Guatorado

C’mon Guys

It’s April 1. And I’m talking about buying a nasty, ugly, funky, used up old boat. Tired of the peace and wanting to spend more money, and then pointing out how Elia would jump at the chance to live on a cockroach invested moldy death trap. 2 plus 2 equals 5? Something’s wrong here. Once again, it’s April Fools! Thanks for the enthusiastic responses of excitement for our new adventure, but it ain’t happening for sure. There will be no new boat this year. We love our Orion, who now sits quietly on the hard in The Rio Dulce, Guatemala.

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Our newest roomate (On land)

Once you leave the isolated Cays of southern Belize the next stop on the cruisers highway is the Rio Dulce.The sweet river. To get into the river at Livingston you first have to navigate “The Bar”, the sandbar that crosses the mouth of the river. Word is that they don’t dredge it so that the locals keep their job of pulling sailboats across. There are plastic jugs with flags that reportedly are in the wrong spots to lead sailors into running aground so they call someone to tow them across. Tales of boats with 6.5 foot draft wait for the highest tide, then have someone tow them from the front, and another boat go alongside with a line from the top of their mast to heel them over and then drag them along the 200 yards of mud. Orion with her centerboard up and 4.5 feet to the bottom had no problem.

We clear in and then it’s into an entirely different world. For one we are motoring up a slightly murky fresh water river as opposed to sailing in the brilliant blue wide open seas we have been in for the last 4 months. There is no rolling from the waves, we are out of the wind and there is a current running against us. For the first 5 miles or so green walls rise straight up on both sides covered in exotic trees and bushes. We are definitely in the jungle. Egrets sit on the tree branches and the sounds of howler monkeys, tree frogs, prehistoric birds, and who knows what call out. The river winds back and forth dotted throughout with little thatched roof mayan houses and men and families in small boats going to and fro. There is no access by land for miles, so there is a stream of commerce with little dugout canoes, fishing skiffs, and tourists packed into small runabouts. About 10 miles in the river opens up to a large lake with volcanic mountains on either side. Finally we come around a bend and start to see masts, larger boats, small pockets of sailors, and finally the bridge at Fronterra. We made it!!!

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The Rio Dulce

There are reportedly 1000 boats tucked away waiting out the hurricane season, or just waiting to die, in the Rio Dulce. There are good reasons. It is south of the hurricane track and at 20 miles inland, and mountains blocking the path of the winds there has never been a reported hurricane. Fresh water is much easier on all of the boat parts and many boats are left in the water for months or even years at a time. There are over a dozen little marinas, with everyone having a favorite. Tortugal, Tijax, Mar Marine, M and M, each with a little different reputation and flavor. Many have a restaurant or bar attached and offer Friday movie nights, or special cocktail hours. When compared to say Maine it’s about 1/3rd the price to store your boat, and even less to get work done.

The cruising community is well established with a large group of people living on their boats in the various marinas interspersed with sailors coming and going to Belize, and hiding from the hurricanes in the summer. There is a cruisers net at 7:30 on VHF 69 which announces movie night, trips to the jungle, and jams at the shack. A strong volunteer group is Pass It On which helps take giveaways from boaters, sells them at a swap meet, and uses all of the money to build solar energy systems for remote villages. Or Casa Guatemala committed to helping Guatemalan children.NNZB2900

Most of the locals in the Rio Dulce are Mayan. And from our perspective they seem incredibly at peace and happy. Lots of smiles and giggles in the boat yard. Tales of them watching the uptight foreigners come in and just kind of laughing at their stress. On the other hand time seems to take on a different quality. It is said that you can get stuff done cheap, done well, or done on time, but not all three. And the one that suffers most is the on time. There seems to be a desire to promise what someone wants to hear, but then get to it as is possible. People in the marina had been waiting there for months hoping to finally get their boat painted. Some frustration had built up.

The town of Fronterra kind of blew our minds after such a long peaceful time on the water. It’s a tiny town, with one main street that happens to also be the freeway. No bypass here. Full semi trucks crawl through town mere feet from where you join the parade of locals moving along along right up next to a chest high tire on an eighteen wheeler while dodging in and out of the traffic. Soldiers with long thin shotguns stand guard on various corners. Women dressed in traditional Mayan multicolored cloths, fruit stands,  loud horns, and diesel smoke fill the senses.

On a clear windlass day after about 10 in the morning it’s almost impossible to be outside doing anything productive as the temperature goes over 90 and the humidity thick. It’s fucking hot as Elia would so eloquently exclaim. The sun is fierce and cooks the decks. After being in constant trade winds for the last 4 months it takes a lot out of us and we spend the middle of the days hiding in the shade.

And then after a couple of weeks getting Orion set to leave, chasing howler monkeys up a creek at dawn, jamming at The Shack and The Sundog with the local jam nights, checking out the restaurants, meeting other cruisers, and joining in a sunrise Mayan ceremony on the spring equinox it was time to go. Turns out It’s a long way home.IMG_3870

A 6 hour bus ride gets you to Guatemala City. They offered us seats 3 and 4 which we thought was a great deal. Top floor of a two story bus all the way up front. It turns out the local don’t like to sit with nothing but a piece of glass between them and the oncoming madness. Seems they have been on these buses before. Then into the fringes of the city where we transfer to a packed smaller bus that can actually navigate the downtown streets. And into the traffic, and the noise, and the diesel smoke, and the full on city stretched thin by too many people and a crumbling inefficient infrastructure. Lots of motorcycles, and taxi’s, all moving fast and instantly filling any small gap in the traffic pattern. No idea where we are. Let out, and into a taxi that takes us to our little B&B by the airport.

The taxi driver knows where to go. Good thing because there is nothing on the outside showing that it is a business. All the houses on the street have concrete walls and solid gates with razor wire fencing on top. He rings the bell and a stately older man lets us in to a nice and clean little hotel. We mentioned we would like to get dinner somewhere. He walked us next door and knocked and an older man led us in to his dining room table and made us a delicious dinner. We sat and chatted with him about life in Guatemala City. All quite bizarre and sweet. Hidden behind the concrete walls of the city seems to be a kind and dignified culture, hiding from the speed, dirt, and crime that moves so quickly by outside.

In the morning it’s off to the airport, to Ft Lauderdale, to Denver, to the long drive up the hill and back into the house I’ve lived in for over 30 years. So very familiar.

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From the bathroom window

And now to dealing with the transition. To the full life of money stress, of work, of music. One of the bigger problems now is how to deal with the mother and baby moose that have decided our garden is where the choice yummies are. We are back to our first world problems. So yes, this winter on Orion has come to a close. Where we will be when the the turning of the earth brings snow back to Colorado is still to be determined. There are many more islands in Belize to be explored. Roatan, off the Hondoran coast is an overnight away. The south coast of Cuba could be awesome. Or perhaps back to Florida to set up a more permanent winter base. All will unfold. But with all of our thinking and planning Orion patiently waits for our return. Enjoy the summer, see you next winter and thanks for reading.

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See you next year!

Adios Orion?

It has become more and more obvious where the true joy of this sailing lifestyle lies. As Orion has gotten more and more of her systems fixed, faults repaired, and broken things working right, I am finding that a boredom is creeping in. There is lethargy. Snorkeling in crystal clear water, long walks through the jungle at dawn tracking howler monkeys. None of it seems to measure up to the satisfaction of replacing the macerator pump on the head, or the true reward of fixing the engine in the remotest of Mexican anchorages where failure would be a difficult prospect indeed. The joy is in the doing, not the being. The fixing, not the fixed.IMG_3899

This does come as a surprise I must admit. I would have thought that it would go quite the other way, and that as more systems are working correctly and need less attention, that I would be pulled to other pursuits. That I would take satisfaction in having a boat that runs well, looks sharp, is dependable, and that I made that way. That that would be enough. It seems not. It’s almost like with children, when they have finally grown into good god fearing adults and you long for those days when they were in constant need of tweaking and attention.IMG_3848

All that is to say that I have found that having a boat that works does not seem nearly as satisfying as having one that doesn’t. So in that vein I have decided to shop for a replacement for our dear Orion. One that will not only take my time, but fully challenge the limits of the checkbook. For of course not only is their incredible joy in the fixing of broken, worn out parts, but then there is the true satisfaction of spending money on her to bring her back to the level she was when new. West Marine is much like Mecca when you own a boat that needs work. Every aisle cry’s out with something that you could not do without. Then there are the joys of shopping online and having everything delivered to the boatyard and the Christmas like sensation of opening all those boxes. I’ve been missing that.IMG_3857

Lucky for us this new realization is hitting as we sit in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. Tagline, “Where boats go to die”. And what makes this whole dream possible is that the people that own these once admirable ships actually think they are not worth much and so are willing to let them go for a song. Somehow they have gotten to the point where they think the work on the boat is the chore and the sailing is the joy. I’m glad I have moved past that dead end, and yet I realize that there are those that have not yet reached that level of consciousness. Thank God for the less evolved.IMG_3876

Then there is the sheer joy of looking at seemingly tired and used up boats to find that diamond in the rough. The pawing through the accumulated stuff in the cabins, scraping the mold off to find the true treasures of the bilge. The gamble you take when starting the engine. Will it turn over, and then if it does the question arises is the smoke coming out the back, black, blue, white, and what does that mean? The water in the bilge, the dripping fuel line, the blisters in the gelcoat,  all of which have lead the previous owner to want to walk away, only bring me closer to bliss.

I realize a lot of this new direction goes against conventional sailboat buying wisdom. One way that I plan on bucking the trend is to not get a survey, and not to bring in any “experts” to bring all of their negativity into  the dream,. Not to harsh on my mellow as it were. Many of the “experienced professional’s” look at a sailboat from a certain perspective based on their own and other peoples past successes and failures, and would restrict the thinking of what is possible. There is a feeling, a bond, that one can get with a boat. I plan to trust this completely.  I want the conversation to be between me and the new mistress. I’m finding that if I’m very quiet inside I can put my hands on the hull and feel where she has been, and if ours is a path that we should sail together.IMG_3847

They say the happiest days of a boat owners life are the day he buys his boat, and the day he sells it. I’m hoping both of those will be mine to experience soon. I’m looking forward to this next chapter. Orion has been a fine partner and we have brought her back from a sad state to one where she is proud and happy. As March turns into the beginning of April I can feel this new energy building. I suspect Elia won’t be as excited about this whole prospect as I am, so I’m thinking that I will surprise her when the deal is done. I just know how she loves surprises.IMG_3881 2

UnBelizeable

As you go through life there are many times when you look ahead and think that right around the corner is where it’s all going to happen, with the pot of gold and the promise in the brochure kept and your wildest dreams all coming true, We had been telling ourselves that about Belize. The possibilities were lining up. Most of the sailing is done behind a reef, so it knocks out the ocean swell. Everyone speaks English so it’s easy to get around. 2nd largest barrier reef in the world so the snorkeling would be excellent.IMG_3838

Anchored out off the west side of Ranguana Cay. Palm trees, check. White sandy beach, got it. Incredible snorkeling right off the back of the boat. Of course. Water as clear as gin. A 2-3 hour sail from a really fun town. No other islands in sight. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but then tomorrow we hope to sail for another couple of hours to it’s cuter sister. Seems we have made it.

It’s all so good when it’s good. Lot’s of sailing can feel a lot like “ahem” work. When you have to cover 200 miles in 3 days, wind blowing the wrong way, swells coming from 3 directions at once, squalls popping up when they weren’t expected to, ground appearing where there should be water, pulling into places that are not fully as advertised, it can make you a little crazy. So when it happens the way it’s supposed to it’s glorious.

img_3833.jpegMaybe be the best part is what’s happening under the surface. Snorkeling these reefs is a magical experience. Purple fans, elk horn reaching to the surface with monstrous green and yellow brain coral, orange sponges, long tentacles all swaying gently with the current. In and out float the Grouper, Angelfish, Parrotfish, Jacks and Snappers. Mr. Lobster scrunched into his little hole in the rock dares me to try and grab him. Orange starfish and a slowly moving Conch with Nurse Sharks,Turtles and a Barracuda lazing by all keeping an eye on us, and seemingly comfortable with our monstrous sized human forms peering into their world. From the deck of Orion we see flying fish soaring 30-40 feet, drifting on their “wings” before dropping back to their world. And then there are the porpoises. Elia calls out, Dolphina, Dolphina and they come closer to check us out as we do the same.

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Most stylish boat in the harbor

The natives along the coast have a long relationship with the sea. There are the local fisherman in their funky homemade sailboats, one big sail and long boom, piled high with dugout canoes. 7 guys on one boat, all sleeping under a slapping blue tarp to get up early and go out  to fish in their little cayukos, and then back to the mother ship which gets covered with hanging laundry at night. A Rasta looking fellow who built his own catamaran out of old paddle boards, chunks of foam, and a scrounged sail from a windsurfer, proudly sails standing through the harbor.  Dugout canoes, reinforced with fiberglass are everywhere. One old scrawny guy fills his with sand to just below sinking, and shuttles it over to an ever-growing pile on a far away beach. Then back to do it again in the scorching midday sun. Long fiberglass skiffs with large fast motors blast through the anchorage taking divers out to the reef, ferrying people back and forth, the pickup trucks of the Belizean sea.

IMG_3825Along many of the beaches facing east sargasso sea weed blows in and piles up giving off a strong distinctive stink. Wind always out of the east so blows anything in the water eventually up onto the beach. We dinghied in to South Long Cocoa Cay and took a walk around. The South side was all ready for a conference with lots of little bungalows on stilts. Beautiful view. Large harbor. Talked to the caretaker who said Yanni was going to be the next guest. Peaceful hideaway indeed. And then the walk to the north side. Along the breakwater were phenomenal piles of plastic and washed up trash. Somehow some shoe manufacturer or recycler dumped their load because there were over a few hundred random pairs of new and worn and crocs, sneakers, sandles. Random garbage weirdness. And always the plastic. Broken down bottles, caps, a toys r us trike. All wedged in between the built up coral breakwater. Would be incredibly hard to cleanup if someone even gave it a go. But the damn plastic does last and does float, and does end up on these shores, and if it’s not a place where people are paying money for it to be shiny it accumulates. Sad and disturbing.

IMG_3818Cay Caulker in the north is an island accessed by a 1 hour water taxi ride from Belize City with a funky laid back vibe, and a focus on keeping the tourist entertained, with diving trips to the reefs, swimming with the sharks, snorkeling off the boat, and trips to see the ruins, Lots of 20 somethings hanging out, checking each other out in their bathing suits and puffy red skin, listening to the thump thump of the island rhythm at night. All dirt streets with an anchorage off the west side far enough out to only slightly hear the diesel engines generating power for the island 24/7. A few good restaurants, some nice sandy floored bars, a safe anchorage for sailboats, swaying palms, friendly locals. Many little stands selling local crafts, with sweet Mayan ladies offering beadwork and fabrics from Guatamala, and small grills setup along the street offering chicken, sausages, and local delicacies.

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Placencia sidewalk 30 years in the making

Down south the main cruiser hub is Placencia. Great protected anchorage with a friendly scene. Yoli’s bar is where you bring in your dinghy, chat with the other sailors and play poker during the afternoon to escape the heat of the midday sun, and compare tales of places been. Cruisers wander throughout the town as well as a decent number of international tourists hanging for a week or a winter. Some money is coming in leading to nicer restaurants, crowded beach bars, cleaner hotels, and nice shops, all with a very small town feel. Our favorite daily stop was Tuttit Frutti’s, owned by an Italian couple who whip out homemade gelato that almost brought us to tears. The main walking path through town is a slightly elevated cement sidewalk that was reportedly 30 years in the making. We were there in the dry season but word is that it rains over 120 inches a year and so getting off the ground is probably a great idea.

The biggest draw in this part of the country is the hundreds of islands, or Cay’s all along the coast. The reef is 10-40 miles off the mainland with little islands throughout. Some are just little Mangrove bursts, others have resorts with white sand, palm trees, a small boat harbor all surrounded by stunning turquoise waters. Lots of places to just drop the hook and dive off the back of the boat to explore the coral and be alone in paradise. We have spent a month here and feel like we have only scratched the surface.

Slowly we are working on putting Orion away again for the hurricane filled summer. For us there is cleaning up to do, and the thinking of life back in Colorado enters more into the mind and the conversations. The plan is to head up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and leave her in trusted hands. There is a cruising oasis there with excellent marinas that offer a safe and cheap place to leave her that is out of the hurricane zone. And the awesome thing is that it is only a 2 day sail back into the heart of paradise for next years adventures to begin. Unbeliezable!IMG_3819

Why Does It Always Happen At Night?

The plan was to move south from Isla Mujeres overnight then into San Pedro Belize the next day. Beautiful easy sailing day within a half mile of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen. We stay close in to the reef to avoid the nasty current in the deep water, and fly by Tulum as the sun slips away in a  gorgeous sunset with a light evening breeze. As we worked our way east to get around the point the wind picked up. We were getting overpowered and needed to start the engine. As I started her up something didn’t feel right. I looked down at the temp and it was up to 225. Way hot. Have to shut it down. Jib partially in. Reef on the right feeling closer but pitch black so can’t see a thing. Depth going from a comfortable 80 feet to 30, to 25, to 20. Needing to get some speed to get by the reef, but have to to stay up wind. They call that clawing off a lee shore. I call it fucking hairy. Sailing another hour then in through a cut in the the reef and then downwind into a semi safe anchorage all in the dark. Shirt soaked in sweat. No motor to set the anchor. Wind howling. Sail in, drop her down, and hope she holds. Hard to sleep in the rolly incredibly deserted and off the map anchorage not knowing if I will be able to get the engine to start in the morning.

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Street murals everywhere is Isla Mujeres

The weird and disoriented thing at night is that you don’t have any visual reference points. And usually when something goes wrong it is brought on by a squall, or an increase or shift in the wind. Much of the time it appears suddenly. The squall winds blow seemingly from all directions at once. All you have to go in is your electronics, wind speed and direction, chart plotters. You can’t look out and line anything up. All of the sides in the cockpit are rolled down to keep the rain out. You are in this weird little dark, sweaty, loud, moist, scary bubble staring at electronic numbers and pointers trying to figure out what to do.IMG_3774

Cayo Levisa, Cuba. Sweet little peaceful anchorage. Got in close to shore to have more protection from the cold front coming in, but anchored in grass. Went in to use the internet and came out to see the boat dragging and ending up just yards from the mangroves in a 30 knot wind from the south. Sped out in the dinghy to drive her back out, and reset the anchor, heart beating fast. As the sun set, as predicted the wind swung west and then from the north. Started picking up big time with pounding rain, lightning. 30 knots, 35. Orion’s bow pushed over to one side, tracking until brought up and then back the other way. Everything loud and rattling. All of my attention on the little circle on our anchor alarm that shows if we are staying put. At 42 knots the picture jumped. We were dragging. Start the engine and try to drive strait into the wind to keep us from being blown across the bay. Way too much wind to try and bring in the snubber and the anchor. Locked into our little plastic enclosed cockpit with no real sense of reality other than what is on the screen on the ipad and the feeling of playing a video game to keep the boat in the circle while all hell is breaking loose around us. Hours later if dropped back below 30 and the anchor held. That night 65 miles east of us in Havana there was the largest tornado in over 75 years.

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The Captain playing at Skull’s Landing, Isla Mujeres

Then just last night. Tennuriffe atoll 8 miles off the coast of Belize. The problem with Belize is that the charts suck. They provide some information but then spotty information can be worse than none at all. The main chart book everyone uses was written in 2006. The Navionics electronic charts are incredibly vague. And behind the reef we are regularly in water that is just a couple of feet deeper than our keel. At any rate. Coming through a fairly narrow cut in the reef that by all accounts should have been strait forward. As we went through there was a scraping sound meaning we knocked into coral, a rock, or something that wasn’t supposed to be there. Then into the lagoon. Crawling along in 5 and a half to 6 feet of water. Finally stopped and set the anchor. Wanted to get around behind an island but water was skinnying up fast. As we sat still a local guy came by and told us we could go around a shoal to get to a more sheltered place. I’m always trying to get a little better spot, so we pulled up the anchor, followed him around, and ran hard aground. Dinghy couldn’t push us off, anchor out in the sand couldn’t pull us off. Sitting sideways to the wind banging loudly up and down until about high tide at 3 am, when I finally got us nudged into deeper water. Next day waited for the tide to lift us 6 inches to give us the best chance to get back out the cut in the reef that was not visible at all from this angle. Shows on the charts and can see where we came through from out chartplotter track but as we get closer it looks hairy. Waves building up. At some point the only move was to head in, crunch through some more coral, and finally out. Very glad to have a thick skinned solid fiberglass battleship of a boat. A very scary, intense, sleepless, nervous 24 hours .

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Awesome homemade catamaran.

There are times it’s like that. Situations that can end very badly if you either make a bad decision, or circumstances conspire. And that gets balanced with sitting here now behind Water Cay at sunset, grill churning out chicken, Elia cooking up the yummies and all utterly calm and peaceful. So what’s the takeaway. One is to be more and more respectful and prepared for things to go wrong. Build in a larger safety margin. Have redundant redundancy in the systems. Always have a plan B, and then C in the back of the mind. And know that it’s all part of the boating lifestyle. Things will breakdown, screwup, and there is are certain times where that can mean a life threatening situation. Be as prepared and vigilant as possible.

And then there is always the question, Are We Nuts? I’ve seen three cruise ships go by in the last hour from Belize City, and there is a part of me that envies the ease and lack of responsibility involved. They end up on a lot of the same little islands that we do. The same streets in the cities. And  they don’t spend any time whatsoever wondering if their little home will end up on a reef in the middle of the night. But then they pass by with there 3000 peers leaving us all alone with the stars and the quiet and the answer is clear.

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Elia’s people

Our Man In Havana

Dropping into Havana is like entering into some bizarre time warp of cultural clashes. Chevy’s and Fords from the 40’s and 50’s, Russian Lada’s, Chinese compacts, horse drawn carts, overflowing buses spewing diesel, brave darting pedestrians, all moving together doing the dance of the city through crumbling buildings and loud city streets from the last 500 years.IMG_3666

Downtown are forts from the 1600’s, churches from the 1800’s. There is classic european beauty with ancient Spanish stone architecture, gorgeous courtyards in downtown buildings that house art, sculpture, old wooden furniture, beautiful tropical plants. Then signs of the  architectural push of the Americans through the early to mid 1900’s, and on to the USSR, with it’s stark strait lines and strange Soviet era towers dotting the coastline, keeping a watchful eye on the waters.IMG_3651 (1)

Cuba was “discovered” by Columbus, and was mostly built and settled by the Spanish. In the early 1900’s the Cubans fought for their independence, got help from the US, and so opened themselves up to an ongoing American influence and an infinite American presence in Guantanamo Bay. As Cuba prospered along came lots of mob ties and sugar money which helped to line the pockets of Batista, making the rich richer, and the poor poorer. This situation provided a breeding ground for Fidel and Raul and Che and the revolution, with hopes of medicine and schooling for all and a turn to the Soviets for backing. When the USSR crumbled in the early 90’s, over $4 billion in yearly payments stopped and things went to hell.

In downtown Havana they have decided that the path forward is through tourism, and that the best way to attract the ATM machine that is the foreign tourist is by making downtown shine. Some areas have been brought back to their former glory with brightly painted walls, refreshed wooden doors, shutters, and quaint cobblestone streets. Others are in process, being readied behind 15 foot high corrugated metal walls that give a promise of things to come. For much of the 1900’s Cuba was the most prosperous nation in the Caribbean. It has good bones.IMG_3633

Warm and friendly people were everywhere we went. Downtown and in the small towns all are out walking the streets during the daytime, plastic shopping bags in hand as they return with the days groceries. All feeling very safe with lots of kids around, women walking alone, no need to be fearful. And then dinner time comes and the streets are empty and silent with everyone together inside. Our new buddy Andre takes me to his friends house to change some american money into CUC’s. “Will he be home?” I ask. “Of course, it’s dinner time in Cuba”.

There is a conflicting combination of pride and anger from the people. They love the country. They hate the government. They get the free medicine, free school but are paid hardly anything to work in the office jobs that they were schooled for. So they work in the black and semi black market. Doctors driving taxi’s, changing money. “I can get anything for you. What do you need?”IMG_3652

The downtown central squares have been designated as WiFi hotspots, where people young and old congregate not to interact, but to stare at their phones under the Banyan trees. $1.50 gets you an hour of decent service. Just buy a card and plugin the code. Strange twist on the use of public spaces, bringing everyone together in isolation. The internet is open but there is no access for American money. Credit cards issued from American banks won’t work. Can’t go on pay pal or even the Apple store to pay for something while in Cuba. Bring your stack of cash.

IMG_3667The retail stores are bizarre. They are run by the government and seem to get a truckload of whatever it is they are selling at a time and put it all out on the shelves at once, with no seeming rhyme or reason as to what any store might have. There are stacks and stacks of exactly the same dishwashing soap in yellow, and then in green, and then red. We saw one pile of about 100 dustpans and little brooms in a little market. But then we went shopping for vegetables and it was great, as long as you wanted what they had. Most are sold in little carts on the side of the road, or in somebodies front yard with a table outside. We found huge cabbages, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, and more all at way less than they would at home. Or possible of course to get a fresh chunk of pork or chicken, cut from the pig and hanging out in the hot Cuban sun. We weren’t that brave.IMG_3624

And then there are the cars. There are old american classics from the 40’s, 50’s, and early 60’s everywhere you look. Most of the engines have been replaced by diesels, but the bodies and the interiors on many are cherry. Pink, lime green, shining chrome, beginnings of tail fins. They cost more than a house would cost in Havana because the drivers use them to make a real wage as taxi’s and tour guides. Many europeans off the cruise ships are seen sitting in the back seat of the pink convertibles with their selfie stick extending the phone to document their ride through downtown Havana.IMG_3646

Musicians on many corners. Mostly one guy with a guitar playing Chan Chan and his buddy scraping the gourd for rhythm. Heard that song at least a dozen times a day. But then as we dug a little deeper found an excellent Cuban Jazz quartet. Intricate conga player with the wood block on the foot pedal. Acoustic bass turned backward to reverberate the sound off the stone pillar behind. Acoustic steel string guitar player with wild eyes and a lifetimes worth of Cuban sounds in his fingers. And through the cuban melodies I heard the jamming sounds that I know so well. At some point they dropped into Tequila, and it could have been us in Glenn’s shop in Jamestown. Elsewhere a young, small, sad eyed earnest teenager moved into a space near an outside dining area and started belting out Cuban ballads. Sang a half dozen songs, and passed the hat. They do all pass the hat. Caught his eye later counting the bills and he gave me a thumbs up sign. Could have been Ethan. Elia and I joined a pair in a bar, sharing blues riff’s, she harmonizing, me tapping out rhythm with a spoon on the coffee cup. Impromptu song of American’s from Colorado. Our gifts were guitar strings from America.IMG_3689

The only place to bring a sailboat is into Marina Hemmingway, about 15 miles west of downtown. When it was built  in the 50’s it would have been impressive with 5 rows of canals for boats, tennis courts, restaurants, and a bowling alley ,built for the affluent and to lure the american yachts. But now it is crumbling and tired. Word is a few years ago it was quite full with Americans finally getting to bring their boats to Cuba. But then he who shall not be named seems to have decided that since Obama had opened the door he should close it back up and has made it much harder for American boaters to visit. Cuba could really use the dollars from the American tourists. It doesn’t need the KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks strip mall  bullshit that seems to come with American “investment”, but it could sure use some sailors coming in, drinking some beers and eating in the restaurants.

As we left the city to sail west the landscaped turned into mountains and greenery. Gorgeous empty land. We ended up at a bay where they were recycling ships. Then into another where there is an “eco tourist” lodge on a tucked away island. Endless sand beach, little palapas, a ferry comes to drop people twice a day from the mainland. Tourist’s from many countries other than the US milling about. Nice to get out of the city and back to bare feet, white sand, and a book enjoyed under a palm tree.IMG_3618

Key Weird

Key West . A multi hued tapestry of tourists, partiers, military, old crusty Florida hippies, gay boys and girls, sailors, hustlers, locals, street performers and musicians. The end of the line. Where all congregate to celebrate the sunset each night from Mallory square, and from the piers, rooftops, and waterfront bars, focused on the final moment as the great orb spreads into the sea, all waiting for the elusive green flash.

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Sunset from Mallory Square.

 

Beautiful classic southern architecture, with balconies overlooking the streets, wide front porches, shutters for the windows, tucked away behind the palms and and mossy tentacles that fall from the trees. Many old moldy run down wood paneled fixer uppers in the waiting. Banyon trees stretching wide, limbs out with hanging vines reaching for the ground to turn into new trunks.

Earnest Hemingway in the bars, the names. Over 100, 6 toed cats, descended from his famous feline at the Hemingway house where he wrote many of his classics. He drank here, he stayed there. Pictures on the walls of bars of him drinking, fishing, carrying on. White haired, bearded Hemingway contest looks alikes on the street. Elia says I should grow the hair, grow the beard, get the steely eyed stare and embrace the man, the writer, the drinker, the womanizer. Maybe she means just the look.img_3640

Much inebriation on all sides, at all hours. Thankfully we missed New Years eve by a few days, but as they say on the T shirt, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning”. In paradise for only a few days, many waste no time.

Money being extracted from the tourists in many creative ways. From far away the para gliders hang their victims off the  back of their boats  and float them in the breeze. Sunset cruises abound on old schooners, Catamarans, Sweet Janes Island Charter. Catch the deep sea Tuna or the Marlin and proudly match your wits against a poor defenseless fish that didn’t even know there was a confrontation to prepare for. Tiki huts built on rafts motoring throughout the anchored boats. Snorkel out off the packed boat to the murky key. How many tourists can you pile onto a Catamaran, while jacking the reggae as you go past the anchorage. All you can drink, all you can drink, all you can drink. Stumble back to your hotel, or to the late night streets of Key Weird. Restaurants and bars throughout downtown. Packed on New Years week. All the tourists flying in, staying at the hotel, the inn. Eating out, drinking out. Spending the green, yes siree. The American way.

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Many options for drinking! Orion in the background on the hook

A different style of boating community than we are used to. Small interactions among boaters, but many with only a slight wave as they go by on their Carolina Skiff to work in the morning. There are regular cruisers but it seems hard to connect with them. No VHF net in the morning. No central place to hang. Very few of us, compared to the affordable housing members of Key West, that bought Bubby Joe’s boat for $500 and keep it anchored out with a long dinghy ride to town. Sails blown out, motor doesn’t work but one way to live cheap in paradise.

Forts abound on the Florida coast. Imposing structures mostly built for the short lived Spanish American war. Most never had a shot fired. You can take an all day ferry ride to the Dry Tortugas for $200 to see Fort Jefferson or go to Fort Zachary Taylor state park on the tip of the island.  Lots of american military dollars and might. Guns that can shoot 32 miles out and over the horizon in 1896. Keep the enemy hopping. Immigration control old school. We don’t need no stinking wall!

Tourists of all flavors regurgitated from the cruise ships daily. Pulled up along Mallory square, leaving by sunset. Italians, French, Japanese, hard to say where else, but all with the pasty overfed, hungover glaze of the one week vacation a year, get it all in at once in a week in paradise before going back to “reality”img_3570

Old crusty florida types. Elia calls them “my people”. Bearded, deeply dark and wrinkled crusty as all get out, living on the boats, hanging in the streets. Seem to have an inner circle. They shout out to each other as they stumble by. Yo Bro.

And then the music. Ah yes. The Green Parrot, Sloppy Joes, The Bull, Sunset Pier, and on it goes. All free. No cover charge. And the beauty for this old man of the sea is that it starts with a 5:30 sunset set. Done by 7:30. Home for sup. Bed by nine. Some of our favorites. Billy And The Squids. Skinny funny looking guy, tight pants, hair slicked back, blowing lonesome harp and singing the cowboy boogie Hank Williams classics. The Whores. Playing anything for a tip proudly. Here’s a ten, play Sweet Caroline. Open to stopping for $11. It stops. Open to starting for $12. Back and forth until some guy gives them $100 to play the whole song, if they let his Mary sing with them for her birthday. All funny as hell especially to the more inebriated at Sloppy Joes. Many bars with a singer and single guitar and some mild electronic backup. Blues, some Jimmy Buffett, some just background tourist music, others truly talented. Found a Dead Jams cover band that was excellent. I watch the bass.The test is Eyes Of The World. He nailed it. And he brought a fast, funky, approach to Bertha, to Rider. Kind of a Vulfpeck Joe Dart bass into Dead tunes. We talked after the show. They do over 300 shows a year. Also plays in a funk band, an island Jazz band. Made me head back to the boat to work on the elusive eighth notes on my fender.

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Christmas Florida style

And then as always it’s time to go. Maxo off on a bus to Ft Lauderdale, to Costa Rica. We’re on the Key West Transit Blue line to Publix to shop big for the upcoming dearth of supplies. Last night treat of the second round of the Dead band on the sunset pier, dancing to Shakedown Street, and a wonderful funkified “You’ve Got To Serve Somebody to end the set, and then off for the overnight to Cuba. Great time in Key West. Long enough to feel it. Short enough to appreciate it. On to the next adventure.

Aground!

Steaming full speed out of Pelican Bay. Headed for Boca Grande Pass. Up towards Venice. Anchor up. Scott is driving. I grab the wheel. Came in a few days before so know where the channel is. Beautiful morning. Life is grand, and then out of nowhere, thump, crunch, bad lurch and full stop. WTF. I blame it on the early morning brain fog, the crappy charts on my Raymarine Chartplotter, the early in the trip haven’t been on the boat in a while, inattentiveness. But really as I look at the chart later, it’s so obvious. I screwed up.

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Follow the brown line over the blue tongue

Tried the engine to get us out. Could rotate her around but no forward movement.  Put up the sail to heel us over to one side to release the grip. Row an anchor out in the dinghy to kedge us off. All with no luck. Tide headed out. Lucky all of the bottom is sand. But stuck. Seriously stuck.

Called Tow Boat US. The AAA of boating. Pay your one fee per year and get unlimited free tows. Such the deal. Captain Steve there in a half hour. Racing the tide he says. Ties on to the bow. His twin Suzuki 115’s strain, pull, drag… us deeper onto the sand bar.

Had to get the anchor back up to free us to pull forward. Attach a floating ball, pulling chain. Large palaber. Anchor dug into the sand. Deep. No luck. Boat quite stuck!

Tide headed out. Long day chilling in Pelican Bay facing the wrong direction while the other anchored boats look on. Sometimes you just need to wait.

Grounded from the water
Standing in 3.5 feet.

As night time came the high time came along with it. And with both of them Captain Dwight with the next effort, saying he’s the guy the gets people out when nobody else can. Bigger boat. More horsepower. More torque. More experience.

Attach a bridle to the port side on the bow. Tow boat at full torque. Orion rolling to her side, but insistent on her place in the sand. Switch to starboard. No movement at all. Not looking good.

Start talking about if we can’t get her out coming back tomorrow to put inflatable bags all around her hull and floating her at high tide. Not easy. Not cheap.

Wait another hour until the absolute moment of the highest tide. Line on Starboard. Pull to one side. Engine running full on the towboat and on Orion. Movement? Hard to tell.

Line on Port. Pull over to her other side. Just need 20 feet. Maybe some movement. Some release. Forward bumping then onto another sand bar. Back and forth we go.

Then from a bottle pops the cork and we are floating free and at ease.

All of which is another lesson. Another day. Another learning.

Which is all part of being the Captain. The responsibility can be small on a day to day basis. But there is always a half an ear out for danger, even when sleeping. What is that thump? Is that banging ok? Crawl out of bed and take a look around to make sure the anchor isn’t dragging. That our entire home isn’t floating quietly towards destruction on the rocks. And then up on deck when all is silent to survey with a smile. All seems well. Back into bed.

Many serene moments where all systems are working well and is joy. Punctuated by the furling line jamming and headed for Governors Island at 7 knots with the only option being to crawl onto the pitching foredeck and twist into an awkward pretzel to somehow unravel the knot. All a day in the life.

So the grounding is a learning. A mild slap in the face to pay close attention, always. Because the nudge is not always so gentle. And the price of inattention, potentially immense.

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Sunset over Gulfport