Discover more from Co-Captain's Log
Vol 1 Iss 5: Facing Fears
January 13, 2022 | San Quintín, Baja California, Mexico | 30°23’46” N 115°57’13” W | Winds: N 10 kts | Weather: 68° Sunny
There is much to fear in our cruising life. Some fears, like my fear
of sailing by myself during night passages, start strong and subside as we gain experience, competence, and confidence. Others, like running into a completely unforecasted storm, are ever present but not likely to occur if we remain vigilant. Yet other fears are birthed when you hear of fellow sailors encountering trouble. The fear is stoked when you hear of another sailing couple encountering the same thing and then another couple and then another. You hope you never face it, but deep down you know it‘s probably just a matter of time.
On our first passage down the Pacific coast of Baja, our time had come.
I climb into the cockpit at 5:15 am for my second watch of the night. We’ve been motoring since the sun went down, making decent speed of 4.4 kts. At least that’s what we were making during my first night watch. Andrés Jacobo hasn’t been asleep long when I notice our speed has dropped. We have 2 instruments which record our speed. We have a paddle wheel at the bottom of our hull that transmits the speed of the boat moving through the water. Our ‘Speed over Ground’ or SOG is calculated based on GPS position and tells us how fast we are traveling over the earth. The difference between these 2 speeds can be attributed to current. If you have current with you, Andrés Jacobo likens it to being on a magic carpet ride: you enjoy more speed across the earth than what your boat is actually earning. Current runs both ways, though, so you know you’re running against the current when your boat speed is higher than your speed over ground.
On my first watch, with our engine running at 2000 rpm, we were making 4.4 kts boat speed and SOG. Now our boat speed is 3.4 kts and our SOG at the same rpm is a dismal 2.4 kts. What in the world is happening?!? We’re burning fuel and gettin’ nowhere.
My first thought is current. Must be a strong one dead against us. Sure enough, looking at tide charts for a bay close by, I can see we have a current of at least 1 kt against us. So that explains why the SOG is lower than the boat speed.
But why is the boat speed so low?
Two reasons come to mind: a strong headwind against us….or…that which I fear: we have kelp wrapped around our propeller.
I raise the sails to harness some of the energy of the headwind, but they cause drag, decreasing our speed even more. I take them down again.
As I watch our Speed Over Ground dip to 1.8 kts, I know when we get to the anchorage this afternoon I have to take a swim to try to clean off the propeller.
Andrés Jacobo wakes up for the shift change to find me faunching, frustrated at our lack of progress and dreading my afternoon task. I give him an update and share my theory about the prop. We put the transmission into neutral and he leans his head and torso over the stern and down towards the propeller. ‘Oh yeah,’ he says, confirming our suspicion. ‘There’s something huge on the propeller and a giant piece of kelp hanging off the rudder.’
Mystery solved! …but now what are we gonna do about it? ‘When we get into San Quintín, I will dive on the prop and clean it off,’ I offer. ‘At this speed, with that kelp acting as a sea anchor, it’ll take us 10 hours to get there instead of 3. And what if by leaving it on there, we damage the prop or the shaft or the cutlass bearing or the transmission?’ We both remember the Sunday afternoon in Elliot Bay Marina in Seattle when we heard a POP! come from a boat entering the fairway. A line had gotten stuck in their propeller, snapped the shaft in two, and tore a hole in the bottom of the hull. There is no way we want to risk that happening out here.
So here it was, the event that comes up in every bluewater cruiser’s life. In the middle of the Pacific, one of us would have to jump out of the safety of our boat into the ocean 1000 ft deep, dive to the propeller and furiously try to free it of it’s tangled mess.
Between Los Angeles and Mexico, we made a pit stop at Catalina Island. Catalina Island is part of the Channel Islands but is privately owned and considerably more developed than Santa Cruz. The island is popular with Californians and we understand why! We spent several days in the remote anchorage, Cat Harbor, so we could kayak, explore the little town of Two Harbors, and hike a portion of the Trans-Catalina Trail to see Shark Harbor.
A Trans-Catalina Thru Hiker warned us on the trail, ‘There is bison up ahead, just off the trail.’ Bison?!?! Here?!? Sure enough, we reached the ridge and about 150 ft off the trail there he was. Apparently someone brought bison to the island sometime in the 20th Century. Looking at the landscape, I can imagine how someone turned his back to the roaring sea, looked across the island, was reminded of Montana, and brought in the bison.
A current is what caused us to lose a knot of Speed over Ground close to San Quintin. There are different types of current, but as we stay relatively close to land, we most often encounter tidal currents. You’re probably familiar with tides, the vertical movement of water (hight tide, low tide) caused by changes in the lunar cycle. Tidal currents are the horizontal movement of water that usher water between high tide and low tide. In one way, the relationship is simple, i.e. flood currents precede high tides, ebb currents precede low tide. But land masses and the ocean topography can make the patterns quite complex. The currents were stronger and more complex in the San Juan Islands than what we see here in the ocean. When sailing in Washington, we had the benefit of current stations which told us when currents would be with us or against us. Here there are few stations, but we were able to deduce the currents based on tide calendars.
Andrés Jacobo is more athletic than I am. As in, he is athletic and I am not. We have, however, discovered two exceptions to the rule: biking in sand (which we found out while racing to catch the last ferry off of Cumberland Island) and swimming. Mom and Dad started me in swim lessons before I started Kindergarten. Growing up, we spent our summer days entertaining ourselves for hours at Southern Hills Neighborhood Pool. So while he may be stronger period, I am actually the stronger swimmer.
‘I’ll go in.’
‘I can go in,’ he counteroffers. Neither of us wants to, both are willing. He does so many of the hard tasks on the boat. This is a hard task I can actually do for us.
‘No, I am going in,’ I say resolutely.
We turn off the engine completely and Ana María bobs with the swell as we prepare everything. Luckily, my mother-in-law saw how much I enjoyed snorkeling in Key West at Thanksgiving and gave us warm wetsuits, masks, snorkels, and flippers for Christmas.
The preparation is excruciating. I am not one to delay the inevitable. Once I’ve decided to take a risk, I don’t like to dilly dally. I have an old video of myself at Kanakuk Kamps, jumping off a dive tower into freezing Lake Taneycomo. You can hear the girl with the camera shout to me, ‘Okay, jump at the count of 3! One…two….oh she already jumped.’ So it’s torture for me to peel on the wetsuit an inch at a time.
If my husband had been putting on the wetsuit, he would have taken the moments to strategize his plan of attack against the kelp. Me, I let the fears percolate in my belly. What if the current is so strong I get separated from Ana María? What if the swell causes me to knock my head on the bottom of the boat? What if I see a shark? A whale? A sea lion? Even a dolphin?
We mitigate the risks we can, tying a dock line tightly around my waist and securing it to the boat’s stern cleat. We study the swell patterns, relieved to see they are quite slow and predictable.
Having donned my gear, given a final tug at the knot at my waist, and waited for a swell to pass, into the deep blue ocean I jump.
We crossed an international border in Ana María without incident! It’s quite the bureaucratic ordeal. Andrés Jacobo started the paperwork back in November. Our marina in Ensenada facilitated the process for us which included a health screening, stacks of paperwork, a visit to immigration, a visit to the Port Captain and customs declarations. The stakes are high as we do not want to make a mistake and wind up in Mexican jail or with our boat confiscated. It seemed to go smoothly (except for when the Port Captain’s office closed without notice) and we were proud to lower the Quarantine flag on Ana María and raise the Mexican courtesy flag.
We asked a fellow American cruiser where we should eat in Ensenada and she sent us to La Birrieria La Guadalajara. We feasted on braised beef and lamb with chili sauce and tortillas made that morning. A two-man Mariachi band provided entertainment during the meal, serving dual roles as musicians and comedians. What an experience to welcome us to Mexico!
Thanks to the Christmas generosity of John Mark, Katelyn, Kevin and Linz, we have plenty of Audible books to keep us entertained on watch: Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, El Amante Japonés by Isabel Allende, and Learn Spanish with Paul Noble. Let us know if you have favorites on Audible you think we would enjoy!
The Pacific is freezing and I feel my muscles seize up when I enter the water. We learned last week when we dove to clean and inspect the boat below the waterline that our bodies panic for a minute. So, holding onto the boat and to the rope, I take deep breaths in an attempt to relax my body and mind. Once acclimated, I dive down to the prop and see the mess Andrés Jacobo had seen from above. I try twice to untangle it with my hands to no avail. Rising to the surface, I yell for Andrés Jacobo to give me a knife. He hands me one and I dive once again.
Two swipes of the knife and 6 dives later, I’ve gotten the shaft and propeller clear of all kelp. The rope is doing a great job of keeping me close to the boat and I’ve learned the rhythm of the swell. One fear remains. Every time I look down, I imagine meeting the eyes of some wild sea creature. I gather courage and look down once more.
There’s still a huge piece of kelp stuck at the very bottom of the rudder, no doubt causing drag for the boat. I dive once, don’t make it, dive again. Still can’t get it. It is at the deepest part of the skeg and I am buoyant in this salt water. Fighting panic, I imagine myself diving for quarters in the deep end of the Southern Hills Pool. I kick and kick my feet, grab hold of the kelp, push the rudder to the side and YANK it free. Relieved I watch it float way from the boat, already caught in the current.
I can tell Andrés Jacobo has seen it float away too when I rise to the surface and see his face beaming. ‘You did it! I am so proud of you!’ I climb back on board, peel off my wetsuit, and take a hot shower on the bow to rinse off all the cold saltwater. Andrés Jacobo turns the engine back on and points Ana María towards San Quintín. ‘We still have current against us but our boat speed is back up from 3.2 to 4.4 kts.’ I hear his report from the cockpit. I had fixed it! I dove on the propeller in the middle of a passage. I had faced yet another fear…a fear I hope I never have to face again!
We have 600 miles of sailing down the rugged coast of the Baja Peninsula in front of us. All our forecasts predict 4 days of 15 kt winds coming from behind us so we will sail as fast as we can towards Cabo San Lucas.
Fair winds and following seas (and kelp-free props!),