28 March 2011

10 Questions for Location

location3 James “J” Mills cruised aboard Location, a Calatline 470 hailing from Newport Beach, CA, USA from 2006 until 2010. In October 2006, with his wife LeDean, his dog “Escrow”, and two friends Terry & Jim, he sailed off for Mexico with the 2006 Baja Ha Ha. LeDean, Escrow, and “commuter cruised” the Sea of Cortez, primarily around La Paz for the next two and a half years. In March 2009, he set out single-handed and sailed from La Paz to Conception Bay, back to La Paz, and then across the Sea to Mazatlan, and from there south to Banderas Bay, Manzanillo, and finally back to Newport Beach in June 2010. Interested readers can find articles, essays, and stories of his years of cruising at his website, view his photo page or contact him via facebook. He has been an avid sailor, scuba diver, skier, entrepreneur, workaholic, life-seeker, most of his life. In 2006, after a long business career, he took a sabbatical to pursue his dream of sailing around the world, and to focus on becoming a writer. He is currently writing two books based on his sailing experiences.

What is something about the cruising culture / experience you liked and what is something you disliked?
Wow… there was so much that was positive, and wonderful, and amazing, and so little that I would describe as negative, at least in hindsight.

Right from the beginning, with the Baja Ha Ha in 2006, there was always a great feeling of camaraderie among the cruisers that we encountered throughout our travels. One of the things that always amazed me was how common our experiences were, or would become. If you stay out long enough, you’ll experience all of the good things, and most of the bad things that cruisers go through eventually. The VHF Cruiser Nets in the more popular ports are a great resource. If you start talking with other cruisers, and listen and learn from their experiences as you go you will certainly enhance your experience and in particular learn how to handle the rough spots more easily. When cruisers got into trouble, weathered a storm, or some other event, something broke on board, or whatever, the VHF Cruiser Net, or just talking with other cruisers in the marinas and anchorages where we were, almost always led to help and an eventual solution.

My last 18 months were spent single-handed, and that was probably more difficult than I had imagined it would be; not so much the loneliness (because single-handing was a choice), but the “lone-ness”. A lot of the culture is based on “couples” out there cruising, and it’s more difficult I think for a single-hander to bond with the “group”. There seems to be some apprehension from others about why you’re out there by yourself. I have my theories about that, both serious and not. 

Of the changes, choices, and compromises you had to make along the way, which were you happiest and most satisfied about, which do you wish you had chosen otherwise and why?
There were many variables in my life during the four years I spent cruising, too many things that could have been done differently, and it would be easy to have regrets, but I don’t really, and there’s not much that I would seriously do differently, all things considered.

I would have liked to have spent more time further up in the Sea of Cortez, but in between the hurricane season and winter you only have about three months of ideal cruising, so you have to decide how to spend the hurricane season, and whether you want warm water in the winter. My first year out single-handed I left La Paz in March with plans to stay up in the Sea through June at least, and maybe summer in the “hurricane hole” in San Carlos / Guaymas. I got into a gale one night in April near Bahia Conception that damaged my rig though, and after patching things up I had to go back to La Paz to make repairs. I took my time going back and really enjoyed that cruise down the coast of Baja, but it was late June by the time the repairs were complete. I had already spent three summers in La Paz so I decided to head across the Sea to Mazatlan. That summer in Mazatlan was very hot, humid, and uncomfortable, and I think I would have preferred to be in La Paz, but I was also very happy that I had not ended up in San Carlos, as I had planned, because it got hit by a serious hurricane that year. Still, my boat did sustain some damage from a hurricane that grazed Mazatlan, and a lightning strike. But if I hadn’t been there then, I might never have gotten over to that side of the Sea.

Ultimately, you never know what to expect. You just have to weigh all your options, evaluate the risks and rewards, and then step out there and do it, and deal with whatever comes your way. Most of it will be incredibly good.

location Describe a perfect cruising moment that will make cruisers-to-be drool with anticipation.
I don’t think that there is anything “perfect” about cruising (except perhaps some of the sunrises and sunsets, a cold beer over ice sitting under the bimini on a warm afternoon at anchor, a morning swim in clear, warm water, a spinnaker run in ten knot winds and flat seas, a full moon on a quiet night…..OK, maybe a few things!).

One of the more amazing experiences I had was after our second night out, going south on the Baja Ha Ha. We were sailing along the west side of Cedros Island, with our spinnaker up,  in fifteen knot winds and five foot seas as the sun rose, when we were suddenly surrounded by a large pod of grey whales. You could see their blow-spouts erupting all around us. I was up on the bow getting ready to drop the spinnaker in the growing wind and seas, when my wife at the helm yelled my name in a rather panicked mode. I looked back just as a huge whale, coming up behind us, rose up on the surface and then dove beneath Location’s stern with its tail raised, filling the air as if it would swat us from behind, and then disappearing into the sea, very close. We were sailing at nearly nine knots, and this big whale then surfaced right along-side us and rolled over on his side, and kind of waved at us with his big flipper, and I could see his eye looking at me. He was as long as we were, and he rolled under the water and the boat, and then came up on our other side, and took another look, blowing a gust of air and water over us, still moving right along with us in the big seas. We got so excited watching that whale as he watched us, literally no more than ten feet away, pacing us, that we lost the spinnaker and it wrapped on the forestay, which created another whole set of problems. The whale kept pace with us for another fifteen minutes, swimming along our side, diving under us from one side to the next, watching us as we struggled to unwrap the spinnaker sail, and avoid a collision, which was really pointless since the whale had a lot more maneuverability than us at that point. Finally, he swam ahead of us in a sudden spurt of speed and rolled up on the surface again, flashed his huge tail in the air about twenty feet off our bow, and disappeared beneath the water.

Another very truly evocative experience was waking up in Matanchen Bay to calm, warm water, tropical green hills, and golden warm sunlight, after arriving there in a very dark cold night, from a rather difficult 32 hour single-handed passage (made with no instruments or autopilot) from Mazatlan. That was about as “perfect” a feeling of peace and transition as I have ever experienced. Setting off on a passage was always exciting, being short or single-handed was always a challenge, arriving at a destination was always wonderful. 

What did you miss about living on land?
Provisioning was always a challenge. Not the shopping itself or finding what you want so much as the logistics of getting to and from the store. I missed the freedom of being able to just get in my car and go to the store. When we were commuter cruising in the early years, we would drive down to La Paz from Southern California most of the time, so we had a car, and it was relatively easy going back and forth from the marina and town. Later, when I was single-handing, and out on the Sea cruising from one anchorage or port to another, it became more of a challenge; first finding out where you needed to go, and then finding transportation, and handling all of the bundles and bags of goods and groceries. If I needed to go to more than one store, then it usually required more than one trip, which usually meant more than one day.
In Mexico the bus systems are pretty good and easy, especially on the mainland. The buses will stop and pick you up or drop you off anywhere along their routes; they run consistently and you seldom have to wait long for the next bus to come by; they are cheap, but comfortable, and usually air conditioned; and riding the bus is a great way to get to know the cities. Taxis give you more freedom, but are far more expensive. Sometimes I would take a bus to the store, but since I had bought so many supplies and couldn’t carry them all, I would have to take a taxi back to the boat. I guess this is fairly common, since there were always taxis waiting outside or near the major stores. 

Did you find "trade goods" to be useful on your cruise? If so, what kinds?
We didn’t take anything with us specifically as a “trade good”, but at times we did barter and trade some of our supplies with local fishermen. Along the coast of Baja in particular, there are isolated little fish camps that the fishermen work out of and live at. These camps are often a long way from civilization, and so the fishermen, some of them with families, have a difficult time provisioning themselves.

Along the coast of Baja between Puerto Escondido and La Paz I came upon one fisherman who approached me at anchor and wanted to trade a couple of lobsters he had yet to catch for a six-pack of beer and fifty pesos. I agreed, and about an hour later he returned with two very nice lobsters for a total price of about 110 pesos or eight dollars.

On my way up the Pacific side of Baja (doing the Bash) I was anchored at Bahia Santa Maria, which is very isolated and hard to reach by both land and sea, waiting for a storm to pass. The fishermen were stranded as well, and a small panga with three men on board came by and wanted to trade either lobsters or fish they had caught for meat. I took two lobsters from them and gave them two cans of Chili Con Carne, two cans of Corned Beef Hash, and two bottles of water in exchange, which amounted to about eight dollars in cost to me. They would have preferred a couple of steaks, but I didn’t have any fresh meat on board then. They also asked for batteries, which they needed for their hand-held GPS and radios.

In Mexico at least, the locals can buy almost anything they want or need, and usually cheaper than we might pay for it, so we typically didn’t have anything onboard that might be a valuable trade good. In the more remote regions of the world, such as the South Pacific and Far East Islands, trade goods would probably be more valuable to have onboard. 

location2 What piece(s) of gear would you leave on the dock next time? Why?
Location was very well equipped when we left the States, and the only things that we didn’t use were probably the two heaters we had stowed away (until my “bash” back up the coast in 2010). We also had a portable ice machine that took up some space in the main cabin, and didn’t get used very much. It was a 110 volt model that required a lot of power, and so we never used it at anchor, and only occasionally while in a marina and hooked to shore-power. Ice was always available in the villages and marinas, and kept well in the freezer, and the freezer also worked well enough to make ice in some aluminum ice-trays that I had, so really the ice maker wasn’t needed.

In your experience, how much does cruising cost?
This really depends on your lifestyle. If you are staying in marinas and eating out a lot, which we did in the beginning in La Paz, then it cost about $1,500 a month for the two of us and our dog. We could have spent more if we had taken a lot of side excursions, but we stuck pretty much to the sea, and cruising the islands.
Later, when I was single-handed, and my funds were more limited, I spent a lot less time in marinas, and lived pretty well on about $500 per month, which covered five or six days a month in marinas, two or three meals a week on shore, and all of my food, fuel, and other necessities. Traveling back and forth from the States, boat maintenance while away, cell phone and satellite phone costs, insurance, and occasional boat repairs added more expense. Cruising full-time is cheaper than commuter cruising, because of the extra travel and marina expenses. If everything else is paid for then I would say that a couple can live very well, and experience the local sights in Mexico, on $1,000 a month, cruising and living aboard full-time.

What is the most difficult aspect of the cruising lifestyle?
As I mentioned above, provisioning was probably the most challenging regular chore that we had while cruising. Laundry and making repairs to the boat were also challenging and time consuming chores that had to be done regularly.

Dealing with sudden, and unexpected changes in the weather was probably the most difficult and challenging aspect of cruising overall, especially when I was single-handed. Yes, I always checked the weather, but the weather was not always as predicted, and once you’re “out there”, you’re out there! I went through a sixty knot gale with thirty foot seas on my first single-handed over-night passage, sailing from Puerto Escondido to Bahia Conception; the weather forecast had no clue of it. I weathered numerous late night blows at anchor with winds at thirty to forty knots that just came up with no warning, several “chubasco” thunderstorms along the coast of mainland Mexico, with winds up to seventy knots, and a “weather bomb” in Banderas Bay that smacked the cruising fleet anchored in La Cruz late one night with ninety knot winds and high seas. Location also weathered three minor hurricanes while berthed in La Paz and Mazatlan. All in all, these storms were few and far between, when you consider the four year time frame, but they kicked the @#$%^&* out of both me and my boat, and make you wonder at times what the hell you are doing out there. After you have been through a couple of fifty and sixty knot blows, thirty and forty knot winds don’t seem so bad, and you begin to trust your preparation and get used to the surprises. A couple of good days of fair weather and fair winds, and the storms were quickly forgotten, though the lesson was learned to always prepare for the worst, and relish in the typical calm.

In your own experience and your experience meeting cruising couples, can you convince a reluctant partner to go cruising and if so, how?
Can you?..... Maybe. Should you?.... probably not! If your partner is reluctant then it is probably based on fear, either of what they know or suspect, or of the unknown, or they just plain don’t want to go; leaving friends and family can be difficult. You can’t train, or teach, or learn how to overcome reluctance. It won’t do any good to soft-pedal the experience; basing expectations on the “feel good” articles typical of the sailing magazines will surely turn any reluctance into staunch resistance once the reality of the cruising experience has struck.
Cruising is wonderful, exciting, relaxing, invigorating, frightening, marvelous, challenging, mysterious, and life evoking. It is not easy! It needs to be experienced to be appreciated. You can inch into that experience with weekend cruises, and weeklong cruises, and then two week cruises, but you can’t be afraid to experience the bad with the good, and if someone is not open to new experiences then cruising is probably not something that they will ever be comfortable with.

If you are out there full-time then you will surely experience some difficult times. If you are cruising seasonally you can reduce some of that exposure, but not all of it, and the bad will happen along with the good. In my case, I found myself single-handed after two years of commuter cruising, trying to convince my partner of the merits of a worldwide cruise…. It may have been my fault, since I have a tendency to push the envelope, but I don’t think that you can cruise without a certain amount of potential mayhem. I tried, but ultimately it just wasn’t in her, and our good experiences together did nothing to change her reluctance.

What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I've asked you and how would you answer it?
Where was your favorite cruising area?

location4 The Sea of Cortez is an amazing cruising area, and I would have to say that wherever I was at the time was my favorite area. La Paz was logistically the most convenient location for commuter cruising from the western US. It is a very friendly and comfortable city that always felt safe and secure, with great restaurants, and a very uncluttered, unhurried, family based ambiance.

Banderas Bay offered the best sailing, and it was not uncommon to sail completely around the Bay without changing tacks just following the typical shifts in the wind through the day. I also enjoyed La Cruz a great deal, with its friendly cruiser community and small town feel, and of course tropical and isolated Yelapa on the south side of the Bay.

Mazatlan was a wonderful cosmopolitan city, very “old Mexico” and cultural, and I particularly enjoyed visiting the Old Town Historical District with its renovated buildings, the Cathedral, and parks, and patio restaurants. It had the best bus system as well, and a great boat yard with very affordable and expert boat services from Total Yacht Works at the Fonatur Marina.

Weather was always a defining element of course. I spent a wonderful two weeks over Christmas anchored in Chacala on the mainland coast north of Banderas Bay. Matanchen Bay and San Blas were sublime, except for the jejennes at night (no-see-ems). And the entire Baja coast and the islands from Bahia de los Muertos to Conception Bay offered the best and most beautiful white-sand beaches and anchorages, and good fishing and diving, with the occasional challenge of a late-night Coromuel wind to keep things interesting.

I could easily have spent another two years on the Sea of Cortez and in Mexico, and still had more to see. Not once did I ever feel unsafe at any place or time while in Mexico, including the many drives we made up and down Baja, and while there are obviously some problems in certain areas of the country they are easy to avoid with a little common sense (there are areas in the US that you just don’t go to either, but the Press doesn’t talk about that!), and I would never hesitate cruising that area again.