Crewing on Totem

For the 800 mile run from Puerto Peñasco to Puerto Vallarta, two coaching clients responded to our spontaneous offer for sharing the sail; Sam shares their experience in this guest post.

David read the email before I did. And he’d already made up his mind not to go when he came upstairs to tell me.

“It’s too close to Christmas and too long to be gone.”

“Where would the kids go?”

“What if I can’t get the time off of work?”

“What if the plane tickets are outrageous?”

And my response to these arguments?

“Of course we’re going.”

Two weeks later we were on our way to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico to crew on Totem for the 800 mile passage south to La Cruz. Normally one doesn’t blast their way past all the wonders of Baja or spend cold nights on the Sea of Cortez in winter, but Totem’s got a fancy new paint job on her newly dry bottom, and she made it back in the water just in time to retrieve Niall from Puerto Vallarta on his winter break.

Schedules are typically frowned upon in cruising—for good reason—but the weather gods acquiesced to these unusual circumstances, and we were able to leave the dock and head south on Friday morning, December 14th.

My husband, David, and I became enamored with the idea of sailing about a year and a half ago. It came out of nowhere, really. We’d never sailed. We don’t know anyone who sails. It just happened, and it’s awesome.

After we’d made up our minds to cruise with our two young kids, we took the plunge and became Jamie and Behan’s coaching clients in May of 2018, shopped for boats all summer, and bought our vessel in November.

Told you it was serious!

Serendipitously, we were actually scheduled to sign all the purchase paperwork for our boat the same day we received the email asking if we could come crew on Totem. Clearly a sailor’s life is the life for us. We’d taken every bit of email and video chat advice the Giffords had given, and now we were on our way to learn from them firsthand.

After a long day of travel by car, plane, and shuttle bus, Jamie and Behan invited us aboard. Climbing down Totem’s companionway was the first time I felt I was descending not just into a boat but into a home, with evidence of their happy memories and hard work everywhere I looked.

So there we were, work, parenting and holiday preparations put on hold to take advantage of our first crewing opportunity. As inexperienced as we are, I’m not sure we were much help, but I have a feeling that was kind of the point.

David and I learned so many things about ourselves, about passage making, weather, sail trim and so much more, that I believe this was a better investment than any class we could have taken.

Just a few of the things I discovered:

  • The magic of butyl tape
  • I get queasy the first 36 hours on passage
  • Good food helps
  • So does Dramamine
  • Lee cloths are a delightfully cozy cocoon
  • A Barber Hauler is superior to a jib sheet at every point of sail except close hauled
  • Baja is 100% worth coming back for
  • Just not in winter
  • Old gray pelicans look like wise wizards

But this wouldn’t be a full review of my experience if I didn’t mention the day that made me want to reevaluate this lifestyle. It was a nasty 24 hours of steep-ish, closely patterned waves when we left the southern tip of Baja and headed east to Mexico’s mainland. Totem was treading a fine line between keeping her sails full and keeping the waves astern of the beam. It required near constant steering and eyes on the water.

I found myself in a dark mood after that, questioning if I was making the right decision to one day do this with my kids…and without the Giffords by my side. If this is what cruising is like, maybe it’s a little too much adventure for me, I thought.

I knew I was too exhausted and frayed to think reasonably about it, so I told myself to wait it out. Don’t make any decisions about my future until I’ve had some rest and a chance to see the big picture.

I’m glad I listened to that voice instead of the anxious, overly tired one.

The truth is, passage making is only about 5% to 10% of the cruising life, and cold, winter passages with a schedule to adhere to are virtually unheard of. After 10+ years of cruising, the Giffords only had 3 or 4 stories to share with us about less-than-ideal conditions…all of them manageable and none of them even close to resembling a storm at sea.

This is the biggest decision we’ve ever made. It’ll change our entire lives and give our kids a very different childhood from the one they might have on land. So I don’t take it lightly. And neither do Jamie and Behan. Every decision is carefully calculated, and they’ve planned for all contingencies.

I already suspected we’d chosen our cruising coaches well, but after seeing them in action, practicing what they preach, I know with certainty my family will be successful in our cruising life if we continue to heed their words.

I’m grateful for all of it. The night we anchored in Honeymoon Cove will be fodder for my future cruising dreams, and that last day in Banderas Bay before our flight home gave me the rest—and perspective—I needed. But I’m especially appreciative of that long 24 hours of grumpy seas and practically no sleep. It was hard, but we did it. And we know we can do it again.

I can’t tell you how much comfort it brought me to do my first passage under the full guidance of the Giffords. I wish everyone on the path to family cruising could have this same opportunity.

Sam, David, and their kids are counting down to cruising! Bookmark their pending blog, Muse and the everyday epic, to follow along. Totem and crew are now in Barra de Navidad, revisiting favorite haunts with Niall while’s aboard for winter break. Find out our schedule for boat shows in Toronto, Seattle, and Puerto Vallarta area seminars on our Events page.  

Then and now: sailing Baja nine years later

Sailboats in San Juanico Baja

What’s your favorite place? We’ve heard this question a lot lately. Jamie’s current answer to the “best place” question is that he has 100 top ten favorites. His point (aside from the impossibility of picking just one) is that there’s context needed. Some places are favorites for the delicious food. Others are unforgettable for their Looking back red rocks Bajaunderwater life. Still others for the cultural experiences and learning opportunities they offered. There are so many things to love about a place! The point is made as a family when we each rattle off a few that are top of mind, and quickly finding a dozen “favorites.” And yet what names seems to crop up among multiple family members during that flood? Mexico, and especially, our summer of sailing inside Baja.

Did you ever revisit a beloved haunt from your past, only to find it tarnished compared to the shiny perfection of your memory? That’s what I worried about as we returned to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Our family spent many months there in 2009. Then, as now, we pointed north to mitigate risk during hurricane season.

Returning after so many years and so many countries, would we determine our sophomoric highs to have been idealized in hindsight? Would the drama perceived by our new-to-cruising eyes now seem mundane? Or would familiarity offer comfort?

Northbound from Panama this spring, an old familiarity gradually returned to stars overhead: the Southern Cross still visible, but Orion holding more accustomed placement as our latitude climbed.

Tide pool exploring near San Evaristo, 2009; Totem in the background

We sailed along Baja’s rugged and unforgiving landscape for a month recently, finding a mix of familiar comforts and new discoveries before hauling Totem for our summer away. The kids have mixed memories of our past miles here; Siobhan was only five years old, and her recollections are fuzzy. For Jamie and I, many of our memories center around exploring a new landscape with our children, learning alongside them. Returning with young adults, the everyday dynamic shifted significantly. Our every day life had centered on caring for littles; now it included partners in our adventure as hands-on crew.

Niall at the helm: anchoring in Puerto Don Juan, 2018

The landscape rang familiar for all, even Siobhan. Pictures from nine years ago could as easily have been taken last month. The wildlife, from dolphins to whales to spectacularly diving pelicans: the same.

Anvil with wings looking graceful before splashdown: pelicans at Isla San Francisco

Everyone remembered “the frosting rock” in Los Gatos. Everyone wanted to climb the buttery-smooth looking sandstone cliffs now just as much as they did in 2009.

Totem’s junior crew scrambles up the face in 2009


This time, it didn’t feel quite as daunting to explore with our crew’s longer legs.

Climbing up the frosting rock, Los Gatos, 2018

A skip north in Santa Rosalia the bacon-wrapped were just as delicious, but maybe a little easier to get a mouth around for some.

Niall in 2009 and 2018, Santa Rosalia

Back in 2009, the needs and limitations of young children kept our activy range in a tighter radius: an afternoon on a beach, a walk into town. Our teens make it easier to roam further afield. “How about we try to climb that volcano?” “OK!”

Digging on a beachy afternoon near La Paz, 2009

Hiking Isla Coronados, 2018

A return trip never seems as long as the outbound journey to a new destination. So it feels on our return to the Sea of Cortez: the milestones of points and islands and fishing villages may have been buried in distant memory, but flew by with familiarity this time around. It took the edge off our need to press north, to haul and make our way north for a shorebound summer.

This stretch was eased by familiar faces. In La Paz we caught up with the Boren family from Third Day, a boat we’d shared many anchorages with way back when. Rich now runs CruiseRO watermakers from Cruisers Supply, a shop in one of La Paz’s nicer marinas with the bits and services cruisers want. Rich knows La Paz well and introduced us to gastronomic delights at the spectrum extremes: from street tacos carved off  the al pastor spit, curbside, to serrano ham carved by the ounce in a foodie hideaway.

Amy and Jason (Third Day) help Mairen bury Niall on the beach – La Paz, 2009

Up the coast a ways, former cruiser Jesse (an unforgettable part of our past Baja experience) drove us well inland to experience the whispering history of Misión San Francisco Javier, a 17th century mission halfway across the peninsula and unreachable for us otherwise… breaking on the return trip to try flying drones through the dramatic canyons of the mountains.

Any misgivings about how we’d like Mexico on coming back have faded, but it was these and other members of our cruising family made that return feel more like homecoming. Now there are places we can’t wait to revisit, friends new and old to meet up with, and a whole lot of street taco exploring to do when we head back to Totem this fall. And then, from that base of familiarity, to do what we love most: reach out and explore to find what’s new to learn from, while seeking ways to contribute. Ultimately, “favorite” places don’t matter nearly as much as making the most of the place you find yourself: we’re just that much luckier that Baja has so much to offer.

Two girls. Two burros. 2009.