This was originally written for SAILING Magazine, and is published here with the consent of the Schanen family (owners of the J/145 MAIN STREET on Lake Michigan– http://sailingmagazine.net).
Once every 24 hours, for a scant 15 minutes or so, waves break on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. The break is less than 200 yards from the moorings. I was easily visible when I paddled out to seek solace, and perhaps a wave, at the change of the tides. Every night somebody would approach me at the Balboa Yacht Club bar wondering if I was the man who had been surfing those little waves, laughing, falling and standing up in the chest-deep water. I would say “yes,” and wait for the inevitable next question:
“Are you the guy on the J/22 ?”
“Yes.” “Where did you sail from?’ “San Diego.” And, off we’d go into conversations about small boats and big storms, keels caught in fishing nets, homemade boats pitch-poling in the Bering Strait and that love of the ocean that pervades every time sailors’ speech. I would tell my story of how I got into sailing, how long it had taken to reach Panama, who I had for crew, if I had running water, what fish I was catching– answering the questions all sailors ask each other.
I grew up on the East Coast; then moved to Indiana when I was in high school. Later, I enlisted in the Navy. I got out of the Navy in September 2000, and bumped around Australia with a friend for two months before flying back to San Diego and deciding to sail to Virginia in a small boat. I had been on a sailboat a few times with my aunt and uncle in England and a few times with friends of mine on San Diego Bay.
Originally, I wanted to do the trip in my Lehman 12, but was talked out of it by friends, most of them professional sailors. I settled on a J/22 and bought “Synchronicity” eight days after I returned from Australia. I renamed the boat “Apocalypso” and 14 days later set sail with Jason Bell, a man who would end up being one of my closest friends.
The two weeks between the purchase of the boat and casting off from the dock of the Coronado Yacht Club were a maelstrom of organizing, buying and attaching various instruments to the boat. I bought a Siemens 75 solar panel to supply the boat with power and a 12-volt marine battery. I also purchased a Garmin 162 GPS that never failed; a tiller autopilot failed constantly; a Standard Horizon VHF that kept me in contact with other boats at anchorage and intermittently provided me with garbled voices at sea; and an Alpine CD player with Bose 151 outdoor speakers to keep morale high.
I had another reef put in the main (for a total of two) and had a used genoa re-cut to fit the J/22 . I took one main, two kites, a genoa, a racing jib and a working jib. The main, working jib and spinnaker saw me through to the Panama Canal. After that I used only the main and jib for the slog north.
Jason and I left Coronado on December 27, 2000. We slipped away from the dock and our families and friend, headed out of San Diego Bay and pointed south, Panama bound! As soon as we got out of the bay, we put up the chute and took off doing 7 knots down the waves and enjoying our newfound freedom. That first night was amazing for me. It was the first time I’d been night sailing on the ocean, and I was aboard the smallest sailboat I’d ever been on this far offshore. There was a northeast wind blowing 12 to 14 knots, the chute was up happily pulling us along. Scattered clouds passed over the moon and I had the first watch. What a life!
We cruised down the coast, harbor hopping along the way. We usually did 300 miles at a crack, occasionally doing more, with a longest distance of 500 miles that took us five days. We got caught on kelp, watched the big Baja sea lions playing in our wake and we saw in those days all things to satisfy your soul.
I watched dolphins playing in the bow wake, felt the colors of sunsets on my face and the whip of the wind as it cracked my lips. I grew tan as only sailors can and built muscle from working the boat. I grew lean and strong on fresh fish, fruits, nuts and vegetables and learned to live and breathe with the wind in the sail. I connected with the ocean on a level I have felt at no other time, a bond that will always pull me back to the freedom of the sea.
Eleven days after we left, we coasted into Cabo San Lucas. Mexico, spotting an orca in the harbor on the way in. Two nights later, we raised anchor and headed south and east- the stench of packed humanity too much for us in Cabo. A north-northwest wind blowing 15 to 20 knots dared us to throw up the chute, and the fun began. We screamed across the Sea of Cortez in 52 hours, chute up the whole way, the roar of water racing by the hull putting us to sleep every three hours.
When it got bad, Jason would come up and switch with me if I was on watch and I would open food packets and feed him while we talked. When I accidentally jibed in the dark and tangled the chute around the forestay, I had to wake him up to untangle it. He freed it so fast and easily I felt foolish. But as he crawled back into the musty cabin, cackling in his Scottish accent, I realized he must have done it a hundred times while teaching at work. By the time he left me, I felt comfortable do everything by myself, but until I understood the basics, Jason worked overtime with me.
We stopped in El Salvador and northern Nicaragua for emergency anchoring, ignoring what the guidebooks said about the dangers of Central America. We explored an almost untouched world, where pleasure boats are seldom seen and where beer and stories flow freely. It was an awakening of sorts for me, to realize that most people still have hope and joy. I was still building an identity, and while the Navy had given me many good things I had overloaded on suspicion and aggression. This trip helped me drop some of that.
Two months into the trip, I lost Jason as crew when we pulled into southern Nicaragua and he was offered a job as skipper of the Farr 63 “Northern Winds.” While the friendship we had forged could not be broken, the lure of a steady paycheck took him away. It took me a month to get the boat together—we had taken a fearsome beating between Puerto Madero and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. But, after I had gotten all my parts shipped to Ricardo’s Bar in San Juan del Sur and installed them on Apocalypso, I soloed to Playa del Coco, Costa Rica. It was my first solo sail, and the steady wind and never-ending tasks brought me the discovery of joy in a day’s loneliness at sea.
In Playa del Coco, an adventurous blonde named Laura signed on as crew. I didn’t tell Laura until we were well on our way that I have only been sailing for three months. Although Laura did not know how to sail, she was willing to learn and showed a great interest in boats that fueled my love of the ocean and sailing. Laura stayed with the boat through the Panama Canal and as far as Key West. Florida. She listened to my fluent Navy cursing when our four-horse engine died and showed me how to cut the cheek meat out of the fish we caught; her father had worked as a fisherman in Alaska. We shared the life of bon vivant, swimming with pilot whales and exploring hidden anchorages. In one anchorage, on the east side of the Golfo de Chirique, we met the hermit of Bahia Honda and stumbled on an island town where the locals whispered about Laura’s naturally white-blond hair and gave us dried fish and beer.
We left Bahia Honda with the cockpit full of coconuts that we picked by climbing high palm trees. As we sailed south down the Peninsula de Azeuro with the fading sun to starboard, the gentle clunks of loose-rolling coconuts brought us back from daydreams of reaching the Panama Canal.
The night before our arrival at the Panama Canal shook my faith in my ability to sail and navigate. We kept getting tangled in fishing nets in the light and variable winds, and the compass was difficult to read in the hazy light of the moon. To top it off, I was tired from three days of little sleep. I went over the side on three separate occasions to cut the boat free of fishing nets that stretched down into green-gray depths, surrounded by spooky shadows thrown by my tiny underwater light. After getting out of the cold Humboldt Current the last time, I told Laura I was going to bed and didn’t want to be woken until the sun was shining and we were making 4 knots directly toward the canal.
I woke up to the sound of the engine and hazy pale sunlight on my face. I looked out of the cabin at the clean, glassy water of the northern stretch of the Golfo de Panama and knew the peaceful relief found at the end of a nightmare. Arriving at the canal was a victory for me. It meant I was more than halfway through my journey, it meant that I had gotten across Tehuantepec and past the Papagallos, and it meant I could skipper a boat!
After staying on the Pacific side for two weeks, we finally got all our paperwork together and shot through the locks in a day. From Cristobal we headed north, stopping at Isla Providencia where we experienced true Caribbean hospitality and the friendliest port captain I have ever met, and townspeople that could not have welcomed us more warmly.
From Providencia we flew on fast reach to Roatan, stopping only long enough to resupply before heading north for Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The draw of returning home became more powerful the closer we got to Key West, erasing from my mind the life I would have to lead upon return to the States and a “normal” job. We took a six-day beating from Isla Mujeres to Key West rather than sit in the anchorage scaring myself with weather reports, and only now do I realize the luxury of being concerned merely with physical survival.
We pulled into Key West on May 14, 5 1/2 months after leaving San Diego. Those 150-odd days were some of the richest of my life and I looked for a way to squeeze in one more journey before selling the boat to the right buyer.
I found my buyer on the Internet, but I would have to deliver the boat to Kingston, Jamaica! After enlisting the help of a fellow I met in a Publix grocery store, I hoisted sail and again surrendered myself to the sea. Frank was from Berlin, Germany and between his heavily accented English and my high school German, we laughed our way through muddled conversations about girls, beer, toxic chlorinated American water and sailing. We stopped in Nassau, Bahamas, then swept down the Exuma chain to Georgetown.
From Georgetown, we headed southeast to the tip of Little Exuma where we ran aground on crystal white sand. Far from our finest moment, it ended after bumping over six sandbars and grinding into the seventh. With no other course than to turn up the music, jump over the side and take a long saltwater bath, we waited for the tide. When it finally rose late in the evening, we dried off and headed on port tack for Cuba, the Windward Passage, and my final port of call.
We made landfall in Jamaica at 7 am, June 28, seeing the lighthouse at Point Moran. We drifted along the shore, smelling land in the smoke of hearth-fires and waiting for the huge convection machine of Kingston Harbor to start cranking. We were sucked west along the southern coast until we turned into the harbor where we had to beat upwind to the yacht club. That was the worst part of the trip. It wasn’t from the feeling of ending a journey, but because the wind really pumps down the harbor! I recorded at least 30 knots on my anemometer. As I pulled up to the gasoline dock at the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club, I saw four men sauntering towards me down cracked concrete stairs. They eased up next to my boat as a group, and their questions broke the silence of a voyage completed.
“Are you the guy on the J/22 ?”