All Posts in Sea of Cortez

August 3, 2022 - No Comments!

Reading The Waves

Learning from a master is faster

La Paz letters along the beach

Four thin textbooks arrived in a blue drawstring bag in December, our reading assignment prior to boarding a 42-foot catamaran. In late April, we were to set sail from the port just outside of La Paz, Mexico. Reading one book per month couldn’t be so bad, right? By the time we set foot on the Fountaine Pajot, however, we’d made our way through just one and a half.

Learning the sailing terms was like another language, but without the benefit of a good reference for decoding, like my French gives me clues to understanding Spanish or Italian. There was little other than colloquialisms—it took the wind out of my sails, learning the ropes, he was three sheets to the wind—as hints. I was clueless about clews, goosenecks, halyards, and shrouds. Slogging through the first book twice and quizzing myself until I could earn an honest B was the best I could hope for. It would be easier once I was on the boat, I assured myself.

The first step, after meeting our captain Troy Mills of Nautilus Sailing and additional newbie crew, was to learn about the boat’s features and functions—opening lockers, inventorying cushions, locating fire extinguishers, and counting personal flotation devices (PFDs). We learned about provisioning, the heads (and their touchy waste system), navigation devices, desalination tanks, and engines. The purpose of the first lesson was to know the boat, but also to accept that each of us would depend on the combined knowledge and actions of the captain and entire crew on this journey. Our craft was white, sleek, and stable, and would carry us out to sea without any communication from the outside world. Sheer bliss.

“Each of us would depend on the combined knowledge and actions of the captain and entire crew”

Sea Life

We slept aboard and floated off the dock the next morning with green buoys drifting by. Our six night live-aboard adventure to learn and earn our captain certifications was underway. Two young humpback whales—one flashing its tail, the other keeping a low, sleek profile—escorted us into the Sea of Cortez, “the world’s aquarium.” The waves were soft and sea turtles the size of manhole covers floated alongside us. A pod of partying dolphins met us as we rounded a small island, swimming fast along our twin-hulls and surfacing in graceful arches.

With nightfall came more lessons: How the right anchorage site could shelter us from shifting winds and surf so we could sleep without the risk of heavy rocking or swinging into another boat. Captain Troy could see things we couldn’t. Given his years of experience, he could quickly calculate how rough a sea we were likely to encounter by reading the waves’ amplitude and direction and feeling the wind on his face. He explained how to account for the tides with our timing on and off anchor. Why the boat was built with redundancies—from dual engines to anchor lights and alarms—to prevent a pan-pan or mayday call. How to troubleshoot using an if this, then perhaps this metric. How clear communication among the captain and crew supports good decision-making. 

We learned pragmatic rules to sail by and sayings with deeper purpose, including Captain Troy Mill’s salty favorite “A boat shrinks an inch per day,” a nice way of saying keep your stuff stowed or your shipmates will want to deposit you on one of the five uninhabited islands on our journey. Everything in its place can truly prove lifesaving should the weather turn abruptly—tools stored, sheets flaked, and phones far away from a wet sink. When sailing, thinking through everything that could possibly happen and taking preemptive action prior is key. After the first day, it became clear that this week of lessons was just the beginning and there was a lifetime of learning to become an accomplished sailor. As the sun set on our first night at sea, eagle rays leaped along the pink horizon and pelicans settled into our inlet as night patrol. Fair winds and following seas. —Helen

Continue reading: Permission to come aboard?

  • Photos by captain and crew of the journey, Helen, Karl, Troy, Rachel and David.

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August 3, 2022 - No Comments!

Permission to come aboard?

Shipshape leadership depends on both captain and crew

Catamaran in a cove with the sunsetting

This article continues from Reading The Waves.

My first few nights living aboard a catamaran learning to sail were eye opening. We were both relaxed, bobbing on crystal-clear turquoise waters, and alert to the area’s features– shorelines, rock outcroppings and coral reefs, as well as the sea conditions shaped by current, surf and wind direction. Once anchored in a lovely inlet in the Sea of Cortez, we could enjoy a splash in the water or walk on the beach. The sunsets were sensational, casting a hundred hues on the water’s surface from the sky and shore. Icy blue, peach blush, deep lapis, and silver all moved together in undulating patterns.

Less is Moor

From the outset, our captain, Troy Mills, assigned each crew member one night as host (cook) and a day as captain (skipper). Most of the time, I was taking initiative while following directives. It’s an interesting combination that resonates within working environments and other relationships, but not always second nature. I liked working the sheets to trim the sails, making slight adjustments under the captain’s direction to optimize the wind. I relished setting the mainsheet, winching, unfurling the jib, flaking and stowing the sheets—becoming a master of my post. When the captain called out “Ready about?” the crew answered, knowing their tasks and adjusting as needed. I enjoyed tying knots, calculating knots and anchor chain length, assessing wind direction and apparent wind speed, and assisting the captain with making the boat secure at anchorage. Captain Troy was both patient and assertive, using humor to bridge a safe learning environment with a pleasure cruise.

I fit well in every space—the tiny head complete with standup shower, the efficient berth with drawers and lockers secreted under the bed and overhead. Everything was designed with less is more in mind. Less weight. Less space. Less waste. The galley was compact and efficient, anything needed within arm’s length. Under the seat cushions in the benches and floors of the saloon were concealed compartments to stow a pantry of provisions. The chart table tucked into one side of the bench. The cockpit was the largest outdoor sheltered area, with the helm raised to one side for a view of all the sails through the windows and ceiling of the bimini. 

brown rock in the ocean
This tiny island, covered with barking sea lions, was our site to practice mooring skills.

Mooring practice was on day two, as we started to take the helm and learn to sail. We arrived early at a large rock, covered in barking sea lions ready to play with anyone who delighted in a murky water snorkel. We learned to drop the lines around the seaweed-laden buoy rope with teamwork—a person catching it with a hook and the other with a looped line. The helmsman made slow maneuvers guided by the bow crew’s hand signals. Once we each succeeded in driving and mooring the boat, we sailed to another island.

We settled in an inlet for our first test—all the terms and boat basics. It took an hour to fill in 100 dots to complete our ASA 101 and the entire crew was elated to have scored in the upper 90s. We swam in temperate waters with a school of puffer fish and explored the anchorage on paddleboards. Another long sunset capped off the day and a long sleep.

Accidental Jibe

As we all have experienced, best laid plans can still result in unforeseen events. In the creative world we call these moments happy accidents. On a sailboat, most accidents aren’t jovial. My turn as captain at the helm gave me experience with an accidental jibe, the riskiest move at sea, primarily because the swinging mast can surprise a crew member, knocking them off kilter or off the boat entirely. Thankfully, on a big boat in light winds, it’s a learning experience. I was working on my jibing, wind to aft, changing from a beam reach to a broad reach, and figuring out the steering. Choosing a course, setting a heading, and then zigzagging your way toward it are three distinctive thoughts. I was focused on going to my point of sail in a straight line. I quickly discovered; it doesn’t work that way. Amazingly aligned with how we move through our lives and careers.

“I was focused on going to my point of sail in a straight line.
I quickly discovered; it doesn’t work that way.” 

After lunch in another pretty inlet, we motored out to catch the wind, and suddenly without warning, a bright orange personal flotation device (PFD) was overboard! One crew member yelled “Man overboard!” and pointed at the bobbing faux passenger, their role now established as watch—keeping their eye on it until it was rescued. The helmsman made a curvy maneuver to recover the “MOB” under power, being sure to not run it over. The other crew had a hook and line ready, giving hand signals and proximity updates (10 feet! 5 feet!) upon approach. Each crew had their turn to recover our drunken sailor under power and under sail, with each technique being slightly different. Noting the wind direction and head-to-wind inclination of the boat can help or hinder a quick recovery, so it’s important to use the conditions in that moment to your favor. And make sure your crew is on board with safe behavior. 

Time is fleeting

You cannot be in a hurry at sea. Calculating sail time is affected by wind which can and often changes hourly. When you’re away from it all, you don’t have access to timely wind reports so always have a time buffer built into your plan. The “MOB” exercises took much more time than expected; being under pressure for a quick rescue, it was easy to overshoot and need to start over. The pace of sailing a large catamaran is slow which gives you lots of time to think, but not much time to react. Planning your moves instead of reacting to the moment is key to a smooth sail.

Another day, another test. In the end, we all passed and received four ASA certifications that allow us to charter a boat on our own. Naturally, learning the sea can take a lifetime, but having the basics down is a great start to a wonderful adventure. It reminds me a little of heading out into my design career with a BFA in hand and a wanderlust for learning. All the beauty of life, its twists and turns, were rushing toward me. But now, I’m in no rush. Getting saltier by the day. —Helen

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  • Photos by captain and crew of the journey, Helen, Karl, Troy, Rachel and David.