Back to the Rio Dulce

Back to the Rio Dulce

[Correction from the last Rocinante blog: In the last blog, I made a tongue-in-cheek derogatory comment about the size of Eagle Ray brains. My friend and oftentimes mentor, Darlene Ketten, pointed out that Eagle Rays have quite large brains. Apparently it is my own brain that needs a size check….]

For six weeks, we have been off the dock, mostly wandering the islands of Belize. We have sailed coral atolls, barrier reefs, mangrove channels, open ocean, seagrass meadows, muddy coves, and sand flats. We have swum with eagle rays and sting rays and yellow rays, often all at once. We have dived into sinkholes full of snapper and grouper and we have regularly fraternized with lobster and conch.

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[image caption=”Diving Glover’s Reef atoll”][/image]
[image caption=”Exploring interesting mangrove habitat”][/image]

Now we are back in Guatemala, anchored in the quiet of Bahia Gracioso, with the usual howler monkeys calling from shore and smoke rising from what seems to be a small Mayan village, awaiting tomorrow’s high tide so that we can cross back into the Rio Dulce where Rocinante will hide during the hurricane season. Here in Bahia Gracioso, it is time for a bit of gratitude as well as a bit of reflection.

The gratitude is simple: We are lucky to live the life we are living. As to reflection, there is much to discuss. To simplify matters, let’s just say we have learned about our world, our boat, and ourselves.

To learn about our world, we wanted to live closer to nature. After years of studying and analyzing the environment, of interpreting statistics and writing reports, of collecting and processing samples, we adopted the admittedly odd notion that living closer to nature might be more interesting, or at least as interesting, as the scientific investigation of nature. We were right, but living closer to nature comes with a price.
Last night, for example, we were anchored in the uninhabited cove known as New Haven, the one-time home of the now deceased minor celebrity known as Hard Luck Charlie (whose luck, I was told by a potentially reliable source, ran out during a rum-fueled late-night drive into Punta Gorda). About halfway through dinner, the wind went from less than 5 knots to more than 35 knots. With little warning the wind had the temerity to shred the little Belizean flag flying just below our starboard spreader. It pulled on our anchor chain. It shook our mizzen mast and did its best to tear away our bimini. It brought with it sideways rain.
For an hour, we watched through an open hatch. Every few minutes, lightning flashes lit the sky, allowing us to see the shore through the rain, so we knew that our anchor held, which, of course, was a welcome discovery. After an hour and a half—a long stretch for a squall—the wind began to die, but the rain kept on, and a tight chop filled the cove at New Haven. Rocinante swayed and rocked and jerked against her anchor chain until well after midnight, keeping the crew awake and alert and, for a short time, less than enamored with the very nature they had sought. So, firsthand experience may be more interesting or as interesting as research, but it brings with it a certain level of anxiety and an end to regular sleeping habits.

We wanted, too, to learn about our boat, and by extension all boats. To date, the most important thing that we have learned about our boat is that she, like all other boats, carries only two kinds of equipment: Equipment that is broken, and equipment that is going to break. Our tool bags, and the tool bags on all cruising sailboats, know nothing of loneliness or neglect.
Example: A week or two ago, in a dead calm, we rowed into Placencia for lunch. Just before leaving Rocinante at anchor, I checked our solar panels. The charge controller showed about 20 amps at 13.5 volts, as expected for the middle of the day, and our batteries were happily drinking in electrons. The panels were producing power. After lunch, we rowed back through the same dead calm, but aboard Rocinante the solar panels were producing nothing but shadows. We cussed and fumed (or at least one of us did), but then we went to work puzzling out the problem.
The first guess was a bad solar controller, the cheap electronic device that regulates the flow from the panels. We changed it out, putting in a new one, and yet the panels continued to produce nothing but shadows. We puzzled some more. It seemed possible that one of the wires passing from the panels down through their stainless steel mountings may have shorted—the wires have to make a tight bend around a corner, and the insulation could have rubbed off. We opened up the access panel, removed the homemade distribution bar that joins six panels together, and checked the wires. Nothing. We puzzled some more. We broke out an electrical meter and began checking wires. There was no reason in the world for a wire to fail in a dead calm, so our effort seemed little more than a waste of time. And yet the second wire we checked was entirely dead, cutoff, about as likely to carry electrons as, say, a jug of milk or a block of concrete. Tracing it further, we found the failure point—a 20-cent connector had cashed in its chips. The connector was not quite the right size but it was the only one we could find in Guatemala when we built the system. Why it cashed in its chips in the middle of a dead calm on a sunny afternoon we will never know, but it did. And knowing that, a problem that had taken four or five hours to diagnose took ten minutes to repair.

As for learning about ourselves, there is good news and bad news, strengths and weaknesses, and, occasionally, strengths making up for weaknesses. Take, for example, our grounding at Monkey River Bay. One morning we sailed to an island on the edge of Belize’s barrier reef, only to discover that we could not anchor there, as far as we could tell, without damaging coral. Seeing no good options, we set a course for Monkey River Bay, knowing we would not arrive until just before dark. We had been there before and we thought we had a course marked on our GPS Chart Plotter. Arriving there, we found that the course had been erased, but, with the confidence of fatigue and idiocy, we lowered our sails and went in under power. The trade winds blew reasonably strong, pushing us from behind, even though we were under power. We debated the course a bit, and chose to swing slightly offshore from the little peninsula at the mouth of the bay. We scraped the bottom. We bounced. We stopped. Each time a wave rose beneath Rocinante’s hull, the wind pushed her a bit farther onto the bar. Our keel stretches downward close to six feet, but our depth sounder showed only three and half feet. Without delay, we waded around the boat, looking for deeper water. Finding some, we tried to power off, but we were not moving. We launched our sturdy little dinghy, threw our 80-pound anchor aboard, and rowed the anchor out to deeper water. We tossed the anchor over and rowed back to Rocinante. We powered up the engine and the anchor windlass, straining at our anchor chain, but we remained hard aground. We had to lean Rocinante on her side to reduce her draft, so we raised the foresail, letting it catch the wind. With the wind heeling Rocinante over, we powered the engine and the anchor windlass, and a second later we were afloat, just as darkness settled in.
What we learned: We seem to be somewhat better at getting out of problems than we are at avoiding problems, sort of like some corporations that excel at crisis management but lack the discipline needed for crisis avoidance. We need to work on that.

There are a hundred other experiences and events and personal encounters worth relating, all from the last six weeks. There was the Belizean fisherman who told us about his boat, a 35-foot wooden sloop with a bamboo mast that could outrun Rocinante in a light wind and that housed 8 fishermen for a week at a time as they dove for conch and lobster. There were a few hours with a perfect wind for our spinnaker, and another few hours with a perfect wind for our odd little mizzen staysail. There was Brenda, the Creole woman with the fish shack on the beach. There was our new friend Dean, sailing alone aboard a steel yacht. There was the young American woman working for Blue Ventures, surveying tourists about their willingness to eat lion fish (we gave her our recipe for lion fish curry). There was the old man at Colson Cay, who spoke neither English nor Spanish, whose dogs were barking and growling viciously as we paddled just offshore while he waved a big fat joint at us, trying to convince us, as far as we could tell, to sample his product. There was the Smithsonian Research Station at Carrie Boo Cay, on the edge of the barrier reef, and the retired geologist who showed us around.

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[image caption=”Belizean fisherman boat”][/image]
[image caption=”Lots of conch on the seabed (still)”][/image]

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[image caption=”First time we fly our spinnaker”][/image]
[image caption=”Last sail of this season”][/image]















And there was lots of reading, too, something both of us value in sailing lives. From Paul Theroux’s Deep South: “Reading made me a traveler; travel sent me back to books.” From the same source: “What happens when you let other people make your decisions, you become incapable of making your own decisions.” Moving on, from Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: “Are you implying that what retired people do must necessarily be something less the work of scientists? I mean is there any reason why a retired person should go on his own way and refuse to be importuned by a bunch of chickenshit Ohioans?” [Apologies to any chickenshit Ohioans reading this blog. The words were Walker’s, not mine.] From John F. Kennedy in 1963, a few words that remain true today, quoted in Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor: “We know less of the oceans at our feet, where we came from, than we do of the sky about our heads.” And finally, entirely out of context but meaningful nonetheless, for all of you romantics out there, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera: “The symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

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