Tuesday, March 15, 2016

How to save money while sailing*

The primary purpose of my sail trip to Belize, you know the one where I lost my rudder and was adrift for a day of soul-searching and despair while I seriously contemplated the possibility of losing my boat, was not a pleasure sail nor was it to see Belize as I have many times before, but rather to renew my passport visa in Honduras for another 90 glorious days. To help with my decision making process, before departing on this ill-fated trip, I made a simple spreadsheet. Here it is:

Cost analysis pre-sail trip

All numbers in US Dollars. The Cash option is to encourage the local immigration official to give one a stamp in their passport for another 90 days in the country, which I know is very Un-Canadian, but a regular practice in these parts, like guys who ride shotgun actually carrying an actual shotgun. However, recently there have been fines and crackdowns on these compromised passports, particularly for those who exit Honduras via the airport resulting in hefty questions and pointed fines. Since my flight out is May 31, I was want my passport to be legit, clean and ready to go without issues. The motorcycle trip was my second option and I very nearly did it. You can see the sail trip looks cheaper here with no hotel or ferry expenses. The flight to Florida was via San Pedro Sula and a redeye no less. Flights out of Roatan directly are up to 4x more than out of San Pedro. My hotel budget for a couple of nights in Ft Lauderdale was a paltry $100 a night. I was thinking AirBnB. The bottom line was that any way to do this was going to expensive or inconvenient (or both).

Cost analysis post-sail trip

The same spreadsheet revised with actual numbers from the sail trip.

Notice the difference? Yeah, me too!** For people considering this sailing-life, the most common question, aside from those about pirates, hurricanes and sharks***, is how much does it cost? The best answer is that it costs whatever you have. That is, everything you have. That is exactly what it costs. It also takes whatever you have too, of which I will be discussing in a future post.

*Hah! You really thought there was a way to save money while sailing? You crack me up.

**These are just estimates and, frankly the fact that the rudder broke off on the trip does not actually mean that it wouldn't have if I never sailed to Belize. In fact, this is the best possible outcome other than perhaps noticing the rudder de-lamination whilst it was on the hard in the repair yard, as I will now be able to make it stronger than ever and prevent this from happening again, not to mention have few tricks in the bag for another rudder emergency, my boat or a friend's. 

The autopilot was always a piece of crap and it remains so. If anyone reading this has some piece-of-shite Raytheon ST4000+ parts they want to sell/trade, otherwise exorcise from their boats (THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU, release thy AUTOHELM!) , I'll happily give the evil little buggers a home. That's the real way to save while sailing by the way—asking your wealthy friends who have wisely moved up from the crappy ST4000+ wheel pilot to something better to have pity on you even though all parties concerned know that you will be doomed to bugs and failures. Hey, you get to fool yourself into thinking  you have a working autopilot for a time, provided you actually never attempt to use it as such, and they get to watch your boat swing wildly around unpredictably in the harbour and snicker, with a smug look of self satisfaction on their faces whilst sipping on something wealthy people drink, like a martini or rare Port, and petting a hairless cat.

***Pirates! Hurricanes! Sharks! Oh my! I'm not saying that there is no risk of a pirate or shark attack or a hurricane, but you will have to believe me when I say that the risks are both manageable and much lower than many risks people accept in their daily so-called 'normal' lives. The actual risks sailing are more like falling on the deck and hitting your head or falling off the boat and watching it sail away happily without you, which would be sad, or a collision with a freighter which would hurt. These are preventable for the most part and it follows that I feel safer moving at 6 mph in my sailboat than I do in any car moving 60 mph.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Irates of the Caribbean

The afternoon of building Rudder Hauer had been all very positive except for one particularly frustrating mishap. I wanted a photo of the remaining steering gear and so I took my iPhone in its Lifeproof Waterproof case, and dipping just the camera in the water, tried to take a picture. Unimpressed with the results, I put the iPhone back in my pocket and didn’t think twice about it until later in the day when I discovered that the water had leaked into the phone and buggered it up too! I say ‘too’ because the list of broken items on this short trip was substantial and growing. 

The iPhone proved to be important safety gear as the VHF was pretty much useless at getting anyone to respond. Bagging the iPhone in rice was my first step but after leaving it overnight, the results were grim. It would now ring and show me texts but the middle part of the touchscreen was dead and so I could not put in my passcode correctly to unlock it. Each time I tried the iOS security would lengthen the amount of time I could try again. 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes and eventually 1 hour. Denix would be getting worried. I was beginning to understand the FBI’s frustration with trying to get into a locked iPhone. 

The next morning I was faced with a problem: I needed internet to check in with Denix and get weather and let everyone know I was coming back to Roatan so they could help me get into the harbour, but making the 5 mile journey into town on my dinghy just for a quick connection would take up more than an hour round trip and my goal was to get into the French Cay reef in daylight and before the wind could build. I went out early to the SW cays residential area and, finding a couple enjoying the beach, I asked them where I could find wifi, if I could buy breakfast somewhere and get it nearby? Instead they offered to let me use theirs and sit on the porch of their retirement home. They were sailors too. Nice people are simply everywhere. 

Denix was relieved to hear from me and the weather was going to be ok until about 3pm when the wind would pick up. The wind would then be severely unfavourable for the rest of the week and perhaps longer. This was my only chance to get back for a long time and I had to go quickly!

Leaving the safety of my anchorage was not easy. I had the makeshift rudder sure, and a backup plan with towing a drogue/dinghy for steerage, but no useful way of contacting a tow or help now that the iPhone was screwed. I had lost faith in the VHF. For some reason, even after the success of the rudder install, this, among other things, enraged me. A friend had suggested that cruising back at 5 knots this should be an 8 hour trip. I knew I would not make 5 knots of speed into the wind and waves and the distance I had to travel was more like 50 nautical miles as I was in the SW cays and it took me over 2 hours just to get to the Eastern side of Utila. I would be lucky to get there by sundown, if at all.

All I could do was play music, sit at the helm and hold on. The autopilot was still out of commission and I’m not sure it would work with the makeshift rudder anyway as the response time of the little guy was so slow. If I locked the wheel and went below for even just 2 minutes I would find the boat spinning in a circle or wandering off in the direction I came from. When the wind gusted, and mid-afternoon it was beginning to gust a lot, the bow would be taken off course and I would grip the wheel, feel the pulsing vibrations of the propeller’s turbulence and crank Rudder Hauer over so far I was sure it would break. I would yell “Come on Rudder Hauer, you sonofab**ch! Come on you motherf**ker!” Slowly, every so slowly, the bow would make its way back onto course. This process I repeated for nearly 12 hours. Running headlong into the building wind with the engine nearly at full throttle I was, at times, making only 1.7 knots!*

Das Boot - entering Gibraltar. Rage has a use it seems. I think it helped get me home

When I was within sight of Roatan I headed closer to shore to get away from the wind. It helped a little but eventually I had to veer out again to get around Coxen Hole and the cruise ship docks and shoals. At 6pm the cruise ship at Coxen Hole’s dock turned around, pointed at me, and let some smoke blow out of its massive stack like a taunt. I was in no mood this bullcrap. This prompted some more “Bring it on motherf**ker!” I had been swearing all afternoon, somehow the frustration of the whole broken mess culminated into rage. Rage at the sea. Rage at the wind. Rage at the gods, whomever they may be, and yes, rage at this cruise ship full of oblivious tourists.

The cruise ship, wisely, turned and went off West and the sun went down. I started to try to make contact my friends. I only have a handheld VHF in the cockpit so my range was not great. If I went below to my big radio all hell would break lose in steering, so I opted to wait until I was within sight of the harbour and call them. 

When I got within radio distance I soon realized that my approach had raised quite a stir in the harbour. Several dinghies came out to shine flash light strobes from the marker buoy position where I would make my way across the reef. These people are great—on a dark and windy evening—jumping into their dinghies to come out several miles to help guide me across the reef. My GPS chartplotter was working ok but it is simply foolish to use it solely in these shoals. One cruiser suggested that I stay offshore overnight before coming in, but I told him simply that with the wind building, my makeshift rudder, and cruise ships and shipping traffic everywhere, that I wouldn’t make it out there. I got into the reef without trouble and had 2 dinghies escorting me (I was going fast to keep steerageway with my tiny rudder and it was dark so lots of boats to avoid) in and some others helping on the dock to bring Blue Monday in. Tying up at my home dock was such a relief. The list of people who helped me on this trip is substantial:

Denny Bush Jr and Sr. of Bush’s Groceries/Marina in Utila. These are great people who are always available to help cruisers. 3 years ago they helped me rebuild my starter when I was stuck in Utila the first time. Add to this Michael my tow boat pilot who works and lives in the Southwest cays.

Ellen of s/v Patience. Ellen not only housed and looked after Denix while I was away, treating her to healthy meals and good company, but also calming her when Denix didn’t know where I was and was out of contact. Ellen also helped get me numbers and plan the tow and communicate to the others. 

The nice retired couple in Utila for lending me wifi. 

John Smith of Mermaid, Tim of Cabaret and Martin and his wife of Lodas (sp) They all came out to the buoy and helped to guide me in in the dark. 

Mr Sherman Arch, who was available to provide a tow in the Roatan area at any time. 

Steve and Debbie of Delphinia, John of Smart Move, and everybody else in the French Cay area who were relaying VHF traffic and helping. 

Cheers to you all!  

*In case you are wondering why I didn’t sail or simply tack: Sailing would have put much more stress on the temporary rudder than I think it could have handled. Tacking was an option but for most of the day I still had hopes of getting in at least near sundown, with some light. If I tacked and made my way South it would have lengthened the journey, even if I managed 4 or 5 knots of speed. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Rudder Hauer

Bush's grocery store/marina in Utila helped me get a tow organized

After being towed in and setting anchor in the Southwest Cays of Utila, sleep came easily. Staying awake for 36 hours with a white-knuckled grip on the wheel for the majority of that time, my body and mind even more so, needed rest. 

Rudderless but safe at anchor for now

The next morning was glorious. Rudderless or not, mine was the only boat in this beautiful anchorage which I had visited 3 years earlier and, for some reason, never thought to visit again until Michael, the tow boat man, just pulled me in there without asking. He was right to do so. The anchorage is more protected and had better holding than the more popular East Harbour anchorage where I had dragged anchor just a few months ago over the turtle grass whilst the techno music from the clubs pumped an enthusiastic beat across the bay. Either worrying about the anchor dragging again would keep me from sleeping or the loud music playing until sunrise would. When did I get old? If I was going to be stuck somewhere (forever?), it might as well be here in the peaceful isolated Southwest Cays. 

I put the outboard on the dinghy and made the 5 mile journey into town following a dive boat for routing and wave breaking. Anything to avoid having to think too much. The past day I had done way too much thinking. My primary concerns were: 
1. Denix had no real home while I was stranded in Utila
2. I missed Denix
3. I have client meetings and responsibilities and, here there was no internet available
4. High trade winds were forecast and I could be pinned in Utila for a week or longer 

I have to get off this island!

Steering options available

Sails. I tried using my sails to steer, albeit half mad with fatigue and stress in the middle of the night when I had lost the rudder. It didn’t work in a way that gave me confidence and I’m not sure my boat design is the best for it. A full keeler might work better. I also wondered whether you could steer on all points of the compass or just a few? My course back to Roatan is straight into the East tradewinds. Perhaps I could sheet the Mainsail to act as a windcock and run the engine to push her forward, pulling the boom right to go right and left to go left? I think if I had crew it would make a difference but being a single hander and managing sails, engine and helm with no autopilot, no rudder even if the autopilot did work, seemed too much to handle. I am going to practice sail steering when I do get my rudder fixed, however. 

Drogue. My current favourite idea, actually suggested by my brother Darcy, was to use a drogue to steer. I already had some turning blocks and went to town in Utila and bought 120’ of yellow 3 strand propylene line that could be used. I thought that I could tow the dinghy as a drogue—after all, it slows me down about a knot when towed now being a 150 lb rigid, double-bottom inflatable—and use the turning blocks midship sheeted back to my cockpit winches to move the dinghy from side to side, and provide steerageway.  A diagram (with a drogue, not a dinghy) is below: 

I never tested this but I had the blocks rigged and the line ready. My biggest issue was with speed. Even the best calm weather day had 10-15 knots coming at me on the nose of which my boat will slow from its normal 5-6 knot cruising speed to 2-3 knots at best. Slowing the boat down even more would impede progress dramatically and I might not even be able to make the course without another dramatic all day, all night herculean effort, tacking, darkness, waves and wind again. There must be a better way.  

Makeshift rudder. The sunlight and calm waters of my anchorage provided a new opportunity to investigate what was left of my steering system. After some quick dives and experimenting I realized that the rudder—post (pintle?) and I believe they are called gudgeons—were intact and working. I turn the wheel and a very sturdy looking 18” long, 3/4” thick stainless brick moved from left to right with some authority. I thought that if I could attach something flat to this gudgeon, it might serve as a makeshift rudder that would at least get me back to my adopted home port of Roatan.

Introducing ‘Rudder Hauer’

My only regret with Rudder Hauer is spelling ‘Hauer’ wrong with my Sharpie pen. Rudder Hauer is a locker cover made of 5/8” varnished marine plywood, 4 hose clamps and a piece of 1” PVC pipe (unseen in photo) in the back to give it some spine. The hose clamps were tightened down on the gudgeon with a nut driver complete with a string to wrap it around my wrist to prevent loss as I was in 30’ of water, and snorkelling gear. Looking at it on the back of the boat it appeared ridiculously flimsy. I was thinking that with both wave, water movement and propeller turbulence, the forces on this plywood would break it up pretty quick or, at the very least, twist the whole unit sideways and render it ineffective, but I was going to give it a shot anyway. The old show Gilligan’s Island and their foolhardy attempts at building a vessel to get off the island were coming to mind. 

Rudder Hauer installed. Engine running and ready for a test!

I pulled up anchor and took a little burn around the SW cays, towing my dinghy with motor just in case. I would tow the whole thing in myself if things went awry, but it worked! Sort of. The slow response at the helm required quite a lot more turning to achieve an effect compared to before, owing the small size and lack of efficiency of Rudder Hauer. To compare, the factory rudder for a CS36T is about 4x the surface area and shaped like an airfoil. My makeshift rudder is like one of the old International Harvester trucks we had on our family farm in Central Alberta when I was a kid. You would turn the wheel to the left and nothing would happen—at least, not at first—but with a little faith something down below would eventually wake and a left turn would be lefted, by gawd. Rudder Hauer was like that. 

After re-setting anchor and checking the rudder again, I decided to put one last touch on her. I have these very large strong zip ties. I threaded one through the hole in the plywood and around the shaft of the steering pintle. I had my doubts the rudder would stand up to the stresses of the open sea and wanted to give it a second chance to be reattached just in case. 

Next: Putting it to the real test: The journey home

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rudder mayhem

“Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is sailing vessel Blue Monday, Blue Monday, Blue Monday, currently 5 nautical miles North West of Utila. I have no rudder, the boat is adrift and am in need of assistance. Please come back.”


Just getting underway leaving Roatan

It all started out well. I was on my first single-handed passage from Roatan, Honduras to Placencia, Belize. The primary purpose of the trip was to get fresh new ink on my passport that would permit me to stay in Roatan another 90 days. My current visa was expiring and the only legitimate way to renew was to head to another country like Belize or Mexico for a few days. Denix had an offer to stay aboard Ellen’s beautiful catamaran Patience for the week while she continued her job and studies, and was happy to oblige me. I put on the music and set course for the Ranguana Pass entrance to arrive in daylight over the reef. The weather was calm and clear, in fact, not enough wind to make it in time without running the engine. I was thinking: Finally I got Blue Monday off the dock and she was doing what she was meant to do and, even if only for a few days, this sailing, exploring machine could take on the wind and sea and see the world again. Dock condo no more.

Beautiful calm seas and skies for the journey across to Belize

I didn’t have a lot of time and, for this, I asked the Belize authorities to allow me to check in and check out the same day. With some hesitation and a lot of questions, (Did you bring anyone with you? Do you have any narcotics or controlled substances aboard your boat? And so on…) they allowed it. Each part of the check-in/out process can take a half day and I didn’t want to lose my weather window to return to Roatan as I could be stuck in Belize for weeks, although there are worse fates. Leaving Denix in Roatan without her floating home, humble as it is, was the prime factor. I wish she could have come with me, but after losing the rudder and the ensuing angst, it was better that I was alone.

They gave me a day to get out of Belize and so I took the next day to fix a few minor things, have some drinks with my friend Doug at Yoli’s, have a meal with Lonnie and Cheryl whom I bumped into on the long sidewalk to the Tipsy Tuna and rest. Staying up all night on the passage over took some of the wind out of my sails. The weather was so calm and I was so tired that I slept all through the night without a single thought about the anchor—if it was set correctly or would drag. It just wouldn’t.

Upon departure the next morning the forecast had called for NE winds of 8-10 knots and light precipitation. The NE component was not ideal for my route which was pretty much straight East, but in this part of the world where trade winds blow from the East just about every day, having even a little North is preferable to bashing straight into the wind. I could sail a tight close-haul back. I had it so tight to the wind that my sails were not enough on their own so I also ran the motor to keep a 5 knot or better pace going on my course. 

The autopilot let out a long beep, made a grinding sound with its motor and then stopped completely, a harbinger of things to come. It had been making some unusual noises under way and I soon learned that the drive belt was used up. That was okay. I had spares and even managed to change the belt without stopping the boat and was thinking of telling my brother about the new ‘quick autopilot belt change technique’ I discovered as he would appreciate it. Something always goes wrong on these trips and I was waiting for it. When the belt problem came along I was relieved, thinking: Hey, this is no big deal.

Happy I could get the autopilot working again—after all the autopilot is pretty handy when you want to make a coffee, use the bathroom, check on any gear or simply rest, and it follows that it is even more critical when single-handing—I continued on my way, mindful of the dark anvil-headed clouds that were gathering as the sun went down. Isolated thunder storms were forecast—they frequently are forecast so much that I tend to dismiss the thunderstorms and focus on the winds, but the wind/waves were also building more than I expected. I would not be able to take any 20 minute naps on the trip back. It was just too bumpy and wet.

The auto-pilot failed again. Something serious was wrong. Manually helming in the chop I could feel that the steering gear had an aberration every once in a while that would give the wheel a sudden and sharp jerk. This new movement was usually following the boat’s lateral roll in the waves and was now clearly responsible for burning up my auto-pilot belts. Something was moving around and stopping abruptly. My first thought was that there was slack in the steering gear—a cable and chain system—and the spasm was the rudder slipping from its grip and catching again somewhere. I have an emergency tiller to steer the rudder manually if the steering wheel system failed, so this would have been (relatively) welcome news, but in a very cold and fearful place in my heart it was occurring to me that the rudder itself was breaking. I was offshore and farther away from Belize than my destination so the only thing I could think to do was carry on and hope it all held together long enough to get back. Then the thunderstorms started.

“Heave-to motherf*cker!” I could hear Aussie Pete’s voice in my head. The wind was building and waves growing. I had been up for about 20 hours now, getting fatigued, stressed by the storms and the steering problem and would have liked to take a short rest, especially down below away from the rain and lightning. I locked the wheel and went down to think for a moment about heaving-to**  The problem with heaving-to at this moment in time is that it depended a great deal on a functioning rudder. Something was still hanging back there, but steering was getting unpredictable and each impact as it swung around was getting more forceful. I could feel a solid whump every time the boat rolled and reversed. Even now, with the locked wheel I could feel the boat was turning in circles. Then, through one of my port lights, I saw a bright light.

The rain and mist and lightening strikes were becoming ethereal, a kind of dream. Like a victim of some hypnotism, a moth, a deer, I headed for the light. There was nothing but blackness around me and this halo of brilliance, like a lens effect. What I saw was a boat that resembled a power yacht with a lot of deck lights. My weary eyes were trying to focus through the misty rain and enveloping darkness and somehow Blue Monday was actually making way towards the brightly lit boat. I was having so much trouble trying to control her but she seemed to want to head that way. It must be destiny. As I approached closer it occurred to me that my perspective was way off. It was not a power yacht but a large cruise ship! A cruise ship right there and I could not get away.

I called them on the VHF. They didn’t answer. I struggled to get Blue Monday headed away. There was little chance they could see me with my forward nav lights spending half their time under waves and the rest riding just 6 feet above the chop. It was then I made the decision to head around the South West corner of Utila instead of the North East route which would have been more direct. Though there are more reefs and shallows to hit on the far side of Utila at least no cruise ships would dare venture there. I was also thinking that being in the Southern lee of Utila would calm the Northeast winds and waves and make life easier on the ailing rudder. I turned her that way and headed back at a slow 2 knot pace. After a time, thankfully, the glow of the cruise ship faded though the lightning continued.***  I didn’t know it at the time, the decision to backtrack and take the long route around Utila would save my boat.****

Where I was at apparently 10:41 pm. The cruise ship encounter was several hours later but only 10 or 15 miles to the East. With my course-keeping troubles and the thunderstorms, I didn't make it far. Note the mess of reefs and cays SW of Utila. That's where I was headed! 

At around 4:30 am, I lost the rudder. It was almost a relief, like hearing (and feeling) the death throws of the dying for hours on end when you are helpless to do anything about it and finally, nothing. Peace. Then panic. In a fit of despair I made the Mayday calls to no avail. I scrambled to clear my cockpit locker of things to shine a light on the rudder shaft to know whether or not I was sinking, whether the rudder took the shaft with it, but the shaft remained. I decided to make a coffee, wait for the sunrise and think through my situation. When the sun came up, I put the dinghy in the water to get it clear of the transom, jump into the dinghy to get a view of the rudder. I had no idea what was left.

Jumping from the back of the boat to the dinghy proved to be challenging in the swell. The transom would rise 4 feet from the waves and crash down, threatening to decapitate the dinghy. Timing the leap was critical but somehow I managed. I confirmed then that getting my 110 pound Mercury 9.9 outboard using its lifting crane onto the dinghy in this swell would have been impossible—like swinging a wrecking ball at the dinghy and the big boat itself. Too bad, the outboard may have been able to steer or tow her in.
From the viewpoint inside the dinghy and with Blue Monday bucking up and down with the swell it was clear the rudder was gone. Completely gone. What remained were the metal parts, the stainless steel shaft and its connecting arm. I had no steerage and the Northeast winds were blowing me past the West side of Utila. 5 hours later, around 10 am, the combination of my drift and attempts at steering and control had brought me around the SW Cays of Utila and some of the first good fortune of this journey: 1 single bar of cell phone service. I tried to call Denix but she could not hear me. Finally I was able to text Ellen of Patience and she forwarded me the number of Denny Bush, the local marina/grocery store merchant. I called Denny and he organized a tow. Michael, my tow boat operator, took me to the SW Cays anchorage. I dropped anchor and went to sleep. Immobilized, isolated, but safe for now. 

(to be continued)

*I had repeated this call on channels, 16, 71 and 68 using high power on my main VHF for 20 minutes, worked on some other problems, and then again for another 15 minutes .  Later I waited until after 7:30 am when people might be awake and listening. Still nothing. The antenna is mounted 53 feet above the surface of the water and, though it is old, I had tested it and know it was working. Nobody answered my calls. I only called Mayday a few times before switched to calling “Pan Pan’s” instead because I had resolved that I was not going to give up on recovering my boat.

**Heaving to is a way of parking your boat without anchoring. Being over 3000 feet of water it is not possible to anchor, but one can set their sails so that the boat sits at a comfortable angle to the waves and does not make much way to rest. 

***Being on a boat on an open sea with a 52’ conductive pole sticking in the air, lightning holds a particular fascination. The metal cable rigging ‘should’ work as a kind of Faraday cage, protecting one from a direct impact of a bolt, but the possibility of damage to the boat itself and especially the electronic navigation gear was very real. What are my compass headings? How can I hold course if I lose the chart plotter? 

****Had I continued to proceed on my course past the North side of Utila and then losing the rudder, the wind and seas would have pushed me onto the North shore of Utila. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Denix, Winston Churchill, over-sharing and Laser Bacon Rockets***

Denix and myself on holidays in Copan, Honduras this past August.**  

“I love you, but don’t get fat okay?” she said, holding a straight face for a mere heartbeat before laughing. I looked down at my belly, shrugged, and said, “Too late.”

I wrote so much about the dramas of my previous relationships that you may be wondering why I haven’t told you about Denix? My brother warned me of the downsides of openness, exposing all my fumbles and foibles in pure unadulterated text on a public website, and he is right. Even so, I won’t change. I’ve said it before: The problem with worrying about what other people think is that you have no control over it whatsoever. Not. Even. A. Little. Bit. People will think whatever they want in spite of your efforts and, good or bad, their thoughts are always inaccurate anyway, so you might as well live how you want and have your say.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”   ― Winston Churchill*

Sure there have been some embarrassments. I write things at times in the the heat of the moment and hit ‘Publish’ too hastily only to cringe later when someone comments about it. Often it is a client in an office environment. I say, ‘Oh? You actually read that?’ and try to keep busy. But even with the awkwardness, the amount of good things that have come from writing about my travels and troubles have been overwhelming. I live what would be considered an unconventional lifestyle, and it helps that my clients, friends and family understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Especially my clients who have been putting up with my half-year absences. I’ve even made some new friends because of it, including, unlikely as it may seem, a tenant of mine. 

Bloggers and social media addicts like me are often accused of being attention-seeking whores. For this, and many reasons—privacy concerns, trend avoidance, insipid notifications of trivial things, lack of time, my closest friends, frustratingly, avoid Facebook. My family does for the most part too as if it were some fashion that will pass, like those ugly hipster eyeglasses (do you want to look like Sally Jessy Raphael? Are you sure?) or crazy Duck Dynasty beards, but it won’t. Everything changed with Facebook for good. It is as ubiquitous as TV and here to stay. You might as well settle in, tweak your privacy and security settings, tune out the over-posters, and use it for what it really is: An exceptional communication tool. I will use it to tell you something important now.

I did not write about Denix because I didn’t want to jinx it. Things are going that well. Denix is an intelligent, funny and beautiful woman and I am working to build a life with her, wherever we are in the world. I just returned from a too-short 11-day visit to Honduras and every day with her was a gift. We laugh. A lot. Denix is a survivor—not a victim trapped in the drama of her own narrative—but rather a woman forged into something great, something beautiful, from some very hot fires. Honduran fires. I realized two things recently on a sailing trip to Belize with her: The first was that I really could use a windlass (a winch for hoisting anchor chain). The second was that Denix is absolutely fearless. When I’m with her, there is nothing we won’t do. Nothing we can’t do. I feel very lucky to be her boyfriend and I thought you should know.

*When I read this quote I imagine Winston Churchill, grumpily heaving himself out of bed, pant less, in the presence of a serious and worried aide who woke him up with the bad news that someone somewhere far away told a big lie.

**My friend Sue said, "Denix looks like an elegant woman and you look like the guy who ought to be carrying her luggage."  I got defensive, "Do you know how hot it is in Honduras in August?" 

Men look their best in really heavy suits and shiny leather shoes and women look good in work attire too, but as the temperature rises and the appropriate clothing changes, women look better and better and men worse and worse, until you have a beautiful woman in a bikini with an elegant sarong and nice sandals, and an old man in a disturbingly tight and revealing (you can see his religion!) low-cut swimsuit with gnarly toenails sticking out of his flip-flops. 

*** There are no actual Laser Bacon Rockets in this post. Sorry. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Preparing for the Big Fight

Man that looks like fun! 

“You go get ‘em Tap Out” I said. I was on the phone with my friend, a Judo enthusiast, who wanted me to join him at a live mixed-martial-arts event. I thanked him for the invite but declined. Watching actual violence is not for me and, frankly, hanging out with the guys that attend these events would be like going to a Kid Rock concert—the kind of place you might see jacked up exhaust-modified pickups with No Fear in the rear windows, facial tattoos, and pregnant white girls drinking and smoking. Yes, sadly these are my people, and I love them, but from over here. My friend texted me from the event later confirming as much: “There are a lot of Duck Dynasty beards here” he said. I laughed when he told me he took his wife’s car, which is a compact Toyota with a pink Maui flower on the back and front plate that says Princess.

When I was young, we went to the circus and I learned that tightrope walkers and trapeze artists did not entertain so much as made me anxious. Sure they are professionals and have very little chance of actually having an accident, but other than admiration for the skill involved, the thrill for the audience is at least in part the possibility of a mishap, and I suppose this is the problem: If they are highly skilled professionals, there is no danger, and hence, no real entertainment value but if there is, in fact, tangible danger present, then the whole show makes one an accomplice in potentially ending someone’s life, like paying to watch a suicide attempt. No offence to the Evil Knievels of this world, but I’d much rather watch someone make music, dance or act than death-defy. Death-defying may be an art form, but it is fairly pedestrian in the sense that we all practice it every day, sometimes as actual pedestrians. 

So I don’t want to watch guys beat each other up, or see people put themselves into dangerous situations for my entertainment, perhaps participating in martial arts with clean and controlled sparring would be the thing? After all, most of my friends are in some form of martial arts training or have been. Two of them are (or were) in kick-boxing and another is active in Judo. I think it’s a great way to keep in shape and challenge yourself, both physically and mentally, but so are so many other activities that don’t directly involve aggression or violence, like volleyball or cycling, so I can’t help but wonder if they are also preparing for the The Big Fight. You know The Big Fight? The one where the bad guy comes in and does something morally deplorable, with any luck near a really pretty girl, and you, you are the only one who can bring peace and justice to a bad situation? Yeah, me either. 

I have a large intimidating friend who has fists the size of lunch boxes and resembles Mr Clean who can kick box, another not so large but surprisingly strong and Judo-capable friend who can-and-has submitted Mr. Clean—at least in play fighting—which may be why he has the confidence to drive around in a car with Princess plates, and yet another yoga instructor and kick-boxing capable friend who has such core strength he can twist himself into what is called a scorpion pose, all his weight on his forearms, possibly whilst kicking you in the face. I take a lot of flak from these guys and yet, not one of them has been in as many fights as I have.

“Born down in a dead man’s town. The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.”   - Bruce Springsteen

I can’t really explain why I’ve been in so many altercations. I once said, with all my siblings and family present, “I don’t understand angry drunks. When I’m drinking, I love everybody. When sober, not so much.” There was a pause, the room went quiet, and my brother Dave said, “So, you want a beer?”

For example, I was once dancing at a bar with a girl I was dating, and next to me a diminutive guy does an over-the-top sexy dance with his girlfriend, which I misinterpreted as some brilliant comedy and laughed. I did not mean to be mean. I genuinely thought he was being funny. I mean, it was really funny. When the song ended and we exited the dance floor the punch came out of nowhere and the puncher simply ran like a rabbit—actually under a bar table and through a crowd—whilst I caused quite the scene, bleeding nose, knocking over tables and parting the crowd hunting for the furry little bastard. Hulk SMASH! Thanks to the bouncers, one on each arm, my trail of destruction ended. A third bouncer tossed the puncher out of the bar, but I got to stay. Someone even bought me a drink.

This kind of thing has happened several times now (even once by a girl) and as often as it has occurred, it still comes right out of the blue. A fist comes flying through the air, seemingly out of nowhere, with no detectable buildup, nothing. Once I regained consciousness in a pool of my own blood with a broken nose on the front deck of a houseboat. That guy ran away really fast. My nose is still crooked today, which makes me wonder: Does Owen Wilson get punched a lot too? Why? The point is, you can prepare all you want, but when the Big Fight comes, it is going to blindside you and you probably won’t get the honourable showdown you imagined, especially since these guys always run.

I run too, but on the trail. Heavy as I am, I can run for an hour without stopping. I don’t run every day—just the days I want to feel good. Running is as natural and ancient as humankind, which, as it turns out, is at least 200,000 years. Swinging your fists or feet at someone may seem natural too, given our collective sad history, but having all your connecty-bits impact and compress or, worse, having your opponent’s fists or feet connect with your organs, your skull, simply cannot be good for you, even if it is just for sport. Just ask Muhammad Ali. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

All I wanted was a Bacon N' Egger without the bacon

What's this guy's f*cking problem? 

I’ve spent 31 months out of Canada since buying, outfitting and christening Blue Monday in Annapolis, Maryland and setting sail in a Southerly direction. Subsequently, each time I return ‘home’ I feel more a foreigner in my own country. They do things differently here. When I lost my passport in Guatemala it caused me some stress, but mostly for the non-refundable flight I had booked just weeks away and the promises I had made to clients, family and friends, and not at all for the thought of being stuck in Guatemala. I could be stuck in Guatemala for some time without any duress whatsoever. I have been back in Canada one month now and it is a wonderful country. I wish everybody could be Canadian—or at least, have what we have in Canada. You can work here. You can find and buy the things you want. You can be reasonably assured of peace, security, and life moving along in an orderly fashion. Canada is clean and structured and safe. At least statistically it is safe. And yet, there are dangerous people in this country, and I met one today. 

I was at the local A&W Saturday morning for a greasy breakfast in the hopes of sopping up some of the alcohol left in my system from the previous night’s festivities. The place had a cheery feel to it as many of the customers are elderly regulars and smile and greet the staff by name, but the atmosphere went from sunny to cloudy when in came this guy: Tall and athletic, 30s, seeming to have too much of some substance in his system, not a street person, but looking like he worked outdoors, the man struggled with his order, an anger bubbling out of him. The staff became nervous. When they finally reached a strained sort of understanding and he was appeased, the tension actually heightened as he attempted to fake a kind of clenched-jaw-and-fist graciousness. When he said to the girl behind the counter, “You have a good day too” it was not sarcasm, but rather a man trying to hide from the world that he is, in fact, a raging lunatic. He sat down next to me. 

I thought of leaving. People with bad energy will infect you, just being near them. It may not be science (yet) but I believe this to be true. Of course one should try to help someone get free of that energy and not pick up tray and move to the other side of the room every time, perhaps making it worse, but this guy needed something I didn’t have: A tranquilizer dart. I decided the “Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt” policy would be best and returned to my meal.

“You are a piece of shit!” I looked up and he was standing over two older women, 60s, who earlier were discussing some troubled grandchild. Though I was just as close to them as he was, I didn’t follow their conversation (busy texting with Denix) but it seems the man was listening to every word and was now bent on setting them straight. I quickly scanned the room for the presence of anyone else who could help me with this guy, the men paying attention versus the ones pretending to be enthralled with their newspapers, but there was only one other. The lunatic kept ranting and claimed he was a cop and dealt with domestic situations and how the grandmother was some kind of asshole for what she was saying, but his claim to be a cop was stuck in my mind, what with my never-tested skills at restraining physically imposing lunatics and the unimpressive size of the only other guy in the room who seemed to acknowledge that ranting at and lurching over an older woman in a threatening manner was not acceptable A&W behaviour.

The lunatic stormed out before we had to do anything. The police were already called by the frightened staff but he left in time to spread his particular blend of joy around the world. Sadly, he is far from the first nor likely the last I’ll meet here. I don’t know why but I never encounter people like this in Latin America. Not once in all those nearly 3 years. It is true the gang members kill each other daily in some cities and yet, I never see it, and never see rage radiating from people like this guy ready to twist off at any given moment. What’s there to be so angry about? It’s Calgary. The sky is blue, Stampede is coming, you can work and make money if you try a little, and if you get hurt someone will look after you. It is like we all won the lottery being born (or becoming) Canadian, and how appropriate a sentiment being that Canada Day is Tuesday? Now please, everybody, just try to remain calm. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Honda, Honda, Faster, Faster

 Denix and I riding West of the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. This is the year I discovered the joys of riding in Central America. Perfect climate, January or June, stunning scenery, mountains, lakes, jungles, waterfalls, volcanoes, 2 oceans
and warm welcoming people just about everywhere.

“Faster, Faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.” 

                                                                                 - Hunter S. Thompson

“You. Will. Die.” His gnarly crooked index finger doing its best to point in my general direction. I was speaking with an old gringo friend about buying a motorcycle and riding around Central America. He was pretty sure it was the dumbest idea one could conceive. Perhaps it was a rebellion on my part, and it didn’t help that his crooked finger reminded me ever-so-much of my elementary school principal, Mr. Dube, who used to bellow, “YOU! In my office. NOW!” and extend his gnarly digit vaguely in the general direction of an entire group of hellions to which my own, finger would point to my chest as I asked in complete bewilderment—as if there must be some kind of mistake (there wasn’t)—“Who me?”  So when I found myself at the Honda dealership with my Visa card out and ready, just burning with desire, I recalled my friend’s (and principal’s) crooked fingers…and bought it anyway. It put a grin on my face.  

When I was a 13 years old I had a motorcycle—a black Honda XL 125 and, though there were others before and after, it was the one. You know the one when it happens. A special bond existed between us. She always started for me, her single cylinder beating like a heart and in complete sync with my own, and we were together as much as possible, hiding from the cops—as it was not legal for me to ride a motorcycle in town, slipping into farmers’ fields and ripping up and down the foothills of Alberta in shadow of the Rocky Mountains, but alas, like many relationships, this one ended in flames. 

It happened one summer day while riding around the back hills West of Turner Valley while doubling my friend Pat. At some point he tapped me on my shoulder and when I looked at his hand it was pointing down towards the fuel tank where a small fire had started. Fearing explosion I let go of the handlebars tumbling us both off the bike, and abandoned my beloved Honda to its fiery fate as it continued on for another 30 feet before falling over and erupting into flames. I would like to say it exploded dramatically like in the movies, but it simply burned with enough ferocity to destroy itself.

Now I sit on my new Honda XR125. She’s just an updated version of my old bike. Black. Simple. Dependable. The mysterious roads of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Belize and Mexico lay before me. I turn the key and and punch the starter and the Honda thrums to life. Some, who own big v-twins, might say it sounds like a garden tractor, but to me all I hear is possibility. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The three-legged milk stool of the soul

I put this quote up for a reason. Was it:

A) Because I love good quotes

B) William F. Buckley, Jr.

C) Because I got back together with Yeimi and we broke up, yet again(!)

D) Answers A and C

I can almost see your collective heads shaking and hear your disapproving tongue clucks. Yes, you, the collective you, told me so. You did. And did I listen? No. I never do.

It started, once again, with the kids. Over the summer while I was in Canada, talking on the phone and in texts (and not at all with Yeimi), I promised her girls, among things like ice cream and birthday presents, that I would take them to the zoo. The zoo is in Guatemala City and about a 6 hour bus ride away from the Rio. Yeimi came of course, and not surprisingly, we got back together. This time around it was even crazier than the previous three times. Yes, three times. When our friends would see us together in the Rio, look appropriately confused, and say, “Again? Really?” I would shrug and say, “Fourth time’s a charm!”

But fourth time is not a charm. Mark my words. We had some nice times. We always did. I was lucky, unlike our previous breakups, we somehow managed to survive through Christmas, New Year’s and even my birthday in the first week of January, and thus was able to enjoy a real Guatemalan ‘cumpleaños’ complete with a pool dunk with all my clothes on, and having my face mashed into the birthday cake without mercy for the cake or myself. 

Even so, it all blew up just 3 days later on January 9 during Karaoke at Hotel Backpackers. I know the exact moment.

I have since taken a rest on a rickety old milk stool with three legs built perfectly to suspend a man's soul. They are: 

A boat

a guitar

and a motorcycle. 

Melory, Chiquita and Alynson really made my birthday an event. I still miss those girls every day and I am grateful to them for teaching me about enjoying life, rolling with changes and being in the moment. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

THAT guy

I’m jumping into the pool. This is me trying in earnest (I SWEAR!) not to be smug. I’m don’t want to be THAT guy, but it is December and I’m jumping into a pool on the South Coast of Guatemala and at this point in time back home, back in Calgary, back in the frozen North, the cold has come down hard (-28C). The pool is at the beach house of the ex-president of Guatemala where I’m staying and there is nautical memorabilia all over the walls and in the rooms, and though I never met the guy and think perhaps he is hiding in exile somewhere fearful of the revenge of his countrymen, with his clear love of all things nautical he can’t be all bad, can he? Still trying not to be smug, (look how much my belly is sticking out! Would a smug guy post such a photo?) with some 15 new friends and my friend Jenny who kindly invited me. We are on the Pacific coast and the 15 people staying for the weekend are all 28 years old, including me, inside. Some are younger actually. I’m an oddity. A curiosity. They don’t speak English but they are all friendly. With the music pumping from the commercial-grade speakers and the whole group talking together I have little hope of understanding most of the conversations but it doesn’t matter. The message is clear. Life is short. Let’s have fun.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Malibu Dream Barbie Nightmare

I was standing in the girls' toy section at Wal-Mart—a place I am not familiar with in the least—feeling more than a little out of place and getting a bit of a head rush from all the pink, like I had just eaten something way too sweet, looking for a Barbie doll to buy as a birthday present for a little Guatemaltecan I know named Chiquita. She told me she wanted one. Una muñeca con vestidos, she said. I looked at the rows of plastic princesses, some in ball gowns, some in bikinis, some with Corvettes, and some with whirlpool jacuzzis, and they all stared back at me, blankly, in the vacuous way only Malibu Barbies can: Caucasian plastic (caucastic) skin. Blue eyes. 

Why couldn't she have asked for Lego instead? Or even clothes? Clothes, as difficult as they are to buy, do not give one the feeling that they are setting a kid up for some unrealistic expectations in life. A Barbie portrays something completely beyond reality: A structurally unsound hourglass figure, perfect complexion, gigantic eyes, and an opulent lifestyle. Add a handsome yet subservient and vaguely effeminate boyfriend and you have some mixed messages:
"Barb, I'm leaving you. There's someone else."  
"It's Todd. I'm sorry." 
"Well after hearing you two giggling in the jacuzzi the other day, it's not a big surprise. I suppose now is a good a time to tell you that I've been sleeping with GI Joe." 
"Me too!"

I can hear a voice say, lighten up—it’s just a toy and a way for a little girl to play with clothes, dress-up act out life scenarios (much like the one depicted above), and that’s true, but I can’t help feeling like I’m an accomplice to some future mental anguish. Not only are the expectations of attaining Barbie’s looks and lifestyle imposed onto little girls, but in this case it is also something equally impossible, her race

I’m looking forward to the day when we all just look like we have great tans, but I’ll never live to see it. Nearly the entire population of Guatemala are Mestizo (Ladino) which is a mixture of Spanish and American Indian, or they are of pure Mayan descent, which means pretty much everybody in Guatemala has a great tan. Yet the people in the local advertising billboards living fabulous lives using awesome products are strangely lacking melanin, and many of these ads are locally produced and not just direct copies their North American counterparts. I don’t know why this is, but it makes me feel a little queazy; like staring into the vacuum of Barbie’s blue eyes.

Chiquita has big beautiful brown eyes and always has a great tan. So I went up and down the aisle looking at the dozens of Barbies on display trying to find one that would screw her up the least. I can't do much about the lifestyle portrayal or the creepily unrealistic body proportions but surely they are not all blue-eyed blondes? I was happy to finally find a latin-esque one, but she was wearing a really skimpy bikini that almost showed off her non-existent lady-parts, so I put her back in favour of another. She looks like this:

So that's the best I can do for now, but one day soon I hope maybe it can be more like this:

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Viking Raid Parties

“You never lied to me. All the others did.” she said, standing on the deck of my sailboat and looking West across the horizon to the setting sun. We were crossing from the mainland to a tiny island 100 miles away, a dot in Caribbean Sea, the GPS promising us it knew the way. The diesel was humming and the only other sounds were the wash of the sea coming off the bow and the occasional buzz of the autopilot making tiny corrections to our course. 

I simply shrugged, said nothing, and wondered about My Fellow Men and what they had been up to—she being far from the first disillusioned and wrecked woman I ever encountered. Each time I felt like a traveller coming across a village that recently had a viking raid party come visit. Things were strewn out everywhere. Smoke. Destruction. Carnage. They did what? Really? 

To be fair, I believe the 'Vikings' to be the exception with the vast majority of men being relatively good, honest and many just as hopeless and hapless as myself. Unfortunately, it does not take a great number of them. One bad guy, a player, a man with a plan and line and good way with women but little in the way of empathy can leave a swath of destruction with some breadth. The little brother of 3 sisters I consider myself, when not confusing them with my own particular brand of relationship dysfunction, A Friend of Women, and I’ve listened to these stories. Not that the women are innocent themselves—even the victims have to admit that falling in love with a bartender “quick with a joke and to light up your smoke” has an element of choice and responsibility to be borne.

Advocating for El Diablo, I considered how much easier things would have been had I lied to her. My very own viking raid party. Yes, we will get married someday. Yes I will sell the boat, settle down and buy a house. Get a job. Be a normal guy. Yes, I will be with you always. I’m not saying it would have worked. I’m not saying we would have been happy, but these words would have fallen on her ears like soft music on a warm summer night. Everything is going to be okay. All an academic proposition anyway as I am incapable of lying well. When one reads my so-called poker face, not only can they tell if I have a good hand or a bad hand, but they’ll also know if I’m annoyed, restless, happy, attracted to the waitress, and if it really was me who broke into the elementary school in grade 5 and tried to steal a radiometer from the science lab (it was). If I really need to conceal something my only option is to make an awkward excuse and run out of the room, hand shading my face. I have actually done this.

And even if men invented lying, it is not like they are the only ones practicing the dark art. How often had I been lied to by a woman? It is not as cruel as it first may seem. I spent two unforgettable weeks with a girl who lied to me—a different girl than the one on my boat deck right now. La Ladrona. I loved her in a way, in as much as you could love anyone in a relationship so short it spoiled before the milk. She told me some glorious lies all the while I kept wondering why we got along so well, how we could agree and click on so many things. A huge language barrier existed between us, but she somehow drew upon an infinite well of patience within her whenever I did not understand. Perhaps she was thinking it would all pay off soon enough—as soon as she could get her hands on my Visa card, which of course she eventually did

I was in the shower. 

Up until that point we had a really nice time. We danced, we rode horses on the beach, we released baby turtles to the sea, we paddled in canoes with strange couples, acting a couple ourselves though we hardly knew each other. We swam in pools and the ocean and let the thundering Pacific surf set the rhythm of our hearts under wine-soaked stars. All this from a few lies.

Back to the one in front of me, on the deck of my boat. I may never know if she lied. It is not as obvious as La Ladrona and the black and white of a Visa card statement. I think she must have because she told me quite emphatically how much she loved me but later left anyway impatient to be married to someone, anyone, only to return to her ‘viking raid party’ member. That was a while ago now. 

She wrote the other day. The village is a mess.