The Measure of This Life

We’re here at Newport Beach, California, on a mooring ball among the multimillion dollar houses with million dollar boats out front. It’s a little surreal, but lovely. We are still coming down from our high of being in the Channel Islands since October 14 (minus 3 days in Channel Islands Harbor). The time really flies when you spend that long somewhere. Even though we changed anchorages and islands, they are all a part of a larger unit of ‘the islands’ and so it was easy enough to get accustomed to being there; to even feel a bit like we could belong there in some way.   When that happens we have a saying: “We live here now.”. It’s amazing how fast I can begin to put down feeler roots in a place; not deep tap roots, but just those shallow little surface roots that pull in moisture and nutrients from the soil of a new land. After months of travel, it’s restful to look at a landscape and know the larger context of what you will see. It allows one to have the time to notice how the light changes from one day to the next; to allow a place to become ‘familiar’ in its way. It doesn’t take long for familiarity to begin to take root.

Scorpion Anchorage. A favorite when the weather is good. With S/V Blue from Gig Harbor in the foreground.

As we left Catalina Island I felt like it was time to take stock of how far we’ve come as cruising sailors. It feels like the leaving of Catalina Island marks a turning point in our travels as now we prepare in earnest to make a big leap across the international border into another country: Mexico. While that border is not very far away in terms of miles, it feels like another world in terms of our lives. We’ve been casually hopping down the coast of California with no real feeling of a destination, no feeling of hurry. Suddenly, we feel a little pressure. We need to get somewhere now because we have other things we will be doing over the holidays. There are decisions and reservations to make; airline tickets to buy. We also need to do the final push of buying insurance, and purchasing anything we feel we may need on the boat that would be hard to come by in Mexico.  I feel barely ready, so it must be time to go. That’s how it goes out here; that’s the name of the game. We’re just barely ready: let’s go.

This ‘crusing’ thing is filled with leaps of all sizes into the void of uncertainty. You leap away from a job and a home, then away from your home waters and into the big ocean. You jump right into landing in new places and dealing with unfamiliar weather patterns and seas and people. You do this because there is no choice. It’s either jump or stay home. No amount of reading of cruising guides or sitting through seminars can prepare you for sudden 35 knot winds in a crowded anchorage, or even an uncrowded one for that matter. No amount of perseverating or talking to more experienced cruisers can prepare you for landing your dinghy on a beach in surf.

Those dolphins!

You can read about high winds and higher swells and how to handle them all day long, but until you are trusting your life to your boat in these conditions, it’s all just academic. These are times when you have thrown caution to the four winds and hoped they would not hand your ass back to you on a platter. To live the life of a cruiser by sailboat is to live the life of a gambler; some days more than others. You have to be there to understand these things that by their nature are organic and multi-dimensional and not easily put into words.

After three months of easy cruising and protected waters in Washington State, we made the big Left Turn Leap at Neah Bay on Sept 3 and made landfall in the San Fransisco area on Sept 8. We’ve been exploring the coast of California now for 2 months. In those two months we’ve been to 26 different places and have spent a total of 6 nights at a dock – 3 in Pittsburgh and 3 in Channel Islands Harbor. At both places we were getting out of weather, seeking more shelter. At those places we took on fuel (103 gallons, and 75 gallons respectively) and water (167 gallons and 150 gallons). Those are the only quantifiable things about the last 2 months.

Other things are not so easily measured: how we’re more tolerant of higher winds than we were, how we can sleep through a surprising amount of boat motion, how used to being wet with salt water we’ve become, how 68 degrees can begin to feel chilly. How I finally do not want to throw up every time we approach a dock. How long ago our previous life aleady seems. How very much we trust our Mantus anchor. How our stress levels have gone down exponentially. How we can get accustomed to linens that never quite feel dry. How long we can go without washing our clothes. All the many ways one can cook eggs.

Nice to see you Mr. Coast Guard Cutter. Please keep pace with us a little longer in these nasty seas. Why yes, perhaps we are a little crazy being here.

Cruisers say that this life is filled with highs and lows, even more so than land life. I guess that’s true to some extent. We’ve been lucky so far. The low points have been few and they’ve primarily been due to running from weather and, a bit, from missing our kids and family. In the San Fransisco area I hit a low spot because the wind just never stopped and I was overwhelmed by it. We went up river to Pittsburgh to get out of the wind for a few days. When we left San Fransisco, I never looked back. I know people love it there, and it certainly is beautiful, but it was too much for me. Possibly part of that is because we had just spent 5 days at sea where there is peace and quiet and the possibility of seeing another sailboat is a treat. Coming into San Fransisco Bay after that is a bit of a shock.

In the Channel Islands we had some significant low spirits; again wind and sea state related. It seemed like we would get 1.5 good days before we’d have to run from high winds and swell again. We had 35 knot winds at one point, and of course, the seas to match. One night on Santa Cruz Island we found ourselves on a lee shore with huge swells left over from high winds earlier in the day.  We had zero protection from the high swells.  We pulled anchor at night and moved a short distance to what we hoped would be a more protected area, where we had anchored before. It was not a good experience and it didn’t help our position that much in the end. We rode it out but that was a very low place for me and I was extremely angry about it.

Yes, there were a few times when I felt like I was just done in by those most northern Channel Islands. But they are so beautiful, the hiking is so excellent,  and we really wanted badly to see them. Just when we both thought we’d give up, we’d find a safe anchorage, and then we’d sleep, and well, the next day somehow we always chose to stay. It’s either a form of denial or a kind of craziness, but for some reason those lows points just didn’t make us want to give up all that beauty. Maybe we just didn’t want to be beaten like that.  In my log book I wrote, “These islands are beautiful, but they take their toll in exchange.”.

Yes, the Channel Islands are more than challenging this time of year. But then there’s this.

So far, the highs have far outweighed the few lows we’ve had on this trip. These are the unforgettable moments that have marked my human soul forever: hearing a sea lion hunting through the hull, those huge phosporescent animals in the deep ocean, that time when the setting sun and a rising full moon perfectly opposed one another off the coast, spotting a sea turtle underwater, and an octopus, and a pipefish, and a bat ray. All of the sea otters. That time the hundreds of dolphins swam with the boat, and that other time we saw a long line of dolphins and sea lions in formation together, driving prey.

The precious grunting of elephant seals. The clan of curious sea lions that rushed toward us from the shore, surrounding our dinghy with their leaping and playing and spying.  The baby sea lion snuggling up to our hull. The sweet relief of a safe anchorage. All the millions of stars in the sky at San Miguel Island. The thousands of white fish swimming toward our spotlight, as far as the eye can see. The complete surprise of pelagic crabs. Swimming in a school of fish, as though they’ve accepted you as one of their own. These things cannot be counted. They cannot be put in a box. They spill out in giddiness that it’s all turning out as well as we imagined so far, that all our hard work has not been for naught.

One of the two sea turtles I saw off Catalina Island.

And after two months of this kind of exploration, we cannot go back willingly into the box from which we leaped. Our old lives are far behind us now. Some days we miss our home, but mostly we don’t. Living this way has opened up a wide range of possibilities for the future in terms of where we live, and how we do it. We are only just beginning to understand this and play in our minds with the many ideas that come forth.  I don’t know how long we’ll be traveling by boat,  or how far we’ll go. I don’t know. And for now, that’s just fine. Next stop San Diego, then Mexico.

We plan to put Galapagos in a marina for a nice rest for 1-2 months once we reach Mexico. She will be in one of the marinas in Ensenada while we travel to Ecuador to visit Claire and Dan, then go back home for a visit with Andrew and Jill (who are now engaged to be married next fall!) and our family and friends. When we return, we plan a slow trip with many stops down the Pacific side of the Baja. We’re almost ready. Let’s go!

S/V Galapagos, Out.

As the sun went down…

The moon came up.






21 thoughts on “The Measure of This Life

  1. Lovely post Melissa. We’ll be travelling to Australia for the holidays but will be back in Ensenada in mid January. I hope we can catch up with you then!

    • I hope so! We are considering doing a 3 month marina contract there so we can have some flexibility in where and when we go. Enjoy Australia! I know it’s home for you. We traveled there years ago and loved it very much.

  2. Not sure where you’ll be in Ecuador, but if you get the chance, I can’t recommend Banos enough. 20 years later, I still remember the time I spent there as among the best in my life. And Cuenca is probably my favorite city in the world, so if you go, please take lots of pictures to share with us.

    • We will be in Cuenca! Our daughter and son in law love it there and plan to become residents. It’s easier for them to do that than it is for either of them to become residents of either the US or UK. Sad, but true. We will be there close to a month and yes, we will take lots of photos. If you are on FB at all be sure to ‘like’ our page if you haven’t done so. I’ll be posting more photos there than on the blog although you can bet there will be posts about Cuenca here.

    • Thanks, Donna. Yes, it’s nice that it’s working out the way we hoped. You never actually know when you make a change this big if it’s going to be the right thing to do. So far, I think it is. If only I could have my family on the boat with me!

  3. Great pictures! I signed up to get email alerts when you post to your blog. For sometime I have wondered why the title indicates that the message is coming from Where the Coconuts Grow? Any ideas?

    • That is very disturbing, Diane, and I thank you much for alerting us to it. Mike is looking into that problem right now. I will alert ‘Where the Coconuts Grow’ and see if they have noticed anything on their end.

    • Well, I don’t really think of my previous life as make believe. I feel like it was a pretty good life, actually. But I hear you! Glad you guys are back doing what you love best.

      • Not that your previous life wasn’t awesome! But when you come back “home”, you’ll be bombarded with variations on the theme “Welcome back to the real world”, as we were last spring. I wrote about it in our blog, (“Real? Really?”)
        In that sense, what you left behind – the climate controlled, artificially lighted, hot and cold running everything, daytimers and traffic lights… Those will all seem artificial and shallow and somehow less significant, compared to the smell of the sea and the sound of a gull as evening engulfs you and the moonlight bathes you in silver.
        At least that’s what we found. And folks back home won’t understand – it’s part of the trade-off we make.

    • Hi Eldon, you should be able to sign up with your email on the front page of the blog. You’ll see a rectangle on the upper left of the page where you can put your email address to subscribe. Let us know if that is not working.

      • The email subscribe seems to be broken. I’ve tried it many times and it says an error occurred, after a very long wait (240-500 second latency).
        Didn’t realize you were posting so much – I’m way behind now! But catching up fast.
        I subscribed to the FB page so I should get notifications that way.

        • Thank you very much for this alert! We have no way of knowing these things without alert readers pointing them out. Mike will get on it right away. Another reader requested we add her to the email list, but didn’t mention that the email subscribe was broken. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Ten Things to Know Before You Go | Little Cunning Plan

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