A Year of Living Dangerously. And Vibrantly. And Spontaneously.Jan 28, 2019
Last Christmas, the length of our to-do list would have overwhelmed Santa.
Colin and I were hip deep in selling our furniture, renting our house, prepping the boat for its new role in our lives and trying like mad to squeeze in time to see friends and family. Today, we’re waking up to our body clocks, drinking coffee in a sunny cockpit, and looking out over the quaint town of La Paz as we vaguely consider what we might do today.
What a difference a year makes.
Of course, those two bookends skip conveniently over twelve months of incredible challenge and growth. 2018 marked the most massive transitions either Colin or I have ever faced as we left family, friends, house, cars, stuff, neighborhood, jobs and essentially everything familiar that had created our routines, defined us as people and provided satisfaction or support for decades. In exchange, we faced an ocean’s worth of unknowns, a solid dose of scary situations and only each other to rely on for everything from grousing about the weather to staying alive.
Also, we had no Netflix.
When we thought back to what we’d learned, we realized for us there were five critical lessons on our path from novice cruisers to newish-but-much-more-confident cruisers. We humbly share them in case they may prove helpful to someone else, considering such a radical lifestyle change. :)
5: It’s a Process
When you’re new to cruising, you can’t accurately judge yourself, your partner, your boat or this lifestyle for months. Lots of months. Cruising may ultimately be right for you or not, but regardless, you will have moments where you’re sure it is and moments where you’re sure it isn’t. While it didn’t quite sink in, people tried to warn us: every cruiser has the ‘sell the boat’ moments.
Colin and I traded mini meltdowns over all manner of things, and differences of opinion on just about every non-consequential choice known to man. With the experience so new, it was far too easy to sink into the depths of I can’t deal with it being like this for the rest of my life!
But over time, we dialed things in. We learned how to keep Pristine mold-free, damp-free and odor-free, figured out where the seawater was coming in and how to stop it, and discovered how to store clothes, engine oil, fenders, tools, spare parts, foul weather gear and pots & pans so that getting them out is only an intermediate-level Tetris puzzle. Every day we learn some new trick. I was seasick a bit, sure, but only 3 days out of 365. And the differences of opinion? Ha. There’s a lot more on that subject below.
4: Pristine Can Take It and So Can We
If I could have plopped an experienced circumnavigator aboard Pristine for our more intense stretches, I would have asked where the conditions fit on the spectrum. Is getting pooped common for a boat like ours or an event to be remembered? Is all that flexing and pounding that sounds like she’s being pummeled to death normal? Did the 15-foot seas with ricocheted cross-swell represent a level eight as in Wow, that’s pretty rough or more of a two as in Get used to it, sista.
Without that perspective, I can only report that along the Pacific Coast, we had a lot of great days on the water and a few passages where we got hammered. Depending on departure timing, some cruisers also reported a beat down, while others called those legs a cakewalk. We looked at this latter group with green jealousy flashing from our eyes, but they heard our stories and worried that they’d built a false sense of security. None of us really knows.
Here’s what I can report: In our first 2000 nautical miles, for all the thrashing about, green water running over the decks and sounds of doom from below, Pristine didn’t break. Her rig didn’t come down, her sails didn’t blow out, and her rudder remains firmly attached. We put hundreds of hours on her motor and she still purrs like a kitten. We, ahem, probed a rather solid rock with her keel at two knots and created exactly zero damage but for a curl of lead the size of a fingernail clipping. Our grand total of catastrophe was one boom vang block and a little saltwater in our dirty clothes locker. That’s it. Whether the conditions were unusual or the norm, Pristine seems to be made for them.
So what about us? Tethered into the cockpit alone on cold, dark watches occasionally made our minds easy prey to visualizations of disasters, but those never came. (Pro tip: Don’t read Halsey’s Typhoon in the middle of a hairy night passage). Yet we arrived in La Paz safely and with vessel and crew intact. Joyous, even. What we learned—and this truly makes all the difference—is that we can get hammered and be still be okay. Our comfort zones are miles wider than when we left the protection of San Francisco Bay.
3: It’s All About the People
Before Colin and I left the Bay Area, we met a circumnavigator and asked him the oldest travel-related question on earth: “What were your favorite places?”
His reply was far smarter than our question. “Sorry, I can’t answer that for you,” he said. “My favorite places were the ones the ones where I met the best people.”
A year in, we couldn’t agree with him more. I’ve written about the unbelievable community of cruisers before, so will try not to repeat myself, but in the interim months, our community has continued to grow massively. Locals have filled our hearts with love and gratitude for welcoming us into their worlds—and for their patience in deciphering the pieces of Spanish we offer while kindly, respectfully correcting our pronunciation. Boaters quickly become besties as we’re a small group doing an unfamiliar thing in an unfamiliar land, so yesterday’s strangers become today’s generous support network. Here in La Paz, there is even a clubhouse for cruisers and a daily radio net where advice is dispensed and questions are answered.
With Mike and Katie of SV Allegría along the La Paz Malecón.
2: Relationships Get Real, Fast
For most couples, spending a few waking hours together each day is the norm. Maybe a touch more on weekends. There are distractions of work, kids, the Thursday basketball group, whatever. If you’re frustrated, there are a fair number of people you can vent to and if you accomplish something, a squad of back slappers to enhance the moment. When you need a little me space, you can usually find it while the other is traveling, or at book club.
Then there’s us.
Colin and I were together pretty darned close to 24x7. We may not actually be married, but if you measured by quality time, we’d be on our silver wedding anniversary. We’re each other’s only company most of the time. There’s no television to command our attention and no email shouting for a response. If something goes right (or wrong) on Team Pristine, there is exactly one person to share the moment with.
Then there’s this: There are no hidden parts of yourself on a 37 foot boat—and I don’t just mean an unusual familiarity with bodily functions. Every weakness, fear, insecurity, passive aggressive instinct, and moment of despair ends up coming out in front of the other. In sleep-deprived, chaotic, unexpected conditions, you are usually far from your best, most grounded self. You’re just you—as raw as it gets.
Colin and I started with a rock solid relationship, and we got tested. My lover suddenly became my captain, and that wasn’t always easy for either of us. There were times we looked at each other, stunned by the stranger who appeared before us. But the same conditions forced us to go deep in understanding each other, too. I now understand Colin’s way of dealing with vulnerability is that he has to verbalize his fears to vanquish them. “Look at the size of that f#cking wave! What the f#ck!” Then he gets over it and moves on. And while I tend to be calm at the exciting moments, I have the low blood sugar freak outs at unexpected times, like in the middle of a supermarket under blinding fluorescents, staring at a hundred types of unfamiliar cheese like a deer in the headlights. Colin has learned to gently steer me toward lunch.
I think Torre DeRoche captured the dynamic eloquently in Love With a Chance of Drowning when she wrote: “(Our boat) doesn’t have the space to host disagreements. Instead, our differences need to be worked through regularly, treated in the same way that one might iron the laundry: carefully tending to each problem, pushing out the wrinkles and folding it all away in a neat, resolved pile.”
It’s real work, but Colin and I have been lucky enough to discover that if your relationship is strong enough, if your partner is wise and caring enough, when you find yourself fully loved, trusted and embraced not just for your best self, but especially for your worst, there is no greater feeling of belonging in the entire world.
1: We Love this Life!
The world we encounter outside Pristine is always new. There are different fish in the aquarium, the call of a hike or swim or stroll adjusts with the landscape. The markets surprise us with the unexpected (squash blossoms, fresh fennel, biscotti), our neighbors float in and out like tides and we rarely visit the same restaurant twice.
Yet we have the comfort of knowing some things are always the same inside our little turtle shell. Same bed, same place for our toothbrush, same couches and curtains. Our morning coffee routine rarely differs. We figured out comfortable swim lanes for who usually does what aboard, so everything from washing dishes to filling the water tanks happens with habitual ease. Most important, we always have each other. Whatever else may happen in our lives on our off the boat, 2018 taught us we can always count on that.
So we are enormously grateful for the life we’ve been lucky enough to discover on the other side of all the effort to get here. Waking with the sun, sleeping with the moon. Time to enjoy cooking, practice the guitar, learn Spanish, write, stop and have a meaningful conversation with someone you’ve just met, and share incredible adventures with the love of your life. These things cost no money and yet are the most priceless part of our experience.
Our home may be small, but the view from our back porch is limitless.
Fair winds and following seas, dear friends.
Colin heading back in after a couple hours of getting straight with Mother Nature.
Where Are We Now?
We spent almost a month in La Paz, and can’t say enough about what a magical town this is. Mexico is chock-a-block with tourist destinations, but this is not one of them. It’s the capital of the state of Baja California Sur, a port town, a working town, but brimming with a friendliness, pride and verve we can barely describe. There are cutsier towns, like Todos Santos, where you can buy beautifully crafted purses and pottery, but in La Paz, art is more fundamental, as if in the very air you breathe. The most obvious examples are the murals that adorn nearly every surface and the statues that line the Malecón, but the feeling goes deeper. No pretension of art for art’s sake here, but simply and humbly a reflection of lived experience. The soul of La Paz exists as much on the sea as on land, and through the art you feel that connection in every painting, every meal and every genuinely kind interaction with the people who live here.
We’ll set off soon in search of warmer weather on the mainland (hate us as you will, it’s January and we’re aiming for bathing suits instead of sweatshirts), but we fully intend to come back to La Paz in the Spring and soak up more of this town’s amazing spirit before heading north up into the Sea of Cortez.
Thanks to my time as a Brownie, I will never get the insidious song “Make new friends, but keep the old...” out of my head. Luckily, the song is as true as it is annoying. We made amazing new friends in La Paz, especially: SV Xpression, SV Gardyloo, SV Agatha, SV Reunion, SV Perspective, SV Loki and SV Big City Fish. It also thrilled us to catch back up with friends we’ve known since Turtle Bay and earlier: SV Belle Vie, SV Epiphany, SV Allegría, SV Nanutuk, and SV Xanadu. While we all have our own schedules, destinations and intentions, the universe has been kind enough to allow for such wonderful doses of fortuitous overlap with amazing people that we fully trust we’ll continue to become ever-better friends with all of them.
With Heather of SV Nanatuk on a surfing excursion to Todos Santos. Thanks so much guys for making such an unforgettable day happen! And for making sure we’ll never forget the difference between alta and alto!
Huge thanks to Marty and Linney of SV Patience for saving us weeks of outboard agony and for the gorgeous earrings! Thanks too to Harry and Suzana of SV Gardyloo for the much treasured gift from the French bakery. Also, a very special shout out to Captain Max of SV Xpression for not only pitching in his home for a Sunday La Paz Bay regatta, but for an unforgettable spinnaker run in 30 knots. Thanks for giving us our racing fix!
The fabulous Max, Michelle and Autumn of SV Xpression
Boy Meets Killer
Read the first five chapters of The Prisoner's Apprentice — the award-winning novel based on the shocking true story
Want to Know How My Novels are Written?
Get a monthly behind-the-scenes peek into the writing process and just-between-us secrets about upcoming books.