Into the Eye of Odile

Odile Up Close

Hurricane Odile making landfall.

During the second week of September, 2014, a Category 3 hurricane by the name of Odile had the tip of the Baja Peninsula in her sights. On the 14th, at approximately 11:30PM, she moved ashore and wreaked havoc. She was one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall on the peninsula and easily the strongest storm in recorded history ever to make a direct hit on Los Cabos. (The only storm comparable was Hurricane John, which in 2006, hit a much less populous area here in the East Cape where, in comparison, only a small number of people were affected). In her wake, Odile left two cites, Cabo San Lucas and especially San Jose del Cabo and their quarter of a million citizens without power, communications or running water. Because I live off-the-grid, I had power, running water, and even an Internet connection. Between here and town though, power poles and major electrical towers were downed everywhere, making it difficult or impossible to drive the local roads. Most homes had serious damage, especially those on the beachfront, which were inundated by a storm surge created by massive waves unheard of in the region. In the panic after the storm the stores were quickly emptied of any and all of their contents. With no way to resupply – the airport and roads were impassable – people who hadn’t prepared for the storm, or who lost everything, were left completely destitute. To quote six year old Lucas Nobili, Odile was “quite a bitch.”

Lucas Letter to Odile

English writing exercise by Lucas Nobili Photo: Pablo Nobili

The good news is that ten days after the storm hit, the citizenry of Los Cabos have restored order, begun a massive cleanup effort, and with the help of the federal electrical commission, power is being reconnected little by little, allowing stores to reopen.

My account of going through the storm, alone, has been published on an online magazine called The Scuttlefish. Check it out by clicking on the link below and let me know what you think.

Into the Eye of Odile on The Scuttlefish

Seasons Sandwich

Sailing the Windy Sea by Barbara Harper

A week ago, a former colleague and friend posted a photo on Facebook of this year’s first snowstorm. From where I’m sitting, that’s pretty hard to believe. Admittedly the snowstorm occurred on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago, where Cathy and I used to work together. It’s been exactly ten years since I last got to witness the tundra turn various shades of gold, red and sienna, but I remember marveling at how, in August, autumn was already evident. Along with the landscape taking on new colors, the days shortened noticeably, mountain peaks became frosted with nighttime snowfall and the air would take on a chill that the sun’s rays couldn’t beat back like it had at the peak of summer.

In Baja, where I live, just below the Tropic of Cancer, variations in weather from one season to the next are not as dramatic as they are in the temperate regions of the planet, let alone the Arctic, where they are at their most extreme on the planet. Nevertheless, the passage of the autumnal equinox marks the transition towards shortening days, cooler nighttime temperatures and eventually to a lessening in the intensity of the sun.  Finally, sometime after mid-October seawater temperatures begin to decline.

It’s been four long months since the mercury fell below 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30°C) and many a day when they did not dip below 90. The last couple of mornings, however, when I’ve ventured outside to release the hounds, the quality of the air has changed – it’s got that autumn crispness to it and the moist coolness feels good on my skin. I lift my arms up and let the air envelope as much bare skin as possible. These mornings as I sit on my surfboard waiting for a wave, the air feels incredibly refreshing as it flows through my wet rashguard. It’s down right cold as it whips across the skin on my legs as I and my board rush across the face of a wave. It’s still hard to imagine that in another month, it will feel cold enough to consider wearing a shorty wetsuit (Short legged and made of thinner material than that of a full wetsuit).

As the days wear on though, the daily high temperature still exceeds 95 degrees and the sun’s rays remain intense (it being a only little over two weeks since the equinox). Despite wearing ample, good quality high SPF sunscreen, the skin on my face has been burnt more times in the past three weeks than it has all summer. The concrete block that the garage is constructed of still absorbs the sun’s energy, turning the garage into a little hotbox that I am reluctant to lock a couple of the dogs in overnight.

Other signs of the changing season include the remarkable fact that the water coming out of the taps is no longer scalding hot, but cool like the morning air. At the height of summer, I often have to jump out of the stream of water because it’s too hot, despite the fact that the water heater gets turned off in May. One of the more remarkable signs of winter’s approach came a few days ago when I saw the first Humpback Whale cow with a brand new calf in tow, making their way North up the sea towards their overwintering habitat between El Cardonal and Cabo Pulmo. When I emailed my friend, the whale researcher Urmas Kaldveer, to tell him, he confirmed my suspicion that we were ahead of the normal schedule for female Humpback sightings.

And then, three days ago, midway through my morning session the wind shifted and took on an all together different quality that told me winter was inexorably on its way. It switched from offshore to come from the North and picked up quickly, turning the bay into a mess of wind chop and white caps. It was a stiff, cool wind, unlike summer wind.

The North Wind is a phenomenon in eastern Baja that brings windsurfers and kitesurfers from the world over to play in the waters off her shores. As temperatures in the Rocky Mountains plummet, the wind funnels down the Colorado River to the Delta where it blasts down the path of least resistance, the Sea of Cortez.

Like the roads here, the wind is a blessing and a curse. It can blow 30 knots or more for days on end, throwing sand and dirt everywhere, making gardening and weeding impossible, causing sinus infections and blowing out what would otherwise be perfectly good surf. For wind-sport enthusiasts it creates the right conditions for them to have the time of their lives.  It’s the reason I took up kitesurfing in an “If you can’t beat it, join it” moment of clarity.

Despite the North Wind, we currently have two tropical storms, Hurricane Jova and Tropical Storm Irwin, spinning just South of us and a third tropical disturbance further South off the coast of southern Mexico is gaining in strength and organization. Sea temperatures remain in the mid-80s, which means her waters offer little resistance to the movement of storms.  Autumn truly is a transitional season – we are experiencing winter and summer weather patterns at the same time!

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Buy Sailing the Windy Sea by Barbara Harper

Stood Up

The first tropical storm of theseason has come and gone. Hurricane Adrian rallied southwest of Acapulco tobecome a Category 4 hurricane in what seemed like record time. I watched thesatellite imagery as she metamorphosed from a loose gathering of fluffy,innocuous-looking clouds into a perfectly round, spinning mass of moisture witha foreboding, nuclear Cyclops eye.

Surfers all over the west coast ofMexico rubbed their hands together in anticipation of the swell that Adrian wasgenerating. Her proximity meant it would arrive quickly. Prayers were said thatshe would not send winds with the waves and remain peaceably out at sea. Ilooked at the surf report for the East Cape and felt excitement rising in mychest – it looked like I’d be traveling from Maui to Baja before her biggestwaves arrived. They were predicting waves as big as 18 feet  and the swell to last a good week.After six weeks of tiny wind swell on Maui, I was ready for some clean overheadwaves.

I left Maui on Thursday, arrived inLos Cabos on Friday to happy dogs and news that a copper pipe had broken loseand we’d been losing water for over 24 hours. I pointed to the shut off valveand asked Felipe why he hadn’t turned it off. He responded with what we call“the thousand-mile stare.”

I looked yearningly at 10 footwaves breaking in front of the house, frowned and began trying to contact aplumber using our limited communications – Skype and email. I managed to gethold of Carlos, a hard-working stocky man who regularly works for one of myneighbors. When he said he would come on Sunday, I considered not having waterfor the next 36 odd hours and begged him to come sooner. “I’ll make it worthyour while,” I told him. He agreed to come the next day.

Saturday the swell was even bigger,but a light wind had joined it. I tried not to notice the trucks withsurfboards piled high on top driving by the house to a special spot that onlybreaks on a hurricane swell. My heart ached like I was pining for mylover.  I returned to my otherpressing task – getting the guest house ready for a couple who were arriving fromWashington that day. By eleven o’clock I had the interior done and a South windwas lashing the water and waves into a mess of white caps and mushburgers. Itcooled my skin and my longing as I slaved away.

Carlos turned up right on time andquickly had the leak fixed and a huge amount of air purged from the pump andlines (it’s a long way from the house to the cistern on top of the hill). Thenhe and his wife Irma helped me clean the house and carry the patio furniturefrom the garage. By the time we were done sweeping, mopping, and washingwindows I was exhausted. It was 7:00PM. Carlos and Irma left with smiles ontheir faces and a wad of cash in their pockets. As they pulled out of thedriveway, I waved and then watched as two trucks drove back past the housereturning from the secret hurricane swell-catching spot. Tomorrow, first thing, I thought.

The next morning I woke up excited,ready to hop on my ATV and go play with the waves. As I lay there rubbing the sleep out ofmy eyes Inoticed something was amiss – it was quiet. Too quiet. Must be between sets. I sat up in bed to survey the scene in front of the house. I watched and waited, but the only waves tocome through were miniscule by hurricane swell standards. I hauled myself outof bed and went to the computer. There it was, NOAA had posted her obituary – Friday nightHurricane Adrian fizzled into a remnant low, disappearing off the radar as fastas she appeared. And the bitch took the waves with her when she left.

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Premonition

My local break going off thanks to 2005’s Tropical Storm Eugene.
Today is the first day of the Eastern North Pacific Hurricane Season.  If that sounds ominous, that’s because it is. The experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are predicting that this region will have 14 tropical storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes between today and the 30th of November. Each day between now and then I will receive an email from NOAA’s National Weather Service entitled Eastern Pacific Tropical Weather Outlook. Most of these emails will be the same. They will read:
FOR THE EASTERN NORTH PACIFIC…EAST OF 140 DEGREES WEST LONGITUDE…

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

But as we approach the end of August, there will be an increasing frequency of warnings that describe the potential in terms of percentages for “areas of disturbance” to develop into a tropical storm. As ocean temperatures between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator increase, so do the number of storms. Historically, most major storms have hit the Baja Peninsula in the first half of September. Right when it’s hotter than Hades on the East Cape, and therefore when I’d prefer not to be there. But someone’s got to take care of the dogs and Felipe, mop up any rain that is blown under doors, report damage to people less stupid and safely tucked in homes located somewhere North of the danger.
I regard this hurricane season with a sense of foreboding. Not only did we not have any storms last year, which the law of averages dictates has upped the chances of at least one storm hitting us this year, but as I scanned down the list of names for this year’s storms, a sense of intuitive premonition descended upon me as I noted that 14 out of 24 of the names on the list are those of people I know. Many of them are not ordinary names and owing to my decade of living in isolation, I probably know a lot less people than the average Jova. I might not know any Xinahs or Zeldas, but I do know, in more than just a passing fashion, people with the names starting with the letters A, C, D, E, G, H, I, K though R, T, V and W. That sends my intuition a flutter. I think it’s time to buy hurricane insurance.
Here is the list of names storms will be given in 2011:

NAME                               PRONUNCIATION
—————————————————————
ADRIAN                            AY- DREE UHN
BEATRIZ                           BEE- A TRIZ
CALVIN                             KAL- VIN
DORA                               DOR- RUH
EUGENE                          YOU- JEEN
FERNANDA                      FER NAN- DAH
GREG                               GREG
HILARY                             HIH- LUH REE
IRWIN                               UR- WIN
JOVA                                 HO- VAH
KENNETH                         KEH- NETH
LIDIA                                 LIH- DYAH
MAX                                  MAKS
NORMA                             NOOR- MUH
OTIS                                  OH- TIS
PILAR                                PEE LAHR-
RAMON                             RAH MOHN-
SELMA                              SELL- MAH
TODD                                TAHD
VERONICA                       VUR RAHN- IH KUH
WILEY                               WY- LEE
XINA                                  ZEE- NAH
YORK                                YORK
ZELDA                               ZEL- DAH
Looking on the bright side I remind myself that tropical storms and hurricanes produce waves. The bigger, more powerful the storm, the bigger and more exciting the waves. If luck is on our side, the edge of a storm stays out at sea and far enough away to keep local ocean surface conditions smooth and clean, sending only the swell that surfers love to ride. When this happens the East coast of Baja wakes up with a start. Waves appear where 99% of the time there are none. Bays nicknamed Babybeach for their calm waters most of the year turn into a maelstrom of kinetic energy where water rears up, crashing with forces that erode rocks and beaches moving vast quantities of sand and occasionally send hale and hearty surfers to the beach exhausted, sometimes beaten, with leashes and boards broken. Currents develop along the shoreline that are so strong only the experienced and the lucky manage to get out to the take-off spot without being washed hundreds of yards down the coast. It’s always exciting. And sometimes scary. Just like the storms themselves.
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Attitude of Gratitude

On Tuesday, October 20th, Hurricane Rick began to sputter and his power diminish in the face of a dry front moving in from the southwest. A friend had the day before claimed to be putting her mojo onto the storm blowing at images in the same direction from which originated that very high. Did Cristina’s mojo really made Rick shrink?

No matter how, shrink he did and by Tuesday evening he was already only a tropical storm with winds of 65 miles per hour – tame by comparison with speeds of 180 mph measured on Sunday with gusts estimated to be as high as 220 mph. Based on predictions that Rick would further weaken, the decision was made to depart as scheduled the very next day, Rick permitting.

Wednesday morning the first order of business was to call the airline and find out if the flight was leaving on time or at all. A nice lady from Alaska Airlines confirmed that as of that time 7:00am PST, the flight was still scheduled to leave on time and that the only weather that might be a potential cause of delay was “thunder storms.”

Preparations were hastened with arrival at the airport accomplished in plenty of time for what was hoped would be the usual 10:30am departure. Once again the question was asked “is the flight leaving as scheduled?” An affirmative answer was received, it was blue skies and calm in San Jose del Cabo. After days of sitting on the edge of our seats wondering if the coast would be hit with all the force of a Category 5 hurricane we were thankful for the reprieve from Mother Nature.

Waiting for the plane to board the internet was accessed via the T-mobile wireless connection available in the San Francisco International Airport for $6.00 US + $0.10 per minute. This was unlike the friendly and helpful Portland Airport where wireless was discovered to be available for free!

An email from a surfing friend confirmed that Hurricane Rick spun out the best waves of the decade, which had been breaking a few days earlier at a special break near our home. Professional surfers and surfers of all abilities turned out to put on an amazing show of acrobatics in the tubing waves. The surf was heavy and non-stop – not a time for beginners and difficult even for seasoned surfers.

Days earlier, when news of the storm and the waves it was generating arose, it was thought that it was possibly a blessing to be away from the surf during this time. Maybe you think this odd? To be thankful to miss incredible waves?

As a relatively new surfer with only seven years experience it is possible to find that the surf is more powerful than one can handle. And this is particularly true when one has not been surfing a lot and is therefore not in peak condition. So dreams were had of the perfect waves, but the realities of the danger of going out in large surf provided a reality check to the dreamer. Big waves are powerful and hurricane swells are consistent with wave after wave marching in like robotic soldiers stopped by nothing in their path. A surfer can be caught in rip tides or quickly become exhausted just trying to get out to where the waves break. And then there is the dreaded hold-down, which usually happens after a major wipe out. The surfer is grabbed by the wave and pushed to the bottom of the ocean, sometimes onto rocks and in really consistent surf they can be held there as wave after wave pushes down in succession. Luck or a break in the waves eventually allows the oxygen deprived surfer to return to the surface where they might not even have enough time to gulp some air before the next wave slams on their head.

So this is why it was thought that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to miss out on the epic surf?

The landing in San Jose del Cabo airport was smooth as silk and before we knew it we were on our way to pick up the SUV at the nearby Los Cabos Mini Storage. Looking around it was observed that an ominous dark grey blanket of cloud and rain was moving in from the northeast. “Look! It’s raining at home!” The size of the front was impressive and we hastened to get our fruit and vegetables at one of the roadside stands so we could start the journey towards home.

Heading North on Mexican Highway No. 1, as we realized that the storm would envelop us sooner than we thought, drops of rain the size of nickels started to dot the windshield. Drops turned to buckets and the rain came down so hard that many drivers pulled over to the side of the highway or put on their hazard lights and slowed to a crawl. We instead sped up, realizing that if enough rain fell the Santa Catarina Arroyo, a large normally dry riverbed between us and our home, would quickly turn into a raging torrent, blocking indefinitely passage to the Palo Escopeta Road.

The drive to reach the arroyo was along a pot-hole ridden windy street though one of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of San Jose. As we bumped along, water coming up over the hood of the car in great sheets as we crossed puddles the size of small lakes, I braced against the imagined ruptured tire or broken axel. But we continued on, unimpeded by the gaping holes lying hidden under the rushing water covering the road.

We reached the arroyo and looked both ways. “Go straight to Santa Catarina!” I urged, knowing the alternate route would take us the long way through the arroyo, thus increasing the chances of our getting caught by a wall of water that might be rushing our way – such is the nature of the flash flood. As it turned out it was the only choice, as we passed the “Y” to the alternate route it had already become a solid river of water.

We reached the other side and could breathe a small sigh of relief. “Only two more arroyos to go!” The arroyos at a rancho just East of the village of Palo Escopeta and the large arroyo near our home in Las Vinoramas still lay between us and our home.

As luck would have it, the concern about the other two arroyos was unwarranted. The skies began to clear within a few miles of San Jose and the road became less a river and more of a road. The going was slow with all the new pot holes and large erosion channels cut in the sandy surface, but 80 minutes of bumping along and the house was in sight. The large Arroyo Las Vinoramas had not run at all. At the gate a welcoming party of six dogs greeted us most enthusiastically. A sense of deep gratitude descended along with the sun.

Today it was discovered that the reality check sensed while mind-riding huge barreling waves in the days prior to our arrival was warranted. It turns out that in those epic waves served up by Hurricane Rick, a surfer friend with decades experience almost drown when a wave held her down for a long time. I imagined myself in that same situation, trying not to panic with lungs feeling like they would explode in their demand for oxygen and a body flying around under water like a rag doll in a washing machine. The thought reverberated, “that could have been me.”

Gratitude x 3.