• Sarah Royal

Que Wow: Sailing Freakin’ Sailboats in Baja California, Mexico

Ahoy, there! I’ve returned from three weeks of learning to sail in a fleet of four 22’ Drascombe longboats in the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico with 16 others on a NOLS course. And now I’m in a coffee shop in LA ready to tell you about it.

I woke up early on our first day and wandered over to the hotel meeting spot in Loreto, where I first met an 18-year-old and then met a 42-year-old. Age variety? Check. We got shuttled off to the NOLS headquarters about an hour away, where we spent the day preparing our food rations, prepping our gear, and meeting our instructors – one of whom went to high school with my old roommate, because what else is new.

Much of the group was around 18 years old and on gap years, which thoroughly impressed me as I don’t even think I knew what the hell a gap year was until I was out of college already. We were getting to know each other on the second floor of a little shack when I experienced my first earthquake ever. One of the instructors criss-crossed her disaster advice and commanded us to “Stop, cover, and roll!”, to which we all responded with covering our heads half-assedly and perplexed looks. We survived.

Our course had a fleet of four Drascombe longboats: La Tigresa (the tigress), Kingfisher, Zopilote(turkey vulture), and Gjöa (we had no idea what it meant at the time, but the internet now tells me that Gjöa was the name of the first ship to cross the Northwest Passage. Fun fact: Roald Amundsen was the captain of that ship, and two years ago in Alaska I drank at a bar with his granddaughter. What.). The next day we pretty much just all piled on the boats with zero sailing knowledge except for what I had gleaned fromThe Ocean Almanac, which Moe Bowstern the zinester had told me about years ago and of which we had a copy in our trip library.

The folks on my boat and I hurled a zillion questions to our captain on the first day, and she was completely stoked on it. By the end of the first few days, I could say shit like, “Well, we were on a run wing-on-wing but with the wind change we took out the sprit boom and the whisker pole and switched directions to a close haul port tack with a working jib taking us on a heading of 127,” even if I didn’t really know what it actually meant.  Due to the ‘winter’ weather in Baja, which consists of several northernly winds called 'nortes’ that spill through the Sea of Cortez, we were marooned on three separate beaches for a few days at a time due to our inability to sail in the rough weather. There was plenty to do ashore, though. You might be surprised to learn that I cooked a decent amount for my cook group. I mean, I was. We did hikes and saw gigantic cactuses called cardones. We snorkled and swam and bathed and cleaned and just lived in salt water. We did a 24-hour solo day where I successfully set up my hammock on a rock formation overlooking the sea. We played on the beaches and collected such a wide variety of seashells that my 10-year-old self reading Zillions magazine about non-New Jersey beaches in the world that were not picked over would be so insanely jealous. We spoke to fishermen ('pongeros’) in Spanish and I remembered more than I thought I did. A few of the crew did some fishing and caught fish that we grilled up and even made fresh ceviche with. One of the days we visited a friend of NOLS, an old fisherman dude named Chico, whose family cooked us a ridiculous amount of fish tacos, commanded us to pick and consume as many mandarin oranges and grapefruits from his citrus grove as possible, and loaned me a crusty old guitarra with spiders spilling out of it to play Killing Me Softly and Single Ladies on.  (#internationalsuperhits) One of the days a group of seven us us hiked 12 miles up and down a rolling mountainous coast to a small beach farm, where we bought, slaughtered, butchered, and carried back a goat to cook for our crew. The Fellowship of the Goat was proud of its accomplishment, and needless to say it was quite the experience, but I do believe that much of the reason it tasted so good at the time was that we hadn’t been eating any other meat in our rations. Yep, it was just another day on a Baja beach. We did a number of great drills (besides learning how to sail in such a wide variety of conditions that I swore our instructors were somehow controlling the weather): We rescued crew overboard, we capsized the boats by sailing incorrectly (and bailed them out with buckets like good little deckhands), learned how to 'surf land’ the boats by rolling with the waves onto the shore like a boogieboard, and rolled the boats fully up onto the beach numerous times. At one point our centerboard, a giant metal fin that raises and lowers in the center of the boat, got a bunch of gravel stuck in it and we had to dive under the boat and scrape it all out so we could sail that day. 

I learned how to tie a bunch of neat knots, how to helm, how to work a variety of sails, how to prepare for shallow and deep-water anchoring, and how to be First Mate Royal and generally be a competent crew member on a sailboat. It’s kind of insane how much shit I learned. Plus, I got to be a big sister to an 18-year-old (by her request) for three weeks. At one point she sidled up alongside me and said the same phrase twice, obviously quoting something, but I was confused. She groaned and said, “Duh, it’s from High School Musical,” and I said, “I’m OLD, remember?” She said, “Of course I remember – I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget.” Snarktastic.

After we got back to civilization, I found that I didn’t remember how to work my iPhone touchscreen all that well and still felt waves rolling in my brain when I lay down (and kept getting up with the sun, which was the strangest thing of all), but quickly reentered the matrix, so to speak. I spent the weekend relaxing with my bud in Santa Monica, riding on the back of her Vespa and drinking dirty gin martinis in a ship-themed bar called The Galley, and tomorrow I’m off on (supposedly) my last leg of my international travels by heading to Oslo, NORWAY to visit a college buddy of mine, with a layover in Lisbon, PORTUGAL to visit my college roommate. THEN I will be back in the U.S. At least I think I will be. But I’m fairly certain this time. Until the next update, harass me with comments and texts (I also didn’t receive any texts that were sent to me on either phone in Mexico because my phones ate them all, so if there were really good gems in there you might want to send them to me again). Happy belated Thanksgiving y hasta luego, mis amigos.

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