The novelty of the long and soulful solo passage had long since worn off. It was lonely and boring out there, but the alcoholism helped.
I had to leave Nicaragua to meet my mother two weeks later in Manzanillo, Mexico. I figured I’d have plenty of time to get to Puerto Madero in a few days, then Huatulco, then cruise on up the Mexican Riviera. I overestimated my day’s runs because I planned on there actually being wind. The winds were light – I could only sail a few hours per day – and a foul contrary current set me back at the frustrating rate of 1.5-2 knots. It made for day’s runs of about a hundred miles, mostly motoring and burning lots of six dollar per gallon Central American fuel.
I saw all kinds of wildlife out there, humpback whales almost every day:
Do you know how long you have to stand there on a rocking boat, and how many times you have to try, to get a picture like this? And it’s still out of focus.
And then there were the turtles. I must have seen 10,000 sea turtles between Nicaragua and Mexico. When the weather was calm the whole sea was dotted with them, mostly green turtles, some hawksbills, and I think some Olive Ridley’s. It’s hard to believe they're endangered when I saw so many, but it makes me feel good that I’ve been cutting my plastic six pack rings all these years before throwing them in the water.
When Condesa hit a sea turtle it made a resounding thump. I assume this didn’t hurt the turtle as Condesa is a pretty blunt object and the turtles have solid shells, but collisions were unavoidable. You’d think for an animal with a brain the size of a pea there'd be a very simple mental process: Sense danger…dive. But they sometimes slept or daydreamed when Condesa came upon them, and instead of executing a simple dive—as they had plenty of time to do—they panicked! They sort of flopped on one side, slapped a flipper against the water, and blew all their air out in a torrent of bubbles. Then, after a couple seconds, they regained their composure and dived. I watched this dozens of times, since they panicked in exactly the same manner if Condesa passed close alongside them. By the same token, a turtle that saw Condesa at say, twenty yards, would submerge smoothly with no floundering.
My best company of the whole trip came when this flock of seabirds started dive bombing Condesa. They’d fly right into her side and swerve away at the last minute with a lots of squawking. This went on for about an hour, to where the novelty was wearing off and I wished they’d shut up. They kept getting more and more bold, until a few landed on the foredeck.
A while later there was a strange gerb in the middle of the table in the main salon. I was stumped as to where it could have come from, and finally convinced myself that I must have spit it there, eating like a bachelor an hour or so before. Later I was sitting at the same table reading. I glanced down at my feet, and almost hit the roof. Norman! He instantly became Norman–he just looked like a Norman–and he was one of those seabirds, and he was sitting on my floor.
He must have come in through one of the open portholes. Now it was all clear: the gerb in the middle of the table was the first of many gifts from Norman.
Since Norman was the first live being in my world for about a week, we had lots to talk about, but gabbing with me probably wasn't the best thing for Norman's future. I figured he just couldn’t find his way out of the boat, so I captured him in a towel. He pecked at me a few times, and it didn’t hurt at all: a laughable effort at self-defense. I got him up on deck, poised on the roof of the aft cabin, and he just sat there. I got him back in the towel and looked him over: no broken wings, no broken legs. He seemed fine. “Norman, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s all in your head. You can fly! I’m telling you. With each passing minute we’re getting farther and farther away from the flock!” He just wanted to hang out.
I tried giving him some fresh water and some fresh dorado I had in the fridge. He wouldn’t touch either.
He started to accept me. He didn’t peck at me anymore and didn’t seem at all scared. We were going to be shipmates.
The one problem with my new shipmate was that he was not potty trained. He shat about every ten minutes, but like a master with an ill-behaved dog I was willing to accept this because he was now mine and I was very lonely. Maybe this was what was wrong with him, he had the trots and couldn’t fly.
He stayed the whole first night under the table. The next day, after he’d had a good rest, I took him back out on deck and he still wouldn’t fly away. He was becoming quite tame. He’d sit on my lap, I could pet him, he’d preen a bit. I had visions of Norman becoming the Condesa pet, just like Long John Silver and his parrot.
That night I caught a sierra. This is love: I cut open the sierra’s belly and removed four fry in various states of digestion. I brought one to Norman and ooh, he knew what that was. He gobbled it right up. I had found his natural diet: He wasn’t into dorado fillets, but whole little fishies. Since the four fry didn’t look like much of a meal, I cut up some bits of the sierra too, and did my best to make them look like faux fry. Norman gobbled up his repast with gusto, a pretty big meal for a little guy, and promptly shat it all out on my Turkish rug.
How long could I satisfy his finicky appetite? And what had become of his flock? And where was home? Was Norman getting hopelessly lost after covering 150 miles on Condesa?
He spent a second night under the table, but was spending most of the time nestled on my lap. He was very warm and soft, and for all I knew he was a she, a Norma.
On the third day I brought him up into to the cockpit again. I could tell the minute he saw daylight that he was going to make a dash for it. I set him on the aft cabin top, he ruffled his feathers, and away! He charged out over the water, surfed the air current down a wave, and pirouetted. I was sad to see him go, but so proud. He landed in the water and just sat there. Hmm.
What if he was sick and that was a far as he could make it? He could now be easy prey for some predator. I dropped the sails and went back for him. It was very calm and he was easy to keep in sight.
When I got close he flew a hundred yards and landed on the water again. He was afraid of Condesa and it was hopeless. "Norman, come back!" I tried four or five times over the course of an hour, but Condesa spooked him every time and he flew away. I contemplated launching the windsurfer board and paddling to him, but the risk of getting separated from Condesa on the open sea was too great. I wouldn’t have wanted spend my last days of life cursing myself for giving it all up for a seabird, and wringing little Norman’s neck for my last meal.
I had to leave him, and it broke my heart. He was bobbing among the waves, looking at me. Maybe he was fine. Who knows? I don’t even know what species he was…the cute and friendly species.
Leaving Norman behind put me in a dark and maudlin mood.
Norman and I parted ways in about the middle of the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The Gulf of Tehuantepec is notorious for dangerous offshore gales, called Tehuantepeckers. It’s funny looking back to the first time I crossed the Gulf of Tehuantepec: A big group of cruisers got together in a restaurant to discuss our "strategy." We all had steely looks as if we were going off to war. We compared our weatherfaxes and weather reports and finally set off, en masse, as if being in a group would make any difference if things went wrong…maybe give us something to bump into. It was a brave and terrible undertaking.
This time I called the Port Captain in Puerto Madero as I passed, got three totally contradictory and meaningless weather reports, then charged across solo thinking bring on a fifty knot Tehuantepecker, please, at least I’ll be able to do some sailing.
I planned to clear in to Mexico in Zihuatanejo: All the offices were in the town square and I could plan my arrival for a weekday.
I was running low on fuel with all that motoring and wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. I’d just read an article in a sailing magazine about calculating your motoring range based on your useable fuel reserve. The writer was careful to point out that your useable reserve is not the same as what your tanks hold, because the fuel pickup is usually an inch or two above the bottom of the tank. It’s all useable, damn it! I drained every drop of diesel from both tanks from their sumps, put the fuel in a jug, then built a sort of a day tank connected to the fuel filter with a hose.
There’s maybe a quart there. That’s not cutting it too close, is it?
After nine days at sea without speaking to anyone except Norman, the Port Captain in Puerto Madero, and the voices in my head, I finally made landfall in Zihuatanejo. I hadn't slept more than twenty minutes at a time since Nicaragua.
In a bizarre, sleep-deprived, semi-hallucinatory state, I ended up partying on Condesa with the Mexican officials. A cruise ship was in port and all of the launches were tied up, so the officials ended up stuck on Condesa for about an hour. The doctor from Port Health was the instigator, but the customs gal, the immigration gal, and the Port Captain were all up for it too. They told me (with smiles) that I had more alcohol than I was allowed to bring in to Mexico, so we could either drink it or they could confiscate it. We drank it. Did that really happen? Was I really partying, dancing in the cockpit, and making jokes about drug smuggling, with uniformed Mexican officials?
I had to keep moving or I wouldn’t make it on time, so I fueled up and pressed on. As it turned out, my mom could see Condesa sailing across Manzanillo Bay from the window of her airplane. She was actually expecting me to meet her at the airport, but luckily she could recognize Condesa from an altitude of three thousand feet.