It’s late December, 1992. I’ve been living a life of madness and booze, sex, drugs and slightly dodgy rock and roll for months now. La Passionata is the name of the boat, and Marina de La Paz, or, more accurately, the anchorages just off it between the mainland and the mangrove offshore sandbar called El Mogote, has been my new stomping grounds. La Paz, Baja Sur, Mexico.
How I got into this life of drinking and sailing and drinking and sailing and drinking a whole lot more is a bit of a blur, but burned bronze and blonde-streaked, skinny and intent on squeezing as much random fun as possible out of every glorious day, I’m happier than I have been in a long time.
But I can also feel my personality disintegrating, or at least that’s how I phrase it to myself in my saltwater- and beer-stained journal. Maybe the sun and the booze and the whippets and speed and the untrained scuba dives, the days out at Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida hunting fish and lobster and cooking them for the women we’d picked up at the Barba Negra the night before, and the nights back at the bar again running up our tab with the long-suffering owner, Jose, have taken their toll, finally.
Looking back on it now, I don’t know how I could have gotten tired of it — sometimes I’d give my left nut to be back there again, careless, happy, exalted and gloriously befuddled, swimming with whalesharks and flirting with vulpine German tourist girls, being lulled to sleep by gentle motion of the hull in the swell and the quiet slap of warm water against the fiberglass.
I’m tired of waiting in port, looking at the charts of all that crinkled Pacific coast running down all the way to Panama, I’m feeling the effects of all that recreational chemistry, and I’ve been offered berth on a boat so much bigger than La Pass — 71 feet of waterline! my own cabin after sleeping in the salon and getting my head stepped on by whoever else crashed aboard on any given night! — that I’ve made the decision to jump ship and head across the blue water with Elmo’s Fire. And the boys on La Passionata will meet up with us down the coast, they promise. Probably in Vallarta, in a month or so. A little time away from the 24-hour party people will be good for me, I reckon, and so I move my single bag over to Elmo, and dance around a little in my own little two-bunk cabin, up under the bow, before I get to work.
Elmo’s Fire’s been tied up at the pier in front of the Hotel Gran Baja for years. It is averred by most that Michael, the hard-boozing but indestructible Englishman who’s been living aboard since the owners disappeared — one dead, one in jail for trafficking, one lit out to parts unknown, it is said — is really the black sheep Viscount Ashley, and survives off a yearly stipend from the Good Family in exchange for a promise to stay the hell away. Whether that’s true or not I don’t care — I’ve heard enough tales tall and wide in the past months to last a lifetime, and I don’t care much whether they’re fiction or not, they are such glorious mythical water in which to swim. Michael is a good man, and kind, if scatterbrained in the boozer cruiser way, and universally acknowledged to be a fine sailor, veteran of several TransPac races.
A few days later, less than a week before Christmas, and we’ve picked up a new crewmember at the Barba Negra, which, with Michael’s squirrely girlfriend, makes four of us to manage this Ocean ’71. The weather has come up — Chabasco weather in the Sea of Cortez is like hurricane weather over in the Gulf — and we’re riding anchor, tucked safely into the south-facing Bahia de Los Muertos south of La Paz, waiting with nine other boats to make our break for Mazatlan. Nobody’s moving. Michael’s getting itchy. I’m scared sh-tless. ‘Bay of the Dead’ is not an auspicious name for the departure point of my first bluewater sail, not when the wind’s howling down from the north at 40 to 60 knots.
Finally, about 9pm, Michael snaps, calls the rest of the cruisers on the open channel cowards, and tells us we’re making sail.
I’ve spent the last few hours working on the SatNav, and it seems to be working as it should (for the first time in months, apparently), and I tinkered with Iron Mike, the autopilot, earlier in the day. With only a few months experience on the boats, that’s about all I can do, other than follow orders, and cook dinner. We motor out past the headland, into the swell, Michael points the pointy end into the wind, and we do our deckmonkey thing and haul the mainsail up. The swell rolling down the Sea of Cortez is huge — it feels like 8 metres, but it can’t be more than 4 or 5, probably. That’s enough. I’m scared. The night is young, and very dark.
Michael is standing behind the wheel grinning through his scraggly white beard now, and as he brings us around to the east, the mainsail catches the wind, and Elmo heels over, hard. The lee rail is buried in wake, and in a matter of seconds, we’re flying along east-southeast ahead of massive following seas. Dale and Lenore go below, and I sit with Michael in the open cockpit, and he teaches me some of what I’m going to need to know. My watch will be 4am to 8am, and the weather could get better or worse between now and then. I sneak the occasional look over my left shoulder at the waves towering over us, and it’s even more sphincter-tighteningly scary than the foam and black water coursing along the deck where the rail on the lee side of the boat is well and truly underwater. I concentrate on his lessons.
It’s a few hours later — after midnight — and the weather has gotten heavier. The SatNav tells me that we’re well and truly out in the blue water now, but it’s the same dark, foamflecked and howling maelstrom of wind and wave it was when we were mere minutes offshore. The difference is that I know we’re many many nautical miles from land now. It’s the first time for me.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared, but my sailing (and drinking) adventures in the last few months have gone some way towards acclimatizing me to functioning while terrified. I am taking some small pride in my impassive mien when particularly hard gusts push the boat over further, or rogue waves wash through the cockpit. This is going to be OK, I think to myself.
This is when Michael, who’s been letting Iron Mike steer for the past hour, I find out, and just resting his hands on the wheel, decides he might as well have a drink. Michael never has just one drink. Neither do I, if truth be told, but then I’m not the f–king skipper on this little passage.
There is one rule that my friends back at Marina de La Paz, most of whom are boozers of an intensity and dedication I’d rarely seen before — and this is saying a lot — have drilled into me. You drink in port or at anchor; you do not drink while under way. You do not do it.
Michael cracks his first beer. My eyes go round, my sphincter goes loose, and tightly-wound escalates to underwear-staining. Brown Alert! It doesn’t take long to figure out that other than Michael, I’m the most experienced sailor on board. And I don’t know sh-t.
By 3am he is pissed, semiconscious and prone, wrapped in a poncho on the downwind bench of the cockpit. Beer cans are rolling around, awash, in the cockpit. Our other two crew members are below, sleeping, presumably. I am behind the wheel, and the seas are getting heavier, to the extent that the autopilot whines and chatters in protest as it struggles to bring the bow around in the wake of maybe one in five of the huge waves that are sliding beneath us. I disengage it and take the wheel.
For the next 3 hours, I steer that massive boat through the storm. My only time before this behind the wheel of Elmo’s Fire has been a couple of hours running before the wind from La Paz down to Bahia de Los Muertos, before the winds came up. Er, yesterday. I’m way out of my depth. What Michael told me before he passed out — that to jibe the sail in these winds would snap the boom — keeps running through my mind, and though I try to keep our course as easterly as possible, the crash and rattle of the sail when we come down off the peak of some of these waves hammers at my confidence.
Still, although there are perhaps one or two gusts or monster waves per hour, enough to make me jump and struggle to keep the boat under control, I begin to get used to it. Michael snores away, through spray and hull-slam, and I try to keep the cigarettes I’ve been chainsmoking dry, and begin to understand that I have not failed, and that we probably won’t die. I realize that this night may have been the most important test of my mettle so far in my young life, where I had to rise to the challenge and master it, and that I was doing it, by god.
The horizon begins to lighten before 6am. I’ve never been so happy to see the sun before, and as the skies begin to grow bright, the winds fall away, and the swell begins to recede. Or that’s what it feels like, at least. The monsters that loomed out of the dark shrink away, and in the light of day, fear seems silly and unworthy and unmanly. In instant retrospect (just add sunlight), terror gives way to adventure.
By the time the full disc of the sun detaches itself from the eastern horizon, I can see land, a bumpy darker line above the dark water. Tempted by the memories of too many pirate movies as a kid, I shout, only a little maliciously, ‘Land ahoy!’ Michael starts into wakefulness, squints at me, nods, creakily limps over to the rail and pisses, then relieves me of my watch. I light us a couple of cigarettes, pass one to him, and move over.
Soon there are sounds below, and the smell of coffee wafts up from the gangway.
We’ll be in Mazatlan by sunset. And then we will sail south.