On the laid-back Baja Ha-Ha cruise from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, a city dweller from the Midwest learned little about sailing and a lot about himself.
Docked next to us in the harbor in San Diego was a floating Chicago
family room inside a run-down old power cruiser. An old man sat in his
wood-paneled cabin, watching the Sunday night football game on a TV far
too large for a boat with any name other than The Bridgeport, Chicago,
Ill. Though I wondered how this sedentary soul had gotten his boat from
Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, I didn’t try to talk with him. He
seemed too comfortable in his little Chicago world, as I had been, just
a day before.
I thought I had seen the last of Chicago when I kissed my wife and
three-year-old daughter goodbye outside O’Hare. “Let’s make this
quick,” I told my wife, and she understood why.
I was leaving our fireside to spend two weeks in the Pacific Ocean,
in a 780-mile sailing rally that I couldn’t pronounce with a straight
face, the Baja Ha-Ha. I was dropping my familiar work and taking up a
new job—sailing a boat—that I knew nothing about. I was locking myself
in a small space with an older sister with whom I hadn’t spent this
kind of time since I was seven, her husband who I knew mostly from
family holidays and his son, who I knew barely at all.
Susan, Lewis and Ryan Guthrie all live in the anti-Chicago: the
spiritually enlightened and health-nutty haven of Boulder, Colo. (They
brought comfort food; I brought cigars.) Also, they had all sailed
before, whereas my sailing expertise amounted to what I had gleaned
from watching a preposterously hokey sailing video called Learn to Sail
and reading Sailing for Dummies. A pompous declaration that I had made
in order to justify taking this nearly two-week leave from my
responsibilities—“sailing is an essential human skill,” I told my
Chicago friends—came back to bite me as I realized that everybody on
the boat had this essential human skill but me.
The crew of our 42-foot Beneteau had one thing in common: The sheer
distance of the trip and all the unknown water ahead had all of us
wondering how we’d hold up. On Sunday afternoon, an otherwise ebullient
Tom Miller, captain of fellow Ha-Ha boat Imagine a nearby slip, already
ached in anticipation that the time would fly. Snapping the fingers of
the hand that wasn’t holding the can of Tecate, “This trip’ll go by
The crew of the Mystical Traveler wasn’t so sure.
In my cabin on Sunday night, as I drifted into the last full night’s
sleep I’d have for who knew how many days, I could comfort myself only
with the dismissive words of a pal who I’d called before I left. I told
him I was a little worried about the trip. “Oh for Christ sake,” he
said. “You’re just going on a boat.”
Inky black despair and a moonlit miracle
A few hours after the 11:00 a.m. start on Monday, Oct. 30, the
record 165 boats in this year’s Ha-Ha had spread out some. We’d sailed
long enough and headed far enough offshore that we weren’t sure if the
low-slung city on the coast to our east was still in California. Or was
Somehow we fell into a conversation about the state of education in
the inner cities of America that was as dreary and windy as the
weather. After a time we all wanted out of the abstract argument that
we would never resolve, about schools in cities far over the eastern
horizon. Suddenly another school—of dolphins—merrily surfaced about 20
feet off our starboard. Though they were gone within a minute, they had
taught us a lesson, and for the rest of the trip we mostly stuck to
more immediate and agreeable subjects. Everybody gets hungry, everybody
gets thirsty, everybody needs to use the head.
And soon, more than anything, everybody would need sleep.
sailed three straight nights on that first leg. The first night, we
comforted one another in three-hour two-person shifts. We also bored
one another, winding out anecdotes into long stories, like talk-show
hosts waiting for callers that never came. After that, we settled on
two-hour, one-person shifts would offer everyone more sleep and require
At 4:00 a.m. the second night, I commenced my first solo watch. I
sat at the wheel, hoping the wind direction wouldn’t change, as I would
have been able to refill a luffing sail only by changing course. When
the sun finally lightened the gray eastern sky, I wrote in my notebook
about the “inky black misery—what am I doing here?—wishing I were
home.” I noted that homesickness at sea had a particular poignancy
because of “the great endless whooshing, gurgling evidence of how
impossibly far away you are.”
It wasn’t until after I’d closed the notebook that I noticed a that
small squid had been thrown from a following whitecap and landed on the
seat next to me, where it suffocated, probably while I was busy
recording my easily earned despair.
The very next evening, on my watch at 2:00 a.m., I received the
first hint that sailing could ever be anything for me but dull
discomfort. After two days and two nights lurching in 15-knot winds on
disorganized and ugly water, and having slept fitfully in a heaving
cabin with my stomach sloshing inside me like a one water balloon
inside another, I woke in a different boat in another place. We were
making little more than three knots on in a very light wind, and I
didn’t have to Velcro the coffee maker to the galley counter. The
choppy Pacific Ocean was now a gentle, wise old river. The only sounds,
as the moon disappeared at 2:30, were a slight creaking of the boom and
the draft behind the boat, its rhythmic wake-suction sounding like the
oars of my childhood rowboat gently digging into dawn’s still water.
Eventually the wind died down even further, and I woke the captain
and his son. After sailing 65 hours straight, we motored for the last
two, entering Turtle Bay as the sun came up. Dolphins escorted us to
our anchorage and a sea lion waved hello.
Dancing with the dinosaurs
The Baja Ha-Ha isn’t one event, it’s two. There’s the sailing,
during which you see a half-dozen boats on the distant horizon and your
contact with the fleet—and you come to crave the diversion—amounts to a
daily roll call on the single sideband radio and the occasional
broadcast from a Ha-Ha boat. (A captain reported one sunny day that his
young son had hooked a marlin off the back of the boat and declared
after it spit the hook, “This is the worst day of my life.”)
Mostly, though, you are alone with your crew and the sails and the
GPS screen and whatever you’ve brought to read and Billy Joel and your
thoughts, whether you like them or not.
After that solitude, life in the bays—the Ha-Ha stops after 360
miles at Turtle Bay, then goes 240 miles to Bahia Santa Maria and then
another 180 to Cabo San Lucas—is disorienting in its own way. After
breakfast on a stable table and a deep sleep that you don’t take for
granted, you wake at noon and realize that after days of long underwear
and windbreakers, there is suddenly too much sun and too little wind
and you can’t stand to be up top even in a golf shirt.
At Turtle Bay, there’s a small town for which the annual arrival of
the hundreds of thirsty, hungry Ha-Ha sailors—this year, there were
657—is the commercial highpoint of the year. Mexican men roared around
in simple boats, taxiing Ha-Ha sailors to shore and picking up trash
for a dollar a bag. Pilots of overloaded dinghies tentatively wended
their way around the bay, looking for their boat in a forest of masts.
A Ha-Ha sailor swam up to our boat and chatted comfortably for 20
minutes in the buoyant saltwater. Crews traded gin for fish and steaks
for beer. (I got five minutes with my wife on an iridium cell phone in
exchange for enduring a 20-minute tour of the proud captain’s boat.)
In desolate Bahia Santa Maria, there was no town, no water taxis and
no wind. In that vacuum, the radio roll call echoed across the water
from all the boats so that Richard Spindler, the Ha-Ha’s charismatic
“Grand Poobah,” emanated from everywhere at once. Spindler is editor
and publisher of the Latitude 38 Sailing Magazine and the captain of a
big catamaran named Profligate. “I was put on earth to help people have
a little fun.”
That’s hard work—work for which Spindler insists he makes no money.
He earns much of the $299 Ha-Ha entry fee by deftly moderating lengthy
radio discussions attempting to connect Ha-Ha sailors with problems
with sailors with solutions. One captain needs some spinnaker tape,
another wonders if anyone could help him fix a bent bowsprit, another
needs a sail repair kit, another needs some rudder bearings and one
captain’s daughter has her retainer stuck in her mouth.
Most of these problems are solved thanks to the fleet’s large size
and amiable spirit. But when one boat’s motor went out 10 miles short
of Bahia Santa Maria and, barely making any headway, it was looking for
a tow from a nearby power boat, Spindler rejected the idea as strongly
as his Grand Poobah persona would allow. “It’s important to be
self-sufficient,” he said over the radio, and soliciting a tow in a
non-emergency situation was, in his book, both “kinda funky” and “not
cool.” Many captains radioed in their agreement with Spindler’s spin on
the situation, and the censured boat limped under its meager sail power
many hours later.
In each harbor, a woman used the radio to invite “Friends of Bill
W.”—code for members of Alcoholics Anonymous—to join her on another
channel to talk about arranging a meeting. I imagine there’s a need for
AA members to stick together in this environment. Though Spindler
cautiously claims on the Ha-Ha Web site that this trip is not a
drinking binge, the quantity and the quality of the dancing at the
beach parties he organizes at each stop tell another story. Middle-aged
men often sing at the top of their lungs and middle-aged women
occasionally take off their tops. As Tom Miller put it, “I’m a member
of Alcoholics Unanimous.”
The younger people on the trip—and at 37, I was decidedly in that
group—watched with amusement as their elders, many of whom use the
Ha-Ha to launch a sail into retirement, celebrate their second youth.
Within minutes of meeting the fifty-something couple that sails the
Velociraptor, we learned that Bill _____ and Mary _____ like to sail
alone together because they like to sail naked.
note in the official Ha-Ha crew bio book, their boat “is named after
the mating ritual of the velociraptor.”
What happens on an uneventful trip
After one truly thrilling nine-knot sail the first night out of
Turtle Bay—surfing down a pushing wave we reached 11 knots, and lying
in my cabin felt like being in an underwater rocket ship—the wind died
and we motored for most of last two legs.
Without sails or waves or weather to worry about and only hours to
kill in the sun, the brain goes a little bovine. What do I need to
amuse myself, or make myself feel a little better? Coffee, food, beer,
sun, shade, a smoke, music, my book, a different perch, a nap?
Actually, it’s a lot to monitor, and the keeping track of it is how one
passes the time.
Meanwhile, other things are happening. On the Mystical Traveler, a
wife is weighing how much she loves to sail against how much she loves
her husband who loves to sail. The husband is watching her. He’s also
watching his 24-year-old son, who demands acknowledgement that he is as
good a sailor and thinker and problem-solver as the old man. A brother
and a sister are coming to understand that their occasional family
differences, at this vast remove, nothing more than seams in a sail.
And an inexperienced and nonessential crew member at first misses
the sense of mastery he gets from navigating the endless professional
and personal politics of his own sea, the city. And then he comes to
revel in his respite from the complications. And then finds himself,
for the first time in years, singing songs at the stars so his wife can
hear them. He writes in his notebook:
“Feel younger, newer, less encrusted than have in years—remember I
am more than the acquired skills and confident claims I trade for tiny
bits of money and status in Chicago. Starting to hope that some of
these couples can shake all the years of trying to thrive in a deeply
complex and compromising society and be children together again. Don’t
believe this little sea spell will last. Chicago has its own spell and
all this water will go down its sewer drains. But, like falling in love
again, I suppose, it’s reassuring to know I can still feel it.”
Actually, the spell broke in the busy anchorage at Cabo San Lucas,
where it’s noisy even at night. Unable to sleep, I took my pillow from
my cabin and lay on a bench in the cockpit and felt the sting of each
of a dozen chronic worries about work and money that I’d left in San
Diego snap one by one like rubber bands stretched the length of the
Baja Peninsula. In my head, Billy Joel sang “Somewhere along the line,
you know it’s just a matter of time, when the fun falls through and the
rent comes due, somewhere along the line.”
I forced myself to switch songs to “You’re My Home” and I thought of
happier things ahead: Being alone among strangers on the airplane on
the flight to L.A. and the redeye to Chicago. Seeing the old familiar
skyline from a cab on the Kennedy. And—oh!—crawling into bed with my
wife and daughter.
I wouldn’t be leaving the boat for two more days, but I was starting to pack my thoughts.
I thought about what I would tell my Chicago friends about what I had and hadn’t learned about sailing.
I could never manage to tie an unattached line into a recognizable
loop. In almost two hundred hours at sea, I did not memorize the
functions of more than half the lines. I couldn’t land a dinghy on a
beach without risking death by the outboard propeller. I didn’t find a
reasonable drinking schedule (I drank beer from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
and then quit until dinner). I still can’t specify “port” or
“starboard” without a telltale half-beat hesitation. And I must admit:
Though I felt the thrill of sailing fast and the amazing peace of
sailing slow, I never forgot the stubborn fact that there are much more
comfortable and efficient ways to travel.
However, I did learn how to tie a line to a cleat in under 60
seconds, take the helm and steer to a specific heading, clean up my
beer, wine and coffee spills (there was no liquid onboard that I did
not spill and no surface on the boat that I did not spill upon),
identify the leeward side of the boat and (usually) throw food refuse
clear of the hull, avoid talking politics, reliably make my big sister
laugh with scatological humor, endure a night watch without self pity
(and occasionally with solitary joy), dry dishes in heavy seas, and
understand with some uneasy mixture of theory and practicality why
sails are trimmed the way they are for various winds.
And I learned a number of terms that would come in handy back in Chicago, when I would ply another essential human skill.
“Like most sailors on the Baja Ha-Ha,” I would say with a casual air
(a straight face), “I’m most comfortable on a slow run in a following