The Poo Lagoon.

 

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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:

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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

http://www.yucatan.com.mx/20110815/nota-9/161445-el-animo–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: http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=02OMbJyQzLrxlajbnC79YlbiTI0uDqtG3

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.