Steep learning curve
“We've discovered strengths in ourselves and in each other we didn't know existed. We have discovered that we are very complimentary and synergistic in our skills.”
Donna Bakale-Sherwin and Russ Sherwin aboard Four Seasons, their Nordhavn 46, with crew.
By Russ Sherwin
On the rare instances that I thought about retirement at all, it was some vague image of puttering around in a workshop making birdhouses or something. Maybe move to Florida, although that had ominous overtones of . . . golf!
One morning I was abruptly confronted with the fact that I had, sometime during the night, turned 63. "How did that happen?" I mused as I took my morning shower. Time to get serious here.
Donna and I have had boats of one sort or another for about 17 years. It started in 1985 with her saying, "How much do you think it would cost to get a small boat for water skiing?" My reply of, "Oh, I suppose about $5000" launched us (figuratively speaking) on the present course.
The first boat was a 21-footer, intended for water skiing, but after skiing about five times, we found we liked camping out in it better. We had a porti-potti, 5 gallons of water, a Coleman stove and a German Shepherd named Shadow. We were livin'!
Then over the next 10 years there followed a succession of other boats: a 26-footer, a 32-footer, and finally a 16-year old 44-foot twin-engine trawler that we named Four Seasons.
After we got the Marine Trader, a different perspective emerged. Instead of having a boat that could go 30 miles an hour, this thing could, under ideal conditions, get up to 9. But, we were no longer captive to inland waters in the California Delta as we had been. This beast could, theoretically, go ocean voyaging. Now there's a scary thought!
Gradually, we began spending the bulk of our on the water time in San Francisco Bay instead of the Delta. Now we were constantly in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Wonder what's out there?
It took three years of Donna fervently wishing I didn't want to go, and me secretly wishing I didn't either, but finally we took our first tentative baby steps "out the Gate". We left early one Saturday morning, bound for Half Moon Bay, 20 miles South. The seas were pretty rough going West under the bridge, and we got tossed around a good deal. We came very close to turning around that day, and if we had, this story would not have been written. But we persevered, and when we turned South a few miles out, things got better.
With entire colonies of butterflies in our stomachs, we made it to Half Moon Bay, anchored, and spent a sleepless night worrying about getting back. The next day the sun was bright, the seas were flat, we had a gentle breeze at our stern, and dolphins played around the bow of the boat. We were enthralled!
The hook had been truly set.
We talked about making another trip, this time from San Francisco to San Diego and back. We planned, worked on the boat, provisioned it, read all the books and magazines we could get our hands on, talked to people who had done it, and finally, in September of 1999, a year after our first foray to Half Moon Bay, Four Seasons passed under the Golden Gate bridge bound for San Diego.
We had our two German Shepherds, Cody and Heidi, aboard. After stops at Half Moon Bay and Monterey, we anchored at San Simeon. This is a California State Park, the site of Hearst Castle, built by Randolph Hearst in the early part of the 20th century. It's a spectacular spot, a great beach, and a good anchorage. We decided to go ashore. As we putted toward the beach in our 5-hp inflatable, the two dogs, unable to contain themselves at the sight of land, jumped off and swam the rest of the way. I remarked to Donna that "this was likely to be a wet landing", since I could see breakers on the beach ahead. It was an understatement.
We were dumped head over heels (there's another more descriptive phrase involving teakettles) and lost the camera, both our glasses, hats and whatever else we were carrying. The dogs raced up and down the beach like mad things while we solemnly observed the 4-foot surf and our trawler bobbing gently beyond it.
We tried twice to get the boat back out through the surf, and both times were thrown violently back on the beach. In our ignorance, it was fortunate we weren't killed by the motor landing on top of us. This wasn't going to work. We needed help.
We had brought no money with us, there being nothing to spend it on at San Simeon beach, so Donna borrowed a quarter from the nice man mowing the lawns around the deserted activity center and called the Park Rangers. They agreed we had a problem.
Out there was our boat, and here, on the beach were the four of us. But they had no suggestions. Time passed. San Simeon Cafeteria sent us a bucket of chicken to eat via the rangers. Two people in a motor home gave us hot chocolate. The rangers made cell phone and radio calls to various people. We were making friends fast, and now had a group of 10 or 12 "advisors".
After five frustrating hours, along came Doc. Doc runs the kayak concession at San Simeon. He has a garage in which he rigs and store kayaks, and his first thought was for us to bed down on the floor of the garage until morning, when the surf would certainly be lower. This surf was "unusual". He prepared the garage for us, showing us "how a man cleans house" by starting his leaf blower and hosing out the place.
Then he had another idea. Doc is part of an organization of volunteers called North Coast Ocean Rescue, based in the nearby town of Cambria. All of these volunteers have full-time jobs, but they respond to ocean rescue situations when necessary. Doc called them and explained the problem. It was nearing 5 o'clock and some of them were off work. This was the first time they had been called to rescue someone standing on the beach, but, sure, they would give it a try.
The guys that arrived looked as if they had just stepped out of an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie. They sized up the situation, launched their inflatable and effortlessly took first Donna and Heidi, then Cody and me, through the surf out to the boat. Then they made a third trip towing our now disabled inflatable, whose motor had been drowned three times in salt water and was no longer willing to run.
The next morning we were on our way again, next stop: Port San Luis, near San Luis Obispo. There are five mooring balls available just inside the breakwater, and as we pulled up to one of them, I put the starboard engine in reverse and heard a loud whine, followed by a clunk and the engine stopped. I tried again, same result. We maneuvered around on the port engine and got tied up, then assessed the situation. We had lost the starboard transmission. Thinking the trip would surely end here, we dejectedly went to bed.
We determined that there were mechanics that could fix the transmission, but none would come to the boat. Too busy. Finally, Nick Howell in Morrow Bay said if we could bring it to him, he'd see what he could do. So Donna and I unbolted the 145-pound transmission from the engine, hoisted it out of the boat into the water taxi, used the fishermen's fish winch (25¢ for 15 minutes of winching) to hoist it up to the wharf 30 feet above the water and into the trunk of a rental car. We drove it to Morrow Bay where Nick stopped what he was doing and dismantled it on the spot. A broken gear tooth. Nine days later, we put it into the rental car, back to the wharf, down the fish winch, into the water taxi and into the boat. By 8 PM we had it installed and tested.
During the next week we saw whales and dolphins almost every day as we motored South. We had mostly fine weather, calm seas, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The boat and our repaired transmission were performing flawlessly.
We anchored overnight in Smuggler's Cove, on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Southern California near Ventura. As we pulled anchor the next morning, the sky was bright blue, not a cloud to be seen, the sea was flat and we expected a calm, 10-hour ride to Catalina Island. About 4 hours out, the Coast Guard marine weather station started talking about the possibility of thunderstorms near Catalina. Where, we asked ourselves, were those going to come from with no clouds? Then we saw some wispy things forming above the island. They grew darker.
Then there was a monstrous flash all the way from God down to the water. Gulp!
You can see storm lines on Radar, and we used that to determine that we could possibly avoid most of the storm by heading due East for a while. But at 7 knots, you can't outrun anything, so for two hours we skirted along the edge, getting huge flashes followed a second later by an enormous crash of thunder. A boat gets mighty small in conditions like this. Finally it passed behind us, diminished in intensity, and we turned back toward Catalina and the security of a mooring ball.
We were running out of time, having both taken the month of September off work to do this. We turned around at Dana Point, about 80 miles short of San Diego, but felt we had accomplished our goal anyway. The trip back up the coast was uneventful, and coming back under the Golden Gate Bridge in flat seas and bright sunshine, I felt a euphoric high that I had never experienced.
The last leg from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco, so daunting only a year before, was trivial. We had made a trip of almost 1,000 miles!
Instead of the end of the voyage, it became the beginning. We sold the house we had in Sunnyvale, California, sold or gave away most of our possessions, including the old Four Seasons and one car. In October, 2000, we took delivery of a new 46-foot Nordhavn single-engine diesel trawler which we also christened Four Seasons.
Friends and family alike thought we were nuts and counseled against cutting ALL of the ties, but we explained that we couldn't afford the new boat unless we sold the house. And besides, who needs a house?
Reality inevitably intervenes when you're looking the other way. Two weeks after moving aboard Four Seasons, Donna received the dreaded "phone call". Her mammogram had turned up something that needed investigation. It was early breast cancer. After considering all the options, she elected to have a mastectomy.
We took the new boat down to Ensenada, just across the border from San Diego, then drove back up to San Francisco and, now homeless, stayed with friends while she had surgery. By mid-January, 2001, she was fully recovered, and we set out for La Paz. It seemed even more important than ever to "get outta Dodge".
Four Seasons is a serious sea boat capable of crossing oceans. Several have circumnavigated the globe under the command of relatively inexperienced owners like us. Are we capable of crossing oceans? We don't know the answer to that yet. But we have put almost 10,000 miles under her keel, cruising the first year down the coast of Baja to La Paz, then back up to San Francisco. The next year, we left San Francisco in October, down the Baja peninsula to Cabo San Lucas, across to Puerto Vallarta and down to Zihuatanejo, back up to Mazatlan and across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz, then back to San Francisco for the summer of 2002.
It has been a steep learning curve. We've discovered strengths in ourselves and in each other we didn't know existed. We have discovered that we are very complimentary and synergistic in our skills.
We have experienced seas higher than the boat, two additional lightning storms, gale force winds, thick fog, and 300-mile open water passages. We've been 80 miles offshore along the West coast of Baja where there aren't more than a few hundred people in a 200-mile stretch of coast. A lot of these things are better to have done than to do. We think of them as building character. After the fact, they make great yacht club stories.
In 2003, we plan to go back to Mexico for the winter, then possibly to Alaska for the summer. After that, through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean, and maybe, just maybe, these two scaredy-cats will end up crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It was never a dream, but wouldn't that be a hoot?
Four Seasons in Mexico
Living the lifestyle