Tortuga Bay

November 1, 2018 | Bahía Tortugas, Baja Sur, Mexico

27°41’21.4″N 114°52’36.2″W

“Are you ok to stand watch on the bow?” asked Captain Diane an hour outside of the anchorage. “Yes,” I answered as the wind steadily built to 20 knots.  With a high-powered headlamp in one hand I searched for fishing buoys, my other arm wrapped around the headstay, feet wedged in between the stainless extendable bowsprit.  Silver flying fish flashed through my light beam.  I focused on looking for hazards and not becoming one myself.  A few sailboats followed us in, relying on us to avoid all obstacles. Sustained vigilance takes energy, and talking yourself down from the “this is uncomfortable” spiral is a frustrating, yet fulfilling, practice. We arrived, the bay was calm, we anchored.  I tucked into my comfy lee-cloth sofa bunk and cherished the sleep to come.

Pano of clear blue sky, flat bay, desert mountains off the bow.

Sculptural desert mountains, an expansive clear blue sky and a fleet of cozy sailboats anchored in sun dappled blue water greeted us in the morning. VHF roll call gave the fleet members a chance to show off how many fish they caught and to lament what parts broke during passage. Our boat chihuahua Sofia dozed in the face of those human trivialities, she wanted to smell soil again. Ashore we went.

Me eating a paleta in front of a Mercado Roxana. Dog sleeping beside me. Two fellows sitting on stools in front.

First stop, coconut paletas (popsicles) at the small, but well stocked grocery store. Sofia found lots of new dog friends and we met a few people friends. We meandered around the town, enjoying land and practicing speaking Spanish. Kids chased each other on the beach wearing their Día de los Muertos face paint and costumes, cruisers gave them candy.

It felt strange to be a part of this group, of mostly older, almost all white people. The town set up the special beach party for the Ha-Ha rally, US classic rock blasted from speakers. I like to travel inconspicuously. Yes, I am white and I am a woman so I stand out in many places.  But being seen as part of this group made my cat whiskers bristle, and made me want to run off.

A hand painted ad for a flower shop where one woman gives another woman a colorful bouquet. It says "vamos a celebrar un party!"

We peeled away from the beach party and took a quieter walk through town. With no agenda, no boat tasks, no to do lists, we luxuriated in our dusty sandals to admire folks’ well-loved gardens and colorful homes.  Shells inlaid in the cement as a welcome mat in front of the library, alternating baby blue and white boards to form diamond patterns on a garage. After a few days at sea, all the creative human made details popped from the landscape.

Campbell's Sloop and Celtic Song crew standing in front of bright colored mural and and Abarrotes sign.
Candid of Anna, relaxing in front of a mural looking up at the sky.

Our toes relaxed in the sand for a beach taco, then lunch turned into a few hour hang out. We checked out the cruisers vs. locals baseball game and returned to our beach table until sunset. The muted blue and pink sky above the desert mountains, a church steeple silhouette, a loping black puppy trying to follow Sofia home on the rickety deck—Turtle Bay welcomed us to relax into the calm evening.

Baseball stadium with mountain in the background, the hand painted letters on the wall say "Estadio Esteban SKUTCH"

We convinced Enrique, the fuel purveyor, to deliver diesel to our boat just as the last light faded. Speaking Spanish and coordinating the fuel purchase put me more at ease. I think speaking English in Mexico clashed and threw me off all day. John and Anna courageously motored the deflating dinghy back while the rest of us hitched a ride on the fuel boat. We inflated it again and hoped it would still be alive in the morning.  A dinner onboard with proper wine and good conversation made Celtic Song feel like home.

Pano of the dock, looking out onto sunset hued desert mountains beyond the bay.

Desert wind howled across the bay and through our rigging as we closed our eyes to dream.  

cat-eye moon and showers

October 31, 2018 | Pacific Ocean off Northern Baja

28°13’30.0″N 115°38’48.0″W

She looked at me for thirty seconds and then closed her eye again. The Halloween moon appeared half-lidded through the clouds, like an all-powerful cat observer. Two rally boats motored behind us so we formed a secure triangle. They comforted me on the midnight to two AM night watch. A small bird zipped across the bow and chirped. Funny how much you appreciate quick visits from creatures when you’re at sea. 

A gorgeous sunny day greeted us in the morning. We showered on deck and Shelly almost fell over, slipping and sliding with the swells. So she decided to just sit down on the deck and shower. I fell into a funk so I napped on the spinnaker bag on top of the bow. That was my goto spot growing up to find peace. Sailboats are small, well the ones I sail on, and after a few days dancing around your fellow crew, this solitary cat needed space. 

Sunrise over a calm sea.

Soft bow wake splashes woke me up in time to spot sombrero shaped Cedros Island in the distance. We sailed on and off throughout the afternoon and relaxed to oldies, the music and nap brightened my mood in time to make dinner. I heated up the pomegranate molasses braised lamb that I’d made back home and steamed saffron rice and Chino kabocha squash. I thinly sliced celery root and fresh celery for a salad to balance out the richness. While I cut the vegetables that I’d seeded months ago, I thought about my Oaxacan coworkers, driving home from the farm to enjoy time with their families, and sent my gratitude. We topped the meal with fresh pomegranate arils, yogurt and lime. It was a proper sunset feast.  With ice cold, sweet juicy oranges for dessert. 

Me in the most attractive sunhat.

But oh those stars. Glittering in the clear night sky, we didn’t even try to wipe the smiles from our faces.  The Milky Way streamed over us, Pleiades shimmered. It was the first full joy of the trip for me. It reminded me of the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, where you soar through the stars in a pirate ship. Dolphins jetted up to greet us, we highlighted their showy jumps with our headlamps. Only a few hours to go until Turtle Bay.  

spinnaker, swells and bad eggs

October 30, 2018 | Pacific Ocean off Northern Baja

30°28’06.6″N 116°26’43.2″W

Large swells from the north west and a white cushy cloud carpet broken up with blue greeted us on our first morning at sea. Diane made her signature oatmeal and we topped it with Chino Farm raspberries, pecans and maple syrup. It is special to provision a trip with food you and your coworkers have grown together. Adds another layer of richness to the daily eating ritual.  

Light winds picked up midday, so we decided to fly the spinnaker. We had to redo the fairlead and the pull down line got tangled in the snatch block. Anna muscled her way through while John slept soundly below. We got it sorted and the sail flew well, billowing out in its glorious shamrock green, cherry red and snow white stripes. At the crest of every big swell, the spinnaker collapsed so we took it down after a while. We enjoyed the quiet, motor-less time while it lasted. 

Shelly at the helm.

I offered to make lunch and chose egg salad from the list of options written on the ruled pad hung above the fridge. Diane had already boiled the eggs so I figured it would be an easy choice. My scopolamine sea sickness patch seemed to be working, but I didn’t want to be below deck for too long. Growing up, I’d dread that seasick feeling you get when you go below and can’t shake it for a few hours, even after sipping ginger beer and Top Ramen. 

“Where are the eggs?” I asked. “They are in the pantry cabinet,” said Diane. Oh dear. Not refrigerated?? Nope. I pulled out a tall deli container full of nine boiled and rotten eggs from the cabinet. And threw them overboard. Diane started laughing hard because she realized that is what she smelled last night, she thought someone had farted in the cabin. Thank goodness we found them early on, any longer and no seasickness patch could bring you back from that smell experience. 

Shelly and John enjoying the swells.

I made the crew my signature tuna sandwiches with crisp apple, Dijon mustard, greek yogurt and lots of vinegar. Diane regaled us with stories of life in the Peace Corps in Fiji. Any captain worth her salt is a good storyteller. She kept us in suspense, weaving together images and emotions about how she narrowly escaped a naked attacker on a midday run. 

Me happy to be surrounded by a beautiful sea and sky.

The afternoon sun streamed through light and dark grey clouds. A bit of blue sky highlighted their edges. Sunbeams hit each huge swell’s crest. The crests glimmered like liquid mercury hills—rolling and undulating across the horizon. Like a silvery Rhodesian ridgeback sea.  As if some giant raked their fingertips over downy indigo crushed velvet, leaving luster trails towards the sun.  

Sunbeams streaming through grey clouds over grey sea.

John and I enjoyed the quiet together, talking once in a while. We all tucked into a warming chicken and vegetable curry and slept soon after sundown. 

the 2018 Baja Ha-Ha begins!

October 29, 2018 | San Diego Harbor, California

32°43’31.8″N 117°12’47.7″W

A few years ago I was paddling along the Potomac River in D.C., listening to the forest and the sky, when a thought came—sail to Japan.  It came out of the blue, with no connection to my professional life or personal history. So I said sure, that sounds like a fine idea.

After a winding path from an office in D.C. to a farm in Hudson Valley, New York, to a farm in San Diego, California I found a boat and a captain.  Her name is Celtic Song and her name is Captain Diane Berol.  We trained together for over a year with an eclectic group of salty crewmates, until everyone could heave-to, retrieve a person overboard and dock the boat.

I stowed my books in my parent’s storage unit, stuffed quick-dry clothes into a waterproof backpack and mailed my absentee ballot.  Finally, we were ready to untie the dock lines and head south to the Sea of Cortez with 149 other boats.

crew raises Ha-Ha burgee
Crew dons Irish pirate costumes

Friends and family keep asking if I feel excited. I felt adrenaline during the final preparation, nostalgia for a full life I’d grown and was leaving, but not excitement. Until the huge fleet of kindred spirits, twirling police boats and a mariachi band surrounded us in San Diego Harbor. Then I felt goosebumps and couldn’t stop smiling. Horns blared, fire boats blasted water in all directions. Kids and old folks in pirate outfits, with giant inflated pink flamingoes on deck celebrated the beginning of a journey. Even a massive battleship barreled through and broke up the parade for a moment but didn’t stop our momentum. My eyes filled with happy tears. 

Me, Anna and John all smiles at the Ha-Ha parade
Captain Diane at the helm, excited for the Ha-Ha start
Captain Susie Campbell's sloop with a blue heart sticker on the sail

A flat, calm almost windless sea welcomed us. We cruised through the Coronado Islands, with the autumn light beaming through waves crashing on the stark cliff sides. A steady south swell twinkled grey under a cloudy sky. Diane served up spicy chicken soup to soothe our bellies and calm our minds after a full, emotional day.  A sea lion rested atop a kelp forest.

We reviewed night watch protocol: if you see a red light off the starboard side that means a boat is crossing our bow so take note of the vessel’s distance and speed. If it is within a mile of us, hail them on VHF to determine their intentions. Check AIS every 15 minutes during your watch to see if you are on a collision course with anyone. Check radar at a six mile range.  Stay tethered in and don’t go on deck unless you wake someone up to watch you. Roger roger.

I was nervous to do a night watch for the first time by myself but I settled into the responsibility. The autopilot stopped working for a minute, so I reset it. The traveler came undone so I re-cleated it. Ensenada sparkled in the distance. Our fellow fleet’s navigation lights comforted me. A proper beginning.