Sometimes the Real Adventure is Getting Home

sailors Jul 05, 2020
Sometimes the Real Adventure is Getting Home

Just ask Ernest Shackleton.

True, our Baja Bash didn’t involve icebergs or Southern Ocean storms, but the name of his ill-fated ship could have been the theme for our more recent journey: Endurance.

In some ways, our 800 mile trip from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego was routine for a Baja Bash: Four passages of two days each at a solid 4.7 knot average, testament to how well Colin can rock a counter-current. It was also our hardest trip to date thanks to the upwind slamming, long waits for decent weather and wearisome fuel issues. Yet, it was also our most extraordinary passage, thanks to the people we met in the throes of Covid-driven isolation.

Sailing Uphill 

For the sailing uninitiated, downwind is the Hollywood version of sailing paradise: People smooching in the cockpit, caressed by warm breezes as they sip their cocktails.

Upwind is Hollywood’s version of death at sea: The boat heels over, waves soak the cockpit and the hull seems to bounce almost completely out of the water. The people are not smiling or drinking rum. They are surviving. For a short race, this can be exhilarating. For days on end, it gets a touch monotonous. 

Pre-Covid, what had been our intention for this spring? Downwind. What direction were we battling instead? Upwind. Add in mixed seas—wind-driven chop from one angle, ocean-driven swell from another—and every activity from chart reading to cooking happened atop a trampoline. Resting was like trying to sleep in the passenger seat with Steve McQueen at the wheel. For 48 hours at a stretch. We have good oceangoing settees and solid lee cloths, but each time we found ourselves airborne, we wondered why sailboats don’t come standard with seatbelts.

The rising bread under the dish towel looks about to fall, but thanks to the gimbaled stove, it’s one of the few things in this photo that’s actually upright. Note: We rarely eat bread, but just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there is no gluten-free on an upwind passage.

The Great Wait

Trying to figure out when to leave was weirdly the hardest part of the whole enterprise. Ask three sailors the best month to bash and you’ll get nine different answers in a regular year, but Covid threw in a few extra curveballs related to expiring visas, Baja towns closing to outsiders, the possibility of cruising boat lockdowns, and of course the potential for illness. In the end, we did our best balancing act and left La Paz at the end of April, then Cabo on May 6th. 

For the first leg, we had pretty reasonable conditions—some fog, some turtles, some fatigue—but were happy to be making tracks. “We got this,” we thought—far too ominously. 

We had to dig deep to find the winter hats and foul weather gear. I would soon find trousers were standard equipment as well.

It’s like they know—just when you are most fatigued, these guys show up to make you laugh.

Then the weather window closed, parking us for nine frigid days while it blew like stink. We were plenty safe, but sitting on deck felt like putting our lawn chairs in a wind tunnel. In Norway. Instead, we lived below, in our long underwear, hands turning to ice balls to do dishes in water express-mailed from Alaska, locked in a space smaller than a one-car garage. Happy days.

When the weather let up, we had another good start—complete with a bon voyage party attended by gray whales, dolphins and turtles—but when we reached the next anchorage, we had to hole up against the screaming northwesterlies again for eight more days. 

Red light, green light, red light, green light until we’d racked up 22 days of waiting for reasonable weather. That we could work through all that with a minimum of friction and a maximum of humor surely evidences a relationship for the long haul.

Gray sky—our near constant companion on this trip.

When Sails are Secondary

We bought a sailboat because we love to sail. Last year, Pristine logged 800 nautical miles on a mere five gallons of diesel because we never turned on the engine. That worked because we had the patience to go when—and flexibility to go where—the wind took us.

This year, unfortunately, we had a timeframe and a specific destination—a problematic one. There is only one direction that a sailboat cannot sail and that is directly into the wind. What direction was the wind coming from? Bingo. This year, that lovely Yanmar 44 horse kept on truckin’ for nearly 800 miles, burning a heck of a lot more than our seasonal average of 5 gallons of diesel.

Now, much as we love to sail, let it be known that we take extraordinarily good care of our engine. But even the best maintained motor can’t run without diesel, and every 8 or 10 hours—somewhere between the tank and the injectors—the supply kept choking, causing the engine to quietly, almost apologetically, shut down. Our tanks were clean, but the Cabo-purchased diesel had apparently not been, after sitting unused after the fishing charters were all grounded. Problem was, those micro diesel bugs got stuck in the straw, clogging the lines just enough that it eventually took too much sucking to overcome. The only way we could solve it underway was to change the filters. Sometimes this was as easy as switching a valve and continuing on. Other times, it involved precariously balancing bowls full of diesel in the salon—a.k.a. our living room—while still trying to stand on that trampoline.

One of these times we were a mere three miles from the anchorage—and the dream of blissful sleep after an exhausting two-day passage—when the engine stopped. Too exhausted for another go-round with the diesel monster, we instead used every bit of seamanship we had to ghost 20,000 pounds of laden cruising boat forward on a mere three knots of breeze until we could finally drop the hook, finally turning us back into sailors after all. 

Not sure which filter change this was, but clearly it felt like #5932.

Joy = People

On this journey, we experienced one reality of cruising, which is overcoming the challenges that lead to increased confidence. We also experienced the other reality of cruising, which is meeting the most amazing, life-changing people. So the Great 2020 Covid Baja Bash was actually our most extraordinary journey yet.

While anchored at the starting line in Cabo San Lucas, in front of eerily empty beaches and dark hotel rooms—we were lucky enough to meet a great couple with our same plan. We rarely choose to buddy-boat because we enjoy our freedom, but with all the extra unknowns and isolation of this trip, it seemed a good idea to have some company.

That night, with a little cell coverage, Colin checked their blog. “Holy crap!” he said, pulling me out of my novel. “That sweet, unassuming couple from Motu circumnavigated the globe in a Cal 2-27, crossed the Pacific six times and rounded the freaking Horn.” We locked eyes on the realization we’d have as company the most experienced cruisers we’d ever met. “We’re sticking to them like glue,” Colin promised. Good thing, too, because we never would have made it without them. 

SV Motu’s Stephen and Marja Vance ended up being our mobile fuel station when we decided we could no longer use our main tank, saving our bacon big time. We also traded practical info about fishing nets to avoid and counter-currents to seek, which was super helpful. But they were even more vital as emotional support. In an isolated world without Wi-Fi or cell coverage, we bemoaned the weather forecasts together. We discussed our fuel issues until the word diesel could stand in for a swear word. Most important, they made us laugh when we really, really needed a laugh. They made us feel we could do this. (They also made us envy their afternoon macchiatos). Never have we been more glad for a VHF radio in our hand. Never have we felt such gratitude for two wonderful people coming into our lives at the exactly right moment. They will always be in our hearts. 

SV Motu, our mobile fuel station. Check out that badass expedition schooner! 

The first time we saw Motu’s badass crew unmasked was in San Diego (after six weeks of quarantine)

And then there was also the never ending kindness of locals. Fishermen Marcus and Franco from Bahía Santa María were so generous with their catch that after a week of eating lobster & rice, lobster mac & cheese, lobster salad, lobster bisque and lobster tacos, I begged for something I never will again in this lifetime: “Please, God. No more lobster.“ They suffered through the same wind and cold as we did, except while we groused about it from a cozy 37-foot cruising boat, they slept in an open, 15-foot panga—putting us to shame. They could easily have treated us like entitled, rich yachties taking up space in their bay. Instead, they welcomed us like family. 

In Bahía Asunción, Larry the abalone diver cheerfully took on the role of our waterborne Task Rabbit since Covid rules banned us from shore—ferrying water, diesel and even a basket of fresh produce when we were down to our last cabbage. While the supplies were helpful, once again it was the smiles, laughs and authentic human connections that were the most meaningful and memorable. We are the luckiest people in the world to have been able to spend so much time with the beautiful people of Baja.

 

Colin enjoys two rare treats at once: Homemade lobster Mac & Cheese and ten minutes of sunshine

There's No Place Like Home

And yet, California called and on we motored. As we neared the end of the journey, Mother Nature finally took pity on us: After 30 days of northwesterlies, she gifted us a glorious southerly wind. So for all the challenges, our enduring memory is crossing from the border all the way to San Diego Bay—not only under sail, but downwind. And smooching!

Granted—while some sailors complete the bash relaxed and ready to celebrate, I gotta be honest—those people were not us. When we tied up in the slip, we were more the bleary-eyed, too-much-caffeine, too-much-aspirin, trying like mad to keep-it-positive-damnit people. As always, a good night of sleep helped. So did a good meal. And a hot shower was a spectacular experience. But our exhaustion was more like layers of an onion we kept having to peel. It took close to a week of doing all of those things before we found our regular old selves at the center, and stopped lingering at the boat broker’s office, wondering—just for the sake of argument—what a Pacific Seacraft 37 might be worth.

But now, here we are, fully restored, and even more smitten with our beautiful boat than the day we bought her—she’s safely carried us on nearly 5000 nautical miles of amazing adventures! Thanks to her, we’re happily back in the states with access to phones and showers and running trails and laundry and fresh spinach and (socially distant) people. We’re also warm again. 

Land ho! Pretty sweet after six weeks not setting foot off the boat.

Where do we go from here? Your guess is as good as ours. We’ve talked about just about every option under the sun. We can only take educated guesses about what will happen in the world in what timeframes. Same story with our health, families, and finances, but this much is certain: We love each other, we love our boat, and we love to sail. 

Maybe one day those certainties will take us to the South Pacific. Maybe our lives will go in different directions. It really doesn’t matter because the dream has never been to check an accomplishment box. It’s finding happiness in one of the myriad ways that’s possible. The dream is to cherish each other, appreciate nature, experience people, love the earth, find joy in simplicity, and have the time and energy to nourish our creativity and wellness. With all that’s outside our control these days, the truly important things still exist inside our own hearts—just as they always have.

Fair winds and following seas, dear friends,

Colin & Chey

 

Out-take

“Hold on—I need to check your underwear.”

I knew what Colin meant, of course. The wind had whipped up, threatening to blow the laundry off the rail, but it didn’t stop me from falling on the cabin sole, laughing.

Shout-Outs

We’ve received a thousand small kindnesses of late and a couple really, huge ones. Besides the amazing people above, we owe huge thanks to Neil Shroyer of Marina De La Paz. Not only was he the calming voice of Covid-era leadership, we need words that go farther than ‘above and beyond’ to describe how he helped us navigate the ins, outs and minefields of getting a Zarpe (international boat check out document) in La Paz, gave thoughtful advice over, and over, and over again, wrote letters for us in Spanish, arranged for a last-minute printer to be found and made multiple phone calls on a Sunday to sort things out after misunderstandings with customs would have stopped us dead in our tracks. Without Neil, we would never have made it out of Mexico. We cannot possibly thank him enough, but we will keep trying for a very, very long time.

We also want to thank Carl and Yulia of MV Baba Yaga for the friendship and incredibly thoughtful photo (Check them out on YouTube!), Travis and Leslie of SV Freya for their kind words and good energy, and Jackson for the most awesome random act of kindness ever—a damned fine bottle of Jamesons.

And to the decades-long, San Diego-based friends who made time for us even in a weird world—Dan, Lisa, Sarah, Val, Chris, Bob and the one and only Irie Dog, Kevin—thanks for keeping us in your hearts. We love you guys like crazy!

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