Our fishing line is out with a new squid-like lure today, moving googly eyes and all. We are hoping for some kind of edible catch to add to our paella tonight. Last night we chatted with sailing vessel Pakele Loa on VHF, they too are playing around with different lures but still no luck. It was fun to swap the day’s updates with a nearby vessel, a great advantage of using the AIS system.
Last night’s watch was mellow and full-moon lit, a welcome easy entry into new boat rhythms. We began the morning under white sails, then switched to motoring for a few hours, and now we are sailing at a nice 6 knot clip with true wind of 11 knots coming from 108 degrees south.
Susan dedicated herself to the new routines of checking the vegetables and turning the eggs. Her diligence paid off as she extricated a bad orange and lime from an otherwise happy basket. I sleep above the long term veg and fruit storage, and need to remember to sing to them at night…
I’m grateful to be on a well-loved and well-prepared boat alongside hard-working and lovely people. They’ve dreamed of this voyage for a long while and it is a privilege to share this big blue journey with them. Yesterday afternoon, after a day learning the boat’s through hull locations, cooking breakfast and lunch and serving my watch, I laid down in my hammock-like bunk. I listened to the sea rushing alongside, the boat was happy under sail. I started listening to a playlist a dear friend sent me for this journey, and a big smile crept across my face.
As Susan said it best at sunset last night, “We are the lucky ones.”
November 2, 2018 | Bahía Tortuga, Baja Sur, Mexico
We woke up early to catch the sunrise and set out to hike up to the cross overlooking Turtle Bay. A few people in town were up too—women washed their homes’ windows, men walked to the sea snail and abalone cannery cooperative. The night before I’d asked local girls how to reach the cross and if it was safe. In the morning, I asked folks along the way how to find the path. Asphalt turned into dirt and dirt into large gravel. We felt assured when we met exercisers returning from their usual butt-busting hill trek.
It felt good to push the ground away from my feet, to sweat, to feel my lungs. Boat life doesn’t require aerobic effort, and my farm body wanted to work. We smelled piney desert bushes and Sophia chased her tiny tennis ball while we hiked along the steep ridge. Turtle Bay, the town, the fleet stretched below us. To the north we could see beautiful desert mountains and to the west we saw the next bay around the point. We giggled at the top, proud of our gumption to explore. And we had the summit all to ourselves.
With grumbling stomachs and great care, we descended. Maria’s restaurant called her siren song from her beachside perch. We pulled out a few plastic chairs on the patio overlooking the glittering bay. Waitresses with plastic flower crowns greeted us and cooed at Sophia, whose full name is of course, Sophia Maria. Our waitress stressed her name is Nora, so now that is in the permanent record here. Breakfast was simple and satisfying huevos rancheros, with proper refried beans and those transparent, chewy yet tender flour tortillas. Diane cradled Sophia in her arms and danced to Mexican oldies. Colorful flag garlands (papel picado) joined her.
I took a sweet, dreamy nap on Celtic Song before we re-anchored to be closer to the afternoon’s beach party. Shelly, Diane and I snorkeled to the beach, there was no visibility underwater but it felt refreshing. Local vendors set up tents against a sandstone cliff. They sold us delicious fried shrimp tacos and lime orange margaritas on a dirt-road access beach. The beautiful butte rose up in the distance, north of the beach, in line with the marshy river. A great blue heron and a white heron set off towards the butte in the warm afternoon light. I’d been fascinated with the rock feature for the past few days—grand, full of presence. I just wanted to stare at it and never look away.
Again, classic rock blasted from portable speakers. We wore name tags, played guys vs. girls tug-of-war (we won but the guys let go so we fell on our butts). The party was mellow and we rowed our dinghy back before sunset.
A bonfire glowed against the cliffside, sending up shadows and light along the face. As the fire died, every boat’s anchor light took its place among the stars and shimmered in the black water. I meditated on the scene and felt connected to history’s sailors—thankful for the people before me who built boats and went out to sea together. I felt lucky that our crew got along and realized that it would be hard to see them go.
November 1, 2018 | Bahía Tortugas, Baja Sur, Mexico
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Desert wind howled across the bay and through our rigging as we closed our eyes to dream.
October 31, 2018 | Pacific Ocean off Northern Baja
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.
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.
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.
October 30, 2018 | Pacific Ocean off Northern Baja
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
October 29, 2018 | San Diego Harbor, California
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.
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.
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.