There have been plenty of uncertainties since I left San Francisco for Mexico, but the one certainty is that Zia, Windfola, and I belong out on the ocean together. My heart was super happy out there. Windfola was solid and in her element. And Zia was excited about all of the interesting smells that come with the seabirds and the whales. I know that we can circumnavigate together, and I’m filled with anticipation and excitement.
That said, we’re not going to Mexico anymore. Not right now, anyway. But I’ll need to backtrack to the beginning of our planning to make sense of it for you…
My intention since setting out on this journey has always been to circumnavigate within a few years. The schedule of a circumnavigation is dictated by predictable weather patterns and seasons. I’m simplifying, but basically, the weather requires that you avoid sailing in the Northern hemispheres during the May 1st to November 1st hurricane (AKA cyclone) season, and avoid sailing in the Southern hemispheres from November 1st to April 1st. The Pacific equator is generally considered safe from cyclones, but you still have to watch for other gnarly weather that occurs because of the convergence of the north and south trade wind patterns (creating a belt of confused weather, lightning and thunder storms, which are specially dangerous to a sailboat). The higher latitudes (e.g., 40+ North and 40+ South) are subject to the effects of winter storms during their respective winters, so you also have to watch out for those.
Basically, there’s no escaping the weather! :) And the only really ideal time to leave from the West Coast or Hawaii for the South Pacific (where the tradewinds will take you on the first leg of a westerly circumnavigation) is March or April.
When I purchased Windfola, she was in pretty fantastic condition, and as a Sabre, she’s known for being a seaworthy kind of boat. (A “bluewater” boat.) However, Windfola was built in 1985, so aging has had an impact on her. Certain components of a sailboat’s equipment need to be renewed or replaced on a schedule of either time or mileage. I knew that I would need to address these along the way. Now that we’ve sailed to Hawaii and back—that’s 5,000+ miles!— I felt it would be prudent to make those replacements before another ocean crossing.
Specifically, the wire rigging that holds up her mast is over ten years old, and at 10-12 years it’s recommended that you replace it. You may be able to put the new rigging in place yourself, but then you have to “tune” it to ensure the mast is perfectly vertical, with enough tension to allow a specified amount of bending from side-to-side and fore-to-aft. Rigging replacement (with good quality parts) on the west coast of the US typically runs $2200-$4500. I’ve never worked on a rig replacement and would prefer the help of a professional to at least look over my work and do the final tuning.
We arrived (I mean the dog, boat, and me) to San Francisco around November 1st, 2018. I planned to spend a couple of months there, catching up with my friends and my grandmother while making minor fixes to the boat. I hoped to leave for Mexico in January or February, and then travel on from there to the Marquesas, crossing to New Zealand by the end of the appropriate season (March-November). I figured I’d get the rigging work done in Ensenada, Mexico, where it is cheaper, and then enjoy a little sailing there before heading south.
To spend more than 90 days in French Polynesia, the French government requires that you apply for a long-stay visa. You can only do this in a few places with embassies, and only 90 days before your estimated date of arrival. If I wanted to begin crossing to the Marquesas in March, I would arrive about a month later, in April. So I could not apply for the visa before the middle to end of January. The visa processing reportedly takes about 2-4 weeks, though they say it can take up to eight. And they keep your passport the whole time, so you can’t leave the country you’re in once you submit it.
I applied for my visa in mid-January in San Francisco. My visa took seven and a half weeks to process.
Windfola needs new bottom paint, and I felt it wise to replace her rig. I had lined up this work with a boatyard in Ensenada, and they had been patient through February and March while I waited for the French to return my passport. As time passed, it became clear I wouldn’t have enough time to sail in Mexico, but rather, only to get the work done there and get going before it was unsafe to head to the South Pacific (May 1).
Just before we left San Francisco, a diver discovered a crack of uncertain cause in our keel. I called my local boatyard, KKMI Richmond, and scheduled a quick haulout to inspect Windfola’s keel out of the water. Their project manager, Bob, has been endlessly kind and supportive since my first visit to their yard two years ago, going above and beyond and always conscious of my very limited budget. He never talks down to me despite my age, inexperience, and gender. He is just one of those Good Humans. Last week, they had a full yard of boats preparing for opening day of the sailing season, but in under 36 hours, he generously accommodated me.
Before we pulled the boat out, Bob and I agreed that if the keel problem was anything beyond a cosmetic issue, I would fix it there before going offshore, and also get my rigging done, skipping Ensenada altogether. Their wonderful, funny, super-experienced rigger, Barrett, looked over my rig and got the specifics on wire size and fittings. We were ready, just in case.
Thankfully, once Windfola was out, we could see clearly that the crack was not a crack. It was just some mostly cosmetic deterioration of the putty that fills the seam between the hull of the boat and the bolted-on fin keel. I could wait until I was in the boatyard in Mexico to fill and fair the seam again, and it would save me money to do so. I put some paint on the crack, and we relaunched the boat the following morning.
We left San Francisco for Ensenada a week ago at the first moment we could: weather permitting, passport in hand, keel inspected. One day into our trip south, the boatyard in Ensenada told me they were now too busy to do my rigging within the month of April. They would still accommodate the work planned to smooth out the keel and repaint the bottom, but nothing else. I had almost no cell reception offshore and had no idea where I would get the rigging done, especially on such short notice.
That’s when I decided to stop at Marina Del Rey, which is basically the first boating community on the California coast south of San Francisco with significant work facilities. Since it’s easier to sail south with the prevailing winds down the California coastline, stopping in MDR left all options open to me from there to Ensenada, and put me back in cell service to figure things out.
The people in Marina Del Rey were unbelievable. I’ll write at length about that another time, because the experience of an entire community of warm, welcoming, knowledgable, huge-hearted sailors we’d never met throwing open the doors to their club, homes, boats, and hearts was its own incredible miracle. When we just needed a place to land for a couple of days, they gave us a home.
In Marina Del Rey, I determined my best options for rigging and bottom work would be at Shelter Island in San Diego. They have the best prices, plenty of boatyards and professionals to choose from, and easy access to marine supply stores. I pulled into the public docks here on Sunday, and within 24 hours I’d lined up a potential rigger and an extremely accommodating and affordable boatyard. By Monday, we were tied up at Koehler Kraft, where Windfola will be hauled out over the weekend. I’ll do her bottom work myself… this should make for some amusing entertainment for you, and some new lessons learned for me. :)
As for the huge expense of having the rig replaced here… I’ll admit I’m pretty stressed. I’ve been living on the last of the savings I built up before leaving for Hawaii 20 months ago, and every cent matters if I want to make it to New Zealand this season. Really, I don’t think I can afford a rig replacement here. But, it’s important to stay safe. What to do?
It turns out there are actually mixed opinions about the proper rig replacement timeline. I am so thankful I had such a pro look over my rig back at KKMI, because he has been able to speak to me knowledgeably and without any financial bias about my rig and what I should do. He has spent time advising me from afar, coaching me on how to thoroughly inspect the rig for any signs of fraying, chafe, distortion, bending, etc, and how to discuss my setup with other professionals. If I don’t see any problems, and I also hire a rigger here to do an inspection (about $150), and they don’t see any problems… then I’m going to carry on to New Zealand, where it is—get this—about a THIRD of the price of a replacement here! That’s thousands of dollars saved, while still getting equal quality work… because many of the highest quality parts that are used to replace a rig here actually come from New Zealand!
There’s a lot to do in the coming week, but I am feeling so hopeful now. I’m touched by all the support and kindness, as well as all of the pros who have stepped in to advise me and accommodate us on short notice. I’m excited by the possibility of leaving for French Polynesia as early as next week if all looks good here. And it’s ok with me that we’re not going to Mexico.
Now, it’s time to go check things out at the top of my mast. Wish me luck and clean, smooth, happy rigging up there.