Monday, March 24, 2008


Hmmm... cruising with a one-year-old doesn't leave a lot of "spare" time - who woulda guessed it? To make up for the paucity of posts from Mexico, here is a parting barrage of pictures (if this dicey wifi connection allows).

While I'm thinking of it, a story from earlier in our trip is in the March issue of Pacific Yachting magazine, so if you're in the Pacific Northwest, pick up a copy.

Alisa's parents had a great visit in La Paz, including a sail in perfect conditions.

Elias got to play with his cousin Kali.

My folks came out for a sail, too. Here Dad steers while Mom navigates.

Dad reading to Elias.

My Mom taught Eli to sing "Row Row Row."

Jamie and Kelly came down from Haines for a week-long sailing/kayaking trip.

The three guys got in some birding time.

Jamie made a big impression; Elias still says "Jamie!" about twenty times a day.

Jamie kayaking...

...and Jamie sailing.

This is the yellowtail tuna that we finally caught, after much effort.

This is the Rose, way back in January, as we were on passage around the southern tip of the Baja.

Elias continues to love to read. He's now more interested in our books than in his own. Field guides are a particular favorite.

Magazines are good, too, though he almost exclusively looks for pictures of dogs and horses. This picture was taken on our first day in a place called Ensenada de Los Muertos, where we ended up spending a LOT of time. (And it's where we are now, anchored up on the start of our trip to the Marquesas.) We had beat against 20-25 knot winds to get to Los Muertos, with lots of water on deck, and a persistant deck leak had soaked these cushions. We finally tracked that leak down when we were in La Paz, and the boat is really starting to feel dry.

This is Los Muertos from above.

We spent a lot of time on the beach at Los Muertos. Check out Eli's wet suit.

Elias loves the beach.

He really loves the beach - he asks to go there every day.

This is the beach on Partida Island where Jamie and Kelly were camped - a great intersection of desert and sea.

The view from the top of Partida, looking over the Sea of Cortez.

Alisa and Elias on the beach.



Pelagic anchored among the cacti.

Trying to seal the mask around the ever-growing beard.
Practicing with the sextant for the ocean passages ahead.

Fast friends, fast. We met Megan and Brian from Nomad and hit it off quickly. They're heading down to Central America this year and are bound for New Zealand in 2009.

And then there were the jobs. I made deadlights (storm windows, basically) for the Pacific crossing.

Alisa racked up big hours on the sewing machine. Here she's making a sun awning for the boat.

Here she's making a wind scoop to bring refreshing breezes below in the stultifying tropics.

Here she's patching the sails for the rigors of tropical squalls and convection cells.

I installed a rebuilt anchor roller.

And went up the stick to check on a few things.

We're not sure who this character was, but he seems to have fixed the wind vane.

That's it!

Paradise Can Wait

Every step of this trip, we’ve left port later than we planned. Kodiak, Port Townsend, Alameda and San Diego all kept us weeks longer than expected, as we simultaneously worked on boat chores and raised Elias. We got used to being slower than we liked, and grew philosophical about cruising with a one year old. Sailing with Eli might be slow, we told ourselves, but it’s a lot faster than staying home with Eli.

But for the big trip that we’re about to embark on, the three- to four-week passage from Mexico to the Marquesas, we promised ourselves that things would be different. We would be ready the day we wanted to go, ready to grab every precious moment of the hurricane-free season in the South Pacific.


We planned on being ready to go March 10th. We left La Paz yesterday, March 22nd. There were some extenuating circumstances, as all three of us got sick. We sat on the hook for days after my family left last month, with both Elias and Alisa sick with fevers and respiratory track infections. And then I got sick last week in La Paz, and so had to lay around the boat for days with a fever when I was burning with eagerness to get Pelagic prepared for the monster trip ahead of us. And when we were well we were, as always, working on the boat with one hand and caring for Elias with the other. The good news is that we didn’t get at all frustrated with the slow pace of things as we have in the past, even as we watched other boats leaving La Paz for the Marquesas and started to hear them reporting their positions and weather over the ham radio.

Our path from the southern tip of the Baja peninsula to the Marquesas will take us through four distinct weather systems: the non-tradewinds weather off Mexico, the northeast trade winds of the northern tropics, the squalls and doldrums of the Intertropical Convergence Zone on the equator, and finally the southeast trades of the southern tropics. It’s a bit of a chess match to get through all these different systems as quickly as possible. We’ll try to make as much westing as we can in the northeast trades, then cross the equator around 130° W, where the squalls and doldrums should be at their narrowest north-south extent. We can make a general plan like that, but since sailboats move so slowly we will largely be reacting to whatever weather comes along. The boats that left La Paz before us found themselves dealing with a real mish-mash early on, everything from fifteen foot seas and 30 knot winds (that’s a lot of weather) to light and variable winds that made steering tough and progress slow. Diesel fuel may not be available in the Marquesas and the Tuomotus, the first two archipelagos that we will pass through in French Polynesia, so except for motoring across the equator, most boats have to sail through light winds and calms to conserve fuel for the atoll entrances that lie ahead.

This passage is really one of the grand adventures offered by the planet. Alisa and I are both intimidated by the unknowns of the new kinds of sailing that we’ll find in the tropics, and intimidated by the sheer scale of the trip, but also entranced by the idea of such a string of sunrises and sunsets on the vast heaving expanse of the sea. I think it will be fun, more than fun. Exhausting, but exquisite.

Meanwhile, our three months in Baja are about at an end. I saw the streets of La Paz with fresh eyes two days ago when I was walking around them for the last time, translating signs to myself and really looking at the foreign scene around me. What a great place. It’s funny how removed from Mexico we have been at times on this trip, as the three of us nestled down on board our little capsule of the U.S. in some anchorage or another. That lingering separation from the place where you are traveling, the lack of full immersion in the foreign culture, is a hallmark of traveling under sail – you naturally spend so much time aboard the boat, living and sailing and maintaining, and then visiting with other people from somewhere else who live on boats like you do. That’s the tradeoff for having your home with you as you see the world.

Which we do. Even though Alaska is far away and getting further, we don’t have any sense that we’re far from home. Pelagic is home. Alisa had a great insight the other day, saying, “I wonder if we won’t be chasing the idea of Alaska when we go back.” We both had such a great time in our twenties and thirties in the Great Land, going through all the traditional seminal experiences from college to grad school to marriage and family, and adding the many many Alaskan-only seminal experiences that involve remarkable people cast thin over an unbelievable landscape. We still plan on going back, but we’ll be in our forties, and seeing life in that new way, and the tone of our lives will be dependent on the old friendships that we can pick up and the new ones that we can find and well, who knows what going home again will bring.

For now we have no thoughts about going back beyond the “someday” kind. Sailing with a one year old is tough, and we talk about cruising for six months a year once we reach Australia until Elias is a little older. But going when we did was crucial, as it got us away when we were still in our thirties, and embracing this new life was (relatively) easy. We now wonder how long it might be until we swallow the anchor and go back to a career nine to five life. Consensus on board Pelagic is that it might be a long long time.


We're one day south of La Paz now, and will move further south tomorrow. The forecast is for good winds to carry us away from the Baja peninsula on Wednesday. Internet service is spotty where we are. I'll try to post some pictures from our last weeks in Baja; fingers crossed that it works.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

On the Cusp

Here we are at the ½ way point – 8 months into our life afloat and 8 more until we reach Oz. Seems high time for Alisa to make a blog entry. I have had a few ideas for blog entries along the way, but most were developed during a long night watch and spiraled wildly into circles of my past, seeming insufficient for readership in the light of day. I wrote about the naysayers that followed us all the way to San Diego, about California being overrun by grime and calloused souls (with the exception of Morro Bay), the practical challenges of provisioning in Mexico and raising an infant aboard, and most recently about the heartwarming experience of my parents visiting us and (at last!) fully embracing our journey.

But right now all I can think about is the next leg. We will be at sea for quite a stretch – nearly 2800 miles. I am eager to get over the first 3 days of feeling queasy and sleep deprived and enter the realm of being part of the boat and one with the rhythm of the sea. I wonder how it will be to cross the equator. I wonder how it will be to pass Mike like ships in the night as we constantly trade off boat and Elias duties…never really able to sit together for very long without burning up the other’s allotted time for sleep. I am eager for my nightly comparison of the stars as certain constellations grow higher and others flip on their head. I am no longer sad to see the big dipper on our stern. I am over the transition and realize that the only way home to Alaska is to go forward, which in this case is south.

I have been sewing bug screens and sun awnings for the tropics. These tasks have really made me reflect on how far we have traveled. In Kodiak no one would imagine a sun awning or living aboard without mold. Of course, I would trade condensation for the cockroaches we now encounter. Also, I am not eager to hand wash cloth diapers but I realize that even paradise has its dues. We have paid the price of endless late nights and being hyper-organized in order to think of every spare part and check every system on Pelagic. I had no idea my clothes and body would get caked in salt. The beds of my fingernails are cracking and splitting. The sun will take its toll and we will have to be diligent just as we were to avoid frostbite during winter camping trips in Alaska’s subarctic. I am confident the boat is safe and I completely trust the teamwork of me and Mike to make the upcoming passage. Yes, life is full of uncertainty, whether on land or at sea. Our risks are different and so we are more conscious of them, but they are not greater.

Elias is thriving and has become a nature lover, reader, and sailor. Yesterday we were hand-in-hand walking to the playground and I caught a glimpse of what we must look like to a stranger. I remembered the leap of faith I made to move aboard with our 10 month old son and go to sea. It feels so natural to have Elias growing up this way, but yesterday’s sudden awareness was a welcome reminder of how I struggled with the decision to leave our rich life on Kodiak. I think we are doing a great thing for ourselves and for Mike’s fulfillment of his dream and for our child to grow up this way. I would like to sail together as a family when our children are on the cusp on puberty – as I have recently met some wonderful kids age 11-15 and they seem centered and not awkward in the way that most of us were when we endured middle and high school. But that is thinking ahead far into the future, and right now I want to remain in the groove of anticipating the passage that awaits. Oh my!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tropic of Cancer


Perhaps the best day of sailing, ever.

I take over for Alisa at 0600, before sunrise. We’ve heard that you can see the Southern Cross from Baja, but though we’ve been looking and have thought we might have seen it a couple times, we never have been sure. “After you hear that Crosby, Stills and Nash song you kind of expect it to be a more dramatic moment,” Alisa said one evening as we were trying to decide if the crossed formation of stars we were looking at was the constellation in question.

But this morning, there it is, no question, low over the southern horizon. The celestial emblem of the southern horizon, looking just like it does on the Australian flag.

The black night is swallowed by a purple dawn and then a blue blue early morning. I see a booby (a masked booby, Sula dactylatra), our first booby of the trip, and a good sign that things are getting firmly tropical. Which they literally are, as shortly after dawn Pelagic crosses over latitude 23º26.37'N, the Tropic of Cancer. Which means that we have now officially sailed from 60°N to the tropics.

Pelagic, unconcerned with the abstractions of geography, is making good time on twelve knots of wind and a flat sea, the sails pulling us insistently further south. Just the night before I had been huddled under the cockpit light, writing about how acting on a dream is a step towards acceptance, since even when you live a dream you continue to live under the constraints of the demanding everyday. But I'm not thinking of constraints now. With the brown mountains of Baja backlit by the rising sun to port, water all around us that is the essence of blue, and my wife and son sleeping peacefully in the bunk below, I go forward to the bow to adjust some piece of rigging. I finish the job, then look up at our bow wave cleaving across the ocean and the frigate birds wheeling overhead. I find myself pumping one fist in the air, momentarily enlightened at the joy of the world as it should be.

This morning, every one else in the world is competing for second place.

Abreojos South


We leave Abreojos on the spur of the moment, hoping to make good on the light northerly breeze. An hour after the anchor is up, that wind is gone. We motor through the day and into the velvet-dark night, stars clear overhead, another yacht showing its lights far behind us. “Mexico!,” I say to Alisa before she goes to sleep at 2000. “South of 26 degrees north!” “I know,” she answers. “How did we get here?”

My watch passes. The sea is calm, the night warm. I look through photos of the first months of Elias’ life and feel myself falling into an abyss. That time is suddenly so long ago. As I page through the pictures that cover the span from umbilical stump to first solid food, I can extrapolate out to the length, and speed, of a lifetime. Our house on Kodiak looks so warm and inviting in the pictures. Alisa and I were both conscious that we might not ever live in such a spot again, with the high ceilings and the big windows looking out on the ocean and the pond that we skated on two memorable Christmas days in a row, the wood stove that provided the perfect atmosphere for weekend days spent reading on the couch when impossible Kodiak storms blew lichen loose from the spruce trees, the big porch over the pond that was warm enough to lounge on about two days each summer. And so on. But we also, and I think Alisa felt this as well as me, were equally sure that the thing for us to do was to sell it and cast ourselves fully onto this trip of indeterminate destination without trying to hold onto the life that we led during those seven great years in Kodiak, a life that we will not return to even if we return to the Island to live.

Which we may.

This is the sort of tangent that I find myself following during night watch, while the unlit western shore of Baja spools us by and two thirds of our little family sleeps below. Alisa and I each take five hours or so of being completely alone with the boat and our thoughts and a good book if we’re not too sleepy.

Dawn finds us near Bahía Santa Maria, our destination, though sailing in on a fitful breeze delays our arrival to the early afternoon. Two whales jump almost clear of the water in the distance, a Mola Mola floats by on its side and our two lures trail behind us, the lines gone limp and lazy with our low speed.

We hear another boat hailing our friends on Free Spirit on the VHF. We try hailing them as well but get no response, and assume that they’re too far south to hear us, the call of Central America keeping them on the move.

Bahía Santa Maria is big, with frigate birds soaring overhead, surf zippering in all along the shore, and a tumble-down fish camp at the head of the bay. After we anchor I lie down on the settee, suddenly exhausted from being up half the night. Alisa and I talk back and forth about getting our dinghy, the Fair Dinkum, into the water so that we can go to the beach.

We finally do rouse ourselves to the job of unlashing the dinghy from deck, putting the two pieces together, and getting the whole thing in the water. We’re both tired, and irritable, and prone to the seesaw of one person’s bad mood infecting the other. Elias is full of beans, running around the cabin happily when we’re below, screaming and crying when we go on deck to launch the dinghy. By the time I’ve got the oars in place and everything else ready the wind has come up too hard for us to take Elias and I row in alone. I hesitate a long time before braving the small breakers on the beach but find the actual landing to be no problem. I’m alone on a huge expanse of sand, a broad beach that curves around this bay for miles. Wind blows sand off the dunes. Ospreys cruise low over lagoons. When I launch back into the surf two little waves break directly into the boat and fill the bow section with water.

The next day the wind is still blowing too hard to get Eli into the beach, so we pull the anchor and sail under jib alone down the ten miles of coast to the entrance to Bahía Magdalena. A northbound yacht hails us on the VHF, complaining about the stiff breeze that has spray flying into their cockpit, while we, southbound, enjoy the delights of having the wind behind us. Getting from the southern tip of Baja back to San Diego involves 750 miles of sailing or motoring into the prevailing northwesterly winds, a proposition that is widely considered to be no fun whatsoever. Whenever I see a boat heading north, working so hard to reach a destination of such dubious merit, I am always quietly smug with the knowledge that we’re not going back, at least not that way.

After Alisa finishes talking with the northbound boat we get a great surprise – a hail from Free Spirit. It turnes out that they are anchored in Bahía Magdalena, just a few miles away. We anchor next to them, off of the tiny town of Puerto Magdalena, and have a great time catching up. We're sad to see them pulling the hook and heading south a couple days later, still bound for Central America. But who knows in this new sailing life of ours - our paths may cross again in some unlikely spot.

Bahía Magdalena attracted my attention when I first started looking at Baja maps when we were planning this trip. It’s a huge embayment, blessed with a deep-water entrance, but fringed with biologically productive shoals and mangrove swamps. Magdalena is also one of the bays where gray whales come to calve every winter. Once we arrive, I am ready to slow down and spend as much time as we wanted to. “Where are we going that’s so much better than this?” I ask Alisa. So we while the days away. We each take a turn riding a local panga with other cruisers into San Carlos, the big port on the north end of Bahía Magdalena, we visit with Paul and Ann, we take great walks in the mountains and coastal plains around Bahía Magdalena. Other cruisers come and go, but we are happy just staying and taking care of Eli and getting ashore for a little while each day.

Our propane is running low; one bottle is empty, and we can’t remember when we switched over to the second, so we aren’t sure how long it will last. I try getting the empty bottle filled up in San Carlos, without success. Since we are planning on sailing right by the fleshpots of Cabo San Lucas, we will have to go all the way to La Paz before we can expect to get more. Suddenly, we have a reason to get going, and we do, pulling the hook at noon one day and setting off on the 220 mile trip around the tip of the Baja peninsula.

On the hook, Bahía Magdalena.

Alisa in the Port Captain's panga.

Puerto Magdalena.

Trying to keep Eli out of the cacti, the hills above Puerto Magdalena.

Desert flower.

Shell collecting, Puerto Magdalena.

Looking out over the Pacific, the supercargo zonkered.

The longest walk of Eli's life, middle of nowhere.

Catch me if you can.

Not every picture needs a caption.

The Rose, with thorns.

The fleet at Puerto Magdalena.

A few weeks later, our friend Jamie asks us if we had seen scads of little gray whale calves in Bahia Magdalena. The truth was, we hadn’t seen one gray whale. We had heard that it was still a little early in the year for the whales to be arriving, but we never checked it out for ourselves, never left Puerto Magdalena to explore the shallower parts of the bay where the whales congregate. We had a fine visit, and we are always restricted in how much we can do by the fact that we’re involved in intensive parenting every day of the trip. But talking to Jamie, in a restaurant looking out on the malecón in La Paz, I thought of all the great-looking country on the chart of Magdalena Bay that we had never explored, and how we had managed to spend more than a week sitting in one of the two anchorages recommended by our cruising guide without seeing anything else. It was a good lesson, early on, about the hazards of staying on the defined cruising routes, anchoring in the prescribed anchorages, and traveling in the bubble of the society of other people traveling on sailboats, without taking the time to explore the world for ourselves.