I was thinking how glad I was that our boat Amelia had a tiller arm at this particular moment rather than a wheel. The fact that I could steer from lock to lock in one second was the only compensation we had to maintain steerage while riding over the crests or bottoming-out in the troughs of the twenty-foot seas. My biggest fear was surfing down the face of a wave only to nose-plant and flip as the following foamy locomotive rear-ended us. It was a moonless night and impossible to read the waves until the white foam became barely visible ten feet astern, only as a confirmation of the five seconds of thunder preceding it. It was one o'clock in the morning and we knew that sanctuary was a day away at Bahia Magdalene on the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. It would also mean making landfall in the dark across a narrow entrance in dubious conditions that showed no signs of letting up. It was a judgement call we, along with four other boats, had made when we decided to leave a stormy Turtle Bay (Bahia Tortuga), thirty-six hours previous.
The departure was set for when we would be coming off a low and could expect decent wind for a while before it petered out. By then, we would be in "Mag Bay". The weather fax also showed no other systems for at least four days in any direction. Indeed, we were not even in a storm, in theory. The skies were clear but the winds were fifty knots. It was just the luck of the draw in a year which saw a record number of boats lost in the annual southerly migration down the coast. The theories for this abound, but one that is most prevalent seems to be evolving into having the most credence. This being the end (finally) of a record-length El Ni=F1o weather anomaly, wind and wave appears to intensify as the water returns to it's normally cooler temperatures. Needless to say, at this moment I was having difficulty rationalizing anything other than "What the hell am I doing here?" After being on the helm for the previous 36 hours (we use no autopilot), I was at one moment, almost convinced I was about to hear my ridiculous rooster-crowing alarm-clock go off and would grudgingly awaken to yet another monotonous morning, having to drive the Oak Street 500 to work. It didn't happen.
Originally, we had planned on trucking the boat from Vancouver to Duluth, Minnesota at the head of Lake Superior, from which we would sail down to the Caribbean via the Great Lakes, Erie Canal and Intra-coastal Waterway. As the costs for trucking or towing to the east were reaching a point of diminishing return, sailing down the West Coast proved to be a more viable alternative.
I took leave as a computer consultant and went to sea under the lure of travel and survival off the sea. Hence, in one fell swoop, ( or in one small sloop ) went from The Information Age, completely by-passing the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, and went straight through to Hunters and Collectors. It was a year to the day after the decision to cruise, that I left Vancouver with my friend, a lifetime local sailor who crewed as far as Crescent City. From there on I single-handed and on two occasions snagged other crew for three of the longer legs.
Although it was the rational decision to weigh anchor in Turtle Bay in Mexico and make this four hundred-sixty mile leg when we did, I had make errors in judgement much earlier in the voyage that did have direct and violent responses. Four months previously, when faced with crossing the notorious Columbia River Bar in the dark, in a storm, in the fog, with an opposing tide, I decided it would be more prudent to seek shelter in Willapa Bay. I had no inside, small-scale charts, but we could certainly get to the entrance and look.
There were huge breakers on both sides, but a fairly large gap between. We kept a straight course into the bay, but before we knew it, we were suddenly grabbed from behind and shoved forward by ten foot breakers. After five of these, we decided to bail out and turned to head back out. We were facing huge white curlers which we plowed into nose-first, and which wiped off anything on the deck or in the cockpit that wasn't properly secured. The boat would actually punch through the wave and surface out the back, only to become suddenly airborne. I can only estimate by the distance we fell and crashed that there must have been two feet of air under the five-foot keel. Our safety-harness lanyards would stiffen like guitar strings, jerking us against the bulkhead or into each other. The wave action caused such an enormous halting pressure on the hull, that the propeller started to stall against the sudden reverse flow of water. The wind did not allow us to sail forward out of waves of this size and the motor kept slowing to a point where the piston strokes probably matched my heartbeat. All we could do was to continue in this until either the motor quit or, as happened, we eventually got out.
After this, the Columbia River Bar could only be easier. We motor-sailed through 100-foot visibility and southerly winds all night and as the fog lifted by dawn, we were beating into 25-knot southerlies. Around 14:00, we were thirty miles offshore when the port upper shroud snapped, but the mast did not fall. After a fast jury-rig, we tacked back in to aim for Tillamook Bay. Then our Global Positioning Satellite System (GPS) quit. The warning messages on the screen said SEARCHING SKY and RE-INITIAL which coincided with the imminent U.S. invasion of Haiti, as we were to learn later. This was the "Selective Availability" I had read about in the manual regarding "times of national security", when the GPS system is temporarily shut down for everyone but the military to use. I never imagined that it would ever happen, or not at least when I was at sea! We had been taking hourly GPS fixes, writing down the lats and longs as habit, and while I was trying to determine our present position, the motor began to sputter and quit. We then noticed that we were riding low in the stern and opened one of the rear lazarettes to find that we had taken on a tremendous amount of water which had also contaminated our fuel. We had 15 minutes clean, reserve fuel and three hours to make port before dark in strong southerly conditions. We threw a large capacity electric bilge pump into the flooded compartment and had just emptied it, when the electrical system shorted out. A wire had been ripped loose and made an unlucky contact. I was beginning to think that the GPS had actually navigated us into the Bermuda Triangle.
The VHF handheld only has a limited range, so we were going to have to beat to windward for quite a while to get within radio range of the Coast Guard, hopefully before dark. When we finally established contact, they came out in a large cutter with reserve fuel for us and a request to follow them back in the dark. Within two hours, we were quickly approaching the entrance of the Tillamook Bay bar crossing. An SRV (Surf Rescue Vessel) appeared and took the lead while the cutter fell in behind us. We requested in crisp professional fashion to check our bilge, secure all loose items and have our life jackets securely fastened. I confirmed these tasks and informed them that we were also wearing our safety harnesses, at which point we heard, "Ah... no. Sir, please detach all restraining equipment in the event it becomes necessary to egress the vessel." After stuffing our pockets with passports, wallets and valuable portable marine electronics, we saw the mouth of the bar. The pilot of the SRV informed us that he had his "big eyes" (night vision) on and that the bar was breaking in various spots. As we entered, in a more excited tone he said "Sir, we're now entering the jaws. Stick to me like glue and hang on." We did. It was our first landfall since Port Angeles and our first safe opportunity to grab a drink since Vancouver. After the mandatory Coast Guard Inspection, we kissed the dock and headed for a potent drink of any description.
At Crescent City, my crew member had to return to Vancouver because his time allotment had expired. I continued south single-handing and "shanghaiing" the occasional crew member for some of the longer legs to San Diego where, as planned, my significant other showed up for the rest of the voyage. The weather in San Diego was a cold, wet, frost-on-the-dock winter that sank several boats at anchor. We had to wait for two months for a weather window (I believe in being the biggest chicken around when it comes to waiting for better weather), and on January 18th, it came.
We buddy-boated with two other boats from Canada and two from the States. We had a zero to fifteen knot, 381-mile reach to Turtle Bay. After a sleepless, forty-knot thunder storm at anchor, we left. We had 36 hours of light wind sailing and had already decided to continue on straight to Mag Bay when the winds hit in the dark. We ran under a reefed main and a working jib until even this was too much. Ten minutes after we dumped the main altogether, the jib halyard broke and became hopelessly jammed the masthead block. We ran under bare poles as the seas continued to build. The GPS was telling us we were surfing down the waves at twelve knots. We had long since closed up the boat in case the seas pooped the cockpit. We charged down one wave, did a nose-plant and rolled over onto the starboard side, dipping the mast for a second. I radioed the other boats we could reach over a 16-mile range to advise them of our worsening situation, after which they laid course as best they could for our position. The trouble was, every time I gave a new position, they would plot an intersecting course only to discover we were a mile or two yet further south. Nobody could catch us, and the distance was increasing, In order to slow us down, I turned the kayak upside down on a 50-foot stern line which straightened us out and seemed to work moderately well. In order for the others to find us, we started shooting off flares.
After ten minutes, I heard but could not see, the mother of all waves coming at us very quickly from behind, sounding like a freight train. I knew this was going to hurt and braced for it. I felt it's spray before it hit, then the boat gave a violent shudder. I heard the sickening sound of splintering fiberglass as loud as the wave. I would have been completely frozen and spellbound by the sounds and sensations - as if it was not happening to us, if not for the realization that I should be soaked right now, if not over the side - and I wasn't. I turned around in the dark and could see that the fiberglass kayak had breached itself sideways across our transom and been crushed against the boat under the weight of the wave. It had protected us from the hit.
I streamed two 25-liter fuel cans off the stern as additional drogues. It worked, but now we were getting swamped by the following seas. I fired another flare and managed a quick turn in a wave trough to reduce the distance between the boats. After all our flares were gone, we used the searchlight as a vertical beacon for them to home in on. Eventually, they did and we came about to run before the sea once again. By dawn, we were running five abreast, making a gradual arc towards a bay which was ten miles nearer.
After a long night and day, we rounded the point at dusk and anchored in Bahia Santa Maria. After a day of R & R (rest and repair), my girlfriend and I requested the services of Ron, a retired super-tanker captain on one of the Canadian boats, to marry us at anchor. We had a marvelous time with dancing, fresh lobster, shrimp, a freshly baked wedding cake and a jury-rigged wedding dress, complete with garter. The obvious question I was asked: "What. - did you propose during the storm and dammit, you lived?"
When we arrived at the entrance at Mag Bay, one of the many mating Grey whales surfaced suddenly and collided with our boat, with no apparent damage to whale or boat. At this time of year, they are in the midst of mating and were either somewhat oblivious to our presence, or displayed amorous intentions towards our hull.
After a few more days of relaxation, we did the 157 mile leg to Cabo San Lucas, then up into the protected waters of the Sea of Cortez to the beautiful city of La Paz. We finally felt we had made a true "destination" when we saw the palm-lined streets, white beaches and lack of tacky-tourist venues. What impressed us most was the attitude, demeanor and charm of the residents. When we were commenting on this to a local, he replied by saying "Yes, my friend, it is much different over in Mexico.". Confused, I tried to confirm if this wasn't the same place we were currently talking about, to which we got a smiling reply, "No sir, This is not Mexico... This is Baja California."
After a few months of cruising the blue Sea of Cortez, we returned to La Paz to join the 300 other cruisers that show up for "The Sea of Cortez Raceweek". I was elected "King of Raceweek", which entails several duties, not the least of which is organizing the contestants for the Women's Bathing Suit Contest.
Amelia is a soft-chined 26-foot fiberglass Thunderbird sailboat. As for size, cruising on a small boat seems to clarify not how much we need, but how little we actually use. There are definitely issues of comfort and convenience to be considered, but the rewards (i.e. La Paz) throughout are, without hesitation, the strongest motivation for asking either: "Why didn't we do this sooner?".
Chris & Josie Watts