Sail to Veracruz Velas a Veracruz
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The opportunity of open ocean sailing presented itself when friend and attorney Greg Gladden asked me to crew for him on the Regatta de Amigos from Galveston Texas to Veracruz Mexico departing June 2nd, 2006. Of course, I said yes! Greg had a well equipped Benneteau First 42 docked next to my Tayana at Kemah Boardwalk Marina.
This photo is of a similar boat.
There were to be seven of us in all. The captain and two of his friends, John and Joel were old time sailors. They had been plying Galvaston Bay and the Gulf waters since they were kids. In fact, they even bought an old boat, restored it, and then nearly sunk it a couple of times! Once they got hit with a storm with lots of seawater over the transom. By the end of the trip they were sailing the boat with the hull basically under water. Bet you have not seen that before!
The rest of the Veracruz crew were pretty green, including me. One of our crew had no sea experience at all. In fact, he thought this was going to be a leisurely cruise on a fully staffed yacht, cooks and butlers included! He got a big surprise when it was time to haul lines, set sails and stand watch. His name was Jim and he did all right considering his expectations. Then there was athletic Jay Niles and myself. Except for Jim, Jay had the least amount of experience, but he picked it up faster than anyone I have seen before.
One might think seven people aboard a 42 foot Beneteau would make for crowded conditions. There were only bunks enough for 5. Seven people carry a lot of gear. We filled the forward bunks with bags and the forward head with provisions. There was not much room to get away from conflicting personalities. Newbies have a way of being under foot. It was indeed very crowded.
There is an old Chinese proverb, "Behind every able man is another able man". Having a crew of seven made a lot of sense. First, we had two on deck at all times. During the day we had a lot more. Even after one of those late night watches, it was difficult to sleep during the day. Shortage of bunks was not too much of a problem. We slept in shifts which, with the seventh odd man, left us one bunk short at times.
The good part about having 7 was, we paired an experienced sailor with a greenie. We whippersnappers were happy to have the voice of experience with us. The older salts enjoyed having someone to talk to, and to teach what they know. My spiritual life has taught me when I accept help from others, I can learn something and they get the satisfaction of giving something to someone else. I could not accept the help of others before, even when I was ignorant. It meant I was lesser than others and I could not deal with it.
Against the elements
The fastest finish for the Galveston Veracruz race was 96 hours. That was in XXXX. We knew we had a high pressure building so we expected good weather. We were hoping to dodge what few thunder heads there might be and make the trip uneventfully.
Sometimes things can be too good. We started with fairly calm seas. The first there was some wind and we made fair headway. After the morning breeze had passed, it was becoming evident the wind was dying. Things kept getting calmer thereafter. At some point the second day we were completely becalmed. No wind. Heck, we just needed patience. Tomorrow is another day.
We woke to a slight breeze the third morning. As the day passed, the wind died. By 2:00 we were floating 80 miles off shore, completely becalmed again. Every morning we got small bursts and the same happened each night. But the wind would always calm down and we found ourselves floating along. A few days of this would make the trip uneventful. However six days of glassy seas made this trip one of endurance. We fought for the wind, we fought against the drag of the boat, and as frustration rose of slow progress, some of us played mental battles between ourselves.
I learned a lot about calm weather sailing. We tried everything we could. John, one of the experienced sailors, really knew his stuff. He would get to work, flattening or billowing the sails as the case presented itself. Many times we lashed the main out on one side and the jib on the other in a forced wing and wing. We caught a little gust here or a little drift there, but it was very slow going. At one point our instruments were reading a negative 1 knot per hour! We were not making enough headway to buck the current!.
The fourth day out we were all on deck. There was a little frustration in the air. Should we have followed the coast looking for a land breeze? We had opted for a route 30 miles out of our way and further into the gulf in our quest to find the wind. We had to do something to relieve the stress! We decided a dip in the gulf would serve us well. There was discussion about how to heave to. It didn't take us long to figure it out. We had the boat trimmed for maximum speed. We were barely moving through the water. We did not need to touch the sails.
Overboard we went! The sea was clear and we could see the bottom of the newly pressure washed keel Sometimes in Kemah Boardwalk you can't see your hand in front of your scuba mask. The boat was moving so slowly we were able to swim all the way around her. When they pressure washed the keel they could not wash the two strips where the haul straps had been. Captain Greg handed me a line to keep me in place, and I went over the side to clean the bottom, all this while we were under way with full sails! That was the job for the day. We had a fun time of it, washing the boat sides with a brush, swimming up and down the boat lengthwise faster than the boat could sail.
One night, probably the fifth night, I woke to go on shift. The boom was banging away topsides. A lose hallard was knocking against the mast. There was no cloud cover and the moon cast an eerie light over the deck. The boat was being rolled around a bit by shallow swells and still no wind. It was like a scene out one of those sailing disaster movies. The watch crew were slumped around the boat exhausted. Everyone was beat from days of constant heat, slack sails and gently rolling seas. It was as if we had given up. Salty salt Joel told me to forget making the effort. There was absolute NO breeze and there was nothing we could do. Of course, I wouldn't listen and roused the crew from sleep. We trimmed the sails again and when nothing happened most of the watch went below to get some real sleep. Later that morning we caught our first real breeze which lasted all the way to Veracruz.
By mid-day everything had changed. The wind was coming up. There was a new sense of excitement in crew. There is something magical about that point when a boat dead in the water is compelled into movement and the crew scurries around to ready her and take their stations! We were coming up to Veracruz and the wind was cooperating.
Approach into Veracruz
By mid afternoon we were sailing along briskly in a quartering sea. God must have been with us because I somehow caught the rythem of the waves. We rode the quartering wave to their tops, then straightened It was really cool catching the wave tops and surfing the wave to the bottom and doing it all over again. It was really exhilarating. We got up to 12 knots which was way above the average 8 knots we had considered top speed. Joel told me he had never seen anyone surf a boat like that before which was a big feather in my cap! It also helped define the difference between the light hulled Beneteau and my Tayana 37. I doubt I could have done it in the Tayana, she is just too heavy. On the other hand I would not trade the hull strength of the Tayana for the light hull of the Benneteau in heavy seas.
The whole crew was hard at it adjusting this and stowing that and getting the boat ready for an after dark approach. On the one had, they seemed pretty excited about being out of the doldrums and moving again. On the other hand, they seemed to be real bitchy, one with another. It didn't make sense, until I realized they had run out of booze and cigarettes the day before. We had gotten along pretty well considering out challenge and the shortage of space. A few sparks flew in those last few hours and I guess that is to be expected.
I have to give Captain Greg credit. He had the night approach into Verazruz well planned. The harbor had its fair share of obstacles, some of which had claimed unwary ships before. Greg made it look like a piece of cake.
Shortly we found ourselves backing Mediterranean style stern to the malecon, anchor well into the channel, stern to. People were cheering and clapping and calling to us "How did you manage the doldrums?" After a near perfect entrance into Veracruz, someone managed to leave the jib reefing line in the water. Of course, it found its way to the prop and in the middle of our med-moor procedure, we had no power. The cheering crowds quit cheering as much. Frantic instructions were yelled out, a few of the youngsters hopped to, and soon the crisis was over. Then came the chiding from some of the other skippers. Captain Greg took it all in stride. He had the experience to know, There are two kinds of sailors: Those who have fouled their prop and those who will foul their prop.
By our calculations we were maybe second from the front in our category. That assumption fell quickly and we found our selves...dead last! Our 30 mile detour had been too much. We had a great time anyway. The Governor of Veracruz greeted us and we felt special in the city.
My heart went out to the children selling things in the street. We got to know them over our three day stay in the City. One boy always had a sad look on his face. You got the idea this was more than a business to him. He had to sell his products or the family was not going to eat!
What would I, the non-smoker, do with "Cuban" cigars? That is all the young boy had to sell. During breakfast on the day of our departure I decided to buy the cigars anyway. I remember negotiating the best deal with the youngster I could. He really struggled when he let his products go at such a good price. You could see it in his eyes, better to make something than nothing. But it hurt.
When it was time to pay this entrepreneur I asked him to open the palm of his hand. He looked at me with wide eyes. With some hesitation he did as I had asked. Into his palm I placed roughly double our agreed price! To this day I am not sure he understood my gesture. You could look at it as the ugly American playing games with this young businessman whose life depended upon his sales. I hoped he saw it as a sincere gesture of respect for the life this young one was trying to give to his family.
There was an old lady selling baskets. Some of my shipmates asked her to take some photographs of them. Then they switched took some shots of the old lady alone, and posed with the crew. We paid her for taking the shots but what she really wanted was a picture of her posed with the crew. Unfortunately the camera was a digital and the shots had to be processed. I got the copies the next day but the old Lady had gone to another town. I asked another old lady if she knew the first old lady. At first she insisted she did not know who I was talking about. I told her what our mission was and she had an immediate sudden recall. We finally agreed to send the photos to the hotel and have her ask for the photos a few days later. In this new way of life I had learned I must go the extra yard to brighten some one else's day. "Practice these principles in all of our affairs".
The second night I talked the boys into going to a salsa bar. This was the real thing. It was off of the strip and obviously a place where local boys play. We got that message very quickly. We asked four spectacular looking ladies to dance. The answer was no. Then we sent them the bartender, what did they want, price was no object. The waiter came back to us wringing his hands telling us the young ladies would not dance with us or accept our drinks. You have to remember, we were three gringo guys in a Mexican bar.
By now one of my fellow crew members, Eric was gloriously drunk. Better to say, he was obnoxiously drunk. He made it clear in no quiet words, the rejection he felt when the ladies would no accept a drink from....him!
Latinos dance with their hips, especially the salsa. Only someone who has grown up on a Salsa diet knows how to work those sensuous hips in the Latino or Caribbean rhythm. During some steps, you stick your tush gently out and dance on the flats of your feet. Eric figured he could do them one better. He sashayed over to a couple dancing and began dancing by himself. He mocked the young couple by sticking his ass out paddling it about here and there.
Crewmate Jay knew we were going to get our asses kicked. It was time to get out of there with or without Eric. We got a lot of cold stares as we made a beeline for the door, Eric in tow. I have a philosophy about touring that is different from most. I prefer to spend my time in foreign countries with the natives and on their turf. Most of the crew preferred to spend the night in a hard-rock style bar serving American style food and playing U.S. rock music. The salsa bar was more my style.
One of my highlights was going up the mast. Our roller furling had jammed and someone had to do it. We were not short of volunteers but some of my crewmates thought it would be a good idea for me to do the deed. While they were quite capable, the party the night before had left them a little woozy. It is funny how opportunities present themselves in our sobriety.
We left Veracruz on our third day and headed down (up) the coast. Our destination was the river town of Tuxpam. We had an over-night sail to the Rio Paradisio which is a fairly wide river rolling out of the Mexican hillside. Early the next morning I arose to find the boat already headed up the river. The Mexican Coast Guard stopped us after awhile. Captain Greg presented them a copy of the welcome letter written to all of the yacht captains by the Governor of Veracruz. Things went pretty smoothly thereafter.
Shortly thereafter, the boat was safely anchored off the Hotel Paradisio near the City of Tuxpam. The owner very kindly agreed to take us to see the Mayan ruins about 20 miles away. We were a little disappointed in the tour. You can't go inside the ruins anymore. There were several areas fenced off. The ruins were not in as good shape as we thought they would be.
Near the end of the tour one of the yard keepers approached me. "How did I like the ruins?" I expressed my feelings. He told me the ruins were deteriorating quickly. In order to preserve them they had to stop the constant traffic into the pyramid structures.
My young guide told me something I had never known before. How many times have we seen the poor native slave hauled upon the alter? The medicine man then pierces his chest and yanks his heart out. The movie Apocolypto depicts the scene about as well as any I have seen. Anyway, according to my guide, the sacrifices were not forced. Rather, they were volunteers. These lucky soles were chosen shortly after birth. They grew up knowing this was their mission in life. The offer accelerated their meeting with the spiritual world.
The owner of Hotel Paradisio took me to a meeting in the town square. They are working hard to build Tuxpam as a tourist destination. The meeting reminded me of the small town where I was born and the efforts the businessmen made to bring tourism to the area. It seems like human nature to identify the differences between cultures. I had fun finding common ground. These guys were just like the folks back home!
We left Tuxpam and headed for U.S. waters. The hotel staff was surprised when I asked to buy some towels with the logo of the Hotel Paradisio. I guess most people steal them if they really want them. I was tempted to steal the towels but then I would have to make amends. Mexico is a long way to go to repair damages for the theft of towels, but my new way of life taught me I have to do it.
We had good wind on the trip back. In fact that night we had 30 knot winds and 10 to 15 foot seas. This was a real event for me because I was the helmsman. It was a total blast! Our course took us mostly broadside to the waves so I kept having change course and hit the waves head on to keep us from broaching. If it were not for the experienced sailors on board I would probably have been scared stiff.
By dawns early light we found the lights marking the approach to Freeport. Greg took the helm and we were shortly in the intra coastal waterway on our way home by way of Galveston. The trip was mostly straight forward except the emergency I described below.
Man overboard, all hands on deck!
Of course, all new sailors spend a fair amount of time cruising the aisles of the local marine store. Mine was West Marine. I kept looking at all of those things one would think are necessary for a safe trip. Do I really need gloves to haul the lines? The answer to that question is a definite yes. What about a head light for night time watches? Another overwhelming yes. Do you use one of those coast guard approved life jackets to throw on when you need it or do you buy one of the inflatables? The inflatable was the way to go, one that would not automatically inflate if it accidentally got wet.
One of the purchases that seemed most foolish was one of those strobes you wear on your life jacket. Gawd, what would a strobe light do for you if you fell overboard during the day? The answer is, not much. But if you went overboard at night, I quickly realized, it would be a life saver. This realization came home to me when we had our emergency at sea.
We were right on the border of the U.S. and Mexico when it happened. The race was over. Someone had made the mistake of bringing some rum back with them from Mexico. It was not much cheaper than the rum you find in the U.S. but those who partook said it was a heck of a lot stronger. Unfortunately, one our experienced sailors partook a little too much. We were in the first rising seas of the trip. This was a beam sea and waves kept lifting and dropping us, a little more every few minutes as the seas rose. It was rough enough the captain had ordered life vests for all on deck before he went below.
Then it happened. Our experienced sailor was off duty but on deck. It was like watching two vehicles approaching and thinking to yourself "these guys are going to crash, sure enough". Jay and I were on deck watching our good friend trying to go forward. We both said later, it we knew he was going over the side, sure. The boat lifted, our voice of experience got thrown into the air, over the lifeline and there you had it, a man overboard!
For a fleeting second I figured my eyes were playing tricks. I was still lost in the "it can't happen to me" mode. I had finished my American Sailing Association basic keel boat training and man-over-board drills came naturally to me. Jay and I both started screaming the alarm, "Man overboard, Man overboard". Our crewmates were lost in the same largess as I had been, certainly it could not happen to us. Yet, in a few seconds we had all hands on deck. Meanwhile, my training kicked in, I did a dead stop turn and was heading back to where we last saw John.
Alcohol did a lot to deaden my fear when I was drinking. It sure worked for John. The whole affair was one big adventure for him. When we pulled him out of the drink he was grinning ear to ear. "I thought the worst that could happen was I would spend a night in the gulf! No one else thought it was very funny. In fact, there were some fairly sharp words for John when we finally got him back on board. His thinking, we figured, was flawed. First, a little teeny speck in the gulf is not as easy to spot as John wanted us to believe. Second, there are sharks in the gulf. Third, as warm as the water was, hypothermia and dehydration would certainly take their toll. Good thing he was wearing his inflatable!
That is where my night time strobe came to mind. After seeing a man overboard really happen, it gave me a reality check. It was hard enough to find John in the rising seas during daylight. If he had gone overboard two hours later, we never would have found him, I realized. That night time strobe would be your best chance to live for a night-time man overboard!
Not to belay the topic, but there was a sailor lost in heavy seas off of the tip of South America. http://www.kensolo.com/ He was trying to solo circumnavigate, as he put it, the wrong way, from West to East. A storm came up and rolled him. He lost his masts and his steering system. He called in a mayday and asked to be taken off the boat. First of all, it took them 3 days to get to him. The bad news was, despite having a large sail boat all they saw was the flare. One ship captain said he did not spot him until he was almost on the boat! Finding a boat was hard enough. Finding a body in the water, with or without strobe, and surely without voice communication, would be a needle in haystack, or a jellyfish in the sea. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,241781,00.html and http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/10/earlyshow/main2346523.shtml?source=RSSattr=TheEarlyShow_2346523 Ken scuttled the boat before he abandoned her. http://www.kensolo.com/kenstatus.htm
After paying a ghastly price for the strobe light I managed to forget mine. Good thing our man overboard did not happen to me. Good thing it did not happen at night to any of us.
I learned a lot on my Veracruz trip. First I reaffirmed my love for the sea and this desire to set sail. Second, I found I could be sea sick, and there was a remedy for it. Third, I learned I can handle an emergency at sea without losing my cool. The lessons I learned from the American Sailing Association ingrained some of the procedures in my brain and the rest was automatic pilot. That is not to say I will handle every situation well. Rather, I can say, regarding the emergency and the whole experience, it was a great start to this new life at sea.
Just a note, many of the pics are from the web as I neglected to take enough of my own. I will not make the same mistake again!