Surf Lessons from the Atmospheric River

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. ~John Steinbeck

I love making plans. I create a vision in my head and promptly fall in love. I write dates on the calendar and revel in my timing, telling friends and relations about exact dates and places.

You can see where this is going. My transitions never go as imagined. For example, for my Fulbright, I planned to drive to La Paz, Mexico, and I was not only beset by step throat, but the most powerful hurricane to hit the Baja peninsula for decades. In my rush to get to La Paz, we arrived to a post-hurricane water system, and I didn’t finish my antibiotics until many days into México. This did not work out well for my besieged gut.

Yet I continue to build (and then cling to) plans. So as winter approached, I planned to return to the US, make a few quick improvements to the boat, then sail south back to México. We would install the watermaker, new engine mounts, all the hardware on the mast and boom, and a fridge compressor; install and wire a new radome, GPS, and chartplotter; pattern and sew a dodger; make and install new lifelines; find a new main sail; relocate the propane; find and install three solar panels. In my mind, this would happen in in one week, and we would sail down the next. How hard could it be?

Josh aloft

Josh aloft with the new radome on a rare sunny day.

I dove into the project of building a dodger for the boat, something I had assumed would take a few days. I did not account for my obsessive compulsive desire to make everything perfect, or the fact that I had not touched a sewing machine for 15 years. I also was unexpectedly nominated as a finalist for a grant, and even more unexpectedly needed to reserve time for 18 different interviews, all amid the boat projects. Meanwhile, I trudged back and forth to the UC Berkeley health center, plagued by incredible heartburn and alphabet-worthy belches, a second round of strep throat, and strange flashes of light in my peripheral vision.


photo (34)

The amazing Dr. Rebecca Hernandez deftly wields the shears as we tackle the dodger pattern.

Eyeing the eisenglass

Evaluating the eisenglass (vinyl) before cutting it for the dodger window.

Night sewing.

Night sewing.

Adding the dodger zippers

Adding the zippers.

And then a deluge of wind and rain skipped over the ocean from the South Pacific and bounded joyously onto the parched shores of northern California. Winds howled, schools closed, rain pounded, states of emergency were declared. This phenomenon has a ridiculously wonderful name, the atmospheric river. Despite the fact that this term has gained buzzword status in the Bay Area, I still love it. But the downwind surf to México began to retreat from view.

Watermaker hole in the hull

A new hole in the hull for Far‘s watermaker, and holes began to appear in my plans…

Oh, but I stood in the middle of the river and shook my fist at the flood. Surely this weather would not persist—hadn’t it heard about my PLANS? I kept pushing. I stared at the weather forecasts, worked late into the night on the dodger, engaged with my interviewers, and kept popping pills for my various illnesses.

It is under the stress of expectation and timing that expeditions make fatal mistakes—Jon Krakauer wrote an entire book about it with Into Thin Air. As my allowable time outside of México dwindled, I fidgeted, lost sleep, and asked Josh if he could work any faster. How bad could it be to beat into a south wind with a double-digits west swell? Fortunately, Josh is a man of both admirable patience and sailing experience, and he began to convince me that these half-day weather windows were not going to get us south fast enough to keep me in the realm of my deadline. And sailing with a deadline is a deadly idea. I also started to realize that my stress in being glued to my plan was probably taking years off of my life.

As I continued to fight my way upstream anyways, I suddenly won the grant. I would be funded to pursue my dreams for two years. I would even be given the time and funding to pursue dreams I had buried so deeply I had forgotten about them. Amid the congratulatory emails from the faculty at the Energy and Resources Group, one professor wryly reminded me of the “honorable mention” I had received for the second year in a row for a grant I desperately desired. He reminded me that I had commented it would all work out in the end. This email gave me a glimpse of my optimist, flexible self that took failure as a sign of better things to come. By losing that previous grant, I was forced to pursue another grant that somehow honored my deepest, truest self.

I almost did not apply for this new grant. Doubts whispered to me: there’s no way an organization will fund this project. You will fail. You are not an acclaimed journalist and therefore not a good enough writer for this grant. You cannot begin your boat sewing projects with something as complicated as a dodger. (Oh wait, that was another acquired voice.) At the beginning of my 18 interviews, I awaited skype calls in moderated terror. My only interview experience as an adult had been with a flopped interview with a carbon counting organization, and my Fulbright (which was so mortifying I actually hid under the covers afterwards.) But even though I stood shivering in the interview current, I began to relax and remembered not only that I knew how to swim, but that I love to swim. By the last interview, I found I was learning about myself and the world from these fascinating people.

Despite this incredible news of the grant, I fretted about the boat and our awash sailing plans. I was drowning as I clung to my Plan branch on the shore. Resenting the river but acknowledging I was underwater, I finally bought my ticket back to México. I would not be sailing the California coast on this trip.

Far buddies up

Far buddies up with Diana B, her sister Cal 39 in Sausalito.

I arrived on Baja’s shores depleted, afraid, and sad. Yet the nonchalant brilliance of life intervened once again, and I was picked up at the airport by a man with no shoes, swim goggles around his neck, and an incredible, grounding spirit. For two days I slept under the desert sky in one of his restored airstreams and ate large egg dishes with his other guests. I watched meteors from an outdoor cast iron tub cradled by desert fronds. I felt my plans begin to release me. On the second day, after drifting with the wind in the ocean’s humbling waters, we found ourselves in a conversation with three older Americans. When I told them I was working on my PhD research in climate change, they asked what I would do when I was done. After my answer (I have this somewhat canned,) they nodded and said, Well, it’s good to have plans. I laughed out loud. And it was a real laugh, not a snicker. I had finally surrendered to the river, and I waved happily as I drifted by.

Airstream evening

Desert tubs

Scenes of peace from Los Barriles.

My optimism has seeped back in, and my time in La Paz has been joyous—even with giardia. I feel blessed to have found a friend and spiritual teacher only a couple hours from my home, with a magical breakfast spot between us. I have cohabitated with a monstrous kitten who is so silly that as soon as he bites me (again), I burst into laughter at his devilish gaze. I have had the good fortune to meet more of Laura’s family, who are as awesome as she is. I have the hilarious image emblazoned in my brain of her cousin’s expressive part-terror-part-glee face as a gentle, giant wave crashed over him as we body surfed for hours at a new beach.

Marcelino el monstruo

Who, me? The kitten Marcelino, known to many as the Orcalino, renowned for his precocious hunting abilities, particularly for attacking exposed skin in the middle of the night.

Molly and Laura

The family who has adopted me. You can see they are no fun.

Streets of El Triunfo

Breakfast beckons in El Truinfo.

By the way, I still don’t have my visa. I think the Immigration agent said something about the printer and water damage. This is after my seventh trip to the office.

Things are exactly as they should be, I have no control over it, and I can remember that I must relax if I want to surf. Let me flow into the New Year and trust the river, even when its a flood.

Dodger success!

Dodger success. It may not be perfect, but it’s perfect that way.


9 Responses to Surf Lessons from the Atmospheric River

  1. Chris mathias December 22, 2014 at 6:28 am #

    Well Jess.
    So pleased to read an account of this faceted view of life. Like a diamond, we only see the plane perpendicular, when in fact a thousand planes hold the one!
    Your bliss?

  2. christina harlow December 22, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    Ahhh your writing goes down like fine wine my dear! Love reading about your adventures!

  3. wandabout December 22, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Jess, this is beautiful, you’re an amazing writer! I’ve been watching in on your impending adventures, and I love the realness of which your plans are taking shape, and that the water, and climate is your teacher. It’s so human to push upstream, (me too), and the lesson of flow, and surrender are so timely with this season, life, and climate. You’re surrounded by such wonderful teachers in all faces! Such happy congrats on all this wonderful alignment that is taking shape in its perfect time. Last night I heard a great statement, “You don’t attract what you want, you attract what you ARE.” Jess, you ARE a magical being. 🙂 Happy Solstice! Happy New Moon! ~LisaBella (from SLC)

  4. Rebekah December 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    This was beautiful Jess. You are a great writer and reflective thinker. We have an old trini saying “what is to is, must is”. It’s from a very famous book. Everything that is meant to be in the present for you will be. Let the future take its course. Congrats on the grant and best wishes for the new year!

  5. Katie Arkema December 22, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this, Jess! Thank you for sharing! Katie

  6. Lara December 24, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    Good for you for embracing the unexpected! The pictures are gorgeous. Hope you feel better!

  7. Leah Vawter December 27, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    Loved reading this! I need to go back and read more of your previous posts. I’ve been a slacker! Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures.

  8. Dan Kammen January 13, 2015 at 6:35 am #

    Lets hope that you have gotten sickness off your ‘Dissertation Bucket List’ and that you can largely be healthy going forward! Your combination of wonderful writing and a remarkable topic could not be better for this mode of science and travel writing!

    What is going to be perhaps most delightful about this is that ever-original Energy and Resources Group dissertation plan is getting a good stretch and tug through your efforts!

    Travel well.

  9. Ben Mandel January 19, 2015 at 6:33 am #

    So great to read up on the amazing and interesting things you do, Jess! Congrats on the grant! So proud of my cohort-mate 🙂

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