“A trimaran sailboat is rather like a monohull sailboat with training wheels,” Jan would say of her boat, Etak. “The main hull holds most of the living space while two outrigger hulls provide stability and storage.” “This boat is like a sailing tennis court, wide and stable,” quipped her husband, Eric.
All the sailboats, but one, in Turtle Bay that windy Thanksgiving were monohulls. While the monohulls pitched and bucked at their anchors, Jan and Eric’s trimaran stood steady on her anchor bridle, offering a stable platform. Cruisers are always looking for comfort. Thanksgiving dinner, it was decided by the ex pats in the anchorage, was to be on Jan and Eric’s boat.
Dingys began arriving at four. Wine, appetizers, side dishes and desserts were passed up to the deck, The happy guests climbed aboard smiling holiday greetings. Everyone settled comfortably into the cockpit under the snug protection of the bimini, talking and laughing with the ease and familiarity of old acquaintances. Appetizers were passed, wine was poured and toasts offered. None of them were with family that holiday, but they were with friends. Cruisers become good friends quickly. Sailing provides for many shared memories, common interests and experiences. There is a short hand of understanding among sailors and an unspoken law. Cruisers are there for each other. To not come to another’s aid is unthinkable. Sometimes the crisis is life threatening, sometimes, much less critical. Jan met the crew of one of the boats when, in desperation, she rowed to their boat and begged, “Please, talk to me. My husband has been reading for four days.” The crew understood exactly and, without question, invited Jan aboard. Cruisers are like that.
The sky was darkening quickly that Thanksgiving evening and a light mist had begun to fall. Wind whipped angrily around the boat and howled through the rigging. Grey clouds settled in threatening mounds, rain filled caldrons above their heads. At the mouth of the bay, wind whipped surf pounded the narrow opening. Storm powered waves collided with the rush of the outgoing tide in fountains of angry spray. Beyond the entrance to the bay, high surf rocketed to the heavens as waves collided with the rocky breakwater which provided shelter to the bay. It was ugly out at sea. The cruisers felt grateful for the safety of the anchorage.
Six o’clock, everyone had arrived but Doreen. Doreen was alone this holiday. Her husband had returned to the states to purchase another headsail. Theirs had been lost overboard in a storm coming down the coast. In the distance, the party saw Doreen stepping from her boat into her violently rocking dingy. Doreen fitted her oars into the oarlocks and started to row towards Etak. With the last guest on the way, Jan ducked below to finish last minute preparations. Glancing out the aft cabin port, she was startled to see Doreen’s dingy pitching at an odd angle in the choppy bay. Doreen was not rowing, but waving to the partiers aboard Etak, in queenly fashion, as her dingy sped past Etak on the outgoing tide. Jan saw immediately that one of Doreen’s oar locks had broken. Without benefit of oars, Doreen was being carried with the fast moving tide and wind towards the opening of the bay and out to sea.
Above, in the cockpit, the party continued. No one had noticed anything amiss. Jan hurled herself into the cockpit and leaped over her laughing guests. There was not time to think or explain. She grabbed for the dingy painter and pulled the dingy to the side of the boat. Jan rapidly untied the painter, leaped into the dingy and pushed off as she threw her oars into their locks. On deck, laughing momentarily stopped while everyone took in the situation. Seeing that all was well in hand, the revelry resumed as Jan bent to the oars and franticly tried to catch Doreen before she hit the surf at the mouth of the bay. Cruisers are like that, too.
The wind and current were with Jan. She covered the distance between herself and Doreen just as Doreen’s dingy caught a tall wave which sent it rocketing towards the rock breakwater. Yelling over the wind for Doreen to toss her painter, Jan angled her dingy to minimize the pitch, caught the painter and tied it off. Back turned to Etak, Jan picked a point on shore as reference and again bent into the oars. Pulling hard against the wind and tide Jan rowed towards home. It was exhausting work. For every stroke forward she lost at least a half a boat length back. There was nothing to do but do it, as is so often the case on a sailboat. If Jan did not manage to get herself and Doreen back to Etak, they would be caught in the raging, wet mêlée at the mouth of the bay. If they even made it though the crashing waves they would be swept out to sea but chances were, both dingys would capsize and be dashed on the rocky shore. If the partiers aboard Etak noticed in time and they might be able to get to Jan and Doreen in time, but it was unlikely. Eyes on her reference point, Jan put every ounce of strength against the wind, against the tide. Sweating in the stinging spray, drenched from the waves slapping into the boat, Jan gave it her all. Just do it, just do it, her mantra.
After twenty minutes, Jan wearily looked over her shoulder to make sure she was still on course to Etak. She was making headway, almost there. Aboard Etak, Eric and the other boaters waved encouragingly.. Jan glanced back at Doreen, expecting to see her paddling with her remaining oar. Doreen was not paddling. Doreen was sitting tall and elegant, back straight, gleaming curls blowing fetchingly in the breeze. Remarkably she was dry and unmarked by the struggle. A lovely smile was painted on Doreen’s beautiful, full lips. Unfazed, she was waving regally, with a queen’s elegant turn of the wrist, to the happy crowd aboard Etak. Doreen was thoroughly enjoying the ride. Jen squinted down through soggy, wet hair at her drenched clothing and back at Doreen’s beatific smile. Briefly, just briefly Jan contemplated angling a giant splash of water at Doreen’s elegantly attired figure….by mistake, of course.
“Ya got another pair of shoes wid ya?” Ace directed the question over his shoulder, shouting over the noise of the engine. “Yes, why?” Jan answered with an eye to the darkening sky surrounding the four seater, single engine plane. “If we run outta light and havta put down, you’re gonna need different shoes to walk out.” Jan looked down at her flimsy sandals and then out the window to the terrain below. Put down? There was not one square inch of level ground below them. The steep coastline of Baja California was as ragged and torn as if cut with pinking shears and ravaged by an angry cat. Putting down was an impossibility, walking out, well that was just crazy. Jagged mountain peaks stretched from coast to coast across the narrow peninsula. A single lane dirt road was the only road or path they had seen since leaving Brown Field and clearing immigration in Tijuana. If they went down, they were dead. Jen leaned her head against the paper thin fuselage and groaned.
In the co pilot’s seat Jen could see her brother-in-law’s smiling profile. He shared his sunny, optimistic nature with his brother, Jen’s husband. Jen had never seen either of them rattled or upset. Mike wasn’t worrying about putting down. A pilot himself, he was reveling in this last minute trip to Turtle Bay, Baja Mexico. Jen looked again at the serrated landscape below and wondered if perhaps she’d been a little hasty in hiring someone named “Ace” to fly her to Mexico.
This particular adventure had started a month or two earlier. Jen and her husband Eric had been hiking the tropical hillsides outside Puerta Vallarta. Leaving their sailboat, Etak, anchored in Bandaras Bay they had taken a public bus as far as it would go and then started walking into the hills of Mexico. “How do you suppose they got those trucks this far into the hills,” Jen had asked her husband. Teetering precariously on the side of a steep heavily wooded hill were two trucks. “I don’t know, there must be a road somewhere,” Eric had answered looking around for any sign. Parrots screeched from the trees and giant lizards lumbered through the thick foliage around them. A narrow path had led them from the suberbs of Puerta Vallarta up steeply winding paths along a gentle stream into the hills. Now and then they would see a small house or curious cow, but for most of the afternoon they had seen no one.
The two trucks were emblazened with large red letters saying Agua Emerald, a local water purification plant. Two men were filling large water bottles in the stream. “That’s funny,” Jen said. “Isn’t that the plant where we bought our water yesterday?” “I think so,” said Eric. “I wonder what they are doing up here.” Eric and Jen finished their hike and headed back to Etak, picking up a few supplies at the grocery store as they walked through town. The weather report was good. Tomorrow they would set sail up the coast to Cabo San Lucas and from there up the coast of Baja to San Diego.
The next morning was bright and sunny. Eric and Jen upped anchor and set out for Bird Island where they planned to anchor for the night. By noon they were certain they were becoming ill. Remebering the water trucks filling bottles at the stream, Jen and Eric suspiciously considered that the purified, bottled water they had purchased might just be stream water, and contaminated. They started boiling the water before using it, took the dysentery medication they had onboard and hoped for the best. Both were concerned. They had no way to reach medical facilities. They were on there own. While anchoring at Bird Island, the chain snarled on rocks. There was no choice. One of them had to free it. Eric free dove 30 feet to untangle the chain. When he had freed the chain he clambered, shakily back onto the deck. Seeing his pale face and feeling ill herself, Jen felt Eric’s forehead and headed below for the thermometer. Eric was running a temperature of 103 degrees Jen was sure she was running a fever too.
The next days are a blur for Jen. Later she remembered her husband carrying her from the bunk to the head, propping her against the bulkhead and spraying her with water to bring down her fever. He was very sick himself, but a little better off than she was. Eric was terribly worried. He stayed awake for 72 hours, giving Jen small sips of water to keep her from dehydrating and going into a coma. For the most part of several days, Jen was unconscious and later remembered almost nothing but Eric’s constant presence whenever she gained consciousness.
After about a week, Jen and Eric had recuperated enough to continue their sail to Cabo San Lucas. By the time they reached the anchorage in Cabo, Eric had decided it would be wise to fly Jen to her parent’s home in San Diego to recover fully. Jen had lost quite a bit of weight and was very weak. Jen reluctantly went only after Eric had called a friend and asked Sam to fly to Cabo and continue the trip with Eric up the coast to San Diego. Confident that Eric would be safe with Sam as crew, Jen flew home to San Diego.
Several weeks later, well fed and pampered Jen was feeling content until the phone rang early one morning. “Hi, Jen!” “Hi Sam! Sam, where are you?” Sam was back in the United States. It seemed he had never intended to stay more than a couple of weeks on the boat. His son was graduating from the Naval Academy and he had to be there. Understandable, but, Jen was distressed. Sam had deserted Eric. Her guy was alone, alone on the boat. If he fell overboard, there would be no one there to save him. Jen was distraught. She was frantic!
Jen was not much of a sailor at this point. In fact, Eric had been pretty much single handing the boat for months. But in her anxious state of mind. that logic did not occur to her. Eric was alone on the boat. He was single handing. She had to get there quickly to save him from danger. There was no time to think, this called for action. Jen phoned her brother-in-law. Sensing possible adventure, Mike agreed, Jen should get herself to Turtle Bay as soon as possible. He would go with her. Jen’s next call was to Brown Field nestled on the border of Chula Vista, California and Tijuana, Mexico. She was in luck! An ex-Navy pilot named Ace was at the field and agreed to speak with her. Ace told Jen to be at the air field by 2 pm. They could just make it to Turtle Bay before dark. Jen called Mike. He was just getting into the car. He could be there in three hours.
Assuring her alarmed parents she knew what she was doing, Jen began throwing her gear into a duffle bag. Jen’s parents had reason to be alarmed. Jen knew nothing of Ace, Jen’s Dad, a pilot who knew many of the pilots who flew in and out of Brown Field, knew nothing of Ace. Her parents were sure Jen was embarking on a disastrous trip but were respectfully quiet. They were stoic people and by this time shell shocked. Jen’s parents had cautiously tried to talk sense into her the year before when she announced she was getting married, building a boat and going sailing. Jen’s Mom asked, “What is this boy’s name again?”
Mike and Jen made it to Brown Field in record time. Ace was a balding, plump, florid faced individual with a bulbous alcoholic’s nose. He seemed sober at the moment and Jen was in no mood for setbacks. Ace had his flimsy craft ready to go. Jen and Mike threw their gear into the plane and Ace started up the plane. Precious time was lost because Mexican aviation law required us to land again and clear customs in Tijuana. The flight to the TJ airport took all of twenty minutes, mostly taking off, landing and taxiing. By the time they had cleared customs it was clear that Ace was an imprecise, though practiced pilot. Jen was congratulating herself on her foresight in including Mike on the trip.
Just at dark Ace dropped the tiny plane onto a bumpy, poorly maintained dirt field at Turtle Bay. The plane bounced and skidded awkwardly on the dirt airstrip before coming to a shuddering stop. Ace lumbered out and spoke to one of the kids standing on the airstrip. Soon, a rattletrap station wagon thundered onto the field in a cloud of thick, red dust. By the fading light Mike and Jen could see a smiling man at the steering wheel. Almost before the vehicle had careened to a halt, the driver bounded out. He and Ace exchanged loud greetings and many back slapping embraces before the driver motioned them to climb into his car. With a screech of the wheels, Alfonso, the Fishing Inspector of Turtle Bay, conveyed Jen and Mike to the rickety pier where Eric, alerted to their arrival, was tying off the dingy. Out on the bay, Jen could see their boat hanging peacefully on its anchor. She was home.
Eric, grinning broadly was climbing the long ladder to the pier as Mike and Jen walked rapidly down the quay. Jen learned to respect that pier. At low tide the pier hung at least 15 feet above the water. One had to climb up and down a vertical ladder, with many missing steps, to get to and from a small dingy. Negotiating the pier at night was tricky. There were many holes and a misstep could send one sprawling or worse yet, flying into the dark bay.
Turtle Bay is a dusty town about half way down the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula. The tiny town was there almost exclusively because of the fish packing plant located on the edge of the bay. The generous bay is large enough for the Mexican Navy ships and is well protected and picturesque. At this time, the town was connected to the rest of Baja only by a rutted, partially passable dirt road and a weekly cargo plane out of Tijuana airport. Small single story homes and shops were painted in traditional blues, pinks and yellows which we saw in many small fishing villages along the coasts. The people of the town greeted Alfonso with respect and fondness. The Fishing Inspector is an important man in a fishing village.
Eric was glad to see Jen and Mike although it turns out had not been suffering from neglect in Jen’s absence. Every boat in the anchorage had taken pity on the poor guy whose sick wife had left him to return to the states. He had been invited for dinner, bridge, cocktails, fishing, swimming, canasta and hikes. He had been well fed and well entertained. Jen suspect he would have had little trouble finding crew if he had needed it. He did not need it. Eric was a seasoned sailor having competed in several Transpacs, or trans pacific, sailboat races to Tahiti and Hawaii. He had spent many months sailing around the South Pacific and was capable in any situation. Still, he was happy to have his wife and crew back on the boat.
Alfonso and Ace were still slapping backs and laughing. They were obviously old friends. The Fishing Inspector let Ace know he and Mike too, if he wished, was welcome to spend the night at his house. Mike accepted eagerly, sensing another adventure. Alfonso cordially extended a dinner invitation to all. After dropping the duffle on the boat they went to Alfonso’s house for dinner.
As fishing inspector, Alfonso had abundant access to fish, lobster, abalone and crab. All that and more was served that night in a sumptuous dinner, skillfully and flavorfully prepared by Alfonso’s mistress. Alfonso had a wife and several children in Ensenada, he informed them, but because of the children’s schooling they could not spend much time in Turtle Bay. So, of course, he had a mistress. By this time everyone had all had a celebratory glass of wine or two and this made perfect sense. Cathy was a slim, dimpled young professional woman who taught at the local school. She had a keen sense of humor, a sharp eye and evidence of quick temper. Jen and Eric got to know her and Alfonso better over several more visits to Turtle Bay over the next few years.
The dinner was a riotous, laugh filled party of stories and jokes. Alfonso had quite a cellar and believed good food deserved the accompaniment of lots of good tequila and wine. Ace, good natured and appreciative of this belief, drank many glasses of both. Shortly after 11 pm, as they were finishing an excellent port and pastry, Jen was amused to notice Ace had slipped from his chair and was snoring happily under the table. Alfonso grinned, slapped the table and barked, ”That is where he sleeps!” Apparently this was the tradition. Ace drank himself under the table and then spent the night there. That too, made perfect sense, they continued the party until well after 1 am when Alfonso finally agreed Eric and Jen could return to the boat. Mike accepted the offer of Alfonso and Cathy’s guest room and hot shower. He’d spent the night on the boat before.
The next morning, Mike took the controls as a blurry eyed Ace slumped sleepily in the copilot’s seat. Eric and Jen waved from the airstrip as the small plane winged into the blue sky above Turtle Bay and turned its nose towards San Diego. When she got home to the boat after seeing the plane on its way, Jen pulled out the ship’s log and found an ink pen, just another entry in a cruiser’s diary.