This is Clouds Form Over Land, weekly writing about life at sea and going ashore.
Arrival at each destination offers the opportunity to switch things up. Many questions swirl around onboard and in my notebooks like:
What’s available here?
What must get done to get going again?
How will I rest from the challenges of getting here?
What will I prioritize and experience?
Who will I be this time?
Our arrival in Isla Mujeres, Mexico was a series of mishaps.
Water leaked into our fuel tank while offshore, causing our engine to shut down as we entered the harbor. Quick maneuvering with our sails, learned on the race courses in San Francisco Bay, kept us from colliding with an anchored boat named, of all things, Easy Does It. We called our contact at the marina and were informed that we had to check in with country officials prior to docking, and on another call discovered it was illegal to be towed into a dock when arriving from another country. I made no less than a dozen phone calls in Spanish to determine check-in procedures and find a new marina slip. The Mexican Navy came by with a German Shepard to inspect our vessel and see what the problem was. Scott painstakingly filtered the fuel, bled the engine, and got the motor running after a few hours. We were running low on water and appetizing food after eight days at sea. We were ready to step ashore.
Twenty-four hours later, we officially arrived, after more visits from officials including a thorough inspection of our cat and the disposal of two garbage bags full of food because they were manufactured outside of North America. We had assumptions that processes would be similar to our time in Pacific Mexico, eighteen months prior, but of course, we were arriving somewhere new from somewhere different and everything had a slightly shifted nature because of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about arrivals and orientations as we pick up the pace and finish this voyage. Bouncing back from time at sea to fully enjoy the current location is a certain dance with resilience.
A painter, a water aerobics class, and a poem recently clarified my role as a new arrival, and I’ll attempt to weave them together here.
We stopped into a bookstore during the shuffle ahead of departing towards Florida and a nonfiction work about the Gulf of Mexico lept off the shelf. Jack Davis opens his epic about “the making of an American sea” by introducing painter Winslow Homer’s perspective that our environment shapes everything. This painter’s work is resonant for Davis because, as he says, “We cannot divorce ourselves from the physical context”. Unlike many artists during his day, Homer painted roiling scenes of the Atlantic with waves that leapt out at the viewer, rather than the human-centric paintings of a vast, calm ocean acting as a meek backdrop that were common in his day. Davis mentions Homer because he is striving to show a similar view, bodies of water as active participants and a forces to be reckoned with. Historians’ standard approach was to feature man as the main actor in our environment. As we have come to understand the winds, currents, and seasonal patterns of the Americas, it is no wonder that our continent has developed according to resource distribution and navigational ease exploited by greed and desire to spread a certain religion.
Some form of this thinking on the interplay between humans and environment has been following me around as I’ve moved from place to place, and even more so as we have changed environments incrementally by traveling on a sailboat. The following description from Davis stopped me in my tracks:
Nature was participant, impetus, and catalyst. It was the riches that made nations wealthy and powerful, and over which their armies fought; it was the wildness our ancesetors insisted on taming, the scourge that left them despairing, and the blessing that kept them alive. How and where and by what design people built their homes and businesses depended on natural conditions and endowments. Inspirations for what people wrote and painted, what they wore and said to each other, how they planned their day and spent their leisure time, and what they chose as a livelihood all flowed from an organic setting. Nature shaped strategies in war and gave form to economies, and its wealth or privation determined that of the people and their enterprises.
Being a “product of one’s environment” is often said with a slightly judgemental tone, as if one can truly cast aside so many sensory and societal inputs. Surely there are those who break and create new molds compared to their communities, but I would argue that the environment is still ever-present. This idea of being “of” a certain place has taken new forms as we all connect more online and are exposed to things outside the city limits.
Arriving by boat allows for a more gradual attunement to one’s surroundings. There is no portal like an airport, but rather a port captain in a typically modest and friendly seaside office. We have traversed temperate, desert, and jungle biomes, and are making our way back through these climes, mile by mile. One might think that this makes for easy transitions from place to place, but that would be leaving out how strongly we humans have dominated nature, especially on the coasts. What the local humans are up to often sets the tone and limits or enables certain experiences.
The Water Aerobics Class
When we drop an anchor, our time is influenced by the wind and waves. While at a marina, we become community members and quickly get up to speed on the norms. In Isla Mujeres, we stayed in two different marinas — one alongside the ferry docks brimming with tourists, kissed and burned by the sun, and the other an enclave of sailors outside of town.
The physical context on a passage is constant motion. The waves in the Caribbean have a shorter period and jolting motion, sometimes as frequently as every two seconds. The water is refracted off the numerous islands and doesn’t coalesce into a uniform pattern like the Pacific shoreline. Smaller, closer weather systems also change the wind direction with more regularity, and wind is the most common origin of waves. All of this extra stimulation impacts what activities are possible, and often reduces hours to staring at the horizon.
For every stop in the last 18 months, we have been non-native speakers and extranjeros with a cultural learning curve that has gotten easier and easier to ascend. With the exception of Pacific Honduras, each time we stopped we’ve been greeted by a local community of North Americans who have called the coast home. Integrating into these ports is both challenging and rewarding. Time and time again we have met someone who makes an immeasurable impression on our lives. The English speakers tend to be a couple decades older than us, due to the experience and expense required to travel about on a sailboat, and several have felt like our adoptative parents, dispensing practical knowledge and philosophical considerations. (For what it’s worth, we make up for what we lack in funds and skills with sheer gumption). Sometimes putting myself out there to meet the next batch of friends is extremely challenging. It’s hard to initiate a bond that will be tested and diminished by imminent departure, while also considering rest, sightseeing, and the inevitable boat projects created by the last passage.
My first long exposure to nature was on a NOLS backpacking trip in the Wind River range in Wyoming. 30 days spent hiking over the continental divide with no outside contact aside from one horseback resupply. When I returned from the trip, I slept outside on a lawn chair for several nights, trying to ease back into suburban life. I was hooked by the slow pace and clear priority of making it a little further down the trail. This was also a first experience with creating deep friendships when pathes were guaranteed to diverge shortly.
“Active Followership” is a tenant of the NOLS programming, which they define as supporting a designated leader and the group's goals by giving input, respecting the plan, and staying engaged.
With so much practice at arriving and integrating into new environments and their associated groups, I’ve come to value active followership as a shortcut to connection. This has never been as clear as when I met another woman named Ashley in Isla Mujeres. She is one of those people who can find something to talk about with anyone and is always ready to dispense a helpful tip. She is the unofficial leader of this community, and the group’s goals are centered around fun and connection. When Ashley invited us to water aerobics class it was an easy yes. She named the time and transport — 8:30 AM and the marina’s loaner bikes. Six of us set off down the road, and one turned back to grab the forgotten pool noodles. Sunscreen was shared upon arrival and we waded into the water to await the start time. Our instructor’s energy was electric, as was her mix of songs. I’ve spent no less than 10,000 hours in guided aquatic exercise including swimming, water polo, and sailing. This was such a familiar pattern to slide into, even if some of the moves were new.
Everyone’s endorphines were pumping from a surprisingly strenous workout and we hopped back on the bikes to visit an Argentinian bakery, again by Ashley’s suggestion. We shared stories over tasty treats, coffee, and yerba mate. We found that our stories from the Sea of Cortez, Panama, and Colombia were of great interest in these further away waters, and that others had helpful tips about traversing the Gulf and the East Coast. We even had the promise of reuniting one day as others headed to the Chesapeake. Later that night, Ashley stopped by to invite us to eat a lasagna she made for everyone. There was no planning here, she simply knew that everyone would be happy to commune and have a night off kitchen duties.
Decision fatigue is a real challenge out here and we’ve learned to savor these moments when someone else is leading the way to fun, exploration, exercise, or in this case, all three. Our short hand for this sort of thing is “water slides”. All that’s required is a yes and possibly a wait in line, then everything unfurls from there. Researching the next destination is possible, but we tend to do very little prior to arrival, aside from where to keep the boat, weather conditions, and available supplies like diesel, groceries, and hardware stores. The vibe of these coastal communities is becoming more predictable with more and more people and services online, but like anything human, it cannot be captured fully. The winning approach seems to be to cover our needs and let the environment and people therein lead us to anything extra.
While all these thoughts were swirling, Scott and I watched the documentary Headwaters Down about a canoe trip on the James River in Virginia. The project is a love letter to a specific waterway, an example of the power of a journey, and a call to action to expand our relationships with nearby nature.
We have been looking ahead to the normalcy and joy of volunteer days at this river, and the film really struck a cord on board. It’s perhaps easy to value certain beach and mountain landscapes, but as Frankie Simmons says, no place is ugly until we decide it is. This river, like many others has a rich history of ecological outcomes.
The filmmaking team included a section of Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman that we immediately Googled after watching. Here’s the passage that hooked us to round out this week’s letter:
Allons! Whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.
Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
I recorded this poem in its entirety so you might listen while doing the dishes, walking the dog, or collecting thoughts. Note: I adjusted the language where I felt the gender binary, ability, and race detracted from the message.
Move your body in a new, fun way with a YouTube video, playlist, or local group.
Say yes to an invite, especially if it’s outside your wheelhouse.
Spend 76 minutes watching Headwaters Down.
Written in the spirit of not letting what we can’t do get in the way of what we can.
Did you try any of these? I’d love to hear about it.
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Every bit adds wind to the sails of this effort!
You're fascinating to read.
Love all of this post! And especially the idea of active followership. Current trends dictate that everyone be a leader at all times, which doesn't even make sense. Also love the poem! And the painting! What an inspiring post.