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Delivering the queen of the show

Aug 6, 2010

To the editor: Many years ago, my wife Carol and I, had contracted to deliver the "queen of the boat show," 1,200 miles from San Diego to her new owner, in Mexico. It was October and there was still danger of a late hurricane, but the route was inshore and the weather was perfect. There was only one catch.

Boat-show boats are sometimes shipped prematurely to accommodate a show's schedule, rather than when they are ready. Aware of that, we ran the engine against the dock-lines for eight hours, while we inspected and tested every part of the boat. We removed building detritus from the bilge, inspected the sails and rigging from truck to step. We spent two full days preparing and repairing the brand new boat, even though there were more than 50 hours on the engine when we took over.

Our departure on Thanksgiving Day, from San Diego, was uneventful. The first 100 miles were fast and easy. With 25 knots of wind behind us, we surfed past Todos Santos Islands and Ensenada. At nightfall, the wind died and we started the engine. John, our crew, noted that the running-lights were getting dimmer and dimmer, yet the ammeter indicated the alternator was charging normally. Mystified, we checked the entire charging system and could find nothing wrong. The lights continued to dim and then failed, along with everything else electrical: HF radio, VHF, bilge pumps, engine instruments, all navigation instruments, butane cooking gas solenoid, freshwater pump, refrigeration windlass. This was a real inconvenience, with 1,000 miles to go. We continued to run the diesel engine knowing that, as things were going, we would never be able to restart it.

John remarked, sourly, "Here we are on a one-and-a-half-million-dollar yacht, with three electric heads and we have to use a bucket."

We planned to broad-reach, with the prevailing northwesterly behind us, down the coast, with the Baja California peninsula to port, and inside Isla de Cedros leaving it close aboard to starboard. By the time we were approaching Isla de Cedros, even the 0.5-watt compass light was out. This made steering difficult, given the misty night and with no stars or clouds to steer by. It was was not a problem, but an inconvenience to steer, with only the swell and the wind for reference. I wasn't worried, knowing from experience that the lighthouse high on the north end of Cedros would offer us an easy and safe landfall.

I came on watch at 2000 and expected to see the North Cedros light at 2400. At 2400, however, the light did not appear, although this was not surprising since it was high enough to be in the clouds. Because it had been a long, hard day, I wanted the crew to rest, so I decided to stay on watch, alone, until I saw the light. Just about this time the sea became unaccountably agitated and the motion of the boat became very unpleasant. Being very tired myself, I didn't give it much thought, and the sea soon flattened out again. We motored on for a few more miles when I briefly saw the loom of lights that I took to be the fishing camp, on Islas San Benito, laying outside Isla de Cedros. "How nice, they have got electricity," I thought, and not much beyond that.

Steering without a compass light took all of my concentration, so I did not really notice when the boat quit rolling, but continued to surf on the northerly component of the big swells. I soldiered on, looking for that cursed light. Suddenly the westerly wind died, leaving the sea flat and glassy except for the northerly swell. This change of conditions would have been enough to alert any attentive skipper to the proximity of land.

I continued on, however, glassy-eyed and drunk with fatigue, while the crew slept below. Suddenly there was a blast of wind from the west that nearly laid us flat, then calm again. Twenty minutes later the same thing happened again. Over the next two hours, we were hit by a few more fierce blasts of wind, followed by dead calm. I was completely oblivious to its significance. Only the presence of land could create that kind of turbulence. I was tired but enjoying the now-smooth sea. I was daydreaming and reminiscing — I recalled with great clarity my first day at school. The teacher had given me a box of a dozen, yellow, Dixon Ticonderoga, No. 2 pencils to sharpen, a great responsibility when you are 6 years old. I recalled the pleasant fragrance of the cedar wood pencil shavings.

When the sun came up, everything about the sea was wrong. The sea was a dirty green, not the blue-black of deep water. The waves were short and steep, not the expected ocean rollers. They were aligned, perfectly parallel, clearly feeling the bottom as well coming from the wrong direction, west. The rising sun revealed mountain tops to the south, where there should be no mountains. Clearly we were not where we wanted to be. I put about immediately and reversed course, toward deeper water.

During the night we had moved much faster than anticipated and became dangerously embayed off the notorious and aptly named Wreck Beach, while I was looking for the lighthouse instead of the island itself. The lighthouse was irrelevant. The island had announced its presence in at least six different ways.

First: The zone of agitated water three to seven miles off the north end of Cedros (caused by wind against the charted counter-current and waves reflected off the cliffs) should have told me where I was, but I didn't listen.

Second: The lights that I thought to be on Islas San Benito were in fact a new encampment on Isla de Cedros itself. I should have noticed when the lights were not eclipsed by the end of the island.

Third: When the boat quit rolling it was because Cedros, outside, blocked the westerly component of the swell.

Fourth: When the wind went completely calm it was because the high island was sheltering us. I paid no attention.

Fifth: The sudden blasts of wind were the well-known katabatic winds off the high plateau on the island.

Sixth: The memory of sharpening pencils was triggered by the fragrance of cedar trees. Cedros is the Spanish word for cedars, which abound on the island.

We had been too far off to hear the barking of the sea lion colonies or see the off-lying kelp beds. I was so fatigued that I probably would have missed those signs, too. I failed to take into account the possibility that the lighthouse was extinguished, a common occurrence on that coast. A hand-held GPS (had they existed at the time) would have been a help, but limited, as charts of the Baja California coast and the Sea of Cortez are one and a half to nine miles off in longitude in some areas. It could have ended in disaster because I allowed myself to become too fatigued to notice obvious indicators of our position. Fatigue, like alcohol, is an insidious killer.

The electrical fault eventually revealed itself to be a faulty splitting diode, installed backward by the factory, damaging the alternator.

On arrival we presented the happy new owner with the logbooks and a list of 44 structural and mechanical anomalies, which we had been unable to correct underway. We were all happy to return to our own bunks, in our own good old boats.

—Sigmund Baardsen has captained many yacht deliveries and lives in Vallejo, Calif.