A lifelong seafarer introduces his 10-year-old daughter to life on the sea during a San Diego-to-Cabo cruise.
When I was young, nothing captured my attention more than boats, and especially sailing boats. Originally from Port Townsend, Wash., a Pacific Northwest sailing and wood-boat mecca, I grew up with boats everywhere, and childhood maritime memories are strong to this day. I remember the briny mist coming off the water on a chilly September morning while we were anchored at Jones Island in the San Juan Islands; beating to weather aboard our family’s 26-foot sloop in Johnstone Strait; watching the bow spray keep the foredeck awash on a blustery summer day; catching rock crabs in a ring net off the stern; swimming in the cold waters off Port Ludlow.
Those early sailing adventures as a kid set me on a nautical course that has kept me in good stead my whole life. I am lucky to have made my living as a professional mariner on the ocean in some capacity ever since I was 18 years old. So when my daughter, Sophia, came into this world, I knew I wanted to pass on this family tradition of boats and the ocean and make it a part of her life.
When Sophia was 16 months old, I delivered a large motoryacht (yachtlogic. com) from Seattle to Sitka, Alaska. It was her first passage and was a great trip, but I think very little of the delivery made any impression on her at that age. Other trips when she was young included crossing to Catalina Island and day sailing on San Diego Bay. We moved to Denver when she was two years old, and our sailing adventures were reduced to short trips a couple of times a year.
Our sailboat, Saint Brendan, a 34-foot Tartan 34C, was spending most the time on its mooring in America’s Cup Harbor on San Diego Bay. Life in Denver is great, but it is far from the ocean and sailing, and we miss both very much. The years passed and suddenly Sophia was going to be 10 years old, so I decided we needed to prepare the boat and set off on a new sailing adventure — one that took us to another country and allowed us time together at sea. We would have to stand watch and live 24 hours a day on the boat, giving my daughter an opportunity to experience the cruising lifestyle.
We set our departure date for March 26, 2016, and flew to the boat every couple of months over the winter for a week to work on Saint Brendan and get it ready for our Mexico cruise from San Diego to Guaymas.
There was much to do to prepare an oceangoing sailing boat, especially one that was idle for a few years. Nothing is worse for a boat that just resting on the mooring. We rove new halyards, changed the engine oil, bought spare parts, inspected the rigging and sails, fitted a new mainsail, serviced winches and installed a new set of battery banks. Sophia enjoyed outfitting the boat, and she asked good questions: Why did we have to do certain things to get the boat ready? What will it be like to sail at night? The time together was very special. The winter months flew by and soon we were only a week away from flying to San Diego to depart for Mexican waters.
My longtime sailing buddy Tache Bentley joined us on the sail as crew. He met us at the dock with his sea bag, a tackle box and four fishing poles. Bentley and Sophia became fast friends, and I could see she was settling in very well. She took control of making sure the big bunk in the forepeak was arranged and shipshape for sleeping and lounging off watch. Her books and tablet were stowed in a secure spot where she could get to them.
The crew spent the final day before departure provisioning the boat, topping off fuel and water, and just giving the whole boat a once-over to make sure we were ready. The first leg of our journey from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas was along the isolated coast on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula, where there are few places for supplies. A skipper and crew can’t wait for things to be perfect or they will never leave their home waters; a sailing boat needs to cast off the lines and get underway. Things will sort themselves out.
The morning of March 26 was calm and sunny with a slight early spring chill in the air as we motored south past Point Loma. The first day and night the weather was peaceful, and we motor-sailed into Mexican waters, our autopilot “Betty” doing all the steering.
The first couple of days of any cruise are the time to get one’s sea legs, stow any loose gear and settle in to the routine of being at sea, cooking meals and standing watches.
From the start, Sophia spent hours on the bow singing to herself and looking out for dolphins and whales. I can only imagine what her thoughts entailed. Bentley showed Sophia how to tie on a tuna lure, and I had her practice steering a compass course, to give Betty a little break from time to time. Bentley and I took all the watches, and Sophia kept us company, talking about the stars at night and what she would do if she saw a shark. She was worried about getting seasick, and I told her even the saltiest of sailors get seasick. She still chose to take a motion-sickness pill just in case as she climbed into the forepeak bunk and went to sleep.
Bentley hooked a nice tuna the morning of our second day, and we ate ceviche with tortilla chips for lunch. Sophia enjoyed the daily routine on the boat, helping with fishing and keeping the main salon in order. On the morning of the third day at sea, a fresh breeze came up from the northwest, and soon the engine was off and we were finally under full sail. Saint Brendan had a sweet, seakindly motion as we scudded along at 6 knots; we enjoyed a great sail the rest of the way to Turtle Bay, our first stop along the Baja coast.
Over the winter in Denver, many of our bedtime discussions were about Mexico and sailing to the Sea of Cortez. I told Sophia about the beautiful anchorages and the warm, clear waters the crew of a cruising yacht can find in Mexico. Unfortunately, Turtle Bay is not such a locale. The town of Bahia Tortugas (Turtle Bay) has a population of approximately 2,500 hardy folk, and the dusty natural harbor is extremely well protected. A rusty wooden pier in the northwest corner of the bay sticks out from the beach, but I avoided it and landed my dinghy on the sandy beach at the head of the pier. Since Turtle Bay is almost halfway down the Baja peninsula between San Diego and Cabo San Lucas, boats of all kinds stop there for fuel and rest. We stretched our sea legs with a stroll ashore and bought 25 gallons of diesel in jerry jugs from Enrique, a local fuel vendor based on the dilapidated pier. For Sophia, it was a unique, lonely anchorage.
“Daddy,” she said, “this town needs more green.”
The first day out of Turtle Bay, a splendid 15 knot breeze from the northwest had Saint Brendan on a broad reach, and we played Uno (a fun card game) in the cockpit. Bentley caught two more nice tuna, some of which we fried up and had for lunch with Spanish rice. I pulled out the paper Mexican charts from the chart table and gave Sophia a lesson in how to read a nautical chart. We discussed latitude and longitude, how to plot a course and how to fix your position using dead reckoning on a chart. In today’s voyaging community, most boats use some sort of electronic navigation to track and determine their position. But I wanted Sophia to begin her sailing education with the traditions of old-school navigation. A prudent navigator should have a solid foundation in the methods of using a pair of dividers and a set of parallel rulers, along with the boat’s speed, time and distance.
Our next stop along the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula was Bahia Santa Maria, a big, beautiful bay just north of Bahia Magdalena. The breeze had freshened by the second day at sea from Turtle Bay, and soon we had a reef in the mainsail and a small jib hanked on the forestay. Sophia felt a little seasick and tucked herself in her bunk with her books, the laptop computer and a couple of good movies to watch. As the weather continued to turn unfavorable, I was happy to see how she quickly adapted to the changes in the boat’s motion as she moved belowdecks. She used the handholds and was careful to have “a hand for herself and a hand for the boat.”
When I checked on her at sunset, she smiled and asked how things were on deck? I told her we were in for a night of heavy wind. With the sun going down in the west, we had 40 to 45 knots of breeze from the north-northwest. I carefully worked my way onto the pitching foredeck and made sure the jerry jugs and the genoa furled on the bow were all secure for the night. Huge breaking seas were building and chasing us from astern, and the helm needed our total concentration as we surfed down the big seas — we reached 9 to 10 knots from time to time.
By the time Bentley and I changed watch at midnight, the phosphorescence was really putting on a show; the white tops of the waves were blown off by the strong breeze spraying bioluminescence out and down the waves. Saint Brendan was running before the wind under only the reefed main and navigating the seaway like the champ it is. I turned the helm over to Bentley and climbed into the big bunk in the bow with Sophia. She was fast asleep, neither the heavy weather nor the motion of the boat bothering her in the slightest. I was proud to have her aboard, and she was quickly becoming a fine crewmember.
By morning Bentley had fresh coffee on the stove in the galley, we were enjoying a much improved sea state — the wind had dropped to a steady 20 knots — and we had a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, chorizo and tortillas. The bold headland of Cabo San Lazaro was coming over the horizon, which fixed our position north of Bahia Santa Maria. Sophia was up and feeling energetic. She came on deck with the binoculars and looked for sea life from the bow; she logged in her journal that we sighted two sea turtles, a pod of spinner dolphins and a pair of whales that we could not identify as we approached the anchorage.
Making our way into Bahia Santa Maria, we passed three Mexican pangas — the ubiquitous workboats of Mexican mariners — and their crew fishing near shore. Pangas normally operate straight off the beach. Their large bow works great for hauling pots, nets and tourists. Mexican fishermen run long distances offshore to fish; these 22-foot boats are very seaworthy and are capable of speeds in excess of 35 knots. Pangas can be found throughout the developing world, including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and even Africa, where the panga is prevalent as the attack boat for Somali pirates.
After 24 hours in her bunk, Sophia was more than ready to go ashore to explore the beach and stretch her legs. Bentley soon had the dinghy over the side, loaded with fishing poles and a bucket for shells, and the two of them headed to the beach. I attempted to clean the boat up a bit. After an hour, I looked through the binoculars and saw them making their way back to the boat, Sophia with a huge smile on her face. No sooner had they come alongside Saint Brendan than she yelled at the top of her voice, “Daddy, we rolled the dinghy! It was so much fun…” Bentley smiled and explained the surf break got the best of them when the outboard did not start on the first pull and a large breaker caught them broadside — over they went, sending both into the surf. Sophia was ready to go back and do it again!
Early the next morning, the cold oceanic California Current created a low-level marine fog near the coast, obscuring the California cordillera that runs down the Baja peninsula. A steady 10-knot breeze filled in by mid-morning and slowly blew the fog away. We set full sail — hauling out of the lazarette our big blue-and-white asymmetrical spinnaker — knowing the infamous tourist hub of Cabo San Lucas lay an overnight sail to the south.
In 1535, when Hernan Cortes sailed three galleons into the tranquil bay at lands’ end, the lure of Los Cabos began for Europeans. It was during the same era that Spanish merchant marine interests established a trade route from Luzon in the Philippines to Acapulco in the south of New Spain. After months at sea, their first sight of land and a fresh water estuary was in the Los Cabos area. English pirate ships lay in wait for them in coves and caves along the coast, which made the tip of Baja a place for exploits from early in the Age of Discovery.
The distance from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas (Los Cabos) is approximately 800 nautical miles. Saint Brendan and crew fetched Los Cabos in the afternoon of April 3 after nine days of traveling. The Pacific Ocean had been kind to us all in all, and we had no serious mechanical or rigging issues to report. The crew was ready to explore the resort city on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, which is known for its beaches, big-game fishermen, water-based activities and stimulating nightlife. Sophia hadn’t complained once about being bored or anything else in regard to the cruising lifestyle. But as she stood at the bow of Saint Brendan, with the famous El Arco de Cabo San Lucas coming into view, she said, “How long until I get my pizza, daddy?” I knew then it was time for us to put into port.
Saint Brendan now secure to the dock for a few days, we walked up the dock to find a tasty pizza with all the toppings. Sophia was in heaven: people everywhere, so much to see and explore, the colors, the food and culture.
Sophia had to leave Saint Brendan in Cabo, because her spring break was coming to an end and she needed to go back to school. My mother had flown to Cabo to fly with Sophia back to Denver. Bentley and I continued into the Sea of Cortez and on to Guaymas, where I was going to haul out the boat and do a much needed refit. Then, once Saint Brendan is back in ship shape, we are going to return to explore the wonders of the Sea of Cortez. The sailing adventures for Saint Brendan and Sophia are just beginning.