“Ferocious with life” was writer John Steinbeck’s description of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The 760-mile long Baja Peninsula is a ribbon of majestic mountains flanked on one side by the vast Pacific Ocean and the other by a turquoise sea, dotted with islands. Cactus and scorpions dominate the arid landscape while the warm waters teem with big game fish, colonies of sea lions, colorful coral gardens, and the largest animal to ever live on earth, the blue whale.
We spent our first year cruising in these crystal-clear waters and settled into the groove of life afloat with our five- and seven-year old daughters Quincy and Kendall aboard our 33-foot catamaran, Chewbacca.
Our mornings were dedicated to homeschooling, and by lunchtime when the temperature soared into the triple digits, we slipped overboard for a family snorkel. A swift kick of the fins brought relief as we were swallowed up by a layer of cooler water 15 feet below.
Rifling through the sandy bottom in search of chocolate-colored clams and exploring the rocky outcroppings for hubcap-sized rock scallops became a daily ritual. Probing the dark crevices for the twitchy antenna of a lobster sometimes brought us face to face with a partially hidden moray eel flashing a menacing row of inward facing teeth, but could just as often lead to the discovery of an octopus lair. Then I would slip a clam from my bag, carefully sliding it toward a curious outstretched tentacle.
We happily languished in this desert paradise until Christmas lay just around the corner. Although the threatening denim blue skies of hurricane season had long disappeared, the changing seasons brought a new hazard. As the prevailing winds clocked to the west, our once protected cove was now directly exposed to the increasing winds and waves. It was clearly time to move on. Many of our friends had already sailed south and were planning one last rendezvous before the fleet scattered.
Like a caboose following the train, we reluctantly prepared to leave, but even before the anchor was stowed, I heard the captain of Escape place an urgent radio call over the VHF. I caught the word EMERGENCY and turned up the volume. I leaned closer into the radio listening intently to the broadcast. “Could anyone bring the missing ingredient for Debbie’s family ravioli recipe?” What, no MAYDAY? Understanding the seriousness of an Italian culinary calamity, we rose to the challenge.
After a slight detour to visit the local market, we hoisted our largest sails to make our best time toward the gathering. Packed on ice inside our largest cooler was the special delivery, dark green Swiss chard.
Mesmerized by the passing landscape, I drank in the kaleidoscope of colors; auburn, ochre and sandstone hues passed by, and I pressed them deep into my mind’s eye, saving the images to be conjured up on a stormy gray day. My heart felt a twinge as I realized we would not pass this way again.
I turned to see if Bruce was also soaking in the bewitching views, but his gaze was focused on the chart as his finger busily traced the fathom lines searching for dangers. When I asked what he thought of this section of coastline, he looked up with a grin and said, “This is fantastic, there are no shoals along this whole quadrant, and we can safely keep this course all the way to the last waypoint.”
His voice went up a notch in excitement as he added, “There is also a favorable current pulling us along…should be an awesome sail.” Well, I would just have to drink in the beauty for the two of us, for his greatest delight underway was keeping our sails well-trimmed, his seamanship skills sharp, thus keeping our family and floating home safe.
By midday I spied a cluster of masts hidden in the aquamarine water of the shallow bay. As Bruce readied the anchor, I slowly circled the knot of boats when he abruptly raised his fist signally for me to power down. I slipped the engine into neutral, and we glided through the glassy water in silence.
Then I heard them. Scanning the surrounding bluffs, Quincy spied a small herd of goats climbing the scrubby shoreline and pointed. The small brass bells tied around their necks tinkled as they pranced nimbly up the narrow paths that crisscrossed rocky ledges.
Chewbacca slid effortlessly through the still water as Kendall asked, “Is one of those goats going to be our dinner?” Bruce replied with a grin and a wink, “Well, our Christmas turkey this year may have hooves.” I slipped the throttle into gear and by the time Chewbacca’s anchor hit the pristine water, our welcoming committee had trotted over the shallow indentation in the hillock and out of sight.
Once settled, I dug out my less than chic 12” plastic Christmas tree and placed it squarely on the salon table while Santa, who was wearing shorts, rewired a new fan above the galley countertop. The girls had crafted a hearth out of recycled cereal boxes and even though the flames were cut from aluminum foil, they knelt before the “fire” rubbing their hands together as if to warm themselves, even clad in their swimsuits. Not your typical North American, Norman Rockwell Christmas scene.
The late afternoon sun turned a deep marigold as everyone reunited on the beach to coordinate the next day’s festivities. We discussed who was bringing what to the potluck and the topic soon drifted to the main course. More than Chewbacca’s crew had noticed the grazing goats. Bruce floated the idea that with no Christmas turkey to roast… maybe a BBQ goat Cabrito would suffice?
Heads nodded and soon a small contingent hiked to the nearby settlement to meet with the local goat herder in hopes of placing an order. As luck would have it, the farmer agreed, and even gave us the pick of the litter. No one stepped up to decide which goat would be the guest of honor, so they let the farmer choose. Cowards!
The Christmas feast was almost here and with my galley helpers, preparation went quickly. I had just finished dumping a pile of fresh steamer clams on a mountain of pasta when I glanced outside and noticed that the main course had arrived on the beach. A large bundle wrapped in aluminum foil was carefully lifted out of a fisherman’s skiff and laid on one of several tables set up on shore.
A call over the radio announced the “turkey” had arrived, and within minutes waves rippled through the anchorage as a dozen dinghies converged on the beach. It was time to celebrate.
“It’s about the size of a German Shepherd,” remarked Bruce as he peaked at the bundle of steaming Cabrito goat just off the spit. “Let me check to be sure those are hooves and not toenails on our little buddy.” This was met with a collective groan, but strangely I was salivating like a Pavlovian dog hearing the dinner bell.
Somewhere north of us, our families were pulling on mittens and wooly caps, driving through snow flurries to unite around the dinner table. Thinking wistfully of my family, I dug my bare toes deep into the hot sand and lifted my face skyward, pushing my wide brimmed canvas hat aside to catch the warming rays of the sun. Bruce wore his only button up shirt, which depicted hula dancers and palm trees swaying in the tropics. The whimsical theme framed his deeply tanned neck and forearms.
As I filled my plate, I knew I would have to pace myself as I chose between a little Cabrito goat, homemade ravioli, garlic shrimp, linguini, slaw, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, corn bread stuffing, and for dessert … an all-American apple pie.
A flood of contentment and gratitude washed over me as a rogue wave crept up the sand wrapping a foamy caress around my ankles and then retreated. I cast my gaze on the small band of sailboats clustered in the most gorgeous of settings and it struck me: Great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, impossible to forget.
It was exactly the Christmas I had hoped for.
Set Sail and Live Your Dreams (Seaworthy Publications, 2019), about their family’s 10-year cruising adventure cruising aboard their 33-foot catamaran Chewbacca, is available in both paperback and e-book at Amazon.
See April’s other articles on Marinalife here!