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Embarking on the world of cruising with a large boat for the first time, guest writer Pym Avery dives into a tale of rapid learning and emotional discovery. With no prior experience owning big boats, she faces a series of challenges that test her resolve, skill, and adaptability. This story is not just about navigating a large vessel, but also about the mental and emotional journey, learning to manage the unpredictable and finding inner strength in moments of crisis.
By Pym Avery
This is a story about rookie cruisers and the things that happen when you first buy a large cruising boat. I didn’t have any experience with big boats and all the things that I needed to learn came in a big, bad hurry. I guess we all start somewhere and I can see the heads shaking as the more experienced read this story, but it is more a story about the mental game involved with owning a sizable and unpredictable machine. I found several emotional states through single handling that I had never experienced in all my years of doing wild and crazy things with everything from flying perfectly good planes (and jumping out of them) to steering outrigger canoes across heavy water channels for many miles at a time.
I was always a stickler for safety in crew situations, and still am, but had to realize that constant control isn’t always possible. The exhilaration of the first time I took my boat out alone was high, tempered only by the panic of being in an out of control situation and finding a deep resolve resembling something I can simply describe as fortitude and faith in oneself to find a solution. This small part of the tale is about that.
In 2020, I crewed for friends on a Catana 47 Catamaran on the Nada Haha, which is the ocean rally that occurs when the Baja Haha doesn’t go, from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California. A few months later, I was in La Paz looking for a boat to buy and possibly live aboard full time. Up to that point, I had only sailed my Catalina 22 in Hawaii, so this was a big upgrade.
It was in retrospect, something I wish I had known a lot more about, but I now know my sailboat better than most know their boats, having replaced and upgraded almost every system aboard. I didn’t know what to buy or how to buy it then and fell prey to a dodgy Broker and his even dodgier Surveyor.
My Morgan 43 CC resided in a highly suspect Boatyard in la Paz. Everyone told me I’d know the boat when I saw it, but I have to confess that after looking at several 40’ plus boats and running the gauntlet of old Sea Dogs and their curious methods, I was exhausted mentally and fell in love with the Morgan’s engine room…and bought her.
The Boatyard owner bullied me into changing out the thru hulls which became a huge project due to their inability to do the job properly. In the meantime, I painted a mural on the transom and did some smaller jobs. Everything was good according to the Surveyor, I didn’t need to attend to much, right?
I had a few things done..one was to remove the giant non-functional A/C system that filled the entire cupboard under the companionway which could be removed to make space for something else. The Boatyard owner had the work done while I was away working in the States. I now know that I should have paid a lot more attention to all the work that was being done, but I was under the assumption that it would all be good work. Assumption be the Mother of all screw ups of course. And, in Mexico, it is wise to supervise any and all work done by tradesmen and boatyards, as I now know. Many of us have found this out the hard way. Often, you’ll pay for work that doesn’t get done and then the maintenance becomes deferred, unintentionally.
After what seemed like an eternity of frustration and multiple realizations of the foolishness that I had got myself into, we splashed for the third time and the thru hulls weren’t leaking!
I had booked a slip at a marina a few miles away and just had to get there, away from the ‘Boatyard from Hell’. I backed out of the slings and became acquainted rapidly with my hellacious prop walk, which I had only read about to this point. Spinning almost full circle in the tight space, unprepared and heading for a pile of concrete and rebar. By luck more than judgment, I got her under control and maneuvered away from the dock and into the channel. Happy to be finally on my way, I turned down towards the marina.
The big diesel engine then decided to die.
I knew immediately that it was fuel starvation but before I could do anything about that, I had bigger things to attend to. I was in the middle of the Navy’s active channel, sandbanks lurked to either side. The current was pushing towards several anchored sailboats only a hundred yards away. I had no propulsion and hadn’t set the jib sheets up, being as it wasn’t far and I’d be motoring. The boatyard owner was waving for me to come back in but I was free of him now and determined to stay that way, even if I would have had a way to get there. Momentary panic set in. I was literally out of my depth, but fortunately not yet in over my head.
As 11 tons slid uncontrolled and ever faster towards collision, I knew I had to and could, figure something out. Giving up has never been an option. Time seemed to stand still, everything was slowing down and from somewhere within my fear, a calm emerged and a newfound strength arose. I can’t really explain it in words, but at that moment, I knew that I was fully capable of wrangling this fiberglass monster out of its current predicament. I walked forward to drop anchor, and nothing happened. The chain was stuck solid. I had dropped and marked the chain in the boatyard, it had been working fine. How could this be?
But by now, there was a boat about 5 feet off my bow and so I lost a few minutes waiting to push it off by hand as we went by. Now I had a few minutes before the next one, and untied the jib sheets from the pulpit, running them back to the winches. I cursed myself for not having them already set, moved back forward to fend off another boat and then unfurled the jib enough to catch what breeze there was and swing clear of the cluttered anchorage…by now I was in full sailor-cuss-mode and back in control, to a point. There wasn’t enough wind to get where I needed to be, but I was now at least out of the potential destruction zone.
And along came a Panga! Did I want to be towed? The valiant Mexican fisherman is always a welcome sight to me, these fearless watermen will happily accomplish whatever task is at hand, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be. It is not always for the faint of heart! I made a quick bridle and was taken under tow. “Don’t steer!” the man said, but I did as 11 tons got underway and made to mow him down. He tried to drop me on the channel to the marina, heading for a rock embankment, but I refused to pay unless he towed me into a dock. We chose the first available between two enormous super yachts and he left.
I had been trying to hail the marina up to this point with no answer, but pulling into a super yacht slip got their attention and minutes later, security arrived. I could see my slip from where I was, and just asked them to give me time to bleed the engine. The office girl then hailed me on the radio and said I should move to the other side of fancy super yacht 2, which I’m sure was an easy maneuver with a pin on a chart.
I insisted, give me 10 minutes, and was soon motoring to my slip. The repair of the thru-hulls in the engine room had somehow led to a fuel feeder line being shut off. I now religiously check all shut offs, thru-hulls along with my oil and water levels relentlessly before every engine start. And I set the jib sheets! Lessons learned.
I still think about the calm that we can channel during times of momentary panic. It stood me in good stead for the discovery that the AC removal had led to an intake hose being stuffed through a hole into the engine room, unplugged, and was pumping sea water into the boat on my next excursion, for example! I’ve had several ‘interesting’ events since then, but am no longer fearful of the outcome, with the knowledge that I am capable of handling the situation.
But so began my discovery of how many systems are in a boat and how much needed to be fixed. All of that is another story , but the shortlist included a ruptured diesel tank, 3 of 4 charging systems down, the destruction of a fully functional autopilot, massive engine TLC needed and a whole host of other things directly related to human error and lack of maintenance. Fortunately I am still sailing, the boat is still whole and in much better shape than she once was, and I now do all the work and maintenance myself, having only myself to blame should it not be done properly.
Sailing in the Gulf of California can lead you to very remote places and the breakdowns never seem to happen anywhere convenient. Even in the various marinas and boatyards, it can be hard to find good help. There are a few social media groups that offer good advice and that’s very helpful, but the basic bottom line is to be able to troubleshoot and act quickly and efficiently with a calm mind, so finding that place of fortitude is quite effective. For me, at least!
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