Darkest Before the Dawn
I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars. Heading down Baja was a new type of journey for me. There were moments of adventure, frustration, bliss and sorrow. The night passages were some of my favorite and yet some of hardest moments of the trip for me. My watch is normally 2-6 am, the darkest hours leading into the light of a new day. The nights where the wind was steady and the sky was clear, it felt like being in a dream. The wake around the boat would glow from the phosphorescence and an occasional dolphin would grace me with its company. I’d listen to podcasts and music, watch movies and read, but, more often than not, I’d sit with my face in the wind and my eyes on the sky. I’ve never seen more shooting stars than I did on our way down the remote Baja coast. Those nights were the ones I wish I could capture and share.
Most nights though, the winds were heavy and seas steep on our beam. It was like living in an endless earthquake. Large swells from the west, mixing with the wind chop from the east, had us feeling like we were living in a washing machine.
Everyone had told us cruising down Baja would be a breeze, “Just set your sails and you’re downwind cruising!”. Well, we couldn’t have had a more different experience. With La Nina conditions, we had cold weather, large ocean swells and heavy winds that always seemed to come from the wrong direction, or no wind at all and were forced to motor.
So, when we left Turtle Bay just as sun was setting, I had prepared myself for another uncomfortable night. We headed offshore for our 240 mile sail south to Bahia Santa Maria with about 15 knots of wind, but as soon as it got dark the winds completely died. We ended up having to motor most of the night, watching lightning storms off in the distance. The second night of the passage we decided to head in and anchor in San Juanito since we had less than favorable conditions all day and were too exhausted to deal with the +25 knot winds and steep swells offshore. We pulled into the large bay around 1 am to find the anchorage lit with about forty large fishing boats. We navigated our way through the fleet to a spot we felt was a safe distance away and set the hook. We woke around 6 am to books falling off the shelves and decided to pick up our anchor and tuck further into the bay to try to find a more protected spot to get a few more hours of sleep.
It felt a little odd being the only cruising boat in an anchorage with so many old, dilapidated fishing trollers, even the fisherman came by in their pongas to wave hello, (mostly while I was showering on deck).
After some much needed rest we continued our journey south to Bahia Santa Maria. Finally, we had great conditions and were able to sail most of the way, we even caught a large sierra mackerel!
That night during my 2-6 am shift, we hit a pocket of cell service and I received a message from my mother in law. As soon as I read it, tears started streaming down my face. She was trying to contact us to let us know that Josh’s grandmother was sick in the hospital, and it wasn’t looking good. My heart sank, and in that moment, all I wanted was to be back at home to support Josh’s family and spend more time with Grandma. As the sun rose and we approached the bay, Josh’s watch began and I debated when the best time was to share the news with him. I decided it would be best to wait until after we had set the anchor and settled in. As soon as the anchor dropped I had a hard time holding it together, he asked me what was wrong and I shared the message I had received.
It was one of those moments in life where you feel utterly stuck. We thought sailing meant freedom, but in that moment, we couldn’t have felt less free. We were anchored halfway down the remote Baja peninsula, with no access to roads or an airport. All we could do was sit there and pray for comfort for our family back at home.
Josh inflated the dingy and grabbed his board to have some alone time out in the water, I’m sure it wasn’t how he wanted his first surf session in Baja to go. That afternoon we were able to find weak cell reception and got a call out to Josh’s mom to speak with grandma to tell her how much we loved her and wish we could be there with her. With heavy hearts, we fell asleep for a much-needed nap.
In the afternoon, we decided to get off the boat for a bit and explore the estuary. There in the mangroves we found a small fishing camp, as we approached, the fishermen stopped cleaning their daily catch of clams to wave hello. We noticed a few lobster traps lying around and asked if they had any for sale, sure enough they did, $3 for a whole lobster! We bought four!
That night we feasted aboard Sloboda, with our new friends Mike and Nicolle and their adorable labradoodle, Dexter, who we had met earlier in the day. Little did we know, this couple would become some of our closest friends and one of the biggest blessings of our trip. In the morning, we buddy boated twenty miles south to Bahia Magdalena to explore the mangroves and small fishing village littered with whale skeletons.
Bahia Magdalena is most noted for the hundreds, if not thousands of grey whales that visit the bay each winter to give birth and mate. The locals make a living during that season taking tourists out in their pongas to get up close and personal with the whales. The town itself is on a small peninsula and completely cut off from the rest of the mainland. There are no roads, in or out, and yet there are about a dozen rusting, old vehicles littering the small village.
That night we went to shore to have dinner at the one “restaurant” on the beach. When we arrived and knocked on the front door, we noticed a man reclining on a couch under the window, watching television on a big screen. When he answered the door, we asked if this was indeed the restaurant, and if they were open for the evening. He eagerly replied that it was indeed the “restaurant” and they were indeed, “Abierto”. He called out to his wife, who was somewhere in the back of their house, and led us to a table out on the front porch. He quickly informed us the village had completely run out of beer, but, if we wanted we could go back to the boat and bring our own drinks for the night. He also informed us there was no menu, they would only be able to serve us lobster or fried fish tacos. Both sounded delicious, so we all ordered one of each! As we sat getting to know our new friends, I noticed the photos hanging on the wall. There were photos of fish larger than children, men petting whales and trucks floating across the sea on rafted up pongas.
Well, that solved the mystery of the cars in a place with no roads! I asked the owner, who happened to also be the town’s sheriff, why they brought cars over when they can’t drive anywhere?
Basically, he explained they did it to feel normal. It was the same reason he had a big screen TV, and most of the houses there had satellite dishes. There are less than 50 people living in this remote, small village, and even though the fisherman enjoyed living simple and quiet lives, they also wanted to enjoy the luxuries most of us have.
It’s these memories that stick with me the most. Meeting the locals, hearing their stories and getting to see the world through their eyes, even for just a brief moment, humbles me and brings me immense joy.
The next day we left for our last passage down the Pacific coast of Baja, we were headed 200 miles to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas. This time, the sea gave us exactly what we needed, perfectly warm, sunny days with 15 knots of breeze! It was beautiful!
The second night into our passage, on my 2-6 am watch I received another message, grandma had passed… I had just begun my watch, and as the tears streamed down my face once again, I turned my eyes to the sky ahead of us. There was no moon and the sky was clear. The stars shown brighter than ever before and the warm breeze kissed my wet cheeks. As I prayed for comfort for those we loved back at home, the sky ahead lit up with shooting stars. Over the next few hours I watched dozens, if not hundreds of shooting stars stream across the little patch of sky directly in front of us. Whether or not it was grandma waving goodbye, or saying it was ok to move forward, or just a random meteor shower, it brought me peace in those dark hours.
This time when Josh woke he knew immediately something was wrong. We decided to pull into the anchorage in front of Cabo even though it was still dark, instead of continuing on three hours east to the Los Cabos Marina. We had been there before and there were enough lights on the beach to help us spot the other boats in the anchorage. We dropped the hook, had a good cry and crashed hard.
Again, we woke to the boat rocking and rolling, we pulled the anchor and headed to the Los Cabos Marina where we planned to leave Agape to fly home for Grandma’s funeral. We definitely weren’t planning on returning home so soon, or having to say a true goodbye to someone we loved so dearly.
It was a hard lesson to learn so early into our voyage. For us, family always comes first, but we realize the lifestyle we have chosen will sometimes mean we cannot make it back home for certain life events. What we can do, what we all should do, is make sure our loved ones know how much we care about them. Life is truly precious and it’s most often better spent with the ones you love.