Three years ago I was on the beautiful island of Rote, Indonesia, with my mate Furlong, a.k.a. Sasha Mandinga, discussing with some Aussie surfers the feasibility of flying to Australia to learn how to sail and get jobs as deckhands. We had been enjoying touring across Indonesia on our motorbikes but realized that such an archipelago could only really be conquered by boat (if at all possible, considering its 17,000 or so islands).
Not long thereafter, Furlong died and I was left to decide whether I should go back to the office life I had known for almost ten years and found unfulfilling or actually try to learn to sail and pursue the idea of cruising. Clarity (and courage) came during a Vipassana meditation retreat in Bali and, determined, I quickly found an opportunity to enslave myself at a sailing school in Phuket, Thailand. During my first year there I worked in exchange for experience and qualifications, became a yachting instructor and participated in a couple of regattas.
Life in Phuket was awesome and the sailing, great, so I decided to stick around for another year, this time paid just enough to cover my rent, some beers and Thai lessons. Within that second year I was invited to help Captain Norm take his 49ft Bruce Roberts across the Indian Ocean, an experience that only confirmed I had been right in staying away from the suits and ties, for, as Yann Martel’s Piscine Molitor so rightly puts it, «I [had] nothing to say of my working life, except that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he’s not careful.»
As I was reaching the end of my second year in Thailand I felt I was living the life of a retired expat, lacking in mental and physical challenges, spending too much time and money at the Ship Inn, the local pub, and decided to look for another crewing opportunity, hoping for a paid one. This time, Captain Craig distracted my search with a crazy proposal: to sail east from Sand Point, Alaska, along the Aleutian chain, in freezing temperatures and against the prevailing winds, to Russia’s westernmost frontier, Kamchatka, and then south following the Kurils, to Hokkaido, Japan.
I had already seen his plan on a crewing website and didn’t even consider it. There was a Hallberg Rassy making its way to Phuket which would then head to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Chagos and around the Cape of Good Hope. It was not a paid gig, but the fact that I had all the appropriate clothing (shorts and flipflops) and that a 15-minute ride to the marina would lead me half way around the world had an enormous appeal. For the Bering Sea, on the other hand, I would be subject to constant shit weather, have to spend heaps on gear and flights and go through the hassle of applying for a Russian visa. Had it not been for Craig’s email, I’d be snorkeling in some tropical paradise right now.
But Craig planted a seed. He mentioned he was looking for someone who spoke Russian and was keen on climbing volcanoes, which was enough for me to give his plan a closer look. It took about a month for me to make up my mind. In the meantime, I quit my job, the Hallberg Rassy arrived in Phuket, I had some beers with her very friendly Danish skipper and was very tempted to leave for Sri Lanka. But the seed was sprouting. I believe what decided it was the advice of my friends Ana and Jose, regulars at the above-mentioned pub. They put it very simply: there will always be another opportunity to sail to Sri Lanka and so on, but maybe never another to explore the Aleutian Islands.
So I called the crazy Kiwi, told him I was in and asked him what gear I needed. Aside from the obvious, he suggested I get some snow shoes (which he had to explain are not the same as snow boots), a gas mask, an immersion suit, avalanche kit and a sleeping bag appropriate for freezing temperatures; suggestions which only confirmed how insane the plan was. I then spent over a month shopping, packing, processing my visa, studying the weather and currents and making my way to Sand Point. At the same, as if I could juggle more crazyness, my friend Daniel, one of the owners of the beautiful Casa Blat Ha in Holbox, called me to say he knew of a good, cheap yacht for sale that I should buy. And so I did.
The journey from Alaska to Hokkaido proved indeed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, rich with adrenaline, challenges, surprises and lessons. In this blog I’ve shared some of these adrenaline-laden and challenging moments; I’ve written about the beautiful people we met every step of the way and have posted some crappy pictures of the amazing scenery and wildlife we were fortunate to encounter. Below are some taken by the more talented photographer, Craig, whose blog you can visit here.
Concerning the lessons learned, Craig was a great Captain in that he delegated many maintenance tasks and repairs to me; lessons which now give me the confidence, if not necessarily the skills, to take on the challenge of restoring the S/V «Rossa», a 33ft Bayliner Buccaneer, to its former glory. Following three great weeks in Japan, I went back to Phuket, packed whatever stuff I had left and flew home to Mexico, where, after months of thinking about this 1979 fiberglass yacht, I finally found her in a boatyard in Puerto Chiapas, close to the border with Guatemala.
I’ve been here for almost two weeks, at first just staring at her, not knowing where to begin, then gradually tackling what I could manage, like organizing the tools left on board and buying what I felt was missing, then examining and mending her sails, and now I’ve moved on to what I am clueless about: plumbing and preparing the hull for a new paint job. Rossa’s previous owners were awesome in handling most of the woodwork the inside needs and still advise me when I get stuck. Youtube and Google haven’t been the great aids I had hope for, so I’m mostly learning from my mistakes, specially when fooling around with epoxy. Don’t expect the coming posts to teach how to restore your own boat.
Here’s a bit of what I’ve done so far: