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.

 

DCIM101SPORT

 

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?