never come from a certain angle – the reefs of which I was previously aware alone could not account for the remarkable shelteredness of the beach at Playa Zapote. My piece-of-shit GPS inexplicably died about halfway yet again so I flagged down a passing fishing boat to ask the way. They pointed and I could just make out the lighthouse. Then they warned me of an impending norte gale. I just carried on. This may seem unwise but I am so sick of these false alarms. When is a norte not coming around here, according to the locals? Maybe they keep telling me of this impending danger because they think it will keep me safely off the water, but crying wolf all the time is unhelpful. Sure enough no norte appeared. I caught a 2-kilo peto which I released (only my third fish so far). The trip was typical in that the whole way out was against a strong breeze which promised a thrilling, zippy return, but as soon as I finally reached the island and turned back it died away leaving me to crawl home at a snail’s pace. Certainly no norte. It does not pay to be in hurry in a sailboat, but being philosophical about time does not stop night from closing in or the awful roar of the reefs; there are real imperative reasons for haste. I got myself backwinded at one point and the mast fell down but mostly I was able to lie in the trampoline steering by the setting sun and wishing I hadn’t forgotten the gin and tonic. I saw dolphins and two enormous (2-meter plus) fish, occasional patches where a school of fish made the surface boil, and a pure-white thing about 8 feet long which submerged as I approached and nobody can explain to my satisfaction. A ray jumped a meter clear of the surface, I never figured rays as being jumpers but I have been wrong before, once, back in ’62. That’s how I lost my leg.

I can´t get the camera to work right in its home-made submersible container - it focusses on the droplets on the glass in front of it. Here I am at sea in the usual sublime meditative state induced by regular swells.

Changa miscarried her pups, outside the vet’s in my car which was traumatic both for her and my car. One pup lived a few hours, it was weak at first and I became an expert dog-milker, it grew stronger but she squashed it in the night. She then hemorrhaged for days and I became an expert dog-injector. Her course of antibiotics cost only $7 USD, what would this have cost in the US? The syringe is great for measuring epoxy. Changa is now fully recovered and has become rather attached to me even when I have no food, and I to her. She runs rings around me on the sand, joyously gyrating her body and tail, then rolls over at my feet for a tickle… it is a pleasure to see any organism so content.

The cat had her four kittens under my bed and they are still there; it is purr purr purr all day and night, you never saw an animal so happy. She eats well, I bring her fish which are so plentiful here in the mornings when the boats come in. I wish she would stop bringing them into my hovel.

The cat family under my bed.

An escaped posse of cows thunders into the yard and Changa goes mad; this is unacceptable; they lower their horns and she knows better than to get too close. When they leave down the beach she is left with a huge blue land crab to hassle, they come ashore to mate inland, but every dog knows not to get too close to these. A couple of turtles have come up the beach to lay their eggs, and the villagers who previously would have eaten them called the authorities so the creatures could be tagged and the eggs taken to the aquarium for protection. Good to see, but more a product of threat of extreme punishment than raised consciousness. One can get many years in prison for killing a turtle here, though there is still a black market in them. I know this because I have been in the fish market in Alvarado with a trusted person and have seen what I was told were turtle parts for sale under the table.

I learned a new verb: Molear – to eat mole. Mole (Mo-Lay, I can’t figure out how to put an accent over the e) is a food so important that eating it merits its own verb.

Somebody told me that he was not religious, but he did believe in God. Oh.

Raimundo has been doing better in his fishing operation. 2 1/2 tonnes in one net, then 3 tonnes, very rare catches indeed. He has been successful because he has somehow wangled permission to fish off the point by the Academy which is rarely plundered. We must seek out these last refuges of wildlife and eradicate whatever remains there! How glad I am that so much of this good work has already been done!

An acquaintance whom I shall call Pedro was just incarcerated for five days for failing to pay child support. This seems quite commonplace here, and it is a fine thing to see that the government takes it so seriously and actually enforces the law. They have plenty of laws here but enforce few of them. The mother only has to file a complaint with the municipality and they do the rest. Pedro came up 40,000 pesos (about $3500 USD) to so he will not have to return for another sentence. I wonder why he can’t fix his muffler if he’s so loaded, silly question, the muffler is the last thing that is ever fixed on a typical Mexican vehicle. You should hear the land roar from the sea, it is worse than the reefs.

One local wag calls me ¨Dr. House¨

It is hot and humid. Dust and sand blow along the rocky road to El Zapote as my tiny, suffering, enfilthed car grinds and groans along with its cargo of myself and nine Mexicans and three buckets of fish. One feels like a postage stamp that has just been licked. A burro passes on the beach, harried by two dogs, ridiculously small under its fat rider. I douse boys by the well since I am hauling up buckets anyway and they just surged in all salty from a fishing boat. It would be a dream for a certain kind of man but it does nothing for me. I do like the boys, they are good kids. That stupid iguana is in the well again.
A truckload of soldiers goes by, lord they must be hot in all that camo gear. They look very professional but I think the camouflage would work better if they stuck garbage all over it. Someone got rid of a load of tires by throwing them off a truck one by one all the way from El Zapote to Playa Zapote; I’m surprised they didn’t just burn them, pretty much everybody burns their garbage here, the stench is everywhere. The dump at Anton Lizardo is burning yet again, it seems almost futile to bag and remove one’s garbage if this is so inevitable. One doesn’t have to recycle cans and bottles because the dump is continually raked over by poor souls who make their living from such gleanings. It is so awful to see and smell these people at work amongst the hordes of vultures. I see a car coming along the beach. It stops, the driver emerges long enough to hurl a bag of garbage into the sea, so as he comes by me I pick up the nearest piece of trash, as always just a step away, and lob this plastic engine-oil bottle into his cab. “Garbage for you!” I cry. He does not stop, he knows he is at fault but is stunned that someone has called him on it, for this just does not happen in Mexico, with bowed heads these pleasant and non-confrontational people accept the unacceptable, both for themselves and their children. We Gringos do not understand so we sometimes make a stand and it is very unusual to meet with any resistance. Maybe we should not interfere because this is not our country, but to hell with this this guy and his garbage, this is my world too. Turns out he was Reyna’s uncle, but I have made it clear that I will not be offering an apology, it is he who owes such. Fight! I say to the locals, or you will live in a garbage dump all your lives. Thing is, they all throw their garbage everywhere too, so there is no hope.
Mexicans seem not to understand that the relative order and prosperity of other countries did not just happen: it came with effort. The reason that NY State for example is not hideously trashed is that the people decided to fight those who would trash it. By collective effort dumping and littering was made ethically and legally unacceptable. People do not run red lights where I live for similar reasons. We foreigners are aghast and amazed at what Mexicans put up with, all day every things happen here which in many other countries would cause at the very least public meetings if not riots in the streets but in Mexico pass without even a murmur of protest. We Gringos ask: Why do you not protect yourselves and your children by holding a meeting to demand from your municipality the presence of a policeman or two on the street and the beach? With the power to levy fines they could easily pay their own salaries and raise more to pay to fix the road, run the school and so on. The street and beach would be safe and clean for all, the rednecks (known here as “nacos”) would go somewhere else. Tourists, the kind with money, would hear of a unique beach that was clean and safe for their families, which would give the village an alternative to dwindling fishing which is no longer able to support the population. But the people feel so weak, so lacking in confidence, so certain that there are no honest cops to be found, that all of this is inconceivable, so they live with the garbage and the price-gouging, the bassholes and the bureaucracy, the crazies on the roads, the corruption, a beach you cannot relax upon, the thieves in the night and the worse ones, in offices in the day. And when some asswipe comes through in his tricked-out jerkmobile booming so loud conversation is impossible and the very ground shakes, they pretend not even to notice rather than look the guy in the eye and tell him what they know he is.

In El Zapote up the road, three or four houses have stereos so powerful that the entire village of about a thousand people must listen. Day and night, there is rarely peace in the village (oh how I love a power cut on a Saturday night