T he day had come. After 3 years of preparations it was time to cast off the lines and leave the North American continent for the palm-fringed South Pacific "paradise" that filled our thoughts. Mexico had a lot to offer that we had not sampled, and the sea of Cortez was such a rich concentration of marine life that we vowed to return with at least a year to dedicate to it. For now it was time to pursue a dream that had dominated my thoughts for many years: to cross an ocean in my own boat, outfitted with my own hands. As a young boy in Plymouth, England, I used to dive and fish in Plymouth Sound and watch the big yachts set off on the round-the-world-races. I thought how incredible it would be to explore the world's oceans in a small boat, photographing and diving tiny islands which few people could ever access and experience.
Now, 28 years later, I find myself with my wife, Jen, at the tip of Baja California, casting off the lines for a 2,960 nautical mile journey across the Pacific to Polynesia. All I knew about ocean passages had been read from books and learned from seminars. Let's face it, the only way to get experience in crossing an ocean is to cross one. Like skydiving, you don't know what it's like jumping out of a perfectly good plane until you actually step out of the door at 12,000 feet. No amount of videos or books can give you that experience. The boat was fully prepared, but the question remained - were we ready for 30 days of pitching and rolling in a small boat, with no option to get off or tie up in a marina?
Jen had provisioned the boat so well that it was more like a submarine than a sailboat. We were now down into the red boot stripe at the waterline, and the goose barnacles loved that. I went around the boat with snorkel gear and a plastic scraper to get rid of the little critters and add 0.00001 knots to our blazing 6.5 knot hull speed. Inside the boat I have never seen so many baskets of fruit, vegetables, tins of stew, chili, chicken, potato chips, tortilla chips, crackers, more chips, peanuts, and more emergency chips. The entire V berth was a maze of baskets and nets stuffed full of goodies and junk foods. One thing is for sure; if an Alexander-Gerhart boat goes down, the survivors will weigh twice their normal weight and be able to live in their raft for several years on body fat alone. The sinking vessel would cause such a plankton bloom that the entire ocean ecosystem will be thrown out of balance.
So it was, on Wednesday May 5th, the skipper of the 6 million dollar luxury yacht "Paradise Found" and his wife took our photo at the marina in Cabo, cast off our lines and wished us "fairwinds". As we chugged out of the harbor surrounded by mega yachts, including one with a helicopter on the aft deck, I thought about how huge the Pacific is and how tiny Sojourner was. I reassured myself that "small is good", but somehow wasn't convinced. The helicopter looked like a logical addition, a necessity almost. Jen was quiet, pensive and secretly wondering how the heck she'd ended up with a Brit hell-bent on conquering a world that has been conquered many times over. I could see her looking at the bridge of a 130 foot mega yacht wondering if they have to boil their vegetables in sea water to conserve water. Oh well, I'd have been dead before I could even afford the china on that yacht, so this is it, like it or not! We're OFF!
We powered past the famous arch that had welcomed us to the Sea of Cortez, and into the Pacific Ocean once again. But Cabo wasn't ready to let us go and the wind blasted around the corner at 30 knots and the waves built to 8 feet on the nose. I scrambled forward to close the hawse pipe (the pipe that lets chain down under our berth), so we wouldn't soak all the bedding. Clinging desperately to the deck, I fumbled with the chain and got the cap on. I looked up at the moment Sojourner punched her bow and me right through a Pacific wave. There was a brief "green moment" as I sampled the plankton and then popped out the other side. I'm convinced to this day that if there had been less chips stowed in the V-berth we may have gone over the wave instead of under. Oh well, I wanted to be an old salt. But now it was getting ridiculous. As tough as we weren't, I decided this was not the best start to a Pacific crossing. So we swung her around, ran downwind like a bat out of hell and dropped the trusty hook just off the beach in front of the Hacienda hotel. Jen pulled out some cold beers, I wiped the salt from my face and we sat quietly watching the Jet Skis see how close they could get to our boat at 50 mph. I dreamed of my invention.
The next morning I was up at dawn with binoculars, scanning the horizon for the huge waves of yesterday. "Nope, it's all clear; let's go" I said. "No matter what, we are not coming back!". This time we had foul weather gear out, all the hatches battened, and our tough "nothing phases us" faces on. Sure enough, as we rounded Cabo Falso, the anemometer went into the hell-sector of 30 Kts from dead ahead. The Pacific swell with 9 foot seas added on just popped out of nowhere to see if we were serious. It was so nasty we had to head 180 degrees (toward Acapulco), almost 50 degrees from where we wanted to go. We got 10 miles out, then eased into the seas. It was sheer torture; the bow pounded so hard it was all we could do to hang on. There was a huge current on our tail, opposing the wind, and we were "howling" along at 8.5 to 9 Kts. But current vs. wind is a very, very bad mixture. In my pretended, infinite salty wisdom, I consoled Jen. "Don't worry, this is a local phenomenon; Cabo Falso is the Cape Horn of California, so it'll die down about 20 miles out". Her look told me that she had figured out that old salts often use the phrase "local phenomenon" when they don't know what the hell is causing the weather. Twelve hours later, we are still taking waves across the deck, in the cockpit, and down our necks as we crawl around tending sails. At one point I asked Jen if she wanted to go back, and she said "If I go back now, I will never leave Cabo again on a boat". OOPS, I'd better not suggest that again!
For 24 hours we had to brace ourselves and move around the boat like orangutans. We only ate snacks (chips) since it would be impossible to prepare a meal without coating the entire cabin with it. So we spent most of the time bundled up in the cockpit asking questions like "what have we done?", "it ... it... can't be like this all the way......can it?" Using my old salt wisdom, I assured Jen that Pacific meant "peaceful ocean", but I was secretly wondering what idiot gave it that name.
That night we got into a watch routine and I took the 8 to 12 watch, Jen the midnight to 4 am and then me back on at 8 am. Sitting out in the cockpit alone under the stars, with the hiss of foam passing the boat, and the howl of the wind in the rigging, I had time for reflection. With the first 80 nautical miles under the keel, it was impossible for me to imagine another 2,800. So I just focused on the next waypoint, an imaginary GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) dot in the ocean 140 miles away, and things didn't seem so bad. I looked down the companionway into the cabin bathed in red light. Jen was curled up in a quilt in the sea berth, unable to sleep with the crashing of the rigging, thumping of waves against the hull, and rumbling of water in the tanks. I wondered how long it would take to get into the "rhythm" where life in a small boat on the high seas seems normal. Our inner ears needed to disassociate visual cues from motion, our autonomic nervous system and white muscles needed to predict the next roll and lurch, and our conscious mind needed to accept the crashing, grating and banging as background noise. I guessed it would be a long time. I set the timer for 20 minutes and took a nap.