It was 0200 on a dark and clear night in the Sea of Cortez - also known as the Gulf of California. We were motoring along at 1600 rpm in a 1985 40 foot O’Day sailboat making about 3 knots, the oil pressure was wavering between 7 and 15 pounds, (the engine was rated for 50 pounds) and the engine alarm had just gone off again - we were exactly in the middle of the Sea - halfway between Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucs. When Hernan Cortez discovered Baja California in 1536 on one of his expeditions, he did not travel much faster.
“George! Oil pressures dropped again.” We overfilled the Westerbeke diesel engine with oil in increments, trying to get the alarm off and pressure up - finally it shut off. To say this boat was in disrepair was being kind - it was a seven year Mexican veteran with a new owner of two years - George and I were delivering it back to Los Angeles from Mazatlan in early September so the owner could work on it - a 1200 mile windward trip known famously as the Baja Bash. Although we had inspected and sea-trialed the boat for two days, we were in for a few more surprises.
George is an experienced skipper who runs a small boat delivery company - he had hired me as crew and cook to help get the boat back to the US. To say George is experienced is an understatement - he delivered SEALS in small boats in Vietnam when he was in the Navy, had a career in the merchant marine, sailed most of the oceans of the world, and now lives in Mazatlan on a 37 foot Tayana he single-handed down from Seattle three years ago. I had come down the coast in November 2007 on my Malö 39.
George and I left Mazatlan on a sunny and clear day and raised sail headed for Cabo, planning on motor sailing most of the way - we had a 12 day time frame to get to LA. The wind died and we furled in the jib - and the furling line broke. I spliced it and we managed to furl the sail in - but naturally there was no spare line.
“We'll fix it in Cabo.” George said - this soon became our mantra. I made chicken mole, beans, salad and tortillas for dinner. George was a sort of cup-o'-noodles man - so he was happy with the meal.
We limped into Cabo two nights later at about 4 knots with a fair tide and flat seas. We found a mechanic quickly, who determined that we had blown out an old repair on an exhaust elbow - someone had patched a hole in the elbow with epoxy glue, a beer can and some asbestos wrapping. I dove on the boat and found that the supposedly clean hull was covered with barnacles - so we found a diver who spent two hours cleaning the bottom, and we replaced the exhaust elbow. It was 96 degrees in the boat with a sunscreen up - Cabo is hot in September. George found a bar and spent about $50 buying me gin martinis - Cabo is about the most expensive place in Mexico - our 40 foot slip was $160 per night. After two days we pulled out - five miles north of Cabo Falso the stern tube started rumbling - either the strut was coming loose, the rudder bearing was slipping, or the shaft seal was failing - all leading to somewhat of a catastrophe going up the coast, where the repair services are few and far between. We turned back to Cabo - tore everything apart, but could not find the cause. We left the next day again. The noise came back three times - each time we raced down to try and identify it - but could not identify the cause.
“It hasn’t rumbled for four hours George - what do you think?” I said. “Let's go a little further - if it gets worse we will turn back.” Well, it stopped making that noise, and we kept going - we never did find out what it was.
While in Cabo I had rebuilt the backup autopilot, installed a new furling line for the genoa, installed a bilge pump that would work, changed the fuel filters and mucked out the bilge. I also made George grilled shrimp on pasta in a cilantro-roasted poblano pesto - he was not happy with the boat, but did like my cooking.
“George - don’t you hate the owners for letting their boats fall apart?” “No - all part of the job - but I usually deliver powerboats.” He never once said a bad thing about the boat or the owner - I, however, cursed enough for the both of us.
We had a calm 155 mile run to Magdalena Bay and got the port captain at Man-of-War cove to get us some fuel and a 55 pound block of ice from San Carlos- yes - ice. We had been hauling ice since Mazatlan, since the boat's refrigeration system did not work - I had moved dozens of bags of ice trying to keep the food cool in an old icebox in 95 degree heat. For a while I had been bailing the water out by hand - then I rebuilt the 22 year old refrigerator pump and was able to use the original drain. Meanwhile that morning I caught a 10 pound dorado, and made shushi donburi.
“George - we lost the autopilot!” I hollered down to George who was off watch at 0100 - these thing always happen at night. I leapt to the helm and looked down at the compass - it was unlit. I could feel the boat motor around in circles in the heavy seas, but had no way to get a bearing, I grabbed a flashlight and lit the compass, and got us back on course, while George got his harness on.
We had been making heavy way motoring in 6-9 foot seas and an estimated 25-30 knot wind - making about 3.5 knots at 2200 rpm. The weather had been building all afternoon- We were about 40 miles south of Turtle Bay and 10 miles off shore, having made about 190 miles from Mag Bay. The conditions were too rough for the wheel-mounted autopilot. We hand steered the boat one hour on/one hour off throughout the night, sleeping in the cockpit. The O’Day pounded through the waves, making groaning and crashing sounds - no sails were up since we were a bit afraid to lose the rig, and the autopilot could not handle the load. Every passage and locker door rattled and shook, and most ports leaked as green water surfed over the boat. The bow compartment - where all my clothes were stored - looked like a lawn sprinkler was running in it - since so much water was pouring through the leaky forward hatch and getting tossed about by the boat’s action.
The seas calmed at dawn as we pulled into Turtle Bay. We anchored in front of the fuel dock. I had a good snort of George’s scotch and a beer for breakfast, and we took a bit of nap. Later in the day we got fuel and more ice and returned to anchor, intending on leaving. George’s fiancée managed to get a call through to us.
“George - there is a hurricane south of you - it may turn...” the call went dead - the telephone did not have enough minutes. “Jackie will go get us some more minutes” George said, but we left the next morning at 0600 without a new report. I woke up at 0300 to a Mexican rock group playing near the beach and singing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” in English. You find the strangest things in Mexico.
We left Turtle Bay to a fine dawn and calm conditions. “Doesn’t look like a hurricane to me.“ I said to George as we motored north. Conditions built in the afternoon - the West Coast can be like that - calm in the mid morning and roaring in the afternoon. There were no particular adverse weather conditions causing this - just land and sea breezes. These were classic conditions for a Baja Bash.
Later: We were trying to get the boat off the anchorage at Bahia San Quintin at 0400, having made the 140 mile jump from Turtle Bay. “George, the breaker has tripped again!” George ran down to reset the windlass breaker. “Motor forward!” I hollered over the 15 knot wind, he did and I got another 20 feet of anchor chain up before the breaker released “Breaker!” I hollered. George ran down below. “Forward hard! I shouted, getting another 30 feet up. “Breaker!” Although the boat had a good windlass and adequate ground tackle, the breaker was undersized and would open at the slightest bit of resistance to the windlass, making anchor retrieval in wind and two foot chop very difficult.
We motored out of the anchorage in the dark, with George using the Garmin Chartplotter he brought aboard for navigation - the boat had no other functional instruments.
“Ahh - George - those reefs are on the point about ¼ mile to the right.” I said. George said don’t worry, he had verified our reciprocal course out when we came in that previous evening. “Do me a favor George and come left” I said. George always obliged me when I asked him to come right or left if I felt there was something to crash into.
“George - alarm’s going off” George was off watch asleep in the midship bunk we had been sharing for two weeks. I killed the engine and we started looking for the problem. The boat was rolling heavily in a five foot chop 10 miles off the Baja coast, between San Quintin and Ensenada. I ran down and looked at the engine - the oil was good, but the coolant had disappeared. Not completely, but at least a couple of liters of it. We filled the engine block with antifreeze, and fortunately, the engine started. We never had the coolant disappear again. Boats Are like that sometime - only 300 more miles to LA…….
We got to Ensenada and checked out of Mexico, got to San Diego and checked in to the US, and made it up to LA in about another four days. The water was flat - like a swimming pool, most of this way. The trip had taken us a total of 17 days.. I think George like the fried fish burritos I made out of the dorado best - though he thanked me for every meal. I was a little nervous giving the owner my bill for the extra time and all of the repairs, but he was a nice guy. We spent an hour telling him what was wrong with his boat, and he drove us to the airport for out flight back to Mazatlan.
“Most delivery crews would have never taken that boat north of Cabo.” George told me. I thought about the life raft that hadn’t been inspected in 10 years, the fact we had no wind instruments, no depth sounder or HF radio, radar that couldn’t find a tanker three miles away, no running lights (they shorted out the first night - we used the masthead lights instead; I had to rewire the forward interior lighting circuit, since we had taken so much water below, all the lights were shorting out). The head leaked, there was no refrigeration, we never knew if the rudder was about to fall off, and we were afraid to raise the sails except as a last resort.
That‘s the life of a delivery crew, I thought. “It was a great trip, George,” I told George as our flight landed in Mazatlan’s 95 degree heat and 100 percent humidity. Captain George and I had won the boat through some tough conditions - I was a Baja Bash veteran now, a paid working seaman, and I thought a little better of myself for having done it.