2008 Aug – From Ensenada to Long Beach, CA

Mom closeup

Mom closeup


On our trip up the Baja to Ensenada, it seemed the transmission had failed at the moment that we docked in Ensenada.  One minute I was carefully maneuvering in a tight channel to dock the fat trimaran, and the next I was hurtling toward the dock at high speed.   As I frantically tried to unstick the accelerator, the skipper leapt off the bow onto the dock and fended off the boat.  I hit the Kill switch, the engine died, and we tied up.  We both assumed that I had done something stupid and lost control, but as it turned out, at that moment the transmission failed.  However, I didnt know that then.

A few weeks later I returned to the boat in Ensenada with my son to enjoy the boat for the weekend, but I couldnt get it into gear.  I assumed my lack of mechanical know-how was the problem, rather than the boat.

My son and I had driven down to Ensenada in my Mercedes convertible and when the Mexican harbor master saw the car he was horrified.  “Dont bring that car back to Mexico again”, he stated flatly.  Then he asked my son, “What car do you have?”.  “A Lincoln Navigator”, he replied.  The harbor master shook his head sadly.  “What else do you have?” he asked.  “My wife has a Nissan”, Kevin volunteered.  “That is better!  In future, you drive the Nissan”, said the harbor master.

I was intrigued.  “Whats wrong with driving the SLK?” I asked.  “You will get shot in Mexico for a car like that!”, he declared.  “But I felt quite safe because there are so many police all over the roads”, I said.  “Yes”, he replied, “And it is the Police who will shoot you for a car like that”.

Needless to say thereafter we went down in the Nissan.

Anyway, on subsequent visits to the boat it became obvious that far from it being my non-mechanical lack of skills, actually the boat was at fault and the hunt for the problem was on.  Once it was traced to the transmission we had to remove the engine to get at it.  Then I found there was no spare transmission in Mexico, however, there was one in Florida which I shipped to MX.  It got lost.  More money.  It got found.  It was shipped to Long Beach.  It was driven to MX.  It didnt fit.  I shipped the transmission back to Long Beach and back to Florida and tried again with another model.  The model I had in the boat was out of manufacture so I could not replace it model-for-model.  Thousands and thousands of dollars later I was at my wits end.  I had spent well over $10,000 and was not any closer to fixing the transmission.

It is just too difficult trying to coordinate activities across the border and between 1st World and 3rd World.  There are no spare parts in MX so every time the mechanic needed something, I had to buy it in the US and arrange its transport to MX.  For a huge fee naturally!!

But no matter what I did, the tranny stayed busted.  None of the tranny’s fit.  There was no other tranny is the USA till year end (my model anyway).  The old tranny was too rusted and could not be rebuilt.  And on and on…..

I was despairing – I just didn’t see how I would ever resolve this.  Every avenue I explored was a dead end.  Eventually I was seriously thinking of paying the $4000 towing fee I was quoted to tow the boat from MX to Long Beach (LB).  At least then it would be in the 1st World and more importantly, it would be where I could see what was actually being done to it.

Then suddenly a miracle happened – a man called Fred phoned me.  He said that he had heard of my trials and tribulations trying to fix the boat in Ensenada and said he was willing to help me.  He said he could fix anything and if I got him to the boat, he would fix it.

I accepted with alacrity!


When I got home Friday night I told my 80-year old mother who was visiting me from South Africa – “Pack!  We’re going to MX at 5:00am tomorrow”.

Saturday morning Mom and I drove to Fred’s – a darling man who lives in Long Beach (LB) –  parked my car at his place, and clambered into his truck and headed for Ensenada.  In the back of the truck Fred had 2 transmissions; one was a model that he was sure would fit, and the other was an old transmission that he saved from a sinking Bayliner.

We got to Ensenada around 11:00am Saturday morning and Fred disappeared into the engine room.  About an hour later he emerged and said that he thinks he can fix it.  I spent the rest of the day supplying him with endless cups of coffee.  He emerged Saturday night and said there were a whole lot of non-fitting parts – pieces that should slot into each other but don’t – but he still thinks he can fix it.  The next day he worked on it all Sunday from sun up to sundown with regular runs to the local MX Home Depot to buy stuff.  And tons of coffee.  By Monday morning he fired up the engine and it coughed into life.

Huge excitement!  But the thing wouldn’t go into gear.  Or rather, it went into first and stayed there.  Fred ducked back down into the engine room.  By this time I have learned that his last name is Sweers and that there are a group of islands near Australia somewhere called Sweers Islands, which he mused could be named after his wandering great grandfather.  By Monday afternoon we fired up the engine again – or Fred did – and we cut loose from the dock.  The first time this had happened in nearly 6 months!!

We took the boat out for a test run and it worked just fine – a little sticky on the throttle movement but working.  The propeller is now the wrong size for the torque but Fred said if I keep the revs down around 1800 (about 5 knots) I would make it to LB.

As Fred went to turn of the engine I yelped – “Stop!  Don’t turn it off.  I’m taking the boat home.  Right Now.  Back to American waters where I can keep and eye on it.  DO NOT turn off that key”.

Fred said he’s not coming with me because 3 weeks earlier that he was rescued 100 miles offshore on a sinking sailboat that got rolled in a huge storm at sea and had lost its mast, etc. and now 3 weeks later his nervous system is still shaking.  He had told us the story over the last 3 days and I must say I don’t blame him.  I said, No problem, I’ll go get me a skipper.

So I took my passport, my Mom’s passport, and the boat papers to the Dockmaster and checked us all out of the country.  The Dockmaster called around all over, but no luck, not a skipper to be found.  I decided I would take the boat myself.

I have sailed in and out of San Diego about 8 times.  The first 6 times as crew and the last 2 times as Owner.  I check with the insurance and they say you have to have a skipper if you are doing this for the FIRST time.  I figure this is my 9th time so I’m covered.


I asked Mom if she wanted to come with me.  I told her straight – “I’m a novice skipper so I might kill us both, so I’ll understand if you don’t want to come with me”.  Mom said – “Honey, I’m 80 years old, what do I care, of course I’ll come”.  I was HUGELY grateful to have my prayer warrior Mom with her army of guardian angels on board.

So we cast off at 5:00pm Monday evening as the sun was setting, and headed out to sea.  Once we hit the open bay the waves started coming over the bow and I realized that I had forgotten to bring all the lines in.  I had gotten out of practice!  I was horrified.  If one of the lines went under the boat and wrapped around the propellor, or worse ripped it off leaving a gaping hole in the boat, I would sink us right there in the bay.

So I crawled forward on my belly, with the waves breaking over me, and with my foot jammed under the lower stanchion for support and reached for the trailing bow line.  I almost got washed off the deck but I got hold of the line and tied it down.

When I crawled back into the cockpit, utterly soaked, eyes wide, and teeth chattering with fright, I thought – How bloody stupid Julia!!!  I had on no lifejacket, I wasn’t tied to the boat, the waves were breaking over me, and worse I had the boat set on autopilot and heading straight out to sea with an 80 year-old great grandmother on board that had never been on a small craft before.  Its stupid mistakes like that that kill people.  I determined that from then on I would act safely and make a list of Things To Do BEFORE I leave port – not when I’m bouncing out to sea already.

The first 3 hours were awful.  The waves came over the bow and into the cockpit and there was water everywhere.  Mom said she definitely was not going to go cruising with me!!  Never Ever.  I assured her that usually sailing is a lot of fun but Mom wasn’t having any.  To be honest, it was pretty rough.  Mom who usually has the stomach of an ox got seasick and so did I.  I threw up everything in my tummy over the side until I was just heaving.  Mom tossed her food too.  She was not amused.

However the boat behaved beautifully tearing along without a care.  She hummed along at 5 knots, and I tidied up the deck and below decks.  I got a comforter for Mom and we wrapped ourselves up all snug in the cockpit.

The trip was uneventful – except for my stupid forgetfulness right up front with the waves washing over me.  We toddled along and Mom went below for a sleep.  When she came back on deck around 11:00pm I set up the boat for the next 2 hours and told Mom – if the boat veers off that line there, or you see approaching lights that look like they might hit us, then Wake Me Immediately!  Then I put my head on her lap and slept next to her in the cockpit.

As I fell asleep with my head in my mother’s lap I thought how universal is that serene feeling of safety that children feel as they fall asleep in their mother’s lap.  And I thought that, in this particular instance, my comfy feeling was entirely misguided.

Mom woke me after 45 minutes with questions and I checked the boat, checked the course, checked for lights, checked the seas around – and went back to sleep.  I alternated waking / checking / sleeping in this fashion until about 2:30am when Mom went below deck to bed to sleep soundly.

As we approached the seas nearest Tijuana I had been warned by the Ensenada Dockmaster that there were rumors of petty piracy in the area.  So I decided to brazen it out by copying the methods of the Animal World…. like that helpless snake that has developed virulent red, yellow, and black stripes to mimic the REALLY dangerous snake of similar coloring, and intimidate all would-be predators.  Consequently I turned on every light on the boat!  I turned on the deck light, the cockpit lights, turned on flashlights and placed them all over the cockpit facing outwards.  I also turned on every light below decks – in the galley, in the salon, and in the head.  The boat blazed like a Xmas tree!  I figured any pirates seeing the brightly lit boat would be suspicious – and avoid us like the plague!

The Bright Light strategy must have worked because we passed the coast unmolested  🙂     Also my mother spent an inordinate amount of time praying…..

I had hoped that I had timed our speed to come into San Diego harbor when the sun was up, but I guess I didn’t time it well enough.  So we came in on instruments in the dark.

A police vessel motored up alongside us with a million questions – Where did you come from?  What goods did you buy in MX?  Did you meet anyone at sea?  Where is the boat registered?  Who is on board?  Just you two?!  They even turned a spotlight on us to get a good look at these 2 crazy women.  Then they motored off again and we continued into port.

We docked at the Customs dock at 5:00am – just 12 hours after we left Ensenada.  I had to park the boat all by myself because I could hardly ask my 80 year-old mother to jump for the dock.  But luckily there was no wind, and without a breath of a breeze to unsettle me I did a picture perfect docking, stepped gently down onto the dock, and tied us up.  When I was sure we were safely tied, we both hit the bunks and slept till 8:00am.  Customs was annoyed that we hadn’t called them immediately we docked – but who knew they worked 24/7.

After checking us and the boat back into the United States, we prepared to depart.  I tried the engine but it was dead.  Nothing.  It wasn’t starting, not for nothing.  I called Fred and he said to check various cables which I tightened.  Still nothing.  So I called SeaTow and my insurance covered a jump start and the engine kicked into life.


I was asking the SeaTow guy all about entry into Long Beach because I was nervous.  I have NEVER been into LB, just never.  Not even as crew.  LB is one of the biggest ports in the world, and one of the busiest ports in the world – and I was sure my insurance would be unhappy that I skippered the boat in there by myself.  The SeaTow guy said – “I know a skipper!”  So I hired the skipper on the spot but he could only get to the boat by 2:00pm (he had just arrived from a delivery he did from Monterey Bay and was sound asleep).  As soon as the skipper arrived, we took off.

The seas were flat as a millpond and the ride to LB utterly uneventful.  It was wonderful having the skipper on board because I could go below decks and sleep on a real mattress for 4 whole hours!  The skipper then slept until 3:00am when I woke him because we were approaching LB with millions (it seemed) of massive container ships all around us.

We docked around 5:00am again – must be the magic hour for docking.  Fred had made me promise to call him no matter the time, and there he was on the dock waiting for us.  What a sweetheart.

So I’m fine.  Mom is fine.  The boat is fine.  And Fred is coming Saturday to do a complete work over on the transmission and engine to make sure it is all in perfect running order from now on.

So that’s the saga.  And I’ve graduated from New Owner to Novice Skipper!

But I think I’ll sail around close to home for the rest of the summer and not venture out to sea again – at least until next year.  If courage can be measured in a cup, then I have used up my cup for now.  I need a few weeks for it to replenish!

Safe in Long Beach

Safe in Long Beach

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