J/22 Odyssey- California To Jamaica & Beyond!

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. I 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.

J/22 sailors- sailing past Costa Rica

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 installed a Garmin 162 GPS that nev­er failed and a tiller autopi­lot that failed con­stant­ly. For comms I ran a Stan­dard Hori­zon VHF that kept me in con­tact with oth­er boats at anchor­age and inter­mit­tent­ly pro­vid­ed me with gar­bled voic­es at sea; and for glo­ri­ous music we put in 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 enjoy­ing our new­found free­dom. That first night was amaz­ing. 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 full and pulling us along with that inde­scrib­able sway­ing pow­er a big sail out front has  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 did a few hun­dred 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 saw in those days all things to sat­is­fy a 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.

Sailing a J/22 offshore

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, the stench of packed human­i­ty too much for us in Cabo, we raised anchor and head­ed south and east.  A north-north­west wind blow­ing 15 to 20 knots dared us to throw up the chute, and the Vendée Cortez 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. 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.  As he crawled back into the small and 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 in, 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 back togeth­er. We had tak­en a fear­some beat­ing between Puer­to Madero and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.  Once 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 com­bined with 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 had 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 vivants, 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.

J/22 offshore cruiser!

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. I was tired from three days of lit­tle sleep and going over the side to cut the boat free of those dis­mal nets that stretched down into green-gray depths.  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 along with towns­peo­ple that could not have wel­comed us more warmly.

J/22 in Panama Canal

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 our­selves 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 ?”

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