It's Go Time!Mar 03, 2020
Even if you’re not a sailor, you’ve probably heard that a tidy boat is a safe boat.
That whole place for everything and everything in its place thing. Perhaps it sounds like a worthy ideal that’s never really needed, like the earthquake kit in your garage circa 1986 or the hand-cranked radio that came with your PBS donation. Au contraire. Anchor in the Sea of Cortez and you will quickly understand the importance of being ready for action at a moment’s notice.
You’ve set the hook in a fair weather anchorage (in fair weather, with a forecast promising more fair weather), have fallen into a blissful sleep, and suddenly hear the freight train sound you recognize as 25 knots. When the waves hit, you don’t even need to peep out the porthole to know that such big fetch could only come from the wrong direction and you’re now pinned against a lee shore. By the time you’ve strapped on your headlamp and kicked off the covers, the forepeak feels like an astronaut training center. It’s pitch black, four-foot waves are burying the bow, and it’s Go Time.
Once again you’re asleep, protected as planned from the wind—but the waves wrap around the point unexpectedly and suddenly you’re taking three footers beam-on. At sea, that would just mean some uncomfortable rolling, but on the hook it means shock loading your anchor, chain and snubber, with every bounce threatening to rip the cleats right out of your deck. Once again, it’s Go Time.
You’ve fallen asleep (Why, oh why, is it always the middle of the night?), protected from the waves, but the forecast 12 knot northerly finds a sneaky canyon to race down, accelerating to 28 knots on its katabatic way, and here comes the freight train again. You hope it will calm soon. It builds. You hear your snubber stretch-stretch-stretch as 16,000 pounds of boat hang from a length of nylon 3-strand, and you keep waiting for the snap. Despite this happening on replay every four minutes all night long, your snubber holds, your anchor and chain are solid and there’s no wave fetch, so as you don’t start dragging, you can ride this one out. You turn on the anchor alarm but still sleep the miserable one-ear-open, half-sleep of the damned and, yes, ready for Go Time at any minute.
You might imagine these scenarios are the start of a hypothetical how-to course on cruising, but sadly, they were our honest-to-goodness experience three nights out of four during our last adventures. Mother Nature tested our seamanship, but all that training, practice and good-habit-forming not only got us safely through, they increased our confidence on the way—even if our REM cycles took a hit.
What Did We Do Right?
We were lucky as sin to buy this well-equipped boat. The 44 pound spade anchor that came with her has seen us safely through every crazypants situation so far.
Also, we know how to set it. Between taking anchoring classes, teaching anchoring classes, and cruising for two years, we’ve certainly learned the techniques to get the most out of the gear. If you’re curious about our process, it’s best described by our friend and mentor Bill Kinney in his super informative blog post on anchoring.
As for getting the darned thing back up, Colin’s become so good at keeping the chain from jamming in the gypsy, he did it successfully while playing teeter-totter on the bow, alternating between taking green water to his knees and trying to get launched into space. And on the other end of the boat, having steered Pristine through a thousand sea states by now, it was mostly muscle memory for me to achieve enough speed for big wave steerage without outrunning the windlass.
Most important, the already challenging situations didn’t become super hairy by the addition of an X-factor. There was nothing to fall over, break or be tripped on in the dark. Dinner dishes were washed, dried and put away, clothes stowed, books shelved, and no random detritus was bouncing about in the cockpit. Also, headlamps were charged, eyeglasses within reach, the engine key and windlass remote were right next to the companionway, and halyards cleated to allow an emergency jib unfurl if one had been necessary. Colin is a neat guy by nature, but any of my old roommates will gleefully testify that this kind of discipline represents a massive personality breakthrough on my part.
What Did We Learn?
We shouldn’t have left it for so long. Each time through, we got more decisive. On the first night, we spent a couple hours debating whether the wind would lay down (it didn’t), and whether we should wait for first light (we did, and it only made things harder). By the second night, we took action and skeedaddled instead of hoping for the situation to improve, like tucking in a reef when you first think about it. And by the third, even though we chose not to move, we were decisive about exactly what combination of circumstances would have triggered Go Time, and were ready for them.
We also learned that sometimes you want to tether in—even at anchor. Having read about the danger of UV damage on jacklines, we diligently stored them safely in a locker when we dropped the hook—where they were of exactly zero help for trying to stay attached to the bucking bronco in the middle of the night. Oops. New protocol on Pristine: Jacklines only come off in the slip.
And finally, we learned to be very picky about where we anchored, plenty skeptical about any wintertime forecast for the Sea of Cortez, and how not to kill each other when trapped in a small cabin for days at a time, in icky weather, and with no little sleep. :)
Why the heck are we doing this to ourselves? Back in the spring and summer, cruising Baja was glorious and you got to wear a bikini. In winter, honestly, some days are just plain hard, and cold. Most cruisers have headed south to the tropics of mainland Mexico by February. So why did we choose to give our long underwear and our snubber a workout instead?
If you haven’t been to the Sea of Cortez, the best way to comprehend the overwhelming sanity of our choice, despite all evidence above, is to imagine the Grand Canyon.
Just go with me here for a second and take your daily moment of Zen. Think of red rocks and the sparkling blue water, stunningly vertical rock faces that make the entire scene look like someone used a giant can opener to pry the cliffs apart and reveal the candy striping inside.
Now use your tourist eraser to remove every parking lot, concrete restroom and visitor in an I-HEART-SOMETHING t-shirt, until it feels like you’re the first human ever to lay eyes on it. Finally, take the river, widen it and add salt until it becomes an inviting home for a third of the world’s whale and dolphin species, a breeding ground for sea turtles and a thriving migratory corridor for hundreds of bird species. Oh, and don’t forget to add fish. To me, the Sea of Cortez is essentially an extension of the Colorado River, plus a little salt and a ton of biodiversity. The geologists will tsk tsk me for this comparison (volcanic uplift is not the same as hydraulic erosion), but I became a writer instead of a scientist so I’d be allowed a little creative license. So think: Thriving Grand Canyon, all to yourself.
When she is good, she is very, very good. Morning coffee when things aren’t going to hell in a handbasket.
Colin’s always good at making new friends
Lots of new friends!
Even when the seas get whipped up, the scenery is still amazing.
And then there are the calms. This is why we bother.
Baja is not just unspoiled, it is raw. The striated cliffs look like they were heaved up from the belly of the earth ten minutes ago. The weather seems to know only two toddler-like states of being: Full-on and dead asleep. And much of it is so free of humanity that you’ll land on a beach and dozens of bright red crabs will run towards you, scuttling by your flip-flops with such curiosity you can almost hear them wondering what strange pelicans you are with such sadly deformed wings. Ah, but then when you do finally reach a small town or village, there are fresh-off-the-panga fish tacos to make you believe you’ve reached the holy land.
All this beautiful emptiness is only possible because generations upon generations have overlooked this uniquely gorgeous spot. The Aztecs didn’t care about Baja—it was too barren to conquer. Cortez didn’t care about Baja—there were no resources to steal. Even modern Mexico seems not to care much about Baja—letting it exist almost as a country within a country but for one tiny tourist Mecca at the tip of Cabo San Lucas. Meanwhile, Baja seems to relish the isolation-generated independence. Visitors are welcomed with authentic smiles, but not sought. You’re unlikely to run across a brochure for San Juanico in your dentist’s office back home. Yet the residents’ feeling of pride here is palpable, and it’s a joy to be among people who seem so wholly present in life, living such with vibrancy and contentment in the moment.
So that’s why we’re here.
And now that we’ve discovered such an explorer’s paradise, we’re leaving.
Oh, you silly people. You’re not supposed to be trail-blazing in flip-flops.
We gave blood and sweat to get there, but it was the view that brought the tears.
This beauty was named by her first owner, hoping she would find pristine waters. We hope we’ve done him proud. :)
Where to next?
Put the Hammer Down
Age may be relative, but cruising is a very physical lifestyle. I don’t care how many labor-saving devices you put on a sailboat, you still have to go up and down the companionway steps a thousand times a day, lift the ‘sofa’ to reach the monkey wrench and master that twist-reach-lean yoga pose to put the skillet away… heck, in some conditions you need to brace like a starfish just to sleep. Well-functioning bodies are critical pieces of gear that rarely grace the ‘what you need to cruise’ lists.
Add to that two irrefutable facts: 1) At this stage of our lives we’re unlikely to be in better health tomorrow than we are today, and 2) What we have could go at any time. We try never to forget that we’re one eye infection away from being marina-bound, one slipped disc from a trip home and one diagnosis from the end of the dream. We take good care of ourselves, but we’ll never escape aging. What we can do is pack in as many big adventures as possible before she catches up to us.
Or, as a fellow cruiser advised, with the simple seriousness that only a badass Alaskan can manage, “Put the hammer down.”
So for all we’ve fallen in love with Mexico, we intend to leave her—for now. In the March/April timeframe, the weather patterns line up favorably on both sides of the equator to make a Pacific Crossing as easy as she’s going to get. This year, if the universe allows, we’ll cast off our docklines in Baja and cruise through French Polynesia, the Cook Islands and Tonga before arriving in New Zealand around late October, in time to avoid hurricane season.
Of course, that first step is a doozy. The Pacific is the largest of the world’s oceans, making it a 2500 nautical mile leap from Baja to the Marquesas—or roughly 4 weeks of 24x7 sailing. In fact, it’s one of the longest ocean passages on the planet.
But that’s just the beginning. After the Marquesas, we’ll still have over two-thirds of the Pacific to cross. To put it in perspective, from California through Mexico, we’ve sailed 3500 nautical miles in two years of cruising. By the time we reach New Zealand we’ll have island-hopped through 9000 more in just 6 months. We’ll be sailing our faces off.
How do we feel about all this? There’s no doubt that the prospect of crossing the Pacific challenges us (we’re re-reading every storm tactics book we own, taking celestial navigation classes and prepping the ditch bag just in case), but at this stage of our sailing experience, it’s the next right step. At the edge of our comfort zone, not worlds beyond it. We’re at least as excited as we are nervous.
We can’t possibly know until we’ve done it whether we want more of the same or it’s time to buy a condo, but our boat will never be more ready, our skills never more honed, our minds never more excited for the challenge—and for certain our bodies will never be younger.
It’s Go Time!
Fair winds and following seas, dear friends.
Colin & Chey
Where Are We Now?
We’re in La Paz and expect to be here for another 3-4 weeks while we get final boat stuff sorted, so this isn’t the last you’ll hear from us before we disappear into the blue. We’ll soon be knee deep in projects like wiring up the sat phone antenna and provisioning for 6 months, but now that the weather is finally warming up and we don’t have to worry about lee shores here in the slip, we think we’ve earned a little Slow Time first—maybe even a couple margaritas and another glorious round of fish tacos.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Arturo of Sea Trek Kayaking, who not only shared his extensive fishing knowledge at Isla Carmen, he gave us one of his best lures. That gift led to some very tasty triggerfish dinners, and we thanked him with every bite! :)
And major thanks to the cruiser community in Puerto Escondido for welcoming us with open arms, long hikes and songs around the campfire!
And last but definitely not least, we’re deeply grateful to Neil and the team at Marina de La Paz for finding room for us. It’s our favorite marina in Mexico by far and makes it dramatically easier for us to prep for the next steps.
Dinner doesn’t get any fresher
Boy Meets Killer
Read the first five chapters of The Prisoner's Apprentice — the award-winning novel based on the shocking true story
Shall We Be Friends?
Get a behind-the-scenes view of the writing process and just-between-us secrets about upcoming books. Email love letters, delivered monthly.