Sailing with the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts on a new voyage of discovery around Baja California

The Log

Preparing to embark

Thursday, March 11, 2004

We had hoped to embark today, the same date that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts embarked from Monterey in 1940.

The bad news is our departure has been set back 14 days by big storms here last week, which were particularly strong on the Pacific Coast of northern California, and delayed getting the Gus-D into dry dock to get the bottom scraped and painted (so that we wouldn't have to drag barnacles and seaweed down to the Sea of Cortez). That delay set us back a week, but because we'll be studying tide pools at low tides and the tides are on a lunar cycle, that necessitates a two week shift in the entire schedule. It is the first lesson in the first chapter of the voyage: we are at the mercy of the sea.

We now plan to embark March 25. And that date looks as certain as one can be when working with the sea.

We went ahead with a bittersweet casting off party that Bob Enea, the nephew of two of the original voyage's crew members, threw for us at John Pisto's restaurant, Abalonetti's, on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey yesterday. John served a traditional Sicilian fisherman's dinner of pasta con sarde (sardines), salad, garlic bread and Chianti.

We felt bouyed by the tremendous excitement and support of the community of Monterey, a community that loves its history and environment, its art and literature, food and wine, and feels a deep connection to this historic journey. We will carry you all in our hearts and minds.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Friday, March 12, 2004

We are in the most awkward stage of our preparations for our expedition to the Sea of Cortez. We should be in the water headed south. Instead we are high and dry.

The Gus-D doesn't look bad here in dry dock.

In fact, she looks pretty elegant. But there is work to be done.

Barnacles and seaweed are being scraped off so that we don't drag them down to the Sea of Cortez. Then the bottom will be painted. This will help reduce the drag or resistance of the boat in the water. And it will increase our speed from about 7 knots to close to 10 knots. That's almost 50 percent faster! And with 4,000 nautical miles to go that will make a big difference once we get underway.

I can't wait!

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Eric Enno Tamm left us a copy of the bound galleys of his forthcoming book about Ed Ricketts—Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell (due out in June from Four Walls Eight Windows).

"Despite his meager means and at times threadbare poverty, Ed Ricketts accomplished what had eluded entire armies of academics," Tamm writes. "He had a deeply personal thirst for knowledge and discovery, believing he could help humanity take an enlightened leap, as he saw it, into the future."

I've been reading the book late at night when I can't sleep for thinking of all the last minute preparations still to be done before our departure March 25. Then the thrilling sense of discovery on each page keeps me up longer. Tamm is rescuing Ed Ricketts from the myth that has grown up around "Doc," the character in Steinbeck's Cannery Row. And he is giving us a more accurate account of Rickett's true heroic journey: as a man of science, who had his finger on the pulse of the planet, through his intimate knowledge of the Pacific Coast. Rickett's was a "doctor," in the sense that he diagnosed the fate of the environment and humanity, and offered humbling advice that we have failed to heed and only now are beginning to hear.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Sunday, March 14, 2004

No day of rest for the weary. With just 11 days to go, captain Frank Donahue puts the finishing touches on a new hatch to the fo'c'sle (that's forecastle for you landlubbers, the front part of the ship where the crew's quarters are located).

But there are moments for contemplation. Frank takes a break in the galley with the Spring 2004 issue of the journal Steinbeck Studies, which has a piece about our journey as well as an article about "John Steinbeck in Translation" by Kenneth H. Holmes. We had been searching high and low on the Web for a Spanish translation of The Log from the Sea of Cortez and had despaired of finding one. When I read about a Spanish translation in Mr. Holmes's article in Steinbeck Studies, I e-mailed Mr. Holmes in an elated mood and he suggested we get in touch with Jim Johnson, a rare book seller in Carmel. Mr. Holmes remembered seeing a Spanish translation by a publisher in Barcelona, Spain, in Mr. Johnson's collection when Mr. Holmes visited Carmel a few years ago. I called Mr. Johnson on Friday. And he hand delivered the Spanish translation, Por El Mar de Cortes, the very same day to Hopkins Marine Station. Strange how this World Wide Web of information led us back home to a book lover right next door!

Hasta mañana!

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Por El Mar de Cortés arrived in the mail today. This Spanish edition of The Log from the Sea of Cortez was translated by Maria Teresa Gispert and published in Barcelona in 1968 by Luis de Caralt, Ediciones G.P. Just seeing the Spanish—"por el Mar de Cortés" or "by the Sea of Cortez"—puts me a little closer to being there, although I prefer the literal translation La Bitácora del Mar de Cortés. "La bitácora" like "the log" conveys the journey.

¿Cómo organiza uno una expedición? ¿Qué equipo es necesario? ¿Cuáles son los peligros pequeños y los grandes? Nadie ha escrito nunca sobre esto.

"How does one organize an expedition: what equipment is taken, what sources read; what are the little dangers and the large ones? No one has ever written this," Steinbeck and Ricketts wrote.

Luckily for us, they did write it. And we have been reading carefully, underlining, making lists, checking them two, three, four times and more, to learn from their experience: "We have concluded that all collecting trips to fairly unknown regions should be made twice," they wrote, "once to make mistakes and once to correct them."*

"Hemos llegado a la conclusión de que todos las viajes a regiones desconocidos deberían hacerse dos veces: una, para cometer equivocaciones, y la otra para corregirlas."

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Sue Malinowski, the cook on our expedition, called today to ask if we had any extra spices to contribute to the crew. Aye, there's the rub.

When we first met, Sue asked if I had any special dietary needs. "Coffee," I replied, and then added quickly, "salsa, hot sauce, pimenta, pepper." I'll eat pretty much anything, I told her, as long as there's hot sauce on the table. Some carbs, a little protein, some salsa, and I'm good to go.

Sue said other crew members were contributing lemons and oranges from their California gardens. Good for keeping the scurvy at bay. For my part, I'll bring the hot sauce. Good for adding a little spice to onboard fare.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

What else is on the cook's list for a two-month expedition with a crew of six and regular visiting scientists and conservationists? I asked Sue Malinowski. the cook on our expedition. Her answer, in part:

95 pounds of meat
30 pounds of cheese
10 pounds each of flour, sugar, rice
3 cases of beans
30 pounds of coffee
and more....

This is just the beginning of the list. We will stock up with staples for the entire trip. We hope to find fresh fruits and vegetables in some ports along the way.And we will fish. Sue plans to follow the tradition of the Western Flyer and have pasta on Thursdays and Sundays. "It is amazing how much food seven people need to exist for six weeks," Steinbeck and Ricketts wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, as they described cases disappearing into the hold as they loaded the boat for their trip.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

We would not be undertaking this expedition without the generous support of many, many people, who have nourished our project with funding, ideas, contacts, and food!

Bob Enea, nephew of the skipper of the Western Flyer, Tony Berry, and of crewman Sparky Enea, is donating a batch of the family's famous spaghetti sauce for our voyage, as well as the family recipe for chicken and dumplings.

Pat Hardage and his 9th grade English class at Lowery Freshman Center of Allen High School in Allen, Texas, sent us a case of chili.

And Frank He, acupuncture teacher at the Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz, is helping Sue Malinowski put together a basket of Chinese medicinal herbs to help cure all that might ail us.

We also have a growing list of other donations, which I will post shortly. Thanks to everyone for your support!

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Students at High Tech High School in San Diego have sent in a long list of good, deep, thoughtful and probing questions. I'm going to try to start answering them today, and I will continue to answer their questions, along with questions from others, in the coming days. Please feel free to send in any questions you have too!

Q. How much of a re-enactment is this?

A. This is not a re-enactment. We are not trying to play John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts and the others on the original expedition. That would be a charade, "a philosophical costume piece," as they wrote about the idea of trying to imitate Darwin's methods exactly. "For we first, before our work, are products of our times."

We go to see what we can see with our own eyes and discover new things using the tools of our times. We will visit the same sites, to compare what they found to what is there now, but we will also extend their studies to new areas on the Pacific Coast, and more remote roadless areas in the Sea of Cortez.

The thing that is similar is that we are going on a wooden fishing boat. It is true there are any number of sleeker vessels available for such an expedition today—as there were in their time too. But the fishing boat and its history and the working relationship to the sea are so closely tied to the soul of this story that it seems the true way to go.

Q. Are you learning from Steinbeck's mistakes, or doing an exact replication of the original trip?

A. We sure hope to learn from their history and not repeat their mistakes. That's what history is for. Steinbeck and Ricketts wrote: "We have concluded that all collecting trips to fairly unknown regions should be made twice; once to make mistakes and once to correct them." But we will undoubtedly make our own mistakes too. That is how science and history proceed.

Q. Are you going to be better prepared than the previous rather "makeshift" approach?

A. Our preparations have been much more detailed than theirs. So much more is known about Baja and the Sea of Cortez. There has been a tremendous blossoming of science in the region in the last couple of decades. That is one of the most exciting changes to take place in the region. We have plans to work with other scientists and conservationists as well as teachers and students in Baja. This is different from their approach. They did not even know where they were going. "Some collecting stations we had projected," they wrote, "like Pulmo Reef and La Paz and Angeles Bay, but except for those, we planned to stop wherever the shore looked interesting."* Of course, we want to go where they went to make comparisons, so our itinerary is more well defined than theirs was. But we also want to hold on to some of the spirit of their "makeshift" expedition and be open to exploring what is around the next point.

Q. Do you have more advanced technology than the initial voyage?

A. Testing. Testing. Can you hear me now? This message is being sent to The Log via a satellite phone from a laptop computer. This is how we hope to keep this ship's log updated and keep in touch with people who are interested in our expedition. We will also have a short wave radio along, which they had on their trip, to keep in touch with folks back home. We will also have some of the more advanced technology that has become standard on boats, including a sonar depth finder so we won't have to take soundings by hand when we come near shore. And we will use GPS units to locate our study sites precisely so that our surveys can be replicated in the future, whereas we will have to rely on their descriptions and estimates of lattitude and longitude to find their sites.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The boat is back in the water! And taking on water.

But not to worry. This is usual for a wooden boat that has been out of the water in dry dock for a week. The wood has to swell back up and close up the small gaps in the wood side that have opened as the wood shrank in the dry air. Since the boat went back into the water yesterday the leaking has slowed considerably and it should be mostly sealed up by tomorrow. It's normal for a wooden boat to leak a little all the time. That's why you have pumps on board. But just a little. Don't worry!

Tomorrow at dawn, we'll head out the Golden Gate and back to Monterey to get loaded up for the trip south. I'll have photographs and a report from onboard tomorrow.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

We're headed south! In the right direction, finally. The Gus-D left Sausalito this morning at 7 a.m. with captain Frank Donahue, the cook Sue Malinowski, and me onboard for the run down to Monterey. Slack tide was at around 7:30 a.m. That's when we wanted to go under the Golden Gate. When the tide is not running in or going out and banging against the incoming swells. And we did it. It was a great feeling passing under the bridge and out to sea.

It was a chilly, foggy morning, after a week of warm sunny weather. In the shipping channel running out under the bridge the current and wind raised a little chop. But the wind was only about 10 miles per hour. And the swells were only 3 feet. Pretty ideal for leaving the San Francisco Bay. About 3 miles out we passed over the bar, where the depth is only about 5 fathoms or 30 feet. It's called the "potato patch," Frank says, because the incoming swells hitting that shallow water can really get rough and the old sailing boats used to lose sacks of potatoes over the side.

About 5 miles outside the Golden Gate, we turned left and set a heading for Monterey. And the water turned almost glassy smooth with a slight lilting swell. We spotted gray whales making their way back north from Baja as we headed south. "This is about as good as it gets," Frank said, as he settled into the captain's chair.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Students at High Tech High School in San Diego had some more questions, including one about navigation that I can now answer after having spent a day on the boat watching the captain navigate from the San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay.

Q. What type of vessel do you have?

A. The Gus-D is a 73-foot wooden shrimp trawler, built for fishing in the Gulf of Mexico in 1972. It was brought to the Pacific to fish for pink shrimp in the early 1980s. Frank Donahue bought it in 1984, when a great big El Niño year brought so many pelagic red crabs among the shrimp, he said, that you couldn't fish for shrimp without filling the hold with red crabs. Since then Frank has fished for ridge-backed shrimp, spotted prawns, and "odds and ends," including sea cucumbers. He's also done a lot of work with scientists over the years, exploring "underutilized species" for which there might be new markets, as well as other basic research on such things as the currents off the coast of California.

Q. Will you take into account Sparky and Tiny's misnavigation (their tendency to let the boat drift off an exact course)?

A. Yesterday on the boat, Frank showed me the autopilot. It seemed to be a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, combining a compass with an old Ford motor starter, and some belts and chains connected to the wheel. Frank would set a compass course, using GPS and radar, and adjusting the wheel. Then he would pull on a handle that set the autopilot in gear. The "hunting compass," as he called it, moved back and forth, triggering switches that caused the wheel and the rudder to move back and forth slightly, keeping us on track. It seemed to me a bizarre, machine-age contraption, halfway between the art of steering a course by compass and hand and feeling as discussed by Steinbeck and Ricketts, and the more modern computer and GPS systems that Frank told me about, where a captain can basically set a course and destination and then just watch the boat steer itself electronically.

Q. How much actual science to you plan to do?

A. A lot. Science is at the heart of our expedition. We plan to conduct simple but rigorous and replicable counts of the most common species in the intertidal at each location. We will also take careful notes on the presence of other species and the general natural history of each area. These surveys will allow us to compare what we find to what Steinbeck and Ricketts found and use modern statistical sampling techniques (which depend on computers that were not available in their day) to determine whether the differences we observe are likely to be meaningful or likely to be just caused by chance differences in our observations. If they are meaningful, then we will explore hypotheses—or speculate—about what could have caused the changes. We may be able to test some of those hypotheses using our data. Or we might just have to say, as scientist are wont to say, more research needed. Our surveys will also serve as a baseline against which future surveys can replicate our surveys and compare their findings to ours to explore these hypotheses about the causes of change. You can read about our scientific research plan in more detail by clicking on the link near the top of the column to the right.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Thanks for all of your letters to all of the crew members. And thanks for all the tips from seasoned Baja hands and the invitations from folks down in Baja. We will be in touch! And thanks for all of the interesting questions. We can't respond to each and every question individually because that would burn up our satellite phone connection and our budget! But we will try to respond to all of questions and comments and suggestions as we go along on the trip. It really feels great to know that we are part of such a large community of people passionate about Baja and the Sea of Cortez and this story that connects history to the present.

Right now we are in the throes of final preparations, loading the boat, getting ready to go. Today I was so busy I forgot to take pictures. But tomorrow I'll try to post a couple along with our estimated time of departure.

Hasta mañana!

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

A day of working on the boat has left me exhausted. Everything is getting into place. But we have decided to give ourselves one more day. There is still work to be done. And there is a storm blowing in from the south. And we don't want to beat against it on our first day out. So we're going to wait until it passes, then leave Friday morning between 10 and 11 a.m., when the winds are expected to shift back to blowing out of the northwest and provide us with a fair wind at our backs.

In the meantime, I offer this series of photos from our port in Monterey.

Anchored out in Monterey Bay.

Lowering the skiff for a run to town.

Heading back to the boat for more work as night falls.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Today a storm is blowing in from the south. We had planned to leave today. But tather than trying to beat our way against it on our first day out, we have decided to wait it out and leave tomorrow with fair north winds at our backs. We can also use one more day working to get the boat ready for the scientific part of our expedition.

This means we will be getting in to San Diego to fuel up on Sunday. Exequiel Ezcurra, the president of the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, Mexico's top environmental science research agency, will also be joining us there for the trip down the Pacific Coast to Cabo San Lucas. We will make up a day on the Pacific leg and be back on our schedule by the time we reach Cabo San Lucas and enter the Sea of Cortez.

Yesterday morning I went out to the Gus-D with Bill Gilly and Sue Malinowski to begin our final day of preparations. We took a small skiff from the Hopkins Marine Station that we will also use to reach shore for our surveys. Gilly handles the "sea cow," which seems to be running fine here in Monterey Bay. We'll have to see how it feels down south. Maybe it will feel like taking a vacation, like the "sea cow" in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

The day was filled with stevedore work. Here we are loading food into the hold. It is truly amazing what six people need to survive for eight weeks at sea.

Posted by Jon Christensen.
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Continue with us on our journey as we embark from Monterey to Cabo San Lucas.

Return to the index to The Log.

* From THE LOG FROM THE SEA OF CORTEZ by John Steinbeck, copyright 1941 by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts. Copyright renewed (c) 1969 by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, Jr. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Baja California & The Sea of Cortez
Image provided by SeaWiFS Project
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


The Western Flyer:
the fishing boat that John Steinbeck
and Ed Ricketts took to
the Sea of Cortez.
photo courtesy Bob Enea.


The Gus-D:
the fishing boat we will take
back to the Sea of Cortez.


Sea of Cortez:
A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research


The Log from the Sea of Cortez