The trebly notes of Andy’s banjo rang out above the rousing chorus as clear as a bell. Clear like the aquamarine anchorage of Bahia Santa Maria, Mexico, clear as the belt of Orion rising on the horizon. Joe hammered out the chords on his guitar while Kevin softly strummed and Tom bent down the major third into a blue note on his harmonica. I heard them but did not see because my eyes were shut tight to illuminate in my mind’s eye the fretboard of my travel-worn Martin guitar.
If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean. If I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.
It was a musician’s meet-up on Kevin’s big catamaran, a pre-party before Party #3 of the 2013 Baja Ha-Ha Rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Over a hundred thirty boats lay at anchor in the chop of the eleven-mile bay. A stiff breeze churned the waters of the anchorage, relatively placid compared to the rolling seas we had encountered after the becalmed start of the rally at San Diego eight days prior. We were all a little weary after the force 5 winds — defined by Admiral Francis Beaufort as 19-24 knots in which “small trees in leaf begin to sway” — but the rhythm of the guitars and harmonica and the up-beat of the banjo lifted our spirits high. We had sailed five hundred miles to get here and had another three hundred ahead of us. And so very worth it all.
And what a week of sailing through highs and lows! Pam and I were still newbies at cruising and that made the high and low points particularly spiky. In the morning you do an ecstatic gorilla dance in the cockpit as you land your very first yellow-fin tuna, while at midnight you curse in the darkness on your knees peering into the bilge to determine why there are twenty gallons of salt water coming up through your floor boards. You find serenity in the perfect balance of wind, waves, sails, and pendulums that keep your self-steering gear in harmony with the powerful natural forces all around you. You feel utter despair as your spinnaker sheet wraps itself around the boat’s keel while the tack line rips off the bow light as you retrieve the sheet all covered in anti-fouling paint. You smile to yourself as you consider the silliness of a spinnaker sheet that will never get a barnacle stuck on it.
Are we really sailing all the way to New Zealand and back? Well, yes, but that’s a scary thing to think about. This is the Ha-Ha! It’s the gateway to our new cruising life, a life you live in the present, not the future. Your plans about future cruising should be slippery like the hitch in your quick-release mooring line, not fixed like your headstay. Another cruiser told me, “We write our plans in the sand at low tide :-)”. I find myself blabbing out to everyone, “We plan to sail all the way to New Zealand and back!”, involuntarily cringing at the thought of Neptune hearing about my land-based plans.
You make fast friends when you cruise a sailboat, and the Ha-Ha introduces you to new friends you will probably see throughout your tour of Mexico and beyond. When I announce to the fleet on my VHF radio that my watermaker has stopped working I get several offers of assistance, and when I meet these guys at the beach party later they each ask about the watermaker.
These guys become your real teachers. At Party #1 in San Diego you prick up your ears when you hear Mark say he’s sailing to New Zealand next March. Maybe, like me, you’ve taken all the sailing courses offered by the local sailing school, you’ve chartered a boat a few times in the British Virgin Islands, and you’ve read about Joshua Slocum sailing alone around the world in 1897 and Tristan Jones sailing up the Amazon River looking for Lake Titicaca. You know how to sail a boat. But now you’re learning how to live on the boat day by day and take care of yourself through all kinds of exhilarating episodes and mis-adventures. These crazy sailors who come to do the Baja Ha-Ha year after year are showing you the real tricks of the trade, like how to lift your new outboard engine onto your dinghy without dropping it into the bay and how to ask the panga fisherman in Spanish if he can come around in a half hour to give us a lift to the beach.
Neal teaches me how to catch a yellow-fin ahi and fillet it. Sailing into Turtle Bay, I’m topping a salad with the wonderful raw ahi when he tells me, “Hey, do you have coconut milk on board? Let’s catch another ahi and make poisson cru for the beach party this afternoon.”
“Go for it, “ I tell him lazily as I plop myself down on the foredeck with my ahi salad. The sun has come out and the deck is now warm so I take off my socks, then my shirt, then roll up my pant legs. I yawn heavily. “You’ve got one hour to catch a fish. Good luck.”
I lift the fork to my lips and admire this fresh ahi that we caught and filleted yesterday morning, but before I take the bite I hear Neal shout “Fish on!” He’s kidding me, right? A half hour later we have this new ahi filleted and in the refrigerator. A couple days and three skipjacks later we have this process well-choreographed, but somehow we can only catch a fish when someone sits down to a breakfast or lunch. As a cruiser you quickly learn how to gut a fish while you hold your bowl of yogurt between your knees.
The poisson cru was a hit at Party #2 at Turtle Bay and the story of how we caught that ahi wove yet another yarn into the hundreds of stories shared by all the Ha-Ha cruisers at Party #4 at Cabo San Lucas. We now had common stories about each other. We had experienced the same green flashes at sunset, the same rising of Orion after midnight, and the gradual changing of ocean water temperature from 56°F at San Diego to 80°F at Cabo San Lucas.
I reflected on that musician’s meet-up as I sat on the headlands of Bahia Santa Maria overlooking the myriad boats swinging at anchor and watched my new Ha-Ha friends dancing and playing beach volleyball below. A panga fisherman landed his craft easily through the gently breaking surf, a free man in a wilderness of blue sea and brown mountains. Two riders emerged like ghosts from the dunes beyond and led their ponies up the barren undeveloped beach.
I recalled Andy’s banjo, the harmony of our instruments, and the moving chorus of his quirky Lyle Lovett song.
And we could all together go out on the ocean. Me upon my pony on my boat.
Ah, freedom. We have a good boat, Pamela, and we’re sailing her on the ocean. What is the next step after the Baja Ha-Ha? Slow down, for sure … and go find that pony.
Oh my, what have we taken on?
I have gone from one chaotic whirlwind to another! Making sure the boys are settled, packing up the house, wrapping up two jobs, sorting out finances, planning for the care and feeding for our dog Little Bear, and the most moving: saying goodbye to so many incredible friends and family. Oh, and simultaneously preparing for the sailing part: taking advanced sailing classes and researching what we will need when we’re out there and living aboard Pamela for two years. A lifestyle we have never experienced before.
When we left the dock I was full of apprehension and anticipation. Had we taken care of everything essential? How will our incredible sons fare? And Little Bear? Not to mention our new home, Pamela, being rigged, maintained, and stocked properly. At that point I simply had to accept that we had done all that we knew to do and pray that we didn’t miss anything critical.
I have sailed out the Golden Gate in my sailing classes but never in Pamela. Would I be overwhelmed standing my first midnight watch alone at Pamela’s helm? Dennis and I would need to stand watch all through the night, alternating three hours on and three hours off. I knew I could do it but would it be too frightening, challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, enlightening… ? It was all of these emotions! That first overnight passage was a big accomplishment for me.
I was very content to watch the sun rising on my 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. watch.
I don’t think I have ever experienced so many “firsts” in such a short period of time. Standing watch for several days and nights, entering strange harbors and anchorages at night, refueling the boat in some challenging places (like the fuel dock at Morro Bay at low tide, 20 feet above the boat), and now my first regatta, the Baja Ha-Ha!
Seeing California from the ocean is quite dramatic. Following the coast southward is spellbinding. And seeing and hearing the barking sea lions, pods of dolphins and whales, huge red-and-yellow jellyfish, and playful sea otters adds a sense of relationship and connection with the sea.
One last aspect I would like to describe is the deeply touching feelings I have after hearing and experiencing the thoughts and feelings of friends and family wishing us a safe and successful journey. It brings out our deeper core love and respect for each other. What could be more important in life?