A First Night at Sea

Day 5 – Into the Ocean Night

After two sleepless nights in Ensenada, we had another intentional all-nighter in front of us: the passage to Bahia San Quintin. We set out in the early afternoon, slipped out of the harbor, and headed south. My first night on the open ocean (under control of the boat, that is.)

I have worked a few night jobs, none of which I loved. As a field biologist who studies amphibians and birds, I know that nighttime can be disorienting and dangerous in ways that hide in the shadows of day.

Yet as dusk closed in and we motorsailed away from land, the sea was beautiful and even inviting. We decided to keep two people on watch with two-hour shifts, and Josh took the first nap. Under a reefed mainsail, Chris and I watched the little whitecaps around the boat light up, and we wondered if it was the bioluminescence or the light radiating from our running light at the top of the mast. I layered up early in fleece long underwear and my foul weather gear to watch a billion stars begin their stride across the sky. When Chris went below for his nap, I didn’t wake Josh and had the helm to myself and the night. I could see the distant lights of fishing boats out at sea, and they showed up even more clearly on the radar as yellow dashes on the screen, over ten nautical miles away. I had hot tea, my foulies, and I covered the dog in his blanket (he stays on deck whenever we are underway.)  The wind and seas were following the boat and the night was peaceful.

Day 6 – Organic Hazards and the Day of Love and Friendship

As Josh emerged around midnight, we heard the noise of the motor change from its typical hum at 2000 rpms to a much lower pitch. Any change like this sounds an immediate alarm in the head of a sailor, and we instantly throttled down and shifted the engine into neutral. We peered over the back of the boat to see what we had hit.

Kelp! We had traveled far away from shore to avoid these floating rafts of light brown, tough stalks and gracefully fanning leaves through which we could slalom during the day, but there was little to do at night except move further from shore. Armed with a boathook—a hardy, extendable rod—Josh leaned most of his body over the side of the boat and dislodged this natural hazard from our propeller shaft, which is about 4 feet below the surface. Relieved that the kelp did no permanent damage, I went down below for my two-hour nap, slipping out of my stiff outdoor layers to wash my face and teeth and snuggled into the quarter berth. With my earplugs in, I set no alarm and drifted into sleep with the sweet vibration of the motor only inches away. Around 4am we caught more kelp on the prop, and this time, Josh had to drape precariously over the rail with Chris hanging on to him to tussle with the tenacious weed.

It was my turn to head down below again around 6am, but I couldn’t miss my first sunrise at sea. I squinted to discern the waning moonlight from the rising sun. Pink clouds reflecting on the glassy surface. Sailors call this smooth water “oily,” but the term does not quite depict the tranquility as this inky surface slides light around under the huge open sky without a riffle, only colors slipping into each other. A speckled brown gull circled the boat six times flying between the furled jib and the mast in an attempt to land on the dinghy which is strapped upside down to the foredeck, but eventually gave up and plopped into the water. Josh and I took it all in together, this lovely calm. And it was Valentine’s Day! Or, as I discovered by reading a giant lollipop for sale by a street vendor in Ensenada, El Dia de Amor y Amistad, the more inclusive-sounding “day of love and friendship.”

Pink calm and a waning moon bring in the light of say on the way to San Quintín.

Pink calm and a waning moon bring in the light of say on the way to San Quintín.

In the early afternoon, we turned into Bahía San Quintín. We motored passed the waves breaking eerily over the shoal at the entrance to the bay where Josh and I had spent our first night in Mexico at Molino Viejo just a few months before. As much as I wanted to return to that familiar spot, the shoal is ever changing and shallow and therefore unfriendly to keelboats. After checking out one anchorage that seemed both too close to rocks and breaking shoal waves, we motored on into the gleaming white crescent of the bay. As we anchored, a sea lion cruised a curious lap around the boat, attempting to peer onto the deck—for what, I can only guess. We were the lone sailboat, and only pangas (little boats used for everything from fishing to tourism in Mexico) cruised by in the distance.

The welcoming committee at San Quintín. As soon as we dropped the hook we had a friend swimming around, peering onto the decks for full circumnadation (that's right, I made that word up.)

The welcoming committee at San Quintín. As soon as we dropped the hook we had a friend swimming around, peering onto the decks for full circumnadation (that’s right, I made that word up.)

Despite an astroturf pad on the bow scented with his own pee, it had been over 24 hours since the dog last relieved himself, so Josh hopped on the paddleboard with Uly to brave a sizeable shore break. Chris and I watched as he and Uly surfed perfectly to shore, but getting back through the waves proved psychologically more challenging for Uly, who ended up soaking them both. We all swam in the water around the boat, oblivious to the Pacific cold in our wetsuits. That night, Josh revealed not only roses for the Day of Love, but chocolates, wine, and three wine glasses he had scrounged up in the grocery store in Ensenada. It was a gloriously incongruous: a traditional reminder of this day celebrating love that we were so unconventionally spending with each other. There was much I love for which to celebrate: the company of great people, dogs, and sea lions, and the beauty of an unknowable adventure at the edge of earth and sea.

Swimming around in San Quintín.

Swimming around in San Quintín.

Not a bad view for Valentines Day.

Not a bad view for Valentines Day.

Day 7 – A Very Big Beach for Bringing People Together

After a sound night of sleep (finally!), Josh and I launched the dinghy the next day to check out the long beach. We took one of the paddleboard paddles as a rudder to steer into shore with the crashing surf. We tumbled in over the whitewater and hopped out before the next crashing wave, relieved to be right side up. As the dog tore gleefully over the sand and dunes, we hauled the dinghy away from the water’s edge. Rusted little cars sped along the flat, hard sand, and a dull red compact car out of the 1980s ripped past us, the grinning men inside all giving us the thumbs-up. The beach stretched for miles in each direction in a subtle curve. The landscape beyond the white dunes is treeless and gradually sloping to distant mountains, with the exception of a couple perfect cinder cones hinting at the geologic movement of the Baja peninsula away from the mainland. Driving into San Quintín just months before, the town feels rough, low, and sandy, but from this beach I could now recognize the stark beauty of the ocean wind over a volcanic past.

A beach that extends for miles, San Quintín.

A beach that extends for miles, San Quintín. Far has the water all to herself.

People dotted the water. We watched, amazed, as mothers and fathers thrust their clam diggers into the sand in the shore break. I had never seen people clamming in big, breaking surf. The effort required was both massive and smooth. Little girls and boys climbed over each other at the waters edge, giggling and rolling in the wet sand. Most of the cars on the beach had no license plates but could definitely accomodate a family from home to sea, and I could imagine that clamming could keep a family afloat here. The landscape and the people were deeply shaped by the whims of wind and wave in a way I could not see when I first drove through the town.

We managed to launch the dinghy back through the swells, and we returned to the boat so Josh could install the water tank gauge. We have a desalinator on board, known as a “watermaker” in the sailing world, and we can make six gallons per hour, so we needed to know when and if we were approaching a full tank (the tank is around 95 gallons.) A water maker is not essential on a sailboat, and many have sailed the world without one. However, having lived in the desert for over ten years, I understand the importance of water deep in my bones. With all three solar panels hooked up, we have enough energy to make water for drinking, cooking, and showers, with just the light of day.

We spent this evening anchored in San Quintín and decided to make our next stop Isla Cedros, just north of Bahía Tortugas (Turtle Bay.) Another day and a half of sailing would bring us to this island known for its fish camps and steep desert shores.

Most sailboats motor past San Quintín, but because we took time to anchor and walk the vast beach, I have a better idea of the unique connection between community and ocean here. At this beach, harvesting clams is a physically vigorous, community-built and family-inclusive activity. These tough men and women smiled at us and their thumbs-up gestures of support were sincere, as if to say, “hey, good work, we know it took some effort and skill to get here, and we’re glad you’re here on our beach.” This beach serves not only for food harvesting, but as a road, a place to gather, and a natural, free space for kids to play. The ocean here is an immutable part of the fabric of life—just as it is in ours.

12 Responses to A First Night at Sea

  1. Rebecca April 8, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    What kind of clams are there?

    • Jess April 16, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      I have since “dug” around to find the answer, and what I can tell you is they are smaller than chocolate clams…

  2. James Bennett April 8, 2015 at 7:15 pm #

    I loved reading these posts. More pics pls

    • Jess April 16, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

      Thank you James! I took your advise to heart and will attempt to post more photos. We also have gotten way better at documenting our trip as we go south, so upcoming posts will have more interesting photos.

  3. claudette April 8, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

    an I come on board? I can cook 🙂

    • Jess April 16, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      YES Claudette!!

  4. Janice Bernauer April 8, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

    What an adventure! It’s great to hear all the details and your reactions to your experiences!

  5. creepartridge@gmail.com April 9, 2015 at 6:03 am #

    great writing — I don’t want to miss an episode

    • Jess April 16, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks Cree! We’re ready for you whenever you want to join us.

  6. Katja Wichland April 9, 2015 at 7:41 am #

    love this Jess… what an adventure!!

    • Jess April 16, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

      Thank you Katja! You always have an open invite to join us!

  7. Lara C May 4, 2015 at 6:20 pm #

    Looks so amazing and love the writing!

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