Sailing Matilda

Sailing earth’s waters has always captivated and fascinated man. The vikings sailed to America way before the Europeans. Peruvians explored and helped colonized the Polynesian islands. Darwin discovered the Galapagos and the Falkands onboard the Beagle. There is something about setting out on this vast blue liquid and only navigate with what nature has to offer – wind. My friend Hayden had sailed down from Los Angeles and I was to meet up with him in LaPaz. His sailing boat is a 1967 29ft Columbia MK II named Matilda. And she certainly bears her name correctly. “Matilda” has its origin in Old German and means “mighty in battle”. She was indeed mighty. Built like a tank, she may have been short, but she was heavy and steady. The plan for the next 10 days was to sail to Isla San Jose and spend time at Isla Espiritu Santo. I was certainly not sad thinking of spending time going back to the “Sacred Island”.

I love being in a marina. To be honest, I love living on a sailboat. It is my dream. There is a sense of freedom that reigns. There is sense of connectivity with nature’s biggest element: water. There is a sense of efficiency where everything, every little square inch, is maximized. There is a sense of community where no matter what your boat’s size is, almost everyone around you is here for the same reasons. Finally, sailing is humbling. It is not up to you. The weather and the winds are your master and you must be flexible. You must be like water and go with the flow. As much as the mountains speak to some people, for me, it is the water, and to live on it, there is simply nothing better.

The winds were pounding on our departure date so we decided to postpone it until the weather was more permitting. Coincidentally, one of Hayden’s sailing friends had fallen in the water while coming back from the island and was lost at sea. The Sea of Cortez is actually known to be one of the toughest. It is often unpredictable and the frequency of the swell can be so short that even a 30-foot boat will have her stern cresting one wave while her bow is smashing another one. That was the case that day. Waves of 20 feet and huge winds called for all marinas in La Paz to close and not allow any boats to leave. It was not long that the community gathered and organized the rescue. It was with great relief that five hours later, at 5pm, the channel 16 on the vhf announced that the man had been picked up by the Mexican Navy. He was safe and was on his way back to La Paz. That night, I was onboard the man’s boat, cheering his rescue.

The days were filled with encounters with dolphins, jumping rays, dinners of fresh fish, amazing sunsets, snorkeling, and music. It was also filled with some memorable bumpy nights, jellyfish stings, and windless days.

It is not until I came here that I learned about flying rays. During my first kayaking trip, what I thought were dolphins jumping, turned out to be modula rays. Sometimes reaching 20 feet in height, it is not rare to see them back flip several times in the air before landing back in the water with a big splash. No one knows for sure why they do it, but hardly any day goes by without the sight of one or several rays winking their big white bellies.

One afternoon, while snorkeling, Hayden was deep below, around 20 feet, when I was busy catching my breath on the surface. He came rushing up and spitting the snorkel out like a mad man, told me that the whales were singing. Blowing up my lungs, I tipped forward and kicked my fins. At about 15 feet, I took hold of a rock and held steady. And there it was. This time, it was much different. It was not the long melody, but rather a complex mix of rolls, high squeaks, loud bumps, and even sometime what sounded like scary scream. Needless to say, we spent a while going back and forth, up and down, listening as much as we could before we got too cold.

Towards the end of our trip, while sailing back from Isla San Jose, we noticed a large group of black fins ahead of us. Those were definitely not dolphins. As we got closer, the mystery just kept growing. We could actually recognize some dolphins swimming amongst them, but we had no idea who the others were. Their fins were bigger and rounder. Our questions were answered when one sky-hopped. A round shiny head rose from the surface and sent us a series of clicks, echo-locating us outside the water like I had never seen before. They were a group of pilot whales. I told Hayden that I was jumping in the water. As soon as I was in, I started to regret my decision. The visibility was barely 5 feet and the water was full of tiny, stinging jellyfish. I hadn’t taken the time to put my top on, so here I was, bare chested, in shorts, getting stung mercilessly. Hayden was not sure what to make of me waiving at him telling him I was coming back on board just when the whales were all around! Since the visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see anything! Back at the boat, Hayden told me to hang in the water a bit more because the whales were coming. He threw me a line to tow me. The wake from the boat acted like a shield and protected me from the jellyfish. Still I couldn’t see anything. I suddenly received a tap on my head and looking up, Hayden told me that one was right behind me.  I turned around frantically and for a mere three seconds this long massive black silhouette was barely 5 feet away from me. To be honest, it was a bit spooky! I could not see the eye or anything else, but only the shape, enveloped in a dark green liquid. And then it disappeared. Breathing heavily, I was looking everywhere. I was filled with excitement, curiosity, joy …. and fear. The whole lack of visibility was getting to me! I decided to get back up in the boat and photograph and film them from the dry. We spent the next 30 minutes with them. They would come by and swim really close to the boat. One male in particular was huge, at least 17 feet. Many of them slapped the water with the tails, over and over. At one point, both dolphins and whales together were sky-hopping and slapping the water.

Dinners were either spent on the Matilda, or on another boat, invited by new or old sailing friends. It is quite common among the boating community that misfortune creates new friendships – a floating sleeping bag or a lost dinghy will turn unknown neighbors into the best drinking buddies. Our meals consisted of fresh fish caught during the afternoon. One night, onboard NordicV, we dined with the crew of Misty Moonlight on snapper and lobster, saturated in butter and garlic. Delicioso!! As if food was not enough to bring happiness, most of the time, after dinner, one would bring the guitar out and there began hours of singing and laughing!

All was not always paradise. Winds turn on a dime and transform a perfect sailing day into a stand still. A perfect sunny afternoon anchored in the most beautiful bay will turn into the bumpiest night where you sleep your toes stuck in cracks, hands on the wall, bracing yourself every minute. Not a day goes by without a bump on the head or on your toes. Spills are daily and bathroom times are no place to ponder. Sitting on the toilet is as comfortable as sitting on tin can in a two square foot closet. Lastly but surely: seasickness. Although I have no trouble on the water, it was not the case for a fellow canine we had onboard. On a particularly afternoon, after a sleepless roller coasting night, the furry four-legged creature threw up twice, a substance that goes way beyond what is permissible to write. Ironically, those moments became the funniest stories!!

On the last stretch back from Espiritu to La Paz, a group of bottlenose dolphins escorted us for a good twenty minutes. Sitting at the bow with those majestic animals two feet, sometime only a foot away, it is hard not to be moved. It is hard not to feel connected. Here you are, looking into the eye of another mammal, living in a different world. The other mammal is also looking into your own eyes. There is no doubt. You scream of joy but they don’t understand. They click at you but you don’t understand them. Yet, in this infinite world, you both share the same place, the same moment, you are connected.

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