Gentlemen Never Sail to Weather, so What the Hell am I Doing Here?
This is the story of what happens when you don’t have a day job. Feeling adventurous this spring I signed up to cook aboard a sail training vessel headed up the coast of Baja. It was a delivery after the Newport to Cabo race but it was also a sail training run on a renowned vessel with students aboard. The notorious 850 mile Baja Bash, is a West Coast phenomenon, usually left to paid delivery captains or the unfortunate cruiser who needs to get out of Mexico before hurricane season nullifies his insurance. Not just another milk run in the tradewinds, the Baja Bash is an unavoidable trip for anyone returning from Mexico. It’s the ultimate bad plan - sailing to weather, along an open coastline, for days on end, in March.
As the cook, I completed the crew of three with the skipper and first mate on Alaska Eagle, the flagship of the Orange Coast College School of Sailing & Seamanship in California. With six students aboard we headed out into the bay of Cabo San Lucas one evening under sail for crew orientation and drills.
Alaska Eagle, was designed by Sparkman and Stevens for Cornelius van Rietschoten. (Really? Cornelius? Why, that must be yaaachting.) She was built by the Dutch Royal Huisman Shipyard to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race. Originally named Flyer, she started life as a ketch and won the race in 1978. The aluminum hull was converted to a sloop and renamed Alaska Eagle by new owner, Neil Bergt, who eventually donated her to the OCC program where she has sailed over 200,000 miles with eager students competing for a berth to just about anywhere.
At 65 feet, Eagle is not a little daysailer. In fact, nothing about Eagle is little. The sails are large and heavy and there is no roller furling. It takes at least 6 people to raise the main and none of the 14 winches is electric. Even the bilge is pumped manually with the strokes counted at the end of each watch. No automation, no autopilot, few comforts, and lots of big loads on lots of big scary equipment.
These runs are great for cruising sailors who’d like to do trips they wouldn’t dream of taking on in their own boat. Our group was a fairly experienced bunch that came from all walks of life and shared equally in duties aboard. A rotation of daily cleaning tasks was posted with colorful names such as Galley Slave, Deck Patrol, Secretary of the Interior and Head Honcho. You’re a CFO, huh? Well, here’s a bucket and sponge – enjoy head duty. It was a necessary effort to keep peace and order on a boat for days on end as well as a great equalizer. Nobody seemed to mind.
Traditional wisdom dictates that boats headed up, hug the coast to avoid a thrashing. Two boats that had left the previous day had returned - one had pounded so hard that the captain decided to trailer the boat back up Baja. Looking at the chart showing the run in its entirety, I wondered if I could maybe just serve Saltines and Spam for 9 days without anyone noticing.
But a high pressure system settled over Baja and by the time we snuck around the cape, we found calm conditions. Defying proven tactics, we ran the rhumb line, anywhere from 4 to 40 miles off the coast. It was eerily calm and we motorsailed with one reef in the main – taking advantage of the weather window and keeping clear of the capes where 2-3 knot currents pushed us back as if we were not getting our fair share of the due punishment we expected.
Since we had students and calm weather, the skipper made sure there was a lesson plan every afternoon. Subjects included an overview of weather, celestial navigation, knot tying and a sail trim class with notes written on the world’s most expensive dry erase board – Eagle’s boom.
The days grew colder as the lazy grey swells rolled under us. At night, there were so many stars in the sky above and reflected from the water below that it almost induced vertigo. Those new to night sailing stared wide-eyed into the darkness as we pushed along at 8 knots. Someone likened it to riding a giant worm through space.
You Want to Put That Where?
Because it was so calm, seasickness was not a major issue on this trip. But on a previous, exceptionally bouncy crossing, one of the students wasn’t doing well and on the second day of serious seasickness it became clear that alternative measures had to be taken before severe dehydration set in. Sitting in the cockpit that night with the first mate and the skipper, the discussion went like this.
Captain: “We need to think about suppository treatment with him.”
(Worried looks exchanged between me and the mate.) After all, medical emergencies aboard are the responsibility of the captain so what do you mean “we”? I wasn’t sure just how far “suppository treatment” was to be taken by someone other than the patient.
Captain: “Let’s look for one in the med kit.”
I mumbled that I had to fry onions in preparation for breakfast and quickly slipped below where I stayed busy, making the sounds of being busy – banging pots and pans. Bang, bang, bang.
After a time, the first mate emerged from the head where the med kit lived, looking dazedly at what she held in her hand – an earplug.
I stated the obvious: “I don’t think that’ll do it.”
“It felt like the right shape when I searched for it at the bottom of a black bag in the dark head,” she said “But something in my tired brain said this might not work.”
“Nope,” I replied. Bang, bang, bang.
She appeared again, this time with the correct medication in her hand. It was much larger than I expected. It would definitely not fit in an ear. Bang, bang, bang.
To the great relief of at least three people onboard, the student chose to self-medicate. The mate returned to the cockpit for watch. Realizing that since we were having French toast for breakfast there was no real need for onions, I retired to my bunk, the day’s emergency over.
The mid-point of the trip up the coast of Baja and a common stop for most boaters, is Turtle Bay where pangas offering fuel ran out to greet us. This is a safe harbor offering provisioning, Internet access and even a medical clinic. Thinking ahead, I dodged one night’s cooking by organizing dinner at a local home, cooked for us by Olivia who provides meals in her house, complete with entertainment featuring her two singing Chihuahuas.
The second half of the trip to San Diego was blissfully much like the first. Since we had transferred fuel from the bladders on deck to the main tank while in Turtle Bay, we had no need to stop in Ensenada and so we pulled into the San Diego police docks at 0600 on the seventh day with hardly a puff to break the surface of the water.
Even a calm trip needs a break in routine. Showers, a dockside party and a day of yachting on San Diego Bay went a long way to recharging a complacent crew. But the cockiness that developed over the past 6 days was about to be disrupted.... TUNE IN TOMORROW AS THE EAGLE TRIP GOES FOR A BIG FINISH
This article first appeared in Latitudes & Attitudes magazine