Friday, December 8, 2017

Penngrove: A Belated Wrap-up and Confession of a Near Miss

I'm writing this from The Ranch, two weeks after leaving Intermezzo in La Paz and flying home, a belated wrap-up of our short cruise in the Sea of Cortez. It has been a busy time here since I returned and my transition from sea- to land-life is always more difficult than in the opposite direction. When transitioning back to land, I often feel like I am falling through a swirl of intense thoughts and feelings, like a space capsule that heats up and glows as it re-enters the earth's atmosphere, a transition from a thin atmosphere to a thick one. I've been wanting to write this for over a week but other work was a higher priority and I had to cool myself down from re-entry. I'm glad to finally be able to do it.

My last post was from Isla San Francisco on November 20 just before we sailed to Caleta Partida, a beautiful cove nestled in a volcanic crater that divides Isla Espiritu Santos from Isla Partida, about 25 miles north of La Paz.  This cove is one of our favorite spots in the Sea of Cortez. It has a very calm anchorage in shallow bright turquoise water, a nice white sand beach, great hiking up to the rim of the crater and excellent snorkeling around the rocks at the entry to the cove. The anchorage is pretty large, so even with half a dozen or more boats, it is a peaceful and quiet place to stay.

The sail from Isla San Francisco to Caleta Partida was a nice downwind romp in 15-20 knots true wind flying just the Code 0, without doubt our favorite sail. Effortless and enjoyable sailing. After we dropped our anchor in the bright light-blue water, we launched the dinghy to do some snorkeling. The water was just warm enough to take a leisurely swim around the perimeter of the narrow rock reef that extends off the cove's northern point. We swam through brightly colored clouds of thousands of small fish swimming near the surface, looking down at larger reef fish and the occasional tuna below us. It was one of the best dives I've had in the Sea.

After pulling ourselves out of the water and back into the dinghy, we motored towards the beach to enjoy a beer (me) and explore (Renee).  When we were about a quarter mile off the beach, I realized that it was low tide and while the water was deep enough to float the dinghy, it was too shallow to run the outboard. So turned off the motor, hopped out and towed Renee into the beach, shuffling my feat through the sandy bottom to avoid a painful encounter with a sting ray. Towing the dinghy took no effort at all, but I played it up by moaning and groaning a bit so that when I opened my beer, it would seem to Renee like I earned it. She's used to my cartoon character dramatics and rolled her eyes and played along as usual. I enjoyed my beer.

It was a very still night at anchor, with a clear night sky and only a sliver of a moon. I made an amazing discovery that night. I had taken my contact lenses out to go to bed but wanted to take one last look at the starry sky. I didn't bother to put my glasses on before I went out onto the deck and gazed upwards. Wow! I am really nearsighted and without corrective lenses, points of light turn into fuzzy balls, just like dandelions look when they have gone to seed. I have enjoyed this visual effect before by taking off my glasses while driving at night or,more safely, as a passenger in a car. The taillights and the headlights of the traffic turn into a moving collage of colored dandelions, some of them undulating in size as my eyes and brain try to focus and make sense of the abstract. Well, gazing up at the stars without glasses presented a similar scene. The stars turned into dandelions, only they didn't undulate in size, I think because my brain accepted the stars as static objects as opposed to  moving cars. The result was that the main stars of the constellations appeared as much larger dandelions than the other stars.  I saw the night sky just like it looks in a star chart, the stars of the constellations augmented to help you find them, only my version also turned them into big, soft, fuzzy stars. I could pick out all the major constellations easily and saw others that I'm sure are named but less familiar. It was amazing. To those of you who may be suspicious, I want to be clear that no drugs were involved in this experiment. Though I had to accept my poor vision at an early age and usually consider it a handicap, it has given me gifts of dandelion abstract night art, the ability to see detail at a very close distance, like a macro lens on a camera and now, deciphering the patterns of dandelion stars in the night sky. It makes me smile thinking that if we were all nearsighted like I am, how different we would perceive and describe stars. Not the twinkling points of light, like a black canvas that has been pierced by a needle to reveal mysterious light beyond, but nice soft balls of light that have arranged themselves to hang over us, comforting us with beauty and inspiring dreams as to their meaning.

Okay, back to earth. Or sea, in this case.

The next morning, this would be the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we enjoyed a long swim and lazy snorkel in the shallow waters of the anchorage. While there was less to see under the surface than the day before, we were entertained by a school of rainbow runners (called salmón locally), colorful, mackerel shaped fish about a foot long or so. We appeared to be their morning entertainment, as they swam lazy circles around us, seemingly curious about our ungainly land-bodies and inelegant way of swimming in the water.

We pulled up anchor just before noon on and set sail on our last leg of the cruise to the marina in La Paz which will be Intermezzo's home for the upcoming months. There wasn't quite enough wind to move us fast enough under sail alone, but enough for the Code 0 to let the motor run at lower rpms and let us pretend we were sailing.

I have to confess to a near miss that occurred on our way to La Paz. While I'm embarrassed and ashamed of my poor seamanship,near misses are best turned into lessons learned to prevent future accidents and lessons are most valuable when shared with others.

We were approaching La Paz about three miles south of Punta Diablo, the point at the northeast of the Bahia de La Paz. There is a dramatic increase in vessel traffic as you enter the bay, compared to the mostly deserted waters in the rest of the Sea, including quite a few  large tankers, cargo ships, cruise ships and ferries. I scanned the waters ahead of me, spotting the big ships, figuring out if they were moving or at anchor, and relating what I saw with my eyes to the electronic Automatic Identification System (AIS) targets displayed on the chartplotter. All looked good for clear passage, except for a Mexican naval vessel that was in our path a few miles ahead.  Given the navy ship's location in a heavily navigated channel, I assumed it was moving and would be out of our way.

While we love our Code 0 sail, the foot of the sail is so low and the sail is so big that it completely blocks the view ahead from the helm station on the side of the boat that its flying.  The only way to sail safely is to frequently get down from the helm  and look through the front windows of the salon which are low enough to provide a clear view ahead under the sail. Renee and I sometimes cheat a little and agree that one of us will keep an eye out from inside the salon while the other is outside. If we have confirmed agreement on this arrangement, it's safe enough for passages in low traffic areas, but a bit dicey in more congested waters. As we approached La Paz, I was neither getting down from the helm frequently enough nor had I asked Renee to keep watch from inside to see what the Code 0 might be blocking from view.

I glanced at the chartplotter and was glad to "see" that the AIS target of the Mexican navy ship had moved out of our path as I expected, heading into a nearby harbor, but I didn't look under the Code 0 to confirm my conclusion from a second source of navigational data, i.e., my eyes.

We were motorsailing along at about six knots in calm seas on a beautiful day, the autopilot doing the steering. Renee was sitting at the helm, asking me a question about right-of-way while motorsailing and I was lecturing her my answer as I fiddled with mounting the remote mike for the VHF in preparation for entering the marina. Fifty yards sailing alongside to port was another sail boat, close enough to require my attention, especially since the crew of which was wearing a very skimpy and flattering black bikini.  After I got the mike mounted, I jumped up to sit next to Renee, still prattling on about navigation rules and regulations.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye, just to port of where the view was blocked by the Code 0 flying on the starboard side of the boat, a bright red float, about the size of a human head. I joked to Renee, "look a red head in the water". Thankfully the float was bright and oddly out of place enough to raise my curiosity to take a closer look under the sail. To my alarm and horror, the float was attached to the anchor chain of the Mexican Navy ship, its grey steel hull towering above us only a hundred yards ahead!

Two actions immediately came to mind. The first and most obvious was to quickly alter course to avoid colliding with the navy ship and causing an international incident, not to mention great damage to Intermezzo while only leaving white fiberglass marks on the navy ship. The second was how to look good doing it, like I intended to get so close before turning. The first I executed with no problem and averted a catastrophe. As to the second, well, I kept a calm expression on my face, giving a casual and confident wave to the crew watching from the deck of the navy ship. I don't think I pulled it off though, given their expressions which ranged from amusement to derision and gestures that I did not interpret as being laudatory.

The lessons learned are obvious. It is essential to keep a proper watch, especially in areas of heavy vessel traffic and large ships. Keeping a proper watch means looking frequently in all directions, including under your sails. Confirm navigational information from a multiple data sources, whenever possible and especially when the data is electronic. The AIS target that I took to be the navy ship was in fact that of a tanker that was right next to the navy ship when I first scanned the waters ahead.  The navy ship had never moved, anchored in a strange location; the tanker had headed to port.

I find it interesting how the officers and crew of the Mexican navy ship acted (or didn't act) in this situation, especially compared to what would have happened had I sailed directly towards an American navy ship and gotten so close.  I'm pretty sure that the Mexican sailors were wishing that I would hit their ship and make their day. Really, they didn't sound their horn or hail me, they just waited and watched. What an excellent opportunity to ridicule and lambast a rich gringo yatista, obviously a drunk amateur sailor who doesn't belong on the water! What an opportunity to legally scold, seize property and imprison an American, people who think they are better than us and want to build a wall to keep us out and think we are stupid enough to pay for it...assholes.  I don't want to think about how big a pain in the ass it would have been to extract myself from that situation, even as charming as I can be to foreign officials.

Now, if I had sailed directly at an American navy vessel and succeeded in getting within a hundred yards of hitting it, you would be reading about these lessons learned written by someone else in my obituary. I'm pretty sure that American sailors would be wishing they could unleash their Phalanx "sea-whiz" close-in weapons system to turn Intermezzo, Renee and I into small pieces of harmless flotsam, perhaps launching a couple of guided anti-ship missiles for good measure and to justify ordering four more to the delight of a defense contractor. Nothing left to ridicule, scold, seize or imprison. A victory in the war on terrorism. Okay, maybe an American ship would have blasted its horn or siren, yelled at me and gave me a chance. Or sent out a launch or helicopter to intercept me and force me to alter course. But having worked with the military for 30 years, I know that would have been a great disappointed to the sailors at the triggers of the Phalanx, for once hearing the orders "Prepare to fire. This is not a drill".

After dodging the navy ship and getting back on course to La Paz, I banged my head with my hands for a little while for being so stupid, severely beat myself up mentally and then sunk into quiet embarrassment and shame, all of which was gracefully ignored by Renee, who honorably, but undeservingly, took on some responsibility for our inattentiveness. To be clear, I was in command, I was on watch, it was my responsibility...the buck stopped with me.

A few hours later, just outside the entry to the main La Paz harbor, Renee finally caught a fish that we would eat. She had been fishing diligently every day ever since leaving Puerto Escondido. She hooked a couple of trigger fish caught with a handline while at anchor in Agua Verde, but we typically don't like to eat the fish we find pretty and like to admire while snorkeling. She caught three skipjack tuna simultaneously as we sailed to Isla San Francisco, three big, fat fish that we, unfortunately, don't find very tasty and get tired of quickly. This time, she hooked a sierra (aka Spanish Mackerel) one of our favorite fish to eat. It's tasty, easy to prepare and cooks quickly.  We enjoyed eating it for dinner only a couple hours after she caught it. Delicious! Renee was so happy to have finally got her fish.

We got Intermezzo into her slip at Marina Palmira, a nice, clean, friendly marina about a mile and a half from downtown La Paz. We spent Wednesday and Thanksgiving Day cleaning up the boat and arranging for caretakers. We spent all of Friday on multi-leg air travel through Mexico City and L.A. back home, something I want to avoid next time. I have heard that one can fly from La Paz to Tijuana, walk across the border and catch the trolley to the San Diego airport, reportedly a quicker and less expensive route.

We arrived at The Ranch early Saturday morning and cooked and celebrated a belated family Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday.  Since then, Renee has resumed remodeling the cottage while we live in it and I have been spending my time complaining about the dust, launching a new business, resuming my yoga practice and brooding about life.

My plan is to spend the rest of the winter and early spring "commute cruising", splitting my time between land and sea, perhaps a two week on, two week off schedule, starting in mid-January.

I now have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with Intermezzo for the longer term. But I will save that to be the topic of another post.

Here are a bunch of photos taken during our journey from Puerto Escondido to La Paz:

Puerto Escondido anchorage at sunset

Natures beauty in the Sea of Cortez

View of anchorage at Isla San Francisco from atop its ridge

An osprey nest at the top of Isla San Francisco, nobody home.

Hiking the rugged terrain of Isla San Francisco
Hiking the non-rugged terrain of Isla San Francisco, its salt flat where we collected some nice salt.

Sunset at Marina Palmira in La Paz, just before dinner

Dinner, freshly caught sierra with onion-garlic-lemon-butter sauce, mashed potatoes and broccoli 

Intermezzo's current home