Sailing Totem: Ode to a Shipyard Community

When life on the hard gets hard, the boatyard community makes it better.

Furler service
Avalon‘s junior crew, Brett, helps his dad and friend Robert service a furler.Behan Gifford

127 days of living on the hard are finally in the rear-view mirror. Totem baked in the Sonora desert sun for more than four months of refit projects. Our boat is capable, but time and miles meant meaningful work was due.

Life on the hard is, well, hard. We shift from the natural state of life afloat, managing our utilities in connection with the world around us, to being propped on toothpicks with new limitations around everyday basics like use of the toilets and water on board. We trade interludes of daily maintenance for long days of hard labor. Local environment added a challenging layer, from daytime temperatures mostly in triple digits when we arrived in August to the routine overnight dips into the 40s when we sailed away on December 18.

We headed to Puerto Peñasco to undertake this Pacific passage prep for sensible reasons. The town’s location at the far north of the Sea of Cortez makes Cabrales boatyard the only really hurricane-safe working yard in the region. It’s just an hour from the US border, and four hours from Phoenix; helpful for travel back to the Seattle area, and invaluable for supplying materials. We brought a LOT of duty-free goods over the relatively chilled Lukeville/Sonoyta border crossing, from rigging wire and fittings to countless stateside deliveries from the likes of McMaster-Carr, West Marine, and Amazon via helpful friends (the family formerly known as the Del Vientos) in Arizona. It’s so much easier than hiring a customs facilitator for the paperwork shuffle on imported goods while the parcels languish in Guadalajara before transferring by courier to…somewhere else, hopefully where you are.

Affordable local goods and services are another lure. Hardware stores in Puerto Peñasco often had what we needed, whether it was a network cable for our radar or a sheet of plywood to layup bimini panels.Andrew had new quadrant bits machined for Utopia from a block of aluminum for about US$150. Cabrales’ machine shop cut and polished shiny new spreader tangs for Totem. Not just boat related work was undertaken for our crew: wisdom teeth were pulled, Invisalign orthodontic journey embarked upon, eye exams had and glasses procured.

Andrew eyes the quadrantBehan Gifford

These are all the logical reasons to make Cabrales a great stop for the work we needed on Totem (or to put a boat to bed for hurricane season). But it’s the community created at the yard that elevated our time there from functional to exceptional, generating stories to be retold and locking it into a mental list of “we’ll go back someday” spots.

Third-generation yard manager Salvador Cabrales set the tone early on by instituting Taco Tuesdays (yes, even in Mexico!) with yard denizens – whether it was a handful or a few dozen – collected into various vehicles to head to his pick of exceptionally priced, exceptionally tasty meals. Over BYO brews we’d meet the latest arrivals while downing mouthwatering carne asada, or local oysters (eaten in view of the beds they’re harvested from), or maize-strewn posole, or fragrantly steaming churros.

spreader tangs
Totem’s new spreader tangs machined from aluminum stockBehan Gifford

These evenings were fun, not just for camaraderie with our fellow hardstanders but for Salvador’s genuine interest in helping us literally taste the experiences in his hometown, ensuring we got beyond walking distance of the yard to sample the range of good, simple fare.Fridays became potluck night after the yard rolled in a generously proportioned barbeque. Sundays evolved into movie night, when we’d bring Totem’s projector to the lounge to turn one of the blank expanses of wall into a big screen. A regular nighttime card game fell into the weekly routine. Built-in plans for fun were precious play to keep all the work in perspective!

One resident, an author, gave a presentation for kids of all ages about how to write and publish books. Morning walks with mi amigas were as beneficial mentally as they were physically, with vistas of the sea and sand between my toes.The lounge wall, meanwhile, may soon need taping off to retain the movie screen – for the best reason. Back in August, Salvador painted a challenge on the wall of the lounge. Mairen and Siobhan responded in kind. Four months later, the transformation is well underway!Mutual support comes naturally among denizens: available hands are helping hands. Mast stepping starts to look like a nautical barn raising with many sharing the effort, a theme that repeats with almost every launch on the yard’s 150-ton Travelift.

A raft of cruisers loaded up in the shipyard’s stake truck – as many more could be ahead of it in Salvador’s pickup. Thanks SaareLill crew for the picture!Behan Gifford

When holidays came around, they were presumptively shared: the kids organized a Halloween party, we sought out nearby Dia de Muertos festivities together, shared American Thanksgiving among nationalities, and this week there are plans for Christmas brunch and dinner gatherings. Some are coordinated through an active yard Facebook group. Many just happen organically.

Group viewing of Maiden in the boatyard loungeBehan Gifford

It wasn’t just the cruisers, but bedrock members of yard staff who left indelible impressions: like the nighttime security guard we long knew only as maestro for his dedication to teaching us Spanish (his real name, Federico). When Jamie, Siobhan and I road tripped overnight to Phoenix, we learned he delivered enough delicious carnitas (pulled pork) and fixings to Mairen – lest she starve overnight? – to feed our whole family.

Bruce Balan
Bruce Balan reads from The Moose in the Dress, one of his children’s booksBehan Gifford

This fall Salvador introduced new residents to Cabrales Boatyard: litter mate kittens Candy and Pete (or, Dulce and Pedro, if you wish). Kitten shenanigans made for great yard entertainment, with many boats looking out for them – taking them on board in chilly nights, sequestering for TLC and safety. Community cared for with community benefit.

Mutual support comes naturally among denizens: available hands are helping hands. Mast stepping starts to look like a nautical barn raising with many sharing the effort, a theme that repeats with almost every launch on the yards 150 ton Travelift.Behan Gifford

Writing this on our fourth day at sea and entering the height of holiday season (solstice while underway, Hanukkah commenced, Christmas just a few days off) may be to blame for these reflections on takeaways from 127 days in the yard. At a time when seasonal marketing pushes the message that you need to act or consume in particular ways to Do Life Right, our yard community serves as a reminder that how we connect and look out for each other that matters so much more. In our Penasco stay, this was borne out repeatedly in the community created.

Launching Migration, Bruce and Alene’s Cross tri.Behan Gifford

Vas a volver? Will you be back? Daytime gate guard, Carlos, wanted to know. Tal vez tres años, I replied, hugging him goodbye, not really knowing how many years and challenged to express it – just knowing how much we hope to return.