silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: November 2010

Everything and Anything

“If there are any who still believe the good nineteenth-century doctrine that progress is inevitable, Baja is a good place to come for instruction. Progress isn’t inevitable or continuous, and it isn’t always progress. The aborigines progressed through Christianity to extinction. The mining interests dug silver out of the bowels of the earth and turned it loose into the world which it may or may not have profited. Now men come down from the north to take out of the sea the fish they will probably not eat and certainly do not need. Why do they (and why did we) come? What are we looking for?

…We come to see the world; and there is still a sizable minority who find the vanishing world, dominated by nature rather than man, one of the things most worth seeing. But in a world which sometimes seems to consist entirely of dilemmas we also are creating one. If too many of us want to see the unspoiled natural areas, we will spoil them”. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Forgotten Peninsula, 1961

San Diego, Two weeks Ago
It’s just starting to get dark when Shane stops by the boat for a chat. He joins me in the cockpit and we drink a beer, chat about dock politics. He and Charlie, a girl from England, signed on as crew for a southbound sailboat. Neither had ever been sailing before but both are “rich in time”, and so chose to answer this skipper’s call for crew (no experience necessary) as a way to get to Ecuador and Panama, respectively. Shane is from Olympia, Washington, and as we sip Modelo Especiales, he tells me that all is not well on board. I go back and forth, on the one hand trying to reassure him that new experiences have a tendency to feel sketchy and out of control, and on the other expressing sympathy for some of the genuinely questionable situations they have been through. They’ve only been on board two weeks (of what promises to be a three-ish month voyage), but already they are seriously considering bailing even though they have already handed over fairly substantial, and now irretrievable, sums of money. One night, their skipper failed to meet them on the beach with the dinghy at the agreed upon time, and so Shane and Charlie were left to find a place to stay for the night.
Charlie joins us and the two newbies compare notes on things they’ve learned about the unusual community they have inadvertently joined. I’m not exactly a veteran cruiser myself, but I’ve been well exposed to the scene, as fringe as it might be in the remote parts of the BC coast. We laugh as she recounts her first experience with the dreaded dock-talker.
“I was stuck,” she shakes her head, her eyes wide, “he just wouldn’t leave. I had no answers to his questions, and still, he shuffled back and forth on the dock in his immaculate boat shoes, admiring this and asking about that”.
I let her in on my recently refined technique for cutting these encounters short.
“Keep your knitting handy,” I tell her, “if merely looking busy doesn’t cut it, start bemoaning the elusiveness of the perfect gusset”.
They invite me to go out with them after dinner. They’ve spied a bar nearby that looks promisingly divey. Shane’s hooked up with a girl from LA, and she’s driven the couple of hours down the coast to see him. She’s tall and loud and intimidatingly gregarious. She’s wearing short red shorts, heels and a blouse with puffy sleeves. We pile into her station wagon for a ride down the street to the bar. She puts on techno music and then launches into a story but the music is so loud that I can only see her lips moving in the rear view mirror.
The bar is impressively divey. There is a smell, and the walls are covered with framed photos of no one recognizable having a really good time. A couple in their sixties shuffle dance around in an open space between the bar and the tables, hold each other with one arm and their drinks with the other. At the beginning of every song that comes on, LA girl and Shane tease Charlie.
“What about this one?” they are incredulous. She just shrugs and smiles, laughs along at her cultural ignorance. At least she’s got an ocean as an excuse – the songs all sound familiar to me, soundtracks to corner bars everywhere, but I have no idea who sings or that it mattered.
I have a friend who moved to LA after high school. I visited her last year and in the middle of a city of ten million I witnessed her isolation and listened to her stories of urban struggle. She’s an artist, a diorama builder and stop motion animator, but in lieu of work doing her art, she worked at a doggy day care. I comment to LA girl that it seemed a hard place to find or create community. Her objections are fervent, and as proof she launches into a series of stories about the regulars at the German themed bar she works at, where all the waitresses wear Hollywood versions of traditional German costume.
“I love Los Angeles,” she tells me, “it’s got everything for everyone, anything for anyone”.

Baja California, Since Then.
We’re fifteen degrees off course, but I decide to put off jibing over the jib for another twenty minutes. Experience has taught me two things: first, that in this matter, everything will be ok for another twenty minutes; and second, that eventually I will have to jibe back, so to “get it over with and jibe” doesn’t mean that I will be able to sign off from jibing duty. The wind pushing us along is not warm, but every morning the sun rises a bit warmer than the day before, marking our slow southerly progress. Tonight, the full moon colours the water white and the boat is full of moonshadows that dip and sway with the boat as we rock our way down the west coast of Baja California.
In a couple of hours I’ll wake John up and crawl into my bunk until morning, but for now the night is all mine. To the west, the lights of two ships bob along the horizon. I watch the red and green beacons advance on each other for twenty minutes before they pass and carry on their separate ways.

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The dunes stretch for miles into the distance. I’ve talked myself down. I’m ready to be disappointed. Surely, I think, they can’t be as smooth and soft as they look from here. I’m prepared for invisible thorns and coarse sinkiness. Then I’m into them and I’m all wrong. I run up and slide down the perfectly silky ripples, warm and sculpted. My footsteps cascade away from me, a series of small innocent avalanches. Every dune I’ve been on until now was a disappointment.

We reach the outer beach, turn and walk towards a small gathering of houses at one end. When we’re a few hundred metres away, a truck comes down from the road and drives past us onto the beach, chased by a dog going flat out across the sand. They carry on for a mile, turn around and drive past back onto the dirt track through the village. We wave.

In the evening, I take my camera in the dinghy. For an hour I follow three small grey whales around the bay, try to guess where they’ll next come to the surface. I’m looking for the perfect photograph: tail flukes against the setting sun. I row ahead and wait, drift gently, hold my breath, until the sound of their great exhalations breaks the silence. I breathe around in circles with these great mammals until all the light is gone and my feet are cold.

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There is little wind and so slowly we rock along. Ahead the sea is turbulent where just below the surface thousands of fish swarm together and above, hundreds of birds take turns diving into the mass. We arrive into the centre of the frenzy at the same time as a pod of pacific white sided dolphins who leap into the air and slap the water with their tails; food never looked so fun. The dolphins stay with us for half an hour past the fish ball, playing in our bow wave, modest as it is. They roll effortlessly there just below the surface, turn on their sides to look us right in the eye before bursting forward for a breath. In the last rays of the day, they seem to breathe liquid gold.

There is no one living at the fish camp on Isla San Geronimo right now but dish soap sits in the outdoor sink and there are binoculars perched on a windowsill. Mostly, though, things are broken and scattered and the dog looks hungry. She’s happy to see us, in the belly-to-the-ground-tail-between-the-legs way that Mexican dogs learn to accept as happiness. She leads us around the island, running ahead, looking back. At the tallest point, she runs ahead across a small dune and flushes a hawk out of its spot in the rocky outcrop. On the windward side of the island, she scares the elephant seals off the sandstone rock flats then barks at the incoming waves, following one after another all the way to shore.

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I leave the others at the dinghies and start to run. I don’t run for long – it’s hot and too soon I get tired – but for now it feels good to stretch and shake my legs after a few days of restricted motion. I follow the path along the edge of the cliff to the point where it turns inland and starts to climb. Less than an hour later from the peak I can see the coast stretch away on both sides of the island. I’m all alone up here, and it seems as good a place as any. Every ten or fifteen minutes, I look up from my book about the Chinese cultural revolution to watch a vulture catch a ride on an updraft or a fishing boat round the cape into the bay. Indeed, I think, anything for anyone and everything for everyone.

Somebody’s got to do it.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am frequently plagued by doubts as to whether or not what I’m doing is the right thing to be doing. It’s not a crippling conundrum, but neither does it ever totally absent itself from the whole understanding-the-world-and-my-place-in-it matrix.

Don’t worry; I can see the eyes rolling from where I sit in the cockpit in the lee of San Geronimo Island, five miles off the west coast of Baja California. This isn’t one of those “pity me even though I’m in paradise” pleas. I’m just stating for the record that my days, even the downwind tailwind downhill open ocean days, don’t evade examination. In fact, the more charmed the day, the more I tend to feel unsure as to my place in it. I know, right? Get over it already.

My latest theory is that my insecurities stem from hanging out with people who are mostly retired. At most any opportunity, they kick back like it’s their job, saying things like “it’s a tough life but somebody’s got to do it”. You’ve heard them. The kicker is that they’ve got every right to behave thusly; in the conviction with which they settle into their cockpit cushion I can see the many years of toil that made this day possible for them. I, on the other hand, have not paid those dues and am currently attempting to chalk up my present insecurities to the latent guilt for living the good life without having put in my hours behind the proverbial desk.
While this theory may just be a convenient reaction to present company, it’s better than actually coming to terms with the more deeply rooted “grappling with societal expectations” dealio.

Believe me, for my sake and yours, I’ll find something more interesting for next week’s blog post. For now, I’m off to start knitting another pair of socks.

The Life Aquatic

We’ve been in San Diego for more than a week now. I talked to Alex via Gmail magic the other night. The boat is too small for a full size cookie sheet, let alone a private phone conversation, so I’m sitting a hundred metres away at a beach picnic table in front of a swanky hotel.
“What’s it like there?” He asks me. Our experience in the cruising world last winter has him holding onto a very specific idea of what it’s like to be me right now. I try to explain that we’re tied to a dock for the first time since leaving Vancouver Island. I tell him that my lifestyle as an anchoring cruiser is a lot like ours was when we were cycling. Even if you’re anchored in downtown San Francisco, I explain, it’s not simple to go out after dark and wander around town what with the dinghies and wet feet and lack of motivation because, let’s admit it, who can stay up after nine thirty anyway?
“My whole life right now is kind of like that time in Monterey when we planned to go to a movie after dinner, and then instead we just put up the tent and went to sleep,” I say, trying to give Alex a common experience to relate to.

On Saturday afternoon, we turn the corner at the far end of the block, and I indulge in a little bit of dismissive sarcasm.
“Where are the pumping tunes? Why no rowdy crowd spilling onto the street?” I joke to Steve as we walk towards the Downwind Marine storefront (for all your cruising needs). The store is hosting a get together for southbound cruisers. We pass a couple of folding bicycles locked to a skinny tree. “A sure sign of a rager,” I note to Steve, and we go in through the front door.

In the back room of the store, ten or fifteen people stand around in groups of two or three in between display tables for marine electronics and full size models of life rafts. All but three or four are our neighbours at the Police transient dock at the end of Shelter Island but I save my greetings and head straight for the barbecue outside the back door. Burger in hand, I follow Steve to the name tag table.
“I’m going to follow you around,” I warn him as we fill out our name AND our boat name. Hello, it says, My Name is Meredith Silas Crosby.

Nina and Henrik come over for dinner the day after we arrive in San Diego. They bring their cat, Nola, who soon makes herself so at home on our boat that she sleeps in Steve’s sleeping bag in the aft cabin for the next two days. We met in San Francisco when I paddled over to their small red Norwegian sailboat and invited myself in for tea. Nina settles into the corner of the cockpit, accepts a beer and pulls out a ball of yarn and her needles. I’m recently familiar with the bring-your-knitting-to-the-dinner-party-move and we’re soon swapping sock strategies (I’m soldiering on, she’s had enough and is on to scarves).
“Henrik doesn’t like it,” Nina laughs while deftly installing and initializing a new global electronic navigation system on Steve’s computer, “he says it is all too wifey”.
The next day we sit on the dock, swapping recipes for dried fish and eggless cookies.

These are skills I want, I tell myself, but expose myself in my need to repeat this in the quiet moments.

oh blessed blog

I’ve come to this coffee shop in Point Loma to get today’s blog written. Even though we’re stealing killer wifi from a nearby hotel, it’s hard to focus on the boat with so many things to distract and occupy, and apparently I don’t have enough self discipline to ever write my Wednesday blog entry even one day ahead of time.

I have ten or fifteen minutes of total perfection on the back deck of this cafe (thirteen of which I spend diligently catching up on people I don’t care about on facebook) until three guys in their twenties sit down ten feet from me. We have our backs to the two opposing railings, and there’s no one in between, so mostly I studiously avoid eye contact. They look like people I would get along with, and while I’m not interested in making friends at the moment, I’m confident we’ll be able to share the space harmoniously. Until they start talking.

For a few minutes, I maintain with myself hopefully that they’re sharing a massive inside joke with each other.

“Can we thank Jesus for this incredible cafe?”

“Totally, I prayed this morning we would find an alternative to Starbucks, and the ever glorious Lord delivered”.

The bearded one on the right stretches out his conversed feet onto the chair across from him.

“Man, I had the most blessed surf session this morning – I was out there on the waves when I heard God speaking to me, telling me I’m on the right path. I just feel so guided by light through my days on this holy earth”.

My joke theory unhappily out the window, I gaze into space and struggle to follow their conversation flow, so peppered it is with holys, blesseds, and glorys. Even though I technically understand every word they speak, so foreign is their language to my ear that my world experience suddenly feels very narrow.

The guy on the left looks like he stepped out of a J. Crew ad shot in southern California. His phone rings.

“Oh, it’s my sister, Kelly.”

“Oh wicked, we should totally get her on speaker and pray for her”.

They put the phone on the table and exchange brief pleasantries and then the middle guy gets right into it. After a line about lifting the fragrance of Kelly up to the lord to be blessed, I start to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Another few minutes of prayer gets sent digitally to Kelly before audible crying sounds start coming from the phone and all three guys put their arms around each other, heads bent close over the phone and start humming. It’s too late now to put my headphones in or go to the bathroom without bringing attention to myself so I keep my eyes focused on my computer screen. Finally, SoCal JCrew  has mercy, so to speak, and takes Kelly off speaker (the other two guys keep humming) and murmurs a few more earnest words about glory, mercy and shining haloes before wishing her luck on her eternal search for the radiant father.  And then, with no evident debrief of what has arguably been a deeply moving episode for them, they go back to eating their breakfast sandwiches.

“How can we lift you up today, Carl?” Middle guy nonchalantly asks SoCal JCrew, his mouth full of egg and bun.

At this point I could easily put in my headphones without suspicion, allow myself the peace I had sought here in the first place. But now I’m guiltily addicted.

Converse guy steps it up a notch by pulling out his bible. As the other two chat about a house they’re planning to build with the help of the Lord and their many brothers and sisters, he flips through its well worn pages until he stops and raises a hand, palm elevated, into the air and starts reading. The other two nod quietly as they listen until Converse wearer stumbles over the word “victuals”. They all draw a blank. They read the sentence a few times but the word’s meaning remains elusive for them.

Ten feet of deck away I’m paralysed by indecision. Even though I’m not exactly hiding, to speak up now would be to expose myself as the irreverent eavesdropper that I am. But after all of their talk of lifting each other up in the warm glow of sweet Jesus, I’m devastated with myself that I can’t so much as gift them a small piece of word knowledge.

I’m still beating myself up about this as they gather their dishes and put away their bibles. As they walk past my table and through the back door into the cafe, I pretend I’m typing important things.

SoCal JCrew makes eye contact and smiles at me as he passes.

“Have a really blessed afternoon”, he says to me, and I know he can see how I still struggle with being a good person.

 

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