It was my first shift of our first night passage in six months and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what was just ahead.
After umpteen hours of sailing into twenty-knots-on-the-nose, the wind had petered out and the quiet whisper of sails had given way to the mechanical chug of pistons. Thick clouds wrapped the entire sky in blackout curtains, obscuring even dots of starlight.
When I first learned to sail, I found it disconcerting that I couldn’t identify landmarks from far away. My frighteningly poor sense of navigation on land had made me crave contextual security (I’m a downright sucker for Google maps) but eventually I learned that on the water, with proximity, the breakwater rocks became distinct from the harbor opening and car headlights distinguishable from channel markers. All I needed was a faith that in due time, all would be revealed.
As we transited that nighttime no-man's-land, forty miles from shore, I tried to have faith in the Big Reveal. We plunged through bioluminescence so rich our bow waves sparkled like Rockette costumes and our wake stretched an emerald green trail for several football fields. There may have been no light from above, but there was plenty of it from below. In fact, that was the problem.
What the heck was that faintly glowing, boat-sized oval oriented at one o’clock, 500 feet out?
400 feet out.
300 feet out.
It was a dull glow, but something was there. Wasn’t there? Something roughly our size-ish. Why couldn’t I make out its running lights? My brain’s object identification wheels weren’t clicking into place fast enough. Where was the Big Reveal??
Wait — why was the boat underneath the water??
When I finally connected the dots, my slow-witted brain refused to believe the picture they portrayed.
Clearly it was a 40-foot long, glowing figment of my imagination that passed not ten feet off our starboard bow. A figment of my imagination that waited patiently for us to pass, then made a sharp right turn and continued underneath our wake and on into the night. A figment of my imagination with flukes.
I would never have known that ghost whale existed but for the rich bioluminescence that illuminated the surrounding space.
Luckily, the whale apparently didn’t doubt her own eyes — or ears, or echo-locators or whatever. As a far better seawoman than I was that night, she followed the ultimate USCG rule of the road — avoid a collision at all costs — for both of us.
Next time, though, Cheyenne, trust your freaking instincts!
Thanks to the whale’s clearly superior piloting, I didn’t spend the next three hours of my watch afraid of what could have happened, but in utter awe of what did. That incredible glowing whale will be cemented on the memory-wall of my brain for as long as I’m lucky enough to draw breath.
Awe is not something we encounter often in modern life. In fact, it’s something we usually have to go far afield to seek. But man, you know it when you see it. A (non-religious) friend of mine once called those moments of spectacular wonder bordering on disbelief: advertisements for God. Define those experiences however you want spiritually. You feel them to the core of your soul.
Colin and I would soon experience another such moment together. But first, let’s catch you up.
While you were making pies, stringing lights, lighting candles and cursing the holiday shopping list, Colin and I were enrolled in six weeks of Boatyard Bootcamp. For those seeking the latest fitness craze, may I humbly suggest replacing CrossFit burpees with eighty-two trips a day up and down a 15-foot ladder carrying random objects, all heavy. Add all day ‘wax on, wax off’ sessions of hull preparation, then more days of lifting a paint roller endlessly overhead (pro tip: load the roller with antifouling full of copper until it weighs 25 pounds). And if you’re truly serious about losing that water weight, wrap yourself up head to toe in a Tyvek suit so you practically have to punch drain holes in the booties.
Yeah, we could have just paid someone. Maybe next time we will. But there is at least as much satisfaction as frustration in DIY projects, and we felt a lot closer to Pristine by the time she finally splashed into the water. Also, a lot more exhausted.
Oh, but bootcamp didn’t end there, it just transitioned to the marina, where we cleaned and polished every cubic millimeter of stainless, teak and fiberglass, inspected and snugged up the rigging, bent on the sails, changed the oil, transmission fluid and fuel filters, re-weatherproofed the engine hatch, replaced the water tank inspection port o-rings, installed GFI outlets and smoke detectors, connected grounding wires and replaced the corroded sink drains.
Of course, when I say we, I mostly mean the Royal We of Colin, who lived up the mast for days at a time. I may be the Type-A, future-planning, watch-watching, checklist-checking member of the Sailing Pristine team, but for all his Rasta surfer vibe, Colin is the hardest worker I’ve ever met. Hands down. He’s the one who gets it done, and to a standard few mortals ever even attempt. For all his hard work, he earned himself both the outward ridicule and the inward respect of our dock mates, who complained he was making them look bad.
Truly, most cruisers don’t go to these lengths. While we spent four weeks in the slip re-commissioning Pristine, we watched others come and go in 48 hours. But there are a lot of types of cruisers. Not all of them are trying to ensure their boat is ready to cross an ocean or two. Let’s just say I am a lucky first mate.
Funny thing, it was more than just the boat that needed a little polishing. When we finally left the slip, we found six months of rust had also built up on our sailing skills.
Oops! Forgot in light wind our fully unfurled genoa can’t be sheeted all the way in or it chafes against the shrouds.
Oops! Forgot to take the waterproofing putty off the chain hawser before dropping the anchor.
Oops! Forgot we used to post the weather forecast on the bulletin board so we wouldn’t do something as silly as sail three miles away from the anchorage before realizing the northerly we wanted to ride wasn’t forecast till tomorrow, and return like idiots an hour later to the same spot. You can add to that one, Oops, couldn’t we have also seen that lack of wind on the horizon?
Like I said, rusty.
Photo credit: SV La Niña
But it also came back too. Especially the joy. No, let me more accurately call it the bliss of being in an awe-inspiring place few humans get a chance to experience. Of seeing the spectacular geology of Baja, from jagged peaks and hidden coves straight out of a Jurassic Park movie to strata so jam-packed with clam and oyster shells it is almost more animal than mineral, of volcanic pumice and glassy obsidian rocks the size of grapefruits just rolling around on the beach.
Add to that the crystal clear water, the dolphin pods making their morning rounds, the turtles who swing by when we drop or weigh anchor as if they can sense it, the grouper and triggerfish and tasty cabrilla, the ever-diving pelicans and circling osprey and occasionally inquisitive boobies.
You never know what you’re going to get, but it never fails to disappoint.
Which brings us back to the whales.
Puerto Escondido is a gorgeous and practically round natural harbor just a few miles south of Loreto, nearly a mile long with an entrance only 200 feet wide. Last time we were here in June, the place was so alive with leaping mobula rays catching six feet of air that as we planed across the surface in our dinghy, I feared I might end up with a surprise lap dance.
This time, we motored more slowly. Good thing. Because the head that raised itself above the surface, not 25 feet from our bow, was a member of the cetacean family. That knobby head was bigger than my old Volkswagen back home and dwarfed our 8-foot Achilles.
The gray whale casually checked us out for several moments before disappearing below the dark blue surface. I’ll never figure out how a 40-foot whale can disappear in 30 feet of water, but I’m sure Penn & Teller would be intrigued. That one itty bitty moment may have lasted 20 seconds — even if I’d had a camera waiting in hand, I doubt I could have gotten the shot — but it will last a lifetime on that memory-wall once again. What Colin got instead, the shot at the beginning of this post, was the aftermath of that awe. The closest we can come to sharing some of these unbelievable experiences with you guys.
Chalk up one more pretty darned effective advertisement for God.
Fair winds and following seas, dear friends.
Where Are We Now?
We’re still in Puerto Escondido for the next day or two, but will soon leave the internet behind again for that crazy old-school, iPhone-less world we used to call reality. Those of us with at least few wrinkles remember a time we somehow managed without smartphones. These days, when we’re pinged by hundreds of emails and texts and notifications and reminders, we may even remember it rather fondly. :)
Anyway, Colin and I have big plans for future cruising, and a lot more prep to do when we reach La Paz, but for now, we’re really trying to slow down and be in the moment. The Sea of Cortez is one of the most beautiful cruising grounds in the world, and we want to take full advantage of this awe-inspiring place.
Holy goodness, have people been amazing to us in the last several weeks! Massive thanks to the SV La Niña crew for the mountain summit expedition at Tetas de Cabra and for the stories, the photos and the nifty hat! Royce of SV Sail Fish was not only the master of advice and encouragement, but changed Colin’s life (and thus mine) by replacing the TSA-nixed Tom’s toothpaste he can’t live without. Also, he gave us some pink miracle mystery stuff that cleaned everything to brand spanking new condition. We hope we never learn what it’s made of. And many thanks to Jim of SV Silver Fog for the rides (plural) and hike at San Juanico, as well as José the farmer at Bahia San Basilico for the unbelievable fresh goat cheese.
Meanwhile, should you ever find yourself In rather desperate need of a SAMS-accredited marine surveyor in San Carlos because the old insurance company ends its coverage at the Mexico border and the new one, amazingly, wants to know your boat floats before the underwriters can proceed, we heartily recommend Gary’s Marine Surveys. Also, if you just want great advice and/or a lifetime’s worth of stories about NASA missions, airplane engine failures, diving expeditions or boat incidents, he’s your guy. And last but not least, Carlos the rigger is fantastic, and truly dedicated to building rigs to withstand whatever Aeolus and Neptune conspire to throw at them.