We both lie awake at night filled with anxiety about leaving for Mexico next week. I have frequent dreams about my boat dragging anchor and crashing into the rocky shore, or even flipping completely over. It’s nerve-wracking to live in a floating home with no stable ground. And now we are about to leave our home country, with no idea when we’ll be back. Are we ready? Is the boat ready?
It has been a chaotic whirlwind of stress and excitement since we purchased our home afloat 5 months ago in San Diego, a city we were barely familiar with. I thought I’d catch you up. Are you ready? It’ll be a long one… fair warning…
After selling our home in Seattle and almost everything we owned early last year, we spent 5 months driving down the west coast with our 2 kids and our cat in a 26’ travel trailer. We shopped for boats as far north as Victoria BC, and after a boat in Ventura, CA didn’t work out, we ended up in San Diego.
On August 16th we closed on our boat while living in our trailer in El Cajon, CA, 40 minutes east of San Diego. Our 1988 54’ Irwin Ketch Sailboat was moored at Fidder’s Cove Marina in Coronado, which is owned by the US Navy. Since we are not military, the moment we received documents that we owned her, we had to move her immediately.
That day was full of tears. Tears of joy and tears of terror. After many failed attempts and many, many phone calls, we received our proof of insurance, and were ready to take her to the only marina in the entire bay that could accommodate us, Chula Vista Marina. The morning we were to receive final closing documents, the marina told us that they “weren’t taking reservations” after already approving us and giving us a slip number. (I read reviews about that marina, saying you need to get everything in writing with them, and I didn’t listen to that advice. So beware if you’re ever in this situation.)
Okay, so, we owned a giant project sailboat and had nowhere to take her, and we needed to move her that afternoon. (Tears I’m telling you! Tears!) We ended up reserving 15 days at the Harbor Police Guest Dock. They charge $1/ft per night, and you can stay 15 days out of every 40 days. So, we drove to Coronado and showed our paperwork to the marina personnel, and a man escorted us down to the dock and watched us as we motored away.
15 days. That was all the time we had at a dock. I’ve heard many people say, “Before you go cruising, make sure you pretend you aren’t at a dock for a few weeks. Unplug from shore power and practice living off the grid.” Well, we didn’t have to pretend. We were going to be living at anchor in the A9 Cruisers Anchorage in a very short amount of time. That time at the dock was so stressful as we were determined to get as much work done as possible. We had no choice. We emptied 14 giant garbage bags of junk the previous owners left behind and scrubbed every inch of the boat. We moved aboard 4 days after her purchase date, clearing everything out of our trailer and driving back and forth from El Cajon to sell it before our reservation at our campground ended.
The rest of our time there was spent doing projects that would allow us to live at anchor. Justin replaced all of the exhaust hoses that were leaking. He worked on the engine, and ordered parts for our generator. We replaced all 12 house batteries, and installed solar panels. We even ordered a new custom mattress for the master cabin so we didn’t have to sleep on a bed from 1988.
And then, we were on our own, with our first 30 day permit at A9. (You can reserve up to 90 days there, and it’s free for Non-San Diego residents.) I was so nervous to anchor our huge yacht in a crowded anchorage near the Coast Guard Station in San Diego Bay. I stayed up late that night, watching the swing of the boat to make sure we wouldn’t drag or swing into another boat.
We spent the first 30 days taking our dinghy back and forth to the dock to shop for parts and doing many, many projects. Justin finally got our generator working so we didn’t need to depend on solar alone, and we added even more solar. He installed our new water maker just as our water tanks read empty. We purchased a new larger anchor so we felt a little more at ease floating there after that. We remodeled our pilothouse, painting and adding blue vinyl, and buffing and polishing all of the plexi-glass. It was so yellow and foggy we could barely see out of it before.
We met many new boat friends, and had endless visits from friends and family to see our new home and help with projects. We took occasional days off from boat work to visit almost all museums in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, and Maritime and Midway Museums. Trying to make life as fun as possible for the kids. We spent a lot of time at the amazing Waterfront Park that has a playground so big and amazing that even Tyler liked to play there.
We had a renaming ceremony after peeling off the old boat name and ordering new lettering. We named her Litha, which is the Celtic/Pagan celebration of the Summer Solstice. (Opposite of Yule, the Winter Solstice.)
After our first 30 days at anchor, we spent over a week at Kohler Kraft boat yard, which is the only yard in San Diego that will allow you to do your own work. Litha’s masts were removed for all new rigging, sails sent off for servicing, and then she was pulled out of the water. We had our leaking prop shaft seal replaced, and while Justin worked on wiring the masts, I sanded and painted the bottom of the boat.
We put her back in the water where she belonged, and more friends came to town to visit. With our prop shaft now repaired, we were able to cruise around the bay and visited a couple other anchorages. La Playa (way too crowded), and Glorietta (our favorite!) Then we headed back to the Guest Dock for 10 more days of projects. We re-bedded all of our windows and portlights, made a new headboard, and replaced the original washer/dryer with a new high efficiency combo unit. (That was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and we appreciated the help from our friends so much!)
And then, our 2nd 30 day permit at anchor in A9 was spent meeting many more boat friends who were heading to Mexico for the Baja HaHa rally. We had even more friends come to visit from Seattle to help with even more projects. We spent time shopping for new safety gear, electronics, and provisioning for groceries. We got into the live-aboard groove. We figured out how often showering and doing laundry is acceptable, and we figured out where we could park our truck and how to climb through a hole in the fence that said “No Trespassing” to make errands a little quicker. San Diego was beginning to feel like home. And each time we did something that used to scare me, it became less scary. From cruising out to open ocean, raising our sails, and heading back and forth to Mission Bay; to anchoring, to docking at the pump out station. Small baby steps through fear.
It was time for our shakeout cruise! 3 months exactly to the day we purchased her, we set out for Catalina Island. We left at 3 am (our first-ever night cruise) and it was honestly pretty terrifying at first. We could see all these lights from different small fishing boats and much larger container ships in the distance, and it was hard to tell how far away they were as we were figuring out how to use our radar. It didn’t take us long to figure out what we were seeing, and our eyes began to play less tricks on us. We watched the sun rise with dolphins swimming along the bow of our boat. Seriously. MAGICAL! The whole trip to Catalina was amazing (except for some problems with our holding tank… there’s always something). We arrived in Two Harbors in the afternoon and even though it was a pretty chilly 65 degrees in November, the water was clear and beautiful and we swam and snorkeled anyway! We spent a week there over Thanksgiving.
. . .
Next, we planned to head to Santa Barbara to visit some friends, and then visit Santa Cruz Island. We checked every weather app we had and chose what we thought was the best weather window to leave. We set out in the dark, at 7pm. After about an hour of calm motoring, we hit swells. Or rather, swells hit us. That’s about when we realized we really didn’t know much about checking the swells at sea. We would check the speed of the current when cruising in the San Juans on our J24, but there aren’t really swells in the Puget Sound. Duh. Open ocean.
In the pitch black of night, the first one hit us from the port side and caused the whole boat to violently rock back and forth. Things that had never fallen off counters, and cupboards that had never opened started banging and crashing around. Justin went downstairs to investigate and left me alone in the cockpit. And then another wave hit, same thing. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. It’s not like huge crashing waves were covering the boat or anything, but they were the biggest rollers I had ever felt and it was so dark, I couldn’t see them coming. And they came fast. Miles from land in the dark, rolling ocean, the Coast Guard in Long Beach comes on the radio announcing a Small Craft Advisory. To say I was terrified is an understatement. Were we a “small craft”? I don’t even have google right now to check. Where was all the knowledge that should be in my brain from taking ASA 101-104? I decided to forget our coordinates and turn starboard so that the waves would come at us mostly from behind. The moon was almost full and my intuition had never been stronger to face and follow the moonlight. With this light shimmering on the sea, I could see the swells and they looked HUGE. There was no way we were heading to Santa Barbara. Justin was being logical and figuring out a plan, but I was determined to follow the moon. After a couple hours heading towards the Californian Coast, we decided we would stop in Long Beach for the evening. I would not admit this at the time, but riding those waves (when the moonlight allowed me to see them) was actually kind of fun after I began to calm down in the hours after my initial terror.
We had heard so many stories of sailors crashing their boat due to arriving in an unfamiliar port at night, so it was our biggest rule that we would never, ever, do that. We didn’t really have a choice at that point. However, we knew that Long Beach was a huge shipping port in California, not some tiny island in the South Pacific. Our charts and navigation apps were accurate, and the channel was well marked. If cargo ships could make it through the channel, we would be fine. There was no danger of running into a reef or anything like the horror stories we had heard. So that’s what we did. Around 1am, we anchored near Island White in Long Beach Harbor.
We spent a week in Long Beach exploring and waiting for a system of squalls to pass through. We visited the Queen Mary, saw a movie, dined at restaurants, and decorated the boat for the holidays. For a few days it was so windy and rainy that we stayed aboard and didn’t get much sleep due to the loud wind, and our hatches leaking onto our beds. (We hadn’t gotten to that project yet!)
When the sea calmed, we sailed south to Newport Beach and spent a couple nights anchored in the busy harbor full of multi-million dollar homes and cruised around on our dinghy looking at Christmas lights.
And then it was back to San Diego for our last 30 days at A9. Coming back to “our anchorage” was like coming home. We spent time on more projects, visited family in Arizona for the holidays, and when our permit expired, we subleased a mooring ball near the sea wall in downtown San Diego. That’s where we are now. Our to-do list has gotten shorter and shorter. We have new insurance that will cover us down the coast of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez, we have new international health insurance, we have Mexican fishing licenses, and we have even spent time drafting up a Will with a lawyer friend of mine. All ducks are slowing getting in a row. We need to sell our truck, pick up one last part at West Marine, and then just wait for the best weather window to head to Mexico next week with some new boat friends.
Well I told you it’s been a whirlwind, and this is the longest blog post ever to prove it. Sorry! But you’re all caught up. Litha’s project list is now a normal everyday amount, like most sailors. I am still terrified, but also excited. After talking to other cruisers, the swells we had that night were definitely in the scary-uncomfortable range, so now we know our limits. The moon will be full on January 20th. Exactly 5 months since we moved aboard. The weather, current, and swells seem to be in our favor according to predictions. So, I think that’s the best evening for us to leave San Diego for good, and to follow the moonlight to Ensenada Mexico.