Life onboard Underway

Part 1: Pleasant, then annoying

June 6, 2017

Day one: Pleasant

They had been forecasting a hurricane. Her name was Adrian and she was currently holding the title of earliest tropical storm ever recorded in this part of the world (since 1966 when they started recording these things, apparently). Every forecast every day had her forming in a different spot, spinning off in a different direction, blowing substantially different amounts of wind. Most assumed she would, at some point in the next week, slam in to Huatulco, exactly where we wanted to go. So we stalled in Acapulco, waiting for some sort of consolidated prediction so we could make an informed decision.

8:00am We awake and check the wind models to find that Adrian is gone. She did not draw strength from the warm waters south of us, she did not pass over Huatulco, she did not spin off in some other direction, she simply disappeared.

We are anxious to get to Huatulco. After a month in Zihua waiting on transmission parts, our friends have all passed us and we are eager to catch up to the crew. So though our 48-hour forecast isn’t perfect, it is good enough, we decide, to make the 250-mile hop. If the winds stay down, perhaps we’d be pulling in before that small wind storm passed over us, or perhaps it would dissipate, as Adrian just did.

We have our good friend Jess on board with us, and she okayed the plan, though I’m not sure she had any idea what she was getting herself into..


12:15pm After eating breakfast, stowing gear and checking oils, we hauled anchor as the afternoon breeze began to freshen from behind us. We hoisted sails, unspooled fishing lines, set up the windvane, and settled in for a beautiful afternoon of sailing.

7:45pm Predictably, the winds begin to die as the sun sank to the horizon. After a peaceful pasta dinner, we fire up the engine and furl in the jib, anticipating an easy overnight motor. While on watch, as I sit on the edge of the cockpit to survey the scene around me, I look out over the bow just as a dolphin jumps straight out of the water, his entire body clearing the bowsprit 6 feet above him, and with a graceful arch dives back into the water inches from the boat. My jaw actually drops. It is these moments that make cruising so incredibly rewarding. These intimate moments with nature that you don’t have to share with anybody else. That are yours to savor and remember.


Day two: Annoying

1:00am I have loved thunderstorms all my life. As an infant, my mom would leave me on my blanket on the sunroom, surrounded by windows and skylights, while summer storms raged, to keep me happy. I still love thunderstorms, though I love them significantly less when I am at sea. Lightening is a terrifying thing when you are sitting at the base of a 65’ metal pole in a watery field otherwise devoid of height. And often these storms carry sudden strong winds, ensuring I stay on edge whenever one is in the vicinity.

So I am fully alert at 1:00 as I watch a seemingly endless display of lightening over the land to our left. I know that likely that lightening would stay over there, rarely does a storm drift off to sea like that, but in an otherwise deeply dark night, it’s hard to keep the anxiety down. Instead of passing the time reading or listening to podcasts, I spend my time looking left, wondering if that strike was closer than the last one, straining to hear the accompanying thunder over the drone of the motor. As I assumed it would, the storm stays put as we motor by it.

3:00am That glorious moment when my watch ends, John clamors into the cockpit and I go below to collapse into bed. But instead of a reprieve, this night I am greeted by a clogged toilet when I come downstairs. Without the desire or the energy to deal with that unpleasant issue in the middle of the night, I flop into bed and will myself not to think about having to pee.

7:00am It’s daylight, and I can avoid it no longer. I crawl out of bed and check on John in the cockpit – can he pull his shift a bit longer so I can sort out the head? I change into boatwork clothes, grab gloves, trash bags, headlamp, wrench set and tool bag and take a deep breath.

I’ll spare you the details. We’ll just leave it that it’s an unpleasant job. But now it’s done, the toilet works great, the sun is shining, and I don’t have to pee anymore.

8:00am Jess fixes a glorious breakfast of eggs and avocados and cheese and tortillas. I drop the ketchup bottle in mine, and fling eggs onto the floor. Apparently, it’s going to be that kind of day.

11:00am The dolphins show up in force for their daily show. Today, there are two different types of dolphins competing for space on Halcyon’s perpetual bow wave. They leap and roll, slapping their tales against the hull and weaving under and around the boat like a complex dance. Then the sea turtles join in, though they are rather uncoordinated and mostly just wave their arms back and forth awkwardly as they swim by. The frigates and sea gulls glide above, the chaperones. Really, sometimes it’s like sailing through a national geographic special. In classic form, both cameras are dead when the show starts so I lean out over the water with my phone, regularly repeating the “just don’t drop it” mantra aloud. For over an hour, Jess and I sit on the bow and watch the show.

1:00pm Jess and I are lounging in the cockpit, still motoring along, when a bee lands on her leg. She shoos it off and it comes and lands on me instead. We spend about 10 minutes encouraging this bee to find a better home, but it insists on staying right up in our faces, and eventually loses its life over the disagreement. The moment its little bee soul leaves its earthly body, a second bee appears and begins the game anew. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and now I don’t like this game anymore.

The second bee has found everlasting peace when the boat revs up on its own and my heart hits the floor. That sound – that gut wrenching moment. This was the first symptom of our slipping transmission, you remember – the one we took out, waited 3 weeks for parts, paid a month’s budget and just put back in. A week ago.

I put the boat in neutral, John comes up and we do some tests to determine that the transmission is not the problem this time. We breathe a sigh of relief. Just as the engine sputters and dies. It appears it is not getting enough fuel. John changes the primary fuel filter out, a relatively simple task, and we fire it back up.

1:45pm That didn’t last long. The engine sputters and dies again. I pull out the sails and flop along in the small bit of breeze we have and John folds himself back into the engine room. He changes the secondary filter this time, which is a much more invasive task as he then has to bleed the engine to get it to start, a tedious and diesel-soaked process. But it fires up after the second try and by 2:15 we are back in business.

4:00pm The engine is running, John only smells vaguely of diesel, and I’ve been on watch since I rebuilt the toilet pump. I head downstairs for a nap.

6:00pm I pop my head upstairs to see John at the mast with a toolbag and some locktite. He noticed we dropped one of the bolts holding the boom to the gooseneck (which holds it to the mast). This is a problem we have been battling for a while, and still haven’t found a permanent fix, obviously. He is just starting to tighten the second bolt when an alarm like an obnoxiously loud school bell goes off in the engine room and will not stop.

This alarm is what we’ve always assumed to be our low oil alarm. It’s on a switch next to the ignition, so we turn the alarm on when we turn the engine on so it will apparently tell us if our oil pressure is low. It’s never gone off before.

It is obnoxiously loud. The obvious solution, to flip the alarm switch off, does nothing. The oil pressure gauge indicates nothing amiss. We kill the engine, turn off the ignition switch, flip off every switch on the panel, and still it rages. John folds himself into the engine room for the third time today and pulls the wires from the switch, but still it rages. He rips the bell from the wall and starts to pull wires from it until the temper tantrum is finally pacified. While the bell no longer tolls it will be hours before the ringing leaves our ears.

It is hot here. Incredibly hot. Motoring all day (well, off and on all day) in the beating sun with no breeze, it is nearly impossible to stop sweating or drink enough water to keep up. The engine room is even hotter. The engine gets up to 180 degrees when it is running. The engine “room” is really a crawl space in a confined area that you share with the engine. It’s hot. The ear piercing persistent alarm coupled with the 120 degree engine room just about did John in. It was time for a reprieve.

6:30pm With the engine off, the alarm silenced and only a reefed main up in light breeze, the boat is barely making forward progress. So we lower the ladder and take turns jumping in to rinse off the diesel and anxiety of the day, and to soak up the sweet cool water of the ocean.


It was a day full of challenges and annoyances, but also one with incredible moments and beautiful views. Except for the anxiety driven by a suddenly unreliable engine, it felt like a pretty typical cruising day.

As the sun sank below the horizon, we settled in for our night watches. We had no idea the coming day would push our patience and abilities to the edge, forcing us through one trial after another, offering up a new test of our grit and fortitude with each passing hour.

(Part two comes out tomorrow!)

1 Comment
  1. Reply

    Sallie Anne & Carrington

    June 7, 2017

    How exciting, can hardly wait for day 2.

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John and Becca Guillote

John is the photographer. He portrays the layers of history, emotion, spirit and culture in each moment through his application of light, perspective, and detail. He also takes pictures.

Becca is the writer. She tells vivid stories of authentic moments, highlighting the beautiful, dangerous, dramatic and hilarious with grammatically correct sentences and her tongue held firmly by her cheek.


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