Mary is Gone !

It's Nov 1974, a beautiful, balmy day and I sit here on ODJ crying like a baby. Mary has decided that she could not sail off and leave her children behind. So instead, I'm left behind, and feeling very sorry for myself. I've spent several days trying to decide what to do. The options are to; continue sailing single-handed , try and find crew, go back to work and stay in San Diego, or perhaps give it all up and sail back north. The hurricane season is over so the timing is right to head south. Bashing my way north, just to be close to Mary doesn't seem to be a good option since I have no indication that she would be with me, even if I were north. I've finally decided to spend a week or so looking for crew and if I don't find anybody then I'll 'buddy boat" with old friends on "Grand Turk" down to Mexico.

South alone

Grand Turk was hull down on the southern horizon as the sun set. It was the first day that I had been alone at sea. We had left San Diego at dawn and were well into Mexican waters by sunset. Grand Turk is a 35 foot Sea Witch ketch, aboard were captain Ted Gaw, his wife Bonnie and their two kids David (about 12) and Kim (she about 10). Ted and I had agreed to stay fairly close with hourly radio checks as insurance. That first night was scary, but for no real reason, other that it was the first. I had set the auto pilot, the boat was slowly sailing downwind, and except for trying to stay awake all night, it was a good sail. I finally caught up with Grand Turk just as dawn broke at the entrance to Ensenada harbor. After anchoring we rowed ashore and checked in with the Port Captain. We were officially in a foreign country! My first foreign port of call. Several days were spent exploring the town and stocking up on cheap supplies. All of the basics (flour, sugar,etc.) were government subsidized and were very cheap. Liquor was also very inexpensive, and we stocked up on small bottles for trading as we got further south.

Ted and I held a planning session, and settled on leaving very early, in order to reach Isla San Martin about sunset.

A Lesson in Physics (and anchoring)

At dawn the next day, I went forward to pull up the anchor. I was using chain and a 30 pound CQR (plow) anchor, in about 20 foot of water. Well, the anchor had snagged something and it was all I could do to crank the winch chain-link by chain-link. Ted saw the trouble I was in, he re-anchored and he and David rowed over to help. All three of us on the winch handle barely could lift the weight. Finally David looked over the side and said that he could see that we were snagged through a port hole of a big piece of a steel wreck. We decided to use the boat hook and tilt the metal plate to see if the anchor would come back out of the port hole (after all it went in, so it should come out). If you can visualize the picture: three of us on the fore deck (say 400 lbs), a 30 pound anchor hooked into a large metal plate (probably 1000 lbs), and the bow down almost to water level. When I finally tilted the plate just right and the anchor flew out of the port hole. That was exactly what we wanted, but what happened in the next second was NOT. A lot of potential energy was stored up and in an instant it was turned into kinetic energy. Bonnie, who was watching from Grand Turk described it (we couldn't) : "When John finally got the anchor free, the bow lifted like a rocket, the anchor and chain went up in the air as high as the spreaders (20 feet). All of you guys went flying in the air, then sprawling on the deck as the anchor reached it's peak and started back down. I thought you would all be killed." As luck would have it, the anchor arced over the deck and splashed down on the opposite side of the boat. We all picked ourselves up and were amazed that we didn't even have a scratch ! So much for early start it was now late morning and we had a long way to go before dark. We finally got everything shipshape and sailed south in light northerly winds. The winds fell during the day and Grand Turk started their engine and disappeared over the horizon. Radio contact established that he had Isla San Martin in sight and would anchor before dark. So I too started my engine (one cylinder, 8 HP, diesel) . Even with the engine we only made about 3 to 4 knots and as darkness fell I could just make out the island on the horizon. I figured that I had about 20 miles to go and the navigation light was working on the island so it should be a 'no-brainer', even after dark.

The "No-brainer" Becomes a "Brainer"

My nightly custom was a gin at sundown and here I was, late for my 'sun downer'. With drink in hand I was enjoying the peace of a calm night at sea. I should have know it was to good to last. The engine gave a couple of hiccups and then stopped dead with a horrible clank. I scrambled below took off the engine cover and looked at a engine that actually glowed-in-the-dark. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it over-heated, due to a clogged water intake, filter or pump. Well there was nothing that I could do at night except hope for some wind so that I could sail to the island. Ted and I set up a hourly radio check-in schedule, and I decided that I would fix the problem when it was light. I had taken a compass bearing on the light and as the night wore on the bearing changed ! This meant that I was drifting. That was OK except that my drift was ashore! I turned on the depth sounder and found that matching the depth to the chart we were only a mile off and drifting rapidly toward a rocky shore ! I had to get the engine running again and soon. But how, the cooling system was obviously fouled or broken. I crawled around the engine and disconnected the hose that lead the seawater into the filter. That was OK. Then I checked the filter output, OK. So we had water up to the pump. The best sound in the world was the engine starting right up, but no water from the pump (which is mounted on the aft of the engine and all but impossible to get at). I shut the engine down immediately to prevent overheating. I found the problem but had no way of fixing it. Top-side I could now hear the waves breaking on the rocks, I guessed we were less that a half mile off. The only thing that I could think of was dropping the anchor and hoping that it would dig in. I 'racked' my brain over the problem, how to get water into the engine. I figured that I needed a pump, and mentally cataloged the pumps on board; the bilge pump (forget it), the toilet hand pump (even worse), the freshwater galley pump (possibilities) or the saltwater galley pump (maybe). If I could connect a piece of hose from the galley pump to the engine block intake then by pumping by hand I could circulate water through the engine. I set records rigging it all up and in ten minutes we were underway headed for Isla Martin. Brains won out again. But I was 'flying' blind, the autopilot was steering while I was below pumping like mad. I had no way of knowing whether I was getting enough water to keep the engine from overheating. So I dared not stop for a break. With one hand pumping and the other on the microphone I let Ted know that I was again on the way and to look for my masthead running lights. By watching the colors of my running lights, Ted could tell me to steer more port or starboard or keep my heading. With each report I would pump extra fast, dive into the cockpit adjust the autopilot and dive below to resume pumping. I had been at the pump for hours and had almost given up as both arms felt ready to drop off. Ted had been reporting that I was right on and getting closer. Suddenly I heard voices yell and thumping along the hull. First thought was that I was going aground, but why the voices. I left the pump and got top-side as David and Kim were trying to tie the painter of their dinghy alongside. They scrambled aboard and without a word David went below to man the pump and Kim poured me a big gin from her thermos. A half hour later, we anchored next to Grand Turk at Isla San Martin. I toasted the crew of the Grand Turk with the last of the thermos of gin ! A hell of a day !

Fix the pump and on to Isla Cedros

It is hard to describe the way (or why) Volvo mounted the water pump on the MD-1B engine. First off, they mounted it on the back-side of the engine, then they used a pump that has eight screws to hold on the cover (each with lock washers), then the impeller (heart of the pump) is mounted with a cotter pin through the impeller and shaft. If you can imagine reaching around or over say a TV or refrigerator. You can't see what you're doing you can only feel with your fingers. Next unscrew each screw (but don't drop in the bilge as you'll never find it) and keep the little washers under each screw. Now if you've done that OK, take off the cover, but careful there's a paper thin gasket you can't let fall off. Al right, moving right along, get your fingers inside the housing to try and locate the cotter-pin that holds the impeller to the shaft. Of course the last guy bent the legs of the cotter-pin so that it can't come out. Too strong for fingers, especially at this angle, so try a pair of long nose pliers, blind and backwards. Almost done now... pull out the cotter-pin and remove the 'chewed-up' impeller. Woopie, we fixed the problem, but wait a minute, we still have to put it all back together. You would think that going back together is as easy as taking it apart, WRONG. First you've got to line up the hole in the impeller with the hole in the shaft because the cotter-pin won't go through until they align. OK you got that one (a small flexible wire first), but the next one is tougher. The holes in the cover, that the screws go through are NOT equally spaced, instead of being spaced equally, like numbers on a clock or pieces of pie, they are equally spaced apart except for two of the screw holes. It would be a cinch if you could just look, but you can't. I probably tried a dozen times, getting seven screws in and finding no hole for the eight. Each attempt being careful of not dropping screws or washers. This simple chore took almost all day. Typical of all 'simple' jobs on a boat.

The passage from Isla San Martin to Isla Cedros is a two and a half days long. We had to set up the timing so as to clear "Sacramento Reef" during daylight hours and also get to the north anchorage on Cedros during daylight. This resulted in a midnight departure from San Martin. The passage was remarkable because nothing went wrong! I developed the habit of being able to sleep in fifteen minute intervals. Getting up every 15 minutes to check for shipping and see if the autopilot was on course. When I finally saw Isla Cedros, I thought that my navigation was way off. My plot indicated that I was almost a hundred miles away, how could I be seeing that far ? I checked the chart and found that the north end of Cedros is over 6,000 ft. I got out the sextant, measured the angle of the mountain above the horizon, did some calculations and sure enough it was 92 miles away ! Anchoring along side Grand Turk at sundown we shared happy-hour and dinner together. After my two days and nights of broken sleep I was looking forward to a full night of solid sleep, NOT. The anchorage has the largest colony of Steller Sea Lions on the pacific coast. Thousands of animals kept up an ear splitting din all night, then slept all figure !

Turtle Bay and Thanksgiving

Turtle Bay (Bahia Tortuga) is the first major port on the pacific side of Baja. We were almost half-way to Cabo San Lucas. The town of Turtle Bay exists because of the abalone and lobster fishing. The cannery processes (ed: in 1974) about 3000 pounds of abalone every day ! All of this is canned and shipped only to Japan. The lobsters are flown out every day to the states, probably 1000 to 1500 each day. The cannery has a desalination plant and we refilled our tanks with distilled water. There was mail waiting at the port captain's office. It was sure nice to hear from all of my friends. There were six or seven boats anchored so on Thanksgiving so we had a pot-luck with lobster, abalone and steaks. Not very traditional, but a hell of a meal. You could not buy beer or wine in town (cannery town) so Ted and I hiked 2 kilometers out in the desert to the local bar-whore-house-dance hall and on Sundays the local church ! Both Ted and I bought lots of the small airline size bottles of booze in Ensenada, here they traded at a lobster or abalone one-for-one. My old Playboys did better at three or four lobsters per issue (after they verified the centerfold !) We spent a week, going into the desert for our daily beers, attending a traveling circus (over 150 miles by bad dirt road to the highway) for one peso (about 12 cents). The circus had one monkey, one camel, one elephant and a hundred fantastic clowns. We could buy a bucket of clams for a peso. Diesel fuel is normally available, but some big power boats had bought up all that was available and we would have to wait another week for more. We didn't want to wait (which led to another 'adventure' later) as it was time to move on. Our goal was to be in the big city of La Paz before Christmas.

On to Bahia Magdelena

 The passage from Turtle bay to Magdelena (Mag) Bay was 300 miles SSE. Ted and I talked it over and agreed to make the jump non-stop, maintaining radio contact on a four hour schedule. Grand Turk was faster that ODJ because of greater waterline length, and we knew that he would get there before me. I worried about staying awake through the nights as we were going to be right in the coastal shipping lanes the whole way. The autopilot steered day and night keeping us right on course. For the first day the wind held steady from the north and pushed us south. In the morning we were far enough off to have an unbroken horizon. I was not longer 'piloting', but now I became a 'navigator. I took my first 'for real' sextant sight at noon. The results put ODJ and I about 60 miles east of my real position. In other words, by my calculations, I was high and dry on the top of a mountain in central Baja ! After two hours of looking for the error, I found it. A simple subtraction error had resulted in 2 minutes of time error which translated into 60 miles of position error. The wind dropped off to almost nothing and we motored for a day and a half. Grand Turk got to Mag Bay at dusk on the second day. I was still about 80 miles north and figured that I would be in about dusk the next (third) day. Dusk on the third day found me about 20 miles north, facing a night entry. Mag Bay is a lot like San Francisco Bay, both are about the same size and both have very narrow entries., protected by steep rocky cliffs. SF Bay has one advantage, lighthouses mark the entry well. Mag Bay has no such amenities, and if the had been no moon (instead of a half moon) we would have had to hove-to till morning. As it was we 'crawled' into the bay about midnight, and using Ted's masthead lights, dropped anchor off the small village of Puerto de Angela de Magdelena. I wouldn't say the the village was small, but there were probably more letters in the village name than actual villagers !

Another Dumb Adventure

On this passage both Ted and I had spent a lot of time motoring and since we had not picked up fuel at Turtle Bay we agreed to travel together to Puerto San Carlos for fuel. Puerto San Carlos is only twenty miles away by a very winding channel. It was agreed that Grand Turk would lead, with ODJ to follow. That way if they ran out of fuel, I would be in position to throw them a tow line. Murphy's Law was again in order as I was the one that ran out of fuel and they had to loop back and tow me. There was no fuel in San Carlos (some puerto !) we had to hire a taxi and drive into Via Constitution. We had to buy a fifty-five gallon drum, which made the rear end of the taxi drag all the way back to San Carlos. Ted took thirty-five gallons and I took twenty (which by default was my tank size !). The motor back to the village was a 'piece of cake' with no more worries about fuel.


A Quiet Anchorage at Mag Bay

The Stay at Mag Bay

We spent two weeks anchored off the village with clamming, fishing and as David (Ted's 12 year old son) called it 'crab running'. Crab running was a sport we invented. At low tide miles of sand flats were exposed. The crabs (a blue color, called the 'pugnacious blue crab') would burrow into the sand, to await the next high tide. The sport was to get a stick and find a buried crab. When disturbed the crab would leave his burrow and at high speed race across the sand flats. The crabs could run as fast as us, and it must have been a funny sight with five people running hell-bent after a high speed crab. After a few minutes of chase the crab would turn and do battle, raising his claws in defense (or offense). When you poked your stick at him, he grabbed it tightly. You dropped him in the sack, still clinging to the stick. Once inside the sack, he let go and you had part of dinner. There was also an element of danger as many of the shallow puddles in the sand concealed sting-rays up to three feet across. The sting could be very painful indeed. When ever we got too tired, we stopped and gathered clams. They were absolutely everywhere. Many dinners consisted of boiled crab, steamed clams, 'phony' scallops (cut from ray wings) and abalone steaks. The roots of the mangroves were covered with tiny oysters, the most delicious that I have ever tasted (ed: even to this day in 1998). This was the first taste of the 'real Baja' and we were sorry to lift anchor. We had to leave in order to get to La Paz to meet friends coming for Christmas.

On to Cabo San Lucas and Land's End

Two days of good sailing brought us to the southern-most end of the Baja peninsula. The three or four dusty streets didn't show us much, but for the first time since Ensenada we could (1) get a cold beer, (2) get mail ,(3) get a cold beer, (4) go to a real grocery store (to buy cold beer),(5) sit in a bar and drink a cold beer, (6) go to our first mexican bakery, (7) and of course drink a cold beer. The tuna cannery offered discounted prices on canned tuna (about six cents a can). The fish life around the cannery dock was unbelievable. Each type of fish seemed to form into their own level; grunts on the surface, thousands of mackerel below them, then barracuda, then jacks, then sierras and so forth down to the gray shapes of the sharks. The effluent that flowed from the cannery into the bay made a huge feed station. This wasn't pollution as every scrap of waste was eaten instantly and the water remained crystal clear to 30 or 40 feet. The fish under the pier looked thick enough to walk on. No where on this earth were there more fish per cubic foot than here. By some sort of unwritten agreement nobody fished here, and when I started casting a lure the mexicans asked me to stop, no reason given. It was now the first week of December and we had to go north into the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) for 200 miles to La Paz by Christmas.

La Paz and Christmas with my Parents

The winds in the Sea of Cortez are fickle, one day with no wind then three days of dead on your nose north wind. It was very frustrating sailing but after seven days we finally made the turn into La Paz harbor. My initial plan had been to continue north three hundred miles to the town of San Carlos on the mainland, to meet my mom and dad at a certain trailer park. They had driven down every year to stay for several months in their travel trailer at Casa del Oro trailer park space 118. They had been going to the same place for five or six years. I was to sail north and join then for Christmas and New Years. After my first taste of trying to sail north in the Sea, I decided that it was a bad idea to try to sail there, and elected to fly over. The only flight from La Paz to Guaymas left on tuesday and the return was on friday. I booked a flight for a couple of days before Christmas with the return right after new years. I arrived in Guaymas and found out that it was a twenty mile bus ride to the town of San Carlos. A second local bus got me to the trailer park, and I found space 118, BUT NO MOM and DAD ! I checked with the office and they had last year's reservation and my letters (from Turtle and Cabo San Lucas) announcing my arrival. Mom and Dad had not shown up as planned, and the space had been rented to someone else. They should have been there a full two months before, and since I hadn't heard otherwise I was sure that they were somewhere in Mexico, but where? I checked the situation, a weeks change of clothes and almost broke. I had spent almost all my cash on the airline tickets and had planned on cashing a check with mom for Christmas money. On the bus trip we had passed a half dozen trailer parks and instead of getting the bus back to town, I thought what the hell you need the exercise, check them out. At fifth trailer park I struck 'gold', yes they had a Stratton registered. Ten minutes later we were exchanging hugs and straightening out the mix-up. For years mom and dad had stayed at the same trailer park in the same space, but this year the cost had gone up to three dollars day and damned if Stratton was going to pay a dollar a day more than last year ! So in a huff they went off to find a two dollar a day rate. They had never thought to check back for any mail and were totally unaware that I had planned on joining them for Christmas. We had a great Christmas with all the gringas doing turkeys with all the trimmings. We had a great visit and on the day that I was to leave mom and dad had decided to lock the trailer and drive down to Matazlan for a week. They dropped me off at the airport in Guaymas, four hours before my plane back to La Paz was due to fly. The plane, when it did arrive was a small one that held about a dozen people, and I noticed that only three people had gotten off. I didn't worry since I had boarding pass #1, having gotten there so early. As I approached the gate I was asked to set aside. Three nuns walked passed and boarded, then the door was closed on an 'ugly american'. I ranted and raved that I should be on board as I had pass numero uno. The airline passenger agent was listening to my complaints as the flight took off. In fact there were five mexicans all yelling at the same time, waving their boarding passes too. They promised that we would all get seats on NEXT FRIDAYS flight.

I was in a pretty 'kettle of fish'; only a few bucks in pocket, 300 miles and the Sea of Cortez between me and my boat, Ted and Bonnie were watching the boat but were due to leave La Paz in a couple of days, mom and dad were gone south and the trailer was locked, and even though I was promised a seat next week, could I believe it? The airline agent's boss finally settled me down and we worked out a compromise, They would give me a lift to their office in town, give me a cash refund for my ticket and twenty bucks for 'problemas'. All I had to do now was work out how to get back to La Paz. There was a ferry that ran from Los Moches on the mainland to La Paz. Los Moches was about 250 miles south and busses ran every couple of hours. I spent what seemed like days on that 6 hour bus ride. I was surrounded by little squealing brats, cases of chickens on the next seat, wonderful people that kept speaking to me in a language that I couldn't understand, bus-stop food that I did know anything about, and a feeling of 'why me ?'. The bus finally got to Los Moches about midnight. The ferry was scheduled to leave at 7 in the morning from the port of Topalobompo, a thirty minute bus ride away. I had about 6 hours to kill and not a lot of extra money for a motel or hotel room. Then I had an idea, if mom and dad had driven only during the daylight hours they may have stopped in Los Moches for the night. I asked a taxi driver for the best 'gringo' motel in town, and he gave me directions. Sure enough, I had struck gold again as the night clerk told me room seven. I banged on the door, and after they woke up I could hear them discussing whether to open the door or not. So as a joke I yelled 'POLICIA'. They cracked the door to peek out, and nearly fell over in surprise. We shared a drink, told the story of how I got there and finally got a couple of hours sleep.

Ferry ride to La Paz

The ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez takes about 14 hours or so, leaving early and arriving late in La Paz. I don't know if is genetic or not but most mexicans are poor sailors (maybe it is really the same for all peoples) but within a hour of clearing the harbor you couldn't stay in the lounge area because of the smell. Hundreds lined the rail, feeding the fish below. I went forward, clear up in the bow to get away from the misery of hundreds of seasick people. It was rough but by now I was used to it and didn't feel bad at all. In the bow I found three gringo couples all friends traveling together. The women had packed huge picnic baskets, knowing that they couldn't get below to their camping gear while underway. As the day wore on, all of the gringos developed sea-sickness. Since I was the only one fit to eat they invited me to help myself. Which is exactly what I did with great gusto. I repaid them by having them on the boat for dinner the next night. The ferry sailed down La Paz harbor right passed ODJ, just waiting for me. By midnight, Ted had fetched me from the beach and I was once again home.

Cruising the Sea of Cortez

The next few days were spent trying to buy out all of the stores in La Paz. Restocking of food and booze required running all over town but things were cheap, and after a couple of days we were through with the 'big city' and ready for a quiet anchorage. Ted and Bonnie were anxious to head south; their plan was to get south quickly, then through the 'canal' and onto Florida before summer and the hurricanes. We sailed out to the La Partida anchorage and sent a couple of days together before parting. One of the toughest parts of the this lifestyle is getting to know people, forming solid friendships and then parting. Even though we contacted each other only a few times after we parted we are still close. I spent the next couple of months cruising the wonderful anchorages in the sea. I returned to La Paz every other week or so to pick up supplies (as in beer) and mail. Mary and I had been writing on a daily basis and our love for each other was growing. It was March, the fishing was fabulous, the diving superb, the anchorages beyond description, and I was lonely and unhappy in paradise ! I had made up my mind to sail back north and to live happily ever after with Mary.

Uphill Bashing to San Diego

The trip north from the tip of Baja is a thousand miles of tacking against adverse winds and a 2 knot current. If the boat just sat in the water it would be carried almost 50 miles south each day because of the currents. With on-the-nose winds, you have to sail almost twice as far back and forth on each tack. Normally a sailboat the size of ODJ can make about 100 miles a day. Under the conditions of going north, 50 miles were given up to the current, half of the remaining distance was wasted in tacking, so the net distance on a good 24 hour day was 25 miles. Twenty-five miles a day into the thousand miles distance, yields 40 days and nights sailing. I couldn't sail day and night so there were some rest stops and the were several days when we could not sail because of high winds. To make a long story short we were over two months (65 days) making this passage. It was rough and tough and and as I cleared US Customs in San Diego, I dreaded the remaining 400 miles to San Francisco. I tied up at the San Diego Yatch Club and then phoned Mary to ask if she would be my wife. Well, fool that she was, she said YES,and I was in second heaven and on the next plane to Placerville !

Marriage and return to San Diego

Mary and I invited a lot of friends and family, formed a car caravan and drove to Virigina City, Nevada. We were married, the second for both of us. I told Mary that I was ready to settle down, but she opted for sailing together. Mary's daughter, Kristi, who was about eleven or twelve indicated that she too would like to go sailing if we could work out her schooling arrangements. The Placerville schools were more that helpful assigning such projects as 'whale counting', 'learn to navigate with a sextant', 'maintain a journal', plus all the normal three R's. We three returned to San Diego and since it was getting near the Pacific hurricane season we settled down in an apartment near the beach. We not only had Mary as mate, but Kristi as great crew...WE WERE READY...1976 here we come.


TIMELINE Returns to index of all the sailing stories.

Mary, Kristi and I sail to Baja Continues the stories in sequence.

BACK Returns you to the start page