As our 32-foot sailboat, Tamarac II, raced down yet another foaming green wall one hundred miles offshore of Mexico’s Baja party town of Ensenada, my wife Gayl and I watched the GPS knot meter approach double digits. This was entirely too fast for a fully-loaded Westsail 32 flying a deeply double-reefed main and staysail—let alone for a neophyte cruising couple in only their second full day of a dream cruise to the South Pacific. The wind blasting over our starboard quarter was cold and strong, exactly how strong was a mystery since our digital wind speed indicator bounced between eight and forty knots. From the streaking spray and last night’s Coast Guard gale warnings, I guessed we were riding a 35-knot wind. Waves had pooped us twice and despite the fact that it was late-April, we were bundled up in gloves, hats and fowl weather gear as if we were sailing before a winter storm.
Though the wind and sea was shocking, it was not hard to understand. We had left our Southern California port of Alamitos Bay, bound for the Marquesas Islands over 2,800 miles away, on the back of a low pressure system passing to the north, hoping to catch favorable clearing winds. It had worked, and all too well. The high behind the low created a squash zone that promised a three day beating. Seasoned cruisers would think it nothing more than a bad blow; to us, it was a veritable nightmare reminding us that in the past few years we had done more work on our boat than sailing.
I searched for a bright side to the situation, but each seemed overshadowed by the dark clouds of reality. I told myself we were making great time. Sure, but in the wrong direction; the best course we could hold in the towering sea was southeast; our dreams lay to the southwest. We were a mere 100 miles from Mexico’s Baja coast, I argued. Yes, but in these situations wasn’t land a sailor’s worst nightmare? Plus, in what would prove to be a punishing mistake, I neglected to bring a single large scale chart for Mexico, believing a back-up plan on this route was futile. We were headed for the South Pacific, I reasoned, and once we jumped into the streaming northwesterlies and slid into the warm northeast trades, we couldn’t get to Mexico if our lives depended on it. Hence, my only chart showing Mexico’s coast was titled “West Coast of North America” and displayed 1,800 miles of coastline.
Still, if these were the only bumps on our would-be sleigh ride, I still would have been smiling through chattering teeth. But fate—read here as: a gross lack of preparation—was proving to be a bigger adversary than any I had yet faced. At noon that second day we fired up the engine to charge the batteries (Oh, if we only had a wind generator!). Our plan was to motor for two hours. But our Perkins 4-107 had other ideas and after an hour, in a fit of angry revving, it went on strike.
After noticing the fuel filter vacuum gauge was pegged in the red zone, I spent the next four hours prostrate on top of the blue beast being tossed from one side of the tiny engine room to the other in a sloshing pool of diesel. I took apart the two double Racor filters, bled the fuel lines a dozen times, and still came up powerless—as well as delirious from diesel fumes.
“No radar tonight, babe,” I told Gayl after wasting another bundle of precious amps failing to turn the engine over. I closed-up shop and moved to the cockpit to explain. With no engine and potentially another 25 days at sea, we couldn’t afford luxuries. The hardest hit would be our easy-meal supply of Trader Joe’s lasagnas, burritos, veggie burgers and other goodies that filled our ice box, now relegated to mere storage locker.
That night was not a good one. We stood three-hour watches, but going below offered no respite. The diesel that had pooled in the engine room seeped into the floor boards and tainted our sleeping quarters with its noxious odor, spinning us to sleep and waking us with headaches.
Outside, the wind and seas howled all night. The sky and sea were equally black, lit up only by the phosphorescence of breaking waves. Drenchings were a regular occurrence, which only kept us awake to watch for Mexican fishing boats or steaming tankers.
“At least we can’t see the size of the waves,” Gayl said around three a.m., and was thereby deemed the trip’s optimist.
By the middle of the third day the wind and waves had subsided a bit—though we still raged on under double-reefed main and staysail. I spent that day battling in vain the mechanical mysteries of our engine and by our third night at sea we were no better off. Our single 75-watt solar panel was barely keeping up with our autotiller so night meant burning reserve power on the masthead tri-color light. Flashlights took the place of cabin lights.
We sailed into that night unsure if we could endure another three weeks of the sea’s abuse. The diesel fumes below were almost intolerable and I had all but given up on myself as a mechanic. But we pressed on. After all, what more could we do? We dared not get near the Mexican coast, uncharted as far as we were concerned.
Besides, we were now able to make a little more westing since the weather seemed to be improving—Gayl’s four o’clock log entry reads, “. . . not taking huge waves abeam anymore.”
Forty-eight hours later we had the Yankee flying and were in higher spirits because of a decision to find and ride the trades to Hawaii. It was America, after all, we had Charlie’s Charts for the islands and they offered a better chance at finding a mechanic and shore power than the Marquesas.
The last two days had illuminated another problem, however. I had finally gotten the time to pull down a weather fax from our HAM radio and computer set-up but every attempt spit out only a page full of snow. It was the same junk I had managed dockside, where friends had assured me the faxes would clear up once I strayed from land.
Well, I had strayed. Almost 600 miles from the nearest rock at this point, and I was still predicting weather the way Columbus had. And just then I didn’t trust myself to read the compass accurately, let alone the enigmatic sky. The responsibility I felt after bringing my wife into this alien and isolating world, a world into which she came with a leap of faith in me, was taking its toll. I had had little sleep, inconsistent meals, and constant stress. When Gayl did make me lie down an army of imaginary voices kept me awake and on edge.
Perhaps it was one of those voices that made me pick up the radio mike, I don’t know. But on the morning of the sixth day, I studied my Gordon West radio nets list and decided to try for the Chubasco Net, a formal net run by and for Mexican cruisers. The prospect of a weather forecast made it worth a few amps.
I dialed in the frequency and listened as loud Asian gongs took over the airwaves; it seemed nothing more than an audible rendition of the mangled weather faxes. Then, faint and in the background, I heard a voice. I pressed my ear to the speaker. Yes, it was definitely the word Chubasco. I began to call out my call sign and name. Finally, between the gongs I made contact. It was my first radio contact as an amateur radio general license holder—600 miles offshore, destination unknown, low on power.
The next twenty minutes shaped my and Gayl’s cruising life more than three years of work at the dock had. At the end of it we were still no closer to the security of land, but we were part of the cruising community. Our one call for information garnered a groundswell of support. Tom, the Chubasco weather guru started a special daily “TamaracReport,” forecasting conditions for our location. Half a dozen Chubasco regulars chimed in with advice, the best of which was: “Your 1,800 miles from Hawaii and 700 from Cabo. Turn that boat around!”
We did, guided by GPS waypoints these new friends provided. The ride was not fun, however. With current and wind driving everything south into a hurricane zone that was a month away from heating up, we couldn’t afford to fall short of Cabo’s latitude without an engine and had to beat into winds that had turned northerly.
So we bashed our way to Cabo with a few adventures on the way and finally, on day 13, we spotted the barren desert hills of Cabo Falso. A far cry from the lush tropical peaks we had envisioned when we left the Alamitos Baybreakwater, Baja’s desert was nevertheless a welcome sight. Following a night at anchor, we were towed to Marina Cabo San Lucas where, thanks to shore power and more advanced fuel system bleeding, the engine came to life. The problem proved to be a simple one: the massive seas had churned up the sediment which had built up on the bottom of Tamarac’s 25-year-old steel fuel tanks. The junk then clogged the filters and the fuel lines. By the time I realized how bad the ensuing air bubble was, I couldn’t use precious battery power to fix it.
But the rumble of the engine was little solace in light of our dubious accomplishment: we had turned an 800-mile sleigh ride into a 1300-mile endurance test. It was the shake-down cruise we had never had time to take—hell, it was four shake-down cruises.
Months later, even in the warm, calm waters of the Sea of Cortez, we were still shaking. But at least we were still cruising.