Although the mirror reflects mostly gray surrounding my face, my heart feels like I'm still in my 20's. That carefree feeling comes from the fact that my husband, Don Mackenzie, and I have had the opportunity to watch and wonder at the enthusiasm of Mexican, American, and Canadian youth on our nonprofit owned sailboat. This year we also learned their amazing resilience when the devastating Japanese Tsunami occurred during our favorite annual sailing event, the Banderas Bay Regatta, As an inexperienced first mate, I finished the weekend feeling like I'd been to a sailing intensive training session that was taught by both the worst earthquake in 304 years and twelve young sailors ranging in age from 9 to 18.
Our first year in the Banderas Bay Regatta on the west coast of Mexico near Puerto Vallarta with our newly acquired, yet formerly neglected Cal 2-46 was my first sailing experience. We were the "kid's boat" in that event. In 2010, we finished last the first two races and did not finish the third after our jib shredded, we still took home a roaming trophy: Amistad. But that was not the motivation for the second year efforts; the enthusiasm of having youth on board weighed far above any material item or public acknowledgement.
Our original arrangement to work with the junior sailing program sponsored by the Vallarta Yacht Club did not materialize the second year since they had much time and energy invested in Optimist and Laser events occurring about the same timeframe. There was no time to practice on "Splish Splash" (the Cal 246) and prepare for the other competitions. Therefore, we went looking for another nonprofit group who had both time and an interest in sailing. We found both at The American School Sailing Club headed by History teacher John Whitten.
We met club sponsor John Whitten in January 2011 on a visit to the American School. We learned that the club had been given a boat, but the mast had broken and bent. Although local small business owners, SeaTek and PV Sailing, had donated labor to help with repairs on the 21' sailboat, there was no more money in the school budget for the needed repairs to make her seaworthy. Our proposed alternative, joining us on our boat for the regatta, was met with a positive response.
While I was writing in Guanajuato, the exact center of Mexico, my husband and John practiced on Saturdays with students from the school on the western coastline about a seven-hour drive away. I arrived in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Friday March 4th, nearly a week before the race was to begin. I had a mother and her Mexican foster daughter with me; the eleven-year-old girl had never been on a sailboat. Most marginalized children, who are raised in the interior of Mexico, do not get the opportunity to see Mexico's coastline. She was thrilled.
On Saturday morning, March 5th, we had two live-aboard boat kids, four students from the school with John, plus our inland-born young visitor and her guardian on board. The live-aboard youth had a variety of experience levels. One seventeen-year-old girl had lived on board for seven years. Her skill level appeared intuitive; she was relaxed and capable at the helm. The rest of the students ranged in skill levels from capable to knowing nothing about sailing. We practiced for several hours to prepare for the race days 10th 11th and 12th of March.
Word spread around the marina that we would again sail with youth on board, so the mother of a nine-year-old sailing enthusiast asked if we would be willing to take someone so young. Being a special education teacher with years in both classroom and campgrounds overseeing youth, I was happy to have him. As it turned out, young Henry, a nine-year-old boy, was an outstanding addition to our crew. He was the first to arrive both Thursday and Friday mornings. He was also at the helm after the first day of racing using every ounce of muscle his slight frame could manage to throw into the task of manning the helm in of our heavy cruising boat in a 16 knot fresh breeze and doing an outstanding job of it.
The second day all the students had heard about the Tsunami coming from Japan toward Mexico, and yet teacher John, his students, and the boat kids all arrived on time and were ready to head out to sea. Don had checked the TV news reports and saw that not much damage had occurred, but one local sailor/business owner, who had experienced a similar situation in the same region, was very clear that going out to sea was the best option for sailboats. However, the radio made it clear that no one could leave; the port captain had closed the port. As more reports came in related to when the Tsunami would hit shore (estimated at 1:30pm) and what damage might be expected, parents became more concerned. We made sure each youth called their parents for last minute instructions. We were finally told that if we checked out with the port captain, we could go to sea. At that point, most students either went with their parents in their boats or to higher ground. When we left the dock, about 12:45pm, we had only one youth with limited experience, John, Don, and me on board. We were told to expect the first Tsunami wave at about 1:30pm followed by approximately 3 hours of surges of increasing intensity.
Like anyone in an unknown environment, I had no idea what an adventure was ahead. After we got into the bay, Don counted 82 boats within sight, predominately sailboats (note: the marina manager informed me on Sunday the 14th that 170 vessels left just from his port). Many hovered a few miles offshore, but instead we sailed in the strongest wind I had ever experienced on this boat. The sky was perfectly clear and a robin's egg blue. It was a lovely sunny day that should have been ideal, but radio reports from shore became more frequent. Our desire to pretend we were having a carefree day was interrupted often by the reality of an unknown situation. At one point we all saw three whales heading out to sea; they surfaced just 50 meters off our starboard bow. Don remarked that was the closest whale sighting he had ever experienced. But that positive excitement was short lived because radio reports told of damage north of us; several boats in different harbors were harmed. I began to realize that although I participated in managing the sails once or twice, I was inexperienced in both sailing and Tsunami survival.
A steady stream of reports, every few minutes, remarked on how high or how low the water level was at that minute in one port or another and if it was rising or falling. About 3pm the report came in that there was damage ashore. A part of La Cruz dock 11 had been crushed by the force of water rushing in and out of the mouth of the port, "Like a broken dam" was the next day's description by several observers. The other ports were reporting patterns of hazardous swirling water at the entrances as the surges continued. Other reports told of damage at other places further north or south at Nuevo Vallarta or Puerto Vallarta ports; the messages were often contradictory.
By 4:30 p.m. the radio questions changed to when boats would be permitted to re-enter one port or another; more confusion resulted. For the next three hours, as the sun was going down, people began to gather in areas near the different ports go "on the hook". There were other boats, like ours, that had removed their anchors from the bow (a mandatory requirement for the regatta) and left them ashore. We all began looking for anchors to borrow and ways to transfer them from one boat to another. In the true spirit of the sailing community three boats offered us their spare anchors.
The young man who drove the dinghy that brought us a loaner anchor was just two weeks past his thirteenth birthday and he had crewed with us the day before. He handed off the anchor and picked up his student friend who had been with us all day. About an hour later, in pitch darkness, John left by the same dingy because he had a bicycle on the dock that he wanted to retrieve to get to his home to care for his dogs and "To sleep in my own bed," he remarked.
I sat down in the cockpit and realized that for the first time in my life I was going to spend the night on a boat anchored out. I had no idea what to expect, but I had heard the "Puddle Jumpers" talk about taking turns watching when they sailing all night, so when Don told me to go to bed because he was staying on deck to be sure the anchor was well set, I was not surprised. Several times during the night I awakened due to the movement of the boat, but it was gentle and the night was otherwise nature's best silence.
Before dawn I was on deck; six dolphins surfing on the water's surface greeted me. I watched for about 20 minutes as they played among the multitude of boats on anchors. Another three dolphins were playing in the distance. Many pelicans appeared, looking for breakfast nearby, when a large fishing boat came out of the La Cruz port. I checked the radio, but it was nearly two hours later before the announcement came that boats, not on Dock 11, could return to their slip "Using extreme caution as the surges are still continuing as they had all been doing all night." By 8:22am we were back in our slip. We had seen the whirlpools spinning in all directions at the entrance to the port. Just beyond the swirling water dock 11, made of steel and concrete, was twisted beyond recognition.
By 11 a.m. our boat was once again fully crewed with students ready to race. My husband and I were exhausted from the previous day's events, but the enthusiasm of youth was infectious and we readied for a day of sailing. The wind was so fluky by mid-day that our race coarse was shortened. Even so, several times, with a person 17 years of age or younger at the helm, we had one rail in the water. After crossing the finish line we headed back to La Cruz with the same strong wind that we experienced two days before.
That evening as we walked to the magnificent awards banquet on the beach at Paradise Village we saw that the entrance to the port there was still experiencing surges at 7pm on March 12.th. John and four of our young sailors joined us for a group photo that night as we once again received the Amistad trophy.
Today I know that I will always treasure the lessons I learned in one short week from twelve wonderful, young, visiting sailors and one unexpected Tsunami.
Causes Jacqueline Mackenzie Supports
Voluntary teaching of Mexican children by being a host family to volunteers from outside Mexico, transporting used and discarded bilingual books from the US...