The appropriately named Baja Ha Ha is a fun filled sailing rally, designed to transport your vessel to the sunny shores of Mexico in company with like-minded ocean explorers.
While some mariners choose solitude at sea, many, including this sailor, enjoy the camaraderie provided by a pod of southbound sun seekers. In fact, this event is so enjoyable, I recently participated for my eleventh year in a row, crewing onboard the mothership “Profligate”. Definitions of that unusual name include: “utterly and shamelessly immoral, extravagant, reckless, wild, wanton, reprobate, degenerate, debauchee, good-for-nothing spendthrifts”. Yep, that’s the boat for me!
“Profligate” is a custom built behemoth of a catamaran, plenty of space for this year’s lucky crew of 13, the majority of us have been crewing together on this extravagant ride for many years.
Sea life viewing has always been the biggest thrill for this sailor. This year saw more turtles than any other species, yet plenty of dolphins greeted us and a few humpback whales were spouting in the distance.
Most sailors offshore become philosophers of sorts. Pondering the universe as one does best under an enormous canopy of stars, while listening to the sound of what we leave in our wake. The sound of liquid travel. All senses comes into play as we combine the greatest responsibilities of keeping the vessel and her crew safe, and enjoying the simplicity of floating on the sea.
This year set a record number of crew, 551 sailors scattered amongst 149 vessels. This very special Ha Ha marked the 25th anniversary of the event, and even more reason to celebrate, the humorously self-proclaimed “Grand Poobah” Richard, founder of the Baja Ha Ha, and his longtime partner in everything, Doña recently tied the knot in a secret ceremony, and when word got out, pop up festivities occurred frequently.
Being on the committee boat, we assist the fleet if needed and keep tabs on each vessel’s whereabouts via a daily radio roll call and net, hosted by the highly entertaining Poobah. Vessels report their position every morning and also provide tidbits of interest, such as wildlife spotting, mechanical mishaps, spinnaker wraps, gourmet meals, fishing adventures and interesting crew or skipper behavior.
Us “Profligators” have our own fun aboard, figuratively fighting for galley space to outdo each other with fabulous meals, 0300 spinnaker packing events, midnight watch tall tales, witnessing green flashes; including one at sunrise, sailing this amazing vessel that we have had the good fortune to call home so many times and most of all pure laughter with lifelong friends.
Each vessel sailed on becomes a part of you, almost a living being. Treat her well and she will provide independence, freedom, a multitude of adventures and put you in the company of other sailors who naturally are a helpful group, not just in crisis situations, but simply sharing knowledge, boat parts, stories and laughter.
“A tourist remains an outsider throughout his visit; but a sailor is part of the local scene from the moment he arrives.” Anne Davison
Lack of sailing skills should not be a deterrent, as some boat owners like to take on newbies and show them the ropes the way they like to teach. Many inexperienced crew sign up on the crew list, (see below) and meet their prospective ride, some build long friendships and many daysails prior to casting off, yet a few brave folks have been known to hop aboard shortly before departure, a true leap of faith for all parties involved, yet anyone choosing to sail offshore has an inherent sense of adventure and risk taking comes with the territory.
Safety being of key importance, participants are required to have a minimum of two crew, a well equipped vessel, built and maintained for open ocean sailing and prepared to sail independently. The bonus of nautical buddies just a radio call away if needed, and the social factor of meeting new friends is attractive to this group of responsibly fun loving sailors.
What does a girl have to do for a little adventure? Volunteer on a Sea Shepherd vessel of course! Fulfilling a long time goal, a few months ago I found myself barreling through the Mexican outback on a bus from San Diego to San Felipe, a frequent destination of mischievousness in my younger days with my Ramona mates.
How surreal to return so many years later to help the ocean and her inhabitants. The sea has been my playground, provided my living and stolen my heart. It was time to give back to the ocean.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international NGO, non-profit, direct action group, backs up its mission statement: “To end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans”, I too wanted action!
An international volunteer crew of various ages and backgrounds joins the fleet of 11 power vessels and one sailing ship, without knowing where the campaign may take them, which adds to the adventurous spirit of the crew. Peacefully armed only with passion and enthusiasm and fueled with some of the most inventive, hearty and delightful vegan deliciousness, our crew share a work hard, laugh hard camaraderie and push ourselves beyond our previously perceived limits, all for the sake of wildlife that need our help.
I stepped aboard the 110’ former US Coast Guard cutter M/V John Paul DeJoria, named after her generous benefactor. I was assigned 2nd officer on the bridge, and quietly thrilled at being handed the helm after a very short briefing. Maneuvering the dual engines while the foredeck crew pulls up discarded illegal nets was a dream job indeed. My first sight of a bat eagle ray being freed from the net and gently returned to its home to swim away was a moment I won’t forget. I couldn’t have been more honored to be a part of “Neptune’s Navy”.
One adjusts to living in tight quarters even when sharing a cabin with six rotating armed men from the Mexican Navy, Marines and Fisheries Dept.
The partnership with the Mexican military was due to the violent nature of illegal panga fishermen, filled with greed at capturing their prize, the swim bladder of the endangered Totoaba fish which fetches huge money from the Asian black market.
Our mission was to search for and retrieve the nets left behind, which trapped marine life including the nearly extinct porpoise called Vaquita, of which less than 10 are estimated to live only in this refuge of the Northern Sea of Cortez.
Operation “Milagro” has so far pulled up over 100 miles of nets and saved over 3000 animals including 1 humpback whale, 1 endangered Pacific leatherback turtle and 21 sharks.
Our ship was due for routine repairs and bottom painting, we headed to the shipyard in Mazatlan. During our crossing we were thrilled by visits from humpback whales and a nighttime display of “glow in the dark” dolphins, lit up by phosphorescence as they cavorted in our bow wake.
After repairs we learned of our next destination: Peru! Maritime tradition had us float across the equator while first timers or “polywogs” earned “shellback” status by diving in and swimming across the imaginary line.
A brief re-fueling stop in the Galápagos Islands gave us a chance to see the famed marine iguanas and blue footed boobies, along with snorkeling next to black tip reef sharks!
Sunrise watch found JPD surrounded by several pods of sperm whales, much to the delight of the crew who always stop what they are doing, including sleeping, for wildlife viewing.
The only dock available in Lima was stern to, in Callaou, surrounded by hundreds of small fishing vessels that operated 24/7 in a frenzy to pull in as many Humboldt squid as possible during the season. The noise, the smell, the soup of discarded squid parts floating by; suffice it to say, it was not the most beautiful harbor, yet we were rewarded with a shore leave to tour Machu Picchu. A spontaneous, whirlwind trip to Cusco, then bus and train to the fabled mountaintop site, Machu Picchu leaves one breathless and not just from altitude!
Back to work, next stop, the fishing harbor of Chimbote, Peru. The largest illegal fish factory vessel “Damanzaihou” looms out of the early morning mist as if in a horror movie. Our job is to document this beast at anchor and help the Peruvian government prevent it from plundering more illegal hauls. A few crew line their deck and wave curiously at the drone as our expert drone pilot dodges curious seagulls.
Next stop, Panama Canal. When I opened the door to the bridge for my favorite 0400 watch I heard “Riders on the Storm” which accompanied a lightning show as if timed to the music played by our 1st Officer, who has an enviable playlist.
Three months onboard went far too quickly, as the ship became such a familiar home, with an ever changing crew and ports to keep things interesting.
Ocean lovers; to learn about, donate or buy a t-shirt, visit: seashepherd.org
Onboard Fiji airways, there was a video ad for an eco-resort in the Yasawa Island chain that had a marine biology lab that encouraged guests to plant coral gardens and study sea life, ahh right up my alley! I couldn’t forget the quirky name of Barefoot Manta and the image it brought to mind; a manta ray without its flip flops?
Their marketing worked and here I find myself in a cool glamping tent, with nothing between the screen door and the sea but a hammock nestled under coconut palms. Equipped with my favorite kind of bathroom, open to the sky! Nothing like an evening shower with only Venus as my witness.
At the briefing they said when you hear drums beating and the staff shouting MANTA, then grab your snorkel and head to the boat! I was never very far from my snorkel as I was hoping for a manta meeting.
As if on cue, the first morning I heard the shout, ran barefoot and jumped onboard with a handful of other eager sea life lovers. The narrow channel between Drawaqa Island, where the resort lives and Naviti Island is a popular spot, seasonally for these magnificent creatures to feed. Lucky for us, they don’t seem to mind a respectful audience. My first sight of one right below me, felt as if I was hovering over a black, stealth aircraft as I tried to hold still and silent. Then it started flapping its wingtips ever so slightly and gracefully, and suddenly performed continuous barrel rolls as I peered down it’s gaping mouth each time the giant spun by.
My joy of savoring the special moment, to be one with these majestic beings, making eye contact with at least one of their widespread eyes, was not at all diminished by the girl with the GoPro on a stick who was trying to shove swimmers away for a shot, the manta seemed to roll its closest eye at her, as if to say “really dude!”
That was a tough act to follow, yet Barefoot Manta does an awesome job of blending respect for the natural surroundings, marine education and a bit of frivolity. The resident marine scientist gave a presentation on manta rays, an interesting fact is they have the largest brain to body mass ratio of any cold blooded fish. They are smart enough to avoid predators…and annoying tourists!
Being one who doesn’t like to miss much, I met at 0500 for the sunrise hike to the peak on the island with Saki, resort manager, leading the expedition. A humble and humorous man, who’s feet I don’t believe have ever met a pair of shoes, ambled up the rocky trail while spinning stories of his youth, growing up on a nearby island.
Saki also led the traditional, etiquette oriented Kava ceremony in the evening. No visit to Fiji is complete without a taste of this “earthy” beverage. Customary to sit on woven mats on the floor and drink out of half coconut shells, the mildly mouth numbing blend of water and ground up pepper plant roots has a relaxing effect and people are encouraged to tell stories of their homeland. When asked before being served if one would like their coconut shell at low tide, high tide or brimming at tsunami level, of course I exclaim TSUNAMI, much to the bemusement of the primarily young crowd.
One of the very cool aspects of many resorts in Fiji is having accommodations suited to all budgets. From beachfront bungalows to shared dorm rooms, it’s been fun meeting travelers of many nationalities and ages. One being a woman from Norway, named Ramona, who after raising her son, sold her house and belongings, quit her job and is floating where the wind takes her. Nice to meet a like minded person trying to re-live youthful, carefree backpacking days.
Snorkeling off Sunrise beach was good enough for boats from neighboring islands to drop guests on “our” reef! I would snorkel early enough to bond with my fish friends alone. One afternoon I kayaked to a beach inhabited only with hundreds of hermit crabs. They were so adorable, I found myself talking and singing to them. Some may find this behavior a bit odd, but it seemed perfectly natural in this delightful setting.
Fortunately I’ve been active enough to thoroughly enjoy the abundant and fresh veggie food. Deliciously spoiled to say the least. So glad the mantas beckoned me here.
Always on the search for character bars, I now have an outlet to document unique watering holes. Being a Ramona native, the bar has been set, so to speak, by the infamous Turkey Inn. Kathy and Gail, where are you? I need help documenting dive bars the world over. Yep, it’s a tough assignment, but who couldn’t use a little joviality in their day? First Port of Call, the South Pacific:
Wandering around the artsy outpost of Pacific Harbour, looking for a cool beverage, I hear classic blues music wafting through the air, it draws us in like the sweet smell of honeysuckle on a hot August Mississippi evening.
We plop down on cushiony chairs next to a lagoon filled with fuchsia water lily flowers. What is it about this place that seems so familiar? Thinking the Blues was a blip on a shuffled playlist, another sweet Southern Blues song plays at the perfect volume to enjoy, yet speak easily with your table mates.
I note the large neon sign saying “Baka Blues Cafe”. Feeling like we’ve stepped into a cozy enclave off Bourbon Street, this place is as authentic as it comes, considering New Orleans is 6,942 miles away.
We are warmly greeted by Stella, the proprietress, who in her words, is a “mix-up of Fijian, British, French and basically a United Nations of Heritage.” That explains the popularity of her welcoming hub for guests from around the globe, who she considers her cousins.
Baka is the Fijian word for Banyan, the National tree of India. Stella loves the definition of Banyan, named after Hindu merchants who, along with their donkeys, gather under these sprawling behemoths to barter and rest. Baka Blues Cafe is blessed with such a tree, providing tranquility and shade for thirsty travelers. No donkeys today, just Captain Jack Sparrow, resident feline in charge of guest relations.
No stranger to music, Stella’s brother is Jese Mucunabito, well loved Fijian singer, and her daughter Tadra (Fijian for dream) is a Blues vocalist. Author Ed Kopp from “A Brief History of the Blues” lends a perfect description as to why Stella chose a Blues themed joint, “While Blues lyrics often deal with adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self pity. The Blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down and simply having fun. The best Blues is visceral, cathartic and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.”
Stella’s appetite for life is intoxicating. Having no prior experience in the restaurant business, she persevered with pure passion, serving up plates of joy and foot tapping music that makes you want to stay for hours.
Living on an island naturally brings deep respect and love for the ocean, the eclectic and entertaining Stella loves swimming in the sea, corralling her curly locks with a cowboy hat!
The bayou like surroundings lend themselves so perfectly for this venue, which hosts live Blues music over the weekends. My new favorite watering hole, I visit often for girl night out, perch myself on a barstool and chat with patrons and Stella in between her rounds of Southern hospitality. She lived in Nigeria for a spell and met some folks from Louisiana who were working there, she latched on to their joie de vivre and charm. She even picked up a few phrases, such as “Y’all come back now, ya hear!” And I certainly will.
When asked if I’ve been here before I mention I visited 30 years ago. I see them calculating, trying to figure out my age, hmmm, I joke that I was only 10.
My most prolific memory is of snorkeling over a shallow reef that is still imbedded in my mind as the most colorful, breathtakingly beautiful mix of corals and fish, beyond compare after all these years.
I sign up for a morning snorkel trip to Rainbow Reef, I’m guessing this must be the same area. I’m joined by Ulpi and Caesar from Bogota, Colombia. Delightful couple also staying at the Coconut Grove Beachfront Cottages, which is a perfect slice of quiet funkiness with three cottages and a restaurant run by a pod of some of the friendliest ladies the world has ever seen. Ronna, who transplanted herself from the U.S. east coast, lovingly built this gem and is at the helm of this smooth sailing land vessel.
Mother Nature let loose with a torrent of tropical rain on the way to the reef. As we enter the sea, the clouds part and sun illuminates the coral. The ocean is absolutely flat.
Our snorkel guide, Sirena (is that her real name or did she choose the Spanish word for mermaid? It suits her either way) leads us to our first site, we drift with the current, slowly gliding over a vast array of coral. Lots of healthy looking bright bunches, yet sporadic. Damage from Cyclone Winston along with rising ocean temperatures has taken a toll, yet signs of recovery are hopeful. I spot a small white tip Reef shark, while Sirena drifts another direction, I make sure the Colombians see the shark, can’t take the guide out of me.
Floating, letting my mind roam free, I’m definitely in my element, laughing at the antics of a school of small, bright, iridescent blue fish, going every which way, I start laughing with joy.
After nearly an hour of blissfully enjoying the undersea world, we board the boat to head to another site. Greeted with fresh fruit and banana bread, suddenly the Captain remarks, “Hey I see some manta rays, would you all be interested in swimming with them” I exchange glances with the Colombians and we silently agree that was the silliest question ever asked! We shout “Si” Yes” “Por favor” Please”
We quietly slither in trying not to disturb them, I find myself swimming next to this strangely graceful citizen of the sea that I had previously not met. He faces his huge mouth straight into the current, scooping plankton like a watery front loader. Flapping his “wings” so gracefully and powerfully, we have no chance of keeping up when he decides to move on but thankful for the experience.
Back on the boat, the Captain shouts “Dolphins!” Very few words at sea bring me greater joy, a pod of frisky spinner dolphins are leaping and frolicking in the calm seas, living up to their name, hard to tell who is happier, humans or sea mammals!
Snorkel site #2, equally lovely, another drift snorkel, taking advantage of the current that runs between Taveuni and Vanua Levu, the Somosomo strait (Fijian for “good water”). As each tide funnels through the narrow channel, nutrient rich seawater is suited for soft coral growth and spectacular biodiversity.
Sirena leads us to a patch of cabbage coral. Seriously looks like we’re floating over green cabbage heads, an extremely healthy looking “crop” and mesmerizing to say the least, with patterns and dimensions I could gaze at for hours.
Back aboard and headed to shore, the Captain apologizes and explains one outboard is not working so it will take longer to get back with just one engine, I say to myself “perfect” even though the skies start pouring again, I’d rather be on a boat than land.
Coming “home” to the Coconut Grove is such a pleasure, the sound of gentle surf, outdoor showers in adorable cabanas and delicious fresh island food, much of it from their own garden, are so welcoming. Daily cuddles from the “concierge” Millie the one eyed pirate dog is a sweet amenity.
I walk down the road to buy beer and am heckled by Kumar the fruit vendor, maybe he hasn’t had a sale in days but he walks across the street twice when I’m coming and going and I am shamed into buying some bananas that I probably paid entirely too much for, yet they were perfectly ripe and delightful.
Ready for a kayak expedition, the lovely Fijian ladies get me set up with backrest and paddle and I’m introduced to Tom. The ladies say he will be accompanying me to kayak. I kindly explain that it’s not necessary unless he really wants to go. I discover Tom is the gardener and I gather he would rather continue his landscaping task, so I insist I’m fine as I’m a long time kayaker. They begrudgingly let me go. The seas are calm and I paddle to Honeymoon Island. Yep, just me, all romantic, party of one, but wait, I’m not alone, a couple white terns squawk at me, crabs chase each other down the little beach I landed on and I’m greeted by my fish friends as I snorkel the surrounding reef. Perfect amount of solitude with raw nature.
Upon return Tom sincerely greets me with “You are a strong woman!” I take that as a huge compliment and hope I have blazed a trail for the next solo female traveler.
I wake up before dawn, put on a bathing suit (to be polite) and slip into the sea. The silky, soft, warm ocean envelopes me like an embrace. Mother ocean, how I love you. Did I have worries prior to arriving on Taveuni? That was a world away, breathing sea air, hearing the gentle waves embark upon the sand is the perfect remedy.
My last evening of sweet solitude on my deck provides great timing as I get to witness the full moon as she peeks out from behind clouds and shines so softly on the sea.
“What brings you to Fiji?” Asks the bartender in between blending up frozen concoctions. Hmmm, clearly he doesn’t have a couple hours to listen to the real story, instead I quickly reply “Sampling beers around the world!” “Ahhh, sounds like a worthy cause, I’ll start you off with two Fiji Golds, Bula!”
The real story, bittersweet as it is: The Captain has dementia. Yep, the big D, could be Alzheimer’s but they can’t diagnose until they perform an autopsy (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!), as weird as this freaky, cruel, insidious disease is, I don’t even know what to call it, so I’ll call it big D, which destroys the brain little by little like a science fiction movie or twilight zone episode, the person still looks like himself and often in front of others acts almost normal, but around the partner they are unintentionally childlike leaving the partner to become an unintentional caregiver.
This human who previously had great intelligence, now lacks the ability to perform the simplest tasks and short term memory has evaporated. A lifelong sailor and Captain of our Caribbean based charter business on our sweet catamaran named “Moonshine”, Captain John excelled not only at sailing, he embellished his finely honed skills in the art of boat drinks, Painkillers being his specialty as he sat with guests and became a witty raconteur, putting them at ease and full of laughter. He could freedive to the bottom of nearly any bay when the guests dropped something overboard, only to return with a grin and a wisecrack. He never hesitated to strip his attire and be the first to jump off the upper deck of the infamous “Willie T” mostly to entice our female crew to follow and earn a free t-shirt. Yep, not much the shameless Captain wouldn’t do to earn ourselves a fat tip at the end of the charter.
Sailing pristine waters, leading snorkel expeditions while pointing out undersea creatures and corals, dancing to calypso music barefoot under the stars, leading guests on hilly, scenic hiking paths or just lying on the trampolines stargazing for hours, an idyllic career and lifestyle indeed.
The Captain became enamored with sailing at a young age watching a television show called “Adventures in Paradise”. Created by James Michener, the plots were centered around the dashing Gardner McKay playing the part of Adam Troy, Captain of the Tiki III. The schooner sailed around the South Pacific, looking for passengers, romance and adventure. Worthwhile digging up this vintage show, and imagining young John wishing to be Adam Troy, and he was!
Fast forward to current times. I call him Captain as it helps ease the pain a bit of losing him as a husband, friend and business partner, yet he still is the Captain, driving the ship that is his life and telling me which way to steer, even if he doesn’t realize it.
Faced with the stiff reality that there is NO CURE for the big D, Ive looked at numerous possibilities to keep this man who is loved by so many, safe, comfortable, happy and still in need of adventure!
As his once familiar life became confusing and unsafe, with many changes that so many partners of the big D must face, I rented our house out, sold or gave away nearly every personal belonging, except the sweet little Duffy electric boat we christened “Bootlegger”, this fine craft became a platform for amusement, and the Captain took the helm as we putted around our backyard waterway, looking for passengers, romance and adventure!
We have had several Fijian caregivers in our home. Learning of their culture which teaches from childhood to respect and care about others leads many to a chosen career of caregiving. I thought, why not take the Captain to the beautiful group of islands that is the source of where these lovely, caring people come from. I personally could not stomach placing him in a “lock down” memory care facility, as I feel long walks on the beach are more beneficial than drugs and a TV. My appreciation of all that is good, grows exponentially with my acceptance that others are caring for him far better than I can. The Captain’s wit and charm still shine through in spurts and he makes his new Fijian friends laugh as they see his true and gentle soul.
I am blessed with an amazing pod of friends worldwide who support my “outside the box” ideas, it truly takes a village. The South Pacific beckoned and Captain John is on quite an adventure!
He would love you to come join him in paradise, who’s in?
Doing his best “Adam Troy”