A Travellerspoint blog

April 2011

Sailing the West Coast: La Paz, Mexico to San Diego, CA

On Night Shift, The Life of a Sailor, Tattoos, and San Diego

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I’m forty miles out to sea, heading north along the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. It’s a bit snuffy out here. There are 4 to 6 foot waves hitting off of our port bow, gives us a long diagonal roll (forward to aft) followed by a sharper sway (side to side) to compensate. It’s been gradually building since we rounded the southern tip of the peninsula, also known as “the cape”, “land’s end“, and Cabo San Lucas.

Last night we were able to see how well we lashed down all of the loose objects on board. It was a good first test, and we passed. As seas build, the violent movement of the ship increases exponentially. We’ll see how things go when there are eight foot seas.

In the night, we discovered a leak on our forward port, and a mysterious creaking noise coming from the forecastle. There isn’t much we can do about the leak now, except sop up the trickle of water with towels, and keep our eye on it.

The chief engineer and I explored the bilges underneath the forecastle to discover where the creaking noise was coming from. To crawl in the bilges in a heaving ship isn’t easy. It’s a cramped space, with no place to comfortably put a foot down, and plenty of hard, sharp edges to hit one’s head upon. We discovered the sound was from an aluminum deck plate, creaking with the bend of metal in the swells. It was nothing to worry about.

I’m working the night shift. My shift runs from 8 pm to 6 am, and for me it’s a fun shift to work. I volunteered for it, actually. The other deckhands we have are relative new comers and a bit green (literally). The most seasoned one has only been here just over a month, and the other two have just arrived. I’ve been here six months, which doesn’t sound like a long time, but believe me, it is. I’ve been on this ship continuously longer than everyone else on board. Since October, I’ve been living the life of a sailor onboard this ship. It’s a good life; it’s more like a working vacation for me. It has allowed me to explore some amazing desert islands and to live more amazing ocean experiences than I would have otherwise. I’ve swam with whale sharks. I’ve kissed a gray whale. I’ve swam in bioluminescence. I’ve climbed some amazing desert mountains few people take the time to admire.
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The night shift is fun. There are three of us working in the night. One of the mates drives the vessel, an engineer is around to help out and to take control if there is something wrong with our engines or steering. I’m walking the decks to make sure everything is secured, make engine rounds, and look for trouble. I take it sincerely, I’m the first line of defense if there is anything wrong (such as the leak in the forward lounge), and there is no place I’d rather be.

I enjoy navigating the decks of a heaving ship in the salt spray, wind and dark. It makes me feel alive, and its fun to rely on your own athletic ability and know how in adverse conditions. I love the life of a sailor. I love the history, the ocean, and the unknown. There is something addicting about the ocean that calls to certain people. It satisfies the wanderlust in me, and makes me happy. I’m experiencing a part of the world (and life), that very few people have ever experienced. I’m going to be proud to say I’ve sailed from the Baja peninsula all the way up the west coast of North America to Alaska.

I’ll have earned my sparrow. There is a tradition of tattooing among sailors, with different symbols standing for different feats.

The sparrow indicates having sailed 5000 miles. A swallow indicates every 5000 miles sailed. So two swallows would be 10000 miles. I think I’ll have earned two swallows by the end of this voyage. Sailors get swallows because they always know the way home. I’m not sure I know the way home anymore…

I want to get an anchor tattoo on my right forearm, ala Popeye style. To earn it, I’ll have to sail on the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve also could put a compass rose or two stars, so I always know where I’m going. I like the idea of putting crosses on the bottom of my feet to ward off sharks…

The following is a list of Traditional sailor decoration and meanings.

Sailors got their ears pierced because it helps improve eyesight (I think it’s an acupuncture site).
A black pearl earring for survivors of a sinking ship.
Golden earrings were used as a means of ensuring they were buried properly should they die at sea or in a foreign port.
In modern times a brass earring denoted a survivor of a ship sinking.
One left ear piercing for crossing each of the Equator, Artic Circle, and Antarctic Circle.
Earrings were thought to keep spirits from entering through the ear, but that's not a purely sailor thing.
A sparrow for every 5000 thousand nautical miles traveled,
A sailor would get a swallow tattoo for every 5000 miles he had sailed.
A swallow because it will always find its way home.
A rooster and pig on the ankles are to prevent a sailor from drowning.
The pig and the rooster are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck.
A tattoo of a pig on the left knee and a rooster (cock) on the right foot signified "Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
Tattoos of pigs and chickens were to make sure they always had their ham and eggs so that they never go hungry.
A turtle standing on its back legs (shellback) for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
A tattoo of King Neptune if you crossed the Equator.
Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a boson’s mate.
Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees for the Mediterranean cruises in WWII.
Many US sailors have a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
The words HOLD and FAST were tattooed on the knuckles to help hold line.
Hold Fast across the knuckles to keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
Anchor tattoo for sailing the Atlantic.
Full rigged ship for sailing around Cape Horn.
Dragon Tattoo for a sailor who had sailed into port in China
A Golden Dragon was for sailors who had crossed the International Date Line.
Rope around the wrist for being a dockhand.
Two stars to ensure always knowing the way.
The anchor usually noted that the sailor was in the merchant marine.
Guns or crossed cannon for military naval service.
Harpoons for the fishing fleet.
Crosses on the soles of one's feet to ward off hungry sharks.
A nautical star, or compass rose was to always find your way home.
A dagger through a rose signified a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
Many sailors also got pornographic images so that they would always have them with them.

I found this list using a basic search engine. I think it is an interesting list. In fact, I read it aloud to the crew sitting around me in the dining room. To be sure, there are a lot of tattoos onboard this boat, though most of them aren’t nautical tats. I’ve yet to get a tattoo, but I’m making my mind up on the matter as I write this. :-D
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So far my favorite scenes on this voyage have been right at dawn. There was a carpet of very low clouds stretching all the way to the horizon. The sea was relatively flat and calm rising and falling in the swell like the breathing of a slumbering child. The sun broke over the horizon, showed itself for a minute and disappeared above the clouds. It was very peaceful. I sipped my tea, leaned on the rail, and thought about where I was and what I was doing with my life. I had to smile.

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This marks the end of the first leg of this journey. We docked in San Diego, California to clear customs, take on fuel, stores, and water. I haven’t spent a lot of time in San Diego, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to. I was tired from working all night, and was basically staying up so I could clear customs.
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Coming into a big port by way of water is a great way to get a look at a city. We were cruising at roughly 8 mph, which compared to the speed of a car on the freeway, is crawling. I leaned on the rail and watched the cityscape open before me. Low clouds hung over the downtown buildings, and reflected off the water of the channel. It was peaceful, and perfect scenery for my tired eyes.
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Tired as I was, it was good to see the city. The sea gets monotonous at times, especially when you are so far away from land. There isn’t much to see, but water and sky, with the occasional bird or mammal. To see land lubbers going about their daily life is interesting to us seafaring folk. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like to drive a car again…

So Long from the coast of California, heading to points north.

Posted by Rhombus 16:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged boats oceans sailing photography dawn tattoos sailors Comments (3)

Landscapes and Seascapes of Baja Mexico

Spatial Experiences By Land and Sea

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There is a timeless quality to the landscapes of the southern Baja Peninsula. I feel as though if I visited these same vistas five hundred years ago to compare, nothing would have changed. They are timeless. The peninsula is perhaps one of world’s greatest interactive natural history museums.

These are peaceful views of incredible magnificence. They have grandeur.

From Land

Punta Friars on the East Cape
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I’m sitting high up on a rock far above the coastline and watching the quiet movements of the earth cycle and flow. The swells are deceptive. They are a lot bigger than they look from the sea. They roll in and stretch over the beach in a thinning white carpet of foam. The distant coastal mountains arc back, and form “points” out to the sea. The sun has warmed everything, the rocks, the earth, the sand, and me. There is always a wind here, and I’ve grown accustomed to its enveloping embrace around me. It’s like getting a soft hug from a swirling warm ghost all day long. The sun also provides the light, which make this whole gambit possible.

I don’t know it yet, but In a few minutes, I’ll be sprinting over two hundred yards of boulders to assist in helping a kayaker who flipped over in the big swell get back to shore. But I don’t know that yet, and so for these last few minutes, I’m at peace. It is kind of funny how life is; you just never know what’s going to happen next. One second I’m completely at ease, and the next I’m completely in motion in body and mind. Let this be a lesson to you Chuck: Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean.

Boojum Trees and Skylight
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I love bright, diffused light through thin clouds.

To Hike Punta Juanico
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It was an unexpected stop at an unknown location. It looked cool. When I say cool, it means it was gorgeous, and better yet, I could get on the beach and explore. I was ahead of the curve by two hours--I was alone and had a plan. I started south, hiking up the first trail I’ve used here in Baja. There just aren’t many trails down here. Hiking on a trail again was kind of a novelty, after four months of making my own. Stepping easy, and making good progress (I was designed for walking up steep hills), I was soon atop the first overlook and blown away by the view. I stopped to smell the roses, so to speak.
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The thin trail continued to stretch further south over and up a much higher ridge, and I was happy to oblige my sense of wonder and excitement as I climbed higher to an ever improving view.

At the apex of height, the trail descended to a perfect secluded beach. I had visions of meeting my one true love at the bottom, or at least some alluring senorita, but alas, it wasn’t to be. One day….
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I did find a beautiful cardon cactus standing tall at the edge of the beach. It had five stalks rising high like the fingers of a skinny hand. I liked its position in life. Not too close to the sea, but close enough for an excellent view.

Dry Wash

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I purposely angled to the shady side of the arroyo in hopes of finding highlighted cactus scenes. Instead I found myself on the cusp of shadow and light, perfect for black and white. This common scene of a dry wash gets much more interesting in low angled light.

Last Hike on Danzante

The climb was sketchy at best. Loose chunks of crumbling rock and gravel pieces lay on a steep hillside of scratchy desert brush and small cactus. To fall, meant pain. I was climbing my way up to the top of a high bluff that would overlook the entire north side of Isla Danzante. This would mark my last hike on this island for awhile, and I wanted to make it a good one. On my first hike on this island way back in December, I hiked up to a high point, that I could see not to far away. This would make bookends so to speak, with all kinds of memories in between.

With deliberate steps I made it up, and took in the view. It was satisfying, over looking the rugged landscape of rock bluffs, islands, the mountain ridges of the Sierra de la Giganta, and the sea. A single clump of cardon was placed perfectly, and I knew that was the picture I would take home with me. I took one photo, took in the view, and said farewell.
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From Sea

The Layered Ridges
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I love the layered shades of the coastal mountains and rocks. These landscapes are begging to be drawn; I want to sketch them out in shaded charcoal on my sketchpad. For now, a photograph will have to do.

Dolphins and Mountain Light
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Baja a remarkable experience because of the ocean wildlife melds so nicely with desert scenery and mountains. This photo has several names that come to mind: “Bottom’s Up”. “A Dolphin Mountain Gallery” or “Dolphins at Dawn.”


In looking at these photos, I wondered what goes into a good landscape? I decided one of the more important elements is space. With a strong subject and artfully arranged, they become appealing to the senses. That’s really all I am, an observer who arranges his own artwork to take home.

I hope you find time to get outside and see what it looks like beyond that next ridge.

Posted by Rhombus 10:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes beaches desert rocks seascapes oceans photography Comments (0)

The Best of a Mexican March: Part 1

A Vagabond's Last Takes On A Winter in Mexico.

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With only just over a week left here in Mexico, I feel a bit overwhelmed thinking about all the writing and photography I’d like to share about this remarkable peninsula. The problem lies in the fact that I want to get out and play, savoring my last week before starting the long ten-day voyage back to the United States and Alaska. Once again, I’ll solve this problem by offering a photographic journey through some of the desert and ocean scenes that I’ve enjoyed so much.

Sperm Whales
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Sperm Whales were on my list of whales I really wanted to see while down here in Mexico. I had visions of Melville’s classic ‘white whale,’ and I wanted to see one for myself. Sperm whales have a very different shape than the other whales I’ve seen, and their spout is distinguishable from others as it comes out diagonally from their blowhole

I witnessed three separate pods, and a huge solo male. Sperm whales are very social; the females tend to stay together with calves and it almost as though they are synchronized swimming. They would rest on the surface in between dives, and it was during this time when I could get a really good look at them. When at last they had rested enough, they would take a final breath, and begin the long slow process of diving. First, the head would go down, and like a cracking whip, the rest of the body would follow. I could see the dorsal bend and submerge which would lift the huge flukes of the whale’s tail to a near vertical position. Seeing the humungous fluke lift out of the water is amazing. It is among my favorite views of the whale, any whale. It’s as though they are waving goodbye before disappearing into the depths for several minutes.
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Animal Prints
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The desert is full of nocturnal animals. They come out at night to eat, drink, and be merry--avoiding the harsh light and heat of the day. I was lucky enough to get out at first light, and spent the golden hours of the morning admiring the simple beauty and design of animal prints on the sand dunes.
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Two Sunrises
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I told Clay our Chief Engineer that the sky would light on fire this morning. He was skeptical, and impatiently called me out when at first the clouds remained unlit by the rising sun. I told him to be patient and wait, that it would happen. Ten minutes later, the sky smoldered and caught, briefly highlighting the large gray clouds in sunrise orange over the ocean and Isla San Francisco. Sunrise orange is hard to describe, it’s not pink, orange, or gold but some amazing mixture of them all.
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It was a cold, windy morning on Magdalena Bay. It was brisk. I watched a panga of anglers slowly work their lines in the choppy seas. I thought about the life of an angler here in Mexico; the long hours, the hard work, for not very much money. Two things stuck in my mind. One was that I was more or less living the same life, working all night on a boat to watch the beauty of the rising sun and cloud. The other thought I had, was that to work outside for a living is a good life. To immerse oneself in the golden glow of a sunrise for its entire duration is better than the best corner office with a good view in the world. Money is worthless in comparison to a life lived well.

Desert Plants and Landscapes
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What do you think of when you think of a desert? Perhaps you think of a flat, bare, plain, rocky, desolate with the odd scrounging a living here and there. The desert of Baja is a lush desert full of desert plant life. It’s varieties of plants, cactus, shrubs and flowers is quite impressive for how little water falls here.
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Boojum Trees
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We took a field trip in buses to a Boojum Tree forest. The Boojum tree is a funky looking tree, with a white trunk and hundreds of think twig like branches extending about a foot from the trunk. It grows tall; maybe thirty to forty feet high twisted and bent high into the desert sky. It looks like a tall inverted white carrot.
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The desert where these trees are located was superb. It was full of a wide variety of flowering plants and cactus. I loved the silence of the desert solitude. The only sound was that of the occasional bird, or the buzzing of giant bumblebees, and the cursing of your absent-minded author as he accidentally thrust his foot into an extremely sharp ball of needles that punctured deeply into his foot. This marked the first time I had received a puncture from a cactus spine in four and a half months of sandal wearing wandering. I was due, and didn’t let it slow me down.
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Snorkeling at Isla San Marcos
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The island of San Marcos is a geological gem, and an amazing setting to don your snorkel gear and see what’s going on below the surface of the water. The shoreline was a jagged rock wonderland of arches, sea caves, overhangs, spires and coves. The water was cool and refreshing, and as I made that first lunge into the darkness of the sea cave, I gave a little yelp as the water reached my sensitive areas. I don’t dive with a wet suit, as the water temperature here is about the same as Lake Superior in mid July.
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I swam deeper into the dark water, heading underneath a giant arch and to the greenish glow of sunlit water some distance away. It was very cool to swim through the darkness of that cave, and to emerge into the bright sunny water beyond. I saw at least ten varieties of fish swimming lazily through the coral covered giant rocks and boulders. The water was warmer in the sunlight, but occasionally a cold current would swirl over me, mixing warm and cold water over my body leaving my skin tingling in delight.

This was among the best snorkeling I’ve done here in Mexico, and I hope to return one more time before I leave.

Dolphins

Dolphins are good for the soul.
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Desert Insects and Animals
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The desert is full of life. The best advice I can offer is to walk slowly, take your time, and look at each rock and plant before you move much. Often these insects, birds, and animals are lazily sunning themselves in the heat of the day.
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So Ends Part One. There's more to come this week, so stay tuned!
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Posted by Rhombus 11:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged cactus plants whales deserts oceans insects dolphins photography dunes Comments (0)

In The Company of Birds and Bees

A Meeting by the Desert Watering Hole

sunny 80 °F

Far back in a desert arroyo, in the depths of a narrow slot canyon, there is an oasis that belongs to the birds and the bees.
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This place is very near where rain water begins its brief journey through the desert. Not far away is the end of the canyon, the very top of a slot box canyon. It is possible to climb out, and to be out, is to be atop a short mountain overlooking a formidable country of crumbling rock formations and twisted canyons.

It begins like this: As rain hits the coastal mountains, gravity takes hold of the water molecules and sends them on their way down to the lowest point possible by the easiest route possible. In short, this is where rivers are born, though here in the desert they flow only very occasionally.
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This slot canyon is narrow, maybe four feet wide at the bottom, a dry wash, strewn and choked with gravel, boulders, and giant stones wedged between the walls. They are immovable by man, but with time, water, and wind could move them. For me, they are an obstacle to an easy hike, but I prefer a challenge anyway. It’s as though nature has gouged into the rock with a knife, and is still in the process of polishing the edges of the cut.
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It’s shady here for much of the day. Only during high noon does the sun slant its way down to the bottom. Even then, it doesn’t completely reach every nook and cranny of the rock. The lighting is contrasting: a slow and steady change from dark and light, black and white.

I’m perched on side of the slot canyon. I’m about thirty to forty feet up off of the canyon floor, sitting on a smooth rock covered in bird shit. I like my perch. It is a unique place to sit, and I know of only two other people who have sat here.

Next to me is a rounded bowl of smooth rock. At its base is a pool of brackish water perhaps twenty feet in diameter and at least two feet deep. It’s probably deeper from the force of the water falling that carved this place. It smells faintly of rocks, dust, bird shit and old water. A thirsty man would guzzle it down and relish the liquid, but I take pulls on my water bottle to quench my thirst.

This natural cistern is really a feast for the senses, and mine are in tune with the place. There is a warm desert breeze softly touching the side of my face. It’s warm, and I can feel the heat of the day immersed in it, even though I’m sitting comfortably in the cool shade. My views are of the far side of the rock canyon, and of the pool filled with floating bits of plants, and water insects. There are water striders mostly, whose light weight and surface tension of their feet allow them to walk on water. Some unfortunate bees have also landed in the water. When they beat their wings in a futile attempt to regain flight, narrow concentric circles emanate from them and radiate outward. Picture visible radio waves broadcasting from the a radio station. The surface of the water is black, except for the perfect reflection of the top of the canyon. I can only see a narrow thumb shaped slot of the top of the canyon, due to the black rock of the top of cave.

The birds and the bees make this pool special. The bees are everywhere, attracted to the fresh water. The place is filled with the constant thrum of lazy bees, buzzing and flying around seemingly aimlessly. In the book, “The Zoo Keeper’s Wife,” there is a passage which refers to the ‘rumba of the bees.’ I’ve always liked this line, and this place definitely was filled with the Rumba of the Bees.
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Desert birds are also attracted to fresh water, and it wasn’t long before a flock of black chinned sparrows flittered down to take a drink. They flew in as a flock of five. They cautiously flew down, five feet at a time, eyeing me up, as they made their way to the water. Who was this intruder? I was someone to keep an eye on, but not someone to pass up a drink of water for. I kept still, with my camera ready, and it wasn’t long before they started drinking. The birds took turns drinking and watching. There is safety in numbers, even when drinking.

They flew off, and left me alone again with the bees. I was satisfied with my find, this was a good place to sit and spend the morning. I thanked the bees, and excused myself, climbing down the rock cliff back down to the dry wash of the arroyo.

Posted by Rhombus 01:41 Archived in Mexico Tagged birds desert canyons photography silence Comments (0)

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