How to row across the ocean




Over the weekend, the New York Times memorialized adventurer John Fairfax in the most awe-inspiring obituary ever written. In it, we learned that Mr. Fairfax had run away to the Amazon jungle at 13, then later worked as a pirate’s apprentice out of Panama. But the main narrative of Mr. Fairfax’s life was that he had rowed across not one, but two oceans: the Atlantic in 1969 and the Pacific in 1972. In fact, he was “the first lone oarsman in recorded history to traverse any ocean.”

While ocean rowing sounds like a near impossible feat, there are still dozens of adventurers in pursuit of this challenge. Earlier this month, Gadling profiled the Pacific Rowing Race, which is set to take place in 2014 following a course from Monterey Bay, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. No doubt, the Ocean Rowing Society, the organization charged with the adjudication of all ocean rowing records and on whose steering committee John Fairfax was a member, will be on hand as rowers set out on their quest.

The Ocean Rowing Society devised a set of guidelines for ocean rowers in a meeting in 2000. The guidelines cover acceptable crossings for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, definitions of assisted and unassisted rows, and minimum compulsory safety measures and equipment for undertaking an ocean row:

  • It is noted that Christopher Columbus’ route from Spain to the Bahamas is the traditional Atlantic crossing route (“Departures from Cape Verde will be recognized as an Atlantic Ocean crossing with the words “shortened crossing” added to official listings.”)
  • Auto-steering is optional.
  • Wind generators may be used.
  • Solar panels should be used for generating all electrical power on board the row boat.
  • Canopies are not allowed.
  • Ocean rowing is a drug-free sport.

Head over to the Ocean Rowing Society website to learn more.

Image Flickr/TrueFalseFilmFestival

Pacific Rowing Race announced

Adventurers and extreme sports athletes looking for a new challenge may well find what they’re looking for in the newly announced Pacific Rowing Race. The event, which isn’t scheduled to take place until June of 2014, will cover more than 2100 nautical miles, beginning in Monterey Bay, California and ending in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Organizers of the event expect that it will take around 30 to 35 days for the fastest two- and four-person crews to row the entire length of the course. The current record for an individual rower is 64 days, and was set back in 1997, but due to advances in technology and better boat design, a solo racer could easily break that record. On the other hand, teams who are more interested in enjoying the experience of being out on the ocean, and aren’t trying to set new speed records, could take as much as 100 days to reach the finish line.

Along the way, racers will face a host of weather conditions, ranging from clear, calm days to potentially dangerous storms. They’ll also have to contend with seas that can be both extremely turbulent or smooth as glass. And while they’re out on the water, they’ll experience breathtaking sunrises and sunsets and a peaceful solitude that is broken from time to time by a passing dolphin, whale, or other sea creature.

Some of the details on the race are still being worked out, but if you’re interested in taking part in the event, there is an online form that you can fill out by clicking here. Completing that form will ensure that you receive the latest news on the event and keep you updated on any announcements from the race organizers.

Online entry for the Pacific Rowing Race is scheduled to open on April 2nd of this year, giving participants more than two years to prepare.

[Photo credit: Roz Savage]

Real men don’t eat turtles in San Pancho, Mexico’s coolest beach town

When Frank Smith, a retired forest ranger from California, first came to San Pancho, an idyllic beach community on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, more than twenty years ago, turtle meat was all the rage.

It was on offer in the sleepy town’s four restaurants, their flippers were used to make cowboy boots and the eggs were sold to bars, which offered them to randy patrons. Turtle eggs can be a valuable commodity south of the border- many Mexicans believe that eating them gives men a Viagra-like boost in the bedroom.

Smith decided to move to San Pancho (formally known as San Francisco) because he wanted to do something to help what he calls “the most passive creatures in the world,” but local restaurants organized a smear campaign against Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde– a conservation group he founded to help protect the turtles and their eggs.

But Smith persevered and began to win over local people with the help of a public information campaign produced by the Mexican government. “They started putting up posters of beautiful women in bikinis, which said, ‘real men don’t eat turtle eggs,'” Smith recalled in an interview.
Over the years, Smith’s group has helped put numerous turtle poachers in prison, and today, none of the 22 restaurants in San Pancho serve turtle meat, although the eggs still need to be protected. Under Smith’s stewardship, San Pancho’s population of turtles has grown from 90 in 1991 to about 450 today.

During the mid June-mid November nesting season, Smith and his volunteers spend all night on the beach safeguarding the turtles as they lay their eggs, and between August and mid March, Smith can often be found on the beach in his dune buggy, releasing baby turtle hatchlings into the Pacific. (see photo above)

Would they survive? Most would not. Would they return to San Pancho? According to Smith, perhaps 3 out of 1,000 would come back to lay eggs on the same beach. But not for 11-16 years.

As the population of turtles has grown over the years, so too has the self-described “gringo community” of North Americans in San Pancho. If you’re looking to escape the winter doldrums but aren’t a fan of big, all-inclusive beach resorts, look no further than San Pancho. The town has a huge, sloping beach, affordable accommodation, and a nice variety of good restaurants, including some of the best shrimp tacos and flan you’ve ever tasted. It’s also a great place to study Spanish, volunteer at a non-profit, and surf.

A Populist with an 87,836 Square Foot Palace

The village was an impoverished backwater until it was embraced in the early 1970’s by Luis Echeverría, who was then the President of Mexico. Echeverría wanted to build a community which could serve as a model for Third World development. He brought electricity to the town, built homes, schools, a state of the art hospital, and a paved main street, which he named Tercer Mundo, (“Third World.”)

In fact, he named all of the town’s streets after third world countries, but saw no irony in landing his helicopter on the beach each week, as he oversaw construction of a magnificent 87,836 square foot beachfront palace just outside of town. He abandoned the property just before it was completed, and was chased out of office in 1976, amidst corruption allegations. His 11 bedroom estate can now be yours for a cool $54,000 per week.

The first time I attempted to visit San Pancho, I nearly lost heart and did not make it. The main road into town was under construction, and the alternate route was the kind of rutted disaster that keeps out-of-the-way auto repair shops in business.

As we bounced our way over one crater and then the next, not knowing how far we were from our destination or what we’d find once there, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in leading our caravan, which included my wife, our two young children, and my parents, out of Puerto Vallarta in search of a seaside arcadia.

When Elizabeth Taylor, who was married at the time, followed her lover, Richard Burton, to Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night of the Iguana in 1964, American paparazzi descended in droves on what was then a sleepy seaside resort. The resulting buzz turned Puerto Vallarta into a fashionable destination for American travelers, but today, the quiet, rustic appeal of old Vallarta can be elusive.

At any of the beaches close to the center of town, you’re likely to spend the bulk of your day fending off vendors offering t-shirts with slogans like: “Puerto Vallarta K-9 Police- Doggy Style Unit,” and “Puerto Vallarta CIA- Central Intoxication Agency.”

Your nose could be in a book, but lurking just above the boundaries of the page was someone calling out to you, “hey amigo- good price.” This was why we found ourselves on the rutted road, bouncing towards San Pancho one morning last winter.

I motored ahead, across the rocky road, despite dissent emanating from three generations, and two rows worth of minivan, and eventually arrived at a tiny parking lot by the town beach. As I stepped out of the van, I could hear the ocean- a loud roar of waves we could not yet see in the distance. We walked onto the beach and looked out at a vast, sloping beach, easily a mile long.

Ahead lay the pleasing crescendo of big waves. On both sides of us were restaurants, offering shade, cold beer and fresh seafood. It was a warm, weekday morning in January and there was nary another person in sight.

I set off, alone, down what looked like a nearly endless stretch of white powder fine sand, and, in the distance, I could see a rocky cliff, a whitewashed church, palm trees, and a solitary man, who appeared like a mirage, walking toward me wearing a white suit and a Panama hat. I had found exactly what I was looking for.

Time to Eat

The dining scene in San Pancho features everything from hole-in-the-wall taco stands to gourmet restaurants, and is hard to beat for a town of just about 1,600 inhabitants. Just a few blocks from the beach on Avenida Tercer Mundo #70, you’ll find Baja Takeria, which features sumptuous shrimp and fish tacos and burritas grilled and seasoned right in front of you.

Just down the street, look for a sign that says “Hay Flan,” in front of Cenaduria Delfin for some of the tastiest homemade flan you could ever hope to eat. San Pancho also has a handful of palapa style restaurants right on the beach where you can sit or lie in the sun or the shade, sip an ice-cold beer for less than $2, and order a plate of heavenly fish or shrimp tacos for less than $10.

Best of all, if you’d like to sit and relax for several hours before or after ordering, you are welcome to do so. And while you might encounter a few vendors, there are few distractions, other than the incessant crashing of waves down the sloping beach in front of you.

On my last evening in San Pancho, I sat on the beach, in the gloriously cool shade of a palapa, watching my sons play tag with a group of local children. And as I looked out at the limitless Pacific and their beaming faces as they chased their new friends up and down the huge beach, it was hard to come to terms with our imminent departure.

As my kids bathed in the extravagant, drowsy, orange glow of sunset, I knew that our odds of returning, newly paved road or not, were much greater than that of the baby turtles we’d sent off to sea.

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Los Cabos’ famed Arch experiences infrequent natural phenomenon




Every four to seven years, the tide surrounding the iconic Arch of Los Cabos (El Arco) recedes to reveal a pristine, white sand beach. This natural phenomenon is happening today in Los Cabos. If you’re in the area, stop by and check it out!

Located in the region deemed “Lands End,” the southernmost tip of the Baja California peninsula, this arch is a popular destination for travelers looking to take scenic photographs. The swirling mix of blue and green waters mark the junction between the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez.

Photo Courtesy of Ale Delao

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

As a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimately wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.

Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.

As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]