Sophie is a Norseman 447, a Bob Perry-designed performance cruiser, and her home has been San Francisco Bay for the past five years where I guess it could be said that I spent the time learning her systems and prepping the boat for extended cruising: all of the electronics were brought from eighties era technology up to the current state-of-the-art; a new suit of sails were fitted to include additional jib tracks to improve upwind performance; solar panels, a wind generator, LED lighting, and a smart battery charge controller in-stalled to help keep the carbon footprint to a minimum.
The Baja Ha-ha is an annual rally that draws boats from all over, but primarily from the West coast of North America. It starts in San Diego the last week in October and finishes in Cabo San Lucas about ten days later. There are two stops along the way: one at Turtle Bay and the second at Bahia Santa Maria, just outside Magdalena Bay. By signing up for the Ha-ha, you get exactly what most cruisers need: a date on which the dock lines must be cast off (plus a burgee).
The October 24th start day looms large from San Francisco with San Diego over 450 miles away, down a coast that has a bit of infamy for being hard on boats and crew. Even after the five years of preparation, with two weeks to go, there is still a two-page to-do list. Salvation comes from the realization that one can get boat work done in other parts of the world besides the Bay, and that the prep work is really emotional preparation for the skipper. While crew had been secured for the Ha-ha itself, none had yet been arranged for the leg to San Diego. While prepared to do it single-handed, it was not a first choice. Luckily, at the eleventh hour, Scott, who also lives in New Mexico and keeps a boat in the Bay Area, is available to crew.
We are photographed and escorted out of the Bay by some fellow sailors for the passage to San Diego, say our goodbyes over the radio and begin the non-stop run to that fabulous port with a bit of melancholy. Along the way we had several close en-counters with marine mammals. Blue whales graced us with their presence on several occasions, once, just inshore of Catalina Island a pair came up so close that we could have touched one of them from the bow pulpit. We had a thirty-minute matinee played by those ever-frolicking dolphins. Two groups of those fine creatures decided that our bow would be a great place to have a little fun. The aquabatic champions can put on quite the show with their gravity-free antics. We literally got sprayed by the discharge from their blowholes. In the Santa Barbara channel, in the dark, in the shipping lane, while in the middle of a jibe, we were approached by another sailboat that turned out also headed for San Diego and the Ha-ha. Our anxiety over having another boat on a collision course turned into camaraderie when we heard ―Hey, you all headed for the Ha-ha?
We landed at the police dock in San Diego, a communal scene that is a facility for transient boats, mostly going South at this time of the year. The whole environment has a Casa Blanca feel to it, except there are no Nazis spoiling the fun. There are young folks wandering the piers looking for crew spots and adventure; boat owners are looking for crew, parts, craft work or simply someone to commiserate with about their last passage; families with young children doing a bit of an alternative lifestyle for awhile and families with teenagers, who are trying to be sullen, but not doing a very good job of – one can sense their pride of accomplishment, having achieved port; testosterone filled sleds with enough sails, line and winches for three boats; and finally, the grand dame of the show, a 65 foot traditional schooner built by its owner that exudes both craftsmanship and character.
The start of the Ha-ha had 170 boats parading to an official start provided by The America's Cup cannon and national TV to record the pageantry and (hopefully not too much) drama. Sophie is ready to go with George and Carolyn as crew, but a little squat in the water, listing to port with 1600 pounds of water, 600 pounds of diesel and 100,000 pounds of food (seems like...) The forecast is for light winds for the early portion of the trip, which is good, as long as they are not too light. I know, picky, picky, picky. We planned to fly our big spinnaker, a sail that intimidates some, enthralls others.
The run to Bahia de Tortugas had all the elements of a classic downwind sail and invoked certain seventeenth-century romanticisms. The Milky Way, shooting stars, satellites on their endless Keplerian paths, a paper thin crescent moon and Jupiter riding high provided a psychedelic feel to the night watches. The best seat in the house was once again up in the bow pulpit, where instead of the largest animals in the sea, the smallest were showing off their stuff. The phosphorescent plankton got into the act, turning the bow wave into snowcone-blue effervescence, with two streams of 7-Up bubbles reaching aft into the dark. Flying the big spinnaker during fabulous runs all night pushed us up to 9 knots in wind reaching into the low twenties. The open ocean actually provided some security in that there is nothing (well not much anyway) to run into. Proximity to land brought with it some anxiety about one's ability to navigate, and handle the anchor, hoping it will set well. And then, there are people again. Though you look forward to seeing old and new friends, there's a sense of loss, having to give up the comfortable cocoon of the space that naturally surrounds a sailboat at sea.
Bahia de Tortugas is a wonderful keyhole carved in the coast that contains Puerto San Bartolome, a quintessential Mexican fishing village that houses a collection of hard scrabble fishermen and their families enjoying a simple, uncomplicated life in a pristine environment. The elders are a bit shy, but the children are unfettered in their curiosity and enthusiasm. The Baja Ha-ha has now made 18 stops here and it is evident that the event is big news. The mayor declared a fiesta day with a demonstration baseball game; the local little league team has won many champion-ships Baja-wide. Sleeping in at anchor is most luxurious. We dinghied into town where we enjoyed one of the Internet cafes to get an e-fix; ceviche tostadas and wifi make a pretty good combination. One can't help but look at the youth of Puerto San Bartolome with admiration. Two young teenagers were driving through town stopping whenever they came across a yachtista and offering instant taxi service. Other young men were driving their pangas around the bay providing fuel delivery, water taxi service, trash disposal or whatever service that could be rendered. They all had such an aura of pride and maturity, even though you could see them hot-rodding their boats a little, showing off their skills landing and launching their craft. The young ladies were tending in the restaurants and shops, helping their parents absorb the onslaught of patrons. Perhaps it's unfair and Pollyannaish, but the tables seemed to be turned where the youth of Mexico are in fact the industrious counterpart to their cell-phoning, texting, iPoding peers to the North. At 08:00 the starting gun went off for leg two, a 220 mile run to Bahia Santa Maria, an isolated hook in the coast just above Magdalena Bay. We left our anchorage anxious for another adventure, but a little sad to part from this town which was so easy to love.
Sailing to our next anchorage is Chamber of Commerce perfect, 8-12 knots out of the northwest. We free-jibed the big kite several times, following the wind shifts that occurred during the transition from the shore breeze to the sea breeze. We heard several radio reports of 4-foot plus mahi-mahi being landed. Others caught squid and noted within minutes how good the calamari tasted. One boat reported landing a 62 inch Wahoo, while another landed a marlin on a lure made from a Heineken beer can! The sun provided us not only with electricity from the solar panels and wind via heating of the earth, it also provided us with beauty. At sunset we saw the elusive green flash, an optical phenomenon that results from the fact that the colors that make up sunlight are all bent by the atmosphere a little differently, green being "left behind" just as the upper edge of the sun descends below the horizon. The result is a flash of green light that lasts for only a few seconds above the point of sunset. Viewing a green flash is said to bring good luck. It already had…
A few miles out from Bahia Santa Maria we heard an unusual "splat" on the water, then another, and another. The sound was not unlike that of a beaver swatting its tail on the water in a mountain pond. We looked around for several minutes before we found the source. Bat rays would generate bursts of speed, leap vertically out of the water about four to six feet and land back with the most inelegant belly flop one could imagine. It was as if they were young swimmers at the local pool, trying to make the biggest splash possible. One couldn't help but think that it had to hurt a little when their snow-white bellies swatted the sea.
Morning in Bahia Santa Maria greeted us with a small swell working the sandbars just off the beach. The best sets were about waist high and mellow. Ah, to be surfing in such warm conditions. It was a first, to dinghy to the beach and look back out at several breaks with no one surfing. Surfing being such a territorial activity, one usually has to work the pecking order with the tribe of locals to even catch the left-over waves on the inside. But for the 150 sailboats anchored in the bay, the scene was like that out of a surf documentary, surfers cruising around looking for that perfect, yet undiscovered wave in paradise. On occasion a sting ray would wake up from its berth in the sand and scurry ahead when disturbed by shuffling feet. The band showed up in the early afternoon as promised, the local catch of the day was served: fish, shrimp, rice and beans, and, of course, cerveza. Surreal is an overworked word, but it perfectly describes the scene. Imagine a desolate bay with a small stream lined with mangroves and a broad sand beach stretching for miles- all overlooked by rock cliffs upon which is perched not only a small fish camp of a few shacks, but a four piece rock and roll band belting out the usual fair of Elvis, Beatles, Doobie Brothers, Doors and the like.
We started our last leg for Cabo San Lucas at 07:00 with the idea that such an early start would result in only one night at sea. As the sun rose it illuminated quite a spectacle as all the boats did the balloon fiesta equivalent of a mass ascension with all the colorful spinnakers glowing in the dawn light. We had some company for a time; several blue whales came abeam the boat and "sailed" with us. These gentle giants are so elegant in their motion, a cetaceous ballet played out for us to see at the interface of air and water. They came close enough so that our attitude went from the joy of seeing them to - wow, they're really close, what would we do if we ran into one. About 10 miles outside of Cabo we sailed by a very large sea turtle, ambulating his (or her) way along in that ungainly, but obviously effective manner that turtles do. It's nice to know that with all of the pollution and decimation of the fisheries, amateur naturalists can still see all these marvelous animals in their natural state. There is a little anxiousness aboard as Cabo is the first real port where real things have to happen. It is one thing to sashay up to a palapa on the beach and order a beer, but it's quite another to check in with immigration, the port captain and other officials. Our fears were unfounded; the officials were quite flexible in doing the paperwork, some for the crew to allow them to "immigrate" back to the US via air-plane and some for me to import‖ Sophie to Mexico.
I set out for the Ha-ha beach party where I spread the word around that I needed crew for the leg to Mazatlan and got a great lead that resulted in Maureen, a registered nurse with friends in Mazatlan. Her boat was going to La Paz, so she jumped ship to sail on Sophie. This was good, for I had the feeling I may get a bit too philosophical out at sea solo. I promised myself not to go Crowhurst, but maybe a little Moitessier.
The awards ceremony that evening marked the official end to the Ha-ha. While not really a race, times were kept, and handicaps were applied according to your boat, your attitude, any extenuating circumstances and various other factors that only the Grand Poobah knew. Sophie sailed in the Jalapeño division, which she won, keeping up the good tradition of New Mexico sailors who in the past have also won their divisions. I really had to thank my crew, George and Carolyn, for putting up with the tweaking and flying the big kite throughout the nights; you guys really were good sports!
The plastic scene at Cabo was countered by a little down time outside at anchor where Sophie lay in about 30 feet of water, the bottom seen easily through the turquoise filter of the Pacific. A cooling swim (in 75 degree water) off the side of the boat did wonders to calm the nerves and quiet the brain. First light brought weather checks and general straightening up of the boat for the leg to Mazatlan. Some of the "smart" clocks on board were different from others: daylight savings time had changed, we had sailed east a longitude and time zones, some clocks were going forward, some backward. It was a bit of an Alice in Wonderland experience.
The combination of course and wind angle on this particular passage was a sailor's dream, a beam reach. We could have easily been galloping along with 8, 9, perhaps even 10 knots of boat speed, charging through the four-foot seas with aplomb, but here we were, trying to hold Sophie back, due to our self-imposed requirement to get to Mazatlan after sunrise. The day started out cloudy and cleared by mid afternoon to that state of small popcorn-like clouds at one level, thin wispy cirrus above and an occasional low cloud on the horizon. By sunset that magic orb lit all of them up in different colors at different phases of the sunset. The whole effect was to create a three dimensional palette of colors and shapes in the western sky. As the show ended, Venus popped out from behind a cloud as if to say to us "Hey, look at me too!" The waxing gibbous moon became queen, casting her ghostly silvery pall over both sea and sky.Sophie gently tugs at her mooring lines in Marina Mazatlan. Maureen is off to her next adventure of exploring the area, while I attend to some boat duties and try to just be and take in the whole of the experience.
I look back at my adventure with fond memories and a resolve to do some more. I did enough preparation to ward off most of the anxiety and ultimately any breakage during the trip. A few maintenance items didn't get done, but I suppose there always will be some before leaving on any voyage, else you'd never go. Maybe it's the Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thing where you improve your traveling machine as you go, rather than simply wear it out.
The Mexican people are a gentle lot, with little guile; even the street urchins and hawkers are honest and open about their propositions. My final encounter with the natives happened at the Mazatlan airport and exemplifies the attitudes of at least some of the people: I left my camera, a high-end Nikon SLR digital with a big zoom on it, in the gate area. I had already boarded the plane and was settling into my seat when the ground personnel rushed onto the plane just before they were to close the door asking if anyone left a camera in the boarding area. I glanced down at my backpack and realized that they were indeed talking about me! Need-less to say I was overcome by gratitude for their honesty and integrity. I have to generally discount the bad press that Mexico gets in the US; I feel safer in Mexico than when I was shopping in Richmond, CA.
Some folks have asked me what I'd do differently, what I'd learned, and what was as I‘d expected. One thing that I'll pay more attention to on the next set of passages is to pack items, especially galley items, better so that they don't continually rattle in the night. The odd cereal bowl or jelly jar clanging back and forth in sloppy seas can really get on your nerves when you're off watch. It is also a safety-at-sea issue in that if there are so many things bumping around, you can't tell important noises from those that are merely irritating. The pre-cooked and frozen meals that Carolyn generously provided were just the ticket; it was quite comforting to know that if the seas were too boisterous to cook, a good meal was only 30 minutes away in the oven. I realize that I'm a little bit addicted to the exquisite charts that are standard in the US, while in Mexico things are a little bit on the gray side. I wished I would have practiced more basic navigation techniques (sans GPS) while stateside. The good news here though is that the cruisers all share their local knowledge, hand out their GPS waypoints when they've successfully navigated the entrance to an anchorage and always seem to have their dinghies at the ready when you find the bottom with your keel.
I didn't have much of a chance to check out Mazatlan, but I did have a few nice en-counters that bode well for the future. One of the cruisers told me about a "cruiser band" that was picking up to play some blues at a nearby palapa bar. So, I wandered over there after cleaning up the boat, ordered a beer, some chips and guacamole and idly chatted with some folks while listening to them tuning up. Well, it wasn't exactly a cruisers‘ band, that is, made up of people cruising that happen to play, more a band that cruisers like to hear. I found out that the bass player used to be with John Lee Hooker and the lead guitarist was some nationally ac-claimed Mexican that had a style some-where between Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn. A very large woman who had the volume and range of an Aretha Franklin stepped in for various songs. And the rhythm guitarist had the scratchy blues voice not unlike that of a young Tom Waits. Oh, a few cruisers did step up to the open mike with a harmonica to bend a few reeds. Needless to say, it was quite the treat, and apparently, not all that rare. The scene was one of contrasts: the thatched roof, tiled floor, wicker chairs, cheap draft beer, white linen tablecloths and fifteen or twenty ex-pats soaking up that most iconic US music: the Blues.
My last night in Mazatlan turned out to provide yet another opportunity to view some wildlife (I know what you're thinking) indigenous to the area. While walking along the malecon in the evening, I noticed some movement among the rocks that make up the breakwater. At first I thought that it was one of the half dozen or so marina cats that hang out, but looking more closely it looked more like a cat-sized rat with pointed nose and long hairless tail; actually, there were two of them. It was a bit like a cheap sci-fi movie gone badly (as they are wont to do). I called to one of the locals "Señor, señor, que es, que es???" "Ah, es tlaquache!" he replied. After about three unsuccessful attempts to get him to spell it, I vowed to look it up online. The creature is actually a dark grey opossum, with mouse-like features, at least in the semi-dark. Very cool.
It is comfortable to be back in the US with my family and friends, and my touchstones near at hand. Continental Airlines undid in twelve hours what took about four weeks via sailboat. A day relaxing, going over lists and reading emails has done wonders to reconnect me with the mainstream again. Right now the plan is to spend the Christmas Holidays in Mazatlan with family and friends, then see what develops. Till the next adventure, fair winds to you all and I hope that you get to live your dream.