This blog could also be called ‘Why Sailboats Are the Slowest Possible Way to Get Anywhere.’ Or maybe ‘Research is Tough Enough Without Doing it From a Sailboat.’
Or perhaps ‘How a Sailboat Teaches Me What It Really Means to Learn.’
Let me explain.
After we pulled up the hook in Chacala, we made our way to the world-famous surf breaks of Punta de Mita, the northern end of the cruising mecca that is Bahía Banderas. This sheltered bay, a ship’s haven for over 500 years, has great wind and tempered swell. At the heart of the bay pulses the international tourism destination of Puerto Vallarta. Little did we know we would spend almost two months in this bay. Between unexpected major boat work and last minute guests, plus a dreamy farmers’ market, cheap tacos, consistent surf, and a tiny community of young cruisers, we found ourselves good and stuck in the tiny hamlet of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, fourteen nautical miles inside the bay.
As a traveler, I kind of suck at sticking to an agenda. In my twenties, I took off to countries with a cheap ticket and only the knowledge of the general area in which I would sleep my first night. I always intended to see vast tracts of the country, from Italy to Thailand to Panama. But I always thwarted myself and got cozy (and personally invested in the people) wherever I stopped.
First this would happen because I traveled with a purpose: to rock climb. Since climbing areas tend not to move around (rocks! go figure), I would happily base camp and explore the climbs. Later, as I moved on to cycling, I tried to enforce the movement part of travel by touring on two wheels. Instead, I would ride to a place, fall in love, and stop. Even before I was an official academic researcher, I didn’t want to just ‘see’ a place, I suppose I wanted to ‘know’ it: I wanted to dig into the relationship between people and place and get past the surface impressions.
But now, on the sailboat, I have (another) larger goal: interviews for my research, and stories for my grant. I want to keep moving to talk with more people on the coast. There’s both a personally and academically imposed pressure to gather as many interviews as possible.
Of course, that’s not what happened.
It all starts with a boat.
When people plan to go ‘cruising,’ they usually buy a boat and spend a minimum of two to five years, sometimes fifteen, preparing their boats (and their coffers) for their departure. But I wasn’t going cruising—I was going researching, just on a sailboat. I had two years, thanks to the Institute of Current World Affairs, to see Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. So only seven months after I purchased my (very bare) 1978 Cal 39, she blasted down the California coast in Josh’s capable hands. While we were able to fix scores of problems and inadequacies in that initial seven months in Berkeley, we couldn’t even begin to tackle a couple of the main problems (in large part because we didn’t know yet that they existed.)
One of these: the mast was sinking into the boat. Somehow, the boatmaker Cal made a fibergalss hull so fast and tough that it’s still winning ocean races 40 years later, but they went light on two things: mast stepping (what supports the mast where it connects to the boat), and the hull to deck joint (where the deck meets the hull tends to leak.) Both of these problems are fixable and don’t change the integrity of the boat—but they take time and a boatyard to fix.
So how does one notice if the mast is sinking into the boat? Use the bathroom door. Gradually, it stopped closing. I think it would have taken me a while to figure this out, but Josh’s internal alarm sounded as the bathroom door became tighter. (I just stopped using the door. This is why he’s the captain/engineer and I’m the researcher.)
A moment for boat briefing: we have a keel-stepped mast, so the mast plunges through the deck all the way to floor in the cabin. So the weight of the mast sits on the keel, (as opposed to a “deck-stepped” mast, where the mast would just end on top of the cabin.) That support system under the mast is completely obscured on Oleada. We would have to completely dismantle the floor of the boat to figure out what exactly was going on.
In La Cruz, with it’s marina and boatyard, Josh (delicately and precisely) tore open the floorboards to see if his hunch was correct. With most of the floor carefully cut apart and removed, he discovered that the mast was crushing the tiny “stringer,” or support, for all sixty feet of it’s aluminumness. This meant we would have to pull the mast using a crane and fix the problem, keeping us in the marina for weeks.
Marina time: a blessing and a curse. I want to be immersed in local culture, and while the docks have their own international culture, it’s distinctly not local. Fortunately, the general vibe in the La Cruz marina was of a relaxed pause. Sailing a boat can be tense: physically, always adjusting a body built for solid land to a constantly moving and rolling platform; and mentally, negotiating decisions with wind, waves, sickness, fear, lack of sleep, just to name a few. So La Cruz had the air of an extended break, and many sailing families had stopped in for a few months to enjoy laughing, talking, and drinking a beer with people who understand the trials of cruising (often with kids, a whole ‘nuther level to boat living!)
Despite my fidgeting and angst to get underway, I tried to adapt to our temporary home. We took to the casual and charming streets of La Cruz with a small tribe of young sailors. Over beers and cheap tacos at La Silla Roja (The Red Chair,) or incredible pizza at Casa Hule–watching the thin Italian chef under the cloak of the huge Huanacaxtle tree draped protectively over the open eating area–we shared stories and soaked up the culture of the few people our age who had also chosen this impossibly slow and laborious method of travel.
Being connected to a dock meant that we could experience the joys of nighttime in Mexico. Nearly every evening, the town square was that glorious Mexican cacauphony of kids, food, laughter, beer, paletas (popsicles) you couldn’t have even dreamed up when you were a kid growing up in the US, (like fresh mango dipped in chocolate and coconut,) and an insanely powerful speaker system to support the ecstatically shrill horns and maniacally-strummed guitars that pulsed from an exuberant band that wove its strains into the late night like a happy drunk twirling around the square.
Meanwhile, after Josh and I pulled the mast at the boatyard, Shannon and I flew to Mexico City to go wedding dress shopping. Shannon and I were thrust into the thrum of life that is the largest city in the hemisphere. Although we had spent plenty of time cooking and playing dominoes on our sail from Guaymas, and played together in Berkeley’s boatyard before that, we finally got to bond just the two of us as I dragged her around the city and she pushed me into stores to try dresses I would have never put on. Shannon is really, truly, down for anything. We ate street tacos and walked the city’s great parks, traversing neighborhoods and marveling at the surprising greenness of the city, enjoying a break from the sweltering sun of the coast. To see this great city on foot with my friend, who diligently held up the phone so my mother could be with us via facetime for every dress, was just another strange and perfect experience that is our time with the grant.
As soon as we arrived back in La Cruz, Josh’s friend Jason arrived on a last minute flight from New York. I met him at the airport, and we returned to help Josh re-step the mast. (Welcome! Now get to work!) Over the next few days, Josh took a break to surf with Jason, who was finding his flow and clearing out his head with the help of the Pacific.
Sometime in there, Jon (of SV Prism) sat down with me for three days straight in what I called “the cold room,” a circular room downstairs in the marina building with semi-comfortable chairs and sub-zero air conditioning. We cranked out a video together, overachieving on a request from ICWA for a visual piece for a donor about our mission.
Until finally we were out of the marina! It felt amazing to be surrounded by the horizon again, tugging on the chain in the afternoon wind chop, and facing out into our future sail south. In all, I only have four interviews to show for our time in La Cruz. But in more ways that one, we needed that time for other things: to fix our boat; to learn about video-making; to reconnect with old friends and make new ones; to engage in the modern rituals (like dress shopping) but with the twists imposed by our adopted culture and lifestyle. We sit between two cultures: those of our home, and those of our adopted home.
You might even say, though, that there’s a third and powerful culture: that of the sea. We have found this implicit in our conversations with fishermen, or the way that men will hold their catches high and proud when we pass in the open ocean, a shared joy for the precious and perhaps disappearing bounty of the sea, that ability to survive when we can only see the surface of the depths that provide for us. We share this third culture with both the Mexican fishers and the cruisers. Here in La Cruz, the understanding was silent and implied, with the temporary space to breathe easy at night.
I was shocked to discover my own tears when we sailed away. I had been so antsy to leave that I hadn’t noticed how much I enjoyed and needed our time in La Cruz. As we cranked up the hook, from Tasha and Owen on Wine-o-Rhino came the haunting tones of bagpipes—turns out Owen is a professional-level player, and they were sending us off into the blue. Rob, Kai, and Etolyn on Velella Velella emerged from their boat to pass us a bucket of exotic chocolate, a rare treat for our upcoming trip south.
Such is the way of sailing but also of travel: we meet under the intensity, glory, and quiet struggle of chosen displacement, exchange gifts of talent, care, and personality, and sail away, possibly to never see each other again. It’s up to me to recognize these times for their value, even as they don’t fit within my imagined plan. I have to allow my “research” to extend beyond the hollow parameters of academia, to absorb the culture of life on the sea—no matter who teaches it to me.