Sunday, March 17, 2013

Swimming Lessons

A FAQ (frequently asked question, for those of you who have only used a computer for a week) we get when people hear that we are going off on a one to three year ocean sailing trip is “Do you know how to swim?” Well, the truth is that I've just sent away for a 10 lesson, self-coaching, learn to swim program. But not because I think that swimming is going to save my life if I accidentally fall overboard or if the boat sinks. First of all, if you go overboard in a storm, say with 50 knot winds and 8 foot seas, no amount of swimming is going to save you, even if you are Mark Spitz. Second, if you fall aboard while, say, using the rail to save a trip below to the head, as males are wont to do, you won't be able to swim fast enough to catch up to the boat, and you'll be too far from shore (think 10-200 miles) to make it that way. So the way you prevent that catastrophe is to wear an inflatable life vest at all times that a trip overboard is even remotely possible and, in extreme conditions, keep yourself tethered to the boat. Besides, though I am a lousy swimmer, I'm not afraid of the water, and I can keep myself afloat almost indefinitely by turning myself into a jellyfish (try it in a pool sometime) and raising my head out of the water only for taking in each breath.

Knowing how to swim won't help you here!

So why the swimming lessons? I grew up around the water, a few miles from Lake Michigan, and a mile or so from Mona Lake, near Muskegon, Michigan. Both were frequent destinations for me and my brothers and friends, and sometimes for the whole family, when I was a kid. I loved the water, but never mastered enough swimming technique to do more than the 20 yards or so to make it to the swim raft. As I recall, my two older brothers were quite good swimmers. I think they got their technique in the swim classes we were required to take in high school. That didn't work for me. Maybe because we had to swim in the nude, and my outstanding memory of that was my swim instructor, a typical (for that era) overweight ex-jock, asking me, as I was getting dressed in the locker room after swim class, why I thought that I needed to wear a jock strap. Needless to say, though I remember his name today, he didn't become one of my favorite teachers.

So what's a (nearly) 77 year old guy doing trying to achieve something that has eluded him for almost three quarters of a century? Well, for one thing, age doesn't deter me. I was well into my fifties when I became a proficient white water paddler in an open boat canoe. I was just shy of my 60th birthday when I learned to ice skate (another skill that my older brothers picked up, but that I somehow missed out on), and I became a pretty decent skater. I kept that up until a two foot high kid tried to skate between my legs in a crowded ice rink and sent me crashing to the ice. It was a year before the pain in my hip was gone, and that may have been why I needed physical therapy to strengthen my leg muscles now. The kicker was that I ran across a reference (in a book on cooking, of all things) to the Total Immersion method of becoming a competent swimmer. It promises to show you how to swim efficiently without tiresome drills and roadblocks like flutter-kicking a board from one end of the pool to another, in 10 easy lessons. I've bought my swim cap and goggles and tomorrow I hit the pool. We'll see how it goes!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Getting Fit

Stepping the mast after transiting the Erie Canal
Once we decided we were really going to do the cruising thing, I began pouring on the steam in my personal fitness routine. It wasn't enough just to keep moving. I figured I was pretty fit for an old guy, but I wanted to be sure that I had enough strength and stamina to handle a 42 foot sailboat. I upped the ante on the weights and aerobic exercises. I even went so far as to go to a physical therapist to strengthen a knee that once in a while felt like it might give out on me. This was all going very well. Then one day, lying on the mat at the gym doing some exercise which was supposed to strengthen my butt muscles (the therapist said this would help my knees) I happened to catch sight of loose, wrinkled skin hanging from the crook of my arm. My god, I thought, that's just what an old man's arm looks like. That can't be me! The sight was made worse by the fact that I had been going through slides taken on our year aboard Escapade, 27 years ago. While I was never what you would call a hunk—I had what in my school days was described as an isomorphic rather that a mesomorphic build (you young ones, look it up!)--I still thought I looked pretty buff in the pictures.

Jim and Dennis Kittel displaying their catch
That image was enhanced by the fact that my slender but well toned body sported what in those days we called a healthy tan. Ever since the day while walking along the beach in Barra de Navidad, Mexico, I started getting little rosettes on my arms from the sun, I haven't dared expose them to much sunlight. That, and the fact that I've already had a squamous cell carcinoma removed from one ear (ending my dreams of becoming a movie idol) means that I'm going to have to keep my body pretty well covered while we re-explore the island paradises. Angie says that's probably a good thing.

Angie wearing her Bahamas tan

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tribute to Warry


To us, Maruata is Paradise on the Pacific. A small indigenous village on the coast of Michoacan, Mexico, it has somehow escaped the ravages of modernity. It accommodates tourists, but only those willing to sleep in a simple wooden hut, or to rent a hammock under a palapa, or who have an RV small enough to negotiate the dirt track that leads to the beach front encampment. We found our way in driving Howie, our 1990 Ford cargo van in which we had been touring Mexico. We had no idea where we were going, but along the way someone told us to “just ask for Warry.” We finally spotted a stubby blue school bus inside a fenced off compound. A stocky, greying, bearded man with a long pony tail waved to us and motioned toward a gate. He yelled something like, “Hey, you old goat, come on in here,” as he opened the gate and guided us into the compound. 

Maruata, Michoacan

That was our introduction to Warren Harrison, known to everyone in Maruata simply as Warry. Warry and his wife Sherry Tice had been spending six months every year in Mexico, most of it camped right where they were in the compound overseen by Don Elodio and Martina. Their home was a converted special education school bus surrounded by all kinds of paraphenelia making up an outdoor kithcen and dinng area, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and photographs and memorabilia that summed up their lives. 
Don Elodio, 87, on his horse

Warren and Sherry in Maruata
Warry had a robust figure, but obviously limited use of his right arm, stemming he said from a motorcycle accident which had almost taken his life years before. In spite of this slight handicap, every day Warry donned a wet suit, weights, and mask and took his spear down to the beach and went swimming for several hours. He seldom if ever returned without bringing two or three large fish with him. These he gave to his hosts or other people in the village, keeping only enough to feed him and Sherry, and occasionally those, like us, lucky enough to be his guests. As a result he was loved by everyone in the village. It didn't hurt that Sherry made friends with many of the women in the village, even leading classes in aerobics and belly dancing, sharing cooking ideas, and just helping out in any way she could think of. 

Warry's Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe
Warry loved to talk and tell stories. He had a colorful past, including a brush with the feds when, as captain of a fishing boat out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was asked by the boat's owner to pick up a "special cargo" at some point out in the Atlantic. In another adventure Warry had ridden a motorcycle across Europe and Asia. His favorite country was Afghanistan, where Warry had traded rifles with a tribal chieftan. Warry called Afghanistan the last bastion of free people.

Getting to know Warry and Sherry was a big part of what made Maruata special for us. We spent many wonderful candle lit evenings sitting around the table outside their bus telling tales and discussing the state of the world. Warry's political views could probably best be described as libertarian. He was a strong believer in indvidual effort and self-reliance, and his life mirrored his beliefs. While he had little faith in “society” or government, he seemed to love everyone he met, and he was loved in return.

Kocapelli, the fluteplayer
Three years ago we learned from Sherry that they were no longer going to Mexico. We wondered what change of health or circumstances had brought about the change in life style, but we didn't ask. A few days ago we received this email from Sherry (abridged):

“My husband, of 30 years passed away yesterday, Sunday, March 3, 2013. He was a wonderful man who lived a wonderful life. Those who knew him, loved him. He touched many lives & helped many people. He was a lover of humanity. Up until 3 years ago, life was very full for him & he was in love with it. Three years ago he went into a deep depression that he was unable to let go of. Yesterday I returned home from a conference & found him lying in the driveway with a bullet in his head. I will always love him dearly. People have asked, "Is there anything we might do for you? My reply is, Yes you can love yourself unconditionally & share that love with everyone--ALL of God's creation--& hopefully it will help keep someone else from putting a bullet in their head. Warren loved everyone. He could not stop thinking of all who suffer in this world & all the deceptions & cruelties & injustices--man's general inhumanity to his brothers & sisters. He said he no longer wanted to live on this planet. His solution was a loss for us all. To all that loved him, please know that I share in YOUR grief as well. Love, Sherry.”

I can only add, Love the life you have, live it to the fullest, and be kind to your fellow creatures. Let that be our tribute to the Warry's of the world.

Sunset at Maruata

 Click here to read our earlier post on Maruata.