It’s the 23rd night of our 29-day, 3,000-mile passage from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Hiva Oa in French Polynesia. As I settle into my watch, I try not to be concerned about the secondhand parts I installed last-minute, parts that are now being stressed to their breaking point. A frozen sheave in the furling system is currently at the top of my worry list. Will it continue to allow line to pass over it when one of the many squalls we’ve been experiencing this past week pipes up in the next few hours?
It’s memorable enough to sail across an ocean under any circumstances. It’s quite another to be doing it aboard a 31ft sailboat originally bought straight out of college to save money on rent. Add in the fact that my crew consists of an older brother who’d scarcely sailed a day in his life before we set off and a non-sailing friend from work looking to take some time off, and I wonder if this is really the adventure I wanted.
If I had to do it again, I’m not sure I would have chosen Sea Casa, a 32-year-old Hunter 31, for this undertaking. Sometimes, though, you have to go with what you’ve got, and in my case, at 25 years old, I knew finding the “perfect” boat wouldn’t fit either my timeline or my budget. Instead, I made modifications to the boat I already possessed and was familiar with.
Had I known how much I would fall in love with sailing after moving aboard, my priorities when choosing a boat may have been different than what they were: namely the largest interior cabin I could find in the smallest possible LOA (more “bang for your buck” in terms of slip fees). Of course, had I known anything at all about boat ownership, I would never have been foolish enough to think that living on a boat was cheaper than renting in the first place. Thank goodness I didn’t listen to those who warned me of all the other expenses I would incur. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be out doing what I’m doing now—sailing under a dazzling blanket of stars toward Hiva Oa.
To get my mind off that frozen sheave, I reflect on a discussion I had at work before leaving to cruise Mexico almost six months earlier. I was challenged by a coworker who argued that it is no longer possible for the average person to experience a true sense of adventure in this age of GPS, satellite messaging and fast flights to every point of the globe. As I sit here, though, over 2,000 miles offshore, I wonder what he really meant by a “true” adventure.
Now I see the squall closing in. Where I was using the Southern Cross as my waypoint, there’s now just the black of the clouds obscuring the view. I have already reefed the mainsail out of fear of a sneak attack (it only took once to learn that lesson), and I prepare to furl the jib as well, watching the line pass over that finicky frozen block.
Despite the constant flow of trivial things breaking every day, I find that I’m much less stressed now than I was in the months leading up to the crossing. Sailing out of Puerto Vallarta with 20 knots of wind on the beam felt like I was being pushed by a huge sigh of relief. The constant prep work was finally over. Now we were out here actually doing it. In my mind, the crossing we’re on is binary. Either we make it or we don’t. There’s something oddly comforting about how simple it all is. I don’t need to worry about any kind of if’s or maybe’s. The destination is clear, and so far, we seem to be making it.
The squall hits, as it has done the past six nights. I wish I could tell what the wind speed is, but my handheld anenometer is below. I don’t need electronics, though, to tell me that it’s whipping the rain sideways and stinging my face when it hits, and I’m immensely thankful for the third reef I decided to add to our mainsail before departing. One thing I do regret is not wearing glasses, as it’s impossible to look directly into the wind to see the sails.
To be perfectly frank, I don’t think 31ft Hunters were designed to carry provisions for three people for three months (as provisions won’t be available again until Tahiti), and her steadily rising waterline can attest to the fact that she is slightly off-balance. Even before stocking the entire cabin with food, I had to fiberglass over the old cockpit drains during my last haulout to raise them higher on the transom. After two days of adding new through-hulls to accommodate the secondhand watermaker I was also installing at that time, it felt good to be removing holes instead of adding new ones.
Despite the addition of this watermaker, prudence told me to carry enough water to make it to the “point of no return,” which I designated as roughly halfway—although the additional 40 gallons worth of jerry cans strapped to the stanchions on deck do little to help the motion underway. With the third reef in the main and just a scrap of foresail, the wind doesn’t heel us over too badly, but the swell still makes me nervous. For the last two days, ever since crossing the equator, we’ve been going beam-to in 9ft seas that sometimes knock us over enough to drown the leecloths in the cockpit. Although the fact that they’re doing so is more uncomfortable than dangerous, I can’t help thinking we’re still having quite the adventure, despite our reliance on satellite navigation and up-to-date weather intel!
I’ve now been in this squall for 30 minutes, and I almost have to chuckle. While I was still in Mexico, a buddy boat of ours with far more experience told my brother and me that we needed to stop being so nervous. You can only be scared for so long before you realize that nothing’s going to happen, they said, after which there’s no point in being scared—advice I didn’t really appreciate until a few days ago. The thought of the frozen sheave pops back into my thoughts, but I push the worry away knowing that I can deal with it after daylight comes again and that at the moment there’s nothing I can do but wait it out.
A few minutes later, the wind quiets and the Southern Cross re-appears. All is well, at least for the rest of my watch. I retrieve my Kindle from the cabin and make sure the leaky hatch above the saloon didn’t let too much water onto the table below. It just began leaking a few days ago, and I try not to let it bother me. It’s such a small thing compared to that other, more serious, binary outcome. If nothing else, this crossing has taught me the importance of perspective. Recently broken toilet seat hinges or the appearance of new scratches and dents no longer seem like such a big deal. They’re easy fixes and not worth stressing over.
My strategy for prepping the boat was to focus my efforts on ensuring a safe passage. The cost of many luxuries was instead applied toward more practical projects. The adjective that best describes my aspirations for this crossing is “uneventful.” The boat needs to float, the mast needs to remain upright, the rudder needs to steer and the keel needs to stay attached.
It sounds easy, but with a small budget, I’ve spent almost three years teaching myself how to do these projects myself instead of paying to have someone else do them for me. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in how well the boat has held up in the five months I cruised Mexico. But at the same time, I’ve also still had plenty of major issues to deal with since leaving Los Angeles.
En route from Manzanillo to Zihuatanejo, for example, I discovered the compression post under the deck-stepped mast was rotting away. It happened after I’d tightened the cap shrouds prior to leaving and then looked up while sitting on the head a couple of nights later only to discover a small crack in the main bulkhead’s directly under the mast. My fear of pushing the mast through the deck proved to be even more of a possibility than I initially thought when I re-examined the rigging and found it had all gone slack again.
That moment led to my trying to negotiate the fabrication of a new aluminum compression post in Zihuatanejo, where there was no crane available to remove the rig. Originally, the plan was to spend a week building scaffolding to support the mast while they removed the rotten wood post belowdecks, using a car jack to hoist the rig. But while I appreciated the ingenuity of removing a compression post with the mast still standing, I couldn’t stomach the cost of an additional week’s labor. I therefore motored nonstop for 80 hours back to Puerto Vallarta, where I could properly step the rig and fabricate a structure to replace the compression post. Truth be told, I thought I had solved the problem of keeping the mast upright when I replaced the standing rigging in Los Angeles. But this trip seems to be full of unexpected challenges. Although at the end of the day, it’s solving these issues that also gives me the greatest sense of fulfillment.
That said, if I was on a larger boat, I’m not sure I’d have the same opinion. The great thing about a 31ft sailboat, though, is that I only have 31ft of problems to fix. I love the simplicity of it. My entire existence—all of my belongings, my financial future, my dream—they’re all contained within my floating plastic home in the middle of the Pacific.
The not-so-great thing about a 31ft sailboat is that I have only 31ft of LOA to share with my two crew. My brother, Chase, was living in Brooklyn prior to this trip and had a lifestyle as far from cruising as you can get. His total sailing experience before leaving for Mexico was one overnight shakedown cruise, motorsailing no less, to Catalina. He jokes that the only possible place he could have moved with less square footage than his apartment in Brooklyn was my V-berth.
My other crew, Stuart Bentley, was only a few Catalina booze-cruise trips ahead of him in terms of sailing experience. I hope it was not their ignorance of the journey we were about to undertake that convinced them to hop aboard. They were sold on the idea of coral atolls and palm trees, not a life-threatening passage.
Again, my goal for this trip is to have no story to tell because everything went according to plan. Still, we are three people aboard a 31ft boat built for coastal cruising. At the height of my paranoia prepping for the trip, I called the boat’s designer and told him about my plans. Through the phone, I could hear his casual shrug as he told me the boat should do just fine. I asked him if he knew of any other boats of my model and year that had done anything similar. He hadn’t, but assured me again that we should have no issues. I wonder if he’d have had the same nonchalance had I asked him to be sign on as crew.
Still, here we are, 23 days into the voyage, and we’re doing it. We might not have the same luxuries as the 50ft catamaran that sped across our bow the day before, but as they say, the view is the same no matter what boat you’re on. In this case, I just get to enjoy that view a little longer than that catamaran. Each of our trips brings unique challenges and perspectives that define our adventure.
I’m reminded of my alcohol stove. Finding denatured alcohol was no problem living in Los Angeles, but it was near impossible to find in Mexico. I have therefore resorted to burning 70 percent isopropyl, which after a few months use has begun to clog the stove canisters. It takes my brother 40 minutes to boil water for coffee. For me, this doesn’t seem to be a huge deal compared to the compression post issue back in Mexico. For him, though, life without coffee seems to be worse than losing our rig and having to motor to Polynesia. I think we’re all gaining some new perspectives on the world here.
So have we found true adventure? Is adventure possible in an age where uncharted islands have been replaced by high-res satellite imagery? I think in both cases the answer is, yes. I don’t need to be dismasted or to abandon the advantages of modern technology to live life to its true potential, to gain a new, even unique take on this thing called life. Whether or not I cross an ocean on the perfect boat or a boat that just happened to become perfect as a result of circumstances, the result is the same. What’s important is the memories we make and the lessons we learn as we put ourselves out there and follow the dream.
For more on Connor Jackson and the adventures of his Hunter 31, Sea Casa, visit sailingseacasa.com
Photo courtesy of Stuart Bentley