Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Scout, Nan and John at Coconut Grove Sailing Club
Christmas 2013

Dear Family and Friends,

Greetings from Miami! Nan, Scout and I are settled here now in a tiny Coconut Grove apartment after a whirlwind year. Our adventure started in April, when we quit our jobs, put our belongings in storage, listed our Grand Junction house for rent, and started driving east through a spring snowstorm. We dropped Scout off with Nan’s sister Monica in Arkansas and continued on to Savannah to see my folks and our sailboat, Whispering Jesse. We had three weeks to get the boat ready before our crew members, Nan’s brother Jim, Jim’s friend Jack, and our friend Mike, flew out to meet us for a big sail south. The five of us made landfalls in St. Augustine, Fort Pierce, and Key West before saying good-bye to Nan, sailing the final four-day leg to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and limping into a slip at El Milagro Marina just before Memorial Day.

Our plan was to stay in Isla Mujeres indefinitely, sharpening our sailing and Spanish skills, and we went so far as to secure temporary residency status, but we soon realized that there were factors not in our favor. We miscalculated the heat of the Mexican summer and were unable to fly Scout down due to the airlines’ eighty-degree flight restriction for pets. The heat—and the biting insects—were unrelenting. The boat’s meager air conditioning could not keep up, and we jumped ship for a small, nicely air-conditioned studio at the marina. Nan went home to visit her mother in Manitowoc, and I attended a family gathering in San Diego to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday, both trips complicated by our status as temporary residents of Mexico.

I had expected to earn some income doing remote project work, but it didn’t pan out, and we realized by the end of June that we would need to make other plans. I posted my resume online and started working with recruiters. Eventually, I was offered a software engineering position in Miami, but not before the end of August, when we had already left our boat and our island friends, flown to Miami for interviews, driven to Arkansas to get Scout, and then headed up to Wisconsin to see family and attend weddings. Congratulations to Claire and John, and to Debbie and Gene!

We drove out to Grand Junction in late September to pack up some belongings, put our house up for sale, and rent a U-Haul truck and trailer. We stayed a week there with our good friends Rich and Diane, whose hospitality carried us east again on the five-day drive to Miami.

So here we are, almost three months later, and it’s not feeling much like Christmas. We have watched the snowy weather pass to the north, while enjoying warm, humid days and occasional rain. There are lights and decorations, but they look out of place against the green grass and palm trees. We will miss skiing this year, but we are looking forward to a trip to Isla Mujeres in a few weeks to see how the boat is doing. If all goes well, we will sail her up in May and moor her at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, just a quick mile away. Instead of exploring the western Caribbean, we will be sailing to the Keys and the Bahamas, and looking ahead to another big adventure in a few years.

If your travels bring you this way, please look us up. We would be happy to show you around our adopted home and take you out for a sail. Wishing you peace and joy this holiday season!


Monday, December 16, 2013

Remaking History at El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina

by John Lichty

Julio knows the history better than anyone. He has been on the property for over thirty years, starting long before it became what it is today, a unique marina and resort in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Back then, the hangar-like concrete building that is now the centerpiece of El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina was a shrimp processing plant named Boca Iglesias and Julio was a shrimp boat captain. But in September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert ravaged Isla Mujeres and destroyed the local shrimp habitat. The once prosperous operation went into decline and languished for many years.
(Click any image for a full-size slideshow.)

Eric Schott, a high-end sales and leasing agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Barbara, California, visited the property early in 2005 and met Julio, who was still piloting shrimp boats all those years later. Eric was impressed by the property’s location and potential, and he envisioned transforming it into a marina and resort, one that would offer the peace and tranquility not found in the noisy, crowded El Centro but still be located within easy walking distance.
In February 2005, Eric began the complicated process of purchasing the property, along with the adjoining Isla Blanca fishermen’s co-op, and closed the transaction early in the summer of 2006. He hired Julio to help him manage the project and later also hired Jaime, a young local man with excellent English skills acquired as a bartender. The three men had a daunting task ahead of them, as the early photos indicate. They began by removing tons of trash from the grounds and waterfront, selling off the old shrimp boats, and rebuilding the neglected pier.
Architects were hired to present plans for a combination marina and resort. Each proposed tearing down all the existing structures, including the signature concrete hangar, and starting from scratch. Eric’s intuition told him that this was the wrong approach, and his experience rehabbing concrete buildings in California gave him the confidence to undertake the design on his own. He would preserve the original structures and adapt them to their new purposes as lodging, work space, and community areas.
Late in the summer of 2006, just a few months after the project was begun, El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina opened for business with the marina, the CabaƱa unit, the Penthouse unit, and Villa 1 available for rental. The name “El Milagro” (The Miracle) was chosen by Eric because, as he explained, “it was a miracle that we were able to get the place open.” Accelerated development was possible because of Eric’s desire to keep it all as simple as possible. The humble origins of the buildings naturally lent themselves to this approach, and the interiors of the rooms reflect it: the wooden furniture is locally made, much of it by Julio, Jaime, and their talented crew in the on-site workshop; the doors and windows are natural, unfinished wood; the curtains are colorful Mexican tapestries; the floors and bathrooms feature locally made tile; and Talavera figurines adorn the pastel-colored walls. “What more do you need?” Eric asks with a smile. Just the air conditioners, flat-screen televisions, and kitchenettes that complete each room.
In keeping with the idea of simplicity, there is no bar, or restaurant, or large swimming pool at El Milagro. Eric believes that these amenities would only encourage nonguests to visit the grounds, and he prefers the quiet and serenity of his limited number of guests. Instead, he provides a well-equipped community kitchen, a dipping pool created by removing the top of an original concrete cistern, and an air-conditioned movie theater with a projector, DVD player, and comfortable couches. The kitchen, pool, and theater, as well as the large waterfront palapa, act as natural meeting places and encourage guests to interact with one another, enhancing the community feel of the place.
After the initial burst, the pace of development at El Milagro slowed to a stop for a few years while Eric worked out the details necessary for the next round of improvements. Starting in 2010, the push was on to add ten additional lodging units. A single-story wall was built separating the interior of the hangar and providing a location for a stairway and balcony to a second floor, where three villas and two studios were added above the villas on the ground floor. There is room for another villa on the second floor, but the space serves now as the furniture workshop, and Eric plans to leave it that way. Two new Ocean Garden units were created from the space below the Penthouse, and the entire grounds were elaborately landscaped with palm trees, native plants, and bubbling fountains.
El Milagro feels complete now. The view of the resort from the end of the sunset pier extending out from the manicured beach is tranquil and inviting. Hammocks hang between the shading palm trees, and lounge chairs line the sand below thatched palapas. For the energetic, there are kayaks and paddle boards to explore the bay and bicycles to tour the island. Signature blue Adirondack chairs are placed in strategic locations, perfect for watching a sunset mark the end of a another day in paradise. A just-completed tiling project, filling in the space from the community kitchen to the marina pier with terra cotta red, locally made tiles and Talavera borders, provides the finishing touch of authentic Mexico.
Julio and Jaime are still looking after things at El Milagro. Jaime is the official manager, and Julio is the assistant manager and dockmaster, licensed to conduct on-site immigration services. Eric says the staff of seven full-time local people has not changed in many months. “They like working here.” It shows in the effort they put forth for every guest and in the way they welcome new guests into the extended El Milagro family. The family feeling is regularly reinforced by the amazing seafood barbecues that Jaime and Julio organize every few weeks for guests and staff alike.
When Eric reflects back on what he has done to remake a struggling seafood operation into a first-class marina and resort, he says it took “perseverance, determination, and guts.” But he smiles when he says it because he is proud of the results. Asked what the future holds, Eric says he has no plans but to “keep on doing what he’s doing to make it better and better.”

For complete information about El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina, including the availability of accommodations, please visit or call Eric at 805-698-8165.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

An honest mistake?

Screwed-up Florida voter registration card
My Florida voter registration card arrived in the mail yesterday, just two and a half weeks after Nan and I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get our Florida drivers' licenses. Not too bad, I thought, until I opened the envelope and looked at its contents. Under Party Affiliation, my new card read, "Republican Party of Florida". I couldn't believe it. I didn't know whether to be angry or embarrassed.

When the DMV clerk asked me if I wanted to register to vote and if I wanted to declare a party affiliation, I clearly said, "Yes," and "Democrat." How could she have screwed up such a simple response? Oh wait, this was the same clerk who, after being presented with four official identification documents, misspelled my name as "Lighty" on my finished driver's license, requiring that she start over from the beginning with the entire half-hour licensing procedure, including payment processing.

Was it a matter of innocent incompetence, or was something more insidious at play? Florida is one of the states that is going to be demographically Democratic into the foreseeable future despite the best efforts of Republican Governor Rick Scott and his cronies, who are doing everything they can to reduce Democratic voter turn-out by minorities and the poor. Are they also bolstering their reported Republican ranks by switching party affiliations on new voter registrations?

12/9 UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I filled out and mailed the online form to change my party affiliation to the Florida Democratic Party the very next day. You betcha!

Monday, December 2, 2013

A sailor's review of "All is Lost"

To someone who has never sailed, the movie "All is Lost" is what it is intended to be, a harrowing tale of a lone sailor's struggle for survival at sea. To an experienced sailor, it becomes much more. Instead of trusting that Robert Redford's character, "Our Man", knows what he is doing and is mostly a victim of circumstance, a sailor puts himself in the character's person and asks, what would I do? The answer is, not exactly what he did.

There are many scenes in the film that had me squirming, starting from the very beginning when the man is awakened by water sloshing in his boat. He gets up to find that he has collided with a floating shipping container and that there is a large hole in the hull at the waterline on the starboard beam. Wouldn't the crash itself have woken him up? He sets about freeing the boat from the container by attaching a sea anchor to a corner with a methodically tied bowline and then returns to retrieve it, colliding hard with the container a second time, though with the prow this time, which is where I would have expected the first collision to have been if the boat had been underway at the time. Free from the container, the man smartly puts his boat in a starboard reach to keep the hole above water while he undertakes an elaborate fiberglass repair. Who carries a complete fiberglass repair kit on board? I would have fashioned a large patch out of a tarp or a spare sail and held it in place with lines and the pressure of the water while I bailed and headed for the nearest port.

Somehow, the man has lost his bilge pump handle, so he carefully crafts a replacement from a mop handle instead of reaching for a bucket. He dries out his water-logged radio and manages to get it working long enough to issue an outdated S.O.S., instead of a more modern Mayday, but there is no response, only the crackling sound of a distant broadcast in a foreign language.

The man resumes what we can only believe is his original heading, with his flimsy fiberglass patch in place, testing if it will hold by changing tack. But a moderate storm is brewing on the horizon, and soon he is testing the patch for real, but not before he takes the time for a quick shave. The patch holds, which is good because he leaves the companionway wide open to rain and waves while he struggles to put up a storm jib. The storm quickly abates, and the man sets about restoring order on his boat and catching up on his sleep.

A second, much more severe storm soon arrives. The man is overwhelmed by waves crashing into the cockpit and swept overboard, but he is wearing a harness and tether, and manages to climb back aboard. He goes below, leaving the boat to fend for itself. The boat rolls, breaking the mast, which punches a hole in the deck. The man struggles up to the deck and cuts the rig free with a miraculous single snip. He goes back below, but a big wave pitches him headfirst into the base of the mast and knocks him unconscious.

When he comes to, he has a bad gash on his forehead and his boat is slowly sinking. He treats the wound with peroxide and butterfly bandages, and deploys his life raft. He leaves it secured to the stern rail of his boat as he climbs aboard and again loses consciousness. When he comes to this time, he looks out to see that his boat is lying very low in the water and will soon sink. He pulls himself back and climbs aboard. Down below, he retrieves his sextant, still in its original packaging. The boat lurches and creaks, announcing its imminent demise. The man manages to get back into the life raft and cut the line before his boat finally disappears beneath the surface.

I watched the sinking scene in stunned disbelief. The man had patched the one hole, and the other was above the waterline, so any water entering the boat would be from wave action. It would have taken a herculean effort, but the man could have stayed aboard, after deploying the life raft as a safety measure, and bailed out enough water to keep the boat from sinking. Most sailors I know would much rather take their chances in a capsized boat than in a life raft.

At this point, the movie becomes more of a survival tale than a sailing story, and the man continues to make mistakes, though I will not spoil how it ends except to say that many questions go unanswered. What was the man's background? What was he doing alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean in a small sailboat? Where was he sailing from, and where was he heading? Answers to these questions would have helped to humanize the man and make us feel greater compassion for him. Instead, we're left to watch him, somewhat indifferently, as he struggles against nature and his own bad decisions.