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Voyaging with Velella: There’s This One Place…

Category : American Sailing Association, Sailboats

isla carmenContinuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

A V-shaped notch opens at a sharp slant to the Northeast on the very northern edge of Isla Carmen, about midway up the Sea of Cortez. This particular spot is not a place many people get to visit. More often than not, the weather makes it an unsuitable anchorage, and when the weather does behave, there’s room for only one boat, maybe two. This week, we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

As we approached the corner of the bay, I crossed my fingers that we’d have the place to ourselves. We rounded the point and saw with satisfaction that the long cove was completely empty, as were all the other coves we’d passed on the entire North side of the island. The wind, usually clipping down from the North in the afternoons, blew instead from the Southeast, making the secluded little notch a perfectly protected anchoring spot for the night.

The practice of anchoring in the Sea of Cortez’s crystal clear water is delightfully simple: I could see the anchor drop with a puff of sand four fathoms deep, and the snaking chain payed out along the rippled bottom and set the hook solidly. While several dopey-looking puffer fish cruised up to nose at the anchor chain, I jumped in the inviting water for a quick and chilly swim. It was only after I’d toweled off and the memory of the engine noise and jangling chain had faded from my brain that I started to notice the shoreline.
meghan diving
White cliffs dove into the water on both sides of us and converged at a steep sand dune at the head of the cove. Numerous gaping caves lined the anchorage, cool invitations to hide from the relentless sun. We launched an evening expedition in the dinghy, dragging our faces along in the glassy water to view the aquarium passing beneath us. Deep purple, marigold, and white angelfish; spotted brown rockfish; perfect aubergine spines of urchins; and flashing silver schools flitted below in the prismatic evening underwater light. Towering above us rose the unusual white rock of the cliffs, like an enormous brick of salt, carved craggy by the persistent wind.

At the outer lip of the bay, there were three yawning caves, large enough to row a dozen dinghys into. The long light fell across the opening of the first cave like a curtain–bright white entrance on one side, the pitch black interior beyond. As we floated towards the opening, the shadow of the rock fell over us, and with it the damp scent of air deprived of sunlight. The water, even in the shadow of the cave, was clear and cold. Perfectly raked white sand and smooth stones covered the bottom like a peaceful Zen garden. The only movement was from a lone Bullseye Stingray, which twitched, sending a ripple along the length of its crepe-thin body and scattering a flurry of flourlike sand. The sound of individual drips falling randomly around us resonated in the quiet cavern, and occasionally the unearthly groaning of a wave surged and sucked out of the cave’s deeper pockets.
dolphin
Blinking in the sunlight again, we decided to come back first thing in the morning.

The next day’s mission was even more stunning than the first, punctuated as it was by an enormous convoy of hyperactive dolphins. I rowed the dinghy while our visiting friends jumped in and swam with the dolphin horde in no more than 10 feet of water. The beautiful creatures shot through the tropical aquarium outside the caves, circled around rock islands, jumped and dove in pairs, slapped the water with their tails, and did a much better job of catching fish than we did. We reluctantly departed V-Cove midday, but with dozens of dolphins following us out of the anchorage.

It was a place I felt so privileged to have experienced, and a place that we most likely will not be able to return to again. The secret treasures like these, shared with friends and a throng of happy dolphins, are what make exploring by sail so entirely wonderful.

Here’s where the crew of Velella are exploring by sail right now:

View Voyaging with Velella in a larger map

April Photo of the Month: Spring Launch

Category : American Sailing Association, Members, Sailboats, Social Media

asa logoIt is a tradition that, like the changing of the seasons and the imminent filing of tax returns, is an inevitable part of the circle of life. I’m talking, of course, about our monthly Sailing Photo Contest on ASA social media. The best amateur sailing snapshots coming pouring in to our Facebook page from around the world and our online community elects one among them to stand above all the others. I receive entries and votes via Twitter, email, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days I get a telegraph.

Votes come in from all of these methods too (well, not telegraph), but most of the votes are cast by the time-honored ritual of clicking the “like” button on Facebook. Did you have a chance to vote this month? If not, make sure you’re a fan of our Facebook page so you won’t miss out next time. We’re all about the sailing lifestyle, and we always want to hear new voices and perspectives.

Without further ado, I present the top entries from April’s “Spring Launch” photo contest:

WINNER:

Terry Keller submitted this frigid-looking photograph of a very determined sailor launching his boat on California’s Lake Tahoe. He says: “She’s a ’68 Oday 23, breaking through about 2 ” of ice. Only a couple hundred more yards to go till clear water!” Our voters were clearly impressed with the fortitude and passion for sailing required for Terry to launch his sailing season no matter what the conditions, and by the swath of destruction in his wake! Congratulations Terry, you’ve earned publication here and in the American Sailing Association “Sailing with Style” E-Newsletter.
april winner

RUNNER-UP:

It came right down to the wire, and the votes cast by unconventional methods (email, Twitter) made the difference. Derek Hath’s photo of the “fleet at RC44 in San Diego taking off on fleet race 2, Saturday 03/06/2011,” finished a strong second.
april runner up

EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD:

How can you say no to the beagle? This photo was submitted by Randy Crawford.
editor's choice april

You can view the full album of contestants by clicking here.

Thanks again to everyone who submitted this month, and of course to all the voters. Keep a weather-eye out for our next contest!

World Water Day and Green Sailing

Category : American Sailing Association

water and sunsetSail power is one of the oldest forms of transportation in existence, and it has lasted for a reason: It’s as green as it gets. Sailing more, and motoring only when necessary, is not only fun and a mark of good seamanship, but also a smart environmental decision.

Today is World Water Day, a “holiday” of sorts designated by the UN General Assembly in 1992. The purpose the day is to raise awareness about projects going on around the world having to do with clean water and other related issues. Check out their map of the world and you can see that things are happening on all six of the globe’s inhabited continents.

But they aren’t the only ones stumping for this cause. Some friends of the American Sailing Association doing important water work include:

Sailors for the Sea is “a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers the boating community to protect oceans and local waters.” They work to set up clean regattas, among many other projects, and just introduced a new membership level for dogs(!).

The people at Sperry Topsider (yes, the shoe) have made a cool interactive page with 10 simple things you can do in your daily life to help out the ocean. Well worth a look.

Some of our instructors based in Japan are working on a project called Electric Seas, which outfits boats with electric motors as opposed to diesel or gasoline. This conversion procedure is rapidly gaining in popularity. Among landlubbers you’ll find folks with beautiful old diesel Mercedes-Benz sedans (you know, the kind with comfortable seats and elegant curves that also weigh 10 tons and belch green smoke) converting to diesel-electric, a one-time expense that saves them money and guilt in the long run. The same can be done for sailboats, and the more headway this idea gains, the better!

turanor

Photo courtesy of PlanetSolar

Lastly, I want to point out an incredible boat, pictured at right. Yes, it looks like the Starship Enterprise, and no it’s not a sailboat, strictly speaking. It’s actually a boat unlike any other. It is called Turanor, which is an extremely dorky reference to something from “Lord of the “Rings,” (and I mean that in the best way possible), and it is run by a team called PlanetSolar. Turanor is a 102 foot catamaran currently attempting to become the first boat to ever circumnavigate the globe running ENTIRELY on solar power. It departed from Monaco on the southern coast of France and is currently wending its way through the stunning Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. The boat has stopovers planned in major cities around the world, so check their website to see if you might have an opportunity to see this thing in action!

We can go to a sailing school, get our ASA certification, and become good sailors, but we should always remember that the water is our ultimate teacher. It’s crucial that we do what we can to protect it. So happy World Water Day to all of you!

Voyaging with Velella: Baja Hospitality

Category : American Sailing Association, Sailboats

cacti on bajaContinuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

The Sea of Cortez is adorned with striking contrasts: dry pink cliffs standing up out of drinkably blue water, lime green cacti amidst creamy soft sand dunes, the throbbing sounds of Carnival resonating against black nights glittering with millions of stars.

Just a short way from the southern Sea of Cortez base of La Paz, where we picked up friends for a week-long cruise, all traces of civilization drop off completely. Our views are filled with stark geological formations and turquoise bays and cliffs silhouetted against blazing sunsets. Coming from the smokey green mainland Mexico, arriving in Baja feels not just like another country, but perhaps another planet. Today we tasted coarse pink salt from moonlike salt ponds; we picked our way past no less than 8 different kinds of cacti while hiking the backbone of a pink-and-green striated mountain, and returned to Velella lying in a perfectly circular anchorage formed by a volcanic crater. For us, this stuff is the cream of cruising.
fisherman with octopus
We’ve been excited to pack four sets of visitors into this busy month. While it’s hard to host guests in our tiny home for weeks on end, it’s so much fun to experience this environment with company. On a beach walk the other day, we all watched stunned as a local fisherman stuck his spear between the rocks and pulled out a writhing purple octopus, promptly squeezed it so the black ink dripped out like blood, and threaded it onto his buoy. By the end of the afternoon, he had several octopi, clams, and other shellfish, all foraged from within a mile of his home. And we followed suit–bringing home six large razor clams that we grilled up with garlic butter for lunch. Watching the enjoyment our guests take as they learn to sail, fish off the back of Velella, spot a whale or dolphin, and try a hot cockpit shower for the first time refreshes our own love for our cruising way of life. We also like having people held captive to play four-person board games or cards with us in the evenings!

Yesterday afternoon was blustery, so we spent the afternoon swimming in the wind-whipped bay and enjoying cold Tecates. Then, my two girlfriends, our guests for this week, decided to take a dinghy excursion to shore. Unlike most cruisers, Velella carries no outboard motor for our dinghy. There have been only a few times we’ve regretted not buying an outboard; most often we congratulate ourselves for choosing to rely only on oars. Of course by now, we’re both pretty strong rowers… our guests sometimes have a bit more trouble, especially in 20-knot gusts.
meghan rowing
We gave the girls the handheld VHF radio and told them to call us if they needed to. From the cockpit, we watched them row to shore, angled far up into the wind and blown way down onto the leeward end of the beach. No harm done. They spent a bit of time exploring the town, and the next thing I noticed out of the porthole was them dragging the dinghy upwind along the beach. One of them had the painter line and the other grabbed a handle of the side of the dinghy, and they trudged along in about two inches of water all the way up the beach so that they were upwind of Velella. We silently congratulated them on this plan, hoping that their strategy would make the row home an easy one, and set to work making dinner.

Soon, on the radio I hear, “Velella, we’re almost there! Can you come out and catch us?!” in a somewhat strained voice. I jumped outside to see the girls about 10 feet from the boat on the starboard side. I called “Row over here and throw me your line” to which they replied “We can’t!!” and spun the dinghy around in an ineffective circle as the wind blew them further downwind. I started laughing and wondering how the heck they had gotten all the way back to the boat and then couldn’t make it the last ten feet, but soon realized that they were being blown beyond hope of recovery. As the gusts funneled through the bay, they overpowered any rowing efforts the girls made and they drifted downwind despite their great strain. I quickly threw them our 150-foot heaving line, but it still came about fifteen feet short of them, and they could not make way upwind that far. Not that any harm was going to come to them if they blew back down all the way to the bottom end of the beach again, but I felt bad for my guests in this frustrating situation.

prescott with clams

The hero in happier times

Just then, Prescott emerged from the cabin in swim trunks, said “This is gonna be really cold,” and dove in. In a ridiculously heroic manner, he swam out to the damsels in distress, clamored into the dinghy, and rowed them home with the strength of someone who’s been practicing for six months. When they got back, I heated up a freshwater shower for our hero, and everyone changed into dry clothes. Then, the man of the day proceeded to whip up a pot of the most delicious tortilla soup imaginable. I smiled as we ate, pleased that we somehow manage to give all Velella’s guests some sailing lessons and a taste of both sides of the sailing lifestyle.

Here’s where Velella’s dinghy will be rowing ashore today:

View Voyaging with Velella in a larger map

Traditions in Launching Spring Sailing Season

Category : American Sailing Association, Sailboats, Social Media, Weather

Sailors are a superstitious lot. We don’t just hop on a boat and cast off–certain rituals must be observed. Most of these are simple: Don’t leave on a Friday for a long passage, don’t whistle on board, always wear a certain lucky garment, etc. Some of them are practical. For example, a boat needs to be thoroughly inspected and maintained before it is sailed, and of course the people handling the boat need to have quality sailing training.

And then, once in a while we go in for something a little more elaborate. At the launch of a new sailing season, many people take some time to mark the occasion in a special way. One tradition that goes back centuries is the Blessing of the Fleet. This practice began in the predominantly Catholic fishing villages of the Mediterranean Sea, where a priest would say a blessing over the town’s fishing fleet in hopes of a prosperous season. Immigrants from Europe brought this idea to America, and over time it has grown to be a less denominational ritual and more of a festival or pageant, featuring  a number of odd and interesting performers.

Some notable annual “Blessing of the Fleet” events in the U.S. are:

  • Darien, Georgia. This small town near the Atlantic coast throws a 3 day festival complete with a 5k River Run and country singer Rhett Akins performing his hit song “I Brake for Brunettes.”
  • St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where they’ll have a reptile house and a “comedy magician.”
  • On March 13, sailors in both Detroit, MI gathered at Mariner’s Church, built in 1842 and formerly a mission for sailors, stop on the Underground Railroad, post office, bank and grocery store.

I asked some of our members what they did to celebrate the start of spring sailing, and “margaritas on the waterfront” was a popular answer, while others had small lucky rituals. Did you, or are you planning to, attend a Blessing of the Fleet or some other kind of celebration? Do you have your own way of getting ready for spring sailing? Leave us a comment.

Also, make sure to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. This month’s social media photo contest theme is going to be “Spring Launch.” You could submit a snapshot of your first sail of the season, getting together with some friend to see the boats off, or (if you’re unlucky) shoveling snow off of your boat. However the start of sailing season looks to you, we want to see it.

Pacific Tsunami — News, Updates, and How to Help

Category : American Sailing Association, Safety, Social Media, Weather

tsunami noaa
Those of us in the United States woke this morning to hear about a massive and devastating tsunami in Japan, the result of a powerful 8.9 earthquake off of the country’s northeast coast. At ASA our prayers are with the families of those who have been killed and hoping for the continued safety of the survivors.

Damage has also been reported in Hawaii and the West Coast of the US; mostly boats and docks hit by the surge. Boats that moved out to sea were unharmed. Beaches and piers are closed due to strong undertow and currents.

Here are some key places to get information about what’s going on:

I’ll be updating our Facebook and Twitter pages as there are new developments.

Youtube is compiling eyewitness footage that you can find here, and this video will give you an idea of the magnitude:

London newspaper the Guardian also has aerial footage of the surge that must be seen to be believed.

The Weather Channel is posting constant live updates.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can visit the Red Cross and make a donation to their relief fund.

Please feel free to comment, discuss and share information.

Voyaging with Velella: Entrance Exam

Category : American Sailing Association, Sailboats, Social Media, Weather

velella in sea of cortezContinuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, her fiance Prescott, and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

Last week, after over three months living on the lush tropical coast of mainland Mexico, it felt strange to be leaving it for good. We spent a couple of nights sleeping soundly in the gloriously still estuary at San Blas, surrounded by complete peace.

The morning of our departure was hazy; the water still as glass, broken only by pelicans. The sails hung like rags and we drifted. Finally, we decided to make some way by motor, and proceeded under power through the silent night, under a full moon reflected perfectly in the mirrorlike surface of the quiet ocean. We knew that strong north winds were coming, so we inched our way as far north along our course as possible, knowing that once the wind came up we could fall off on a starboard tack and have a better shot at making our northwesterly course across the Sea of Cortez.

Come morning, weather forecasts made it clear that we were going to get some substantial wind howling down the Sea, then it would let up for 48 hours, then howl through again. Instead of trying to hustle up across the 300 mile expanse before the wind arrived, we prudently slowed down, trying to pace ourselves so that we started crossing right when the wind let up.

Despite our best efforts, what might have been a three-day passage in good conditions turned into an almost six-day slog in less-than-good conditions. We had tried to maximize our best weather window, but the reality was that the window was a rather small moving target. So we buckled down, tucked in a couple reefs, and nosed our way into the heavy chop that often builds in the southern crossing of the Sea of Cortez.
handling sail
The first days, much like those on any passage, were uncomfortable. We knocked around the cabin, spilled things as the boat lurched, felt thick in the head most of the time, and acutely queasy whenever we would go below. Forcing our bodies into a six-hour night watch rotation (mine began at 2am and lasted until 8am) made us perpetually tired.

It was almost comical how each day we calculated optimistically that we could close the rest of the distance by the next morning. Then the wind would veer or strengthen and put us just enough off course to really put the kibosh on those plans.

There wasn’t a lot of point in becoming demoralized about how long we had left to go, because there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We stopped miserably eating crackers and began to make the most of our floating world.

Beneath us, the deep water foretold a dramatic change in scenery waiting for us on the other side. The water near the mainland was murky and moody, often affected by red tides that stained the entire coast.
clear waters
But by the middle of the sea we’d left all that behind and cruised across deep clear blue, tinged with turquoise when the sun hit it at an afternoon slant. The closer we got to Baja, the more vibrant the water became, until finally one morning at sunrise the huge dry mountain ranges of Baja stood up in stark contrast to the drinkably clear Sea of Cortez lapping at its beaches.

Sighting landfall is always a cruel mind trick. You think, “There it is! We’re so close to dropping the hook and sleeping for as long as we want!” But usually it takes almost another day or more to reach anchorage after sighting land from sea. And this passage was no different; we still had almost 24 grueling hours between us and our protected little bay.

That morning the sea had flattened out and the wind, though on the nose and fresh, was manageable. As we approached the coast, I eyed the notorious Cerralvo Channel on the chart warily. The 16-mile-long Isla Cerralvo lies parallel with the Baja shoreline; in order to reach La Paz, we would have to sail all the way up this channel, then turn left and head down into La Paz bay. The problem is, this channel is perfectly arranged to act as a wind tunnel for any prevailing wind. Pile a squeezed tidal current on top of the accelerated winds, and you have a nice recipe for a rough passage that could very well last all day.

As it turned out, we arrived at the mouth of the channel just after the afternoon winds had reliably built to their peak for the day, and on a strong opposing tide. Whereas any other day we may have scrapped it and pulled into an anchorage south of the channel to wait out more favorable conditions, we needed to make it into La Paz before the forecasted Norther was going to hit the following day; we had friends coming to visit and didn’t want to get stuck on the other side of the peninsula due to weather. We were between a rock and a hard place.
safe harbor
As we inched our way up the narrow mouth of the channel at a speed of 2 knots per hour, we were pleased by how well Velella was able to hold her course, and how well we were feeling despite the extreme turbulence. I realized elatedly that I was even still able to read my book without getting sick: I had bona fide sea legs! So we bashed through steep chop, our bow rising and falling at 45-degree angles, and had a decent time of it. Later in the evening as the channel widened to the north, the chop subsided and I was able to sleep for a couple hours.

When I awoke, the moon had not yet risen and the night sky was deeply black. Large dark hulks of unlit land surrounded us, with no light loom anywhere in sight. We screamed along at 6 knots completely blinded by the night, headed for our ever-nearer anchorage waypoint. Finally at 1am, we reached the bay and could just make out a white sliver of beach running around its edge.

As we dropped the hook for the first time in a week, I felt like we’d accomplished something. We’d never been sailing that long before—but if we can do one week here, we can do three weeks on the way to Hawaii. The Sea of Cortez just gave us a little entrance exam: we passed.

Velella is safely at anchor in La Paz and getting some well deserved rest:

View Voyaging with Velella in a larger map

Up Close and Personal With Cape Horn

Category : American Sailing Association, Sailboats, Weather

Cape Horn is a place with near-mythical resonance in the mind of a sailor. A terrifying passage that has defeated even the stoutest of seafarers, it is also a place of rare beauty and grandeur, as these videos will attest. Whether you’re dreaming of rounding the Horn yourself some day, or happy to stick to warmer waters, it’s fascinating to watch these sailboats pound through the messy waves and fierce winds of these notorious waters.

First, Brad Van Liew of the Velux 5 Oceans Race (which he is currently leading by 300 NM):

Second, sailing legend Robin Knox-Johnston navigates the Horn for the second time, nearly 40 years after his first trip, and this time he brings some friends and a BBC camera crew:
Sir