SAILING ON THE EDGE: Chapter 1
In 2006, the Baja Ha-Ha sailing rally to Mexico was our launch to my dream of sailing around the world… Our sloop, Seventh Heaven, was in the middle of the fleet as a hundred and eighty billowing spinnakers departed San Diego bay scattering a flock of dreams and nightmares on the sea…
Prelude to a Dream...
I suppose it all started to take shape when I was ten years old, watching Gardner McKay’s “Adventures in Paradise” on TV, and later reading Robin Graham’s travels on DOVE. Stevenson, Conrad, and Hemingway mesmerized me with tales of life on the sea. And as young boys do, I created my own visions of tropical islands, exotic people, and exciting voyages.
Of course, the age of ten is too soon to put wings on such dreams, but they were deeply imbedded. My life took a normal course – high school, college, careers, lovers, and marriage – with all of the incumbent responsibilities and obligations that we bring down on ourselves as we mature, doing the right thing or at least the normal thing expected by society, friends, and family. My dream stayed with me though, kept alive by weekends sailing with my uncle, and books and magazines filled with stories of far off places.
Halfway through college my cousin and I started to build a ferro-cement sailboat on a concrete slab we poured next to a barn on our ranch in Northern California. My parents indulged us for some reason, perhaps because my father had shared the dream once himself. Home-made ferro-cement boats were a short-lived fad in those days – some of them are actually still floating today. We bought a design for a thirty-eight foot ketch from an advertisement in a sailing magazine and started building the dream. But of course, life caught up with us again – more college, familial expectations, a lack of money – and the project slipped away.
Out of college and involved in building a career I still sailed whenever I could find a friend with a boat. In 1980 I was reintroduced to my dream when I sailed a Trans Pac from San Francisco to Hawaii on a thirty-eight foot sloop, and then again on a thirty-nine foot sloop in 1986. I chartered sailboats on San Francisco and Monterey bays for day sails, and did boat deliveries up and down the California coast for a boat broker.
In 1998, after a failed marriage and career as a stock broker had burned me out, I landed on my feet with a new job as Regional Manager of a chain of marinas in Northern California. If serendipity ever existed in my life it was then. A year later I purchased of a nearly-new thirty-six foot Catalina sloop named VIVA, and the wings of my dream began to take shape.
VIVA was the perfect boat to begin testing my vision. I sailed her to every corner of San Francisco Bay, making trips to the California Delta, Napa, Santa Cruz, and Monterey with friends as crew, getting to know the boat and feeling comfortable on the ocean. Everything seemed to come together when I met Ledean – What could be better than to sail the world with someone you love? She wasn’t a sailor. “Why are we going this way when we want to go that way?” she’d ask, and I’d try to explain tacking, and wind angles, and pressure to her. She looked at me like I was crazy, but she learned. We were married a year later onboard VIVA, at the Marina Bay Yacht Club with a hundred friends and family cheering from the dock.
In 2003 we traded-up to a more comfortable Catalina 470, SEVENTH HEAVEN, with a plan to begin our circumnavigation in three years. We took an off-shore-delivery of the new boat and a week later sailed her to Ensenada, Mexico, which saved us the cost of California sales tax. It wasn’t a very pretty voyage, we had a lot to learn about our new boat, but we made it. We berthed her there for nearly a year, driving down the coast from the Bay Area every month or so for long weekends of sailing and enjoying the city of Ensenada.
In 2004, more serendipity, I accepted a job with The Irvine Company as General Manager of their marinas in Southern California. We brought SEVENTH HEAVEN up from Ensenada to a slip in Newport Beach and settled in with new friends. Southern California sailing was luxurious. The winds were light, the water was warm, and we sailed often out to Catalina Island on yacht club jaunts, and along the coast to San Diego and other harbors. I raced the boat with a crew of friends on occasional summer weekends, though she was really built for comfort and not for speed. We entered the 2006 Newport Beach to Ensenada Race, and actually finished third in our class, though we were disqualified because I failed to check-in according to the rules after the race. Ah well… it was a wonderful diversion.
Life was good, but my diverted dream was nagging at me incessantly. The real estate market had been very good to us during those years, and we had a substantial net worth, at least on paper. Considering everything in 2006, it seemed like the perfect time to turn those paper assets into cash and set sail. It was a difficult decision – The Irvine Company had treated me very well, and Ledean was not totally convinced – but in May I resigned. My boss asked me to stay for a couple more months and offered a large bonus, which I agreed to… we had time. And another marina approached me about doing some consulting work for them, which I also agreed to… we still had time, and a few more connections and more money couldn’t hurt. Our plan was to set sail with the annual Baja Ha-Ha cruiser’s rally to Mexico at the end of October… we had lots of time!
We spent the early months of the summer investing in our house to get it ready to sell, and holding garage sales to reduce our other collateral stuff. And you know what they say about a boat – it’s a hole in the water into which you pour money – we did a lot of that also, adding equipment and upgrades: new batteries, solar panels and charging system, a larger capacity alternator, water maker, a second anchor and three hundred feet of anchor rode, new scuba gear for both of us, and changed the toilet plumbing to operate off freshwater, which solved a nasty smell issue. Ledean still had reservations, but her enthusiasm grew as she started planning our provisions, medical supplies, and other household details. “I bought an ice maker,” she said one day – it was an extravagance, but there were certain comforts she wouldn’t give up.
At the end of August, I was free to devote my time to more boat preparations. Ledean quit her job with a local real estate firm, and we put our house up for sale under her broker’s license. The market was starting to cool, but we were still confident of a half million dollar profit from its sale. We said fond farewells to friends. There were parties and good wishes from everyone – even those who could not fathom the trip we were about to embark on. Three days before Halloween, our friends Jim and Terry joined the crew for a final dinner party at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, and the next morning we sailed out of Newport Beach Harbor for San Diego Bay.
We were a crew of five then, if you count our faithful dog Escrow, a white, curly bundle of enthusiasm who was more at-home on the boat than most people. We arrived in San Diego after an eight hour sail down the coast on a clear sunny day, and took a slip at the Cabrillo Marina. Other boats destined for the rally had already arrived and more were arriving by the hour, all flying the burgee of the Baja Ha-Ha. We were all excited, expectant, a little nervous, and happy to be on the verge of breaking free from convention.
The night before we sailed, the Ha-Ha organizers threw a party in the parking lot of the West Marine store, a way to meet and mingle with each other before setting out. There were six hundred sailors there rocking to a reggae band, many dressed in Halloween costumes, stirred by the impending prospects of casting off dock lines, disconnecting phones and internet, and slipping away from land toward open water. I bumped into an old friend I had sailed with twenty years ago and hadn’t seen since – he and his family were taking a year off to sail the Sea of Cortez. We met people from a hundred other boats, many of them planning around-the-world trips, others thinking about commuter-cruising adventures, some just sailing down to Mexico and then turning around to come back. We were all on the edge of another dimension, an existence outside of ourselves, riding winged vessels of new expectations.
Departure day began in a heavy gray overcast shrouding the fleet as we motored out of San Diego Bay toward the rendezvous point off the white sand beaches of Coronado. The VHF radio crackled on channel 22 with anxious chatter and the calm direction of the “Grand Poohbah" aboard Profligate, the lead boat in the rally. A hundred and eighty boats, with fifty more attending the show, gathered on the ocean, sailing, or motor-sailing in wide circles, passing by each other, calling out, waving, some flying bright banners proclaiming their origins or planned destinations, circling and waiting for the start of the rest of their life. The sky and ocean began to turn blue as the fog succumbed to the midday sun, and a breeze filled the air almost as if empowered by the combined will of us all. The starter’s countdown rang over the radio, and the fleet as-one wheeled about and headed south, setting free their spinnakers, filling the crystal blue horizon with an array of vibrant color flying on the edge of the wind to azure sea.
Our first day at sea was perfect with moderate winds and gentle rolling swells, albeit still wrapped in the cool of fall. We took an inside course splitting the fleet, and flew our spinnaker through that night and into the evening of the second day. The wind and seas grew stronger then and we settled for our standard rig of main and jib sail, cruising toward the first stop at Turtle Bay. The moonlit nights were clear and magical as we plied through ebony water reflecting the silver moon. SEVENTH HEAVEN cut smoothly through the waves, leaving a trail of broken phosphorescent sea behind us. Sleep seemed unnecessary almost.
We sailed through vast pods of frolicking dolphins, reaching as far as the eye could see, surrounding us, leaping through the waves. At night we could see their thin trails and hear their splashing along-side the boat. The sun had just risen on our third morning, and we were in the channel between Cedros and San Benito Islands when we sailed into a pod of Grey Whales spouting geysers all around us. One of the leviathans seemed to court us, swimming along beneath and beside the boat, circling for nearly half an hour, at times too-close-for-comfort in heavy seas. His giant eye surveyed us as he rolled on his side and then splashed with his flipper. Escrow was amazed and followed him from side to side of the boat before Ledean grabbed her and took her back to the cockpit on a leash. Unfortunately, we were all distracted by the whales and the spinnaker wrapped on the forestay as we got caught in building seas and wind, which took several hours to untangle. The whales disappeared in the chaos along with our lead in the rally. We arrived in Turtle Bay early that evening and dropped anchor still ahead of most of the fleet.
To see as far as you can sea...
Turtle Bay is an isolated village located about halfway down the Pacific Coast of Baja. It’s connected to the rest of the world by sea or by a dusty road that runs sixty miles or so through desert hills to Baja’s Highway One. It was once a hub-port for the Pacific tuna fishing fleet, but the fish disappeared years ago, the canneries are closed, and the buildings and docks are rusting away as the remnants of the village cling to the edge of the bay.
The arrival of the Baja Ha-Ha fleet is a major economic event each year. The people were happy and friendly, and the shops and restaurants were good, though limited in their selection. More boats trickled in overnight and during the next day. The crew of Profligate, and some of the locals, threw a potluck beach party for everyone that afternoon with food and drinks and games. It was a fun event, and an opportunity for the cruisers to mingle again and compare their stories of the past three days and future cruising plans. Everyone came to the beach by dinghy, which also provided some entertainment thanks to the three foot surf breaking on the beach. Those who didn’t know better, or weren’t adept enough, got caught in the waves and several boats were tossed end-over-end as they tried to land, resulting in a rather rough and tumble Baja christening.
After two nights in Turtle Bay we headed back to sea on a clear, warm morning. The fleet spread out again and headed toward Bahia Santa Maria just outside Magdalena Bay. The water and air grew warmer, and the wind diminished as we made our way south. After a gentle day and night of sailing, we finally resorted to motor-sailing the last third of the trip and arrived in the quiet bay late our second night. We had obviously taken a slow course, and most of the fleet beat us there. We were greeted in the moonlight by a forest of naked masts floating on silver water, capped by their anchor lights swaying across the dark horizon like a string of Chinese lanterns suspended across the sky. I found a hole in the forest and dropped anchor, had a cup of soup sitting up on deck in the moonlight, and then fell fast asleep with Escrow curled up between Ledean and I, embracing the calm.
Bahia Santa Maria is even more isolated than Turtle Bay. There is no road to the tiny fishing village that exists on the thin peninsula separating Magdalena Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The village on the ocean side consists of a few small shacks and plywood houses built by the government, nestled into a sloping hillside at the mouth of a tidal estuary that winds back into low sand dunes. At low tide four wheel drive vehicles can manage across the sand, but it is a tenuous trip at best.
The locals anticipated our arrival even more than those in Turtle Bay. They had spent weeks preparing a lobster and fish feed for everyone (no host of course), with dancing to vintage rock n’ roll music by a band that drove several hundred miles from La Paz on the other side of the Baja peninsula. We ate and drank them dry, but I am sure the locals made more money that day than the rest of the year combined. We enjoyed the quiet little bay so much that we stayed an extra day, and watched early the next morning as all but a few of the fleet set sail for the last leg to Cabo San Lucas.
The trip from Bahia Santa Maria was as easy an ocean voyage as I have ever had. We arrived in Cabo San Lucas soon after a spectacular orange and purple sunrise with a brisk morning breeze. The anchorage outside the harbor was crowded with a myriad of other boats. We found a tight space in deep water, just off the golden beach in front of a wall of expansive hotels and resorts and dropped anchor, back in civilization again and not quite sure how to respond.
Cabo was our official point-of-entry into Mexico. I spent the rest of the day checking into the country, running the administrative hurdles, completing all of our visas, the boat registration, and import paperwork at Customs and Immigration, and then more paperwork at the Capitania del Puerto’s office. Later we all took the harbor guest boat to shore and went to the final party for the Ha-Ha at Cabo Wabo, saying goodbye to friends who were going in different directions from there.
We had planned to stay two days in Cabo, but the constant tossing from the never ending boat traffic in the bay, and the loud all-night rock n’ roll from the bars and resorts convinced us to cut our stay short. We weighed anchor in the morning and headed north into the Sea of Cortex toward La Paz, listening to new friends and other cruisers on the VHF radio, veterans now, as they scattered across the Sea, wishing each other well and good times to come.
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