Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico


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the safety of mexico for a cruising sailor

A typical cartel raid. Military grade weapons, armor, and uniforms.I received an email the other day from someone who, understandably, is worried about going to Mexico in light of the violence and crime that is so widely reported. Anyone traveling to Mexico probably, hopefully, has at least asked themselves "is it safe?".

An excerpt of the email is below, and as always any identifiable info has been removed to protect the innocent, less their friends and contemporaries know that they associate with me:

I am actually planning on heading down south as I too have a Hans Christian 36 :)  I am planning on doing Mexico and want to surf Baja and eat lobsters down there, but was getting a lot of grief from family about it being so unsafe these days... I almost decided to bypass Mexico and go to Hawaii, missing out on Baja altogether.

Then I found your blog and looked at the great photos and thought Mexico is still safe - just look these people are totally doing it!

Please, if you have a little time, please give me your opinion of the overall safety there now.

When we lived in San Diego some South Korean friends were at our boat for dinner and expressed how they were not going to Los Angeles because of the violence there: they had seen the homeless man who was set on fire and burned to death, they had heard the gangster rap music of the 90's, they had seen the movies, and they knew the drive-by attack rates.

Charlotte and I tried to explain to them that there are many people living quite safely in Los Angeles and that they were really far off in their threat assessment. Personally I'm much more worried about getting into a car accident driving back and forth from San Diego to Los Angeles than I am ending up in the crossfire of a gang war. But people as a rule generally have terrible skills at identifying and prioritizing risk, usually magnifying the unknown threats and minimizing those they have already come to terms with.

Cartels have hired young women to work as assassins because people are less suspicious of them.To answer your question, dear reader, the reality of narco cartels in Mexico is multifaceted, nuanced, and quite far from the typical US image of the situation. To be fair, it's also pretty far from Mexico's image of the situation.

First and foremost, the number of your typical-westerner-bystanders being involved in cartel violence is quite low. These are not gangs as much as businesses, and nearly everything they do is fueled by the desire to protect and expand their revenue. The ballpark income of Mexican cartels is $64 billion dollars annually: these are not motorcycle meth gangs in leather jackets.

Before I came to live in America's southerly neighbor I definitely had the (egregiously wrong) paternalistic view of Mexico where whatever they built could never be as good as what America has done and whatever their problems are it's nothing that some Predator drones and a few DEVGRU guys couldn't wipe out. This is simply untrue and anyone who thinks along these lines does not understand the depth or breadth of narco trafficking. 

Ending up in the crosshairs of a cartel can happen in a number of ways: you could be a politician, a rival cartel member, a business operating in controlled territory, or even simply someone with skills a cartel has deemed helpful and wants to employ. But the odds of that happening to you as a barely-Spanish-speaking tourist on a boat is remarkably slim. The reality is that you (and I) have little to offer them in terms of benefit or threat. Note that when looking up "American citizens killed in Mexico", you will be wading into the sea of Mexican-American nationals. The twin daughters of the world's most powerful narco cartel are in fact Americans, born in Los Angeles: immeadiatly after they returned to Mexico so now you tell me, are they Mexican cartel affiliates, American citizens, or do they exist in some nebulous in between?

Cartel murders are often public, with signs informing would-be rivals to think twice.There are places you can go, most of which aren't on the Pacific coast (or on any coast) that will crank up your odds of problems. If you emailed and said you were going to backpack through the trafficking corridors of Durango and then set up a drug rehab clinic in Juaraz, yeah: there's a decent chance you're going to end up in a bag before the year is out.

But to provide a parallel in the United States, there's a difference between working in the San Diego golf course industry versus being in San Bernadino county creating bulk pseudoephedrine: both of those paths set you at wildly different courses of running into a rather violence prone set of individuals. To the untrained eye however, someone might simply see the entire state of California as dangerous because if you can get into trouble making a meth precursor then surely maintaining the putting greens in La Jolla is equally as terrifying. 

One of my favorite books on the subject of Mexican narco cartels is Ted Carpenter's The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America. That sets up a pretty good base of knowledge for understanding the violence spurring aspect of the Mexican-American "head hunting" campaign where rather than introduce systemic solutions to narcotics trafficking, the current enforcement model targets cartel senior leadership (a.k.a. "king pins").

These senior cartel leaders generally are the least violent (of very violent people), and when they are removed from power intense fighting follows in their wake: lieutenants fight each other for control, splinter groups form, and rival cartels smell blood in the water and move in to capitalize on perceived weakness. This is precisely what happened in Tijuana with the decapitated Tijuana Cartel, and in Juarez with the also aptly named Juarez Cartel. In both instances the violence spikes were directly tied to the fall of the senior leadership.

The headhunting enforcement model is roughly akin to hoping that by killing the CEO of Coca Cola and Pepsi, you will thereby stop people from making and drinking soda. Undoubtedly the supply will be disrupted temporarily, but a lower supply and maintained demand only causes prices to soar and bolder actions by those who can manufacturer and sell. But people don't like nuance, and voters generally root for the guy who managed to put a bruised up "drug kingpin" in front of the cameras with a pile of narcotics and gold plated weapons on the table in front of him, flanked by scary soldiers in ski-masks.

Why this matters and why you should be aware of it, dear reader, is because traveling through Baja and the Nayarit area, you're going to be smack dab in the Sinaloa Cartel's operating range. The Sinaloa cartel is the largest narcotics organization in the world and easily the most powerful in Mexico. Formerly the Pacific Cartel, it controls the territory these days that a typical Mexico-Pacific sailor will encounter from Ensenada to Puerto Vallarta. 

So with all the corpses dangling from bridges and faces sewn onto soccer balls and kicked into government buildings, here's a less ghoulish tale that shows some nuance. 

Every Wednesday there is a market here in sleepy La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and there is always the pirated movie stand. $20 pesos for a movie, buy 5 and get your sixth for free. Last year I picked up Shrek, Act of Valor, and some other titles from the stand and walked away. One of the kids working there chased after me and hauled me back, explaining that I hadn't picked my sixth free movie and that he still owed me one. Even better, he said if any of them didn't play to make sure I brought them back next week for a refund or exchange.

I bring this up because my money, and the money of everyone who's purchased a pirated movie in Mexico, goes directly into the coffers of the area's predominant narco cartel. The police don't turn a blind eye to pirate movies because they like Toy Story 3 and want others to get it at a fair price, these illegal markets exist (and are operated with terrific customer service) because of the powerful cartel influences. The cartel gets its cut and as a result the pirate movie vendor doesn't have competition in that area and doesn't get hassled by the local police. 

Narco trafficking is a major aspect of Mexico: you simply cannot have a conversation about business or politics without the subject being brought up. In some places the effect is obvious, in others the impact is more subtle. It's incredibly naive for anyone to imagine they are immune to the footprint of cartels, but likewise it's Chicken Little-ish to think you personally are that relevant to a cartel or that the razor thin chance of ending up in a cross fire, which can happen in Kansas City as well, is anything more than distantly remote. 

The take away points I would offer up, and I wrote this in my book as well (cough cough), are:

  • Be careful if you buy drugs. Lots of people buy weed in Mexico, and honestly the cartels are there to sell and make money not to hassle or endanger their customers. But the local shit-head taxi driver you ask might try to fleece you for some cash before he takes you to his connection. If you want to score some weed, make friends with a local first. 
  • Until you know areas well, stick with remote villages or well trodden areas of cities that have a defined gringo footprint (La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Turtle Bay, Loreto, Los Cabos, Mazatlan, etc). 
  • Don't get caught with drugs in Mexico. It's actually not as illegal as people think: most states have legalized minor posession but the Mexican military has wide latitude and the local municipal police can still hassle you. There is quite a bit of distance, especially on the mainland, between what's on the books and what happens in the street.
  • Lookout for enforcement actions that rattle cartel leadership. If El Chapo Guzman were ever caught or killed (and we were in a Sinaloa area) we wouldn't leave town instantly but I'd be much more alert and avoid sketchy situations than I otherwise might.
  • Read some books on the subject and familiarize yourself with the patterns, targets, periphery, and cycles of narco violence. 

Mexico is neither safe or dangerous, and it is obtuse to oversimplify such a complex country into those definitions. Your safety and experiences are entirely dependent on where you are and the choices you make. With a bit of light reading (that is actually pretty interesting), staying up on the news, and having a genuine interest in learning about the situation you can make the danger of Mexico be as remote as that of your own home town.



four days at sea later, we're back in la cruz

We spent the last four days and three nights underway, about 25% of that motoring across the typically flat Sea of Cortez, and the other 75% bouncing around at or near hull speed whilst double reefed with terrific force 3-6 conditions. For one evening in particular things got a little beefy, but we have a heavy cutter and with the mainsail double reefed and the staysail on its boom, the boat rarely ever feels over powered. Still, it's weird to see 7.4 knots for a Hans Christian 36.

Double reefed, Hydrovane steering, flag flapping, ripping long before the weather really started up.

One really weird thing that blew my mind were the two encounters with upper tonnage commercial ships. In both cases I saw them on AIS early enough, and they saw me as well (visually, on radar, and via our AIS transponder). Normally in an open seaway things are a bit clearer: you're generally moving on one heading as is the other vessel, so potential collisions are spotted early. 

But in narrow bisecting channels that curve and look like spaghetti noodles piled onto the chart, AIS isn't smart enough to do the math that you're going to be making a turn in a few minutes (to avoid shoal waters, for example) as is the other vessel. 

Both times I contacted the bridge via the VHF and politely explained that we were a sailing vessel with limited options for maneuvering, and acknowledged they are probably restricted in their options because of the channel depth. It was blowing pretty good, I had two preventers rigged, and the wind vane was in the water: yes I can officially state that it would have been a pain in the ass to move out of their way. But I also know, because hey, I paid attention in captain school, I was intersecting a channel that they were crossing: we needed to figure out a mutually beneficial solution to our problem.

Closer than most of us want to get.

Both deck officers were more than polite and shot our stern. The captain of the Mazatlan Star in fact [figuratively] ran into us again a day later and hit me up on the VHF just to chit chat and say hello. As a footnote, if you ever run into a good merchant captain out there, consider taking the time to send an email or make a phone call to the company that they work for. These are men and women with jobs, and the good ones should be aknowledged more. 

I don't know if I'll ever get used to really long passages. I enjoy them much more these days, in large part because we have the boat (and ourselves) much more dialed in. The self steering systems work well. With paper navigation and a windvane we eliminate two of the always-on power consumers on many sail boats: the autopilot and chartplotter-electronics-suite. Charlotte's a good cook and has dialed in more and more recipes underway that make use of what provisions we might have, don't require a ton of cleanup, and doesn't sentence anyone to long stays in the galley doing prep work.

My navigation and weather skills are definitely better than they were, and my ability to balance the boat and keep her as comfortable as possible in a bucking seaway is improving. All of these little steps: from changing out incandescent light bulbs to LED, all the way to a balanced sail plan to avoid over ruddering constitute a base that doesn't eliminate problems, but has certainly freed us up to concentrate on other ones. 

Sunrise on the Pacific, just south of the Sea of Cortez.We're safely back in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and even within two hours of being on the mainland we were clinking glasses and getting hugs from friends we made last year. In less than an evening we were welcomed back by numerous people, invited to a local birthday party Saturday night where a lady has been dying for us to try her posole, and I hugged our old cabby Oscar that almost caused Lyra to be born in the back of a van.

And with that, the Sea of Cortez is now officially behind us. 


my current workout system

Managing to stay fit with two kids, living on a sailboat in a developing nation, and holding a job has been... interesting. But like fitness everywhere it's about priorities. For awhile I'd wake earlier to dodge the heat, but then the mosquitoes would be out in force. So then I needed to go in peak tropical heat, dead noon. Then I got heat exhaustion and almost fainted. So now I drink some salt water before I go. In the end, it's all about how bad you want it and how much shit you're willing to put up with.

Anyway, here's my routine and I'm pretty happy with it. I feel it's pretty balanced and has been helping me on a lot of asymmetrical problems: chances are you're weaker on one side of your body than the other. Everything I have fits into a backpack and I spend maybe a total of two hours a week working out, which breaks down to about ~45 minutes every couple of days. Sometimes I get lazy/busy and stretch it to three days.

Pack light.As far as gear goes, I pack light. I'm much more comfortable with barbells and although I have some kettebells onboard, the ability to cover distance and go somewhere good is critical. In order of importance is my bluetooth speaker, gymnast rings, chalk, map 3500 backpack, jump rope, and water bottle. Not pictured is me in some sneakers, gym shorts, and T shirt.

Location is everything. I find a place that has a load bearing horizontal bar that I can toss my ring straps over. Anything that's 6' - 15' off the ground will work which is actually an awful lot of stuff. Playgrounds in particular are target rich environments. Screw trying to workout on the boat: it's ridiculous. Even active sailors spend ~90% of their time not underway. So grab your bag, get your ass moving, and put your time in.

Upper body push: ring dips and clap pushups. I hate doing high reps so these are a great combo for me. Ring dips are just freaky awesome in general and if you can do 30 pushups you won't be able to do half of that with claps. These are the muscles, bones, and connective tissue that allow you to push things around with your hands.

Upper body pull: front and back levers, and pullups. Pullups really don't need a video. These are the parts of the body that let you pull things with your hands. If you're just getting started with rings I'd recommend focusing on the support position and inverted (supine) rows.

"Core": I hate that stupid term, but I do some planks and the single leg Romanian dead lifts make my abs hurt so I figure that's helping. If you do a lot of full body exercises you don't need to really worry about doing "core" work. If anyone starts talking to you about "core" exercises just walk away from them. Or mug them and take their money because you can safely assume they're not that strong.

Lower body push: pistol squats, vertical jumps, split jumps. These are the muscles that let you jump, kick, and lift your body off the ground. I use the jump rope a lot too, but mainly because I feel like Rocky Balboa.

Lower body pull: single leg Romanian deadlifts. These awesome little guys should be in anyone's arsenal regardless of the fitness equipment that might be at your disposal. They are deceptively simple but require staggering amounts of single foot balance and motor control. Plus, they're the only bodyweight hamstring exercise I know of that only requires a floor. These are super important and you do not want to have funky legs where your quads are strong but your glutes (ass) and hamstrings are weak: knee problem central.

I'm always tweaking my exercises, in large part because I like new challenges and it feels nice to progress up the food chain of increasing complexity. Hopefully some of this will help some other fitness-minded person out there struggling with ideas on how to not turn into a blob of goo when sailing around in whacky locations.


adios la paz (and the sea of cortez)

We are fueled up (with our mighty 12 gallon tank), there are decent notherlies scheduled to blow for the next few days, the National Hurricane Center has nothing forming, and the Hydrovane blade is up and the rudder mounted: in short, except for barely any propane, we're ready to rock the ~330 nautical miles from Bahia de La Paz to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle (lah-crooz-day-whana-cox-lay). 

Adios, bitches.La Paz has been great and lame at the same time. Recently it's been a breath of fresh air having the Baja HaHa'rs in town which supplies a much needed jolt of vitality to what is otherwise a sailor's retirement village. The Sea of Cortez though, for all its splendor and beauty will be forever remembered to us as a hot and barren wasteland riddled with cyclones, overpriced (and shitty) food, and gringos who really have no interest in Mexico beyond someone doing their laundry on the cheap.

In my first year of sailing a big lesson I have learned is that similar to normal life, not everyone likes the same things. People eat different food, they read different books, and enjoy different movies. You need to sail and go where you want to: no one is handing out trophies because you managed to put up with more shit than you needed to or managed to not perish in an infecund hellhole that some neckbeard finds perfect for his or her anti-social tendencies.

Puerto Escondido, sunset.So we're off to La Cruz. A lot of boats depart for the South Pacific from there, something we're dumb enough to do this Spring. We might have rose colored glasses on about La Cruz. Perhaps it was simply the first place in Mexico that made us feel like real sailors, but perhaps it really is that much better than La Paz and the Sea. No matter how tinted our shades are, they're not so bad as to completely obscure the differences in culture and tone. In Banderas Bay there are kite surfers, in La Paz there are darts on Wednesdays. In La Cruz every month there is a paddle-whatever-craft race where the goal is to pick up balloons for free beer, in La Paz there is a darts game on Wednesdays. In Puerto Vallarta there is a paddleboard race through a river with actual crocodiles, and well, you know about the darts in La Paz.

We met some awesome people in La Paz, some of which we'll even get a chance to cross into the South Pacific with. We also got a chance to meet up with some previous friends and it has been nice to be somewhere largely immune to the narco cartel violence that truthfully does plague the mainland. 

I'm rambling but this is my blog and it's really the only place I feel comfortable blabbling on. I know the big X is up there in your browser tab so hey, thanks for not clicking it just yet.


we're registered. now all we need to do is sail 4,000 miles with two kids

The tough part is over.So the tough part is over: we've signed up on the Pacific Puddle Jump website. Now that those harrowing two minutes are done, all that's left is 3,000 miles of open ocean with two small children. That of course merely takes you to the western end of the South Pacific: another several thousand miles sits between our destination and New Zealand, our "final destination". 

Final destination is in air quotes there because it's somewhere that right now we're execting to park the boat for a bit and live. After two years in the tropics it will be nice to not worry about mosquitoes and possibly engage my inner snowboarder. 

If it seems rather crazy to do what we're doing, just imagine how crazy it seems for me as the guy who's actually doing it.


how we spend our money and where we get it from

Cash. Dinero. Duckets. Dollars. Call it what you like, but it's probably the core thing that shapes your sailing plans (or lack thereof). Your choice of boat is largely based around how tall your pile of money is, and likewise the depth of your Scrooge McDuck gold-coin-pool influences how you'll equip your boat. And that just gets you a boat on the dock. 

Where you go, how long you can be gone for, and what happens when things break will all be shaped largely by money. Will you stay at marinas or anchor? Will you visit expensive places or bypass? When someone asks you out to dinner, will you go?

The sea may be a symbol of freedom, but your boat ultimately is a symbol of how much money you have.

We try to answer everyone who writes to us. Since we're not famous like some people, we don't get a lot of mail in the first place. A few days ago I got this email from one of our three readers (the others being our parents), talking about their sailing plans.

The only other hurdle is money. I realize you guys might want to keep that part of your lives private, but if you're able to share anything about how to fund this type of adventure, it would be much appreciated.

I guess the best way to answer that is to talk about how much it costs and where we get our money from.

The cost of sailing is, unfortunately, completely all over the map. Sailing an equipped vessel in good shape and being at anchor is actually rather cheap, although of course have an "equipped vessel in good shape" isn't cheap in and of itself. For some specifics, here's some costs we incurred in our first year:


  • $6,000 for a Hydrovane. We put this cost off because we didn't need it until we decided to cross an ocean, so it showed up in our first year.
  • $4,000 for a watermaker. Again, put off until we decided we needed one.
  • ~$500 for various canvas projects (that's primarily material costs). Chaps for the dinghy tubes, covers for this and that.
  • $800 for an apartment in La Cruz for one month (during Lyra's birth).
  • $1200 for an apartment in Puerto Escondido for six weeks.
  • ~$600/month for moorage fees for maybe 9 of those 12 months. We've probably been anchored about 25% of the time but with two little kids (and/or a pregnant wife) we honestly like being at the dock if we're not off somewhere remote and interesting. 
  • ~$300/week for combined fun/food/whatever spending money. It's hard to track because most remote places only take cash so you end up withdrawing a bunch from an ATM and then using it for whatever, then you need more cash again.
  • $2800 for a new mainsail. Our old one was getting pretty beat up and we wanted a new one before we did the Pacific. 
  • $500 for fuel, all in. We tend to sail a lot even in the relatively motor-everywhere culture of Mexico, and when we do motor we keep the RPM's low and are happy making 5.5 knots. 
  • ~$1,500 in airfare for family or personal visits back to the US.
  • ~$5,000 in medical costs but roughly $3,000 of that was pregnancy related. And we have two little kids, so there you go.


My "office" for that day, in a scummy old harbor's empty room in Mazatlan.

So that's our costs, as best I can remember them, and then for how we make money:


  • We have some referral links scattered around the site, which make about $20/month on average which is roughly what it costs to host, so that makes the site at least free.
  • I wrote a book, which has made a couple of hundred dollars. At this rate, in a few years, I'll about break even for having a minimum wage job (taking the total revenue, divided by the hours it took to write it).
  • Charlotte wrote a series of magazine articles that dropped some money into the bank.
  • But the lion's share of our money comes from me working my corporate job as we move around. The specifics of that I'm not at liberty to share, but I can provide some generalities. I spend, on average, a few hours a day on the phone (satellite or cellular). I spend on average about 15% of my time back in the United States, normally for 3-12 days at a time. Sometimes it's every month, but from August-October I never went back once. We spent about four weeks back in San Diego during July where I was in the office every day. 

I definitely spend more time than anyone else we've met, by a long shot, working while sailing. A lot of people who are working while sailing tend to work in project mode: they're on-again-off-again type arrangements, or something like writing where it comes in big pushes and then you can breathe a little. For me it's more like a river that I can dam up a bit but that delays (and creates) a flood. 


Another thing to note is that for the five years before our trip, when we were working on the rigging, engine, decks, and paying off the boat (and our other bills), we lived pretty cheap. I've never bought a new car in my life, we didn't travel anywhere exotic for half a decade, and opted for saving as much as possible.

So the secret for us, boringly enough, is saving and working. I wish I could make it more interesting.


i finally did something with

About five years ago I picked up the domain name and had some loose ideas of what to do with it. Nothing materialized, and last month I found myself at an interesting crossroad:

- Sitting around, remarkably, with decent Internet access in La Paz, Baja Sur.

- Wanting a way to record all the places we go and stuff we find out about. 

- Wanting somewhere to upload my GPX tracks.

- Wanting a way to share our current location on our website (like on the front page of our site).

So, poof-whalla (and many bug fixes later, with many more to come) I have a version 1 up that works.

I (and you) can send in position reports via email (with an SSB or satellite connection). It also integrates with Spot messengers.

For some of our passages, like this one from Puerto Escondido to La Paz, there really is valuable insight I wish I would have known. Refraction around the islands (during northerlies). The incorrect lighting indicated on Isla Las Animas, the better weather found going around the San Jose Channel. 

There's still a ton more to do and I'm regularly seeing an error or two come through every day. But, things are generally working okay and if you have any feedback or ideas let me know. 


one year as "real" sailors

It was exactly one year ago that we motored out of San Diego Harbor and started what has been, for me, the most amazing year of my life.

I've been trying to put my thoughts together about it for a while and just keep shaking my head. Charlotte and I sat around for a few minutes tonight just going through the list and it feels like decades worth of experiences, crammed into a single calendar year.

Our youngest daughter was born following the reenactment of a Benny Hill skit with Cole Trickle. I singlehanded ~1300 miles from Ensenada to Bahia de Banderas. I did my job from a developing nation. I took a train across the United States, and got the flu in New Orleans. We've crossed the Sea of Cortez, myself twice. I've weathered half a dozen cyclones. We've eaten fish we've pulled from the sea. We've met incredibly interesting people.

We've swung into tropical springs with rope from a tree branch, nets up to keep the crocodiles out. 

Charlotte and I sat in Puerto Escondido and found Lyra in the stars

The hardest things to put into writing though are the transformative impacts of it all. 

The problem with being an adventurer is that you'll never again belong in any one place. 

This year has been like a surgical operation, pulling away pieces of us that we don't really need and buttressing areas that had grown soft from "real life".

I'm summarizing a bit, but a core aspect of Robert Pirsig's commentary on sailing is that is indeed more "real" than "real life". So much of modern living is about insulating a person. Insulating away from the environment, from fear, from discomfort, from challenge, and ultimately from themselves. 

In Walden, Thoreau spoke of modern inventions:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

It's really hard to believe that we'll be leaving for the South Pacific in a few months. Sailing with the family is physically, emotionally, and financially tough but looking back on the first year I can say this: it was absolutely worth it and I can't wait to write the next installment from New Zealand. 


cruising blues - by robert pirsig

In my wildest dreams I will be half the writer that Robert Pirsig is, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In addition to writing what is often considered one of the greatest modern American stories, Robert Pirsig is also a sailor and spent a lot of time sailing about and crossing the Atlantic. This is from an article in the May 1977 edition of Esquire magazine that he penned.

Their case was typical. After four years of hard labor their ocean-size trimaran was launched in Minneapolis at the head of Mississippi navigation. Six and one half months later they had brought it down the river and across the gulf to Florida to finish up final details. Then at last they were off to sail the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles and South America. Only it didn't work out that way. Within six weeks they were through. The boat was back in Florida up for sale. 

"Our feelings were mixed," they wrote their hometown paper. "Each of us had a favorite dream unfulfilled, a place he or she wanted to visit, a thing to do. And most of us felt sheepish that our 'year's escape' shrunk to eight months. Stated that way, it doesn't sound as if we got our money's worth for our four years' labor." 

"But most of us had had just about all the escape we could stand; we're overdosed on vacation. Maybe we aren't quite as free spirits as we believed; each new island to visit had just a bit less than its predecessor." 

"And thoughts were turning to home." 

Change the point of origin to Sacramento or Cincinnati or any of thousands of places where the hope of sailing the world fills landlocked, job-locked dreamers; add thousands of couples who have saved for years to extend their weekends on the water to a retirement at sea, then sell their boats after six months; change the style and size of the boat, or the ages and backgrounds of the participants, and you have a story that is heard over and over again in cruising areas - romantic dreams of a lifetime destroyed by a psychological affliction that has probably ended the careers of more cruising sailors than all other causes together: cruising depression. 

"I don't know what it was we thought we were looking for," one wife said in a St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, harbor after she and her husband had decided to put their boat up for sale and go home. "But whatever it was, we certainly haven't discovered it in sailing. It seemed that it was going to be such a dream life, but now, looking back on it, it just seems . . . oh, there have been beautiful times, of course, but mostly it's just been hard work and misery. More than we would have had if we had stayed home." 
A husband said, "We find ourselves getting on each other's nerves, being cooped up like this with each other day after day. We never realized that in order to enjoy being with someone you have to have periods of separation from that person too. We sailed on weekends and short vacations for years. But living aboard isn't the same." 

Statements symptomatic of cruising depression vary from person to person, but common to most are long periods of silence in a person who is normally talkative, followed by a feeling of overwhelming sadness that at first seems to have no specific cause, then, on reflection, seems to have many causes, such as: 
  • Everything is breaking down on this boat. 
  • Everything is going to hell. Considering the number of things that could break down, the attrition is actually quite normal, but now there isn't the time or tools to make major repairs, and the costs of boatyard labor and overhead are out of sight. So now every part failure - a pump that won't work, a loose propeller shaft, a windlass that sticks - looms up as a catastrophe, and during the long hours at the helm while the problem remains unfixed, it grows larger and larger in the mind. 
  • Money is running short. 
  • Most of the big supermarkets are too far from the boat to walk to. 
  • Marine stores seem to overcharge on everything. 
  • Money is always running short, but now that fact, which was once a challenge, is a source of despair. A serious cruising person always seems to find the money one way or another, usually by taking short-term waterfront jobs, and taking them without much resentment. His boat gives him something to work for. But now the boat itself is resented and there is nothing to work for. 
  • The people are unfriendlier here than back home. Back home people seemed friendlier, but now cruising depression has put a scowl and a worried look on the sailor's face that makes people keep their distance. 
All this is just running away from reality. You never realize how good that friendly old nine-to-five office job can be. Just little things - like everyone saying hello each morning or the supervisor stopping by to get your opinion because he really needs it. And seeing old friends and familiar neighbors and streets you've lived near all your life. Who wants to escape all that? Perhaps what cruising teaches more than anything else is an appreciation of the real world you might otherwise think of as oppressive.

This last symptom - the desire to "get back to reality" - is one I've found in almost every case of cruising depression and may be the key to the whole affliction. If one bears down on this point a little it begins to open up and reveal deeper sources of trouble.

One first has to ask where those who are depressed got the idea that cruise sailing was an escape from reality. Who ever taught them that? What exactly do they mean? Scientists and philosophers spend their entire working lives puzzling over the nature of reality, but now the depressed ones use the term freely, as though everyone should know and agree with what they mean by it.

As best I can make out, reality for them is the mode of daily living they followed before taking to the water; unlike cruise sailing, it is the one shared by the majority of the members of our culture. It usually means gainful employment in a stable economic network of some sort without too much variance from what are considered the norms and mores of society. In other words, back to the common herd. 

The illogic is not hard to find. The house-car-job complex with its nine-to-five office routine is common only to a very small percentage of the earth's population and has only been common to this percentage for the last hundred years or so. If this is reality, have the millions of years that preceded our current century all been unreal? 

An alternative - and better - definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components ...air...sunlight...wind...water...the motion of waves...the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike twentieth-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory life-styles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to. 

If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from reality have got their understanding of both sailing and reality completely backwards. Sailing is not an escape but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape. For centuries, man suffered from the reality of an earth that was too dark or too hot or too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of lighting, heating and air conditioning. Sailing rejects these and returns to the old realities of dark and heat and cold. Modern civilization has found radio, TV, movies, nightclubs and a huge variety of mechanized entertainment to titillate our senses and help us escape from the apparent boredom of the earth and the sun and wind and stars. Sailing returns to these ancient realities. 

For many of the depressed ones, the real underlying source of cruising depression is that they have thought of sailing as one more civilized form of stimulation, just like movies or spectator sports, and somehow felt their boat had an obligation to keep them thrilled and entertained. But no boat can be an endless source of entertainment and should not be expected to be one. 

A lot of their expectation may have come from weekend sailing, whose pleasures differ greatly from live-aboard cruising. In weekend sailing, depression seldom shows up, because the sailing is usually a relief from a monotonous workweek. The weekender gets just as depressed as the live-aboard cruiser, but he does it at home or on the job and thinks of these as the cause of the depression. When he retires to the life of cruising, he continues the mistake by thinking, Now life will be just like all those summer weekends strung end to end. And of course he is wrong. 

There is no way to escape the mechanism of depression. It results from lack of a pleasant stimulus and is inevitable because the more pleasant stimuli you receive the less effective they become. If, for example, you receive an unexpected gift of money on Monday, you are elated. If the same gift is repeated on Tuesday, you are elated again but a little less so because it is a repetition of Monday's experience. On Wednesday he elation drops a little lower and on Thursday and Friday a little lower still. By Saturday you are rather accustomed to the daily gift and take it for granted. Sunday, if there is no gift, you are suddenly depressed. Your level of expectation has adjusted upward during the week and now must adjust downward. 

The same is true of cruising. You can see just so any beautiful sunsets strung end on end, just so any coconut palms waving in the ocean breeze, just so many exotic moonlit tropical nights scented with oleander and frangipani, and you become adjusted. They no longer elate. The pleasant external stimulus has worn out its response and cruising depression takes over. This is the point at which boats get sold and cruising dreams are shattered forever. One can extend the high for a while by searching for new and more exciting pursuits, but sooner or later the depression mechanism must catch up with you and the longer it has been evaded the harder it hits. 

It follows that the best way to defeat cruising depression is never to run from it. You must face into it, enter it when it comes, just be gloomy and enjoy the gloominess while it lasts. You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau. 

When depression is seen as an unavoidable part of one's life, it becomes possible to study it with less aversion and discover that within it are all sorts of overlooked possibilities. 

To begin with, depression makes you far more aware of subtleties of your surroundings. Out on a remote anchorage, the call of a wild duck during an elated period is just the call of a wild duck. But if you are depressed and your mind is empty from the down-scaling of depression, then that strange lonely sound can suddenly bring down a whole wave of awareness of empty spaces and water and sky. It sounds strange, but some of my happiest memories are of days when I was very depressed. Slow monotonous grey days at the helm, beating into a wet freezing wind. Or a three-day dead calm that left me in agonies of heat and boredom and frustration. Days when nothing seemed to go right. Nights when impending disaster was all I could think of. I think of those as "virtuous days," a strange term for them that has a meaning all its own. 

Virtue here comes from childhood reading about the old days of sailing ships when young men were sent to sea to learn manliness and virtue. I remember being skeptical about this. "How could a monotonous passage across a pile of water produce virtue?" I wondered. I figured that maybe a few bad storms would scare hell out of the young men and this would make them humble and manly and virtuous and appreciative of life ever afterward, but it seemed like a dubious curriculum. There were cheaper and quicker ways to scare people than that. 

Now, however, with a boat of my own and some time at sea, I begin to see the learning of virtue another way. It has something to do with the way the sea and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated, because there's no choice.

You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and produces a certain change in values. Old gear that has been through a storm or two without failure becomes more precious than it was when you bought it because you know you can trust it. The same becomes true of fellow crewmen and ultimately becomes true of things about yourself. Good first appearances count for less than they ever did, and real virtue - which comes from an ability to separate what merely looks good from what lasts and the acquisition of those characteristics in one's self - is strengthened. 

But beyond this there seems to be an even deeper teaching of virtue that rises out of a slow process of self-discovery after one has gone through a number of waves of danger and depression and is no longer overwhelmingly concerned about them. 

Self-discovery is as much a philosopher's imponderable as reality, but when one takes away the external stimuli of civilization during long ocean hours at the helm far from any land, and particularly on overcast nights, every cruising sailor knows that what occurs is not an evening of complete blankness. Instead comes a flow of thought drawn forth by the emptiness of the night.

Occurrences of the previous day, meager as they may have been, rise and are thought about for a while, and then die away to return again later, a little less compelling, and perhaps another time even weaker, until they die away completely and are not thought of again. Then older memories appear, of a week past, a month past, of years past, and these are thought about and sometimes interrelated with new insights. A problem that has been baffling in the past is now understood quickly. New ideas for things seem to pop up from nowhere because the rigid patterns of thought that inhibited them are now weakened by emptiness and depression. Then in time these new thoughts wear town too, and the empty night dredges deeper into the subconscious to tug at, loosen and dislodge old forgotten thoughts that were repressed years ago. Old injustices that one has had to absorb, old faces now gone, ancient feelings of personal doubt, remorse, hatred and fear, are suddenly loose and at you. You must face them again and again until they die away like the thoughts preceding them.

This self that one discovers is in many ways a person one would not like one's friends to know about; a person one may have been avoiding for years, full of vanity, cowardice, boredom, self-pity, laziness, blamingness, weak when he should be strong, aggressive when he should be gentle, a person who will do anything not to know these things about himself - the very same fellow who has been having problems with cruising depression all this time. I think it's in the day-after-day, week-after-week confrontation of this person that the most valuable learning of virtue takes place. 

But if one will allow it time enough, the ocean itself can be one's greatest ally in dealing with this person. As one lives on the surface of the empty ocean day after day after day after day and sees it sometimes huge and dangerous, sometimes relaxed and dull, but always, in each day and week, endless in every direction, a certain understanding of one's self begins slowly to break through, reflected from the sea, or perhaps derived from it. 

This is the understanding that whether you are bored or excited, depressed or elated, successful or unsuccessful, even whether you are alive or dead, all this is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. The sea keeps telling you this with every sweep of every wave. And when you accept this understanding of yourself and agree with it and continue on anyway, then a real fullness of virtue and self-understanding arrives. And sometimes the moment of arrival is accompanied by hilarious laughter. The old reality of the sea has put cruising depression in its proper perspective at last. 

west coast is the best coast

I'd like to take a minute to crap all over east coast sailors. I myself am from the east coast of course, born right outside the city of brotherly love. But thankfully I got my sailing chops on the west coast, which I will now explain to you why it is indeed the best coast.

The distance from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas is 97 miles. Ninety seven. That kind of wimp ass distance us west coasters do standing on our heads. 

For us to get from San Diego to Isthmus on Santa Catalina Island was the same distance, and that was amateur hour. Hell, Cora rode out a gale in that run, twice, when she was three months old.

No, for us west coasters to "go cruising" we have three choices:

1) Sail the two and a half thousand miles to Hawaii. 

2) Sail the four thousand miles to French Polynesia.

3) Sail over eight hundred miles through no-man's land of Baja, and that just deposits you on the end of a peninsula for which you must either continue on for another hundred miles to get anywhere decent or go another few hundred miles across the Sea of Cortez. Broken up normally that is four passages of three days a pop, over a thousand miles of which there is no safe haven from anything.


So with that, I salute you, 2013 Class of Baja HaHa'rs whether or not you're actually in the rally matters not. What does matter is that you're currently in Mexico, probably for your first time, offshore right at this very moment slugging away at over a thousand nautical miles of distance to get to the mainland. 

You left in the rain. There is a cyclone forming at this very moment that you'll need to contend with. You probably got a bunch of slop thrown at you from Hurricane Raymond. There's a low pressure system on your heels from the Gulf of Alaska. These conditions which you simply accept as the baseline of sailing is why east coast sailors should buy you a drink any time you're around.