Sitting on a water worn piece of black granite in Westwater Canyon, my morning coffee tasted great. This is where the Colorado River flows into the high desert of eastern Utah. Whitewater kayaking is a big part of my life and Westwater is my favourite run. It felt good to be warming myself in the morning sun. I had purposefully wandered off from camp for a little solitude after a hardy breakfast. It was time to make decisions about my future.
I had been building ski lifts for the past eleven years with the occasional break for short adventures here and there. Happy with my chosen career, accomplishments and social life, I felt like a lucky man but there was something missing. Work was still challenging, but lately the years were starting to look too much alike, “it’s the dreaded rut”. Living the single life, investing my money and staying low key had allowed me to stash a little cash. For what, I was never completely certain but in the last few years, the sailing dream had germinated in me. I was not a sailor but the idea certainly had my attention. Reading every sailing story I could get my hands on just fuelled the fire. I dreamed of the day I would cast off.
Watching a golden eagle catch the rising thermal in front of a huge red sandstone cliff across the river, I pondered the situation. The plan was two more years of building ski lifts. By then the bank account should be sufficient for a decent sailing trip. A recent request for a raise had not turned out as I had hoped. It went something like this:
—- “We can’t give you the raise you’re asking for but how about getting more into sales and taking some commission?”
—- “Hmmm, what kind of arrangement did you have in mind?”
—- “Well, why don’t you think about it a bit and make us a proposal?”
Fair enough. So here I was thinking about it. Not so much the proposal as the reality of doing the sales job on top of my engineering duties, “a deeper rut”. Hmmm, what to do – what to do? Delay the decision and go paddling, of course!
After a great day of white water the beers were flowing and the sun was shining. We leisurely floated the flat water trying to delay our arrival at the take out. The banter that always occurs on this part of the trip was in full swing and like a broken record I was spouting off about how some day I wanted to pack it in and sail away. That’s when Stan piped up with a good question – “Well when ya gonna do this sailing trip anyway?” – “I don’t know” was all I could say.
The question really got me thinking as I was driving home alone later that night. The realization struck that there was nothing to stop me from going. I could blow off the two more years of work, buy a smaller boat and shorten the trip a bit. I made the decision. “Yes!!! Do it!!!” Choosing to make the commitment and realising that I was actually going to attempt sailing around the world gave me the most awesome adrenaline rush I have ever experienced. It hit me like a giant wave. Knowing in the back of my mind that any number of things could go wrong along the way, I vowed to prepare to the very best of my ability. I knew I could do it by keeping my eye on the ball and not giving up. There was way too much adrenaline flowing and my mind was miles away from driving. I had to pull over to the side of the road and go for a walk in the desert. About a year later a sailing friend gave me a copy of this quote. It seems kind of relevant to my decision at the time.
STERLING HAYDEN 1916-1986
To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen, who play with their boats at sea –“cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the adventure until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.
“I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of “security”. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine—and before we know it our lives are gone.
What does a man need—really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all—in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, and preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade.
The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.
Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?
By Sterling Hayden, sailor extraordinaire
I soon wrote the proposal to my employers. It went something like this – “I have decided to go into sails.” – After which I informed them of my resignation and proposed to write a computer program for designing lifts before leaving, that 1) the company needed and 2) would allow me to consult via my laptop while I found a boat and fit it out. My bosses looked at me kind of funny but to my shock, the proposal was accepted. Within five weeks, life had changed completely. The computer program was written with help from Russ, my kayaking C++ friend and trip supporter extraordinaire. Toys, furniture, vehicle and everything else were sold and I refinanced my duplex, turning the equity into cash. Rental income would pay the mortgage and give me enough to buy a little peanut butter along the way. I was lucky to have a trusted friend in Grand Junction who is a professional property manager. Dean was my anchor at home and sailing headquarters for the trip. He would look after the duplex, handle mail and pay bills for me. He would also keep tabs on my progress (didn’t want to give my parents that job, they worry too much). I moved into the ‘Road Scow’, an old, cheap, beat up cab over camper and rented my side of the duplex to a couple of the nicest Catholic Nuns you have ever met. The other renters, beautiful Jennifer and her beautiful teenage daughters would be staying on. I think they would have preferred to have some handsome bachelors move in next door but eventually decided they could have done worse than the nuns.
With things pretty well set up it was time to head for Southern California and get into some sailing. There was one land tie left to break, which turned out to be the hardest one. Many sailors take their dogs along but this mans best friend was a 140 lb Akita named Beau who hated both water and hot weather. Living on a boat in the tropics would not do. Fortunately he had Deb who loved him dearly. Deb and I had been a couple when Beau was young and we always remained friends. She knew I would go sailing some day and had made it clear, “I want the dog when you go.” So Beau and I jumped in the Road Scow and headed for Flagstaff where Deb was getting her masters degree. After moving Deb and Beau into a new place (a little more dog friendly), I tore myself away and headed for San Diego.
The plan was to find a berth on a boat making passage so I could get a little experience before buying my own. Total experience so far was three or four day sails spread out over fifteen years or so, always as a passenger. I didn’t know shit. But did know that I liked it and I wasn’t a sea sickie. Finding a crew position was a little harder than expected. After a lot of searching and a couple of positions that I rejected due to lack of confidence in boat or skipper, I ran into Leon. He was going to sail his 34’ Hunter sloop to Texas via the Panama Canal and wanted three crewmembers. His buddy Jack was already lined up as one. Leon and I hit it off right away. He had just got out of the Navy and had been playing with sailboats for about seven years. Even though he had never really been cruising he seemed to know what he was doing. After checking out his boat, talking about the trip and going for a short sail around the harbour with him we made a decision. “OK, I’m in and my kid brother may be interested in the fourth spot, I’ll give him a call.” When I called Mark in New Brunswick he hesitated a little and decided to think about it. He had moved there to live with his girl friend, whom I knew he was pretty serious about and didn’t want to leave. Apparently his girlfriend pointed out the fact that he would never be happy unless he went for it, so there he was in California three days later.
Although my brother Mark and I never sailed to Texas with Leon, we certainly had a learning experience. After ten days of preparing for the trip, a few things became painfully obvious. 1) The boat was quite nice but needed more gear and preparation than I had first anticipated. 2) We would be sailing right into hurricane season. 3) Leon was a great guy with all the best intentions but no money and no plan. If it was going to work, we would need to outfit his boat for him with some new sails, engine repairs, navigation equipment, life raft and other safety gear. This would be considerably more expensive than any of us had foreseen. Mark, Jack and my self had never really been to sea and the only thing we knew about it was what we had read. I had an uneasy feeling about the financial reality of the trip as I was the only one of us with money in his pocket. Leon got us together one day and told us that his cost estimate for our part of the cruising kitty had doubled. That threw a wrench into the works since Mark and Jack were already pretty broke. Leon didn’t have any organized list of expenses to justify his new number. In order to get a better picture of the situation we all sat down in the Road Scow and made up a list including dates, ports of call and expenses that we foresaw. None of us really knew what the costs would be so we guessed at it by committee. Needless to say the costs added up to much more than we expected. After that rather difficult meeting, Mark, Jack and I abandoned ship. “No hard feelings Leon, just reality sinking in for all of us.” We might have made it safely and affordably but how can a novice judge? At the time it just didn’t seem like a good idea.
“Hmmm. What now?” Mark and I sat in the Road Scow drinking coffee and staring at each other over the table. I felt really guilty. He had left his sweetheart of a girlfriend and flown across the continent from New Brunswick to go on this great sailing trip on my advice. What luck to have a brother who is also one of my best friends. He had joined me for spontaneous adventures before, a road tour of the western states, a last minute whitewater trip down the Grand Canyon and an assortment of others. There was only one thing left to do “Let’s just buy a boat and head south – we’ll figure it out as we go.”
After diligently searching nearly every marina in southern California and looking at about 50 boats, we both agreed on the same one. I think it would be fair to call it love at first site. The deal was made contingent on survey and sea trials. Mac, my broker, had been extremely patient and helpful along the way, doing an amazing amount of work for a small commission. I think he really wanted to see Mark and I off on our adventure.
The big day finally came and we started with a sea trial (a short sail around Los Angeles harbor). The owner acted as skipper and he was full of stories. I went to take a piss over the side as we were crossing the harbour and he stopped me. “Not allowed, use the head.” After asking why, he told me a story about what happened to him on his previous boat. Apparently he was crossing the harbour alone and went to the rail for a squirt. A passing ships wake caught him unawares and he fell overboard. Like most boats with no one at the tiller, his went in a big circle. Bob treaded water and swam to intercept it as it came back. With sheer sides and a rail too far out of the water to grab, the boat motored on by. Luckily the boat was only moving at idle speed and he managed to get a hold of the stern hung rudder as it passed. Bob still couldn’t find a way to climb up on deck but he could steer the boat. The rudder had a cut out where the propeller was. Using this cut out as a hand hold (with propeller spinning) and straddling the rudder he could push his feet against the hull to swing the rudder and steer the boat. Mind you the water was passing over him at one knot or so and it wasn’t all that warm. Bob’s friend was a local sailing teacher and he had his whole class out on the dock so Bob headed that way. One of the students hears him yelling for help and tells the teacher who checks it out. “Oh, that’s just Bob, he’s a real joker. Ha Ha!” On the second pass everyone started wondering. By the third pass they had appropriated a dinghy and went out to save Bob who was near hypothermia. That story was my first important lesson –
DON’T FALL OVERBOARD!
The deal was done, money changed hands and it was time to take the boat. In order to avoid paying the California sales tax we took delivery 12 miles offshore. But to be legal there was a hitch. We must be bound for a foreign country and stay gone for four months, “ok – Mexico it is.” With brother Mark, delivery skipper Joe and myself on board we left LA waters and headed south. Joe acted as both delivery skipper and instructor. He had a fair bit of cruising experience and passed on as much knowledge as he could while I constantly hammered him with stupid questions. He officially turned the boat over to me and we headed to San Diego to drop Joe off before continuing south.
I had been thinking about the boat’s name and hadn’t decided whether to keep it as Moondancer or change it to something else. Superstition mandates bad luck for those who change a vessels name but I never put much credence in superstition. While I was on watch alone that first night, dolphins came to play at the bow under the full moon. It was awesome. Decision made, Moondancer it would be. Besides, Van Morison’s ‘Moon Dance’ is one of my favourite songs. They say the two happiest days for a boat owner are the day he buys and the day he sells. Well that night was surely one of the happiest in my life.
After about an hour of ecstasy in totally perfect moonlight sailing, things turned around 180º. Pea soup fog set in and the worries began. We had a surprise in finding the compass that came with the boat was completely useless; it almost got us in trouble. Navigation was totally dependent on Joe’s hand held GPS. “Hope we have enough batteries.” This was my first inkling of how fast things can go from total bliss to complete terror at sea. As we approached San Diego it became light but the fog was wicked and we were having some problems finding our way. We passed a group of boats that were anchored and waiting for the fog to clear before they entered harbour. Hmmm, that seems logical I thought. Seeing that questioning look on my face that said ‘Why aren’t we anchoring?’ Joe used the radio to call someone inside the harbour who confirmed that the fog cleared once inside the channel. “Let’s just find our way in, it won’t be that hard” he says. My broker, Mac, had recommended Joe to get us to San Diego where we kind of planned on having mechanical problems and pulling into port. That would make San Diego an emergency stop on route to Mexico, which is allowed in the tax regulations. Mac had described Captain Joe as being “destination oriented” with a tone in his voice that made it sound like a warning. This must be what he meant. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Joe had to get in to port and go to his day job. This being their home turf they both knew there would be fog at sea in the morning and the entrance would be challenging. However no one realized that we would be without a compass to steer by. I could have put my foot down and said “No, I want to wait for the fog to clear.” But instead I said “OK, if you feel comfortable I guess I should too.”
So off we went in search of the entrance buoys. Every few minutes Mark would give a blast from the bow on our little toy foghorn, which reminded me of a 10” kazoo. The fog was so thick I could hardly see him up on the bow from where I was steering in the stern. We finally found one of the buoys but couldn’t tell which direction to go without the help of a compass. As we were trying to figure it out a really loud foghorn blew, I mean really loud. You could hear the bow of a big ship cutting the water close by. There was a moment of tense silence among us as we watched to see if we would get cut in half. The cruise ship passed close by like a moving wall that had come out of the fog. You couldn’t even see the rail, just this moving wall about thirty feet away. I don’t know about Mark or Joe by my heart was pounding like a pile driver.
Assuming that the cruise liner was headed out to sea (it was moving pretty fast) we started heading in the opposite direction. Finally, we lined up behind a fishing trawler that had radar and everything. “Don’t lose that guy” says Joe; so I cranked the throttle wide open. That’s when the transmission started making a weird noise. “Damn, better slow down again or it might cack all together.” We lost sight of the trawler right away. The next buoy should have been in front of us but we couldn’t find it. “There’s a guy fishing in his row boat, let’s ask him” says Joe. Before we had the chance the guy started yelling, “turn left or you’ll hit them rocks, the channel’s that way” – “thanks buddy.” Well, we managed to make it into the dock, which true enough was bathed in sunlight. Interesting first go, a bit more interesting than I was comfortable with, scared the shit out of me as a matter of fact. We could have just anchored outside and waited for the fog to lift. That taught me my second important lesson
PATIENCE IS A SAILORS GREATEST VIRTUE
Mark and I spent nearly a month in San Diego to get the transmission rebuilt, install a new compass, get supplied and put the boat in order. Moondancer took a slip at a marina to facilitate our hasty preparations. Sleeping aboard in the marina that first night was a little distressing. There was a weird snap crackle pop sound coming from the hull. Lying awake I couldn’t imagine what that noise was. “Is there something wrong with this hull, is it breaking down?” Mark and I had a beer with Mac and Joe the next evening and they explained it. There is a unique little shrimp that lives in the northwest part of the bay. They feed at night on the growth attached to the hull and the noise results from their chomping on the growth.
We figured it a good idea to go for a couple of practice sails before heading south. The plan was to go straight out to sea one night and straight back in the morning, just to see what it would be like sailing at night. Simple eh? After clearing the harbour entrance we were headed out to sea in a nice breeze when a pinging noise started up. “What the hell is that?” I said – “Sounds like its coming from the cabin” responded Mark – I went below and it got really loud – “sounds like a submarine, it must be, just like in the movies!” – This made sense since San Diego has a major submarine base. A minute later there was a Navy helicopter hovering at the masthead – “What the hell do they want?” – ping ping ping, whoop whoop whoop – lots of noise and sails aback from helicopter wash. I waited by the radio for a call from the chopper – nothing. After a couple of rather long minutes they took off and left us in peace, “Hmmm, that must be what the chart means by military zone, let’s get out of here.” Several days later in the bar I learned that this was somewhat common. The helicopters job is to find the submarine in this exercise. We were convenient so the sub was trying to hide underneath us. I guess we were a bit too small for that to work.
Moondancer was about ten miles offshore when old Santa Anna decided to give us a wake up call. Under certain conditions, the wind blows from east to west down through the mountain valleys in a big way. So there we are, getting whacked by these high winds and short choppy waves, being blown out to sea. We were leery of getting blown too far from land and so tried to head in. I’ll never forget fighting to get the storm jib hanked on in between dunkings as the whole bowsprit, (myself included) was going from way up in the air to completely under water. I finally get the thing hanked on and go back to the mast to haul the sail up only to see that I had attached it upside down. “SHIT!” Back to the bucking bowsprit to get it right. It was a bit of an effort. We were lucky this Santa Anna didn’t last too long and we managed to sail back into San Diego in the morning. We didn’t really get all that far out to sea in our overnight test-drive. If we had any idea of what we were doing we would have turned around and run with the wind or just hove too. Instead we ended up fighting the waves and getting bashed around pretty good rather than just going with the flow. On the way into the San Diego channel the next day we decided to use the engine because there was lots of traffic and the wind was dying. Just after getting into the middle of the channel the engine quit, Moondancer was adrift. I realised that all that bashing around the night before had stirred up the junk in the diesel tanks and the filter must be clogged. Carrying spare filters saved us the expense of being towed back in by the Seatow guy who waits around the entrance to help boats in trouble, for a healthy price. You might say he has the market cornered. After being out twice and making it back alive both times we were starting to feel a little more confidence.
As our deadline for leaving the country approached we frantically worked on the list of things to do and gear to buy. The deadline forced us to focus on the critical items and not sweat the small stuff. If there is one thing this taught me it is the fact that the list will never be completed. There is always more to do than you have time for. The small stuff can wait as long as it doesn’t pose a danger. We met many a sailor who has been getting ready for years, working to get every item on the boat perfect. Most of these people never leave the dock for more than a short vacation. They always have another job to complete before being ready. Getting ready tires them and worries them to the point that they eventually have a change of heart. Not on Moondancer. We felt the boat was sound and seaworthy. It may not have all the best gear but the basics were covered and we were anxious to start our adventure.