First Time Out

A long time ago, I bought a boat.

My plan was to live on it, learn to sail it, and happily tinker away at making it the perfect, solar powered tiny house slash ocean-going RV. When I bought her, she was in Mexico, so there was some additional red tape. And that red tape meant first taking her out of Mexico and checking back in, if I wanted to stay in Mexico with her. But there were some safety issues to attend to first. I got those done over the course of a few months. And then some more stuff happened. Like, life-changing stuff. Everything turned out fine. In fact, “miracle” kind of muscles itself into my head when I think of how it turned out. All that had nothing to do with the boat, but it did mess up my head for a while. But time passed and my head has started to straighten out again.

I was an inexperienced sailor. I still am, but at this point I have far more experience than I had when I bought her. I now have a Mexican Temporary Import Permit in my name, and I had my first solo cruise in the Gulf of California on her just a couple of days ago.

As I said, this was my first time single-handing her, aside from motoring from a berth to a boatyard right after I bought her. My mind was full to overflowing with all the things that could go wrong. Most of them didn’t.

I left on a Thursday, carrying a good bottle of Mexican red wine for an offering when she would be properly renamed. And all the other stuff I could think of that I might need. That’s one advantage of being a liveaboard. You don’t accidentally leave anything “back home.” I got underway about 9am. About three quarters of the way through the channel out to the bay proper, I remembered my fenders were still out. Mildly embarrassing but well below my threshold for anxiety at that point. I was waiting for a loud bang from the engine or the sound of a frantic bilge pump. I got out of the channel, picked up the fenders, and put up the mainsail even though there wasn’t a breath of wind. Northward to the islands!

I had intended to stop early and start relaxing, but none of the anchorages looked just right. Ensenada la Gallina, the first viable cove on the western side of Espiritu Santo since you aren’t allowed to anchor in Bahía San Gabriel anymore, looked promising, but as I was taking down my sail, the wind really piped up from the north, which made flaking the sail a more athletic job than it would have been. By the time I got finished fighting with that–I have no autopilot and couldn’t keep her headed into the wind–I was tired, and when I motored in looking for a place to drop anchor, I saw that the fish camp was occupied. Getting tucked in out of the wind would have meant parking right in front of the camp, and it was still early, so I headed back out and up the island. I kept scouting the coves and comparing what I saw with what I was reading in the cruising handbook , and wound up going all the way up to Ensenada Grande, which I’d been to before a few weeks previously on a one-week liveaboard sailing course (thanks, Scott, you’re an awesome teacher and your dedication is inspiring!). I got in around 3pm and surprised myself by getting the anchor down in a sweet little spot with minimal fuss. Had a nice cool dip and then settled down to watch the pangas and tour boats coming and going. There’s a lovely little beach with a row of tents and it’s a popular destination. There were half a dozen other sailboats, one “party boat” (motor yacht), and a recreational trawler. Pulled some cushions out on deck and went to sleep under the stars. I didn’t actually see any mobila rays on the whole trip, but I heard them belly flopping all night that night.

With everything that’s happened this past year, after this little adventure I looked back in my journal to find something I wrote a year ago to the day I set out on it:

Aphorism 1
The other day I was reading about depression, and read something about how the symptoms can be alleviated by something good happening. The assumption, apparently, was that the underlying state did not change–you were still depressed, you just had a temporary remission of symptoms.

Maybe. But I think that a lot of people, myself included, are depressed because their life sucks (or, in my case, did suck, with some vestiges of suck still hanging around). That remission of symptoms is not an anomalous patch in a lifetime of depression, it’s what life is supposed to be–and would be–if you made your life out of good things instead of sucky things. Making good things happen in your life all the time is the best way to beat depression. And believe me, I’m not diminishing the difficulty of that. I know how hard it is. But when you see a window to do it, leap through it, and hang onto that momentum as long as you can. Take back your life and make it a good one. String a lot of awesome moments together and you have a happy life.

To that I’d add now, that I don’t in any way argue with the notion of a better life through chemistry. If you need pharmaceutical help to go forward, get it. Yes, depression is caused by a neurochemical imbalance, and at its worst there’s no way to punch through the bag on your own. But don’t buy into the notion that the only way to manage that is through a pill. The best drugs are manufactured by your own body. Go get them. Scare the crap out of yourself once in a while. Lord knows, I am a naturally timid and risk-averse person. If I can leave my home and move to a place where I know no one and don’t speak the language, spend more on an old boat than we paid for the house we raised our kids in, and singlehandedly drive a 10-ton boat out of, and back into, a crowded marina, after anchoring in exotic places–you surely can too. Or, you know, whatever your dream is.

Another interjection: As Eric Hoffer observed, and I’m almost certain I’m misquoting as I can’t find an attribution with a citation on the stupid internet, “You can’t get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.” But that’s close enough. Most of what we’re offered falls into the category of things we don’t need or even want. But we chase after it because–we think–it’s all we can get. Fuck that. It’s not.

And just when you wish I would shut up: What if everyone said no to what’s going on? Millions and millions of people are depressed. Well, no wonder, right? Modern life is fucked up. It’s inhuman. How could any sane person keep on going without feeling the horrible futility. It’s either be depressed, turn to corporate chemical solutions, or say hell to the fucking no. OK, I think I should stop my divagation at this point because, obviously, it’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be here. But I’ll come back to it someday.

Back to the narrative. I woke up in a gorgeous spot. I had a lot of things to address; I’d been making notes as I made my way up the island. So I had coffee and breakfast, and then I went through and sorted the things on my list as best I could. Then I had second breakfast, and then I headed out to sea. I did my renaming ceremony. I’ve been told that beautiful virgins are a necessary component of the ceremony, but I went with “If one offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even water, I delightfully partake of that article offered with love by my devotee in pure consciousness.” BG, c9, v26. There’s still a wide red wine stain on the foredeck. I hope the footprint lasts a while before the sun fades it. I really like it.

Then from the sublime to the ridiculous. It’s a fact of life that all living being must void themselves. I console myself by remembering that when I dump the contents of my holding tank, it’s nothing compared to one whale poop. Tiny. Miniscule. But at any rate, that was not going to happen. After I whaled on the pump handle for a bit, I remembered to open the throughhull. Then I whaled some more, and discovered that the hose clamp on top of the pump had broken. OK, stop right there. Fortunately, it only seeped a little, and I was able to stop it with paper towels before it started the long journey to the bilge pump.

So, I made do with emptying all the pee jugs I’d accumulated months ago before I realized what a dumb idea it was to pee in a jug when I could hike fifty yards to the restrooms. I get lazy after a few beers. But I can replace the hose clamp and go back out again soon and empty the holding tank. No worries.

Except…the tank was full, and there are the necessities. I’m not going into the details, but shortly after the jugs were emptied, I was dragging a bucket to get rid of what you put in a bucket when your holding tank is full. Because I’m not superhuman. But I felt superhuman after I got done with all that!

All that time I’d been drifting around somewhere north of Isla Ballena. But now, I needed to decide where to spend the night. I briefly considered Isla San Francisquito, to the north, because it was there, and I knew I could make it before dark. But that would put me a long way out tomorrow and I wanted to get back before the afternoon wind picked up so I had a shot at docking without totally embarrassing myself (not that it’s not healthy and necessary to embarrass oneself from time to time). So, my options came down to Ensenada la Gallina, the place I’d passed up the day before, or Puerto Balandra, which is beautiful but I knew it would be crowded with partiers on a Friday night, or Bahía Falsa, which would be closest in to La Paz but would be a long slog and besides, is open to the coromuel wind. So I buzzed la Gallina and there was no one there, and in I went. I futzed around a bit dropping the anchor because I was out in the middle. If I’d looked at the cruiser’s guide, I would have seen that there was a deeper channel along the south edge, but I don’t regret anchoring in the middle. It was balm to the soul to spend an evening in virtual solitude (except for one pass by the fishermen from the camp, and the party boat that showed up around 10). But the part I got to enjoy was everything I’m here for. Earlier in the day, I’d been second-guessing my whole reason for being here, but not after that evening. I will go back again and again.

I brought my speaker out on deck and listened to music (quietly, so as not to disturb the fishing camp) until it got dark. Sea lions were coming up for air every few minutes. Thinkabout swung around through a wide arc, so my view kept changing. Then sleep, until the party boat arrived. They were playing the most banal music imaginable, but they had enough sense to shut it down around midnight, so I salute them for that.

The next morning, the frigate birds were swirling around the waning crescent as it got light. Pink came over El Gallo and La Gallina, the islas outside of these coves. I tidied up, took care of everything I could think of to take care of, hoisted anchor, and then set out for La Paz, praying for a calm day so I’d have a chance of docking without incident. I was really unsettled when I brought up the anchor. I thought I’d put out plenty of chain–I was counting on it as the wind whipped up several times during the evening–but I doubt I even had 5-1 scope. I need to get some chain markers that actually indicate where you are, in feet. Just tagging the chain every 25 feet doesn’t work for me. It’s too easy to miss a marker, or lose count. My attention, it wanders.

Then a long motor across the bay to the mouth of the ensenada. Not much traffic, surprisingly, although it picked up once I got closer to La Paz. But there was wind, directly in my face. That spared me the chore of hoisting sails, but it did give me a worry bone to gnaw on. But it was glorious bounding over the chop, even if I wasn’t actually sailing.

I have an autopilot, but I haven’t hooked it up yet. There’s a piece missing, which is probably here somewhere. So I’ve been steering by hand the whole time or, actually, by leg. To see where I’m going, I stand up and put the tiller between my legs. Also, the throttle cable needs to be adjusted. I was shooting for 2200rpm, but it keeps slacking off to 1800. After a while with my leg on the tiller and my foot on the throttle lever, I rooted around in the bungee box and found a blue one that applied exactly the right amount of tension when I stretched it between the lever and the cockpit hatch rim. 2200 all the way into the channel!

Once I got into the channel, the wind died. As I made my way in, the palm leaves all stood unperturbed along the malecón. Praise be, this might be doable! I stopped once I got close to the marina, and put out the fenders and set up the docklines. Then I tried calling the marina. No response. I tried calling my neighbors. No response. OK, I can’t just sit here all day, and I’m not going below in the middle of a busy harbor to try the mic there. So I throttled all the way back and started creeping in.

Hey! Most of the marina staff is out on the outer dock! I waved, they waved back. I pointed into the marina, they waved back. And just kept standing where they were standing. Apparently, I was not clear in my communication. Nevermind, onwards. I rounded the end of the breakwater and passed a guy on a SUP. He asked if I was alone and needed help. Affirmative. I saw him go around toward where the marina guys were congregating, but there was no motion from that quadrant. So, I kept going at idle speed, popping it into neutral from time to time so as to maintain just enough speed for steerage. I inched up on my berth. Not a soul in sight. That’s not the norm in a marina. Normally, if someone is docking, the whole world turns out to watch. Not today. The wind was still nonexistent, and if there was a tidal current I couldn’t feel it. I inched some more, and I was absolutely, textbook, on target. I leaned over to drop my loop on the stern cleat of the dock. And missed.

I mean, if I had made that drop, I would have nailed my landing. Absolute perfection. Standing ovation from all the people who weren’t there to see it. But I didn’t, and the next few moments were a pretty good illustration of the importance of having a Plan B. Also, of taking down your lifelines on the side you plan to dock on. I leapt over the lifelines, set the loop, and saw that I was making way too much way toward the dock. Leapt back up and over the lifelines and gunned ‘er astern. Which spun my bow out toward my neighbor. Gah! Forward to port!

Actually, everything that happened after I missed the drop is a jumble. Fortunately, Phil, my neighbor, who was asleep on his boat, was awakened by the wake and came out to help. I was able to toss him the bow line and she was brought under control. As far as I can tell/remember, I never made contact with his boat, which is amazing to me. I will always regret missing that drop, but I will never, ever again forget to take my lifelines down on the side I’m docking on.

Dear reader, if you’re still here, you deserve some pictures.

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