“It s time, Sweetie, ” Dad whispers, stroking my back. I roll out of my bunk and follow him past the engine room, into the main cabin of our family sailboat. It’s 3 am.
He unfolds the chart for Baja and spreads it on the navigation table.
“So here s where we are, ” he says in a whisper, pointing to a small penciled X. “And here’s where we ’re going. ”
He points to a small island off the coast. I blink my sleepy eyes.
“Let’s measure the distance first, ” he says, handing me the dividers.
I spread the bronze tips and hold them to the side of the chart, adjusting them until they measure exactly twenty-five nautical miles, as Dad taught me. He then lines up the parallel rulers between the two points. I walk the divider tips along the rulers, making sure not to alter the distance between them.
“One, two, three, four, and a little more, ” I count softly.
“Okay, so what’s four times twenty-five? ”
I use a scratch paper to do the multiplication, carrying the two. I like math. “One hundred? ”
“Very good, honey! ” Dad whispers. “About a hundred nautical miles. ”
Then I align the hole in the compass rose over the X where we are on the chart to determine our heading, pushing the rotating arm to meet our destination.
“265 degrees? ”
“Great, Lizzy! Let’s get underway, ” he says, smiling proudly.
He slips my life jacket/harness over my head, buckles it, and kisses me on the forehead before we climb up the companionway stairs. Outside it’s as dark as my haunted hallway back home. The seats are wet from the drizzling rain. I’m not scared, though. I’m always safe with Dad. The ignition buzzes as he turns the engine key.
Dad disappears into the darkness and I hear the mainsail sliding up the mast. On his call, I shift the engine into forward as he raises the anchor.
A few minutes later, he comes back with the flashlight gripped between his teeth, coiling the anchor snubber. “Are you ready for your first night watch? ”
My hands are tingling. I feel nervous but important. A cold wind mixed with raindrops gusts under the canvas bimini. Dad pulls up the hood on my jacket.
“I’m ready, Daddy, ” I tell him. I am nine and a half years old now and my family and I have been doing overnight trips to Catalina every summer since I was a baby. Two weeks ago we left San Diego to sail through Mexico for the next six months.
“So remember, you are not to unclip your harness tether or leave the cockpit for any reason. If you have to use the head, wake me up, okay?” He points the bow out to sea. The glow of the compass light illuminates his handsome face as Endless Summer pushes out into the night. He sets the autopilot, then lifts me up on the seat behind the wheel and hugs me.
“Keep a close eye on the horizon in all directions, ” he continues. “If you see any lights or anything that seems odd, just wake me up. I’ll be right here, honey. ”
“Okay. I will, Daddy. ”
He lies down on the cockpit bench. I look ahead and all around. For now, the horizon is clear. I touch my BFF half-heart necklace and think of home. Of Mattie and Trim, our golden retrievers, and gymnastics practice. Of eating oranges in the grove with my little sister, Kathleen. And catching crawdads in the canyon with my big brother, James.
The cold wind pulses across my ears. Scattered raindrops patter on the top of the canvas bimini. I squint into the dark night, exhilarated.
A week into the voyage down the coast of Baja, and we’re still afloat. The arrival of a north swell abruptly rolls my crew and me out of our bunks early one morning. In the chill of twilight, Mark and Shannon haul up the stern anchor while I maneuver in reverse. Soon the compass points south again. The diesel grinds as the mainsail struggles to catch a light breeze. Once the sun beats out the morning fog, it glitters triumphantly on the calm sea to port. We are all in good spirits despite our rude awakening.
Baja California Map Photo Gallery
I met Shannon just before the trip, and I liked her immediately. She’s a soft-spoken, scholarly blonde with dogged determination and a gorgeous smile. She listens attentively as I show her how to attach the main halyard to the top of the mainsail in order to haul the sail up the mast, or wrap the jib sheets properly around the winches. We have ocean love and adventure dreams in common, plus we both majored in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara. And since she enjoys photography, I hope to use her photos in combination with my writing to sell some articles and find some sponsors. I’m determined to find a way to make enough money to avoid flying home to work when my savings run out.
I’m thrilled that Mark, a college roommate, is here, too. His steadfast friendship and constant humor helped me through three years of exams and young adult trials. I happily agreed when he expressed interest in joining us for the first leg of the voyage. Every time I begin to stress or second-guess myself, Mark’s jokes ease the mood.
“We better not sink ’cause you know I can’t swim, Liz,” he teases as I nervously scan Swell’s rig.
A small pod of dolphins leaps toward Swell to play in the little wave that pushes off the bow. We watch from the foredeck as they surf and frolic, reminding me of the countless hours I spent as a kid sitting on the bowsprit of our family sailboat off the coasts of California and Mexico. My legs would dangle off the edge of the teak plank with the broad horizon before me that’s where I started dreaming about an extended voyage of my own.
I also witnessed floating trash and wildlife tangled in fishing debris, sparking my concern for the environment. Despite our family’s financial struggles after returning from the voyage to Mexico, Mom saw me mailing the cash I earned from chores to Greenpeace. She gave me a “Save Our Seas” poster and a world map to hang on my bedroom wall. I drew arrows on the map to show the route I wanted to sail one day. Both the map and the poster came with me every time we moved, which was often. I looked up at them during junior high homework, after gymnastics practice, and between high school shenanigans. Even after a girlfriend introduced me to surfing at fifteen, and riding waves became a fanatical new passion, both my voyaging dream and environmental concern persisted.
As today’s dolphins carry on west, I thank them for the visit, then head back to the cockpit to update the logblog. That afternoon, with daylight to spare, we near a series of boldly stratified bluffs with small waves rolling down the inside of the point. We unanimously decide to drop anchor and race to trade our winter jackets and warm boots for neoprene wetsuits and booties. Once the anchor is set, Shannon and Mark bolt to the foredeck to untie their boards, then paddle for the lineup.
They’re halfway to shore when I finish squaring away the decks and leap over the side. The frigid sea washes away my accumulated angst. I’m at home in a four-millimeter wetsuit on my favorite shortboard. Strands of brown kelp wave at me with the surge of a swell. I smile and paddle for the break.
The surf isn’t extraordinary, but today every glide feels like a victory. Surfing my solace, my numero uno took a back seat during the almost three years I spent preparing for the voyage. Fishermen in a panga wave as they whiz toward a cluster of brightly colored shacks that break up the endless tan-and-yellow Baja landscape. When the sun drops low, and the evening chill sets in, we catch a final ride and begin the long paddle back.
After a hundred yards, I look up. There’s Swell, bobbing faithfully on her anchor, her hull’s sleek, powerful lines aglow in the golden rays. Her beauty stops my breath for a moment. I can’t believe it. Swell blurs as tears fill my eyes.
“I’m here!” I call to the sky. “It’s real! Thank yo-o-o-u-u-u-u-u-u!” I’m not sure who I’m thanking. I don’t believe in God, but this feels miraculous. There’s salt on my lips and a burn in my shoulders. I’m paddling out, rather than in. I’m finally in my dream, awake!
The sun is out and the wind is right for our next passage south. I relish the crisp afternoon air while steering under full sails as we enter the wide mouth of San Quintrn bay. Mark is in the galley making PB&Js and Shannon sits beside me in the cockpit, snapping photos of the multicolored sands and low grassy dunes off the port side. Suddenly I see whitewater fifty yards off the bow as a wave rolls over a shallow, uncharted sandbar. The depth gauge leaps from 150 feet to 20, to 17, and then 12 feet, as I make a jarring turn to starboard. My heart is in my throat, but thankfully our new heading brings us back into deep water.
Mark sticks his head out of the companionway with a purple stripe smeared on his shirt. “Geezus Liz, you could have just asked for extra jelly!”
I glance back to where I saw the wave, but now the murky green sea is calm, hiding the submerged sandbar once again. As we sail toward the south side of the bay to anchor, I nibble at my sandwich, heart still racing, thankful for the fortuitous timing. If that wave had washed over the bar only a few seconds later, Swell would likely be aground. Serendipity? Luck? Fate?
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