On the laid-back Baja Ha-Ha cruise from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, a city dweller from the Midwest learned little about sailing and a lot about himself.
Docked next to us in the harbor in San Diego was a floating Chicago family room inside a run-down old power cruiser. An old man sat in his wood-paneled cabin, watching the Sunday night football game on a TV far too large for a boat with any name other than The Bridgeport, Chicago, Ill. Though I wondered how this sedentary soul had gotten his boat from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, I didn’t try to talk with him. He seemed too comfortable in his little Chicago world, as I had been, just a day before.
I thought I had seen the last of Chicago when I kissed my wife and three-year-old daughter goodbye outside O’Hare. “Let’s make this quick,” I told my wife, and she understood why.
I was leaving our fireside to spend two weeks in the Pacific Ocean, in a 780-mile sailing rally that I couldn’t pronounce with a straight face, the Baja Ha-Ha. I was dropping my familiar work and taking up a new job—sailing a boat—that I knew nothing about. I was locking myself in a small space with an older sister with whom I hadn’t spent this kind of time since I was seven, her husband who I knew mostly from family holidays and his son, who I knew barely at all.
Susan, Lewis and Ryan Guthrie all live in the anti-Chicago: the spiritually enlightened and health-nutty haven of Boulder, Colo. (They brought comfort food; I brought cigars.) Also, they had all sailed before, whereas my sailing expertise amounted to what I had gleaned from watching a preposterously hokey sailing video called Learn to Sail and reading Sailing for Dummies. A pompous declaration that I had made in order to justify taking this nearly two-week leave from my responsibilities—“sailing is an essential human skill,” I told my Chicago friends—came back to bite me as I realized that everybody on the boat had this essential human skill but me.
The crew of our 42-foot Beneteau had one thing in common: The sheer distance of the trip and all the unknown water ahead had all of us wondering how we’d hold up. On Sunday afternoon, an otherwise ebullient Tom Miller, captain of fellow Ha-Ha boat Imagine a nearby slip, already ached in anticipation that the time would fly. Snapping the fingers of the hand that wasn’t holding the can of Tecate, “This trip’ll go by like that.”
The crew of the Mystical Traveler wasn’t so sure.
In my cabin on Sunday night, as I drifted into the last full night’s sleep I’d have for who knew how many days, I could comfort myself only with the dismissive words of a pal who I’d called before I left. I told him I was a little worried about the trip. “Oh for Christ sake,” he said. “You’re just going on a boat.”
Inky black despair and a moonlit miracle
A few hours after the 11:00 a.m. start on Monday, Oct. 30, the record 165 boats in this year’s Ha-Ha had spread out some. We’d sailed long enough and headed far enough offshore that we weren’t sure if the low-slung city on the coast to our east was still in California. Or was it Tijuana?
Somehow we fell into a conversation about the state of education in the inner cities of America that was as dreary and windy as the weather. After a time we all wanted out of the abstract argument that we would never resolve, about schools in cities far over the eastern horizon. Suddenly another school—of dolphins—merrily surfaced about 20 feet off our starboard. Though they were gone within a minute, they had taught us a lesson, and for the rest of the trip we mostly stuck to more immediate and agreeable subjects. Everybody gets hungry, everybody gets thirsty, everybody needs to use the head.
And soon, more than anything, everybody would need sleep.
We sailed three straight nights on that first leg. The first night, we comforted one another in three-hour two-person shifts. We also bored one another, winding out anecdotes into long stories, like talk-show hosts waiting for callers that never came. After that, we settled on two-hour, one-person shifts would offer everyone more sleep and require less work.
At 4:00 a.m. the second night, I commenced my first solo watch. I sat at the wheel, hoping the wind direction wouldn’t change, as I would have been able to refill a luffing sail only by changing course. When the sun finally lightened the gray eastern sky, I wrote in my notebook about the “inky black misery—what am I doing here?—wishing I were home.” I noted that homesickness at sea had a particular poignancy because of “the great endless whooshing, gurgling evidence of how impossibly far away you are.”
It wasn’t until after I’d closed the notebook that I noticed a that small squid had been thrown from a following whitecap and landed on the seat next to me, where it suffocated, probably while I was busy recording my easily earned despair.
The very next evening, on my watch at 2:00 a.m., I received the first hint that sailing could ever be anything for me but dull discomfort. After two days and two nights lurching in 15-knot winds on disorganized and ugly water, and having slept fitfully in a heaving cabin with my stomach sloshing inside me like a one water balloon inside another, I woke in a different boat in another place. We were making little more than three knots on in a very light wind, and I didn’t have to Velcro the coffee maker to the galley counter. The choppy Pacific Ocean was now a gentle, wise old river. The only sounds, as the moon disappeared at 2:30, were a slight creaking of the boom and the draft behind the boat, its rhythmic wake-suction sounding like the oars of my childhood rowboat gently digging into dawn’s still water.
Eventually the wind died down even further, and I woke the captain and his son. After sailing 65 hours straight, we motored for the last two, entering Turtle Bay as the sun came up. Dolphins escorted us to our anchorage and a sea lion waved hello.
Dancing with the dinosaurs
The Baja Ha-Ha isn’t one event, it’s two. There’s the sailing, during which you see a half-dozen boats on the distant horizon and your contact with the fleet—and you come to crave the diversion—amounts to a daily roll call on the single sideband radio and the occasional broadcast from a Ha-Ha boat. (A captain reported one sunny day that his young son had hooked a marlin off the back of the boat and declared after it spit the hook, “This is the worst day of my life.”)
Mostly, though, you are alone with your crew and the sails and the GPS screen and whatever you’ve brought to read and Billy Joel and your thoughts, whether you like them or not.
After that solitude, life in the bays—the Ha-Ha stops after 360 miles at Turtle Bay, then goes 240 miles to Bahia Santa Maria and then another 180 to Cabo San Lucas—is disorienting in its own way. After breakfast on a stable table and a deep sleep that you don’t take for granted, you wake at noon and realize that after days of long underwear and windbreakers, there is suddenly too much sun and too little wind and you can’t stand to be up top even in a golf shirt.
At Turtle Bay, there’s a small town for which the annual arrival of the hundreds of thirsty, hungry Ha-Ha sailors—this year, there were 657—is the commercial highpoint of the year. Mexican men roared around in simple boats, taxiing Ha-Ha sailors to shore and picking up trash for a dollar a bag. Pilots of overloaded dinghies tentatively wended their way around the bay, looking for their boat in a forest of masts. A Ha-Ha sailor swam up to our boat and chatted comfortably for 20 minutes in the buoyant saltwater. Crews traded gin for fish and steaks for beer. (I got five minutes with my wife on an iridium cell phone in exchange for enduring a 20-minute tour of the proud captain’s boat.)
In desolate Bahia Santa Maria, there was no town, no water taxis and no wind. In that vacuum, the radio roll call echoed across the water from all the boats so that Richard Spindler, the Ha-Ha’s charismatic “Grand Poobah,” emanated from everywhere at once. Spindler is editor and publisher of the Latitude 38 Sailing Magazine and the captain of a big catamaran named Profligate. “I was put on earth to help people have a little fun.”
That’s hard work—work for which Spindler insists he makes no money. He earns much of the $299 Ha-Ha entry fee by deftly moderating lengthy radio discussions attempting to connect Ha-Ha sailors with problems with sailors with solutions. One captain needs some spinnaker tape, another wonders if anyone could help him fix a bent bowsprit, another needs a sail repair kit, another needs some rudder bearings and one captain’s daughter has her retainer stuck in her mouth.
Most of these problems are solved thanks to the fleet’s large size and amiable spirit. But when one boat’s motor went out 10 miles short of Bahia Santa Maria and, barely making any headway, it was looking for a tow from a nearby power boat, Spindler rejected the idea as strongly as his Grand Poobah persona would allow. “It’s important to be self-sufficient,” he said over the radio, and soliciting a tow in a non-emergency situation was, in his book, both “kinda funky” and “not cool.” Many captains radioed in their agreement with Spindler’s spin on the situation, and the censured boat limped under its meager sail power many hours later.
In each harbor, a woman used the radio to invite “Friends of Bill W.”—code for members of Alcoholics Anonymous—to join her on another channel to talk about arranging a meeting. I imagine there’s a need for AA members to stick together in this environment. Though Spindler cautiously claims on the Ha-Ha Web site that this trip is not a drinking binge, the quantity and the quality of the dancing at the beach parties he organizes at each stop tell another story. Middle-aged men often sing at the top of their lungs and middle-aged women occasionally take off their tops. As Tom Miller put it, “I’m a member of Alcoholics Unanimous.”
The younger people on the trip—and at 37, I was decidedly in that
group—watched with amusement as their elders, many of whom use the
Ha-Ha to launch a sail into retirement, celebrate their second youth.
Within minutes of meeting the fifty-something couple that sails the
Velociraptor, we learned that Bill _____ and Mary _____ like to sail
alone together because they like to sail naked.
“Incidentally,” they note in the official Ha-Ha crew bio book, their boat “is named after the mating ritual of the velociraptor.”
What happens on an uneventful trip
After one truly thrilling nine-knot sail the first night out of Turtle Bay—surfing down a pushing wave we reached 11 knots, and lying in my cabin felt like being in an underwater rocket ship—the wind died and we motored for most of last two legs.
Without sails or waves or weather to worry about and only hours to kill in the sun, the brain goes a little bovine. What do I need to amuse myself, or make myself feel a little better? Coffee, food, beer, sun, shade, a smoke, music, my book, a different perch, a nap? Actually, it’s a lot to monitor, and the keeping track of it is how one passes the time.
Meanwhile, other things are happening. On the Mystical Traveler, a wife is weighing how much she loves to sail against how much she loves her husband who loves to sail. The husband is watching her. He’s also watching his 24-year-old son, who demands acknowledgement that he is as good a sailor and thinker and problem-solver as the old man. A brother and a sister are coming to understand that their occasional family differences, at this vast remove, nothing more than seams in a sail.
And an inexperienced and nonessential crew member at first misses the sense of mastery he gets from navigating the endless professional and personal politics of his own sea, the city. And then he comes to revel in his respite from the complications. And then finds himself, for the first time in years, singing songs at the stars so his wife can hear them. He writes in his notebook:
“Feel younger, newer, less encrusted than have in years—remember I am more than the acquired skills and confident claims I trade for tiny bits of money and status in Chicago. Starting to hope that some of these couples can shake all the years of trying to thrive in a deeply complex and compromising society and be children together again. Don’t believe this little sea spell will last. Chicago has its own spell and all this water will go down its sewer drains. But, like falling in love again, I suppose, it’s reassuring to know I can still feel it.”
Actually, the spell broke in the busy anchorage at Cabo San Lucas, where it’s noisy even at night. Unable to sleep, I took my pillow from my cabin and lay on a bench in the cockpit and felt the sting of each of a dozen chronic worries about work and money that I’d left in San Diego snap one by one like rubber bands stretched the length of the Baja Peninsula. In my head, Billy Joel sang “Somewhere along the line, you know it’s just a matter of time, when the fun falls through and the rent comes due, somewhere along the line.”
I forced myself to switch songs to “You’re My Home” and I thought of
happier things ahead: Being alone among strangers on the airplane on
the flight to L.A. and the redeye to Chicago. Seeing the old familiar
skyline from a cab on the Kennedy. And—oh!—crawling into bed with my
wife and daughter.
I wouldn’t be leaving the boat for two more days, but I was starting to pack my thoughts.
I thought about what I would tell my Chicago friends about what I had and hadn’t learned about sailing.
I could never manage to tie an unattached line into a recognizable loop. In almost two hundred hours at sea, I did not memorize the functions of more than half the lines. I couldn’t land a dinghy on a beach without risking death by the outboard propeller. I didn’t find a reasonable drinking schedule (I drank beer from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and then quit until dinner). I still can’t specify “port” or “starboard” without a telltale half-beat hesitation. And I must admit: Though I felt the thrill of sailing fast and the amazing peace of sailing slow, I never forgot the stubborn fact that there are much more comfortable and efficient ways to travel.
However, I did learn how to tie a line to a cleat in under 60 seconds, take the helm and steer to a specific heading, clean up my beer, wine and coffee spills (there was no liquid onboard that I did not spill and no surface on the boat that I did not spill upon), identify the leeward side of the boat and (usually) throw food refuse clear of the hull, avoid talking politics, reliably make my big sister laugh with scatological humor, endure a night watch without self pity (and occasionally with solitary joy), dry dishes in heavy seas, and understand with some uneasy mixture of theory and practicality why sails are trimmed the way they are for various winds.
And I learned a number of terms that would come in handy back in Chicago, when I would ply another essential human skill.
“Like most sailors on the Baja Ha-Ha,” I would say with a casual air (a straight face), “I’m most comfortable on a slow run in a following sea.”