An Unexpected Overnight Sea Voyage, and a Voyage Home

After what seemed like weeks of idyllic, timeless, internet-free bliss at anchor surrounded by nothing but blue water, brown shores and endless fishing opportunities, on the morning of Monday, May 15, we came around the northeast side of Isla Carmen, and a bell rang at the helm somewhere. It took both Rick and I a while to realize it meant we had cell phone coverage again for a short interlude; the bell was notifying me I had a new message. I went below to empty our coffee cups, and at that very moment, our friend Bev called Rick’s cell phone. My phone we keep in the cockpit and we therefore would have heard it ringing, but Rick’s is always in the cabin and we therefore wouldn’t have heard it except that I happened to be in the cabin when it rang. Bev said she had promised Rick’s sister Linda she would keep calling us until she reached us. She had very, very bad news. Linda’s 22-year old grandson Christian had died in a bizarre and tragic accident with a train on Saturday night. The funeral was this coming Saturday.

We were at a “crossroads” when we received the call, with a choice to either sail south or north. We had to find a safe place to leave Cool Change, and the closest marina was 100 nm north in Santa Rosalia. Our average speed of travel is around 5 knots. 100 nm is therefore 20 hours if we are lucky. We made the snap decision to sail through the night and into the next day until we got to the marina, thus maximizing the time left before Saturday to get to Sacramento. We knew there were no flights from Santa Rosalia so we would have to take a bus; preliminary online research suggested there was at least one bus daily. It was a 15 hour bus ride to Tijuana. Then we would have options from there to get to Sacramento. Starting at that very hour on Monday, we could arrive home in Northern California with two days to spare before the funeral, at best.

Making snap decisions about destinations is not usually very wise while cruising, and this was no exception. Rick downloaded the weather further north off the Single Sideband (SSB) radio, and he described the evening as potentially “lively.” The wind seemed fine during the day, in fact, it was pretty light and we motored much of the way. So I didn’t scrutinize his analysis carefully nor form my own opinion, nor compare our exact course to the forecasted wind direction. That is not like me, but I allowed the importance of urgency to cloud my thinking. Also, Rick’s data didn’t include the forecasted wave height, period or direction – that is something we currently only get through a cellular or wifi data connection, and we didn’t have one strong enough to download anything. But we were both singleminded about making it to the funeral. I had already promised Linda in an email that we would do everything humanly possible to make it. We didn’t want to let our family down.

But as the evening settled in, the wind and the waves started building, with winds from the west and seas from the northwest. Our heading was northwest. Rick usually wants to sail if the wind is strong enough, even if it means going off course, but not this time – he wanted to get there as fast as we could, and that meant motoring. I started thinking that maybe this plan of sailing all night wasn’t such a good idea, and I started looking at anchorages we might be able to head into safely at night along our course. But when I proposed we anchor and start again at daybreak, Rick feared the wind wouldn’t calm down even at daybreak and that we would miss our chance if we didn’t go straight there now. What if the wind got stronger the next day, he asked? By the end of my shift at 2 am, we were only making about 2 knots headway, with no sails up and heading only about 30 degrees off the wind, not far enough off to sail. Rick took over, and I again suggested we consider finding a safe anchorage. But he would have none of it, and had all kinds of reasons: the wind was even worse if we headed west towards shore, entering an unknown anchorage at night is unsafe, etc. Valid reasons, all of them, but the bottom line is that he was so driven by grief that these were more excuses than reasons. It was as though he could somehow make the loss of his great nephew into nothing more than a bad dream if only we could reach that marina in time. If not, in his mind, all was lost. I had been challenging his judgements ever since we received the horrible news that morning, sensing his clouded judgement, but I was tired of resisting. His conviction to go straight to the marina trumped my conviction to move to safety, so I went below and tried to lie down. Needless to say i couldn’t sleep. Also, i had woken up with diarrhea that morning from something I ate. Bad timing. Getting to the head in those seas is not fun.

At 3:30 a.m. or so, Rick got me up from my bunk to say he wanted to deploy the main sheet and the jib to provide some stability. The wind was roaring and the seas were building even more. We discussed it and agreed to a double reefed main and the staysail. Rick clipped into the jack line and went to the mast to release the main halyard, but otherwise we could do everything from the cockpit. That added some stability, and Rick kept at it, trying to steer the boat with as much determination as he could muster.

But the boat was rocking like a hobby horse gone demoniacal, leaping up in the air and then hitting hard so you would loose your gravity and your breath. At about 6 am, only 20 nm short of the marina, Rick finally realized it was fruitless to try further. He told me that the wind had clocked so the sails were doing no good anymore, and waves were stopping him dead in his tracks. The engine couldn’t keep up. We were making absolutely no progress towards our destination. He declared that he was going to turn the boat around and head back to Bahia Concepcion, 40 nm south, half the distance we had come since the morning. He had psychologically given up, thrown in the towel. We weren’t going to the funeral and that was it. His great nephew was dead and would remain so. The sea had defeated us.

We both knew we would never make it to the marina in time if we turned around and went that far back. It would have been impossible given the distance remaining, the speed of our boat, the bus schedule and the amount of time needed once we made landfall. But instead I suggested we head straight west to the closest anchorage, which was just 27 miles from our destination. We still had hope.

The anchorage at Punta Chivato where we tucked in away from the weather for the day/night

As it turned out, we arrived at the anchorage at dawn so we were able to see where to go, which was a blessing. The reef protecting the anchorage extended further than charted so we were glad we hadn’t tried to enter at night. The wind calmed down briefly in the morning and we thought about going to shore after taking a nap. But by then, the winds began roaring again in the afternoon and through until about midnight that night. Fortunately, the anchorage was well protected and we got a good night’s sleep. The next morning we woke up to calm seas, we slipped out of the anchorage at 6 am and we were at the marina by noon.

Calm seas at daybreak the second day at Punta Chivato

By now it was a Wednesday, nearly 48 hours since we had gotten the horrific news. We still had to check into the marina, get the boat closed up, get on a bus headed for the border, and then get from the border to Sacramento before Saturday.

Apart from the fact that there is no airport in Santa Rosalia where we docked the boat, the marina was otherwise quite well situated. The bus stop and ticket sales are literally right outside the marina gates. The internet information on the bus schedule was all wrong: there were three buses a day to Tijuana, the next one leaving at 7:00 p.m. That gave us time to get the boat ready to leave her, and even do some laundry at the self-serve machines at the marina.

When we examined the forward locker just aft of the chain locker, everything in it was soaken wet, and the v-berth sheets below it were wet as well – so much water had come over the bow that it forced itself through an open chain locker haus pipe, into the chain locker, and then through a door between the chain locker and the forward locker where I store sheets and towels. That was a lot of water! We resealed the haus pipe and I washed and dried out everything that got wet, including the mattress. No permanent damage done.

Cool Change safely at the Santa Rosalia Fonatur Marina

The 15 hour bus ride to Tijuana was not that pleasant, in spite of being a luxury class bus with TV’s at every seat and extended foot room. Rick forgot earbuds so he couldn’t listen to any of the movies they had to choose from, which were all in Spanish. I listened to a few movies, but I couldn’t get comfortable and my legs kept spasming (caused by some combination of restless leg syndrome and hip replacement effects). But we were lucky that they accepted our Mexican senior-discount cards and thereby got half price on the tickets – only $40 US! (Those cards are not easy to come by and are only available to those who have jumped through the hoops to become at least a temporary resident in Mexico, which we have). It is really nice of Mexico to provide US citizens with that discount; I can’t imagine the US government being so generous to Mexican citizens!)

We knew we had many more options for transportation once we got to Tijuana, including crossing the border and taking flights from San Diego, flying directly from Tijuana, or even taking a bus from Tijuana. But after our inexpensive experience using and Thrifty for our last driving trip into the States, we thought we would go with a car rental. That way we could rent a car right from Tijuana with minimal waiting time and it seemed far cheaper than the $2,000 they were asking for last minute San Diego flights (4 flights at $500 each). Besides, after phone calls and research, it seemed that the car rental itself was only $2/day, the extra driver $4/day, and the US insurance about $10/day. The rest would be covered by the collision insurance that came with our credit card. However, we rented directly through Fox Rental car agency rather than through The difference was that Fox did not carry or offer a liability-only policy for Mexico without buying their full coverage package. /Thrifty did – it had been included. So for the few hours we would be driving in Tijuana before and after we crossed the border, we would be sent to jail for no liability insurance if we had an accident. Drivers in Mexico are actually a pretty courteous lot compared to LA drivers, for example, but Tijuana is very difficult to drive in. It is very congested and the signage is bad. We didn’t want to take the chance of an accident in Tijuana, aso at the last minute we forked out an unexpected extra $400 US for Mexican liability coverage. Oh well, it was still cheaper than flights by far. And they rented us a Prius, so our fuel costs were minimal.

Our Prius rental car from Mexico

We arrived about 10 am on Thursday on the bus in Tijuana. We had forgotten to buy our return bus tickets before we left the Tijuana bus station to go to the car rental office, so we returned there at a cost of about 2 hours driving in circles to get the tickets. And then the international crossing at Otay was busier than it had been a few weeks earlier. Plus, this elderly U.S. gentleman we met on the bus from Santa Rosalia asked us if we would give him a ride across the border and drop him off at an Amtrak station. He had been fighting metastatic colon cancer and this trip to Mexico may have been his last hoorah, so it was hard to say no. That added a few hours to our trip as well. All in all, a trip that should have taken 9 hours from Tijuana to Coloma took 15. We pulled into our driveway at 3:00 am on Friday morning, a day before the funeral.

We spent Friday resting up and then buying clothes for the funeral – Rick no longer owned a suit and tie nor dress shoes. I don’t think I could have gotten him to buy those things for almost any other event, but it was so important to him to honor his great nephew that he went out on his own and got everything he needed, some at a second-hand store, but all very respectable. He looked perfect. We shared a bottle of wine in Christian’s honor that night from our front deck overlooking the river.

A brief unexpected moment of calm at our home to appreciate how lovely,it,is at this time of year, especially after all the rain we have had

Meanwhile, our son Andrew was able to fly down for the services. His mother Julia picked him up at the airport and brought him to the services. He came home with us after the events and we took him to the airport on Sunday.

Rick and our son Andrew with me at the family gathering after the services

The services on Saturday were done very well. Over 400 people came to the event – Christian was very well known and very well liked by so many. His parents’ neighbors set up their house for a gathering afterwards, and we stayed well into the evening.

Uncle Rick with grandnephew Cole, Christian’s brother

The next day we took Rick’s sister Linda and her husband Rich out for dinner, and Monday we did some yard work and had our neighbor Bev, who notified us of the tragedy, over for dinner. Bright and early Tuesday morning, we drove back down to San Diego, spent the night there, and hopped back on a bus Wednesday afternoon to return to Cool Change in Santa Rosalia.

Rick and I with Rick’s sister Linda and her husband Rich

Here are some of Ricks thoughts about Christian:

“Christian was a wonderful loving young man with an infectious smile and a heart of gold. His family and many friends all loved him dearly. It was so hard to come to a point of acceptance that he would no longer be with us in this lifetime. I still am having trouble accepting it, as he was so young. Just 22 years old with his whole life in front of him. Yet we all know that we cannot take any of our days for granted and we could loose this life we share at any time. Christian was typical of a young man trying to find his place in the world. He had some hard lessons learned, as do we all but he knew he had a family that loved him unconditionally. Rest In Peace dear Nephew “

Christian Michael O’Keefe

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