Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I found a great quote recently, about the effects of natural selection on cultural evolution, using the Polynesian canoe as a model. Translated from the original French, is this quote, from the French philosopher Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier) in 1908.

Every boat is copied from another is the sea herself who fashions the boats choosing those which function and destroying the rest.

As a selective force, the sea can indeed be very powerful. This, needless to say, is the source of much worry for seafarers, but it is also the driving force behind us, more so than the wind itself. For of what use is a voyage if it does not test us? It must test our seaworthiness, in every sense, from the craft itself to the skills and strengths of those who sail her. It tests the seaworthiness of our judgement, our knowledge, our alertness, our stamina. If we are found seaworthy, in the conditions nature throws at us, we will reach our intended shore and it will mean something to us, that we have passed a rigorous test indeed and were not destroyed.

As this is my voyage, from top to bottom, and all the building, planning, outfitting, navigating etc. are my project, then it is I alone who am being tested. Am I seaworthy? Time will tell. The first Manatee ran into a few flaws, and they were fixed with no real harm done, until the last one. But by then I had already deemed the boat unfit for such a voyage as I had planned, so the loss was small. And more was learned by that simple shipwrecking, than was lost to me in the event. The second Manatee will be all the better-built for it, and I will be better prepared for the next failure, whatever it may be.

Still, whatever events I may plan for, I am sure the sea will be throwing up new ones at me, even unto the day I arrive at my destination, after months of sailing. And more complicated than one finds aboard any ordinary sailboat, is the fact that this boat and I must be able to land on the beach, time after time. The deep blue sea has dangers enough, but any sailor will tell you the most dangerous place in the whole ocean of the world, is the place where it collides with the land: an unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object.

So will the Manatee II and I be seaworthy and shoreworthy? Time and tide will tell.

Friday, September 25, 2009

There have been many stories written about a future without mankind. What will cities look like after the last humans have left? The stories usually portray a gradual erosion of buildings and roads. I have seen how it will really happen. Long periods without change will be punctuated by the abrupt collapse of buildings, utility poles, the sudden washing away of roads, and breakage of pipes and conduits. Time will gradually weaken structures, but it will be storms that knock it all down.

Imagine 36 hours of one-inch-per-hour rains, flowing over hard desert soils. A river of mud and debris will take out strings of power poles, float boats out of storage yards and pile them up on roads, wash cars into the sea. Drainage courses in the desert are dry so much of the time, that people build their houses, put up walls and fences right in or across them, as if they were a mere dip in the landscape and nothing to be concerned about. But walls become dams, and when they are knocked over, the resulting flood can be devastating. And when water and mud flow in under doors it can be terrifying.

Hurricane Jimena never officially touched the mainland in the Guaymas area, but it parked itself in the middle of the Gulf of California for a day and a half, and the sustained heavy rains cut roads in half and washed whole houses away, especially in poor areas. Two weeks later we have electricity and water again, but thousands are homeless, there is still debris on the roads and detours around the washed out sections. Everything will eventually be restored, but the breakdown from a single, if rare, storm is immense. This is how it will all happen when we finally leave this planet, or when, like the Mayans, we abandon our cities and our civilisation and return to a stone age culture. Hopefully that time is a long way off.

Meanwhile, life goes on in San Carlos. I for one am still acclimating to the humid heat after a wonderful five weeks in Ontario. If there is anyone who doubts the effect of humidity on the sensation of heat, or cold for that matter, think of it in terms of conductivity. Moisture in the air is like metal in the hand, versus something less conductive, like wood or plastic. And humid heat is unrelieved by sweat, which clings to clothing and skin, instead of evaporating and cooling the body. As much as I love my life here, I long for the cool fresh air of a Canadian summer and fall.

Lorena and I are considering spending more time in Canada. Since we migrate north every summer, we might as well stay longer, and make some money. This way we can avoid the extremes of temperature in both countries, and enjoy the best of what they have to offer. The tricky part is to find seasonal work so that we can come back to it every summer, and always have the job waiting for us.

Wish us luck.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lake Talon, 31 August, night
A pregnant moon lays a silver path across the still, black water. A thin layer of mist dances and swirls slowly over the surface . Outside the temperature is already just a few degrees above freezing, but in the bathroom, a small electric heater has kept it the toastiest room in the cottage.

I am reluctant to emerge from this sanctuary of warmth, to cross the chilly, uninsulated main lodge to the insulated, if unheated bedroom. Quickly I shiver under a down blanket and am snuggled again against my warm other half. This is life at the cottage in late summer, or at least a glimpse.

Soon we are up, getting the fire going and starting breakfast. The morning sun has lifted the night mist off the lake, and it is a bright, cheery day.

This cottage is the anchor for the Wilde family. We try to all get here when we can, to share our old stories, and make up new ones, with family and friends new and old. The building itself expresses the history of the various families that owned it, with all the various additions , the rearranged rooms, and the mismatched dishes and cutlery. Legally it belongs to my brother, Alex. This was Dad’s idea: he has seen too many family conflicts when various siblings co-own a cottage, and can’t agree on modifications and repairs, who will pay for what, and who uses it when. Management of the family cottage needs to be a dictatorship. And Alex has been a benevolent dictator, making sure it remains the Wilde family cottage.

Alex has a young family and a new farm, so the cottage has become a necessarily low priority. So when we arrived in early August, we found that this petty fiefdom had been conquered by ravaging hordes of tiny Visigoths resembling nothing more than mice and chipmunks. Also, an ill-timed family accident led the cottage to be temporarily abandoned one fall, resulting in frozen water pipes. So our first priorities were to clean out the mouse-befouled cupboards and counters, remove debris and scattered clothing and toys, and to restore the water supply to kitchen and bathroom.

Under the cottage, the copper tubing had blown out at several elbows. Just a few joints to resolder, no pipes to replace. A borrowed torch from next door, and a bit of cursing and a few burned fingers, and the job of reconnecting the pipes is done without burning down the building. I broke a plastic connector attached to the pressure tank, and managed to free it by melting it with the torch without damaging the bladder inside the tank. So everything is good from the pump to the kitchen sink and toilet.

Next is the water supply from the lake. When the ice came in it pushed the waterline right up onto the beach and broke it off at the edge of shore. It also pushed it up underground putting a kink in the line. So the kids dug up the line and found the blockage, and when we were done, the waterline was good from the pump to the lake.
Prepared for the triumphant sound of water flowing in the pipes, I filled the pipe to the lake, connected it to the pump, and then began to fill the pump. And, of course, triumph turns to defeat as water pours out through a gaping crack in the side of the pump. Shit. So now it is a trip to town to buy a used pump.

Hooking up the pump to 220V, I turned off the switch so the wires would be safe to handle. It wasn’t until I tried to turn it on that I discovered the switch was somehow bypassed and useless, and if it weren’t for the fact that the power was turned off at the main panel upstairs, I wouldn’t be typing this.

Anyway, the new pump worked once we had adjusted the pressure so that it didn’t blow the hose off every time it turned off. So we have a flushing toilet and water in the kitchen. The place is clean and orderly. Life is good. We still have to heat water on the stove, but we use the electric one for that, and a shower is a simple matter of standing in the tub and pouring hot water over your body with a dipper.

The reason we come up to Ontario in August is to split our summer into manageable halves. The summer monsoon in Sonora runs from July to early October, and is both hot and humid. So by coming to North Bay in August, although we miss the best of summer weather here, we also miss the worst of the summer down south. And we can appreciate the cool and even the cold, wet weather, as a pleasant change to extreme moist heat.

Today, however, is perfect. Sunny and clear, the day promises to be warm and dry. The lake is a bit chilly, but we can swim until late October in Sonora, so we don’t miss it as much as we might if we lived here year-round. That said, there is nothing like swimming in a warm freshwater lake. No chlorinated pool and no salty sea can compare with the joy of freshwater. I like the sea, especially snorkelling in it, for all there is to see. But it is nice to not have to rinse the salt off of you. And of you swallow a bit of lake water, you are less thirsty for it, not more.

Today we might take the SS Entropy for a stroll down the lake, maybe see if our neighbours are around. The Entropy has seen better days. A pontoon boat is like a floating dock you can drive around the lake. It has a big flat deck, and lots of comfy chairs and couches to sit on. The problem is that the sun and the rain eat away at the upholstery, the carpeted deck stays wet long after a rain, and traps mildew and sand, and eventually the boat looks like an abandoned convertible on some redneck’s front lawn. So next year we are going to replace the carpeted deck with cedar decking, and the upholstered chairs can be replaced with cedar lawn furniture. Then it will still look like a floating dock but will be much easier to maintain and will look good for years.

Lake Talon is a lovely lake. Most of the shore and surrounding terrain is Crown land, with a scattering of cottages and a few permanent homes. It is all surrounded by a mixed forest, dominated by pines near shore, and a mixture of spruce, fir, poplar, birch and maple on the slopes. High hills surround the lake and except for the cottages and a few boats, it looks like the middle of wilderness. And it will stay that way because the crown has no intention of releasing any more land. Much longer than it is wide, it is a crooked series of bays and inlets, giving it a long shoreline but no really big open water. So it is ideal for exploring by canoe or motorboat. Most of the shore is bouldery, but there are plenty of rocky outcrops and some nice sandy beaches for picnicking. There is very little boat traffic on the lake, even in summer, and at this time of the year you practically feel like you have the lake to yourself.

The lake is part of the Mattawa River, and is part of an ancient canoe route stretching across the country. At one time the portages were marked with a signpost, and each had a large brass plaque outlining the history of the river and of that particular portage. Now the portages are hard to find, though they are all still used all summer by adventurous paddlers, and during the annual North Bay to Mattawa canoe race.

Being surrounded by so much Crown land has really spoiled me. The idea that you can just push off shore in a canoe and go for days or weeks, camping anywhere suitable, catch fish for dinner, and just wander at will without having to ask anyone for permission or pay a fee seemed the most natural thing in the world to me growing up here. Now I see how rare a thing this is I feel especially lucky to have grown up here. And to have a cottage surrounded in Crown land is a rare and lucky thing. I hope it always remains like this.

A postscript: While we were away in beautiful Northern Ontario, our lovely San Carlos got hit by Hurricane Jimena. Strong winds and heavy rain battered the poor town for 36 hours, dumping nearly a half a metre of rain. As far as we know our friends in San Carlos and neighbouring Guaymas are still trapped there with no water, no electricity and the highways washed out in both directions. We wish them all the best. Please eat the food in our fridge!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

This is Monsoon Season: SE winds bring moisture-laden Tropical air and the rains, when they come, fall violently,with lightning crashing all around us, knocking out power, flooding the streets and making a big mess. As I was about to go to bed last night, I noticed the trees outside were rocking violently. The wind began blowing so strong that things started crashing to the ground outside, and I had to go onto the roof to close the hatch over the bathroom. I was a bit late: I still had to sweep the floor in the morning for all the sand and grit that had blown in, and that was from the roof.
I checked the internet weather and discovered a huge mass of cloud to the south and coming this way. I was hoping for a monsoon rain: heavy rain, lots of lightning. But so far all we got was wind, shaking the windows, blowing grit in through the gaps and under the doors. The dogs were pretty nervous about the whole event, but I couldn’t sit with them because my eyes would get all full of grit. So I had to content myself with watching from inside. The flashes of light in the sky told of an advancing thunderstorm, and when I started to hear the rumble, I knew it was within about 15 miles. Alas the rain, the lightning spectacle that is so much fun to watch from the safety of home, never arrived. It was another teaser.
Meanwhile, the desert is still dry and leafless, and we stay in to avoid the extreme heat and humidity, awaiting the glory that the summer rains bring.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My daughter, Kate, returned from a high school field trip to Europe. I asked her “How was your trip?”. And instead of the expected “good” or “it was awesome!” she replied, “There were a lot of stairs, and don’t ever call anything in Canada ‘old’.”
There is a lesson here for all of us. When we travel, it is not enough to think of our experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We should think about how our experiences have changed our relationship with the world at large. Every new experience moulds and shapes us, however little, or it wasn’t truly experienced. Travel is rich in new experiences, and since travelling is costly, economically and environmentally, we owe it to ourselves and others to make the best of it.
Keeping a journal is an effective way to enhance the experience. Not only does having a record allow you to relive your memories, but the mere act of writing down what you saw and did and felt, involves the whole mind in the experience.
Photography is a useful tool as well, for reliving your trip, especially when you share the photos with others. But I find the act of taking pictures removes you from the act of experience. Take a beautiful sunset for example. To sit and watch the colours of the sky gradually shift down the spectrum and fade to that deep indigo, and to see the night stars emerge in order of brightness, can be a deeply spiritual experience. Sunsets can be beautiful, but if you are fussing about setting up the tripod, and waiting for just the right moment when the lighting is perfect, you get a great picture, but no sense of having experienced the sunset. What you experienced was the act of photographing the sunset, not the act of observing it.
I remember a trip I took with Kate when she was eight. We drove around southern Vancouver Island in an old camper van I had. My camera broke(drowned, actually) the week before when we were on a sailing trip, so I was relieved of the distraction of photography and was free to fully experience the act of observing the joys of discovery that only an eight-year-old can truly do well. Without the camera to chronicle the trip, I deliberately took mental pictures. One picture is of an eight-year-old girl dressed in fleece jacket and pants, with new hiking boots. She was standing on a tree stump, which had washed up on the beach. The stump was not very tall but wide enough she could have lain down on it with neither head nor foot hanging over the edge. She was leaning into a pair of miniature binoculars and gazing intently out to sea. Her expression was of serious curiosity, and she was a perfect miniature version of an adult, all the cuter for being a kid.
Now picture a huge conifer, its massive buttress roots anchoring it to the earth. Each root emerges from the tree as a triangular slab of wood, a few inches thick but three feet tall at the base, tapering to a more rounded shape a few feet from the trunk. Now picture this noble tree, long dead, washed ashore with the buttresses radiating from the base, facing the sea that delivered it to some lonely beach. Now picture the same eight-year-old curled up, lying asleep on an horizontal buttress in the root system of this great tree, shaded by the root above. My feeling at this image is one of great joy, at spending this brief moment of time with my precious daughter. The memories of that time together will remain with me all my life, and has shaped our relationship.
So, by all means take a few snaps. But more importantly, write down your experiences. And most of all, live them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Well it's time I did some justice to the places I visit, especially Lighthouse Reef. My thanks to Victor and Dawn Meekhof for all the photos in this post. You did a great job, much better than I could have done. By the way, all these images are the property of Victor and Dawn Meekhof.

Let's start with Half Moon Caye. as the Belize Audubon Society says, "It all started with the boobies." In this case it was the red-footed boobies, which have a large nesting colony here. To see the boobies, you follow a trail along the north shore of the island, which then turns inland. You hear them before you see them; strange croaking noises, bill-clapping and other noises beyond description fill the air. As does the smell of guano, also known as birdshit. Peering up into the trees, you can see boobies peering back down at you, sitting on nests that are no more than a few meagre twigs jammed into the crotch of a tree.. They are so tame that they are not the least stressed by the presence of people who are walking quietly beneath them. Presently you come to an observation tower, and a few steps takes you to eye level.

There you see the boobies, and frigatebirds all nesting together. People wonder why boobies would tolerate their arch-enemy, the frigatebird to nest so closely. It is easy to imagine that having the same bully that stole your breakfast from you sitting in the next nest over would be intolerable. But the birds don't take it personally. The frigates are no threat on the nest, and there is safety in numbers, from real nest predators. so they live and let live.

The first two shots are of mature red-footed boobies in the white colour phase. This phase is less common globally than the brown-with-a-white-tail colour phase, but here on Half Moon Caye, the white birds are by far the more common.

The second shot, you have figured out by now. It is all a confusing mess. Newborns are all-white and fluffy. When they lose the baby down, they are brown. Only at maturity do they reach their final colour pattern.

Sometimes a bird falls from the flimsy nest and is rejected by the parents. The Park Rangers may try to replace the bird, but if the parents won't have it then they raise it themselves. Sometimes these orphans eventually take off and go off to feed themselves, but not Gilly. She liked people too much. When placed with her kin, she would immediately fly back to the park office. She would often be seen landing on the outboard motor of an approaching dinghy, begging for fish scraps. She even landed on my kayak a couple of times, then finally landed on my hat. She stayed on my hat all the way back to the beach until I set her on the fish-cleaning table.

She would even make a nuisance of herself when James and Adolfo were trying to clean the day's catch.

We also get in the water to do some snorkelling. Here is Dawn consulting the Oracle, a huge brain coral. Also shown is a hawksbill turtle. Hawksbills are the most common turtle found in the shallow water, but are often too shy to watch for long. They graze on algae and eat a variety of marine mollusks. This is the turtle that was once prized for "tortoiseshell" jewellery, and was saved from extinction by the development of cheap plastic substitutes. Ironic, considering floating plastics are arguably the greatest threat to the survival of several sea turtle species.

Can you see the stonefish in this picture? If you can you may even notice a small sharp-nosed puffer picking at the stonefish as if it were indeed a rock covered in marine growth.

I couldn't resist including this shot of a reef squid checking out a school of snorkellers. Reef squid are real characters; they swim in formation, changing colour and even flashing white and dark. They have amazing control over their skin pigment, opening and closing pigment cells called chromatophores with astonishing speed.

The weather isn't always as it appears in the literature. Sometimes a squall hits us
and dumps a heavy rain for a couple of minutes before it passes. This is Victor smiling because he was smart or lucky enough to still be in the water when it hit. Pity those who sat through the rain on the boat, but not too much. And if you look closely between the engines you will see the head of yours truly, avoiding the rain altogether.

It isn't always raining either, Much more often we have a flawless sky and sometimes the wind is just right for a sail.....

More to come soon. Cheers

Monday, March 16, 2009

Just in from Glover's Reef and want to post some photos from some of my guests.

The first is an iguana in a tree. During the winter months the males climb up into prominent spots where they can display their size and orange mating colours. Preferred sites are in the tops of trees directly over water, for a quick getaway if needed. This magnificent specimen was in his prime and probably had several females hanging around in nearby branches to get a piece of him when laying time comes around.

Next is a Morelet's crocodile. This species is smaller and less aggressive than the American crocodile, and unlike the American, is found only in freshwater rivers and lagoons. This fellow was hanging out in the branches of a downed tree along the banks of the New River.

Half Moon Caye hosts a nesting colony of the rare and beautiful white-phase red-footed booby. Trails wander under the booby nests, leading to a three-metre tall observation tower. Standing on the tower, visitors are surrounded by nesting boobies and frigatebirds, almost within reach. This pair of boobies was sharing the duties of feeding each other and sitting on the nest.

Thanks to Birgit Kuhle, for the booby pic, which I have posted with her permission.

More coming next week. Cheers

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I have some catching up to do. Sorry I am so late. Ok, so last summer and fall, I did a little research on outriggers (amas). I decided to go to two amas after the disastrous consequences of having a single ama fail on me one dark and windy night. I found out that in the Hawaiian chain there is a tradition of making sailing canoes with two amas. Because of the surfy conditions and huge swells these boats have to content with, the amas are swept high in the front, so if the boat broaches (turns sideways) while coming in through surf, or sliding down a big wave at sea, the lower ama won't dig into the next wave and trip the boat.

The first three photos show the basic shape of an ama. It is made of polyisocyanurate foam (which is expensive but doesnt dissolve on contact with polyester resin like styrofoam would), cut with a saw and shaped with planing tools and coarse sandpaper. The foam is two sheets glued together and glued to a plywood backbone which was precut to the right shape, and gives a consistent form and stiffness to the mould. Without the plywood spine it never would have come out symmetrical.

The next photo shows the fibreglass ( a single layer of matte) as it is cut and laid on before adding the resin. The fibreglass and resin are bonded to the foam and this forms the outer layer of the mould (middle picture). Then the foam is carefully cut away from the plywood spine.

After the foam is separated from the spine, it is mounted on a couple of posts, and wrapped with plastic film, of the type you wrap leftovers in. Now is it ready for the thick fibreglass layer: two layers of matte sandwiching a layer of woven roving. The fibreglass will not stick to the mould because of the layers of plastic film. You could use mould release wax, but I didn't have any.

Once I made the first fibreglass cast, I had to grind it off at the ends so it would open enough to remove it. Then I put it back in place and shipped it to Chetumal, near the border with Belize. There it would wait for me to carry it across the border.

Once I was in Belize, I took the bus up to the border and dropped in on my friends Rolando and Mercedes. They were storing it for me, and kindly took me in overnight. The next morning Rolando drove me to the border. I walked across the Rio Hondo bridge into Belize and went to Customs and Immigration. The Customs officers didnt know how much to rob me in duty for this strange-looking object. They base their "duty" on the market value, plus the cost of shipping and insuring the object. The shipping cost was typed on the waybill. It said $845. So they assumed that was in US dollars. I told them that was pesos (it was), and they finally believed me when I explained that the sign for pesos is not found on a keyboard, so they use the $ sign. So when they finally tallied up their estimate they charge 20%, then taxes on their fee (!). It all came to almost $100us. For a chunk of foam and fibreglass that I made myself. So I left the Customs office and started walking to Corozal, a distance of about 20 miles. Of course the second pickup truck that passed by stopped for me and I rode in the back until I saw the bus station. I was concerned about the awkwardness of taking the ama on the bus but it fit right under the seats – the buses here are all old Bluebird school buses, totally unmodified. The rest is uneventful.
When I got to Dangriga I moved into the new guides house. Every year it is a different place, because they only rent it for a few months and have to take what they can get. This year it is the top floor of a two-storey concrete house at the south edge of town, right up against the mangroves (and sandflies).

This isnt it. But it is our immediate neighbour to the west. This picture was taken from the roof, which is accessible and has a rail all around, as you will see.

The first picture is the Manatee on the roof before I got the sawhorses built. After the sawhorses were built, I began work on the daggerboard trunk. On the right you can see the opening in the hull for the daggerboard (a hinged keel: more like a jackknife than a dagger). In the centre picture the dagger board is barely visible sticking up through the opening. I like this picture because it shows how sleek this boat is.

On the left is a better view of the daggerboard, which is an old rudder salvaged off a wrecked Hobiecat, found out at Half Moon Caye. Above the boat is the framework for a shade. I only set the tarp up when I am going to work on the boat. Otherwise the wind beats it up and pulls the poles all apart.

The photo on the right shows the trunk: the box in which the dagger board is housed. Also evident in this picture are the two bulkheads with large hatches cut into them.
Just working on this section made me realise I am not getting this boat done this year; especially since I spent the bulk of my time off vacationing with Lorena, which I don’t regret in the least.
So thats my progress so far, folks. Next posting will come in a week or two. I have to rustle up some photos from some of my guests first. Cheers, Jack