Tests numbers 2, 3 and 4. Oh dearie, dearie me.


All these chicken heads are yours, Rocky.

Life goes on here. I am much discontented and disillusioned, am on the verge of quitting the whole enterprise, but I am also on the verge of actually going sailing, so I can’t give up now.

The watermelon harvest goes on. Twenty or thirty people in hats arrive very early, you can hear their cries of Tiempo! as they chain the dewy melons across the fields, into piles which are then loaded onto pickup trucks and ferried to bigger trucks. It takes all those people a whole long day to fill a thirty thousand kilo truck, the melons stacked carefully inside without a cubic centimeter wasted. Mathematicians have long puzzled over stacking problems, like how do you create a formula to calculate the number of  spheres that will fit into a given space…it must be possible but I don’t think it has been done yet. Mexicans bypass the math thing and find that the answer to ”How many admittedly non-perfect spheres can you fit in  a truck?”  is muchos.

Tiempo! is what they call when someone fumbles a melon and puts the line out of sinc.


I play host to the guys spraying the melons almost every day. Clockwise, Hacinto, Fidel, Javiere, Angel the Unintelligible, and Hacinto. Hacinto the younger is only 14, has not seen the inside of a school for a couple of years, and likely never will again. None of them use any masks or gloves whilst spraying pesticides, fungicides and paraquat from backbpack sprayers.

I’m very impressed. My friend Angel Polom the Unintelligible, also known as Gordo (the Fat One), who rents the twelve hectares of flat sand nearby and runs the show, loaded his twelfth truck today, and at least one those held forty thousand kilos, the rest thirty. So that is going on 400,000 kilos of watermelon off to Mexico city or the States, for which Angel receives 2.5 pesos per kilo, around 20 cents, making 80,000 bucks. And he isn’t done yet! Of course he must pay a bunch of folks ($10-$15 per day each), plus spray gear, lots of chemicals, tubing, gasoline pumps for all that water, but he is sitting pretty. The melons aren’t bad either but you wouldn’t want to look at the empty chemical containers piled up around my hovel.


These baby ones only fetch 2 pesos per kilo, but I think they are cute.

I am learning to live with this allergy problem. Six or seven showers  a day, endless laundry, decontamination procedures on returning from town, a bucket of water by the bed for my feet, which are worst affected as substance X hangs out near the floor. I take everything out of the house, beat it clean, mop the floor, over and over. It has helped a lot but I am still never comfortable. I am affected now in certain stores in Veracruz, including Home Depot. Oh, if hardware stores are taken away from me I have not much left to live for.  There has been a suggestion that the problem is mites, but no, experiments leaving clothes in bags in the sun, which no mite could survive, show that substance X is not a living, moving  thing, but it could be spores I guess. Another suggestion is that it is all in my head which I find a bit insulting though understandable, but if you saw what it does to my skin you would discount this idea too. Another idea is printer toner which is promising, I haven’t gotten around to testing it yet.

I wrestled the Mattress of Eternal Restlessness outside. There is only one load known to mankind that is more awkward and annoying for a person to carry singlehanded, that is a dozen long, unbound, greased pipes, each capped and half-filled with water, under one arm, and a rabid wolverine under the other.  I thought I’d beat the dust out of it, but after twenty minutes of furious belaborment with a stick, it emitted as much dust in the last blow as it did on the first, like an infinite puffball.  I gave it another twenty minutes, same result. So this is how Mexican mattresses are made – you get a cover and fill it with five or six hundred kilos of dust, and you’re ready for bed.

After all this beating I was dripping with sweat and the mattress was a funny shape but it couldn’t be any more uncomfortable. I made futons for a while years ago and we’d beat them into shape with a stick, the process can be reversed. It was not my finest bed-beating hour.

Enrique and a fish.

Enrique and a fish.

Some thoughts:

– Don’t bother trying to make friends with a chicken. They are not wired for friendship. Frisbeeing a few old tortillas out the door for them in the morning is as close as you are going to get to a loving relationship.

-Don’t leave your new sail under a Mexican tree. Every branch groans under the weight of birds and reptiles and every bird and reptile is crammed with crap, but they don’t stay that way.

-If you know where all my pencils go, please tell me.

-Never buy clothesline from dollar stores.

People keep bringing me cantalopes and cucumbers, far more than I know what to do with, which they grow amongst the watermelons. They have stopped bringing me watermelons because they know I am as sick of the things as everybody else. I do not have to go more than forty steps in almost any direction to get a melon if I want one. ”Eat as many as you like”, they tell me. Thanks, I’ve done that.   Another agricultural phenomenon is the sheep situation…a couple of fields away there’s a bunch of ’em and the owners are now renting a grassy field next to me for grazing. Since there is no sheep-proof fence between that field and the watermelons they must guard the sheep, all day long, and chase them back when they get cheeky. This is an apallingly dull job, which the old toothless guy and his tiny nephew do on horseback. It is deathly hot and the only shade is the trees around my hovel, so they often lurk there, amazing how still and silent an old man on a horse under a tree can be, so I have to peer about a lot before taking my umpteenth bucket-shower of the day. Rocky the Battle Dog takes intrusions by these folks and their animals very seriously indeed. I have explained to him that even if the sheep entered the hovel they probably would not eat his Pedigree bone biscuits, but he feels the stakes are too high to relax his vigilance.

So, on with the boat tests.

You may remember (Launch!) that the first test went pretty well but was brief. The steering was difficult, the deckwells flooded heavily and shunting the sail from one end of the boat to the other was tiresome and unreliable. I raised the deckwells and made an experimental steering system, for which I had high hopes.

The steering problem is this: The boat is too heavy. I feel I must carry a pair of oars for emergency manouvering and in harbors and whatnot, so it seems the best idea to use them for steering as well, rather than carry yet more weight in the form of rudders. Because this nutty boat goes in both directions the oar at the forward end must come up and out of the water. The pivot point for the oars must be as far from the helmsman as possible or he will have to work too hard ( I think it was Archimedes who said ”Give me a lever long enough and I will be able to nail those mosquitos on the ceiling”) but this puts it down low, in or near the water, so it has to somehow be raised up in order to get the forward oar out of the sea. Perhaps this is unclear, no matter, the upshot is that the problem is complex and I have made five different crazy contraptions in an effort to solve it.

Shunting the oceanic lateen/crabclaw sail was really a pain in the arse. I made a new type of sail called a Gibbons-Dierking, which is much easier to shunt. If you are into proas, read on, because I am  now one of the few people in the world who have played with both kinds of rig and have much to tell you.  [Later note: Sorry, I never got around to this analysis in detail. One day I will]


Here’s the new Gibbon-Dierking sail, magnified and widened from Mr. Dierking’s design in order to get as much canvas aloft as I could. It looked much prettier than I’d expected, and showed great promise. Sefarino the Ever-Present on the right, Giovanni the muscle-kid on the left.


Shunting the sail.


Shunt complete. Off the other way.

I had raised the deckwells to within 20cm of the gunwhale, pronounced ‘gunnel’ I’m told.

By the way, bugger trying to keep this an all-metric blog. Metric is by far the superior system but there’s no poetry in it and often imperial is more helpful.

So, test number 2: A Minor Disaster.

Sobi and Gringo Jack helped me push Rocinante to the beach which was fine with three of us; I don’t think I could do it alone through the soft dry sand that now prevails. Once everything was rigged up and the Gibbons-Dierking was working smoothly we shoved her into the surf and she shot out to sea at such speed that Sobi, who was supposed to come along, was left behind. He didn’t seem to try to hard to get aboard, maybe something to do with him being an evangelist, and his recent shocked discovery that I am an atheist. Anyway, I was surprised at the speed because there seemed little wind. Everything was going fine except the steering system seemed to suck again but then…the spar snapped like a twig and the sail folded in half, leaving me powerless a couple of hundred metres out, being blown to the north parallel with the beach. It probably happened because God hates me.

Kind of a bummer really, this was the end of sailing for the day and for as long as it would take to repair the spar. I had been worried about the thing breaking because the G-D put a lot more strain on it than did the oceanic lateen/crabclaw. This was my best spar (I called it my ”Leamington Spar”), made of ”super bamboo”, carefully dried and sanded bamboo covered with fibreglass and varnished. If you ever make one don’t bother trying it with polyester resin, it will all crack off in short order. Epoxy is the only way to go when glassing to wood.

Well, drifting offshore realized that I had forgotten, again, to test out the oars on land to see if they had any chance of being usable. It is a weird awkward boat and my expectations were not high. After getting the sail under control I pulled the oars out and lashed them to suitable points on each side with strips of inner-tube rubber and started rowing in a kneeling position…after a couple of adjustments I found to my pleasure that it was possible to row, though very strenuous. The boat coasts straight, doesn’t veer off on its own. I crept against the wind slowly back to my launching place, and I mean slowly, the wind was pushing me hard north and I had almost a half kilometer to go southwards. It took about 25 minutes of hard work, not daring to miss a beat, and my hands were a mess by the time I landed, as were my knees, the deck was sandy.

Later that day I discovered that I could not repair the spar effectively. I had used two pieces of bamboo to make it in the first place joined so that they tapered nicely down at the ends, but nothing I could do would really make a strong and happy union now. I had no more decent bamboo and did not want to start driving all over Mexico looking for more (it was a nightmare last time). Gringo Jack, with his strong engineering mind, suggested I use a PVC water pipe wrapped in glass, which at first I didn’t like on purely aesthetic grounds, but I warmed to the idea. Gringo Jack brought me two four metre 50mm pipes from Anton on his jeep. I shot to Veracruz for polyester resin and glass. Two days of extremely irritating work later I had a new spar, a bit over 7 metres or 24 feet long. If you ever want a real test of your patience try wrapping glass fibre around a 24 foot pole and soaking it with rapidly-hardening resin in 90 degree heat and serious humidity wearing gloves which self-destruct almost as soon as you put them on. I hate this work more than any I can think of. Fibreglassing, which consists of soaking layers of glass cloth with epoxy or polyester resin, can in theory be relatively straightforward on simple molds, but in practice this is rarely so. Curved, uneven or complex shapes cause the cloth to ripple and bubbles to form, which create critical weakenesses. Uppermost in your mind is the worrying thought that one such bubble could cause the spar to fail as you are trying to stay off a reef in a blow, so there is serious pressure to do the impossible – a perfect job. Your hands, gloved or not, become sticky hairy white mitts as stray glass and everything else adheres to them.  A constant rain of insects and avocado florets fouls the work. Resin drips on your arms, chest and hair as you work from beneath, stinging and stinking. In this heat the stuff hardens at a rate where it is only just possible to complete the job in time, provided you work like a madman and do not stop for a second. Mosquitos, having Twittered each other that your hands are full and you are defenseless, zero in on your exposed back – it is too hot for shirts. ”Eye bugs”, nasty little whiny fliers whose sole purpose in life is to kamikaze into your eyeballs, drive you to distraction. No defense is possible with sticky hands. You are trying to preserve the remains of your shoes from the dripping resin so ants bite hell out of your feet. Stinging and itching terribly all over from the dust released when cutting the cloth, and all the bites, you  drop your only paint brush in the sand. As you bend down to retrieve it the strip of cloth you were working on peels away and falls stickily into the sand as well…


But there is no tiempo for you. You are condemned to this torment until the job is finished, and it takes all day sometimes. I feel that fibreglass work would be a good way to test gurus…but we don’t test our gurus do we? We just throw flowers in their paths and believe every word they say. No wonder they smile.

A dear little Mexican child. Not dead, only sleeping.

A dear little Mexican child. Not dead, only sleeping.

On  a trip to Anton, the eternal quest for more gloves, I saw a poster on the gate of the naval academy. Regatta! I had never seen a sailboat in over a year here and now there was a sail regatta happening in Anton! Today! I had only half a spar that day but I might make it for the next day. I worked half the night, got a coat of varnish on the spar by torchlight, bodged up yet another mad steering contraption, hauled the boat to beach again in the morning with the help of Giovanni the muscle-kid from next door. I did not dare use the G-D sail again – if it broke this new spar I’d really be screwed, anyway it didn’t fit that spar – these sails are cut to fit the bending characteristics of the spars available –  so it was back to the crabclaw with it’s two spars.

Test number 3: An Ignominious Defeat.

Giovanni’s father wouldn’t let him come so after listening to some dire warnings of a norte expected later that day I launched alone and spent an annoying hour drifting about off the beach trying to iron out some bugs and see if the boat was up to sailing to Anton – really a big risk – I turned north and a very light southerly breeze pushed me the 5km to Anton in about an hour. It was most pleasant, sunny, tranquil, out of range of the horrible bass (The lowest form of entertainment for the lowest form of human). The steering was awful again and painful on my blistered hands, but at least it rubbed the resin off of that part of me. I rounded the point and saw there were about forty small sailboats on the beach, all fibreglass production models, lots of colorful sails, folks in sporty wetsuits. I looked like a bum in cutoff jeans, sailing the weirdest boat anyone had ever seen there. I could see the open mouths as I shunted and zoomed into a landing. Instant crowd. What is this thing? Very pretty. Photos, press people, beer, navy guys, all very friendly as Mexicans are. These, of course, were from the moneyed classes – tall, white, assertive, a completely different race from those I live amongst in Playa Zapote.

It turned out that the ”free” catagory race was to start in just a few minutes, leaving me no time to make changes so it was an quick relaunch and back to sea with the same cursed steering. I had only the vaguest notion of the race course and beat towards some other boats that weren’t Hobie Cats or other standardized craft. A pistol went off and I followed another boat, got close enough to ask what was going on. They told me where to head. There were four other boats and two windsurfers in our race, and they were all ahead. Moving with the very light wind, my slim hulls let me gain slowly on the four monohulls, and I was optimistic. I’d built this thing for speed after all. Then we rounded the last bouy and started back upwind and that’s where I discovered I hadn’t a chance against these guys. They could point at least twenty degrees closer to the wind than I.

On the way to Anton I’d been with the wind all the way and hadn’t paid much attention to the sail. Now I was concerned to see that the sail was bulging oddly, not in a good way. It had stretched, much more than I’d feared it would. A shame. Nice quality cotton canvas with triple-stitched seams, nine-layer corner reinforcements with 62 gorgeous hand-sewn grommets, she’s a beauty but a shambles to windward. Well, crabclaws at best are poor to windward. Clearly if I wanted to travel upwind effectively I would need to go with the Gibbons-Dierking rig. Or something. Like a Yamaha outboard.

Every one of my shunts was a mess. The ropes would get tangled, catch on things I hadn’t sawn off yet, the point of the sail would leap into the air and slew across the deck instead of staying nicely below the rubrail to leeward. Just awful. I’d tried to make this process more dependable on land but couldn’t get it to work. I feel I am missing something obvious, but can’t be bothered with it any more.

At one point I was back-winded whilst running about the boat trying to sort things out and I was forced to drop the sail, climb out on the outrigger and paddle with my hand to orient the boat before raising sail again. I grew to dread the shunts. My hat flew away and was gone. All very embarrassing indeed. I did not even complete one lap of the two lap course and limped back to the beach with my metaphorical tail between my very real sunburned legs.

An hour or so on the beach and the wind moved around  to become more northerly and freshened. I thought I had better use it to return to Playa Zapote before it worsened or waned, so I launched again and made off at a good speed. My hands were really bad by this time but there was no choice but to wrestle with the steering oars all the way back. I made good time, at one point hitting 18 kmph on the GPS. I arrived very tired but pleased I’d done some real sailing, and clocked a good 12 km that day. I was blistered and had skinned knees and quite a sunburn. Returning the boat to the hovel was another long trial. I’ll do anything to avoid doing that again.

But what else could I do than this grisly man-hauling? One idea which I had previously rejected as completely insane is to use the Motorcycle of a Thousand Defects. I mean, everybody knows that you can’t move a 22-feet long, 13- feet wide boat 200 metres across a field, around two sharp corners and through deep dry sand to a beach.

Or can you?


I used the oars to make a sort of yoke and it all worked! Kind of hard on the bike but I care not. Had the the locals really laughing, me too. I can now single hand the boat to the beach and back, though setup takes a while.

Don't tell me they don't make wheels like they used to.

Don't try to tell me they don't make wheels like they used to.

So, test number 4: Yawn.

The Crabclaw had been such a nightmare to shunt that I decided to abandon it and go with Gibbons-Dierkings. That meant re-cutting the G-D that I’d  made to fit the new spar. I had to lose a couple of square metres of area, painfully, so it wound up much smaller. I made another decision – to give up all the screwing around trying to invent a viable steering system utilizing the oars. I built two drop-down rudders with long tillers. Heavy but they looked like they might actually do the job.

One of the new rudders.

One of the new rudders.

I don’t like the galvanized bolts much but I do like the PVC main bearings and the way it folds up with a push of the tiller.

Launch time again. There was hardly any wind, even so the boat moved only barely and I had great difficulty escaping the surf. The sail had stretched. Oh dear. I went back in and put the dog on board for his first trip at sea. He didn’t like it at all, was clearly ill, and jumped off the first time we came close to the beach. But for the rest of that day he yowled at being left on land and swam after the boat, begging to be lifted aboard, so I may make a sea-dog of him yet.

I was in the surf  a lot, being unable to escape. The deck was freqently awash. A couple of locals jumped aboard and this submerged the float; at one point it came off completely but was easy to reattach on the beach. It would not be so simple at sea I am sure.


Outrigger separation is intentional. I feel it is desirable that it should detach in the event of a severe knock (such as might occur if the boat is rolled in the surf) rather than suffer serious damage. There’s a knob at the end of the cross-beam sticking only 2 cm into a hole in the outrigger upright, the diagonal rope underneath stops the upright leaning one way, and the braided rubber bungee keeps it under tension the other way. The upright can thus pivot a bit on the end of the beam, and the beam end can rotate a little in the hole in the upright as it flexes up and down. Thus stresses are relieved. The trick is in tensioning that bungee just right so that unwanted separation does not occur. The long piney things are the oars, shipped for emergencies.

The steering worked just fine, or seemed to. One can’t steer at all if one isn’t actually moving forward. I could control the boat when it was going somewhere with a single finger which was nice.  My hands were still healing from the last trip.

So, good steering, bad sail. I so enjoyed working with canvas but I must advise – unless you are running a square-rigger downwind don’t bother with canvas. My experience is that  it stretches too much for use in performance sails. I had painstakingly made three sails in canvas, two crabclaws and one Gibbons-Dierking, now I feel I must move on. Accordingly I searched Veracruz yet again for materials and settled finally upon white polytarp. It sticks in my craw to use a plastic material on this vessel but this stuff seems pretty good. It doesn’t stretch too much (so far), is extremely light and impervious to water, can be cleaned, does not need to be hemmed and is cheap, about $1.75 US for a metre off a roll 1.8 metres wide. The teeth in the sewing machine that move the fabric along slip,  making it hard to sew evenly. I’ve had to make eight separate tiny adjustments to this borrowed machine to make it work at all. They are such gorgeous things, sewing machines, all those precisely-made little parts moving together to get the job done.

A new sail has been born. It is nearly finished after about forty hours of work. That means I’ll be sailing again in a couple of days, after some other necessary work.  I hope. I had to enlarge and distort Dierking’s design again because it just didn’t seem to have enough area, so I am afraid it won’t perform. Fingers crossed.


6 thoughts on “Tests numbers 2, 3 and 4. Oh dearie, dearie me.

  1. Wow! So glad to hear from you! Your last blog was so down I was really worried about you. Seems you are doing much better now.

    Did the crazy gringo and his wild boat get into the Mexican papers? Seems just the sort of stuff that would get picked up.

    I have not sent you emails as I know how badly internet cafes affect you, but when you can get to one I will write you abut what your Uncle Dave wants to do re getting you a different boat just in case the Proa gets the deep six.



  2. I wish I had something helpful to say – the allergy sounds awful – you’ve tried all the usual anti-histamine stuff of course?
    But reading your blog – which I’ve done on several occasions without commenting – is like reading The Mosquito Coast meets Fitzcarraldo – a truly prodigious (insane?) goal you have set yourself – and battling these mad obstacles. Why? And with it all you write with such passion and honesty – boatbuilder/writer…. both! Keep blogging, please, if your skin condition can hack it. Mx

    • Thank you Mez. I wonder how you would even find this blog unless we have mutual friends?
      I haven’t tried anti-histamine because it seems insane to mess with one’s immune system except as a last resort. I now have the thing under control at least at home, so I am mostly healed up and much more comfortable, though still mystified.
      As for why? I am a bit vague on that myself. I knew why when I started, I think, but that was ages ago. Now the main reason is that I feel I must complete what I began! I will try to elaborate on Why? in a later post.
      Again, thanks. I really love getting feedback. Chris.

  3. Fab post shipmate. I’ve been hovering too long – and you beat me with your next installment – your poetry’s profound, your energy abounds and your ingenuity astounds. Keep on ya bounder. Love ya! Yippee next page 🙂

  4. Yes Chris – I am good friends with Phil (Bristol), Rich, Mike and Mal of course – I’ve known them all since Warwick in the early 80s and I’ve met you on several occasions too. Mal sent me your blog link ages ago and I’ve been following your struggles/successes ever since. Thanks so much for a wonderful log of your adventures – I know you’re off to US for recuperation – rest, get well and hope to be reading more from you very soon.

  5. Hey Bruddah!

    I’m here on the Big Island and stumbled across this blog of yours. I’m into the bamboo construction thing here and actually had a boarder whose son leads up Project Proa in Guam. Give me a buzz if you feel inclined! best, shawn james

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s